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Vo Nguyen Giap

Vo Nguyen Giap
(ca. 1912-    )
Vietnamese General

As a master of modern guerrilla warfare, Vo Nguyen Giap achieved the independence and unification of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam despite the efforts of the Japanese, the French, the Americans and his own countrymen. Giap’s military operations remain influential in developing nations as methods and models for combating far more powerful opponents.

Many “facts” about Giap’s life, especially his early years, are clouded in shadows, myths, and deliberate fabrications. Most reliable sources fix his birth date as sometime in 1912 in Quang Binh Province in the then French Indochina area known as Annam. Although Giap later claimed to be from a peasant family, apparently his father was actually a low-ranking mandarin scholar. Giap studied at both Hue and Hanoi before becoming a history teacher. There is also evidence that Giap briefly studied to be a lawyer, but there is no substantiation so the claims that he earned doctorates in political science and law.

During most of the 1930s, Giap remained a schoolteacher while actively participating in various revolutionary movements. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and assisted in founding the Democratic Front two years later. All the while, Giap was a dedicated reader of military history and philosophy, revering Napoleon I and Sun Tzu.

When France outlawed communism in 1939, Giap fled to China, where he studied guerrilla warfare under Mao Zedong with fellow Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh. In 1941, Giap joined Ho and other Nationalists to form the Vietminh Front and in 1944 returned to Vietnam to resist the Japanese and Vichy French occupation. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Giap became minister of defense and army commander in chief under Ho, who took advantage of the situation to seize the Hanoi government. But Giap and Ho had to flee when the French colonial officials returned and continued their Vietminh guerilla war in the jungle. Giap’s zeal for independence may also have come from his hatred of the French, who had imprisoned and/or executed his first wife, his child, his father, two sisters, and other family members.

During the next eight years, Giap developed the strategy that would eventually defeat the French and later the Americans and South Vietnamese. Giap, with Ho’s support, formed a three-phase plan for gaining independence. In Phase I, Giap’s forces would conduct guerrilla and terrorist operations to control as much of the population as possible. In Phase II, guerrilla forces would consolidate into regular units to attack isolated government outposts. In the climactic Phase III, large units would form to establish full military control over an area, allowing and encouraging the civilian population to rise up in support of the revolution.

For the rest of his military career Giap would be consistently successful in conducting Phases I and II of his strategy but would succeed only once in executing Phase III. Against the French, Giap and his Vietminh triumphed in small-scale operations. As long as they did not allow the French to engage them in a set-piece battle, the Vietminh prevailed. In 1950 Giap overzealously tried to implement Phase III and conduct conventional warfare against the French in the Red River Valley, near Hanoi. When the French decisively defeated him, Giap again withdrew to the jungles and mountains, reverting back to Phase I and II operations.

After the loss in the Red River Valley, Giap adopted the philosophy that the Communist forces could afford to lose longer than the French, and later the Americans and South Vietnamese, could afford to win. Giap was able to convince his troops that they might have to fight and sustain heavy casualties for two or more decades to achieve victory.

For three years the French attempted to lure Giap into another major battle. In November 1953 they finally presented a target that even the patient Giap could not refuse when they established a series of outposts in the Dien Binh Phu Valley, two hundred miles west of Hanoi. Believing that the surrounding mountains protected their remote defensive bases – so isolated the only way to resupply was by air – the French hoped to tempt Giap into massing his forces for a showdown on the valley floor.

The French got their decisive battle, but not the way they planned. Giap proved his brilliance as a logistician when he had his troops disassemble artillery pieces and antiair weapons, mostly supplied by China and the Soviet Union, and packed them over the mountains onto the high ground overlooking the French garrison. Thousands of men with no more than bicycles for transportation delivered the tons of supplies and munitions necessary for a long siege.

Giap concentrated seventy thousand to eight thousand soldiers, along with two hundred heavy guns, against the French garrison, which totaled fifteen thousand men. Since weather and Vietminh gunners prevented all but a few deliveries of resupplies, the French retreated to the interior posts, while the Vietminh advanced through tunnels and trenches and under support of superior artillery. On May 7, 1954, the French surrendered. Of the original force, five thousand were dead. Of the ten thousand who surrendered, half were wounded. Estimates of Communist casualties exceeded twenty-five thousand, but Giap had won his Phase III battle. In leaving Indochina, the French negotiated a partition that separated the Communist North from the democratic South.

In 1959 Giap and the North Vietnamese began supporting Communist guerrillas in the south known as Vietcong. Giap continued his three phases of warfare, remaining reasonable successful with I and II in fighting the superior arms and numbers of the South Vietnamese and their American allies. As long as he remained patient, Giap fared well. In 1965, however, he challenged the first American combat divisions with North Vietnamese divisions across the border into neighboring sanctuaries.

Giap again attempted Phase III in the Tet Offensive of 1968 and in the Dien Bien Phu-like siege of Khe Sanh. In less than six weeks the Americans and the South Vietnamese virtually annihilated the Vietcong and seriously depleted the North Vietnamese. Reverting back to the first two phases, Giap and the North Vietnamese eroded American support for involvement in the war until the United States withdrew most of its troops. In 1972 Giap again revived Phase III in the Easter Offensive. South Vietnamese troops, supported by American air power, once again shredded the Communist offensive. The Losses were so great that the Communists removed Giap from command and returned him to Hanoi as minister of defense. When the Communists finally defeated South Vietnam and reunited the country into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1975, the tactics were Giap’s, but he was not in command.

Giap, who never trained as a military leader, nonetheless proved himself as a master at accomplishing victory against tremendous odds. His tactics were simple, and he allowed his subordinate commanders much latitude. In the end, his willingness to fight as long as necessary and sustain as many casualties as required gained him victory and unification of his country. Within Vietnam today he is a “national treasure,” while around the world he is the master of guerrilla warfare. Giap’s career and successes continue to have a significant impact on military and political decisions, particularly in the United States. The United States compares every military deployment to its possibilities of becoming “another Vietnam.”