General Vo Nguyen Giap, the architect of Vietnam’s military victories over France and the US has died at the age of 102. The general was one of Vietnam’s best known 20th-century figures, ranked by historians among such military giants as Montgomery, Rommel and MacArthur.
The son of a peasant scholar, he was considered the mastermind of the historic defeat of the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu and the communist victory over US-backed South Vietnam 21 years later. He died on Friday evening after spending several years in a Hanoi military hospital.In a 2004 interview at his villa in central Hanoi, the veteran warrior insisted Vietnam’s independence wars were a “victory for colonised countries all over the world”.
He recalled that on a visit to the UN in Geneva the previous year, he was handed a book to sign.
“I wrote … and signed Vo Nguyen Giap, General of Peace,” he said.
Born in 1911 in central Vietnam, the general was a close friend of the late revered president Ho Chi Minh and was held in high esteem alongside former prime minister Pham Van Dong. But his critics and his nemesis, the late US General William C Westmoreland, said he was effective partly because he was willing to sustain huge losses in pursuit of victory.”Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight,” General Westmoreland was quoted as saying in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow’s 1983 book Vietnam. A History.
Karnow wrote that General Westmoreland seemed to misunderstand how determined the communists under Ho Chi Minh and his general really were.
General Giap is known to have opposed several important military decisions, including the costly move in 1968 to delay the withdrawal of forces from unsustainable positions in South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.
He held back again in 1975 on a decision by Hanoi to commit all its forces – leaving the capital unprotected – to the spring campaign which climaxed in late April with the fall of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.
At the funeral, the Politburo in Hanoi and even the common people in the streets basked in the glory of the battlefield victories engineered by Giap at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and in the 1968 Tet Offensive that culminated in the 1975 liberation of Saigon, the then capital of the former South Vietnam. But there was no hiding the fact that Vietnam was simmering in discontent over land ownership laws, entrenched graft, and a slowing economic growth. Reuters reported from Hanoi that “after Uncle Ho and General Giap, it would be hard to find anyone like them, who dedicate their lives to the country without thinking of his personal interest.”
The official glowing accounts of military successes in the Indochina wars for national liberation failed to mask the undercurrent of stories on the shunting of Giap from the center of power after Ho’s death in 1969. Prof. Carl Thayer, the Australian expert on Vietnam, said recently: “There will be stories [in the Giap funeral]. First, the official one that he was a perfect general, strategic mastermind, everything that the party wants you to hear. Then there will be the sore tale of a general … who was shunted aside.”
Giap’s success on the battlefield earned him powerful enemies at home, and he was pushed to the political sidelines after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. He was eased out of the Politburo in 1982 and left the party officially in 1991. He spoke well into his 90s, writing open letters using anniversary events to rail against everything from corruption to controversial bauxite mining. In 2006, he wrote that the Communist Party had “become a shield for corrupt officials.”
Born in 1911 in Quang Vinh province in central Vietnam, Giap was a son of a rice grower. He attended local schools before joining the clandestine nationalist movement. According to his obituary published by BBC, while studying at Hanoi University, from where he graduated with a doctorate, he taught history at a private school. Although he never received formal military training, he was a student of the military tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is said he could draw the latter’s various battle plans from memory. By 1938 he had become a member of Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party, helping Ho found the Viet Minh, which was aimed at ending French colonial rule.
Giap organized armed groups and, in 1944, waged guerrilla warfare against the occupying Japanese forces. After Japan surrendered and withdrew from Indochina, Hanoi fell to Viet Minh forces on Aug. 19, 1945. Ho proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, appointing Giap as his interior minister. Giap assembled thousands of guerrillas in the Tonkinese Mountains to begin a hit-and-run campaign against French military and commercial installations. The climax came in the valley of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after the French parachuted in 12,000 troops, in a tactic to draw Giap’s guerrilla forces to battle. Giap had set up heavy guns on the hills surrounding the valley, bombarding the trapped French forces for almost two months.
In my book, “Afro-ASIA in Upheaval” (2008), a chapter, “Mystique of Dien Bien Phu,” describes the epic battle thus:
“In that battle, the guerrilla army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam annihilated the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, a village in northwestern Vietnam near the Laotian and Chinese borders, ending 90 years of French colonial rule in Indochina. After 55 days of siege, the French stronghold, defended by between 13,000 and 16,000 troops, mainly of the legendary French Foreign Legion, was overrun by 70,000 Vietnamese soldiers, who encircled it in a set-piece battle, marking the defeat of a modern Western army at the hands of an Asian guerrilla army.”