World

General Giap: the man who beat France, then America, finally succumbs at 102

By J Brooks Spector 7 October 2013

The French, then the Americans, tried to defeat him but failed; and now age has finally caught up with him in his 102nd year. Vo Nguyen Giap rose from obscurity to create the army that helped make Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of independence become real as he led that army to defeat the best the French could throw at him. Then, years later, he piloted his military to drive the even better supplied and equipped Americans out Vietnam entirely as well. J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates General Giap's place in world history.

Che Guevara got all the T-shirts, the Black Panther Party’s Huey Newton got that famous poster, Chairman Mao had his Little Red Book, and Ho Chi Minh won the nickname Uncle Ho from his supporters and opponents alike. Vo Nguyen Giap never seemed to get an affectionate diminutive, a famous book of sayings, a T-shirt or a poster – he just beat the best his opponents could throw at him for three decades.

Along the way, his most famous victory, France’s total humiliation at its mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu near the Vietnam-Laos border, has become one of the battles that are the object of close study by students at military academies around the world – right up there with Hannibal’s victory over the Romans at Cannae, Isoroku Yamamoto’s surprise attack on the American navy at Pearl Harbour, and Napoleon’s campaigns across Europe.

Unlike General George Patton, who had once famously explained the key to victory in war as not dying for one’s country, but, rather, making the enemy die for his; General Giap often seemed heedless of the human cost of his campaigns. For him, it seemed that what mattered most was the successful final result, rather than the number of deaths it took to reach his ultimate military goal. Along the way, too, the general learned how to exploit the impact of public opinion in his opponents’ home nations to his own country’s strategic advantage in order to sap the will of his opponents to continue their fight.

By the time he died on 4 October, Giap had become virtually the last survivor of the revolutionaries’ generation in Vietnam (in a nation where it sometimes seems nearly everyone is under 30) who had freed their country from colonial rule and then beaten a global superpower to a bloody stalemate sufficient to drive them from the battlefield as well. Late in life Giap became a kind of living history lesson to his increasingly young nation – and he even came to be a champion of economic reforms and a growing concern for the environmental costs of growing industrialization in his country – as well as a supporter of a deepening rapprochement with the United States – in part to balance off growing Chinese pressures and influence.

Watch: Dien Bien Phu – French Defeat in Vietnam

Especially throughout the American phase of the Vietnam struggle from the early 1960s, until its conclusion in 1975, Giap’s leadership became synonymous with the tenacity and implacability of America’s opponent in the war. Military historians now judge that his iron will in accepting astonishing losses in manpower as a result of overwhelming American firepower was the key reason the war continued as it did, ultimately costing more than two and half million lives (including more than 58,000 of them American). The resulting cost of this war to America as well as the unremitting flow of body bags back to the US ultimately became a weight on the US Government and then the country’s will to fight the war. A further result was a deep fissure of an argument about America’s role in the world – a debate that continues to resonate strongly into the present.

As a young man, Giap was a teacher and a journalist (and something of a clothes horse, apparently) – with no military training. Nevertheless, he joined the lightly regarded Viet Minh and helped turn it into a highly disciplined army that ended France’s imperial dream and united a divided Vietnamese nation. Along the way, Giap became a well-studied military historian who fired his troops with the zeal to face – and then defeat – their opponents, despite what he demanded of them in personal sacrifice. While some put his successes on a par with generals like MacArthur, Rommel, Zhukov and others of the 20th century, his critics were less kind. General William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, said of Giap, “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.”

Regardless, Giap also came to understand that the key to victory was not territory held but the support of his struggle by Vietnam’s vast rural population. With that assured, he knew his countrymen would bear any cost needed to drive foreign forces from their nation.

Beyond building a national war of liberation on the backs of Vietnam’s peasants, Giap (along with Ho Chi Minh) came to recognize that with a war that was being broadcast by television each evening into American homes, their victory depended on the story about their struggle (and the propaganda about it) as much as the truth won on the battlefield.  This truth came with a vengeance in the Tet offensive at the beginning of 1968. In that series of battles, North Vietnamese regular troops joined with the Vietcong guerrilla forces to attack dozens of targets throughout the country. After fierce fighting – including pitched battles at the perimeter of the American Embassy compound in downtown Saigon – all these attacks were finally repulsed. The North Vietnames leaders had wrongly anticipated their offensive would trigger mass uprisings across the country. (Sometimes even hard-headed realists come to believe their own propaganda, it seems.)

Although Giap’s Tet (the Vietnamese new year holiday period) military gamble failed in strictly military terms, it helped drive popular discontent with the war in the US, especially as a result of the televised images of fighting throughout the country, right up to those gates of the US Embassy. A month later, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite (a veteran World War II battlefield correspondent and the broadcaster often dubbed the “most trusted man in America”), after visiting Vietnam, pronounced the war a failure on national television. The public response – including numerous demonstrations against the war – helped convince President Lyndon Johnson to decide not to run for reelection. In November 1968, Richard Nixon ultimately defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in that year’s presidential election, telling the nation he had a secret plan for peace in Vietnam.

Despite his lack of formal military training, Giap had, nevertheless, been a close student of Mao Zedong’s military theories, including the view that the interrelated use of political indoctrination, terrorism and sustained guerrilla warfare were requirements for a successful revolutionary struggle. Embracing Mao’s theories, Giap designed the crushing defeat of the elite of French Army as well as its legendary Foreign Legion at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954; with a strategic plan that had his men drag disassembled artillery to the peaks surrounding the French base, before reassembling them to bombard the French encampment into submission. The resulting humiliation drove France from Indochina, led to the partition of Vietnam – and even earned Giap some reluctant respect from the French for his military leadership.

Looking back over the cost of Giap’s military campaigns to defeat the two western armies, while the casualty figures can only still be estimates, the usual figures are that some 94,000 French troops died in the war to keep Vietnam a French possession, while some 300,000 Vietnamese insurgents were killed. Later, in the US phase of the war, approximately 2.5 million North and South Vietnamese perished out of a population of around 32 million. America lost about 58,000 service members. Underscoring Giap’s relative unconcern for the specifics of death in these struggles, it is said he remarked after the French had been defeated, “Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little.”

Vo Nguyen Giap was born on 25 August 1911 (although some sources say 1912) in the southernmost part of what later became the panhandle of North Vietnam. He grew up in a family imbued with nationalist feeling, studied law and political economics, then worked as a teacher at the Thanh Long School, a school for the offspring of well-born, privileged young Vietnamese. He became famous for his lectures on the French Revolution. In 1941, during the Japanese occupation of French Indo-China, Ho Chi Minh selected Giap to lead the Viet Minh, the military wing of his Vietnam Independence League.

Giap’s signature victory at Dien Bien Phu came to a conclusion – following an eight-week bombardment, encirclement and gradual closing of the Vietnamese ring around the 13,000 French troops there – on the same day negotiators met in Geneva to work out a political solution for Indochina. Given the obvious failure of French military efforts, their negotiators agreed to a withdrawal from the entire region – dividing Vietnam into two halves – and offering independence to Cambodia and Laos in the bargain.

Several years later, American policymakers determined to draw one of those lines in the sand to thwart Communist expansion and prevent those dominos from falling to the Russian or Chinese sphere of influence. By 1963, there were already some 16,000 US troops in South Vietnam and a half million more were to come in the next few years.  The American generals were determined to win a war of attrition – focusing closely on a body count of guerrillas killed or captured.

General Giap, on the other hand, saw that the increasingly indiscriminate use of American superiority in firepower would lead to a vast rise in civilian casualties, driving the Vietnamese peasants further into support for the Viet Cong irregulars (and the North Vietnamese regular army that buttressed them). Concurrently, the growing casualty lists for America, in an increasingly unpopular combat, meant, as Giap told foreign correspondents, the struggle in South Vietnam “is for the Americans a bottomless pit.”

The Tet offensive, kicking off during a cease-fire to recognize the Vietnamese lunar new year’s holiday at the end of January 1968, put more than 80,000 Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars into action. Although the offensive led to horrific battles in places like the traditional capital of Hue that devastated the historic precincts, Giap’s forces were defeated across the board. Nonetheless, it shattered American resolve.

General Giap said, years later, that “The Tet offensive had been directed primarily at the people of South Vietnam. But as it turned out, it affected the people of the United States more. Until Tet, they thought they could win the war, but now they knew that they could not.” Moreover, as he told American journalist Stanley Karnow, some twenty years after the fighting, “We wanted to show the Americans that we were not exhausted, that we could attack their arsenals, communications, elite units, even their headquarters, the brains behind the war. We wanted to project the war into the homes of America’s families, because we knew that most of them had nothing against us.” Thereafter, the US agreed to the Paris peace talks and concurrently began to draw down US force levels and engage in the Vietnamization of the war, leading to South Vietnamese military units taking up a greater share of the fighting.

However, Giap was replaced as commander following a relatively unsuccessful offensive in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that only secured temporary gains for his forces, at heavy cost. Although no longer military commander, he remained minister of defense for the final collapse of South Vietnam on 30 April 1975. Giap also guided the invasion of Cambodia in January 1979 to oust the Khmer Rouge, but a month later, Chinese troops engaged in a limited attack all along China’s border with Vietnam, making the point that it was China that was now the new pre-eminent power in the region – and certainly not Vietnam.

The following year, Giap was ousted from his position as minister of defense as well as from his seat on the Communist Party’s Politburo. Sealing his fall, he was made vice prime minister for science and education. When reformist leader Vo Van Kiet came into power in 1991, Giap’s final formal position was gone from his grasp.

In his declining years, Giap became a frequent host to important foreign visitors to Hanoi, a voracious reader of western literature, a listener to Beethoven and Liszt, and even a convert to reforming socialism via an array of free market reformist policies. Giap could tell an astonished interviewer, “In the past, our greatest challenge was the invasion of our nation by foreigners. Now that Vietnam is independent and united, we can address our biggest challenge. That challenge is poverty and economic backwardness.”

Photo: People line up to pay respect to General Vo Nguyen Giap at his house in Hanoi October 6, 2013. Thousands lined up several kilometers long on the street as they try to pay respects to Giap, the self-taught Vietnamese general who masterminded the defeats of France and the United States to become one of the 20th century’s most notable military commanders. Giap died on October 4, 2013. He was 102. REUTERS/Kham

While legions of Vietnamese too young to have any firsthand knowledge of the thirty years of warfare in their nation now seek to find ways to join the world economy through participation in western investments in their country, military strategists and students continue to study Giap’s campaigns (and his defeats) for clues about how to combat warfare against irregular forces and insurgents in places as varied as Afghanistan and Africa. And books detailing the major battles of history routinely have a full chapter on his decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu – and how a grasp of psychology and a will to triumph defeated modern weaponry and an air of distain for ill-clad, ill-trained troops wearing sandals made from old tires, and living on a couple of handfuls of boiled rice – the very ones Giap had led so successfully. DM

Read more:

  • History Learning Site – The Vietnam War – Dien Bien Phu at the History Learning Site.co.uk
  • Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap dies at the BBC
  • New Perspectives on Dien Bien Phu at the U. Of Hawaii Press
  • Legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap dies at 102 at CNN.com
  • Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Who Ousted U.S. From Vietnam, Is Dead at the New York Times
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