Vo Nguyen Giap

Vo Nguyen Giap (born 1912) was a Vietnamese Communist military strategist and architect of the 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. He also directed the Communist campaign of the 1960s and 1970s against the government of South Vietnam.

Born in Quang Binh in what was to become the Communist state of North Vietnam, Vo Nguyen Giap was raised in a middle-class family of high educational attainment. He joined the anti-French movement as a student at Quoc Hoc College in Hue, becoming a Communist after reading some of the writings of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh's earlier alias).

Giap was a founding member of the Indochinese Communist party organized by Ho in Hong Kong in 1930. Subsequently detained by the French in prison (where he met his wife), Giap afterward obtained a doctorate of law from Hanoi University and became a history teacher at Thang Long College. His study and teaching of Vietnamese stimulated his growing nationalism as well as his resentment of both China and France as oppressors of the Vietnamese people in historical and modern times. He also developed a great admiration for Napoleon, with whom, as a military leader, he was later said to identify.

Fleeing to China at the beginning of World War II after the French banned the Communist party, Giap joined Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam Independence League (Viet Minh) and assumed responsibility for guerrilla activities in northern Tonkin (in present-day North Vietnam). Giap's wife and sister were subsequently arrested by the French and died in prison, increasing Giap's anti-French feelings.

In 1945 Giap became defense minister in the government formed by Ho Chi Minh before the return of France to Vietnam. Giap's inability to control himself from passionately expressing his hatred of France caused Ho to exclude him from the 1946 delegation to the unsuccessful Fontainebleau negotiations. Giap's ruthlessness also antagonized many of his Viet Minh comrades.


Triumphed Against the French

The military successes of his eight years' leadership of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the French, however, made Giap virtually indispensable to the cause of the Communists. Not all of his strategy against the French succeeded, but Giap learned valuable lessons from his setbacks at the hands of French forces. In a tactical blunder in 1951, Giap ordered a general counteroffensive and lost some 20,000 men in battles in the Red River delta. His great triumph at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 after a 55-day siege boosted him to a position second only to Ho Chi Minh in the eyes of his countrymen. Considered by many to be a military genius, Giap probably would have driven the French from the country had Ho not acquiesced to Soviet and Chinese pressures for a political settlement.

Following the 1954 Geneva partition of Vietnam, Gen. Giap served as a vice premier of North Vietnam as well as defense minister and army chief. He was also a member of the politburo of the Lao Dong (Workers') party. When a major war erupted between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and U.S. armed forces came to the defense of the Saigon regime, Giap split again with Ho and the majority of the North Vietnamese leadership in arguing against conventional warfare in the south. He expressed serious doubt that the PAVN could win against the better equipped U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and argued instead for the same sort of guerrilla warfare that had succeeded against the French.


Mapped Tet Offensive

Ho remained firmly convinced that aggressive conventional warfare would win the day in the south. Giap and a handful of Politburo members who sided with him steadfastly argued for first-phase revolutionary warfare, consisting of guerrilla assaults and the covert buildup of a political base in the south. Badly outnumbered, Giap barely managed to retain his position as head of the PAVN, though he was demoted a couple of notches in the Politburo, moving from fourth highest rank to sixth highest. A series of stinging defeats for PAVN forces in 1965 and 1966 helped to redeem Giap in the eyes of the majority of North Vietnamese party officials. When a key political adversary, Nguyen Chi Thanh, died in 1967, Giap regained control of strategy for the People's Army. He was the architect of the Tet Offensive in 1967, which represented textbook "people's" warfare, coordinating political and military initiatives. The offensive failed, however, when the general population in South Vietnam failed to rise up in support of their northern liberators, as had been expected. In the four years from 1968 to 1972, Giap mapped guerrilla attacks by small units, frustrating their U.S. and South Vietnamese opponents and doubling U.S. combat casualties. Emboldened by high-tech weaponry supplied by the Soviet Union and the apparent weakness of South Vietnamese armed forces, Giap in 1972 finally endorsed the idea of conventional warfare in the south. However, his Easter Offensive was thwarted by decisive U.S. power in the air and on the sea and the inability of the People's Army to better coordinate its operations.


Surrendered Army Command

The following year, Giap gave up direct command of North Vietnamese armed forces, reportedly because he was suffering from Hodgkin's disease. In 1980, he resigned as defense minister. Two years later, he assumed the leadership of the Science and Technology Commission and lost his seat in the Politburo. The North Vietnamese people, however, continued to look upon Giap with great affection. In 1992, Giap was given North Vietnam's highest honor, the Gold Star Order, for his contributions "to the revolutionary cause of party and nation."

Author of various books and articles, Giap extended his views to a worldwide audience. For many, his series of articles published in 1961 as People's War: People's Army became a virtual bible of guerrilla warfare. In 1970, Giap's The Military Art of a People's War, edited by Russell Stetler, was published.


Further Reading on Vo Nguyen Giap

Glimpses of Giap are all that can be obtained from much of the literature on Vietnam in the years since he became prominent. Exceptions are Giap's own collected articles, People's War: People's Army (1961) and Big Victory, Great Task: North Viet-Nam's Minister of Defense Assesses the Course of the War (1968), both of which provide considerable insight into his military ability. P. J. Honey, ed., North Vietnam Today: Profile of a Communist Satellite (1962), offers a somewhat dated but still valuable overview of Communist-ruled North Vietnam, including some perceptive insights into Giap himself, while Australian Communist journalist Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam North (1966), presents a later, if highly partisan, picture. For good background to both Giap's triumph at Dien Bien Phu and his subsequent direction of the assault against South Vietnam see Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963; 2d rev. ed. 1967). A more recent assessment of Giap's contributions during the Dien Bien Phu offensive against the French and the war for the political reunification of Vietnam can be found in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, edited by Stanley I. Kutler and published by Scribner's, New York, in 1996. See also Britannica Online, at <http:www.eb.com>, for its entries on Giap and the Vietnam War.