Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese military commander who organized the army that defeated the French and then the Americans in 30 years of Southeast Asian warfare, died Oct. 4 in Hanoi. He was 102.
A government official confirmed the death to The Associated Press. No cause of death was immediately reported.
Giap was the last survivor in a triumvirate of revolutionary leaders who fought France’s colonial forces and then the United States to establish a Vietnam free of Western domination.
With the Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, and former prime minister Pham Van Dong, who died in 2000, Giap was venerated in his homeland as one of the founding fathers of his country. To military scholars around the world, he was one of the 20th century’s leading practitioners of modern revolutionary guerrilla warfare.
From a ragtag band of 34 men assembled in a forest in northern Vietnam in December 1944, Giap built the fighting unit that became the Vietnam People’s Army. At the beginning, its entire supply of weapons consisted of two revolvers, one light machine gun, 17 rifles and 14 flintlocks, some of them dating to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, said Cecil Currey, Giap’s biographer.
The original 34 men took a solemn oath to fight to the death for a Vietnam independent of foreign rule, and they promised not to help or cooperate with colonial or any other foreign authorities. By August 1945, when the surrender of Japan ended World War II, they had become an army of 5,000, equipped with American weapons supplied by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, to use against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam.
For almost three decades, Giap led his army in battle against better-supplied, better-equipped and better-fed enemies. In 1954, he effectively ended more than 70 years of French colonial rule in Indochina, dealing a humiliating defeat to a French garrison in a 55-day siege of the mountain-ringed outpost at Dien Bien Phu. To millions of Vietnamese, this was more than a military victory. It was a moral and psychological triumph over a hated colonial oppressor, and it earned Giap the status of a national legend.
On April 30, 1975, came the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This ended a prolonged and bitter war between Vietnamese communists, based in the north, and the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam, based in Saigon.
In an internal power struggle three years earlier, Giap was replaced as field commander of the communist forces and, in 1975, he watched from the sidelines as the army he created and nurtured took the enemy capital. Nevertheless, 25 years later, he would recall the fall of Saigon as the “happiest moment in this short life of mine.”
With the capture of Saigon, Vietnam was united under a single governmental authority for the first time since its partition into North and South Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat. Giap was defense minister in the Communist government that ruled the new Vietnam and a member of the powerful politburo.
But it was as a military leader that he made his mark on history.
In the course of his career, Giap commanded millions of men in regular army units, supplemented by local militia and self-defense outfits in villages and hamlets throughout Vietnam. He journeyed to the remotest areas of his country on recruiting missions, and he learned the art of combat the old-fashioned way — by fighting.
He waged all manner of warfare: guerrilla raids, sabotage, espionage, terrorism and combat on the battlefield, and he involved as much of the civilian population in this effort as he could. Peasant women carried concealed arms, ammunition and supplies to hiding guerrilla soldiers. Children passed along information about troop movements through their villages. Everyone was a lookout for enemy aircraft.
In the end, Giap would outlast his enemies. The French grew tired of paying the price of fighting him in Southeast Asia, and so did the United States, after 58,000 American deaths in a war that promised no more than a stalemate.
He said in articles published in Hanoi in 1967: “The United States imperialists want to fight quickly. To fight a protracted war is a big defeat for them. Their morale is lower than grass. … National liberation wars must allow some time — a long time. … The Americans didn’t understand that we had soldiers everywhere and that it was very hard to surprise us.”
A master of military logistics and administration, Giap directed construction, maintenance and operation of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, down which a steady stream of men and arms flowed from North Vietnam to support the war in the South.
Under his command, a corps of 100,000 Vietnamese and Laotian laborers slogged under 70-pound packs through swamps and jungles, up and down mountains to deliver the supplies, weapons and ammunition to fuel the fight. From a network of mountain footpaths used by peasants and travelers for centuries, they built a 12,000-mile system of camouflaged roadways and spurs. Some sections were two-lane paved roads, capable of handling tanks and heavy trucks. Others were primitive dirt roads. There were air raid shelters, rest stops and bridges.
Giap was one of the early members of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which was founded by Ho in 1930. In the late 1940s, he led a program aimed at eradication of non-communist political organizations in Vietnam that is said to have caused the death of thousands.
In three decades of combat, he is said to have had more than 1 million of his soldiers killed, a casualty level that would have cost any U.S. general his command.
“Every minute hundreds of thousands of people die all over the world. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand or tens of thousands of human beings, even if they are our own compatriots, represents really very little,” the historian Bernard B. Fall quoted him as saying.
Giap was born Aug. 25, 1911, in the village of An Xa, where his father was an illiterate farmer. Vietnam, with Laos and Cambodia, was then part of the French protectorate of Indochina.
The future general became active with the Communist Party and was jailed for revolutionary activities from 1930 to 1932. On his release, he won a scholarship for a school in Hanoi and received a baccalaureate degree in 1934. Four years later, he graduated from the French-managed University of Hanoi’s law school.
In the late 1930s, he married a fellow member of the party, whom he had met in prison years earlier. She gave birth to a daughter, Hong Anh, in 1940. Four months later, the party’s central committee decided to send him to join Ho, who was living in exile in China, where he was preparing plans for the revolution he intended to launch.
Soon after Giap left for China, his wife was taken into custody by French authorities. She died in prison, either by suicide or while being tortured. Because of the intervening world war, it was years before Giap learned of his wife’s death. In 1947, his father also died while in French custody, refusing to publicly denounce his son, although he never agreed with his communist ideology.
“He carries in his soul wounds that even time cannot heal,” Hong Anh told biographer Currey of her father.
Giap later married Dang Bich Hai, the daughter of a former professor and mentor. They had four children.
In South Vietnam, which emerged after the French defeat in 1954, the United States replaced France as the major foreign influence. The United States increased its level of support, which by 1968 had reached 500,000 military personnel.
Arguably, the turning point of the war came during the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was orchestrated by Giap.
To launch this campaign, he had directed the movement of 100,000 men and tons of supplies to strategic points throughout South Vietnam. On Jan. 30, communist forces attacked 40 provincial capitals and major cities, including an unsuccessful but widely publicized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The offensive failed militarily, Giap’s forces suffered heavy casualties and a hoped-for civilian uprising against the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam did not happen. Politically, the offensive was devastating in the United States, where it shattered public confidence in U.S. policy and led President Lyndon Johnson to decide against seeking re-election.
In the spring of 1972, Giap was relieved of his command after his Easter offensive failed in the face of massive U.S. attacks, which included the bombing of North Vietnam and the mining of Haiphong Harbor. North Vietnamese losses were said to have included more than 100,000 fatalities. Giap retained his position as defense minister, but command of the Vietnam People’s Army passed to longtime disciple Van Tien Dung.
U.S. involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 with the signing of peace accords and the withdrawal of American military forces. Without U.S. support, the South Vietnamese military collapsed in two years.
After 1975, Giap faded from the public scene. He resigned as defense minister in 1980 and was dropped from the politburo in 1982. He continued to lead ceremonial functions and lived in comfort in a government-assigned villa in Hanoi.