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Vo Nguyen Giap
Vietnamese revolutionary and government minister Vo Nguyen Giap joined the Communist underground against the French in the 1930's. He was responsible for organizing the Viet Minh into a fighting force capable of defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Giap served as Defense Minister and commander of the North Vietnamese army. After several military setbacks, including the Tet Offensive and the Easter Offensive, Giap was replaced as commander by Van Tien Dung; in 1980 Dung also took over the Defense Ministry role.
Vo Nguyen Giap
Vo Nguyen Giap was born in Quang-binh Province, Vietnam, in 1912. He was educated at the University of Hanoi where he gained a doctorate in economics. After leaving university he taught history in Hanoi. He later joined the Communist Party and took part in several demonstrations against French rule in Vietnam.
Vo Nguyen Giap was arrested in 1939 but escaped to China where he joined up with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Vietminh). While in exile his sister and father were killed by French colonial forces. Whilst in exile, his wife Hong Anh was tortured and executed in a French Prison in 1939. His sister and father were also killed by French colonial forces. A decade later he re-married and went on to have five children.
Between 1942 to 1945 Vo Nguyen Giap helped organize resistance to the occupying Japanese Army. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the Vietminh was in a good position to take over the control of the country and Vo Nguyen Giap served under Ho Chi Minh in the provisional government.
In September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Unknown to the Vietminh Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had already decided what would happen to post-war Vietnam at a summit-meeting at Potsdam. They had agreed that the country would be divided into two, the northern half under the control of the Chinese and the southern half under the British.
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 a promise from France that she would give up her rights to territory in China.
France refused to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and fighting soon broke out between the Vietminh and the French troops. At first, the Vietminh under General Vo Nguyen Giap, had great difficulty in coping with the better trained and equipped French forces. The situation improved in 1949 after Mao Zedong and his communist army defeated Chaing Kai-Shek in China. The Vietminh now had a safe-base where they could take their wounded and train new soldiers.
By 1953, the Vietminh controlled large areas of North Vietnam. The French, however, had a firm hold on the south. When it became clear that France was becoming involved in a long-drawn out war, the French government tried to negotiate a deal with the Vietminh. They offered to help set-up a national government and promised they would eventually grant Vietnam its independence. Ho Chi Minh and the other leaders of the Vietminh did not trust the word of the French and continued the war.
French public opinion continued to move against the war. There were four main reasons for this: (1) Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops had been killed, wounded or captured (2) France was attempting to build up her economy after the devastation of the Second World War. The cost of the war had so far been twice what they had received from the United States under the Marshall Plan (3) The war had lasted seven years and there was still no sign of an outright French victory (4) A growing number of people in France had reached the conclusion that their country did not have any moral justification for being in Vietnam.
Robert Templer has pointed out: "General Vo Nguyen Giap was a self-taught soldier who became one of the foremost military commanders of the 20th century. He used his charisma and tactical skills to transform a tiny band of Vietnamese guerrillas into an army that defeated both France and the US. By 1954, he had turned this ragtag group into the Vietnamese People's Army that defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The surrender of French forces after a 55‑day siege in this valley in north-western Vietnam was the coda for colonialism in Indochina."
General Navarre, the French commander in Vietnam, realised that time was running out and that he needed to obtain a quick victory over the Vietminh. He was convinced that if he could manoeuvre Vo Nguyen Giap into engaging in a large scale battle, France was bound to win. In December, 1953, General Navarre setup a defensive complex at Dien Bien Phu, which would block the route of the Vietminh forces trying to return to camps in neighbouring Laos. Navarre surmised that in an attempt to reestablish the route to Laos, General Giap would be forced to organise a mass-attack on the French forces at Dien Bien Phu.
Navarre's plan worked and General Giap took up the French challenge. However, instead of making a massive frontal assault, Giap choose to surround Dien Bien Phu and ordered his men to dig a trench that encircled the French troops. From the outer trench, other trenches and tunnels were dug inwards towards the centre. The Vietminh were now able to move in close on the French troops defending Dien Bien Phu.
While these preparations were going on, Giap brought up members of the Vietminh from all over Vietnam. By the time the battle was ready to start, Giap had 70,000 soldiers surrounding Dien Bien Phu, five times the number of French troops enclosed within. Employing recently obtained anti-aircraft guns and howitzers from China, Giap was able to restrict severely the ability of the French to supply their forces in Dien Bien Phu. When Navarre realised that he was trapped, he appealed for help. The United States was approached and some advisers suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Vietminh. Another suggestion was that conventional air-raids would be enough to scatter Giap's troops.
The United States President, Dwight Eisenhower, however, refused to intervene unless he could persuade Britain and his other western allies to participate. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, declined claiming that he wanted to wait for the outcome of the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva before becoming involved in escalating the war.
On March 13, 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap launched his offensive. For fifty-six days the Vietminh pushed the French forces back until they only occupied a small area of Dien Bien Phu. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, blamed himself for the tactics that had been employed and after telling his fellow officers that he had been "completely dishonoured" committed suicide by pulling the safety pin out of a grenade.
Robert Templer has pointed out: "They had not accounted for Giap's skill in mobilising forces and keeping them supplied. Tens of thousands of farmers were drafted to carry dismantled artillery and weapons into the hills around Dien Bien Phu. Reinforced bicycles were loaded with hundreds of pounds of supplies and pushed up muddy tracks. Giap would later recall that it would take 21kg of rice for the porters for each kilogram of the staple that arrived to feed soldiers laying siege to the French. Viet Minh artillery rained hell down on the French troops from the surrounding hills. After the airfield was closed, provisions could only be dropped in by parachute." The French surrendered on May 7th. French casualties totalled over 7,000 and a further 11,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The following day the French government announced that it intended to withdraw from Vietnam.
The Daily Telegraph reported: "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&rsquos opponents &ndash perhaps particularly his opponents &ndash suggested that he merited a place in the pantheon of great military leaders of modern times, alongside such figures as Wellington and Rommel."
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 problem with 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 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.
In December 1978, against Giap's advice, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge. Giap's opposition to that war resulted in him being replaced as defence minister in 1980 and two years later lost his seat in the politburo. According to Robert Templer: "For most of the 1980s, Giap was a political outcast, occasionally wheeled out on ceremonial occasions but stripped of all real power. He did, however, command loyalty in the military, particularly among those officers disaffected by the war in Cambodia and angered by the economic collapse in the 1980s. In 1986, in the runup to a Communist party congress, a group of officers urged Giap to take control and launch sweeping changes to the economy and political system. Giap refused, terrified of what might happen if he failed. Bui Tin, an army colonel who had been a protege, urged him again in 1990 to take over and provide a new direction for Vietnam. Giap demurred, preferring a comfortable retirement."
Vo Nguyen Giap, died aged 102 on 4th October, 2013.
Battle of Dien Bien Phu
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was the decisive engagement in the first Indochina War (1946). After French forces occupied the Dien Bien Phu valley in late 1953, Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap amassed troops and placed heavy artillery in caves of the mountains overlooking the French camp. Boosted by Chinese aid, Giap mounted assaults on the opposition’s strong points beginning in March 1954, eliminating use of the French airfield. Viet Minh forces overran the base in early May, prompting the French government to seek an end to the fighting with the signing of the Geneva Accords of 1954.
The battle that settled the fate of French Indochina was initiated in November 1953, when Viet Minh forces at Chinese insistence moved to attack Lai Chau, the capital of the T𠆚i Federation (in Upper Tonkin), which was loyal to the French. As Peking had hoped, the French commander in chief in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, came out to defend his allies because he believed the T𠆚i “maquis” formed a significant threat in the Viet Minh “rear” (the T𠆚i supplied the French with opium that was sold to finance French special operations) and wanted to prevent a Viet Minh sweep into Laos. Because he considered Lai Chau impossible to defend, on November 20, Navarre launched Operation Castor with a paratroop drop on the broad valley of Dien Bien Phu, which was rapidly transformed into a defensive perimeter of eight strong points organized around an airstrip. When, in December 1953, the T𠆚is attempted to march out of Lai Chau for Dien Bien Phu, they were badly mauled by Viet Minh forces.
Viet Minh commander Vo Nguyen Giap,with considerable Chinese aide, massed troops and placed heavy artillery in caves in the mountains overlooking the French camp. On March 13, 1954, Giap launched a massive assault on strong point Beatrice, which fell in a matter of hours. Strong points Gabrielle and Anne-Marie were overrun during the next two days, which denied the French use of the airfield, the key to the French defense. Reduced to airdrops for supplies and reinforcement, unable to evacuate their wounded, under constant artillery bombardment, and at the extreme limit of air range, the French camp’s morale began to fray. As the monsoons transformed the camp from a dust bowl into a morass of mud, an increasing number of soldiers𠄺lmost four thousand by the end of the siege in Mayserted to caves along the Nam Yum River, which traversed the camp they emerged only to seize supplies dropped for the defenders. The “Rats of Nam Yum” became POWs when the garrison surrendered on May 7.
Despite these early successes, Giap’s offensives sputtered out before the tenacious resistance of French paratroops and legionnaires. On April 6, horrific losses and low morale among the attackers caused Giap to suspend his offensives. Some of his commanders, fearing U.S. air intervention, began to speak of withdrawal. Again, the Chinese, in search of a spectacular victory to carry to the Geneva talks scheduled for the summer, intervened to stiffen Viet Minh resolve: reinforcements were brought in, as were Katyusha multitube rocket launchers, while Chinese military engineers retrained the Viet Minh in siege tactics. When Giap resumed his attacks, human wave assaults were abandoned in favor of siege techniques that pushed forward webs of trenches to isolate French strong points. The French perimeter was gradually reduced until, on May 7, resistance ceased. The shock and agony of the dramatic loss of a garrison of around fourteen thousand men allowed French prime minister Pierre Mendès France to muster enough parliamentary support to sign the Geneva Accords of July 1954, which essentially ended the French presence in Indochina.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
General Giap was Hardly the Mastermind of the Vietnam War
General Vo Nguyen Giap in 1986. Via Wiki Commons.
The death of General Vo Nguyen Giap closes a tragic chapter in the shared history of the United States and Vietnam. America’s Vietnam War and Vietnam’s Anti-American Struggle for Reunification and National Salvation is undeniably one of the most important episodes in both countries' modern histories. But the man often found at the center of the twin narratives, General Giap, remains enigmatic. Despite outliving his adversaries and comrades alike, Giap did not have the final word. And now with his death, we may never get the full picture of that war or his role in it.
Growing up in the United States as a Vietnamese American after the war, General Giap was presented to me as a revered villain. The vanquished community of Vietnamese refugees who fled the country in 1975 and after pointed to Giap, and Ho Chi Minh, as the main architects of the communist war. Likewise, post-Vietnam War America identified Giap as the military tactician behind Hanoi’s victory. In both representations, he was the cunning general who outsmarted the French first, and then later Americans and their South Vietnamese allies.
His international reputation was equally impressive. Giap’s writings have been translated into dozens of other languages and studied by revolutionaries worldwide in the post-Vietnam War era. Alongside Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, Giap’s contribution to revolutionary guerrilla strategy inspired national liberation fighters throughout the developing world, including Palestine, Angola, and Nicaragua. His teachings revealed how guerrillas could take on and defeat larger, and more powerful, enemies. U.S.-style counterinsurgency held many weaknesses, and Giap could point them all out.
In country, though, the story was different. Despised and distrusted by those in power -- Le Duan and Le Duc Tho -- General Giap could only enjoy his international stature, and not his internal position. The “comrades Le” had identified Giap as a threat to their power during the anti-American struggle, but they had to wait until after the war to remove him from the political scene. In 1980, Giap was no longer minister of defense and in 1982, he lost his seat in the Politburo. By the early 1990s, Giap no longer held any political office. Stripped of key state and Party positions of leadership, Giap was relegated to ceremonial roles.
What most people don’t know is that this marginalization began much earlier than the post-Vietnam War era. Beginning at the start of Hanoi’s war in 1959-1960, Giap had already begun his downward descent at the hands of Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, the men whose names should be synonymous with the Vietnam War. With the return of Duan to Hanoi, Giap lost control over the drafting of Hanoi’s war resolution to Duan. In 1963-1964 when Duan decided to “go-for-broke” and defeat the Saigon government before the Americans could intervene, Giap was powerless to prevent what he saw was a foolhardy strategy. In 1967-1968, Giap’s objections to Duan’s risky General Offensive and General Uprising strategy, what would become known as the 1968 Tet Offensive, cost him dearly. Duan and Tho arrested his deputies for treason, in an effort to implicate the general as part of a revisionist plot to overthrow the government. During this period from 1963 to 1967, Giap too was under the scrutiny of Duan’s security forces and the famous hero of Dien Bien Phu even fled abroad to escape the political pressure in Hanoi. In 1972, after regaining some of his military influence due to his success in Laos, Giap dared to speak out against Duan and Tho’s preferred full-frontal attack across the DMZ during the 1972 Easter Offensive. Once again, his objections fell on deaf ears as North Vietnamese troops on top of Soviet tanks crossed the 17th Parallel. Had they been heeded, Giap’s words of caution throughout Hanoi’s war might have still resulted in Hanoi’s victory but without the staggering costs.
Carefully avoiding the period of the Vietnam War for fear of greater retribution by the acolytes of the “comrades Le,” Giap did not leave memoirs addressing this crucial period. Instead, he let others do the talking. What we know of Duan and Tho’s treatment of Giap is based on accounts by lower level Party officials, post-war interviews with dissidents, and more or less gossip permeating Hanoi that managed to trickle abroad. More recently, a publication by an insider journalist and blogger has revealed more of these state secrets and cast greater light on the internal power struggles taking place in Hanoi.
But nothing from Giap himself, despite living to 102. Now as a Vietnam War scholar who has written about internal Hanoi politics, I can only hope to find an unpublished manuscript by Giap, or at least one sanctioned by Giap, that will address these lacunae in our understanding Hanoi’s war and his role in it. Until then, Giap’s silence has rendered him not as a revered villain, but rather a marginalized hero.
The US sprayed millions of liters of Agent Orange on the jungles of Vietnam during its war there, creating long-term adverse health effects. Decades later, the former enemies are cooperating to clean up the chemical. (09.08.2012)
Giap understood that protracted warfare would cost many lives but that did not always translate into winning or losing the war. In the final analysis, Giap won the war despite losing many battles, and as long as the army survived to fight another day, the idea of Vietnam lived in the hearts of the people who would support it, and that is the essence of "revolutionary war."
What impact did Giap have on the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia?
Giap's success made the Western powers wary of intervening in similar conflicts elsewhere in Asia. This has allowed the region to develop with relatively little interference in the last few decades. With the help of Western capital Vietnam has now developed an industrial economy and more and more tourists are rediscovering the inherent beauty of the country. However, Giap in his later years decried this industrial development as environmentally irresponsible and to some extent a betrayal of his own Communist ideology.
How will Giap be remembered?
For the West, Giap's legacy continues to be one of reluctant admiration. Despite the US' experience of successful "revolutionary war" in the late 18th century, we still continue to struggle with having lost the Vietnam War, despite winning the key battles. Given the conflicts over the last decade, the US has had to relearn the lessons of Vietnam.
Frisby: 'Giap understood that protracted warfare would cost many lives'
Surprisingly for Vietnam, there has yet to be a comprehensive study of Giap's life in Vietnamese that I know of, despite numerous biographies compiled largely from Western sources. With his passing, I believe the Vietnamese people will begin reincorporating him into the historical narrative of their most recent national development, and elevate him into the pantheon of great Vietnamese leaders of all time.
Derek W. Frisby is an associate professor at Middle Tennessee State University where he specializes in US, and military history. He was also a 2003 military history fellow at the US Military Academy at West Point and served six years as editor of the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers.
First Indochina War [ edit | edit source ]
The tense standoff between the Vietnamese government and the French occupiers escalated dramatically on 23 October when the French commander Argenlieu ordered the cruiser Suffren to bombard Haiphong in response to repeated skirmishes with Vietnamese forces as they tried to bring arms and contraband into the port. Around six thousand people were killed, and fourteen thousand wounded in the bombardment. Giap, acting as de facto President in the absence of Ho Chi Minh, tried to maintain some kind of peace but by the time Ho returned in November, both sides were on a war footing. Local fighting broke out repeatedly and on 27 November Ho's government, concluding that it could not hold Hanoi against the French, retreated back up into the northern hills where it had been based two years previously. On 19 December the Vietnamese government officially declared war on France and fighting erupted all over the country. ⎩] After this time, detailed information on Giap's personal life becomes much scarcer and in most sources the emphasis is on his military achievements and, later, on his political roles.
The first few years of the war involved mostly a low-level, semi-conventional resistance fight against the French occupying forces. Võ Nguyên Giáp first saw real fighting at Nha Trang, ⎪] when he traveled to south-central Vietnam in January–February 1946 to convey the determination of leaders in Hanoi to resist the French. ⎫] However, after the Chinese communists reached the northern border of Vietnam in 1949 and the Vietnamese destruction of French posts there, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union.
French Union forces included colonial troops from many parts of the French former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), French professional troops and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of metropolitan recruits (i.e. recruits from France itself) was forbidden by French governments to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home. It was called the "dirty war" (la sale guerre) by supporters of the Left in France and intellectuals (including Sartre) during the Henri Martin affair in 1950. ⎬] ⎭]
When it became clear that France was becoming involved in a long drawn-out and so far not very successful war, the French government tried to negotiate an agreement with the Việt Minh. They offered to help set up a national government and promised that they would eventually grant Vietnam its independence. Hồ Chí Minh and the other leaders of the Việt Minh did not trust the word of the French and continued the war.
Võ Nguyên Giáp (left) and Hồ Chí Minh in Hà Nội, October 1945
French public opinion continued to move against the war. There were five main reasons for this:
- Between 1946 and 1952 many French troops had been killed, wounded, or captured.
- France was attempting to build up her economy after the devastation of the Second World War. The cost of the war had so far been twice what they had received from the United States under the Marshall Plan.
- The war had lasted for seven years and there was still no sign of a clear French victory.
- A growing number of people in France had reached the conclusion that their country did not have any moral justification for being in Vietnam.
- Parts of the French left supported the goals of the Việt Minh to form a socialist state.
While growing stronger in Vietnam, the Việt Minh also expanded the war and lured the French to spread their force to remote areas such as Laos. In December 1953, French military commander General Henri Navarre set up a defensive complex at Ðiện Biên Phủ, disrupting Việt Minh supply lines passing through Laos. He surmised that in an attempt to reestablish the route, Giáp would be forced to organize a mass attack on Ðiện Biên Phủ, thus fighting a conventional battle, in which Navarre could expect to have the advantage.
Giáp took up the French challenge. While the French dug in at their outpost, the Việt Minh were also preparing the battlefield. While diversionary attacks were launched in other areas, ⎮] Giáp ordered his men to covertly position their artillery by hand. Defying standard military practice, he had his twenty-four 105mm howitzers placed on the forward slopes of the hills around Ðiện Biên Phủ, in deep, mostly hand-dug emplacements protecting them from French aircraft and counter-battery fire.
With antiaircraft guns supplied by the Soviet Union, Giáp was able to severely restrict the ability of the French to supply their garrison, forcing them to drop supplies inaccurately from high altitude. Giáp ordered his men to dig a trench system that encircled the French. From the outer trench, other trenches and tunnels were gradually dug inward towards the center. The Việt Minh were now able to move in close to the French troops defending Ðiện Biên Phủ.
When Navarre realized that he was trapped, he appealed for help. The United States was approached and some advisers suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Việt Minh, but this was never seriously considered. Another suggestion was that conventional air raids would be enough to scatter Giáp's troops. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, refused to intervene unless the British and other Western allies agreed. Churchill declined, claiming that he wanted to wait for the outcome of the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, before becoming involved in escalating the war.
On 13 March 1954, Giáp launched his offensive. For 54 days, the Việt Minh seized position after position, pushing the French until they occupied only a small area of Ðiện Biên Phủ. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, blamed himself for the destruction of French artillery superiority. He told his fellow officers that he had been "completely dishonoured" and committed suicide with a hand grenade. General De Castries, French Commander in Ðiện Biên Phủ, was captured alive in his bunker. The French surrendered on 7 May. Their casualties totaled over 2,200 men dead, 5,600 wounded and 11,721 taken prisoner. The following day the French government announced that it intended to withdraw from Vietnam.
Giap's victory over the French was an important inspiration to anti-colonial campaigners around the world, particularly in French colonies, and most particularly in North Africa, not least because many of the troops fighting on the French side in Indochina were from North Africa. ⎯] ⎰] The victory at Ðiện Biên Phủ marked the beginning of a new era in the military struggles against colonialism for national liberation and independence movements in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and other colonised countries. After 1954 the name of Võ Nguyên Giáp was closely identified throughout Africa and Latin America with the defeat of colonialism.
An Interview with General Giap
Editor’s Note: The following interview with General Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the People’s Army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, first appeared in Europeo Magazine in Milan. The Interviewer was an Italian newspaperwoman, Oriana Fallaci. Liberation News Service is distributing excerpts from the interview as published in the Capitol Times of Madison, Wisc.
Oriana Fallaci: General Giap, in many of your writings you ask this question: who will be the definitive winner of the war in Vietnam? I’d like to ask you, right now, in this early part of 1969, can you say that the Americans have lost the war, that they’ve suffered a military defeat?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: They recognize that themselves. I’ll prove to you now that the Americans are beaten both militarily and politically. To prove their military defeat, I’ll go back to their political defeat, which is the basis of the whole thing.
The Americans made a big mistake in choosing South Vietnam for a battlefield. The Saigon reactionaries are too weak: Taylor and McNamara and Westmoreland all knew that.
What they didn’t know was that, in their weakness, the Saigon leaders wouldn’t be able to take advantage of American aid. Because what was the purpose of the American aggression in Vietnam? To build up a new-style colony with a puppet government that’s stable, and the Saigon government is unstable in the extreme. It has no influence on the population people don’t believe in it.
So look what sort of a jam the Americans have got themselves into. They can’t withdraw from Vietnam even if they want to, because in order to withdraw they’d have to leave a stable political situation behind them. That is, a bunch of lackeys to take their place. But lackeys that are solid and strong. And the puppet government in Saigon isn’t strong and it isn’t solid. It’s not even a good lackey. It can’t be kept going even with tanks to hold it up. So how can the Americans withdraw? And yet they have to get out. They can’t keep 600,000 men in Vietnam for another 10 or 15 years. That’s their political defeat: They can’t win politically in spite of all their military apparatus.
Oriana Fallaci: That doesn’t mean, general, that militarily they’ve lost the war.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Be patient don’t interrupt me. Of course it means it. If they didn’t feel beaten the White House wouldn’t talk of peace with honor. But let’s go back to the days of Geneva and the Eisenhower government. How did the Americans start out in Vietnam? In their usual way—with economic and military aid to a puppet government. In short, with dollars. Because they think that with dollars they can settle anything. They thought that they could set up a free and independent government with dollars and an army of puppets paid in dollars: with 30,000 ‘military advisers’ paid in the same, and dollar-built ‘strategic hamlets.’ But the people stepped into the picture, and the Americans’ plan collapsed.
The strategic hamlets, the ‘military advisers’ and the puppet army all fell to pieces, and the Americans were forced into the military intervention which Ambassador (Maxwell) Taylor had already recommended.
Then came the second phase of the aggression, the ‘special war.’ With 150,000 men and 18 billion dollars they thought they could finish it by the end of 1965, or 1966 at the latest. But in 1966 the war wasn’t finished at all: they had sent over 200,000 more men and were talking of a third phase, that of ‘limited war,’ Westmoreland’s pincer program: winning over the people on the one hand, and wiping out the Liberation movement on the other. But the pincers didn’t hold their grip, and Westmoreland lost his war. He lost it as a general in 1967 when he asked for more men and Washington gave out a rosy report that 1968 would be a good year for the war in Vietnam, so good that Johnson would be re-elected.
In Washington, Westmoreland was greeted like a hero, but he couldn’t help knowing that the war was getting to be too expensive, something that Taylor had known all along. Korea cost the Americans 20 billion dollars, and Vietnam has cost them a hundred billion. Fifty-four thousand Americans died in Korea, and there are even more deaths in Vietnam…
Oriana Fallaci: Thirty-four thousand, the Americans say, general.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Hmmm…I’d say twice that many. The Americans always say less than the truth at their most honest they say three for five. They can’t have just 34,000 dead. We’ve brought down over 3,200 planes! One plane out of every five, they admit it. In these five years of war, I’d say they’d lost at least 60,000 men, maybe more.
Oriana Fallaci: General, the Americans say you’ve lost half a million men.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: That’s quite exact…
To get back to what we were saying…It was 1968, the years in which the Americans were sure of winning. Then, suddenly, came the Tet offensive and showed that the Liberation Front could attack them whenever and wherever it wanted, including the best defended cities, including even Saigon.
Finally, the Americans admitted that the war had been a strategical error. Johnson admitted it, McNamara admitted it. They admitted that it was the wrong time and the wrong place, that Montgomery had been right when he warned against shipping an army to Asia. The victorious Tet offensive…
Oriana Fallaci: Everyone agrees, general, that the Tet offensive was a great psychological victory. But from the military point of view, don’t you think it was a failure?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: You’ll have to ask the Liberation Front that one.
Oriana Fallaci: I’d like to ask you first, general.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: This is a touchy question, you ought to see that. I can’t pass judgment on things of that kind, on what’s going on at the front.
It’s a delicate matter, very delicate…but you surprise me. Everyone knows that, from both a military and political point of view, the Tet offensive…
Oriana Fallaci: It wasn’t quite so successful, general, even from a political point of view. There was no people’s uprising, and after a couple of weeks the Americans had everything under control again. Only at Hue did the coup go on for a whole month. At Hue, where there were North Vietnamese….
General Vo Nguyen Giap: I don’t know whether the front foresaw or hoped for a popular uprising, although, without such help I don’t think it could have got its men into the cities.
I can’t discuss the Tet offensive because we had nothing to do with it. The front put it on. It’s a fact though, that after the Tet strike, the Americans fell back from attack into a defensive posture. And defense is always a prelude to defeat. I say a prelude.
We haven’t won yet, and the Americans can’t be called defeated. They’re still numerically strong nobody can deny that. It will take a lot of effort on our part to give them a definitive military beating.
The military problem—now I’m speaking as a soldier…yes, they have plenty of arms. But arms don’t do them any good, because the Vietnam war isn’t just a military matter. Military strength and military strategy can’t help to win, or even to understand it.
The United States has a strategy based on arithmetic. They question the computers, add and subtract, extract square roots, and then go into action. But arithmetical strategy doesn’t work here. If it did, they’d have already exterminated us.
With their planes, for instance. Of course they thought they could bring us to heel in a few weeks by dumping billions of explosives on us. Because, as I told you, they figure everything in billions, billions of dollars. They don’t reckon with the spirit of a people fighting for what they know is right, to save their country from invaders.
They can’t get it into their heads that the Vietnam war has to be understood in terms of the strategy of a people’s war, that it’s not a question of men and material, that these things are irrelevant to the problem.
For instance, they said, at one point that they needed a ratio of 25 to 1 in order to win. Then, when they couldn’t put that many men in the field, they brought it down to 6 to 1, and finally to 3 to 1 even if that was a little risky. But ratios of 3 and 6 and 25 to 1 won’t do it.
Victory calls for something more, and that’s the spirit of the people.
When a whole people rises up, nothing can be done. No money can beat them.
That’s the basis of our strategy and our tactics, that the Americans fail completely to understand.
Oriana Fallaci: If you’re so sure, general, that they’ll be definitively beaten, can you give us any idea of when?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Oh, this isn’t a war that can be won in a few years. War against the United States takes time…They’ll be beaten with time, worn out. And to wear them out we have to go on, to endure…That’s what we’ve always done.
We’re a small country, only 30 million people…We were only a million at the beginning of the Christian era, when the Mongols descended upon us. But the million of us beat them. Three times they came, and three times we beat them. We didn’t have weapons like theirs. But we held fast and lasted out.
The whole people, we said already then, has to get into the fight. And what was true in the year 1200 is still true today. The problem is the same. We’re good soldiers because we’re Vietnamese.
Oriana Fallaci: But, general, the South Vietnamese who are fighting alongside the Americans are Vietnamese too. What do you think of them as soldiers.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: They can’t be good soldiers, and they aren’t good soldiers. They don’t believe in what they’re doing, and so they have no fighting spirit. The Americans know this (and, incidentally, they’re better fighters). If they hadn’t known that these puppets couldn’t fight they wouldn’t have brought over many of their own troops.
Oriana Fallaci: General, let’s talk about the Paris conference. Do you think peace will come from Paris or from a military victory such as you won at Dien Bien Phu?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Dien Bien Phu…Dien Bien Phu…the fact that we’ve gone to Paris shows that we have good intentions. And nobody can say that Paris isn’t useful, since the Liberation Front is there too. In Paris, They’ve got to transfer what’s happening here in Vietnam to a diplomatic level…Paris, madame, is for the diplomats.
Oriana Fallaci: You mean, then, that the war won’t be settled in Paris, general, is that it? That it calls for a military rather than a diplomatic solution? That the American Dien Bien Phu is yet to come, and will come some day?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Dien Bien Phu, Madame…Dien Bien Phu…History doesn’t always repeat itself. But this time it will. We won a military victory over the French and we’ll win it over the Americans too. Yes, Madame, their Dien Bien Phu is still to come. And it will come.
The Americans will lose the war on the day when their military might is at its maximum and the great machine they’ve put together can’t move any more. That is, we’ll beat them at the moment when they have the most men, the most arms and the greatest hope of winning. Because all that money and strength will be a stone around their neck. It’s inevitable.
Oriana Fallaci: I may be wrong, general, but wasn’t Khe San meant to be the second Dien Bien Phu?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Oh, no. Khe San wasn’t—and couldn’t be a second Dien Bien Phu. It wasn’t all that important. Or only inasmuch as it was important for the Americans, whose prestige was at stake, the usual American paradox. As long as they held out in Khe San to uphold their prestige, they said it was important. When they abandoned Khe San, they said it had never mattered. Don’t you think Khe San was a victory for us? I say it was.
But newspaper people are curious, do you know that? Too curious. I’m a newspaperman myself, and I’d like to reverse our roles and ask you a couple of questions.
First: Do you agree that the Americans have lost the war in the north?
Oriana Fallaci: Yes, general, I’d say so. If by war in the north you mean the bombardments, I’d say they’ve lost it. The bombardments didn’t do them any good, and then they had to suspend them.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: Another question: Do you agree that the Americans have lost the war in the South?
Oriana Fallaci: No, general, They haven’t lost it. Not yet. You haven’t driven them out. They’re still there, and they’re staying.
General Vo Nguyen Giap: You’re wrong. They’re still there…but under what circumstances? Bogged down, paralyzed, waiting for new defeats that they hope to ward off, they don’t know how. Defeats that have had and will have disastrous economic, political and historical consequences. There they are with their hands tied, locked up in their own power. They can only hope in the Paris talks. But there, too, they’re stubborn. They won’t let go.
Oriana Fallaci: General, you call the Americans in Paris stubborn. But they say the same thing about you. What good are the talks, then? General, here everyone talks about peace, but it seems as if nobody really wanted it. How long do you think the Paris conference will go on?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: A long time! Especially if the Americans don’t climb down from some of their positions. Yes, a long time. We’re not retreating from ours. We’re not in a hurry. We have patience. While the delegates talk, we fight. We want peace, but not peace at any price, not a compromise peace.
For us peace must mean total victory the Americans must get out. A compromise would be a threat of enslavement. And we’d rather die than be slaves.
Oriana Fallaci: How long then, will the war go on general? How long will this poor people be called upon to suffer and sacrifice itself and die?
General Vo Nguyen Giap: It will last as long as necessary-10, 15, 20, 50 years. Until, as our President Ho Chi Minh says, we have won total victory. Yes, even 20, even 50 years. We aren’t afraid and we aren’t in a hurry.
Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam’s fabled General dies at 102
He was considered to be one of history’s greatest military strategists. Vietnam’s mastermind in victories against France and the United States, General Vo Nguyen Giap, has died on October 4 th 2013 at the age 102. After the WWII, the French returned to reclaim the Indochina. Victory of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces against the French Far East Expeditionary Corps led by France ensured the withdrawal of French colonial rule in the southeast Asia.
On January 30 th , 1968, at the time of Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, he was North Vietnam’s defense minister. It was a campaign launched by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong against South Vietnam, the United States and their allies. The Tet Offensive is often considered to be the key campaign that led to the withdrawal of US from Vietnam.
A number of works on military strategies were later published by General Giap. He was born to a peasant family on 25 th August 1911 in Quang Binh Province, French Indochina. At 14 he joined a secret movement ‘The Tan Viet or New Vietnam Revolutionary Party’. It was a non-communist party back then but had become communist in 1929. Giap studied at the University of Hanoi from 1933 to 1938 where he gained his Bachelor’s degree in politics, economics and law. In 1938 Tan Viet was reformed as Indochinese Communist party under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and became one of the three communist groups that formed the foundation of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In April 1939 he married another socialist Nguyen Thi Quang Thai. They had a daughter named Hong Anh.
Later in 1939 the French banned communism and General Giap fled to China and joined up with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh or Vietnam Independence League there. While in exile his wife, sister, father and sister-in-law were arrested, tortured and later murdered by the French colonial administration. Only his daughter Hong Anh survived the brutal execution. General Giap later remarried and had five more children. At the time of Japanese invasion of Vietnam, General Giap organized an army from his exile in China and returned to Vietnam in 1944 and waged a resistance against the Japanese occupation forces. After Japanese surrender to the allies in August 1945 the French engaged in a long war with Viet Minh to reclaim Indochina. On 13 th March 1954, General Giap launched offensive for 54 days until the French finally surrendered on May 7. General Giap’s victory over the French destroyed the legend of western invincibility.
General Giap was the commander in Chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam throughout the Vietnam War. At the beginning of the Tet offensive he was in Budapest, Hungary for medical treatment. More than 80,000 troops under his command eventually attacked more than 100 towns and cities including 36 of 44 provincial capitals and entered Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Though stunned at the beginning, the US and South Vietnamese Armies also regrouped well to beat back the attack. The Tet Offensive shocked the US Government and general public that led to the beginning of peace talks between both sides in Paris in Jan 1969.
After the war General Giap maintained his position as Defense Minister. He became the Deputy Prime minister in July 1976. He retired from the politburo in 1982.
Senator John McCain, the former Navy Pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam warfare and was held as a prisoner of war, poured out tribute after General Giap’s death. He tweeted ‘Brilliant military strategist who once told me that we were an ‘honorable enemy’’.
Giap’s Second Masterpiece
General Vo Nguyen Giap understood very early in the game what the major players in the United States’ strategy failed to grasp until 1968—that a South Vietnamese government and society sustained by American power was by definition mired in contradictions and at odds with itself. We may never have a complete understanding of how the plan for the Communist 1968 Tet Offensive evolved and was formally approved written accounts do not note internal debates, and recollections are invariably politically biased. There was no “main effort” in the traditional military sense. The attacks on Saigon were only symbolically more important than those elsewhere. Communist forces went after everything, everywhere: cities, towns, rural districts, airfields and military camps defended in many cases by a mere company or two. As General Tran Van Tra recalled: “Different military forces had to be formed to suit different targets….Therefore, it was of the utmost importance that, at a very early stage, we build special mobile attack units and on-the-spot sapper units and pre-assign them to each and every target.”
In an excerpt from his book Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam, James A. Warren reexamines Giap’s stamp on the Tet Offensive.
The Communists suffered ghastly casualties in the general fighting in February and March 1968. About 45,000 of the 80,000 troops in the first waves were killed or badly wounded within that time frame. The People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) [Viet Cong] guerrilla units had spearheaded the attacks on the cities, where resistance was far stronger than in the hinterlands. So badly were these units mauled that many were never reconstituted. Other PLAF battalions and regiments took on large numbers of replacements, but they were usually North Vietnamese troops, and the fighting for the remainder of the war would be dominated by regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) [NVA] units trained and equipped in the North.
The infrastructure in the South was badly damaged, but not irretrievably so. The Communists failed to hold on to any of their early territorial gains, largely because once American ground commanders recovered from the shock, they were able to drive comparatively lightly armed, widely dispersed Communist units from their positions with superior numbers of infantry and massive firepower. The South Vietnamese army suffered heavy casualties, though nowhere near as heavy as those suffered by the PLAF, but the people of South Vietnam failed to rise up en masse against the Saigon government, as some of the PAVN and PLAF senior commanders in the field and members of the senior leadership in Hanoi had fervently hoped.
If the allies had more than held their own in the offensive in a tactical sense, beating back Communist forces expeditiously and putting Giap on the defensive militarily, it was equally clear that Tet was a stunning strategic victory for the Communists, and the war’s critical turning point. It clearly set into motion a series of events that would lead to the abandonment of America’s long quest for military victory and a decision by President Lyndon Johnson to de-escalate the conflict. Week after week following the launching of the offensive, as Johnson and his advisers weighed their policy options, the gruesome images of the fighting in Hue flickered across American television screens. The tenacity of the enemy belied General William Westmoreland’s sunny reports of Hanoi’s imminent demise. Public pressure on the Johnson administration to change course escalated sharply, as more and more American opinion makers—national newscasters, business leaders and academics—joined the ranks of the doubters, and in some cases, the protesters in the streets.
Shortly after the offensive commenced, General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attempted to pressure Johnson to call up the reserves to meet worldwide strategic obligations and to send a large number of reinforcements—about 100,000 in all—to Westmoreland in Vietnam, hinting obliquely that if he failed to do so, the United States might soon be faced with a military catastrophe. Wheeler’s assessment was disingenuous and manipulative. In no sense was South Vietnam on the verge of collapse, not with half a million American troops spread all around the country, and Wheeler knew it. A public furor erupted when the story of the request for the call-up of 200,000 troops was leaked to the New York Times in early March, fueling an already acrimonious debate within the administration over war strategy.
Johnson by this point was agonizing over Vietnam and, according to some accounts, exhausted, on the brink of collapse. Each day it seemed there were new outbursts of public dissent and criticism from the media, the doves in Congress and the burgeoning antiwar movement. Under growing pressure from all sides, Johnson instructed his new secretary of defense, the urbane moderate Clark Clifford, to undertake a searching reexamination of options in Vietnam. An influential coterie of civilian defense analysts in the Pentagon had already produced a series of trenchant reports and memos, arguing that further escalations were likely to produce more casualties and more public dissent, but no decisive results in Vietnam. One of the most influential of these documents focused on the nub of the problem: “The enemy can control his casualty rate, at least to a great extent, by controlling the number, size and intensity of combat engagements. If he so chooses, he can limit his casualties to a rate that he is able to bear indefinitely. Therefore the notion that we can ‘win’ this war by driving the VC and NVA from the country or by inflicting an unacceptable rate of casualties on them is false.”
By the end of March, Clifford had consulted at length with “the wise men,” a group of distinguished American generals and statesmen, including Omar Bradley, Dean Acheson and Averill Harriman. After considerable reflection and debate, Clifford and the wise men reached a consensus. The U.S. strategy in Vietnam was not working. The United States could not impose a military solution on the Communists, “at least not in any time the American people will permit,” opined Acheson, who served as the group’s spokesman. Expanding the war with additional forces would only result in needless death and destruction.
What, then, should be done? The only prudent option, they explained, was to extend an overture to Hanoi to seek negotiations, to begin to draw down U.S. forces and to gradually shift the burden of fighting to the South Vietnamese.
Two months after the offensive began, the Johnson administration abandoned an attrition strategy that sought victory through the destruction of Giap’s military forces, and kicked Westmoreland upstairs to become the Army’s chief of staff. Search-and-destroy operations would continue for some time under the command of Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams, but they would no longer be a core element of U.S. strategy. In a dramatic address on March 31, Johnson spoke in measured tones of “peace in Vietnam.” He would take the “first steps to de-escalate the conflict” and was prepared to “move toward peace through negotiation.” To encourage Hanoi to compromise, he had ordered a bombing halt over all of North Vietnam except for its panhandle, the staging area for infiltration of PAVN forces into South Vietnam. He went on to remark that the “main burden” of defending South Vietnam “must be carried out” by the South Vietnamese themselves. Then came the shocker: He “should not permit the presidency to become involved in partisan divisions” then enveloping the country, nor would he seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency.
Although it is seldom mentioned in histories of the Vietnam War written by Americans, Giap did in fact launch two more offensives in 1968, just as his 1967 plan had called for. The attacks in the later offensives of May and September were far fewer than in Tet, but generally involved stronger forces. In the northernmost five provinces, the fighting was particularly intense. Here more than half of all American combat forces—54 battalions—squared off against PAVN forces of the same strength in a series of extended, inconclusive engagements. In eastern Quang Tri, the Marines and the PAVN fought throughout the month of May in a brutal engagement around Dong Ha that cost the Americans about 1,900 casualties and Giap’s forces 3,600. In total, U.S. forces suffered more men killed in action in May than in February. The second and third offensives reinforced the (correct) impression that Hanoi remained militarily strong enough to carry on fighting, its resolve unbroken by casualty rates that dwarfed those of the Americans. In November 1968 Johnson called a halt to the bombing of all North Vietnam, and for the first time the American president indicated that he would be willing to grant the National Liberation Front (NLF) its own seat at the negotiations table, joining Hanoi’s, Saigon’s and Washington’s delegations. The war was about to enter the “fight and talk” phase the Communists had long sought.
While there is a clear consensus among serious students of the conflict that Tet was a conventional military defeat but a strategic victory for the Communists, they disagree passionately as to whether its outcome was the result of Giap’s brilliance as a strategist, or a misinterpretation of the offensive’s results and a regrettable lack of willpower on the part of the United States. The “stab-in-the-back” school is loath to give any credit at all to Giap (and by extension, Hanoi) for America’s strategic defeat. The origins of this school lie with General Westmoreland, who would claim as the fighting came to an end in Hue that the Communists had “used up their military chips” in a last “throw of the dice.” Westmoreland thought the offensive had been a devastating failure that should have led to a decisive U.S.–Government of Republic of Vietnam counteroffensive, including an “amphibious hook” by U.S. forces into North Vietnam’s panhandle to crush Giap’s divisions near the DMZ and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He also envisioned thrusts into NVA sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. Instead of pressing on with an aggressive counteroffensive that could very well break the Communists’ back once and for all, Washington and the American people lost their nerve.
The media deserved a great deal of the blame, as Westmoreland would explain years after the war had ended, in its biased obsession with the egregiously low estimates by Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) of Communist military strength, and the failure of the attrition strategy implied by the very launching of the Communist offensive. Liberal reporters and editors had distorted the meaning of the offensive, playing up the shocking ferocity of Giap’s audacious attacks and MACV’s failure to anticipate the scope of the Communist initiative.
In the 1980s and 1990s a number of respected analysts, notably Harry Summers and Lewis Sorley, put forward more nuanced variations of this interpretation, focusing attention not so much on the media, but on the Johnson administration’s misreading of what really happened on the ground and on the opportunities the offensive opened up for U.S. military operations. It was not the audacity and superior strategic understanding of the Communist leadership that led to strategic victory, but misperception on the part of the policymakers in Washington and generals in Saigon. Summers believed the United States should have spent less time and effort in pacification and anti-guerrilla actions and instead made a full-bore effort to isolate the PAVN from the battlefields of South Vietnam, causing the Communist forces to wither and die in big-unit battles.
In A Better War, Sorley presents the Tet Offensive as a failure for the Communists, for it demonstrated that the people of South Vietnam by and large did not support the revolution’s quest for reunification. Quite the reverse, he claims: “One of the great, if unremarked ironies of the war was that the enemy’s ‘General Offensive/General Uprising’ provoked not the anticipated uprising of the population in support of the invaders, but just the opposite—general mobilization in support of the government.” Both Sorley and Summers see Giap as having cynically sacrificed PLAF units, holding back North Vietnamese divisions, presumably to enhance the power of Hanoi at the expense of the NLF in the revolutionary enterprise. In their reading, the decimation of the Viet Cong exposed the illegitimacy of Hanoi’s leadership rather than its audacity or resolve. Phillip Davidson, another prominent historian of the conflict, suggests that Giap launched the offensive not so much after a careful and accurate assessment of the political and military state of play in Vietnam, but because he had to do so. American battlefield successes had forced him to abandon protracted war in favor of “an all-out drive for victory at one stroke.”
Lingering beneath the surface of these interpretations, one detects a strong current of hurt pride and humiliation over what transpired in the hellish early months of 1968. (Summers, Sorley and Davidson all fought in Vietnam as U.S. Army officers.) Davidson, and to a lesser degree Sorley and Summers, seems determined to denigrate the Communist victory because it was won not on the battlefield, but in the living rooms of the American people and in a series of agonizing conferences over scores of position papers filed by civilian “experts.” How could the Communists be said to have won when so many of the objectives they presented to their own soldiers and civilians failed to materialize? Yet, was it not true that what Giap’s forces did on the battlefield served as the catalyst for political defeat? Surely it was.
The release of classified documents on both sides since war’s end, as well as our growing understanding of Giap’s way of war, has gone far in exposing fatal weaknesses in the stabin-the-back school and its variants. While there is no denying that the South Vietnamese people failed to rally in droves to the Communists, which was one of Giap’s stated objectives, Sorley’s assertion that the people of South Vietnam rushed to mobilize behind the government is wishful thinking, plain and simple. The evidence suggests that the civilian population of South Vietnam hardly rose up in passionate defense of their government in Saigon. Rather, they were traumatized by the heavy combat and, in classic Vietnamese fashion, “sat on the fence,” not wanting to attach themselves to one side or the other while the issue was in doubt.
In a sense, the fury of the military action all over the country forced them to do so. Their first concern was to stay alive, and Tet’s main effect on civilians was to deepen their despair and war-weariness. The offensive produced more than half a million new refugees, mostly the result of the destructiveness of American supporting arms. Never at any phase of the American war in Vietnam did the government of the Republic of South Vietnam enjoy strong support among its own people. True loyalty to Saigon among the South Vietnamese was in as short supply as the belief that the regime had a coherent vision for a brighter future for its peasantry.
Top-secret assessments of the fighting during the offensive among the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff reveal they had the same doubts and concerns that were expressed by the American media. For the most part, the media had reported what it had seen and heard in an unbiased fashion. Even the most seasoned and respected journalists in the United States were shaken by Tet and sensed its ominous ramifications for the entire U.S. war effort.
While it is certainly true that Hanoi called on its own people “to overcome all hardships and sacrifices,” “overthrow the puppet regime at all administrative levels” and place “all governmental power in the hands of the people,” this was hardly the critical objective by which Hanoi would judge Tet a victory or defeat. Rather, these were Tet’s optimal objectives. One seriously doubts that a strategist with Giap’s realistic appreciation of the strength of American forces in late 1967 truly expected to achieve them. In his articles assessing the current state of the war in late 1967, Giap cautioned his comrades against excessive optimism. He indicates obliquely that he did not expect a quick or total victory from the next major revolutionary initiative—clearly a reference to Tet. A mid-1967 Central Committee resolution echoes Giap’s sentiments, painting the attacks of early 1968 as “the first stage in a process [italics mine] involving a very fierce and complex strategic offensive which will combine military and political attacks to be carried out… in combination with the diplomatic offensive.”
If the complete collapse of Saigon and a Communist as- cension to power were not seen by Hanoi as Tet’s crucial objectives, what were? No one really knows for sure because we have no access to detailed discussions of the issue in late 1967 and early 1968. My own belief is that the crucial objective was not outright victory but, as the official history of the People’s Army of Vietnam put it, “to crush the American will to commit aggression and force the United States to accept defeat in South Vietnam and end all hostile actions against North Vietnam.” Given Hanoi’s healthy respect for American military strength, and what little we do know of its pre-launch discussions, it seems far more plausible that this, indeed, was the most important of the several objectives enumerated in the Central Committee resolution. As historian Gabriel Kolko writes, Giap’s “main concern was with the impact of military action on the political context of the war, both in South Vietnam and in the United States. That political framework…would prove crucial, and an offensive was an essential catalyst in the process of change…. In the largest sense, the primary objective of the offensive was to influence the United States.”
If we judge Tet in this light, it was clearly a brilliant success, albeit a costly one in blood. Despite Phillip Davidson’s claim that Tet marked the abandonment of protracted war and a quest for “complete victory in a single stroke,” neither Giap nor the Communist leadership as a whole thought of it that way. Tet was the continuation of protracted war by other means, an escalation in revolutionary violence, but it hardly marked the abandonment of protracted war strategy.
Of course, this does not mean that Hanoi had no hope at all that the attacks would bring about Saigon’s collapse, but it seems much more plausible that that lofty objective was meant primarily to inspire revolutionary fervor—the mysterious “power of the masses” that Giap and the other senior leadership believed to be a defining element of people’s war indeed, it might be said to be the distinguishing element of people’s war. The popular uprising was more a goal to inspire than a make-or-break objective. As historian and archivist of the Vietnam War Douglas Pike points out, the idea of the general offensive–general uprising in Vietnamese military thinking had long functioned largely as a “social myth” designed to capture the “Vietnamese imagination, to heighten revolutionary consciousness and rouse the peasant to battle….Whether the general uprising would ever become a reality was irrelevant, what mattered was that people were willing to act out their lives as if it were a reality.”
Johnson’s speech confirmed that Giap and Hanoi had achieved Tet’s most important objective. Tet turned out to be what Giap had hoped it would from the beginning of the planning process: not the final victory in the American war, but a decisive victory nonetheless. It had set in motion a chain of events that would lead to withdrawal, and it signaled the end of the long phase of American escalation.
In a 1990 interview with journalist Stanley Karnow, Giap explained: “We chose Tet because, in war, you must seize the propitious moment, when time and space are propitious. [The attack’s] scope and ardor proved that both our army and people were disciplined and determined. We attacked the brains of the enemy, its headquarters in Saigon, showing it was not inviolable. Our forces destroyed large quantities of other equipment and crushed several of its elite units. We dramatized that we were neither exhausted nor on the edge of defeat, as Westmoreland claimed. And though we knew most Americans had nothing against us, we wanted to carry the war into the families of America, to demonstrate, n’est pas, that if Vietnamese blood was being spilled, so was American blood.”
Vo Nguyen Giap’s Tet campaign revealed at once his audacity, acute sense of timing and breadth of thinking about the chemistry of war and politics. Don Oberdorfer writes in his classic account of the Tet Offensive that he “came to the conclusion that Tet was a classic case study in the interaction of war, politics, the press and public opinion.” So it was, and Vo Nguyen Giap was its principal author. In planning and executing Tet, Giap went beyond Mao’s doctrine, practicing a way of war that was distinctly his own. For the second time, he had forced a great nation to see the limits of its power and the futility of challenging the Communist revolutionaries on the battlefield. Tet was Giap’s second masterpiece as the commander in chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Excerpted from Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam, by James A. Warren. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.
Vo Nguyen Giap was born in Le Thuy, French Indochina in 1911. Giap's military career began during World War II: as a member of the Viet Minh, a communist-led nationalist movement, he organized guerrillas who fought the Japanese occupation forces in northern Vietnam. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. Giap became a minister in Ho's government. However, France was determined to regain its colony. After a breakdown in negotiations, in December 1946, Giap ordered his Viet Minh forces to attack the French, "destroy the invaders and save the nation." But after fighting in Hanoi, French rule was restored.
Based in the mountainous Viet Bac region, Giap patiently built up his guerrilla force. He established a main body, eventually numbering around 125,000 full-time soldiers under his direct command, while regional guerrilla forces and part-time militia - villagers who turned into guerrilla fighters after dark - operated throughout Vietnam. Although he had read military history and studied the theories of Mao Zedong, Giap had much to learn. His first substantial offensive operations, which led to the fall of a major French base at Lang Son in October 1950, were easy triumphs over exposed outposts. The following year, fielding 10,000-20,000 men at a time in frontal attacks on the Red River Delta, Giap was roundly defeated by well-marshaled French firepower. He drew the right conclusion: that he would have to lure the French away from their positions around the major cities and inflict military setbacks that would erode their political will to fight. Giap tried the technique at Hoa Binh in late 1951 to early 1952, harassing supply lines to the base so effectively that the French had to withdraw. He then threatened outposts in Laos, provoking the French into establishing a base at Dien Bien Phu, near the Laotian border. The major Viet Minh victory that followed ended French colonial rule and made Giap famous.
Fighting the South
Giap on the front lines of the war
In the Communist state established in North Vietnam from 1954, Giap was defense minister, commander-in-chief of the army, and a member of the ruling politburo. In 1959, the politburo decided to launch a guerrilla war in South Vietnam. Personnel from North Vietnam were infiltrated into the South to organize an insurrection. Giap set up the supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia to feed the guerrilla war.
By 1964, the South Vietnamese guerrillas - known to the Americans as the Viet Cong - were so successful that Giap began sending North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infantry along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, anticipating a swift victory. But the US's huge commitment of forces to South Vietnam from 1965 - as part of a global anti-communism campaign - made him rethink. At first, Giap reacted cautiously to the aggressive American presence, mostly seeking to preserve his own forces by evasive action. In 1968, however, he judged the time right for a major blow that would break his enemy's will to fight. NVA troops besieged the US Marine Corps base at Khe Sanh in a manner reminiscent of Dien Bien Phu, while the Tet Offensive wa sunleashed on South Vietnamese cities. In military terms, both Tet and Khe Sanh proved very costly defeats for Giap, but even so they strained American morale to the breaking point. This led directly to negotiations that would result in a complete US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.
A nation reunited
Giap's final act as North Vietnam's commander-in-chief was the launch of a conventional invasion of South Vietnam in 1972. The NVA's Easter Offensive showed all Giap's usual tanet for organization and logistical support of large-scale operations, but he fatally underestimated the impact of air power on conventional forces without air cover. Nor did the South Vietnamese Army collapse under pressure, as he had hoped. After suffering massive losses, the NVA was fought to a standstill. Giap was no longer army commander-in-chief when NVA tanks finally rolled into Saigon in 1975, reuniting Vietnam and completing his life's work. He died in Hanoi in 2013 at the age of 102.