In This Review

The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam
The Road to Dien Bien Phu: A History of the First War for Vietnam
By Christopher Goscha
568 pp, Princeton University Press, 2022
Purchase

Goscha’s zestfully granular history of the Vietminh war against the French, which lasted from 1946 to 1954, challenges the myth that Ho Chi Minh’s forces bested the professional French army simply because they were fighting for national liberation. He focuses on a less understood and more practical factor: Ho’s creation of a party-controlled governing apparatus with the capacity to recruit, finance, arm, coordinate, and deploy armed forces. Even from its early days as what Goscha calls an “archipelago state,” Ho’s regime administered a network of territories, drafted soldiers, kept records, conducted police work, issued currency, taxed commerce, and carried on international trade. With Chinese support, Ho then expanded his organizational machine into a Leninist-style “wartime state,” able to field the well-equipped conventional army that besieged and overran the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietminh was a modern Asian example of the late sociologist Charles Tilly’s insight, drawn from the history of early modern Europe, that “war made the state, and the state made war”—in this case, however, with the help of organizational techniques, weapons, and training from a powerful neighbor.