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Vo Nguyen Giap

NicknameRed Napoleon
Date of Birth28 August 1911
Place of BirthQuang Binh province, Annam
Died04 October 2013
Widely regarded as an astute military tactician, Vo Nguyen Giap is best known for masterminding the Viet Minh’s victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Born into an impoverished family he was educated at Quoc Hoc School in Hue, which had also been attended by Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, but was expelled after only two years for disciplinary reasons. After being briefly imprisoned by the French for political agitation, Giap returned to his studies and graduated from Hanoi University with a degree in law and political economy. Economic necessity after university prompted him to teach history at a school in Hanoi for several years, where he gained a reputation for possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Napoleon’s military campaigns.

In addition to his teaching, Giap also published dissertations on the plight of Vietnamese peasants and became increasingly active in the Indochinese Communist party. In 1939 he married fellow militant Minh Thai, but within a year the French crackdown on Communism forced him to flee to China. His wife stayed behind, was arrested by the French and died in captivity.

World War II
In China Giap met Ho Chi Minh and immersed himself in Mao Tse-Tung’s theory of revolutionary warfare. When Ho formed the Vietnamese Revolutionary Independence League (Viet Minh) in May 1941, Giap was tasked with organising its guerrilla campaign against the Japanese. He formed the first unit of the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) in December 1944, and with weapons supplied by the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services) successfully used hit and run tactics against the occupiers.

After Japan’s surrender ended World War II, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and managed to achieve limited recognition from the returning French. However, in December 1946, less than a year after French forces reoccupied the north of the country, war broke out and Giap’s troops took to the jungle.

French Indochina War
Following almost four years of guerrilla activity, his soldiers launched an attack that destroyed the string of French forts along the Chinese border. During 1951 Giap’s Viet Minh forces suffered three defeats when using “human wave” attacks on the French fortified line around the Red River Delta. Nevertheless, they regrouped to inflict serious losses on the French in the Black River Delta early in 1952.

In an attempt to defend northern Laos and hoping to draw the Viet Minh into combat, French forces parachuted into Dien Bien Phu in November 1953. However, Giap’s forces miraculously managed to transport Chinese supplied heavy artillery through the jungle and over mountains and pounded the French forces to pieces in the valley below.

Vietnam War
As Minister of Defense and Commander of the VPA throughout the second Indochina War, General Giap was responsible for the Communist’s military strategy. He not did enjoy complete control, however, and was occasionally forced to implement military plans conceived by the Politburo.

After America entered the war he strongly advocated the use of the same guerrilla warfare tactics that had proven so successful against the French. However, yielding to the wishes of the leadership he committed his troops to a major engagement with U.S. forces in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Though numerically superior, Giap’s men were unprepared for an enemy employing helicopter assault tactics and suffered significant losses.

Despite the lessons of the battle of Ia Drang and his continued preference for guerrilla tactics, Giap was again called upon to plan large-scale offensives for Tet 1968 and Easter 1972. Though neither was a military success, Tet 68 shook American public support and proved to be a significant political victory. The failure of the Easter Offensive, however, resulted in General Giap’s removal as head of the VPA.

Following the fall of Saigon, Giap became Deputy Prime Minister of the newly established Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1980 he resigned from the defense ministry and left the Politburo in 1982, but remained in his position as Deputy Prime Minister until 1991.

General Giap died aged 102 in Hanoi on October 4th, 2013.

Books
How We Won the War
Vo Nguyen Giap

People's War, People's Army
Vo Nguyen Giap

Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap
Cecil B. Currey