Título: General Vo Nguyen Giap
Epígrafe: General Vo Nguyen Giap, who has aged 102, was the diminutive and brilliant Vietnamese general who led communist forces in the wars that forced three powerful adversaries – Japan, France and America – out of his homeland.
Texto: “Such was his morale-boosting determination and genius for the feint and swoop that he was often described as a guerrilla leader equalled only by Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara; and Giap was certainly adept at utilising terrain and highly mobile troops to outwit stronger and better equipped enemies.
But he was far more than just an able coordinator of the small-scale jungle skirmish. Major set-piece battles and broad offensives were well within his compass too, though often at high cost. At home, only Ho Chi Minh was better loved. Abroad, even Giap’s opponents – perhaps particularly his opponents – suggested that he merited a place in the pantheon of great military leaders of modern times, alongside such figures as Wellington and Rommel.
The figure Giap himself most admired and studied, however, was Napoleon. By the time Giap had left school he was able to outline in chalk the phases of all Napoleon’s most celebrated battles. It was an irony later lost on few that, having absorbed those lessons, Giap would score perhaps his most dramatic victory against France.
That moment came in March 1954, after more than seven years of fighting between French forces and Giap’s Viet Minh anti-colonial communist revolutionaries. The French, looking to draw the Viet Minh into a decisive engagement, had parachuted thousands of soldiers into an airbase located in a valley in north-western Vietnam, on the border with Laos. They were unaware, however, that Giap too was looking for a knockout blow, and that his forces had acquired heavy artillery pieces.
Despite the extraordinary difficulty of moving these around the jungle, Giap managed to ring Dien Bien Phu with men and heavy guns, placed on the high ground overlooking the airbase. When the artillery fire began raining down at the beginning of March it became clear that the French were sitting ducks.
For two months they resisted, fending off incursions which came between each new barrage. But on May 1 the Viet Minh launched a huge offensive, and within a week overran French positions. The last words of the radio operator before being cut off were: “Vive la France!” More than 11,000 men were taken prisoner; fewer than 4,000 returned to France alive.
This shattering defeat forced France to the negotiating table, with talks beginning on May 8, one day after the garrison’s surrender. The result was a Vietnam split into a communist north and French-backed south.
Though this division was supposed to be temporary, and the last French forces withdrew in 1956, South Vietnam immediately found a new sponsor – and Giap a new enemy – in the United States.
Vo Nguyen Giap was born on August 25 1911 in Quang Binh province in what is now central Vietnam but what was then, along with Laos and Cambodia, the French protectorate of Indo-China. His father was a literate farmer who sent Giap to the French college at Hue.
Giap’s nationalism – a key characteristic throughout his life that saw him resist overt interference from either Moscow or Beijing – emerged early. He was in his mid-teens when he joined the underground Newannam movement, which called for a unified, independent Vietnam, and he was arrested for fomenting revolution before his 18th birthday.
After his release from several months in jail, he attended the University of Hanoi, and while he studied Politics and Law he taught history at a private school, where his deep knowledge of military strategy, and of Napoleon’s battles in particular, impressed his students. It was while he was in Hanoi that Giap joined the Indo-Chinese Communist Party, which had been founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1930. Throughout the 1930s he read widely, deepening his knowledge of military strategy and earning a living as a journalist and from teaching.
In 1939 the Communist Party was banned by the French authorities, and Giap fled into exile in China, leaving behind his wife and members of his family, some of whom died after being locked up and tortured in French jails.
It was in China that he met Ho Chi Minh, and in 1941 they together rebranded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party to form the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoa (the League for the Independence of Vietnam) — better known as the Viet Minh.
Ho appointed Giap his military leader and, with the support of China, Giap prepared to lead an army back into Indo-China, which Japanese forces had been occupying since the start of the Second World War.
The Viet Minh guerrilla campaign against Japan began at the end of 1944, and Giap’s fighting men quickly forged a working alliance with American forces, sharing intelligence and helping to shelter US pilots who had been shot down.
Soon after the Japanese surrender, the Viet Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and named Ho Chi Minh President and Giap Minister of the Interior. In elections in January 1946, the Viet Minh won 230 out of 300 seats in the new state’s national assembly.
France, however, refused to cede its colonial possessions and, while in theory recognising the Democratic Republic, in fact continued to exert a powerful economic influence in the country that amounted to a rival administration. By December 1946 this uneasy arrangement had exploded into conflict, with Ho calling for the French to be expelled in a national war of resistance. Once again Giap was given the job of leading Ho’s army.
This time, however, his task was more than to harass an army in retreat, as the Viet Minh had done with the Japanese. Instead, Giap had to mobilise, equip and drill an army capable of taking on a highly-trained Western opponent. To do so he produced a handbook on guerrilla tactics, published in 1962 under the title People’s War, People’s Army. This encouraged his soldiers to cultivate the loyalty of locals, without whose support victory would be impossible, and always to engage the enemy at a time of their choosing. “The enemy may outnumber you 10 to one,” he advised, “but if you compel him to disperse his forces widely you may outnumber him 10 to one locally, wherever you choose to attack him.”
The most important quality he tried to instil was patience. Time, he counselled, would inevitably stretch the resources and morale of a colonial occupier. For Giap, meanwhile, the “cause” was more important that the fate of individuals. Absorbing huge losses was not a concern. After all, he noted, “every minute thousands of men died all over the world”.
His plan to sap the French was divided into three stages: guerrilla skirmishes; concerted battles; all-out counter-offensive. By 1951, having spent five years in guerrilla attacks, Giap moved into stage two. By 1953, as France wearied of war, he had moved into stage three and prepared for Dien Bien Phu.
But by 1956, following the French withdrawal, Ho and Giap’s dreams of a united, independent Vietnam appeared as distant as ever when the new American-backed president of South Vietnam refused to call the national elections that had been part of the ceasefire deal after Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam’s “temporary” division appeared to become permanent, and nationalists in the South went into hiding and mobilised as the guerrilla Viet Cong.
Over the next decade, as America intensified its military aid to the South’s government in Saigon, so Giap increased aid to the Viet Cong. Finally, in 1965, America committed hundreds of thousands of troops and launched an air campaign against the North. Giap, in turn, dispatched troops to fight in the South, led by Nguyen Chi Thanh, though Giap remained in overall command.
While Thanh sought decisive engagements, Giap once again counselled patience, taunting America as early as 1967 that its Army was bogged down in an unwinnable war. When Thanh was killed that year, Giap took direct command of the campaign against America in South Vietnam and within months had pulled off another tactical masterstroke.
This came in early 1968, when he appeared to be mustering his forces for a Dien Bien Phu-style ambush on an American fortress at Khe Sanh during the lunar New Year, or Tet. But as America reinforced Khe Sanh, Giap’s men instead launched a general attack on a host of targets across the South. The Tet Offensive, as it became known, did not sweep America from Vietnam or force its diplomats immediately to the negotiating table. But with Tet, Giap, a man who barely stood 5ft tall, had forced a fundamental change in attitudes to the Vietnam War in America, where commitment to the conflict soon began to crack.
The level of Giap’s contribution to the planning of the Tet offensive has since been disputed, with reports of wrangling over detail between him and his senior commanders. But its effect is not in doubt. Peace talks began in Paris the following year.
It would be another four years, punctuated by a series of bloody campaigns, before the last American troops left Vietnam. Even without American military financial backing, which was swiftly suspended, anti-communist forces in South Vietnam continued to fight. But, under Giap’s guidance and – for once – with the odds very much on their side, communist forces eventually swept into Saigon in the spring of 1975, proclaiming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Giap was named Defence Minister and, the following year, Deputy Prime Minister. But his influence with the Communist Party never matched his own popular standing and, following his departure from the defence ministry in 1980, he was removed from the Politburo in 1982. He retained his position as Deputy Prime Minister and served on the Central Committee until 1991. Some analysts have suggested that his fiery temperament and his greater devotion to uniting Vietnam than to the global anti-capitalist cause stymied his rise.
Vo Nguyen Giap’s first wife, a fellow communist, died in a French prison after he had fled to China in 1939. For the past three years he had been living in a military hospital in Hanoi, and he is survived by his second wife, Dang Bich Ha, whom he married in 1949, and four children.”