General Vo Nguyen Giap was the NLF’s most senior military commander in the Vietnam War. Giap proved to be a worthy opponent to the Americans. As a commander, Giap was willing to mix his tactics between classic guerrilla warfare and conventional attacks as was seen in the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Giap was born in 1912. He had a relatively comfortable upbringing and aged 14, Giap joined the Tan Viet Cach Mang Dang group – a revolutionary styled youth group. After studying at a lycée (which he claimed he was expelled from for organising student strikes), Giap joined the University of Hanoi. Here he gained a doctorate in economics but taught History at Thang Long School on leaving the university.
Giap joined the Communist Party in 1931 and took part in demonstrations against French colonial rule in Vietnam. He was arrested for his activities in 1932 and served 18 months of a two-year prison sentence. In 1939 France outlawed communism in Vietnam and Giap escaped to China. Here he joined up with Ho Chi Minh, the future leader of North Vietnam. While he was in China, his sister, who shared his anti-French sentiments, was arrested and then executed in Vietnam. His wife was also sent to prison where she died. There can be little doubt that both these events had a marked impact on Giap who almost certainly decided as a result of these two personal bereavements to dedicate his life to removing France from Vietnam.
From 1942 to 1945 Giap helped to organise resistance against the Japanese Army that had invaded China and Vietnam. It was during this time that Giap perfected the guerrilla tactics that Mao Zedong was to use so effectively against the Japanese.
The surrender of Japan in August 1945 created a power vacuum in Vietnam. The French had lost control of the area as a result of Japanese expansion. Ho Chi Minh declared a provisional government for Vietnam, which he would lead and in September 1945 Ho announced the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in which Giap was Minister of the Interior. However, unknown to Ho the powers that dominated World War Two’s peace settlements had decided on a different course of action. They decided that the north of Vietnam would be under the control of Nationalist China while the British would control the south. This decision did not take into account the desire of the French to re-establish their own control in the region. In 1946, both China and Britain removed their troops from Vietnam and France re-established control over their old colony.
The French refused to recognise Ho’s government and conflict quickly followed between the French and troops led by Giap. Initially Giap experienced many problems, as the French forces were better equipped. However, the French army was thinly spread and this allowed Giap the opportunity rebuild his forces. Once the Communists had established control in China, Giap found that his forces received better support from Mao’s China. The proximity of China also gave Giap the opportunity of a safe base for injured troops to receive medical aid away from the fighting in Vietnam. Experienced Chinese Communist guerrilla experts also assisted Giap.
Giap quickly gained a reputation as being a master of guerrilla warfare. However, against the French he also showed that he had mastered conventional tactics. At Dien Bien Phu, the French commander, Navarre, hoped to draw out Giap’s forces for a mass battle based on traditional battle plans. Giap outmanoeuvred Navarre and surrounded the French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Giap had 70,000 men at his disposal – five times the number of French troops there. He also had 105mm artillery and anti-aircraft guns from the Chinese and he used these to ensure that the French could not use airdrops to supply the men at Dien Bien Phu. When he was satisfied that the French were sufficiently weakened, Giap ordered a full-scale attack (March 13th 1954). On May 7th the French surrendered. 11,000 men were taken prisoner and 7,000 men had been killed or wounded. On May 8th, the French announced that they were pulling out of Vietnam. It was a major victory for Giap and sealed his fame as a military commander.
Throughout the war with America in Vietnam, Giap remained commander-in-chief of North Vietnamese forces. The impact of the NLF’s guerrilla warfare tactics has been well documented. Giap ensured that the NLF befriended villagers in the South and worked for them. However, there is evidence that when villages in the South did not welcome the NLF, there was harsh retribution meted out by the NLF. It would be easy to trade off the image of Giap and his troops being hailed as liberators from colonial rule throughout South Vietnam – but this was not the case.
Giap also used conventional tactics as the Tet Offensive of 1968 demonstrated.
After the introduction of Vietnamisation by Richard Nixon, there was a reduction in the number of US military personnel in Vietnam. This left the army of South Vietnam vulnerable to the NLF and it surprised few when NLF troops entered Saigon on April 30th, 1975. A Socialist Republic of Vietnam was declared and Giap was named Deputy Premier and Minister of Defence. In 1980 Giap lost his position as Minister of Defence and in 1982, having lost his post as Deputy Premier, he retired.
Some, such as Stanley Karnow, view Giap as a major military commander in the mould of Wellington and MacArthur. General Westmoreland did not share this view. He claimed that Giap was successful because he had a complete disregard for human life and that the NLF suffered huge casualties as a result of his command. Westmoreland claimed that Giap was a formidable opponent but not a military genius.