Commander Dossier: Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap
Commander Dossier: General Vo Nguyen Giap
Assessment of Giap:
- Personally quick-tempered
- Patient in war
- Learned from mistakes
- Combined military, political and propaganda strategies
A former history teacher turned revolutionary, this Vietnamese general became one of the 20th century’s most successful commanders.
Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap claimed that his first command, in December 1944, was a force of only 34 men armed with two revolvers, 17 rifles, 14 flintlocks and one light machine gun. Over the next 30 years he built a respected, well-equipped, modern army.
Giap was born in the village of An Xa, an impoverished area of Vietnam, on August 25, 1911 (possibly 1910 or 1912). Descended from revolutionaries of the 1885 Can Vuong uprising, his parents raised him with strong sentiments against the French colonials.
While a student at Quoc Hoc School at Hue, Giap met other revolution-minded Vietnamese. Politicized, he joined the Communists seeing them as better organized, more action-oriented and enjoying the greatest popular support of the competing nationalist groups. Arrested for establishing an anti-French newspaper, Giap spent time in Lao Bao prison in 1930.
In 1940, the Communist Party ordered Giap to travel to China for political and military training. While there he met Ho Chi Minh, another dedicated Vietnamese revolutionary leader. Back home, French authorities arrested Giap’s wife — also a revolutionary activist — and she died in prison after being tortured. Other family members were also tortured and some were executed.
In the 1930s, while ostensibly teaching French political history, Giap instead taught Vietnamese students the strategy and tactics of Napoleonic warfare. He also focused on recent military affairs. Chief among the works that influenced him was T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Also known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the author advocated using irregular troops to disrupt conventional forces. Giap called Lawrence’s book his “fighting gospel.”
BLOODY ROADS TO VICTORY
In March 1946, Ho Chi Minh, who was then leading Vietnam’s anti-French insurgency, appointed Giap a general and commander in chief of the Vietminh (Vietnamese Communist army). Though initially impetuous – a quick temper earned him the nickname “Volcano Under Snow” – Giap soon learned a people’s war required patience.
Giap’s first major campaign (with brigade-sized units and artillery) hit isolated outposts at Dong Khe in October 1950. The French lost 6,000 men and three tank platoons – their worst-ever colonial defeat. The campaign set the pattern for future operations: attack isolated positions and then ambush enemy reinforcements.
When the French concentrated at remote Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Giap defied Chinese advisors who urged him to employ massed assaults. Instead, he initiated a siege. After dragging 200 artillery pieces through forbidding jungle terrain, his troops battered the French garrison. With their surrender of Dien Bien Phu, the French lost Vietnam.
GRAB THEM BY THE BELT
Victory over the French left Vietnam divided into two nations split at the 17th parallel. Fearing that a Communist takeover of Vietnam threatened all of Southeast Asia, America steadily increased its aid to democratic South Vietnam. Giap realized that he did not have to defeat the Americans on the battlefield; rather, he only had to avoid losing the fight until the United States quit the contest.
To compensate for the Americans’ helicopter-borne mobility and overwhelming artillery and airpower, Giap developed “grab them by the belt” tactics.” Vietcong (VC) forces and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars engaged the Americans at such close range that it was too risky for the U.S. to employ artillery and air support.
VICTORY FROM DISASTER
Giap urged a protracted war that combined guerilla actions with political education and propaganda. However, his rivals in the politburo eventually forced him to conduct an operation he opposed.
The January 1968 Tet Offensive struck virtually every province and major city in South Vietnam. Communist guerrillas, engaging in conventional attacks, were decimated by American and South Vietnamese firepower.
The VC was forever destroyed as a fighting force. The Communists were unable to hold on to any of the areas they had seized. The expected popular uprising never occurred.
Yet Giap’s military disaster produced a political victory. Members of the American media, who regarded Giap’s troops as third-rate, were stunned by the violence and news coverage of the war turned increasingly negative.
Staunchly supported by America’s Cold War enemies China and the Soviet Union, Communist North Vietnam and Giap’s NVA carried on the war while U.S. political leadership faced mounting domestic and international pressure to withdraw. American political support, which began to erode in the wake of Tet, finally evaporated altogether when the U.S. Congress cancelled military aid to South Vietnam (1973–1965).
Political opponents and advancing age forced Giap out as commander before the Communists’ final victory in 1975. However, he remained defense minister until 1980. In 1978, the army he built invaded Cambodia to quell Khmer Rouge guerrillas, and in 1979, it turned back a Chinese incursion into Vietnam.
Victory at any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap by Cecil B. Currey. Brassey’s Inc., 1997.
How We Won the War by Generals Vo Nguyen Giap & Van Tien Dung. RECON Publications, 1976.
Interviews with Giap:
About the Author
Gerald D. Swick is a writer and historian whose work has appeared in American History, America’s Civil War, Lincoln Lore and other publications.