General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Vietnam People's Army has recently celebrated his 100th birthday. General Giap, a revolutionary journalist and military tactician, is respected throughout the world., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Celebrating 100th birthday of Vietnam’s hero General Giap
Published Sep 2, 2011 8:33 AM
By Paddy Colligan and G. Dunkel
General Vo Nguyen Giap, a hero and leader in the Vietnamese people’s struggles against Japanese, French and U.S. imperialism, celebrated his 100th birthday on Aug. 25. Now frail and living in a medical facility, Giap is regarded as a national treasure and a link to the historic 40 years of war to free Vietnam from colonial and imperialist control. For his military training, Giap used political understanding and revolutionary tenacity to develop the concept of “people’s war” that defeated the vastly-better-armed U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Giap’s parents were fairly well-off farmers from families who opposed the French colonialists ruling Vietnam in 1911. Giap joined a youth group opposed to French occupation in 1925 and did time in French prisons when he was 19. After his release, he joined the Communist Party in 1931, completed his education, and became a teacher, revolutionary journalist and agitator. In the late 1930s he was sent to China to work with Ho Chi Minh to organize a revolutionary movement among Vietnamese exiles.
During World War II, Japan displaced France as the occupying power in Vietnam. Giap returned home in 1944 to organize against the Japanese occupation. After the August Revolution in 1945 that overthrew Japanese rule, Giap became interior minister in Ho Chi Minh’s newly formed government.
But France began reoccupying Vietnam in the fall of 1945. The Indochinese Communist Party, comprised of political activists from the French colonies in the areas that later became Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, decided that Vietnam needed an army to oppose this. Giap was picked to form and lead it. In a 2003 interview, Giap explained that he envisioned the army’s role as a means for organizing the masses to carry out a military struggle that would lead to a political revolution.
Giap said that within 48 hours of its founding, “My new army won two successive victories. The first was against the [French] post Phai Khat, the second was at Na Ngan,” just 21 miles away. The intelligence agent who provided the information needed to attack Phai Khat was a 13-year-old named Hoang, while the attack on Na Ngan owed its success to “Duc Long, a man of the region.” Giap told his troops, “Be bold, quick and aim for certain victories.” He followed this motto from the beginning of the Vietnamese People’s Army until the offensive when Vietnam finally expelled the U.S. in 1975.
It was at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, a two-month siege in the hills of northwest Vietnam, that Giap was able to demonstrate the power of the strategy of people’s war. While 100,000 Vietnamese troops fought the well-dug-in French military, another 100,000 Vietnamese workers, mainly women, provided logistics and carried artillery in pieces on bicycles or their backs, along with ammunition and food for the Vietnamese troops. The French colonial power was astonished by its bitterly humiliating defeat with over 11,000 prisoners and gave up its campaign to reoccupy its former colonies in Indochina.
Concept of people’s war
Giap explained the now-familiar concept of people’s war: “It was a war for the people by the people. FOR the people because the war’s goals are the people’s goals — goals such as independence, a unified country, and the happiness of its people. ... And BY the people — well, that means ordinary people — not just the army but all people.”
He avowed: “We know it’s the human factor, and not material resources, which decide the outcome of war. That’s why our people’s war, led by Ho Chi Minh, was on such a large scale. It took in the whole population.”
The U.S. had provided much of the funding and military supplies that France used before the former colonial power was forced to withdraw in April 1956. Washington supported the regime that the French left in place in south Vietnam and opposed promised elections that would have united the country — elections that Ho Chi Minh, then north Vietnam’s leader, was predicted to win.
Following a now-familiar scenario, the U.S. stepped up direct military intervention as the puppet regime in south Vietnam fell apart. First it sent in advisers and then full combat units in 1965, escalating its involvement until the Tet Offensive in 1968. That was when the Vietnamese liberation forces carried out simultaneous, surprise uprisings in hundreds of towns and villages throughout south Vietnam, coordinated with commando strikes against the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and many major U.S. air force bases. The Tet Offensive turned the tide against U.S. forces in Vietnam.
Giap told PBS in a 1999 interview, “It was the American policy to try and escalate the war. Our goal in the ‘68 offensive was to force them to deescalate, to break the American will to remain in the war. ... We did this by confronting them with repeated military, as well as political and diplomatic victories.”
The U.S. lost 58,226 soldiers in its war against Vietnam and suffered a few thousand missing in action. This was more than enough to shred U.S. popular support for the war.
Vietnam released figures on April 3, 1995, that a total of 1 million Vietnamese combatants and 4 million civilians were killed in the war. The accuracy of these figures has generally not been challenged. Even with all these deaths, the U.S. could not break the will of the Vietnamese to wage a people’s war for national sovereignty and liberation from neocolonialism.
The impact of U.S. aggression against Vietnam, however, continues today in the form of the terrible, lingering effects of Agent Orange, powerful herbicides spread by the U.S. Air Force over huge areas of south Vietnam. Even after 40 years since the last dumping of these poisons, Vietnamese children are still being born with severely disabling physical and mental abnormalities caused by contamination of the environment and its genetic legacy.
Using skills developed in his early career in the 1930s as a revolutionary journalist, Giap described and analyzed the struggles he led.
Long live Vietnam and its heroic struggles! Long live Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap!
Sources: Quotes are from a 1999 PBS TV interview. Two significant books in English by Giap are “Banner of People’s War, the Party’s Military Line” (Praeger, 1970) and “The Military Art of People’s War” (Monthly Review, 1970).
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