Le Duc Anh, a hard-line general who led communist forces in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, commanded troops that invaded neighboring Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge and oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States as Vietnam’s president in the 1990s, died April 22 in Hanoi. He was 98.
His death was announced by the Vietnamese government, which did not disclose a cause. He was reported to have had a cerebral hemorrhage in 2018.
Although known as a Communist Party stalwart who favored strict party control over domestic policies, a position that put him at odds with economic reformers, Gen. Anh nevertheless presided over an increasing shift to a free-market economy while serving as president from 1992 to 1997.
During that period, Vietnam normalized relations with the United States, ending decades of animosity between Hanoi and Washington that reached its zenith during the Vietnam War.
Gen. Anh played a key role in the war, serving for a decade as deputy commander and chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam, the army of the communist political organization known as the Viet Cong.
Although portrayed by Hanoi as an indigenous guerrilla movement, the Viet Cong, officially called the National Liberation Front, was created and controlled by North Vietnam as part of its long-range plans to expel American forces from South Vietnam, topple its U.S.-backed government and unite the country under Hanoi’s rule.
In 1974, Gen. Anh became deputy commander of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, the drive that ultimately resulted in the capture of the south’s capital, Saigon, by North Vietnamese forces in April 1975, ending the Vietnam War.
But he was perhaps best known for his role in the December 1978 invasion of Cambodia, which deposed the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of dictator Pol Pot within two weeks and installed a Hanoi-controlled government headed by Khmer Rouge defectors. Considered the architect of the offensive that ended nearly four years of Pol Pot’s murderous rule, Gen. Anh went on to command Vietnamese occupation forces in Cambodia as they battled a persistent Khmer Rouge insurgency.
As the war in Cambodia dragged on, Gen. Anh ironically came to sound like U.S. officials during the Vietnam War. He complained of guerrillas taking advantage of sanctuaries in Thailand and called on his Cambodian allies to take more responsibility for their own defense.
In a December 1984 article in the theoretical journal of the Vietnamese army, Gen. Anh lamented that Cambodian guerrillas were “taking advantage of Thai soil” and had “set up logistical bases, opened points of entry at the border and created infiltration corridors to pour forces and weapons inland for guerrilla and sabotage activities, seizing land, controlling the population, building counterrevolutionary forces and so forth.”
He called for greater efforts to get Cambodians “to participate in the building of militia and self-defense forces,” while warning that the “struggle is still long and complicated.”
Sometimes described as “Vietnam’s Vietnam,” the Cambodian quagmire ultimately claimed the lives of at least 55,000 Vietnamese troops, the deputy commander of Hanoi’s forces in the country told reporters in 1988, a year before the Vietnamese finally withdrew. In sharp contrast to the U.S. experience in Vietnam, Hanoi left behind a regime that not only survived its departure but has endured for three decades, while suppressing opposition and steadily tightening its grip on power.
Le Duc Anh was born in central Vietnam on Dec. 1, 1920, when the country was under French colonial rule. In 1938, he joined the Vietnamese Communist Party founded by Ho Chi Minh and fought the French from 1945 until 1954, when the communist forces captured northern Vietnam and succeeded in gaining independence from France.
He rose in North Vietnam’s military ranks, mostly commanding forces in the south and becoming a lieutenant general in 1974. After the Vietnam War, he served as the top commander in the Mekong Delta and in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. He was promoted to full general in 1984.
Gen. Anh simultaneously climbed the ranks of the Communist Party, holding a seat on the powerful Politburo from 1982 to 2001. He served as defense minister from 1987 to 1991, and in September 1992, he was elected by the Vietnamese legislature as the country’s fourth president. The vote was unanimous, state media reported. In fact, he was the only candidate.
As president, Gen. Anh played “an important role in normalizing diplomatic relations” between Vietnam and the United States and in improving relations with China, the state-run Viet Nam News reported.
During his tenure, President Bill Clinton formally established diplomatic ties with the government in Hanoi in 1995, and that year, Gen. Anh became the first president from Hanoi to visit the United States when he traveled to New York to attend the United Nations’ 50th anniversary celebrations.
He stepped down as president in 1997, a year after suffering what news reports described as a major stroke. A list of survivors was not immediately available.