General Van Tien Dung

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The Independent Online

Van Tien Dung, soldier: born Hanoi 1917; Vietnamese Minister of Defence and Armed Forces Commander 1980-87; married (two sons, three daughter); died Hanoi 17 March 2002.

Van Tien Dung was one of the proudest of Vietnam's wartime generals. That is very evident from the book Dai thang mua xuan (Our Great Spring Victory) which he wrote immediately after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and in which he claimed to have master-minded the campaign.

This claim has been disputed in the memoirs of other generals and most notably in those of General Tran Van Tra who had commanded the southern forces in the Mekong Delta. Still, General Dung did have the distinction of being one of the first members of the Hanoi leadership to enter Saigon, and occupied centre-stage on the podium at the victory parade in the city, newly renamed Ho Chi Minh City on 15 May 1975. He had come a long way from his humble beginnings in the outskirts of Hanoi.

Born in 1917, Van Tien Dung (pronounced Zoong) was proud to claim he was a true son of the people and had joined the Communist Party in its early stages during the 1930s. That led to his arrest by the French colonial authorities in 1940 when he was imprisoned in the notorious Son La detention centre to the north-west of Hanoi. There he met many more senior members of the Communist leadership, a factor which stood him in good stead for the rest of career, but not immediately.

Having managed to escape from Son La, he had difficulty in contacting any party members who still remained at large and only managed to get in touch again in early 1945. He then attended the Northern Regional Military Conference and although there is no evidence that he had any previous military experience, he was assigned to lead the revolutionary forces in the coastal province of Ninh Binh.

The victory of the Vietnamese Revolution was, however, relatively short-lived and its leaders were forced by the French in early 1947 to retreat from Hanoi to the jungles and mountains of northern Tonkin. There Dung joined the staff of the High Command under Vo Nguyen Giap before being appointed commander of the prestigious 320th Division to carry out a campaign to recapture several provinces in the southern Red River delta.

It was not very successful and he returned to the northern jungle redoubt of the High Command, only to be appointed Chief of Staff of the People's Army of Vietnam, as it was now called, in 1953. This came as a surprise to some, as he had leapfrogged other more experienced officers. Dung was to remain in this essentially staff position for the next 20 or more years, so gaining little combat experience. He could not even claim to have participated in the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu which put an end to the French phase of the war.

During the late 1950s and 1960s Dung, having acquired the rank of General, made numerous visits to China and the Soviet Union partly to attend training courses but later, as American involvement in Vietnam escalated, to request military assistance from fraternal allies. It was a role he apparently enjoyed because it also enabled him to take holidays abroad. In fact in 1974 when planning for the crucial offensive the following year began, Dung, now a Senior General and member of the Party Politburo on a par with General Vo Nguyen Giap, was away somewhere in Eastern Europe for a couple of months.

The planning process was long and complex because although the Americans had withdrawn from Vietnam they had left behind a large and well-armed military force in the South. There has also been much speculation about how far Dung and Giap saw eye to eye on tactics. But they too had to contend with the views of the Party General Secretary Le Duan and his close comrade Le Duc Tho who, although civilians, considered themselves to be military experts.

As for those generals who had been responsible for all the fighting in the South, they at times despaired of the armchair experts in Hanoi. Eventually, it was agreed that the 1975 Spring Offensive would be launched in March in the Central Highlands and that it would be led in person by Dung, his first combat mission since 1951 and the first time he had ever been to the southern battlefield.

The initial attack proved to be so successful that it caused total confusion amongst the South Vietnamese army which began collapsing in all directions. The situation changed so rapidly that it was beyond Dung's control and it was the High Command in Hanoi under Giap which commanded the final stages of the offensive leading to the capture of Saigon. That is one reason why Dung's book on the victory was considered controversial – because he gave little credit to anybody else.

Still, that did not hinder his career. In early 1980 it was announced that Dung was to succeed Giap as Minister of Defence and Armed Forces Commander, although it has been suggested that this transfer of power had already taken place earlier due to some internal disputes within the leadership, possibly concerned with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

In any case, Dung's appointment was not altogether popular in some sections of the military, as became apparent in 1986 when he failed to win a place on the army delegation to attend the forthcoming 6th Party Congress. He and his wife were accused of malpractices including the misappropriation of "war booty" captured in the South. Hence at the Party Congress Dung lost his seat on the Politburo and soon afterwards his position as Defence Minister.

From then onwards, he lived quietly, making few public appearances except on ceremonial occasions when, donning his uniform glistening with stars and medals, he still cut an imposing figure. How he will be remembered when the full inside story of the Vietnam People's Army and its rival generals comes to be written is another matter.

Judy Stowe

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