I remember vividly looking at this short, thin, and apparently weak laborer in Vietnam’s countryside and asking myself, “Are people like him the ones who defeated the greatest empire in the world and the powerful French army?” Among those that could be credited with those victories Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap –whose death on October 4 was just announced– has certainly a place of honor.
Despite anybody’s opinion of the Vietnam War, nobody can deny that Giap’s brilliant guerrilla tactics defeated both the French and the American invaders in a protracted war, at a cost of million of people between soldiers and civilians. In a 1988 interview, Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military operations at the peak of the Vietnam War (1964-1968), including the Tet Offensive, told W. Thomas Smith, Jr., “Of course he was a formidable adversary.” And added, “Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerrilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men.”
What Gen. Westmoreland failed to say, however, is that those guerrilla tactics were the only ones Giap could wage when facing the most powerful army in the history of the world. Giap himself acknowledged the extent of the losses. In an interview with Associated Press in 2005 he declared, “No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war. But we still fought because for Vietnam nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Although Giap was a teacher and journalist with no formal military training, he built a ragtag Communist insurgency into a highly effective military force. He never received any formal military training, joking that he had received his training in the military academy “of the bush”. His legacy was perhaps second only to Vietnam’s President Ho Chi Minh, who led the country to independence.
In 1954, with an army of rugged guerrillas who wore sandals made of car tires Giap encircled the French army at Dien Bien Phu, where the French General Henri Navarre had set up his defenses. The French forces included troops from many parts of the French former empire, as well as French professional troops and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of recruits from France itself was avoided to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home.
While launching diversionary attacks in nearby areas, Giap, defying military practice, had placed 24 howitzers (a piece of artillery that propels projectiles at high trajectories and with a steeple angle of descent) on the hills around Dien Bien Phu, in areas protected from French aircraft.
Ordering his men to dig a trench system encircling the French, Giap launched his offensive on March 13, 1954. Less than 2 months later, on May 7 1954, the French surrendered. It was a significant victory that led to Vietnam’s independence and hastened the collapse of colonial rule in Southeast Asia.
The 56-day battle was one of the epic battles of the XX century. It led to the French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into north and south in 1956. It created the conditions for the war against Saigon and the U.S. less than a decade later.
Giap continued to be the commander in chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam throughout the war with the United States. Although he is widely credited with leading the Tet Offensive of 1968, recently uncovered evidence shows that he hadn’t given his agreement to that operation. He left shortly before the offensive for medical treatment in Hungary and only returned when the offensive had already begun.
Giap later described the Tet Offensive as a “general strategy, an integrated one, at once military, political and diplomatic.” Although the offensive failed to create the conditions for an uprising against the southern government, it is considered an important political victory that hastened the American public’s idea about the futility of the war. Giap had defeated two among the most powerful armies in the world.
After the US withdrawal Giap wrote extensively on strategy and military theory and become an ardent environmentalist and critic of a bauxite mining project that he believed threatened national security and would provoke significant ecological damage. His contribution to his country’s peace development was remarkable. He will remain as one of the towering figures in Vietnam’s modern history.