“Determined to Fight Determined to Win”
: The combat experience of the People’s Army of Vietnam at Điện Biên Phủ

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Although it is 68 years since the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, its historiography has remained relatively constant, considering events mainly from the French viewpoint. Now, as more Vietnamese sources have become available and, in the spirit of Đổi Mới, a more critical analysis is possible, we are better able to focus on the way that Vietnamese actions shaped the battle and how these impacted on the Geneva Conference that followed.

This thesis critically examines the historiography Điện Biên Phủ and asks whether the interpretation of it as a battle lost by the French, rather than won by the Vietnamese, remains valid. In doing so I engage with what I describe as "the total war school" epitomised by modern scholars such as Christopher Goscha and Pierre Asselin, who hold that the Vietnamese effort devoted to Điện Biên Phủ was only sustainable because of an unprecedented degree of mobilization of resources, both human and material, to a level of "total war," but that this effort so exhausted the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) that it weakened their negotiating position at Geneva.

By making extensive use of Vietnamese written sources, archives in Hanoi and Paris, personal interviews with 27 Vietnamese veterans of the battle, and site visits to the battlefield, this analysis attempts to answer the questions: what was the People’s Army of Vietnam’s (PAVN) combat experience at Điện Biên Phủ like, and how sustainable was their effort?

The study highlights that many areas of the PAVN’s logistical structure have been misrepresented or misunderstood, especially in Western literature; and that the PAVN’s development as a “learning organization” that enabled it to overcome setbacks, and to refine its operational and tactical methods to achieve victory, has often been underestimated.

The study concludes that whilst Điện Biên Phủ was an epoch-making victory, it did not make victory in the wider war certain. Although the PAVN suffered grievous losses at Điện Biên Phủ, many of these were replaced in the short-term. However, in the longer-term the PAVN faced sustainability problems in areas such as finding the replacement manpower and procuring the food rations that would be necessary if they were to mount another campaign of the same magnitude. These issues were factored into the deliberations at the Luizhou Conference that determined the DRV and Chinese negotiating position at Geneva. The study is agnostic on the contentious historical debate as to whether, for their own national security benefit, the Chinese deceived or coerced the Vietnamese into accepting a lesser outcome at Geneva than was warranted by their position on the battlefield, but it notes that the sustainability issues facing the DRV gave the Vietnamese good reasons to consider negotiation as a less risky avenue to reaching their goals rather than through continued conflict.
Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorPeter Busch (Supervisor)

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