Vo Nguyen Giap: 1911-2013

On 4 October 2013, in a military hospital in Hanoi, where he had lived for the last few years of his life, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnamese patriotic hero, staunch, loyal and devoted communist, and a man almost universally recognised as one of humanity’s greatest military geniuses of all times, sometimes referred to as the ‘Red Napoleon’, passed away at the grand age of 102 (103 according to the East Asian method of calculating age).

Despite his very advanced years, and the succession of generations in a rapidly changing Vietnamese society, General Giap’s passing was marked by an outpouring of public grief, with many hundreds of thousands of people, of all ages and from all walks of life, tearfully mourning the last surviving leader from the hero generation led by Comrade Ho Chi Minh, who had changed not only the destiny of their nation, but the history of the world, through decades of arduous armed struggle against successively Japanese, French and US imperialism.

Despite his undoubted military genius, Giap never studied in a military academy for even a single day. Rather, he was self-taught and learned on the battlefield.

He was familiar with Vietnam’s long history of resisting foreign invasions and domination. Whilst he studied that experience, he primarily learned from the extensive contemporary military writings of China’s Mao Zedong, adapting them to the concrete conditions of Vietnam. He further learned from the Vietnamese people’s great leader Ho Chi Minh, as well as from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. His own military writings, published in an English language anthology, under the title, The military art of people’s war, rank second only to those of Mao in outlining the path of armed struggle that needs to be followed by the oppressed nations and peoples in the epoch of imperialism.

Vo Nguyen Giap was born in 1911 to an educated farming family with strong patriotic views against French colonialism, which occupied parts, then all, of Vietnam starting in the mid-1800s. His father took part in unsuccessful uprisings against French domination in the 1880s. Years later he was arrested for subversion and was killed in prison in 1919, when his son was eight. Soon afterward, one of his older sisters was arrested and eventually released due to illness brought about by prison conditions, and died weeks later when her younger brother was nine. When he was an adult, the French arrested his first wife, who also died in prison.

At around the age of 12, according to Wikipedia: ” He was expelled from school after two years for taking part in protests, and went home to his village for a while. While there, he joined the Tân Việt (New Vietnamese) Revolutionary Party, an underground group founded in 1924, which introduced him to communism. He returned to Hue and continued his political activities. He was arrested in 1930 for taking part in student protests and served 13 months in Lao Bảo Prison. He joined the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1931 .”

Giap’s name will forever be associated with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which even the right wing Wall Street Journal, in its obituary, described as sounding the death knell of western colonialism in Asia.

With the defeat of Japanese militarism, Ho Chi Minh had declared the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) in September 1945, but, with support from Britain’s Labour government, the French had returned to reimpose their colonial rule, forcing the DRVN to declare war on France in December 1946.

A succession of skirmishes and small engagements followed. But the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese people’s armed forces, had no heavy weapons or other essential equipment for a major war until the Chinese Communist Party was victorious and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.

Chinese and Soviet supplies soon began to cross the Chinese border, as did a considerable number of Chinese military instructors. Giap was soon able to launch large battles that seriously bruised the French forces.

By 1953, French generals feared the insurrection was spreading across Vietnam’s western border into Laos after a Viet Minh unit attacked French border outposts in that country. This convinced the French commander, General Henri Navarre, to establish a major military base near the small town of Dien Bien Phu, just 10 miles from the border in north-west Vietnam. He intended to interdict Vietnamese forces heading to Laos or lure them to attack a base that he considered invulnerable because of its fortifications, and the fact that it was surrounded by mountains, with a nearby former Japanese airstrip for resupply. Navarre believed Giap did not possess heavy artillery or the means to transport such tonnage up the mountains and into position.

But Navarre was wrong. Giap had artillery, but he kept it a secret until the right moment. His plan required 50,000 troops, thousands of support forces, 24 howitzers, and anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and all the other supplies needed for an army. Each howitzer weighed between three and seven tons.

The problem was how to get the howitzers up the mountains without being detected, in spite of the roadless and very difficult terrain. He decided that large teams of porters would push and haul each piece up the back side of the mountains, facing away from the base. Once there, they would tunnel and drag the howitzers to the forward slopes on the other side facing the enemy down below, and position them to cause maximum damage to various parts of the sprawling base. It was an incredible accomplishment.

The French – who numbered about 13,000 men – discovered the Viet Minh had heavy weapons on 14 March 1954, when the first shots came crashing down upon them. After two weeks of this bombardment, Giap sent in the troops. It was a tough fight, including in trenches. On 7 May, Giap sent 25,000 Viet Minh on a final assault on the remainder of the garrison and with this victory for the people’s forces, French imperialism finally lost the will to retain a colonial presence in East Asia.

On learning of Giap’s death, his Russian friend, Senior Lieutenant General Khiupenhen Anatoli Ivanovich aptly said that the victory at Dien Bien Phu could be seen as the Vietnamese equivalent of the Soviet Union’s triumph at Stalingrad.

However, the dream of national unity and full independence was still to elude the Vietnamese people for decades, as US imperialism promptly stepped into the gap vacated by France, unleashing a genocidal war in which several million Vietnamese were killed, and which ended only with the liberation of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on 30 April 1975.

Giap played a central part in every twist and turn of that epic war of liberation. One of his greatest accomplishments was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

This consisted of newly built trails connected to many refurbished old paths from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, into Laos, south through Cambodia, to various exits in South Vietnam. Much of its route is covered by thick jungle foliage, hiding the traffic from the air. It was put together, constantly repaired, and sometimes diverted, because of US air strikes, between 1959 and 1975. It was clear enough by 1973, when the decisive battle for the complete liberation of South Vietnam was being prepared, for heavy trucks to travel its entire length, said to be over 600 miles.

As the Ho Chi Minh Campaign gathered momentum, on 7 April 1975, Giap signed an order that read, ” quicker, even quicker, daring, and even more daring, make use of every minute, every hour to advance to the south. Determine to fight and win.” Just over three weeks later, Vietnam was liberated and the last US aggressors fled by helicopter, their tails firmly between their legs.

Thus ended the first war, in which US imperialism, the most powerful aggressor in history, was completely and comprehensively defeated.

A great internationalist, General Giap has been deeply mourned by anti-imperialists throughout the world, especially in countries that won their liberation through armed struggle.

Mozambique President Armando Guebuza, in condolences to Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, called the General a great friend in his country’s fight for national liberation, saying that his passing is a huge loss to the Mozambican people.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the leaders of Algeria, Nicaragua and El Salvador and a personal tribute was paid by Cuban President Raul Castro, with the Cuban media highlighting Giap’s meetings with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

Senior leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Kim Yong Nam described the General as an excellent leader, who devoted the whole of his life to national liberation and the cause of socialism. General Giap was a close friend of the Korean people, who made many contributions to developing the relationship between Vietnam and the DPRK, Kim affirmed.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who participated in the armed struggle waged by the Tupamaro National Liberation Movement, extended his condolences to President Truong Tan Sang on the death of the “legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap“. He described Giap as an exceptional strategist and an inspirational figure for freedom worldwide, who had taught that the human factor is the key to victory.

According to President Mujica, the general’s military ideologies will continue to be the basis for the building of guerrilla forces in national struggles for liberation, peace and equality in Latin America.

Chea Sim, president of the Cambodia’s People Party and of the Cambodian Senate, extended deep condolences on behalf of the Cambodian party and people to the party and people of Vietnam and to General Giap’s family. He praised the general’s contributions in the fight against colonialism and imperialism and for national independence and the advancement of socialism.

According to the Vietnamese media, the Vietnamese embassy in China received more than 60 delegations who came to bid final farewell to Giap between 12-14 October.

In his note, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Senior Lieutenant General Sun Jianguo described General Giap as an outstanding leader of the Vietnamese party, state, army and people, and a close comrade of the Chinese military and people.

Yang Yanyi of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s International Department expressed her sympathy over the passing of General Giap, who devoted his whole life to the causes of national liberation and construction and contributed to fostering the friendship between the two armies and peoples. ” General Giap will live forever in the hearts of Vietnamese and Chinese people,” she wrote.

In an interview with a Vietnam News Agency (VNA) correspondent in Beijing, Zhang Dewei, vice president of the China-Vietnam Friendship Association, said the Chinese people saw General Vo Nguyen Giap as a great friend, who had made many important contributions to relations between China and Vietnam.

Former Chinese Ambassador to Vietnam Qi Jianguo, recalling the three times he had met the general, said that Vo Nguyen Giap was a world-renowned general and that his name will be forever associated with the Vietnamese nation’s resistance wars against France and the US.

Wen Zhuang, a former member of a group of Chinese consultants and experts sent to assist Vietnam during the war against the French, told VNA that he had met and worked with Mr Van (General Giap’s alias) many times over 56 years. According to Wen, General Giap thoroughly grasped and realised Ho Chi Minh’s ideology, which combined Marxism-Leninism with the concrete conditions of the Vietnamese revolution. He added that in the early 1990s, General Giap attended the Asian Games in Beijing as a guest, contributing greatly to the normalisation of the Vietnam-China friendship, which had been interrupted for a number of years.

On his death, President Truong Tan Sang wrote: ” The name of General Vo Nguyen Giap, a General of the people, loved and respected by the people, will remain forever in national history.” He described the deceased as an icon of Vietnamese revolutionary heroism, who ceaselessly struggled for peace, national independence, democracy, social progress and friendship among the nations of the world .

We pledge to, together with the whole party, people and army, build a clean and firm party, firmly defend the socialist Vietnamese motherland, and accomplish your life-long aspiration for a prosperous people and a powerful, democratic, fair and civilised country .”

On the occasion of General Giap’s 95th birthday, former party general secretary, Le Kha Phieu had written:

General Vo Nguyen Giap is one of the most exceptional disciples of Uncle Ho. He was educated and trained by Uncle Ho when he was living and working close to him, before and during the August Revolution and the nine-year war against the French. He considered this a rare chance in his life so he made a great effort to follow the spirit, ideology, morality and lifestyle of the great leader Ho Chi Minh. During his revolutionary life, General Vo Nguyen Giap was very serious about learning and gaining experience from real life. Through such contemplation, he developed a deeper understanding of President Ho Chi Minh’s ideology and morality. Later, when our Party determined Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh’s ideology to be the foundation of its ideology and lodestar for the Vietnamese revolution, General Vo Nguyen Giap paid increasing attention to studying Ho Chi Minh Ideology in a systematic and comprehensive way and produced several valuable works…

General Vo Nguyen Giap also pays close attention to party rectification and building an all-people’s defence strategy. On party building, General Vo Nguyen Giap always stresses that in order to make the party strong and healthy, the weapon of criticism and self-criticism must be used effectively and bureaucracy and corruption must be eliminated. On that basis, the idea of a state of the people, by the people and for the people should be reinforced and each state official should become a servant of the people, as instructed by Uncle Ho .”

At the end of his long, heroic and eventful life, General Giap could take satisfaction in the fact that a modern socialist country with the beginnings of prosperity was being built on the soil of his native land, the fruits of a long, complex and bitter struggle to which he had made an irreplaceable and immortal contribution.