NEW YORK – I remember vividly looking at a short, thin, and apparently weak, laborer in Vietnam’s countryside and asking myself, “Are people like him the ones who defeated the greatest empire in the world and the powerful French army?”
Among those that could be credited with those victories, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap — who died on Oct. 4 — certainly has a place of honor. He was 102.
Despite anybody’s opinion of the Vietnam War, nobody can deny that Giap’s brilliant guerrilla tactics defeated both the French and the American invaders in a protracted war, at a cost of a million people, both soldiers and civilians.
In a 1988 interview, Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military operations at the peak of the Vietnam War (1964-1968), including the Tet Offensive, told W. Thomas Smith, Jr.: “Of course he was a formidable adversary. …
“Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerrilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men.”
What Gen. Westmoreland failed to say is that those guerrilla tactics were the only ones Giap could wage when facing the most powerful army in history. Giap himself acknowledged the extent of the losses.
In an interview with the Associated Press in 2005 he declared: “No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war.
“But we still fought because, for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than our independence and freedom.”
Although Giap was a teacher and journalist with no formal military training, he built a ragtag communist insurgency into a highly effective military force. He never received any formal military training, joking that he had received his training in the military academy “of the bush.” His legacy was perhaps second only to Vietnam’s President Ho Chi Minh, who led the country to independence.
In 1954, with an army of rugged guerrillas who wore sandals made of car tires Giap encircled the French Army at Dien Bien Phu, where the French Gen. Henri Navarre had set up his defenses.
The French forces included troops from many parts of the former French empire as well as French professional troops and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of recruits from France itself was avoided to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home.
While launching diversionary attacks in nearby areas, Giap, defying military practice, placed 24 howitzers (artillery that propels projectiles at high trajectories and with a steep angle of descent) on the hills around Dien Bien Phu, in areas protected from French aircraft.
Ordering his men to dig a trench system encircling the French, Giap launched his offensive on March 13, 1954. Less than 2 months later, on May 7 1954, the French surrendered. It was a significant victory that led to Vietnam’s independence and hastened the collapse of colonial rule in Southeast Asia.
The 56-day battle was one of the epic battles of the 20th century. It led to the French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into north and south in 1956. It created the conditions for the war against Saigon and the U.S. less than a decade later. Giap continued as commander in chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam throughout the war with the United States.
Although he is widely credited with leading the Tet Offensive of 1968, recently uncovered evidence shows that he hadn’t given his agreement to that operation. He left shortly before the offensive for medical treatment in Hungary and returned when the offensive had already begun.
Giap later described the Tet Offensive as a “general strategy, an integrated one, at once military, political and diplomatic.”
Although the offensive failed to create the conditions for an uprising against the southern government, it became known as an important political victory that hastened the American public’s idea of the futility of the war. Giap had defeated the two most powerful armies in the world.
Richard Halloran, a former military correspondent for The New York Times writes about an encounter between a North Vietnamese colonel named Tu and U.S. Col. Harry Summers. They met at Hanoi airport after the war was over.
Summers told him, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.”
The Vietnamese colonel thought for a few seconds then responded, “That may sob, but it is also irrelevant.”
After the U.S. withdrawal, Giap wrote extensively on strategy and military theory and became an ardent environmentalist and critic of a bauxite mining project that he believed threatened national security and would provoke significant ecological damage. His contribution to his country’s peace and development was remarkable. He will remain one of the towering figures in Vietnam’s modern history.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.