Gen. Giap was the last survivor in a triumvirate of revolutionary leaders who fought France’s colonial forces and then the United States to establish a Vietnam free of Western domination. With the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, and former prime minister Pham Van Dong, who died in 2000, Gen. Giap was venerated in his homeland as one of the founding fathers of his country. To military scholars around the world, he was one of the 20th century’s leading practitioners of modern revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
From a ragtag band of 34 men assembled in a forest in northern Vietnam in December 1944, Gen. Giap built the fighting unit that became the Vietnam People’s Army. At the beginning, its entire supply of weapons consisted of two revolvers, one light machine gun, 17 rifles and 14 flintlocks, some of them dating to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, said Cecil B. Currey, Gen. Giap’s biographer.
But the original 34 men took a solemn oath to fight to the death for a Vietnam independent of foreign rule, and they promised not to help or cooperate with colonial or any other foreign authorities. By August 1945, when the surrender of Japan ended World War II, they had become an army of 5,000, equipped with American weapons supplied by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, to use against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam.
For almost three decades, Gen. Giap led his army in battle against better-supplied, better-equipped and better-fed enemies. In 1954, he effectively ended more than 70 years of French colonial rule in Indochina, dealing a humiliating defeat to a French garrison in a 55-day siege of the mountain-ringed outpost at Dien Bien Phu. To millions of Vietnamese, this was more than a military victory. It was a moral and psychological triumph over a hated colonial oppressor, and it earned Gen. Giap the status of a national legend.
Twenty-one years later, on April 30, 1975, came the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This ended a prolonged and bitter war between Vietnamese communists, based in the north, and the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam, which was based in Saigon and backed by the military might of the world’s greatest superpower.
In an internal power struggle three years earlier, Gen. Giap was replaced as field commander of the communist forces, and in 1975 he watched from the sidelines as the army he created and nurtured took the enemy capital. Nevertheless, 25 years later, he would recall the fall of Saigon as the “happiest moment in this short life of mine.”
With the capture of Saigon, Vietnam was united under a single governmental authority for the first time since its partition into North and South Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat. Gen. Giap was defense minister in the Communist government that ruled the new Vietnam and a member of the powerful politburo.
But it was as a military leader that he made his mark on history.
In the course of his career, Gen. Giap commanded millions of men in regular army units, supplemented by local militia and self-defense outfits in villages and hamlets throughout Vietnam. He journeyed to the remotest areas of his country on recruiting missions, and he learned the art of combat the old-fashioned way — by fighting.
He waged all manner of warfare: guerrilla raids, sabotage, espionage, terrorism and combat on the battlefield, and he involved as much of the civilian population in this effort as he could. Peasant women carried concealed arms, ammunition and supplies to hiding guerrilla soldiers. Children passed along information about troop movements through their villages. Everyone was a lookout for enemy aircraft.
“All citizens are soldiers. All villages and wards are fortresses, and our entire country is a vast battlefield on which the enemy is besieged, attacked and defeated,” Gen. Giap was quoted as saying.
To survive, he had to be flexible and adaptable, and he was. Facing an overpowering array of U.S. bombs and artillery, he employed a tactic that was sometimes likened to a boxer’s grabbing an opponent by the belt and drawing him too close for his punches to be effective. In close combat, the bombs and artillery shells of his enemy would be of limited use, but Gen. Giap’s men, operating in small units, could fight more effectively.
In the end, Gen. Giap would outlast his enemies. The French grew tired of paying the price of fighting him in Southeast Asia, and so did the United States, after 58,000 American deaths in a war that promised no more than a stalemate.
He said: “The United States imperialists want to fight quickly. To fight a protracted war is a big defeat for them. Their morale is lower than grass. . . . National liberation wars must allow some time — a long time. . . . The Americans didn’t understand that we had soldiers everywhere and that it was very hard to surprise us.”
To at least one U.S. military commander, this strategy was apparent even in the early years of American involvement in the hostilities. Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak, in a 1966 memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, wrote that Gen. Giap “was sure that if the cost in casualties and francs was high enough, the French would defeat themselves in Paris. He was right. It is likely that he feels the same about the USA.”
A master of military logistics and administration, Gen. Giap directed construction, maintenance and operation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which a steady stream of men and arms flowed from North Vietnam to support the war in the South.
Under his command, a corps of 100,000 Vietnamese and Laotian laborers slogged under 70-pound packs through swamps and jungles, up and down mountains to deliver the supplies, weapons and ammunition to fuel the fight. From a network of mountain footpaths used by peasants and travelers for centuries, they built a 12,000-mile system of camouflaged roadways and spurs, much of it in the neutral territory of Laos. Some sections were two-lane paved roads, capable of handling tanks and heavy trucks. Others were primitive dirt roads. There were air raid shelters, rest stops and bridges. All of it demanded unremitting repair and upkeep.
Gen. Giap was a hard-line and tenacious Communist, and one of the early members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which was founded by Ho in 1930. In the late 1940s, he led a program aimed at eradication of non-communist political organizations in Vietnam that is said to have caused the death of thousands. One technique of this campaign was to tie opponents together in batches like cordwood, then throw them into the Red River and let them drown while floating out to sea. This was known as “crab fishing.”
From a manpower base of peasant farmers, Gen. Giap constructed a paramilitary guerrilla force, which he then transformed into an army of fully trained soldiers through a combination of rigorous training and political indoctrination.
In three decades of combat, he is said to have had more than a million of his soldiers killed, a casualty level that would have cost any U.S. general his command. “Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little,” the French writer Bernard B. Fall quoted him as saying.
Metaphorically, Gen. Giap was described in Vietnamese as “Nui Lua,” which means roughly “volcano beneath the snow.” On the surface, his personality was cold and arrogant, but he was seething on the inside and capable of fearsome explosions. Colleagues said he was impatient, dogmatic, energetic and loyal to his friends.
He was ambitious and not above personal vanity. To several interviewers, he suggested that he could be considered an Asian Napoleon. Time magazine, in a 1968 article, described him as a “dangerous and wily foe . . . a tactician of such talents that U.S. military experts have compared him with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.”
Vo Nguyen Giap was born Aug. 25, 1911, in the province of Quang Binh in an area of central Vietnam, which, with Laos and Cambodia, was then part of the French protectorate of Indochina. His native village of An Xa consisted primarily of straw and bamboo huts, alongside a few tile-roofed buildings. As a boy, he attended local public schools, where his teachers beat him with a thin bamboo stick whenever he faltered in his lessons.
At age 12, he failed the first examination that would have allowed him additional schooling. French colonial authorities discouraged advanced education throughout Indochina, knowing that an ignorant population would be easier to control. But the young Vo Nguyen Giap spent the next year in intensive study, and on his second try, he passed the exam that allowed him to attend secondary school in Hue.
There, in 1926, the future general read a book that would change his life and influence the history of Southeast Asia. Its title was “Colonialism on Trial,” written by Ho Chi Minh. Gen. Giap would recall years later that Ho’s book triggered in him an abiding hatred of the French, and it launched him on the revolutionary journey that would become his life’s work.
He read other writings of Ho and studied the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, organized an underground reading library and in 1927 was expelled from school for organizing a strike in support of a student who he was sure had been falsely accused of cheating. He wrote under pseudonyms for a reform-minded newspaper, became active with the Communist Party and was jailed for revolutionary activities from 1930 to 1932.
On his release, he won a scholarship for a school in Hanoi and received a baccalaureate degree in 1934. Later he taught history and French at a private school in Hanoi, and he was admitted to the French-managed University of Hanoi’s law school, where he received a doctorate in 1938.
In 1939 he married Quang Thai, a fellow member of the Communist Party, whom he had met in prison years earlier. She gave birth to their daughter, Hong Anh, in January 1940. Four months later, the central committee of the Communist Party decided to send him to join Ho, who was then living in exile in China, where he was preparing plans for the revolution he intended to launch.
Soon after Gen. Giap left for China, his wife was taken into custody by French authorities and held in a prison facility that would become known 30 years later in the United States as the “Hanoi Hilton,” where downed American fliers were held as prisoners of war. Quang Thai would die in prison, either by suicide or while being tortured. Since her arrest, their daughter had been cared for by Gen. Giap’s parents. But not until late in World War II did Gen. Giap learn of his wife’s death. In 1947, his father would also die while in French custody, refusing to publicly denounce his son, although he never agreed with his communist ideology.
“He carries in his soul wounds that even time cannot heal,” Hong Anh told Currey in a 1988 questionnaire, speaking of her father.
In the spring of 1941, Ho and Gen. Giap had returned to Vietnam from China. At a remote hamlet called Pac Bo, Ho convened a meeting of the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party and created the organization that would become known as the “Viet Minh,” to wage a war of independence against the French and the Japanese, who had occupied Vietnam after France fell to Nazi Germany early in World War II. Also to be eliminated were the Vietnamese “jackals” who collaborated with the enemy.
During the war years, Gen. Giap began traveling regularly to the hamlets and settlements of the Vietnamese countryside, laying the recruiting groundwork for the army he intended to raise. In July 1944, after the collapse of the Nazi collaborationist government of Vichy France, he wanted to launch an armed insurrection in Vietnam, but Ho vetoed the idea. The time was not ripe for open rebellion, he said.
But with the end of World War II in 1945, it was possible to begin guerrilla operations against the French, who returned to Vietnam expecting to reclaim their colony.
Throughout the late 1940s, Gen. Giap orchestrated hit-and-run operations against French forces. His plan was to entice the enemy to expend valuable energy in fruitless pursuit of an elusive quarry in remote areas or tie him down in an unproductive or static position. “Use the feint, the ambush, the diversionary outrage,” he wrote in a training manual adapted from the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. “The enemy may outnumber you ten to one strategically, but if you compel him to disperse his forces widely, you may outnumber him ten to one locally wherever you choose to attack him.”
His army suffered heavy casualties in the Red River offensive against the French in 1951, but the Viet Minh regrouped and vanquished the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Just a month before that siege ended, top French military officials traveled to Washington, hoping for a pledge of U.S. assistance. There, on April 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared: “You have a row of dominoes set up and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. . . . The loss of Indochina will cause the fall of Southeast Asia like a set of dominoes.”
No U.S. assistance was given to the French at Dien Bien Phu, but the domino theory that Eisenhower had articulated in response to the French request would influence U.S. military policy in that part of the world for the next two decades.
At the Geneva Conference that followed the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam was divided into two countries: north and south. In the north, the Communist Party ruled under the leadership of Ho. With the French colonialists out of the picture, an ambitious land-reform program was undertaken, for which Gen. Giap would later apologize. “[W]e . . . executed too many honest people . . . and, seeing enemies everywhere, resorted to terror, which became far too widespread. . . . Worse still, torture came to be regarded as a normal practice,” he was quoted as having said by Neil Sheehan in his Pulitzer-winning 1988 book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
In the south, the United States replaced France as the major foreign influence. CIA operatives worked to blunt communist initiatives, and by the early 1960s, U.S. soldiers began arriving as “advisers” to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Men and supplies flowed southward from Hanoi, and indigenous guerrilla units throughout South Vietnam began raiding government troops and installations. The United States increased its level of support, which by 1968 had reached 500,000 military personnel.
Arguably, the turning point of the war came during the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was orchestrated by Gen. Giap. To launch this campaign, he had directed the movement of 100,000 men and tons of supplies to strategic points throughout South Vietnam. On Jan. 30, communist forces attacked 40 provincial capitals and major cities, including an unsuccessful but widely publicized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The offensive failed militarily, Gen. Giap’s forces suffered heavy casualties and a hoped-for civilian uprising against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not happen.
But politically, the offensive was devastating in the United States, where it shattered public confidence in U.S. policy and led Johnson to decide against seeking reelection as president.
In the next four years, Gen. Giap orchestrated guerrilla raids by small units against South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. In the spring of 1972, he was relieved of his command after his Easter offensive failed in the face of massive U.S. attacks, which included the bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. Viet Cong and North Vietnamese losses were said to have included more than 100,000 fatalities. Gen. Giap retained his position as defense minister, but command of the Vietnam People’s Army passed to longtime disciple Van Tien Dung.
U.S. involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 with the signing of peace accords and the withdrawal of American military forces. Without U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military collapsed in two years.
“American soldiers were just like any others,” Gen. Giap said years later in response to a question from a former U.S. service member. “When led well, they fought well.” Rarely, if ever, did the general comment publicly on the millions of Vietnamese boat people who fled the country after the communist takeover or the stagnation of the economy under Communist Party leadership.
After 1975, Gen. Giap faded from the public scene. He resigned as defense minister in 1980 and was dropped from the politburo in 1982. He continued to lead ceremonial functions and lived in comfort in a government-assigned villa in Hanoi. In 1992, he was awarded Vietnam’s highest honor, the Gold Star Order, for contributions to “the revolutionary cause of party and nation.”
In 1946, after the death of his first wife, Gen. Giap married Dang Bich Hai, the daughter of a former professor and mentor. They had two daughters, Vo Hua Binh and Vo Hahn Phuc, and two sons, Vo Dien Bien and Vo Hoai Nam.