The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam by Christopher Goscha - review by Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter

Au Revoir Saigon

The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam


Princeton University Press 568pp £28

In 1988, the Vietnamese writer Phung Quan wrote a semi-autobiographical novel titled A Fierce Childhood. It tells the story of the Ve Ut (‘Children’s Guard’): some 175 youngsters aged between eight and fourteen who served as part of the communist insurgency against the French in Indochina. Phung Quan had been part of the group from the age of thirteen, developing skills in navigating side streets and back alleys to avoid the colonial police. The youth of these children was no guarantee of safety. One girl recalled that she had been required to ford a river, run across a road and jump into a hedge with a boy in her class in the face of French fire. As she jumped, she saw her friend double over. ‘Something slimy began to drip on my hand’, she later recalled, ‘and I understood that he had been killed.’ The children had become part of a spasm of violence that spared few – between September 1945 and April 1947 some five thousand Vietnamese and a thousand French died as the European power sought to reconquer territory from communist insurgents at the end of the Second World War.

The stories of the child warriors are among the many poignant aspects of this new book by Christopher Goscha, one of the most distinguished Western scholars of Vietnam. There has been an important recent trend in history to re-examine the wars in Indochina not just as an American tragedy but as a series of conflicts beginning in the era of French colonialism and extending up to the brief Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam in February 1979. Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall won the Pulitzer Prize for Embers of War (2012), an outstanding history of the wars in Vietnam in the 1950s concentrating on the French and American sides of the story. Goscha tells the story from the Vietnamese side, drawing on a wide range of Vietnamese-language sources to give us a powerful portrait of the complexities that underlay the last years of French rule in Indochina. His book combines a sweeping argument about the way that war and revolution came together to enable the Vietnamese, north and south, to end France’s dominion in Indochina with a sense of the tragedy of war at the human level.

After 1945, with the Japanese wartime empire in Asia lying in ruins, Vietnam was divided in two. The communists led by Ho Chi Minh were dominant in the north, while in the south the French and Vietnamese established an uneasy accommodation. Goscha argues that, politically, Vietnam in 1945

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