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The general who never gave up
Publication Date : 09-10-2013
The demise last Friday of General Vo Nguyen Giap at the ripe old age of 102 closes a chapter in history that not only determined the fate of Vietnam but resonated in many other parts of the world.
Giap was the strategist behind the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu that not only dealt a fatal blow to French colonialist aspirations in Vietnam but gave succour to antiimperialist forces across the Third World. A number of historians consider it to have sounded the death knell for Western colonialism worldwide.
Some two decades later, Giap added another feather to his cap by becoming the first commander to have overseen the defeat of the American military behemoth.
The feat arguably remains unprecedented, and in his heyday Giap’s recognisability as a symbol of Vietnam’s resolve was second only to that of Ho Chi Minh. Back in 1967, for instance, he was the only visitor recognised by a recuperating US airman, who had been shot down and then rescued from a lake by Vietnamese civilians.
“He stayed only a few moments, staring at me, then left without saying a word,” John McCain recalls in an article this week in The Wall Street Journal.
As a US senator some 30 years later, he requested a meeting with Giap. “Both of us clasped each other’s shoulders as if we were reunited comrades rather than former enemies,” he recalls.
By McCain’s account, Giap was considerably keener to dwell on improving US-Vietnam relations than on revisiting his past military triumphs.
“You were an honourable enemy,” were his parting words to the future US presidential contender. “Whatever his meaning, I appreciated the sentiment,” McCain recalls.
Giap, born in French-ruled Vietnam in 1911, grew up in an anti-colonialist milieu and earned his first stripes as an imprisoned teenager. He emerged from jail to take a degree in law and political economy, and worked as a journalist and a schoolteacher enthralling his students with comprehensive accounts of Napoleon’s military strategies and Robespierre’s political tactics before visiting China, where he met Ho for the first time.
By the early 1940s he was in charge of Viet Minh, initially a minuscule ragtag force that sought to liberate Vietnam from both the Japanese and the French, which by 1945 was strong enough to take power in Hanoi after the Japanese surrender.
The French recognised Ho’s republic yet sought to retain a foothold in Indochina. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US had striven to commit its World War II allies to colonial liberation and it is ironic that the only formal military training Giap received, however brief, was under the auspices of the OSS, a precursor to the CIA.
By August 1945, however, Roosevelt was dead and for his successor, Harry Truman, anti-communism trumped all other considerations. Hence the effective recolonisation of
Vietnam by the French was bankrolled by Washington, pushing the broadly nationalist Viet Minh towards a tighter embrace with Mao Zedong’s forces in China and Joseph Stalin’s regime in Moscow.
It is instructive to recall in this context that, although Ho was well-versed in Marxism-Leninism, his inaugural presidential speech in Hanoi in 1945 paraphrased the American Declaration of Independence rather than the Communist Manifesto.
A year later, Ho told the French: “If we have to fight, we will fight. You will kill 10 of our men and we will kill one of yours. In the end it will be you who tire of it.”
This attitude was equally relevant, if not even more so, during the resistance to US military aggression.
Giap is frequently excoriated by detractors for his willingness to sacrifice lives on a scale that would have been untenable for his adversaries.
They often tend to overlook the fact, though, that the Vietnamese were striving unlike the French or the Americans to liberate their country. They were also contending with almost
unbelievably superior firepower. A substantial proportion of the more than three million Vietnamese who perished during what Vietnamese recall as the American War were the victims of carpet-bombing and chemical warfare.
In Volcano Under Fire, a bitterly biased account of Giap’s military exploits, former British diplomat John Colvin suggests that France and the US failed in part because they were democracies that had to contend with domestic public opinion, unlike Giap and his comrades. This is only a half-truth.
There can be little doubt, for instance, that the Tet offensive of 1968 was a military disaster for North Vietnam and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, yet by breaching the US embassy and the presidential palace in Saigon, the communist forces helped to convince American public opinion that their political leaders were prolonging the conflict on the basis of a bald-faced lie. Not only was victory not within their grasp, but it was an unwinnable war.
Giap was constantly cognisant of the effect his military feats could have on public opinion abroad, but he was equally convinced of the vitality of popular support at home. The likes of Colvin are inclined to ignore the fact that Vietnam’s struggle could not possibly have succeeded without grassroots commitment across the North and the South.
Once the war against the US had been won, Giap became something of a peacemonger, and his attitude did not always sit well with the power brokers in Hanoi, so he was progressively sidelined. But he never completely faded away, and is due for a very public funeral next weekend.
Even his detractors admit that Giap was quick to learn from his errors and never repeated his mistakes. If only the same could be said about the Americans.