Vo Nguyen Giap

Timofei Mikhailov

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’s opponents – perhaps particularly his opponents – 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.


© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Templer, The Guardian (4th October, 2013)

General Vo Nguyen Giap, who has died aged 102, 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.

In 1944 he founded the Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Liberation of Vietnam, gathering together 31 men and three women armed with flintlock rifles. 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.

The victory took Vietnam to the negotiating table but it did not bring peace. Instead the Geneva Accords divided the country into the communist north and US-backed south, setting the stage for another war that was to last until the defeat of the US and the Saigon government in 1975.

Giap, an elfin lawyer with an intellectual bent, was an unlikely warrior. He often claimed his only military lesson came from an encyclopedia entry describing the mechanism of a primitive hand grenade. The reality was a little different. As a child his sense of nationalism had been nourished with stories of heroic Vietnamese generals and their victories against the Chinese and Mongols. At the Lycée Nationale in Hue, the same school that produced the North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh and the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, he became involved in the anti-colonial movement.

He earned a degree in law at the University of Hanoi and began teaching history. By the time he founded his army, posing at the first swearing-in wearing a white suit with a Mauser pistol in his belt, he was well versed in Marx and had read Mao Zedong's writings on guerrilla warfare. He would always deny the obvious influences of Mao and Napoleon, saying: "We fought our wars in a Vietnamese way. My only influences were the great strategists of Vietnamese history."

(2) Heather Saul, The Independent (4th October 2013)

The celebrated Vietnamese general who oversaw key victories against France and America and effectively ended French colonial rule in the region has died aged 102.

General Vo Nguyen Giap passed away in a military hospital in Hanoi surrounded by his family, where he has spent the last three years of his life having suffered a prolonged illness.

Giap was born into a peasant family in the Quang Binh province on 25 August 2011. At age 14, he joined a revolutionary resistance movement before studying politics, economics and law at the University of Hanoi.

His adult years were initially spent as a journalist and a teacher, before he fled to China with Ho Chi Minh's Indochinese Communist Party ahead of the Japanese invasion of Vietnam.

Despite having received no formal military training, after organising a small resistance army, he returned to Indo-China to begin a guerrilla war against the Japanese occupation forces. He is largely credited with the defeat of French forces who had returned to occupy Indo-China at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, where Viet Minh fighters besieged the French from rugged mountain terrain.

(3) The Daily Telegraph (4th October 2013)

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’s opponents – perhaps particularly his opponents – suggested that he merited a place in the pantheon of great military leaders of modern times, alongside such figures as Wellington and Rommel.

The figure Giap himself most admired and studied, however, was Napoleon. By the time Giap had left school he was able to outline in chalk the phases of all Napoleon’s most celebrated battles. It was an irony later lost on few that, having absorbed those lessons, Giap would score perhaps his most dramatic victory against France.

That moment came in March 1954, after more than seven years of fighting between French forces and Giap’s Viet Minh anti-colonial communist revolutionaries. The French, looking to draw the Viet Minh into a decisive engagement, had parachuted thousands of soldiers into an airbase located in a valley in north-western Vietnam, on the border with Laos. They were unaware, however, that Giap too was looking for a knockout blow, and that his forces had acquired heavy artillery pieces.

Despite the extraordinary difficulty of moving these around the jungle, Giap managed to ring Dien Bien Phu with men and heavy guns, placed on the high ground overlooking the airbase. When the artillery fire began raining down at the beginning of March it became clear that the French were sitting ducks.

For two months they resisted, fending off incursions which came between each new barrage. But on May 1 the Viet Minh launched a huge offensive, and within a week overran French positions. The last words of the radio operator before being cut off were: “Vive la France!” More than 11,000 men were taken prisoner; fewer than 4,000 returned to France alive.
This shattering defeat forced France to the negotiating table, with talks beginning on May 8, one day after the garrison’s surrender. The result was a Vietnam split into a communist north and French-backed south.