Vo Nguyen Giap

Vietnamese General

b. 1912


Lanning Rating: #40
VO NGUYEN GIAP, a history teacher turned communist revolutionary, stands as one of the master theorists and practitioners of modern guerrilla warfare.

Trained on the fields and in the tunnels of battle, Giap was successful in defeating France and the United States. In both cases, Giap defeated an enemy that had superior technology and firepower. How was it possible for this David to beat two military Goliaths?

Military history teaches us that in addition to firepower, military doctrine is critical in executing the art of war. Giap's training in guerrilla warfare, augmented with a passionate hatred for his country's occupiers, led him to conceive a strategy that essentially wore down the enemy's will to fight.

Details of Giap's life have long been shrouded in mystery and perhaps intentional obfuscation. Apparently born in 1912 in Quang Binh Province, details of his family are sketchy. Some reports indicate his family were peasants, others suggest they were educated mandarins. He went to school in Hue and Hanoi and in 1934 he joined the Indochinese Communist Party which had been formed in 1930 by Nguyen That Thanh (later known as Ho Chi Minh).

In 1939 Giap married his first wife, Dang Thi Quang Thai. Later that year the French outlawed the communist Party and shortly after the birth of his daughter, Hong Anh, Giap left his family and homeland to study and train in Mao Zedong's China.

In 1941, the French arrested Quang Thai and convicted her of conspiracy against the security of France. She was jailed in the prison known as Hao Lo ("the oven") which Americans came to know, in later years, as the "Hanoi Hilton." Again, reports are inconsistent regarding the fate of Giap's wife. Some suggest she killed herself in prison, other accounts claim the French tortured her to death. Reports also suggest the French killed Giap's daughter, two sisters, and his father. The source of Giap's passionate hatred for the French is clear.

While still in China, in 1941, Giap, along with Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and other Vietnamese nationalists created the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong-Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam). Members of the league were known as the Vietminh. In 1944, Giap returned to Vietnam to begin fighting the Japanese and Vichy French occupiers.

The chaos in Vietnam that resulted when Japan was defeated in World War II led the Vietminh, on December 2, 1945 to declare Vietnam a free and independent state. France, reasserting itself after the Japanese withdrawal, viewed Vietnam as independent but only within the French union of nations. The French would allow Vietnam a certain amount of control over domestic affairs, but France would control foreign policy and all defense-related matters.

By 1946, these different interpretations of independence resulted in a considerable amount of Vietminh guerrilla activity, especially in the North (Tonkin) area of Vietnam. In early 1947 the French succeeded in driving off the Vietminh during the siege of the ancient capital city of Hue. But for the next six years the Vietminh would utilize guerrilla warfare tactics in an attempt to drive the French out of Vietnam.

What is known as the First Indochina War ended on May 7, 1953 when Vietminh forces under the command of General Giap overran the French garrison at Dienbienphu. Of the 15,094 French troops only 73 escaped. 5,000 died and 10,000 were captured. Giap's force consisted of some 70,000 troops organized into four divisions. Additionally, Giap's force had superior firepower, including antiaircraft guns. When after nearly six months of siege, Giap ordered the final direct assault on the garrison, the French occupants were starving and out of ammunition. Giap and the communists had won an important victory. In what would become a trademark feature of the communists' struggle in Vietnam, the victory had cost a lot of lives. Giap's army, reportedly, sustained casualties in excess of 25,000 soldiers.

Giap's defeat of the French at Dienbienphu led to France's final withdrawal from Vietnam. However, the political situation only became more complicated as the country was divided into a communist-controlled North and a non-communist South, divided at the 17th parallel.

Giap's victory at Dienbienphu made him the leading military commander in North Vietnam. The goal of the communists was to reunite the country as one socialist state. Subsequent to the departure of the French the United States took on an increasingly deeper involvement in preventing the communist takeover of the South. Giap utilized the guerrilla tactics employed against the French against the new enemy, and though it cost an inhuman number of lives his strategy was successful.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the tactic of "limited armed struggle" was once again employed by the Lap Dong ("Workers Party" as the Vietnamese Communist party was then called). The North Vietnamese utilized South Vietnamese communists organized as the Viet Cong to harass and assassinate political figures in the South in an attempt to destabilize the American-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1959 more than 1,000 officials were killed by Viet Cong warriors. By 1961 an estimated 4,000 had died as a result of Viet Cong attacks. The first American soldiers died in Vietnam when on July 8, 1959 Viet Cong guerrillas attacked a military base in Bien Hoa, northeast of Saigon, killing a Master Sergeant and a Major in the compound's mess hall.

The Second Indochinese War, what Americans call the "Vietnam War" was waged for 20 years. Four American presidents fought the war and 57,690 American soldiers died fighting. Through it all General Giap presided over the military operations. He also presided over the deaths of an estimated 600,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong warriors.

Giap remained commander-in-chief of the communist forces until 1972 after the Eastertide Offensive in which his troops sustained wide-scale casualties in a major initiative against South Vietnam. Relieved of direct military command, Giap was called back to Hanoi and appointed Minister of Defense.

In 1975, Vietnam was finally reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and Giap's long struggle for communist unification was completed.

Today, Giap is a revered national hero in Vietnam. In 1995 Giap met, for the first time an old adversary, former United States Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Newspaper accounts reported that upon meeting McNamara the 80+ year-old Giap said

I heard about you long ago

This is an interesting article about General Giap. It also includes an enlightening discussion on the differences between Western and Asian military leadership qualities and styles.

Vo Nguyen Giap- 1997 wonderland Warrior
URL http://www.cosmicbaseball.com/giap7.html
Published: January 15, 1997

© 1997 by the Cosmic Baseball Association
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