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General Vo Nguyen Giap

Biography (1912-  )

JOHN SIMKIN / Spartacus Educational 2005


Vo Nguyen Giap was born in Quang-binh Province, Vietnam, in 1912. He was educated at the University of Hanoi where he gained a doctorate in economics. After leaving university he taught history in Hanoi. He later joined the Communist Party and took part in several demonstrations against French rule in Vietnam.

Vo Nguyen Giap was arrested in 1939 but escaped to China where he joined up with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnam Revolutionary League (Vietminh). While in exile his sister was captured and executed. His wife was also sent to prison where she died.

Between 1942 to 1945 Vo Nguyen Giap helped organize resistance to the occupying Japanese Army. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, the Vietminh was in a good position to take over the control of the country and Vo Nguyen Giap served under Ho Chi Minh in the provisional government.

Vo Nguyen Giap & Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, October 1945

Vo Nguyen Giap & Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, October 1945

In September, 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Unknown to the Vietminh Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had already decided what would happen to post-war Vietnam at a summit-meeting at Potsdam. They had agreed that the country would be divided into two, the northern half under the control of the Chinese and the southern half under the British.

After the Second World War France attempted to re-establish control over Vietnam. In January 1946, Britain agreed to remove her troops and later that year, China left Vietnam in exchange for a promise from France that she would give up her rights to territory in China.

France refused to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and fighting soon broke out between the Vietminh and the French troops. At first, the Vietminh under General Vo Nguyen Giap, had great difficulty in coping with the better trained and equipped French forces. The situation improved in 1949 after Mao Zedong and his communist army defeated Chaing Kai-Shek in China. The Vietminh now had a safe-base where they could take their wounded and train new soldiers.

By 1953, the Vietminh controlled large areas of North Vietnam. The French, however, had a firm hold on the south. When it became clear that France was becoming involved in a long-drawn out war, the French government tried to negotiate a deal with the Vietminh. They offered to help set-up a national government and promised they would eventually grant Vietnam its independence. Ho Chi Minh and the other leaders of the Vietminh did not trust the word of the French and continued the war.

French public opinion continued to move against the war. There were four main reasons for this: (1) Between 1946 and 1952 90,000 French troops had been killed, wounded or captured; (2) France was attempting to build up her economy after the devastation of the Second World War. The cost of the war had so far been twice what they had received from the United States under the Marshall Plan; (3) The war had lasted seven years and there was still no sign of an outright French victory; (4) A growing number of people in France had reached the conclusion that their country did not have any moral justification for being in Vietnam.

General Navarre, the French commander in Vietnam, realised that time was running out and that he needed to obtain a quick victory over the Vietminh. He was convinced that if he could manoeuvre Vo Nguyen Giap into engaging in a large scale battle, France was bound to win. In December, 1953, General Navarre setup a defensive complex at Dien Bien Phu, which would block the route of the Vietminh forces trying to return to camps in neighbouring Laos. Navarre surmised that in an attempt to reestablish the route to Laos, General Giap would be forced to organise a mass-attack on the French forces at Dien Bien Phu.

Navarre's plan worked and General Giap took up the French challenge. However, instead of making a massive frontal assault, Giap choose to surround Dien Bien Phu and ordered his men to dig a trench that encircled the French troops. From the outer trench, other trenches and tunnels were dug inwards towards the centre. The Vietminh were now able to move in close on the French troops defending Dien Bien Phu.

While these preparations were going on, Giap brought up members of the Vietminh from all over Vietnam. By the time the battle was ready to start, Giap had 70,000 soldiers surrounding Dien Bien Phu, five times the number of French troops enclosed within.

Employing recently obtained anti-aircraft guns and howitzers from China, Giap was able to restrict severely the ability of the French to supply their forces in Dien Bien Phu. When Navarre realised that he was trapped, he appealed for help. The United States was approached and some advisers suggested the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the Vietminh. Another suggestion was that conventional air-raids would be enough to scatter Giap's troops.

The United States President, Dwight Eisenhower, however, refused to intervene unless he could persuade Britain and his other western allies to participate. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, declined claiming that he wanted to wait for the outcome of the peace negotiations taking place in Geneva before becoming involved in escalating the war.

Vo Nguyen Giap & Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, October 1945

Photo by PBS during interview

On March 13, 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap launched his offensive. For fifty-six days the Vietminh pushed the French forces back until they only occupied a small area of Dien Bien Phu. Colonel Piroth, the artillery commander, blamed himself for the tactics that had been employed and after telling his fellow officers that he had been "completely dishonoured" committed suicide by pulling the safety pin out of a grenade.

The French surrendered on May 7th. French casualties totalled over 7,000 and a further 11,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. The following day the French government announced that it intended to withdraw from Vietnam.

Vo Nguyen Giap remained commander-in-chief of the Vietminh throughout the Vietnam War. Peace talks between representatives from United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the NLF had been taking place in Paris since January, 1969. By 1972, Richard Nixon, like Lyndon B. Johnson before him, had been gradually convinced that a victory in Vietnam was unobtainable.

In October, 1972, the negotiators came close to agreeing to a formula to end the war. The plan was that US troops would withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for a cease-fire and the return of 566 American prisoners held in Hanoi. It was also agreed that the governments in North and South Vietnam would remain in power until new elections could be arranged to unite the whole country.

The main problem with this formula was that whereas the US troops would leave the country, the North Vietnamese troops could remain in their positions in the south. In an effort to put pressure on North Vietnam to withdraw its troops. President Richard Nixon ordered a new series of air-raids on Hanoi and Haiphong. It was the most intense bombing attack in world history. In eleven days, 100,000 bombs were dropped on the two cities. The destructive power was equivalent to five times that of the atom bomb used on Hiroshima. This bombing campaign was condemned throughout the world. Newspaper headlines included: "Genocide", "Stone-Age Barbarism" and "Savage and Senseless".

The North Vietnamese refused to change the terms of the agreement and so in January, 1973, Nixon agreed to sign the peace plan that had been proposed in October. However, the bombing had proved to be popular with many of the American public as they had the impression that North Vietnam had been "bombed into submission."

The last US combat troops left in March, 1973. It was an uneasy peace and by 1974, serious fighting had broken out between the NLF and the AVRN. Although the US continued to supply the South Vietnamese government with military equipment, their army had great difficulty using it effectively.

President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam appealed to President Richard Nixon for more financial aid. Nixon was sympathetic but the United States Congress was not and the move was blocked. At its peak US aid to South Vietnam had reached 30 billion dollars a year. By 1974 it had fallen to 1 billion. Starved of funds, Thieu had difficulty paying the wages of his large army and desertion became a major problem.

The spring of 1975 saw a series of National Liberation Front victories. After important areas such as Danang and Hue were lost in March, panic swept through the AVRN. Senior officers, fearing what would happen after the establishment of an NLF government, abandoned their men and went into hiding.

The NLF arrived in Saigon on April 30, 1975. Soon afterwards the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established. In the new government Vo Nguyen Giap was minister of defence and deputy premier.

source: 3apr2008


Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyen Giap, Van de dan cay. Hanoi: Su That, 1959. 131 pp. Originally published in Hanoi in 1937 and 1938, with the authors using the pseudonyms Qua Ninh and Van Dinh.

Truong Chinh and Vo Nguyen Giap, The Peasant Question, 1937-1938. Translated and introduced by Christine Pelzer White. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1974. xii, 112 pp. Translation of the above item.

Vo Nguyen Giap, American Imperialism's Intervention in Vietnam. Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1955. 35 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, On the Implementation of the Geneva Agreements: Excerpts from a Report in the Fourth Session of the National Assembly, March 1955. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955. 51 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, People's War, People's Army. New York: Praeger, 1962. xl, 217 pp. Basic work by the man who beat the French. The full text is available online to paid subscribers of Questia.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Cuoc chien tranh giai phong cua nhan dan mien Nam chong de quoc My va tay sai nhat dinh thang loi. Hanoi: Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1964. 67 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. Revised and enlarged edition. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1964. 254 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, The South Vietnam People Will Win. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1965. 127 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Once Again We Will Win. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966. 48 pp. Translation of an article published in Hoc Tap January 1966.

Vo Nguyen Giap, "The Strategic Role of the Self-Defense Militia in the Great Anti-U.S. National Salvation Struggle of Our People." Text of a talk by General Vo Nguyen Giap at a January 1967 conference. The text, published as a special supplement to the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Report: Asia & Pacific, 14 April 1967, has been placed online in the Virtual Vietnam Archive of the Vietnam Project at Texas Tech University. 30 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, "The Big Victory; The Great Task." Nhan Dan and Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 14-16 September 1967, broadcast on Radio Hanoi, 17-20 September 1967. An English translation published as a special supplement to the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Report: Asia & Pacific, 16 October 1967, has been placed online in the Virtual Vietnam Archive of the Vietnam Project at Texas Tech University: pp. 1-47, pp. 48-54.

Vo Nguyen Giap, "Big Victory, Great Task"; North Viet-Nam's Minister of Defense Assesses the Course of the War. New York: Praeger, 1968. xix, 120 pp. Introduction by David Schoenbrun.

Vo Nguyen Giap, interview with Oriana Fallaci, February 1969, in Oriana Fallaci, Interview with History (New York: Liveright, 1976), pp. 74-87. Ms. Fallaci also published in the Washington Post, April 6, 1969, pp. B1, B4, a detailed account of the interview, and a discussion (with phrases like "offical mutilation of the truth") on the difference between what General Giap said to her in the interview, and what was in the official text of it that she was given afterward.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. 4th ed.: Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1969. 165 pp.

Russell Stetler, ed., The Military Art of People's War: Selected Writings of Vo Nguyen Giap. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970. 332 pp. pb New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 332 pp. Contains material from various of the books listed above, but also some items that cannot so easily be found elsewhere. See for example Giap's interview with Madeleine Riffaud, May 1968, on pp. 319-327 (originally published in French in l'Humanité, June 4, 1968), in which Giap gave an exaggerated acount of the accomplishments of the Tet Offensive.

Vo Nguyen Giap, National Liberation War in Vietnam. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1971. 142 pp.

Vietnam Documents and Research Notes. Saigon: U.S. Mission in Vietnam. This series was made up mainly of major Communist documents, some openly published in Hanoi and others captured by US forces, translated into English. The texts of some items in this series have been placed on-line in the Virtual Vietnam Archive of the Vietnam Project, at Texas Tech University. Those that translate Giap's works include:

Vo Nguyen Giap, Vi tri chien luoc cua chien tranh nhan dan o dia phuong va cua cac luc luong vu trang dia phuong. Hanoi: Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1972. 49 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, People's War Against U.S. Aeronaval War. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975. 223 pp. Speeches given at conferences in 1969 and 1970.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dan quan tu ve, mot luc luong chien luoc. Hanoi: Su That, 1974. 261 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, To Arm the Revolutionary Masses, To Build the People's Army. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975. 233 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Nhung nam thang khong the nao quen (Unforgettable months and years). Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1974. 440 pp. The revolution of 1945-1946.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Unforgettable Days. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975. 430 pp. Translation of the above item.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Unforgettable Months and Years. Ithaca, New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1975. viii, 103 pp. Translated and with introduction by Mai Van Elliott.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Tu nhan dan ma ra: hoi ky. Hanoi: Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1975. 230 pp. A memoir of Giap's early life.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. 2d ed.: Hanoi: Su That, 1976. 80 pp. 5th ed.: Hanoi: The Gioi, 1994. 166 pp. 7th ed. Hanoi: The Gioi, 2004. viii, 261 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap and Van Tien Dung, How We Won the War. Philadelphia: Recon Publications, 1976. 63 pp.
        This book has been the subject of several unfounded rumors on the Internet. The first one began in the late 1990s. Supposedly, General Giap had written in How We Won the War that in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Communist leaders in Vietnam had been ready to abandon the war, but that a broadcast by Walter Cronkite, declaring the Tet Offensive a Communist victory, persuaded them to change their minds and fight on. This rumor was entirely false. Giap had not mentioned Cronkite, and had not said the Communists had ever considered giving up on the war.
        Several variants of this rumor appeared in 2004. In these, Giap is supposed to have credited either the American anti-war movement in general, or John Kerry's organization (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) in particular, for persuading the Communist leaders to change their minds and not give up on the war. Giap is sometimes said to have made this statement in How We Won the War, sometimes in an unnamed 1985 memoir. All versions of the rumor are false. Neither in How We Won the War, nor in any other book (the 1985 memoir is entirely imaginary), has Giap mentioned Kerry or Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or said that the Communist leaders had ever considered giving up on the war.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Selected Writings. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1977. 514 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Pac Bo, nguon suoi. Hanoi: Van Hoa Dan Toc, 1990. 113 pp.

Stanley Karnow, "Giap Remembers," New York Times Magazine, June 24, 1990, pp. 22-23, 36, 39, 57-60. There is an unfounded rumor on the Internet claiming that in this interview, Giap said that the Viet Cong ceased to be a fighting force after the Tet Offensive of 1968. Giap did not say that in this interview and has not said it elsewhere.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu. Hanoi: Chinh Tri Quoc Gia, 1994. 362 pp. Revised edition: Hanoi: Chinh Tri Quoc Gia, 1998. 370 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Chien dau trong vong vay (Fighting in a situation of encirclement). Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1995. 436 pp. Covers the period from 1946 to 1950. Translated as Fighting Under Siege: Reminiscences. Hanoi: The Gioi, 2004. 314 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Duong toi Dien Bien Phu (The road to Dien Bien Phu). Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 1999. 427 pp. Covers the period from late 1950 to late 1953.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Dien Bien Phu, diem hen lich su. Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 2000. 476 pp. Second edition, revised: Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 2001. 452 pp.

Vo Nguyen Giap, with Huu Mai, Dien Bien Phu: Rendezvous with History: A Memoir. Hanoi: The Gioi, 2004. 479 pp. An annotated translation by Lady Borton of the preceding item.

Vo Nguyen Giap, with Huu Mai, Mémoires, 1946-1954, 3 vols. Paris: Anako, 2003-2004. Vol. I, La résistance encerclée, 314 pp., covers the period up to the summer of 1950. Vol. II, Le chemin menant à Diên Biên Phu, 304 pp., covers late 1950 to late 1953. Vol. III, Diên Biên Phu, Le rendez-vous de l'histoire, 346 pp., covers the end of the First Indochina War. (These are French translations of the three volumes represented by the four entries immediately above.)

Cecil B. Currey, "Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap Remembers" Journal of Third World Studies, Fall 2003. Covers the early part of General Giap's career.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Tong hanh dinh trong mua xuan toan thang: Hoi uc. Hanoi: NXB Chinh Tri Quoc Gia, 2000. 374 pp. Edited by Pham Chi Nhan. The story of the last years of the war, from 1972 onward.

Vo Nguyen Giap, The General Headquarters in the Spring of Brilliant Victory: Memoirs. Hanoi: The Gioi, 2002. 350 pp. An English translation of the preceeding item.

Vo Nguyen Giap, Tong tap hoi ky. Hanoi: NXB Quan Doi Nhan Dan, 2006. 1359 pp. A collection of memoirs General Giap has written, covering various portions of his life: Tu nhan dan ma ra (presumably covering his early life), Nhung nam thang khong the nao quen (Unforgettable months and years, covering 1945-46), Chien dau trong vong vay (Fighting in a situation of encirclement, covering 1946-1950), Duong toi Dien Bien Phu (The road to Dien Bien Phu, covering from late 1950 to late 1953), Dien Bien Phu, diem hen lich su (1953-54), and Tong hanh dinh trong mua xuan toan thang (late 1972 to the end of the war in 1975).

source: 3apr2008

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