This article is from the book ‘PAVN’ People’s Army of Vietnam by Douglas Pike.
Senior 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. The disparity 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. 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 diarrhea.
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. Former associates say his family was impoverished Mandarin of lower rank. His father worked the land, rented out land to neighbors, 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 proselytize 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 communist.
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 Nguyen Binh.”
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 centers. 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, centered 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 postwar 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 favor 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 better judgements.
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 technical judgments.