The determination, ingenuity, sacrifice, success and bravery of the Vietnamese people is felt throughout the world still. Few political leaders dominate the obituary columns and make the news on the main television stations across the world when they die. General Giap has achieved this because the heroism and victories that he personified changed the world. When future generations survey again the twentieth century it will be communist soldiers like Giap and millions of others in areas like Russia, China, Europe, Latin America, Korea, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa who will be seen to have been pivotal to mankind’s progress.
The Japanese wanted Vietnam as an annexe, the French as a bastion of their imperialism and the US decided that as Vietnam was showing that another world was possible, it should be bombed back to the stone age. The decisive defeat of these plans shapes our world still.
Giap’s writings leave us with an important record of the principles underpinning people’s wars to end imperialist wars. Indeed the success of all such wars depended on the engagement of the majority in the war effort. “People should not be overawed by the power of modern weapons,” he said, “It is the value of human beings that in the end will decide victory.” Also, “‘Surrender’ is not a word in my vocabulary.” In his words, any army fighting for freedom “had the creative energy to achieve things its adversary can never expect or imagine.”
It is this spirit of creative energy and confidence that underpins successful class struggle from the workers’ point of view whether in military or industrial conflict. This is why the tactics in Vietnam in the seventies were being closely watched by workers everywhere to inform their struggle in very different contexts.
Giap, like his people, fought all of his lifetime for self-determination, independence and socialism in Vietnam. This nationalism was decidedly internationalist. He played a key role from boyhood in opposing first the Japanese invaders and then in defeating the French and United States. He assisted greatly in the process of reunifying the county and then rebuilding it after the extreme horror of the US bombing. He was a learned and skilled communist, informed by the legacy of liberation struggle and astute military tactics developed over a thousand years in Vietnam. Giap’s contribution was to be a leading part of the struggle that shaped world history by defeating European colonial powers and dealt the decisive blow to US imperialism from which it has never been able to recover.
He was born into a peasant family, in the central Quang Binh province of what was then French Indochina. He was the son of a rice grower and joined a clandestine nationalist movement at 14 years of age. He attended the Quoc Hoc Academy in Hué, but was expelled following a student strike and later earned a degree in law at the University of Hanoi, which was a French institution at the time. By 1938 he was a member of Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist party.
Giap’s first command was a group of 34 guerrillas, which he led to some small victories. By the end of his career he commanded the world’s third largest army and was hailed as the architect of Vietnam’s victory. After the French banned the Communist Party, and he was arrested, Giap escaped to China where he became a deputy of Ho Chi Minh. While in he was in exile his sister was captured and executed. His wife was also sent to prison where she died. Ho and Giap formed an army in exile and Giap was then given command over the Viet Minh guerrilla forces fighting the Japanese from 1940 to 1945. The Communists seized control in 1945 and Giap became one of the leading figures in the newly formed provisional government.
After the Second World War France attempted to re-establish control over Vietnam. In January 1946, Britain agreed to remove her troops and later that year, China left Vietnam in exchange for an undertaking from France that she would give up her rights to land in China.
During the war against France, Giap shaped the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) into a strong fighting force. Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops were killed. His historical reputation results from his victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. Using siege tactics, Giap defeated the French with an extraordinary logistical build up and effective use of a well-protected artillery. The sacrifice and strength of his 70.000 soldiers was legendary with thousands of tons of artillery having been hauled by hand over rugged mountainous terrain. The French surrendered just days before the Geneva Conference, which would negotiate the French withdrawal from Vietnam, but would leave the country divided.
The US invaded. Vo Nguyen Giap remained commander-in-chief of the Vietminh throughout the Vietnam War. Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the NLF had been taking place in Paris since January, 1969. By 1972, Richard Nixon, like Lyndon B. Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable. In October, 1972, the negotiators came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.
The main issue in this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: “Genocide”, “Stone-Age Barbarism” and “Savage and Senseless”.The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been “bombed into submission.”
The Tet offensive of 1967 proved to be Giap’s last great military involvement, and he retired in 1973 after the failed Easter Offensive.
The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam appealed to President Richard Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem.
The spring of 1975 saw a series of National Liberation Front victories. After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding.
The NLF arrived in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Soon afterwards the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. In the new government Vo Nguyen Giap was minister of defence and deputy premier. Rebuilding a devastated country began and the incredible advances since then are not just a credit to the scale of the military victory but to the economic and political stewardship of winning the peace.
In the late 1950’s through to the late 1960’s, Giap remained a key military figure but became embroiled in a fierce debate over the strategy for reunification. Reportedly suffering from illness, Giap resigned his position as Minister of Defence in 1980 and lost his seat in the politburo in 1982, after which he became chief of the Science and Technology Commission. In July 1992, he was awarded the Gold Star Order, Vietnam’s highest honour.
He is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children. Giap’s first wife, herself a brave fighter, Quang Thai, died in a French imperialist prison.
25th August 1911 – 4th October 2013