General Vo Nguyen Giap
General Vo Nguyen Giap was, and is, the only PAVN figure known at all
well outside of Vietnam, the only PAVN general mentioned in most counts
of the Vietnam war, and the only Vietnamese communist military leader
about whom a full length biography has been written.
between General Giap and the others-the lone figure standing in the
forefront of a legion of shadowy Vietnamese communist generals-assures
him a prominent place in Vietnam's history.
But history's judgment on
him, as general, is yet to be rendered.
The three horses pulling the chariot of war are leadership, organization
and strategy. The ideal general in any army would posses to perfection
each of these in careful combination. Evaluating the performance of
General Giap, therefore, must be in terms of his performance as leader,
organizer and strategist, all three. While the jury is still
deliberating, this much about him seems reasonably clear: he was a
competent commander of men but not a brilliant one; he was a first rate
military organizer once the innovative conceptual work was past, a good
builder and administrator of the military apparat after the grand scheme
had been devised; as a strategist he was at best a gifted amateur.
Giap of course, is a legend, with a larger-than-life image which the
party and State in Hanoi, as well as the world's press, have
enthusiastically contributed. His metaphoric appellation is Nui Lua,
roughly "volcano beneath the snow" meaning a cold exterior but
boiling within, an apt description of his personality according to those
who know him.
Giap when he started the
first Platoon of the North Vietnamese Army with 344 men in 1944.
Associates also have described him as forceful, arrogant,
impatient and dogmatic. At least in earlier years, he was ruthlessly
ambitious and extraordinarily energetic, with a touch of vanity
suggesting to interviewers that he should be considered an Asian
Napoleon. He is said to be fiercely loyal to those of his political
faction who grant him unreserved loyalty.
He once told an associate that
he took a "Darwinian view" of politics, and is said always to
have been indifferent to arguments or reasoning based mainly on dogma. He always has been surrounded by political enemies and the victim of
decades of sly whispers campaigns so common in Vietnam. (A typical
whisper: General Dung, not Giap, planned the final successful at the
battle of Dien Bien Phu because Giap had been struck down by diarrhoea.)
Vo Nguyen Giap was born, by his account, in 1912 in the village of An Xa,
Quang Binh province, although other reports say he was born into a
peasant family, but former associates say his family was impoverished
mandarin of lower rank. His father worked the land, rented out land to neighbours, and was not poor. More important as a social indicator in
Vietnam, his father was literate and familiar with the Confucian
classics. Giap, in manner and in his writings, demonstrated a strong
Confucian background. At 14, Giap became a messenger for the Haiphong
Power Company and shortly thereafter joined the Tan Viet Cach Mang Dang,
a romantically-styled revolutionary youth group. Two years later he
entered Quoc Hoc, a French-run lycee in Hue, from which two years later,
according to his account, he was expelled for continued Tan Viet
movement activities. In 1933, at the age of twenty-one, Giap enrolled in
Hanoi University. He studied for three years and was awarded a degree
falling between a bachelor and master of arts (doctorates were not
awarded in Vietnam, only in France). Had he completed a fourth year he
automatically would have been named a district governor upon graduation,
but he failed his fourth year entrance examination.
While in Hanoi University, Giap met one Dang Xuan Khu, later known as
Trung Chinh, destined to become Vietnamese communism's chief ideologue,
who converted him to communism. During this same period Giap came to
know another young Vietnamese who would be touched by destiny, Ngo Dinh
Diem. Giap, then still something of a Fabian socialist, and Diem, who
might be described as a right wing nationalist revolutionary, spend
evenings together trying to proselytise each other.
While studying law at the University, Giap supported himself by teaching
history at the Thanh Long High School, operated by Huynh Thuc Khang,
another major figure in Vietnamese affairs. Former students say Giap
loved to diagram on the blackboard the many military campaigns of
Napoleon, and that he portrayed Napoleon in highly revolutionary terms.
In 1939, he published his first book, co-authored with Trung Chinh
titled The Peasant Question, which argued not very originally that a
communist revolution could be peasant-based as well as proletarian-based. In
September 1939, with the French crackdown on communist, Giap fled to
China where he met Ho Chi Minh for the first time; he was with Ho at the
Chingsi (China) Conference in May 1941, when the Viet Minh was formed.
At the end of 1941 Giap found himself back in Vietnam, in the mountains,
with orders to begin organizational and intelligence work among the
Montagnards. Working with a local bandit named Chu Van Tan, Giap spent
World War II running a network of agents throughout northern Vietnam.
The information collected, mostly about the Japanese in Indochina, went
to the Chinese Nationalist in exchange for military and financial
assistance which in turn, supported communist organization building.
Giap had little military prowess at his command, however, and used what
he did have to systematically liquidate rice landlords who opposed the
On December 22, 1944, after about two years of recruiting, training and
military experimenting, Giap fielded the first of his armed propaganda
teams, and forerunner of PAVN. By mid-1945 he had some 10,000 men, if
not soldiers, at his command.
During these early years, Giap led Party efforts at organization busting
which, with the connivance of the French, emasculated competing
non-communist nationalist organizations, killing perhaps some 10,00
individuals (although these figures come from surviving nationalist and
may be exaggerated). One of the liquidation techniques used by Giap's
men was to tie victims together in batches, like cordwood, and toss them
into the Red River, the victims thus drowning while floating out to sea
a method referred to as "crab fishing." Giap's purge also
extended to the newly created Viet Minh government: of the 360 original
National Assembly members elected in 1946, only 291 actually took their
seats, of whom only 37 were official opposition and only 20 of these
were left at the end of the first session. Giap arrested some 200 during
the session, some of whom were shot. He also ordered the execution of
the famed and highly popular South Vietnamese Viet Minh leader, Nguyen
Binh. Giap sent Binh into an ambush and he died with a personal letter
from Giap in his pocket. He also was carrying a diary which made it
clear he knew of Giap's duplicity, but Binh went to his death in much
the same manner in which the old Bolshevik, Rubashov, in darkness at
Noon. Giap later confessed to a friend, "I was forced to sacrifice
With the Viet Minh war Giap faced his most challenging task, converting
peasants cum guerrillas into fully trained soldiers through a
combination of military training and political indoctrination. He built
an effective army. Colonial powers always controlled the colonial
countryside with only token military forces; they controlled the
peasants because the peasants permitted themselves to be controlled.
Giap built an army that changed that in Indochina.
In military operations in both the Viet Minh and Vietnam Wars, Giap was
cautious and so meticulous in planning that operations frequently were
delayed because either they or the moment was premature. Giap's caution
and policies led his opponents to underestimate both his military
strength and his tactical skill. Although as someone noted, in war
everyone habitually underestimates everyone else. Historians,
particularly French historians, tend to case Giap in larger than life
terms; they write of his flashing brilliance as a strategic and tactical
military genius. But there is little objective proof of this. Perhaps
the French write him large as a slave for bruised French ego. Giap's
victories have been due less to brilliant or even incisive thinking than
to energy, audacity and meticulous planning. And his defeats clearly are
due to serious shortcomings as a military commander: a tendency to hold
on too long, to refuse to break victory to intoxicate and lead to the to
the taking of excessive and even insane chances in trying to strike a
bold second blow; a preoccupation, while fighting the "people's
war," with real estate, attempting to sweep the enemy out of an
area that may or may not be militarily important.
Giap always was at his best when he was moving men and supplies around a
battlefield, far faster than his foes had any right to expect. He did
this against the French in 1951, infiltrating an entire army through
their lines in the Red River Delta, and again in advance of the Tet
offensive in 1968 when he positioned thousands of men and tons of
supplies for a simultaneous attack on thirty-five major South Vietnamese
population centres. If Giap is a genius as a general at all, he is, as
the late Bernard Fall put it, a logistic genius. General Giap's
strategic thinking early in the Vietnam War, from 1959 until at least
1966, was to let the NLF and PLAF do it by the Viet Minh War book.
Cadres and battle plans in the form of textbooks were sent down the Ho
Chi Minh Trail. Southern elements were instructed in the proper
mobilization and motivation techniques, cantered on the orthodox dau
tranh strategy that had worked with the French and in which Giap had
full faith. Certain adjustments might be necessary with respect to
political dau tranh and some minor adaptations of armed dau tranh might
be required, his writings at this time indicated but essentially the
necessary doctrine was in existence and was in place.
What changed Giap's thinking, and his assumption that the war against
the Americans could be a continuation of the war against the French, was
the battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first truly important battle of the
war. Giap's troops veterans of Dien Bien Phu, when thrown against green
First Cavalry Division soldiers, experienced for the first time the full
meaning of American-style conduct of war: the helicopters, the
lightweight bullet, sophisticated communications, computerized military
planning, an army that moved mostly vertically and hardly ever walked.
Technology had revolutionized warfare, Giap acknowledged in Big Victory,
Great Task, a book written to outline his strategic response to the U.S.
intervention. The answer he said, was to match the American advantage in
mass and movement or, where not possible, to shunt it aside. He was
still searching for the winning formula when suddenly he was handed
victory. The South Vietnamese Army which had stood and fought under far
worse conditions in January 1975, under minor military pressure, began
to collapse. Soon in could not fight coherently. Giap was handed a
victory he neither expected at the time nor deserved. How much command
responsibility Giap had in the last days of the war, in 1975, is debated
- much direction had passed to General Dung but is unimportant in terms
of distributing laurels, since none was deserved by any PAVN general.
After the Vietnam War General Giap slowly began to fade the scene,
withdrawing gradually from day-to-day command of PAVN. General Dung
began to take up the reins of authority. Giap was given a series of
relatively important short term task force assignments. He supervised the
initial assumption by PAVN of various production and other post-war economic duties. He reorganized and downgraded the PAVN
political commissar system, as the battle organized Reds and Experts tilted ever
more clearly towards the latter. He defended PAVN's budget against the
sniping attack of cadres in the economic sector.
When the 'Pol Pot problem" developed truly serious dimensions in
late 1977, Giap returned to the scene. He spent most of 1978 organizing
an NLF style response for Kampuchea, that in creation of a Liberation
Army, a Liberated Area, a radio Liberation, and a standby Provisional
Revolutionary Government. This was the tried method, but by its nature,
slow. Apparently the politburo judged it did not have time for
protracted conflict, and so in 1978 opted in favour of a Soviet-style
solution: tanks across the border, invasion and occupation of Kampuchea.
Giap opposed it, although evidence of this is mostly inferential,
holding that a quick military solution was not possible, that Pol Pot
would embrace a dau tranh strategy against PAVN and the result would be
a bogged down war. Giap proved to be painfully correct and, for the sin
of being right when all others are wrong in a collective leadership
decision-making process, was eased out of Politburo level politics.
Apparently all factions ganged up on him, but his removal was designed
to eliminate Giap as factional infighting without tarnishing Giap the
legend. It appears he did not resist this power play as he might have
done, with possibly bloody consequences, which may be a tribute to his
Today Giap still is on the Vietnamese scene, but plays a lesser role. He
has taken upon himself the task of lifting Vietnam by its technological
boot straps, has become the leading figure in the drive to raise the
country's technical and scientific capability. This requires, among
other things, soliciting continued Soviet assistance, something Giap is
able to do well because of the regard for him in the USSR. He confers
frequently with Soviet advisors in Hanoi and in the Soviet Union; in
1980 he went to Moscow three times in a nine-month period.
General Giap has been a prolific writer and he continues to publish
although Big Victory, Great Task is more innovative and original. His
most interesting book is Dien Bien Phu, while his worst certainly is
Once Again We Will Win, his initial assessment of what was required to
defeat the Americans which is virtually devoid of correct factual and