VIETNAM AIR FLIES THREE TIMES A WEEK FROM HANOI TO DIEN BIEN PHU. The trip takes a little over an hour, and these days the planes are large, relatively comfortable ATR's—a significant improvement, friends tell me, over the Russian Ilyushins that used to make the run and turned it into something of a cliff-hanger.
Aboard the flight today are a handful of Western tourists, more of them French than American (when Americans return to the scene of their war, they prefer to visit the DMZ); a few Vietnamese veterans making pilgrimages; several local officials; and a number of Tai hill people engaged in what passes for commerce in this corner of the country. The in-flight magazine is filled with the advertisements of the new Vietnam: for Louis Vuitton luggage, Citibank, and a handsome new resort in Da Nang ("situated on famous China Beach, now attracting guests from all over the world . . .").
It is a trip I have been wanting to make for much of my adult life. My fascination with Dien Bien Phu began 45 years ago, during the bitter two-month siege of the French fortress there. I was a junior at Harvard in 1954, editing the college paper, and not only did we run a steady stream of articles about the battle—HARVARD PROFESSORS SEE FRENCH VICTORY UNLIKELY—but I read with fascination the leaked stories from Washington suggesting the imminence of American intervention, and with that, the need for vastly increased draft calls. Since I had no intention of going to graduate school, any story about draft calls had very personal implications, and I studied the stories and the maps religiously. I thought often of the young French parachutistes, or paras, who were fighting there, outnumbered five to one, their fate sealed from the outset. They were my age, and it was impossible not to think of the cruel hand they had been dealt.
In time, what happened in Vietnam after the French left and the Americans arrived would be woven into the fabric of my own life. I was to be a charter member of that generation of Americans in whose lives Vietnam remains the central experience, men and women who to this day struggle to see Vietnam as a country and not merely a war.
In 1962, when I was just 28, the New York Times assigned me to Vietnam. I arrived there thinking it would be a great story: that we Americans would inevitably help suppress a Communist insurrection. Instead I became one of a small group of journalists who—in the days before hawks and doves—realized that the war was in fact being lost, and reported as much, drawing the enmity of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. In retrospect there was a sweet-sour quality to it all: On the one hand I endured the daily terror of following the South Vietnamese into combat, and the toxic attacks from men in air-conditioned offices in Washington who called me a coward and a Communist because my reporting was so pessimistic. Balanced against that were the richness of my professional friendships and my passion for the story, for Vietnam, and for its people. I was young, single, and in love with my work; this was the assignment I had always wanted. Sometimes I think of those 18 months of my first tour there as the last and perhaps happiest days of a delayed boyhood, when my only responsibility was to do something I loved doing and was well suited to do, in the company of colleagues I revered.
Eventually it all got darker. None of us in 1962 imagined that the American commitment would in time grow to 540,000 men. When I went back to Saigon in 1967, on assignment for Harper's magazine, it was with a much heavier heart. I did not return for nearly three decades, until a brief visit in 1995 to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where I was moved beyond expectation by encounters with old friends, and by the generous spirit of the Vietnamese I met. Yet, I still did not make it to the north.
As we grow older, certain places do not merely intrigue us, they become obsessions. The battle of '54—a defining event in the theater of my imagination—put Dien Bien Phu on the short list of my remaining obsessions. It was a place which I had never seen but which haunted me nonetheless. I had been to Omaha Beach and Verdun, to Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Now nothing beckoned me more than Dien Bien Phu.
And so last spring I finally arrived in Hanoi en route to Dien Bien Phu, almost 45 years to the day since the last French strongpoint had fallen to the Vietminh. During the American war, North Vietnam had been a separate country, one that we in the south could never visit. I had typed the word Hanoi hundreds of times in dispatches and articles and books, in phrases such as Hanoi thinks, Hanoi believes, Hanoi wants. In those days it seemed not so much a city as a dark and unknowable home to Them.
PASSING THROUGH SECURITY AT HANOI'S NOI BAI AIRPORT, I am very aware of the burdens I bear from the past. The young officer who so coldly examines my papers, refusing to look me in the face—is this because he is still fighting the war, and mine is an American passport?Does the past linger in his mind as well, or is it exclusively lodged in mine?Or is he merely acting in the hostile tradition of bored airport security officers everywhere?Do I sense an anger about the nation's recent history, or, perhaps worse, indifference to it?After all, the Vietnamese who fought in those two great wars now complain bitterly that young men like him do not care about the sacrifices of their elders. All the younger Vietnamese want, I am told, are their Honda motor scooters.
As we fly over the northwestern highlands on the way to Dien Bien Phu, I find myself wondering whether the actual site will match the one that has been so starkly clear in my mind for more than four decades. And finally there it is, out the window of the plane—except that the valley is much larger than I imagined. In the Dien Bien Phu of my imagination, the valley was only about a half-mile wide, and the peaks from which the Vietminh relentlessly fired down with their artillery had cast a more ominous shadow over the French defenses. In reality the valley is three or four miles across, the shadows cast by the mountains not so dramatic. The land is very green and appears stunningly innocent. I am reminded of what a journalist wrote at the time: that the battlefield resembled nothing so much as a vast football stadium, with the French on the field and the Vietminh in the top rows.
During the siege, some 48 French planes were shot down as they approached the airstrip here; eventually there were no pilots willing to make the run. The airstrip is still in the same spot, but today all our plane must contend with is a children's soccer game. As we approach the runway, the players scramble off the tarmac. Two hours later, when the plane takes off again for Hanoi, they will return to their game, safe to play on the runway for another two days.
FOR TWO TERRIBLE MONTHS IN 1954, IN THIS REMOTE AND UNLIKELY spot 250 miles west of Hanoi—a place absolutely devoid of strategic or material value—the world watched one of the epic battles of the 20th century unfold. Dien Bien Phu ranks in fame with Verdun, Gallipoli, Guadalcanal, El Alamein, and Stalingrad; other battles may have had a higher quotient of violence and far more casualties, but few were as historically significant. For this contest did not merely pit one European nation against another in a nationalist power struggle. Rather, it set a European colonial force, committed to an ideology of racial superiority, against an indigenous Asian force seeking liberation in a more egalitarian age. The Vietnamese victory served as an example to countries in Africa and Asia still under colonial rule, and inspired similar moves for independence. No struggle better symbolized the reversal of colonialism's fortunes than the French Indochina War, and no battle better encapsulated that conflict than Dien Bien Phu. Nowhere else did the notion of Caucasian superiority suffer so complete a defeat. Because the very nature of colonialism demands disrespect for the colonized, the French tragically underestimated the skill of those they were fighting. The seeds of their loss were contained in the same racial arrogance that had brought them to Indochina in the first place.