General Vo Nguyen Giap: Soldier who led Vietnamese forces against France and the US

‘Any forces that wish to impose their will on other nations will face failure,’ he once said

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The Independent Online

The death of Vo Nguyen Giap, hailed as one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century, will be deeply mourned in Vietnam. Second only to Ho Chi Minh, he came to symbolise the struggle for independence from French colonialism and American imperialism. This reputation was acquired at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the French, and later when he conducted the war against the US.

Giap did not seem destined for a military career. Born in 1911 in a village of Quang Binh, one of the poorest provinces in central Vietnam, he obtained a place at a leading French lycée in Hue A brilliant pupil, like many other teenagers he became involved in anti-colonialist politics. He was expelled from the lycée but spent only a short time in prison before he was released to go to Hanoi, where he studied  law and political economics at the University there. He had established contacts with the anti-colonialist & left-leaning intelligentsia and  wrote articles on the burden of French taxation, the plight of the peasants and the need for greater literacy. Later known as the “Red Napoleon”, for a while he taught  French history at a private high school; even those who became his political opponents said he was inspirational. 

When the Second World War broke out and France invaded,  communists throughout the French empire were detained. While many of his friends were arrested or fled, Giap continued teaching until he received a tip-off that his life was in danger. Bidding farewell to his wife, who belonged to a well-known left-wing family, and his newborn daughter, he went with Pham Van Dong, future prime minister of Vietnam, to Kunming, where they were put in touch with a man calling himself Ho Quang, who later became Ho Chi Minh. Ho sent them for further education under Mao Zedong.

Many Vietnamese were fleeing to join the Kuomintang’s anti-Japanese forces and in May 1941 Ho established the Viet Minh, a patriotic movement to oppose the Japanese with the ultimate, albeit unspoken aim of also ending French colonialism. In 1942 Giap returned to the northern mountains. Donning native garb, he learnt the local languages and indoctrinated the hill peoples.

By late 1944 most of France had been liberated and their compatriots in Indochina were becoming restless.The Japanese realised this and struck on in March 1945 to wipe out the French administrative and military system in Indochina. Ho contacted the American OSS ( the forerunner to the CIA) which parachuted weapons and instructors to Giap’s guerilla force. Giap got on well with the Americans and they were ready to attack the Japanese when in August 1945, Japan surrendered.

From this came the myth that Giap and his men had defeated the Japanese; another myth is that they liberated Hanoi, but they were  50 miles away. The local Party Committee had organised the uprising, and as soon as he heard the news Giap rushed to Hanoi and, shedding his jungle garb, bustled around the city to rally his former friends in the intelligentsia.

Giap organised the infrastructure of the new state and its army and negotiated with the French over their refusal to grant full independence to the whole of Vietnam. In 1946 when Ho left for Paris for more talks, Giap took charge, eliminating the Viet Minh’s opponents; this earned him a reputation for brutality. When talks broke down and war broke out, his army retreated to the mountains where, thanks to the rugged terrain they thwarted the French. At Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Viet Minh surrounded the French and, digging miles of trenches, dragged heavy artillery over steep mountains and slowly closed in during a bloody 56-day battle that ended with French surrender on 7 May. It was the final act that led to French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into north and south in 1956. It paved the way for war against Saigon and its US sponsors a few years later.

During the war against the US, Giap drew on his Dien Bien Phu experience to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a jungle network that snaked through neighbouring  Laos and Cambodia to supply his troops on the southern battlefields. Against US forces with their sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap again prevailed. But more than a million of his troops perished in what is known in Vietnam as the “American War”.

Giap recalled in 1990, “We had to use the small against the big; backward weapons to defeat modern weapons. In the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory. We were not strong enough to drive out a half million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.”

Giap had been largely credited with devising the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on American strongholds in the south by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Newer research, however, suggests that Giap had been against the attacks, and documents have revealed that he was abroad when the Politburo took the decision to launch the offensive.

Nevertheless, the Tet Offensive shook America’s confidence, fuelled anti-war sentiment and prompted President Lyndon Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election. But it took another seven years for the war to be won. On 30 April 1975, communist forces marched through Saigon with tanks, bulldozing the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace. “With the victory of 30 April, slaves became free men,” Giap said. “It was an unbelievable story.” It came at a price for all sides, though – the deaths of as many as 3m North Vietnamese, an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese troops and 58,000 Americans.

Throughout most of the war years Giap served as defence minister, armed forces commander and a senior member of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, but he was slowly elbowed from the centre of power after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969. The glory for victory in 1975 went not to Giap, but to General Van Tien Dung, chief of the general staff. Giap lost the defence portfolio in 1979 and was dropped from the Politburo three years later. He stepped down from his last post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991.

In 2004  he offered a piece of advice for Americans fighting in Iraq: “Any forces that wish to impose their will on other nations will certainly face failure,” he said. He had encouraged warmer relations between Vietnam and the US and ties were re-established in 1995, the two countries becoming close trading partners.

Vo Nguyen Giap, soldier: born Quang Binh Province, French Indochina 25 August 1911; married 1939 Nguyen Thi Quang Thai (deceased; one daughter), 1946 Bich Ha (two sons); died Hanoi 4 October 2013.