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.