Now that the general has died, perhaps the man can come to life. Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap died Oct. 4 at the age of 102. His obituaries, many written years ago, report official versions of a life that only recently has been explored by historians and still has yet to be examined in detail.
Giap’s obituaries give the man both too much and too little credit. He was indeed the architect of Vietnam’s remarkable 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu, which ended the first Indochinese war, against the French. This was the first time in the history of Western colonialism that Asian troops defeated a European army in fixed battle. The message went out to Algeria and other colonies, as they began emulating Vietnam’s success. “That young Americans were still to die in Vietnam only shows that it takes time for the echoes even of total defeat to circle the globe,” said writer Graham Greene.
Most of Giap’s obituaries also credit him with winning the second Indochinese war, against the United States. They claim he masterminded the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the final campaign that ended the war with the fall of Saigon in 1975. These statements ignore the archival material and biographical traces only now coming to light. As early as 1963, after opposing a Communist Party resolution to begin warring directly against the United States, President Ho Chi Minh and Giap were sidelined in a power grab by Le Duan and other party ideologues. Later, Ho would exile himself to China, Giap to Hungary. This is where Giap lived for five months when the Tet Offensive was planned. Flown back to Vietnam on a Chinese airplane two days before the campaign began, Giap — who was still nominally commander in chief of the armed forces and minister of defense — was dismayed to learn the details of this human-wave assault on South Vietnamese cities and other military targets. He knew the southern forces were outgunned and that no popular uprising would save them from being slaughtered. What he got for being right was a new kind of internal exile. Thirty of Giap’s closest associates had already been arrested and imprisoned for not being enthusiastic enough in their support of the Communist Party.
For 50 years, the good soldier Giap kept his mouth shut about Vietnam’s internal power struggles. His Communist colleagues shoved him down the ranks, from deputy premier to director of family planning, but the longer Giap lived, the more he came to embody the intelligence, decency, courage and foresight of his people. He spoke out against Vietnam’s draconian police state and corruption. He fought against the government allowing China to strip mine bauxite in the Central Highlands.
As news of Giap’s death spread, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese poured into the streets holding yellow flowers and photos of the man. People wept for all they had suffered during 30 years of warring against the French and Americans and for the broken promises of the lesser men who had sidelined the great general.
I was visiting the Saigon journalist and spy Pham Xuan An shortly before his death in 2006 when he showed me a sheaf of papers. “This is a 17-page letter from General Giap,” he said. The letter was one of several that Giap sent late in his life to the Politburo, attacking Chinese influence in Vietnamese affairs, bribery, corruption, police surveillance, environmental depredation and other social ills. An told me that 30 generals had signed a petition supporting Giap. “It is dangerous to take sides,” he said. “The reason we have no history of Vietnam written by Vietnamese is that you can’t tell the truth. That’s why all the books on my shelves are written by foreigners.”
Sen. John McCain and others have criticized Giap for being profligate with the lives of his soldiers. He was nowhere near as ruthless as British commanders in World War I, and he rejected the counsel of Chinese advisers who wanted to use human-wave attacks against French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Giap opted instead for siege techniques and the patient use of artillery. More bad advice from China crafted the Tet Offensive. Giap is not to blame for this military blunder, which cost the Communists half their soldiers in the south and destroyed the Vietcong as a fighting force. McCain’s criticism that Giap risked “the near total destruction” of his country “to defeat any adversary, no matter how powerful” might be applied to other successful revolutionaries — George Washington, for example.
Giap, the one classically trained member of Vietnam’s revolutionary cadre, with degrees in philosophy, history, law and politics, stood out in his country’s faceless collective leadership. He was a lover of orchids and French literature — even after the French tortured his wife to death. He braved Vietnam’s censors to speak the truth. No wonder hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese attended his funeral. He ushered in the modern, post-colonial world. He stood for independence and self-determination. What he said was meant to be a force for good in the world, and what he left unsaid is ours to discover.
Thomas A. Bass is a professor of English and journalism at SUNY Albany and the author of The Spy Who Loved Us and Vietnamerica.