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.”