Vietnamese general with sharp political instinct
Vo Nguyen Giapo: August 25th, 1911-October 4th, 2013
Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap gestures during an interview in Hanoi in 1995
Gen Vo Nguyen Giap, who has died aged 102, was one of the foremost military commanders of the 20th century, who used his charisma and tactical skills to transform a tiny band of Vietnamese guerrillas into an army that defeated France and the US.
In 1944 he formed a tiny resistance group of 31 men and three women armed with flintlock rifles. Ten years later this had been transformed into the Vietnamese People’s Army, which defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The victory earned the Vietnamese a position at the negotiating table and split the country into a communist north and a US-backed south.
Giap, a diminutive intellectual lawyer , was an unlikely warrior. He often claimed his only military lesson came from an encyclopaedia entry describing the mechanism of a primitive hand grenade. The reality was a little different.
As a child his sense of nationalism had been nourished by stories of heroic Vietnamese victories against the Chinese and Mongols. At school in Hue, he became involved in the anti-colonial movement. He graduated in law from the University of Hanoi and began teaching history. By the time he founded his army, he was well versed in Marx and had read Mao Zedong’s writings on guerrilla warfare.
In 1940 Giap joined Ho Chi Minh in China. They returned to Vietnam a year later and founded the Viet Minh, which briefly took power in the August Revolution of 1945, when the Vietnamese communists filled the vacuum left by the defeated Japanese forces.
Dien Bien Phu
Giap began talks with the French on independence, but they were determined to return to Vietnam and in December 1946 the Viet Minh began an eight-year war which culminated in the victory of Dien Bien Phu.
The cost of Giap’s victory had been extremely high. His forces suffered massive casualties, many times the toll inflicted on the French. Indeed a horrendous loss of life marked all Giap’s victories, but he was coldly unapologetic, saying the number of dead was small compared with the number who died each day of natural causes.
After 1954, he became defence minister in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Almost immediately the government ran into serious problems when the population turned against a brutal campaign of land reform in which thousands of people were killed. Giap was sent out to restore order. His apologies for the party’s excesses were grudging at best, but using his popular support as the hero of Dien Bien Phu he was able to calm the angry crowds, which included many of the soldiers who had fought under him.
In the 1960s, as Hanoi began to lean more towards Beijing, Giap remained staunchly pro-Soviet. Tensions were exacerbated when his tactics against the US forces after 1965 achieved only mixed results. He was kept off guard by the mobility of American helicopter cavalry and his forces suffered heavy casualties in battles they might have avoided. His opposite number, Gen William Westmoreland, noted that any US general that suffered Giap’s losses would have been sacked.
Giap’s skills lay less in military tactics than in logistics and politics. His diplomatic skills kept open supply lines from China and the Soviet Union, while at home he organised the movement of troops and material down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vast web of tracks stretching into Laos and Cambodia.
In January 1968, tens of thousands of communist troops launched the Tet offensive. The Viet Cong took over the former imperial capital of Hue. In Hanoi, the leadership had expected the South Vietnamese to rise up but instead the VC suffered a huge military defeat in which their troops and command structures were nearly wiped out.
The offensive was a severe military setback, but the North did win a psychological victory. Dramatic news coverage of the offensive in the US challenged claims in Washington that an end to the war was in sight. Support for the conflict and for then US president Lyndon B Johnson slumped. Once again, Giap had suffered enormous losses but managed to declare victory.
In December 1978, against Giap’s advice, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge. Although the initial victory was rapid, the Vietnamese became bogged down in a guerrilla war against the Khmer Rouge that would last more than 10 years.
For most of the 1980s, Giap was a political outcast. He did, however, command loyalty in the military, but he resisted calls from army officers to use his popularity to take over and initiate sweeping changes to the economy and political ystem. He spent his retirement travelling and meeting foreign dignitaries.
Giap’s first wife, Quang Thai, with whom he had a daughter, died in prison during the war with the French. In 1946, he married Dang Bich Ha. They had two sons and two daughters.