Vo Nguyen Giap

views updated May 21 2018

Vo Nguyen Giap

Born August 28, 1911
Quang Binh Province, Vietnam

North Vietnamese military leader

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the leader of the North Vietnamese military forces for over thirty years. He began his career by fighting against French colonial forces during the Indochina War. One of his greatest achievements came in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended that war in 1954. Giap also oversaw the North Vietnamese military strategy during the Vietnam War. Under his guidance, the Communist forces frustrated the U.S. military by using tactics of guerilla warfare. Over time, they gradually advanced to conventional warfare and launched all-out offensive attacks. Giap's strategy helped North Vietnam win the war and reunite Vietnam under a Communist government in 1975.

Thanks to his victories over France and the United States, some historians have ranked Giap among the top military leaders of the twentieth century. "That the army of a small, poverty-stricken, industrially backward nation could defeat two world powers was remarkable, but then the man who played such a large part in it is himself remarkable," Peter Macdonald wrote in the biography Giap: The Victor in Vietnam. "Starting with thirty-four soldiers, he ended up commanding nearly a million. And at the end of it all he remained undefeated."

A young revolutionary

Vo Nguyen Giap was born August 28, 1911, in the small village of An Xa in Quang Binh province in central Vietnam. He was one of five children in a family of poor farmers. At the time of Giap's birth, Vietnam was a colony of France. His father strongly opposed French colonial rule and often took part in demonstrations demanding Vietnamese independence. By the time Giap was a teenager, he had joined the Vietnamese Communist Party—a secret organization of people who wanted to fight against French rule. He was influenced by the writings of Ho Chi Minh (see entry), a Vietnamese nationalist who was then living in France.

Throughout his youth, Giap worked in his family's rice fields in order to earn enough money for an education. When he was eighteen, he was sent to prison for three years for his anti-French political activities. Upon his release, he attended the prestigious Vietnamese National Academy in Hanoi. Giap proved to be an excellent student and earned a bachelor's degree in law. Both during and after college he wrote books, articles, and pamphlets expressing his political ideas. In one of these works, a book called The Question of a National Liberation in Indochina, Giap argued that Vietnam's only hope for defeating a major foreign power like France was through a long, drawn-out war.

In the late 1930s Giap fled to China in order to escape a French crackdown against its political enemies in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Giap's young wife was arrested by the French colonial forces and died in prison. Feeling more bitter than ever toward the French, Giap joined a group of Vietnamese Communist revolutionaries in China led by Ho Chi Minh. He soon became one of Ho's most trusted advisors. In 1941 Ho and his supporters returned to Vietnam and formed the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoa (League for the Independence of Vietnam). This Communist-led nationalist group, usually known by the shortened name Viet Minh, was determined to fight for Vietnamese independence.

Leads Viet Minh forces against the French

During World War II (1939–45), France suffered a series of military defeats and surrendered to Germany. Unable to protect its colonies in Indochina, the French government allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and set up military bases there in the 1940s. The Viet Minh viewed the Japanese occupation as an opportunity to gain control of the country. Giap took command of the Viet Minh guerrilla fighters and began helping the American forces that were fighting against the Japanese. The Viet Minh leaders hoped that the U.S. government would reward their efforts by supporting their bid for independence.

In 1945 the Allied forces (which mainly consisted of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II. As soon as Japan was defeated, the Viet Minh launched a revolution to take control of Vietnam. This so-called August Revolution was successful, as the Viet Minh captured large areas of the country. In September 1945 Ho Chi Minh formally declared Vietnam's independence from both the French and the Japanese. Giap became a top official in the government of the new nation, known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

But it soon became clear that France—which had suffered a great deal of damage to its land, economy, and reputation as a world leader during World War II—was not willing to give up its former colony. After a year of negotiations, war erupted between the French and the Viet Minh in late 1946. As the war got under way, Giap organized a formal military force for his nation, which became known as the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN). As commander of the PAVN, Giap created a military system that consisted of regular army troops as well as regional and local forces. By 1952 he had recruited more than 250,000 PAVN troops and two million regional and local militia forces to fight for Vietnam's independence from France.

Victory at Dien Bien Phu

Giap always characterized the Vietnamese struggle for independence as a "people's war." He claimed that the Vietnamese people wanted freedom from foreign control and were willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to achieve that goal. Within the Communist government, Giap argued that it would take all of the resources of the nation to defeat the French, including the full emotional commitment of the people. "To educate, mobilize, organize, and arm the whole people in order that they might take part in the resistance was a crucial question," he explained. As a military leader, Giap fought to win regardless of the cost. "Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth," he once said. "The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little."

Giap recognized that France had better military training and equipment than the PAVN. To overcome his opponent's advantages, he relied on Communist principles that divided a revolution into three stages: first, using tactics of guerrilla warfare while building political support for the revolution among the people; second, gradually advancing from tactics of guerrilla warfare to those of conventional warfare; and third, launching a large-scale offensive attack that leads to political revolution. Giap believed that patience was key to the success of this plan. He told the Vietnamese people that they must continue fighting for many years to achieve a total victory.

The Vietnamese Communists finally achieved a major victory against France after nine years of war. Under Giap's leadership, the PAVN defeated the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. First Giap convinced the French to position 14,000 men in a remote outpost near the border of Laos. Then he surrounded the fort with 50,000 PAVN soldiers, pounded it with artillery fire, and eventually forced the French to surrender. This battle marked the end of the Indochina War. In July 1954 the two sides signed a peace agreement that provided for France to withdraw from Indochina.

But the Geneva Accords of 1954 also divided Vietnam into two sections—Communist North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Under the terms of the agreement, the two parts of Vietnam were supposed to hold nationwide free elections in 1956 in order to reunite the country under one government. But U.S. government officials worried that holding free elections in Vietnam would bring power to the Communists who had led the nation's war for independence from France. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, the South Vietnamese government and its American advisors refused to hold the elections.

North Vietnam's main military strategist

Giap and the other North Vietnamese leaders grew very angry when the elections did not take place as scheduled. They remained determined to reunite the two parts of the country under a Communist government, by force if necessary. Despite his position as head of the military, Giap initially hoped to reunite Vietnam through peaceful negotiations. But more militant members of the Communist government convinced Ho Chi Minh to resume fighting. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam.

During the early years of the Vietnam War, North Vietnam followed Giap's overall plan for the three stages of revolution. One of the North's main weapons was a group of South Vietnamese Communist rebels called the Viet Cong. Using tactics of guerrilla warfare, the Viet Cong gradually gained control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) authorized U.S. bombing missions over North Vietnam and sent American combat troops to South Vietnam.

But deepening U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the Vietnam War turned into a bloody stalemate. The Viet Cong guerrillas frustrated the American forces and reduced the advantage of their superior firepower. In the meantime, Giap continued building up his military forces, which became known as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). In January 1968 North Vietnamese government leaders decided that the time had come to put the final stage of the revolution into motion. Giap launched a coordinated series of attacks on major South Vietnamese cities, which was known as the Tet Offensive.

In designing the Tet Offensive, Giap assumed that the large-scale attack would encourage South Vietnamese citizens and soldiers to join the Communist forces and overthrow the South Vietnamese government. But the offensive failed to spark a revolt among the people, and American forces rallied to turn back the attack. The Tet Offensive ended up being a serious military defeat for North Vietnam, but it also shocked the American people and helped turn public opinion against the war.

Victory for the Communists

Between 1968 and 1972 Giap and the North Vietnamese military returned to the guerrilla warfare tactics that had frustrated the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies. In the meantime, the U.S. government began withdrawing American troops from the conflict while also strengthening the South Vietnamese Army to continue the fight. In March 1972 Giap tried to take advantage of this situation by launching another attack, known as the Easter Offensive. But the South Vietnamese military managed to fight off the attack with the help of U.S. air power.

In 1973 Giap stepped down from his position as commander of the NVA. According to some reports, his health had begun to fail. But other sources claimed that he had disagreed with Communist Party leaders over military strategy. Two years later, North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. After decades of fighting, they finally achieved Giap's dream of an independent Vietnam under a Communist government.

After the war ended, Giap continued to fall from power within the government. He resigned as minister of defense in 1980, and he lost his position within the Communist Party leadership two years later. Nevertheless, he remained very popular among the Vietnamese people. Many people viewed him as the man who had won the war for independence. In 1992 Giap received the highest honor given by the Vietnamese government, the Gold Star Order, "for his services to the revolutionary cause of party and nation."

In 2000, on the 25th anniversary of the North Vietnamese victory in the Vietnam War, Giap told an interviewer that Americans had a responsibility to help Vietnam recover from the war. "We can put the past behind, but we cannot completely forget it," he stated. "As we help in finding missing U.S. soldiers, the United States should also help Vietnam overcome the extremely enormous consequences of the war."


Giap, Vo Nguyen. The People's War for the Defense of the Homeland in the New Era. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1981.

Giap, Vo Nguyen. Unforgettable Days. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1974.

Karnow, Stanley. "Giap Remembers." New York Times Magazine, June 24, 1990.

Macdonald, Peter. Giap: The Victor in Vietnam. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

McNamara, Robert S. Argument without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy. Public Affairs, 1999.

Myre, Greg. "Vietnam Nemesis Reaches Out to U.S." Detroit Free Press, April 9, 2000.

North Vietnamese Political and Military Leaders in Prison

During the period when Vietnam was a colony of France, the colonial government often arrested Vietnamese people considered dangerous to French rule. For example, French authorities routinely detained people who joined rival political parties, participated in demonstrations against the government, or spoke out in favor of Vietnamese independence.

Most of the people who went on to become political and military leaders in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War went to prison during this time. At one point, North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh calculated that the thirtyone top officials in his government had spent a total of 222 years in prison—an average of more than seven years per person.

Like most other North Vietnamese leaders, General Vo Nguyen Giap spent several years in prison under the French. In addition, his wife received a life sentence and died in a French prison in 1941. Many sources claim that these experiences hardened Giap and made him determined to continue fighting until Vietnam gained its

Giap's Military Strategy

Since the Vietnam War ended in a North Vietnamese victory in 1975, General Vo Nguyen Giap has written a great deal about his successful military strategy. The following excerpt from one of his books explains his method of defeating a powerful foreign enemy:

The war of liberation is a protracted war and a hard war in which we must rely mainly on ourselves—for we are strong politically but weak materially, while the enemy is very weak politically but stronger materially.

Guerrilla warfare is a means of fighting a revolutionary war that relies on the heroic spirit to triumph over modern weapons. It is the means whereby the people of a weak, badly equipped country can stand up against an aggressive army possessing better equipment and techniques.

The correct tactics for a protracted revolutionary war are to wage guerrilla warfare, to advance from guerrilla warfare to regular warfare and then closely combine these two forms of war; to develop from guerrilla to mobile and then to siege warfare.

Accumulate a thousand small victories to turn into one great success.

Vo Nguyen Giap

views updated Jun 27 2018

Vo Nguyen Giap

Vo Nguyen Giap (born 1912) was a Vietnamese Communist military strategist and architect of the 1954 defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. He also directed the Communist campaign of the 1960s and 1970s against the government of South Vietnam.

Born in Quang Binh in what was to become the Communist state of North Vietnam, Vo Nguyen Giap was raised in a middle-class family of high educational attainment. He joined the anti-French movement as a student at Quoc Hoc College in Hue, becoming a Communist after reading some of the writings of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh's earlier alias).

Giap was a founding member of the Indochinese Communist party organized by Ho in Hong Kong in 1930. Subsequently detained by the French in prison (where he met his wife), Giap afterward obtained a doctorate of law from Hanoi University and became a history teacher at Thang Long College. His study and teaching of Vietnamese stimulated his growing nationalism as well as his resentment of both China and France as oppressors of the Vietnamese people in historical and modern times. He also developed a great admiration for Napoleon, with whom, as a military leader, he was later said to identify.

Fleeing to China at the beginning of World War II after the French banned the Communist party, Giap joined Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam Independence League (Viet Minh) and assumed responsibility for guerrilla activities in northern Tonkin (in present-day North Vietnam). Giap's wife and sister were subsequently arrested by the French and died in prison, increasing Giap's anti-French feelings.

In 1945 Giap became defense minister in the government formed by Ho Chi Minh before the return of France to Vietnam. Giap's inability to control himself from passionately expressing his hatred of France caused Ho to exclude him from the 1946 delegation to the unsuccessful Fontainebleau negotiations. Giap's ruthlessness also antagonized many of his Viet Minh comrades.

Triumphed Against the French

The military successes of his eight years' leadership of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) against the French, however, made Giap virtually indispensable to the cause of the Communists. Not all of his strategy against the French succeeded, but Giap learned valuable lessons from his setbacks at the hands of French forces. In a tactical blunder in 1951, Giap ordered a general counteroffensive and lost some 20,000 men in battles in the Red River delta. His great triumph at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 after a 55-day siege boosted him to a position second only to Ho Chi Minh in the eyes of his countrymen. Considered by many to be a military genius, Giap probably would have driven the French from the country had Ho not acquiesced to Soviet and Chinese pressures for a political settlement.

Following the 1954 Geneva partition of Vietnam, Gen. Giap served as a vice premier of North Vietnam as well as defense minister and army chief. He was also a member of the politburo of the Lao Dong (Workers') party. When a major war erupted between South Vietnam and North Vietnam and U.S. armed forces came to the defense of the Saigon regime, Giap split again with Ho and the majority of the North Vietnamese leadership in arguing against conventional warfare in the south. He expressed serious doubt that the PAVN could win against the better equipped U.S. and South Vietnamese forces and argued instead for the same sort of guerrilla warfare that had succeeded against the French.

Mapped Tet Offensive

Ho remained firmly convinced that aggressive conventional warfare would win the day in the south. Giap and a handful of Politburo members who sided with him steadfastly argued for first-phase revolutionary warfare, consisting of guerrilla assaults and the covert buildup of a political base in the south. Badly outnumbered, Giap barely managed to retain his position as head of the PAVN, though he was demoted a couple of notches in the Politburo, moving from fourth highest rank to sixth highest. A series of stinging defeats for PAVN forces in 1965 and 1966 helped to redeem Giap in the eyes of the majority of North Vietnamese party officials. When a key political adversary, Nguyen Chi Thanh, died in 1967, Giap regained control of strategy for the People's Army. He was the architect of the Tet Offensive in 1967, which represented textbook "people's" warfare, coordinating political and military initiatives. The offensive failed, however, when the general population in South Vietnam failed to rise up in support of their northern liberators, as had been expected. In the four years from 1968 to 1972, Giap mapped guerrilla attacks by small units, frustrating their U.S. and South Vietnamese opponents and doubling U.S. combat casualties. Emboldened by high-tech weaponry supplied by the Soviet Union and the apparent weakness of South Vietnamese armed forces, Giap in 1972 finally endorsed the idea of conventional warfare in the south. However, his Easter Offensive was thwarted by decisive U.S. power in the air and on the sea and the inability of the People's Army to better coordinate its operations.

Surrendered Army Command

The following year, Giap gave up direct command of North Vietnamese armed forces, reportedly because he was suffering from Hodgkin's disease. In 1980, he resigned as defense minister. Two years later, he assumed the leadership of the Science and Technology Commission and lost his seat in the Politburo. The North Vietnamese people, however, continued to look upon Giap with great affection. In 1992, Giap was given North Vietnam's highest honor, the Gold Star Order, for his contributions "to the revolutionary cause of party and nation."

Author of various books and articles, Giap extended his views to a worldwide audience. For many, his series of articles published in 1961 as People's War: People's Army became a virtual bible of guerrilla warfare. In 1970, Giap's The Military Art of a People's War, edited by Russell Stetler, was published.

Further Reading

Glimpses of Giap are all that can be obtained from much of the literature on Vietnam in the years since he became prominent. Exceptions are Giap's own collected articles, People's War: People's Army (1961) and Big Victory, Great Task: North Viet-Nam's Minister of Defense Assesses the Course of the War (1968), both of which provide considerable insight into his military ability. P. J. Honey, ed., North Vietnam Today: Profile of a Communist Satellite (1962), offers a somewhat dated but still valuable overview of Communist-ruled North Vietnam, including some perceptive insights into Giap himself, while Australian Communist journalist Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam North (1966), presents a later, if highly partisan, picture. For good background to both Giap's triumph at Dien Bien Phu and his subsequent direction of the assault against South Vietnam see Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963; 2d rev. ed. 1967). A more recent assessment of Giap's contributions during the Dien Bien Phu offensive against the French and the war for the political reunification of Vietnam can be found in Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, edited by Stanley I. Kutler and published by Scribner's, New York, in 1996. See also Britannica Online, at <http:www.eb.com>, for its entries on Giap and the Vietnam War. □

Giap, Vo Nguyen

views updated May 14 2018

Giap, Vo Nguyen (1910–), North Vietnamese general and government minister.Born into a family of small landowners in Quang Binh, Central Vietnam, Giap had an early education in Chinese, followed by one in French. Involved in student political disturbances of 1926, he was expelled from school. Thereafter, he joined the New Vietnam Revolutionary party advocating independence from French rule. In the 1930s, he was a political prisoner for two years and became a member of the Indochinese Communist Party. He also became a history teacher and a journalist who campaigned for press freedom and the diffusion of the national language. In 1939, he wrote a book on the military situation in China and co‐authored another about Vietnamese peasants. Two years later, he joined Ho Chi Minh in China and learned more about guerrilla warfare.

Back in Vietnam by 1944, Giap helped to organize the Viet Minh forces, the nucleus of the Vietnam People's Army (VPA), in order to oust the Japanese and, after World War II, the French. After the August 1945 revolution, he held a number of posts in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, including minister for defense and commander in chief of the VPA. In 1954, he overrode Chinese tactical advice and decisively defeated the French in the battle for Dien Bien Phu. From 1958, Giap as vice premier (1955) envisaged development of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply South Vietnamese insurgents. An authority on guerrilla warfare, General Giap had a major influence on strategy in the war against American and/south Vietnamese forces. His many books include People's War People's Army (1961), and The Military Art of People's War (1970).

He began to shed his military posts in 1976, and became minister for science and technology. During an interview he gave Greg Lockhart in Hanoi in 1989, he stated that he had become “a general of peace.”
[See also Vietnam War.]


R. J. O'Neill , General Giap, 1969.
Peter MacDonald , Giap: Victor in Vietnam, 1994.

Greg Lockhart