Vietnam general who shaped war dies at 102

By Margie Mason and Chris Brummitt
The Associated Press

Vo Nguyen Giap (AP/Na Son Nguyen)

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander who led the outgunned Vietnamese to victory first over the French and then the Americans, died Oct 4. The last of the country’s old-guard revolutionaries was 102.

Although a national hero in Vietnam, Giap was the nemesis of millions of South Vietnamese who fought alongside U.S. troops and fled their homeland after the war, including the many staunchly anti-communist refugees who settled in the United States.

Giap died in a military hospital in the capital of Hanoi, where he had spent nearly four years because of illnesses, according to a government official and a person close to him. Both spoke on condition of anonymity before the death was announced in state-controlled media.

Known as the “Red Napoleon,” Giap commanded guerrillas who wore sandals made of car tires and lugged artillery piece by piece over mountains to encircle and crush the French army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The unlikely victory — still studied at military schools — led to Vietnam’s independence and hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.

Giap then defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government in April 1975, reuniting a country that had been split into communist and noncommunist states. He regularly accepted heavy combat losses to achieve his goals.

“No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war,” Giap told The Associated Press in 2005.

“But we still fought because for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” he said, repeating a famous quote by Ho Chi Minh.

Born Aug. 25, 1911, in central Vietnam’s Quang Binh province, Giap became active in politics in the 1920s and worked as a journalist before joining the Indochinese Communist Party.

He fled French police in 1940 and met Ho Chi Minh in southwestern China before returning to rural northern Vietnam to recruit guerrillas for the Viet Minh, a forerunner to the southern insurgency later known as the Viet Cong.

During his time abroad, his wife was arrested by the French and died in prison. He later remarried and had five children.

In 1944, Ho Chi Minh called on Giap to organize and lead guerrilla forces against Japanese invaders in World War II. After Japan surrendered to Allied forces the next year, the Viet Minh continued their fight for independence from France.

Giap was known for his fiery temper and as a merciless strategist, but also for being a bit of a dandy. Old photos show him reviewing his troops in a white suit and snappy tie, in sharp contrast to Ho Chi Minh, clad in shorts and sandals.

Giap never received any formal military training, joking that he attended the military academy “of the bush.”

Against U.S. forces with sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap’s guerrillas prevailed. But more than one million of his troops died in what is known in Vietnam as the “American War.”

“We had to use the small against the big; backward weapons to defeat modern weapons,” Giap said. “At the end, it was the human factor that determined the victory.”

Historian Stanley Karnow, who interviewed Giap in Hanoi in 1990, quoted him as saying: “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.”

Giap had been largely credited with devising the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on U.S. strongholds in the south by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during lunar new year celebrations. Newer research, however, suggests that Giap had opposed the attacks, and his family has confirmed he was out of the country when they began.

On April 30, 1975, communist forces marched through Saigon with tanks, bulldozing the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace.

It came at a price for all sides: the deaths of as many as 3 million communists and civilians, an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese troops and 58,000 Americans.

Throughout most of the war, Giap served as defense minister, armed forces commander and a senior member of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, but he was slowly elbowed from the center of power after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969. The glory for victory in 1975 went not to Giap, but to Gen. Van Tien Dung, chief of the general staff.

Giap lost the defense portfolio in 1979 and was dropped from the powerful Politburo three years later. He stepped down from his last post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991.

Late in life, Giap encouraged warmer relations between Vietnam and the U.S., which re-established ties in 1995 and have become close trading partners. Vietnam has also recently looked to the U.S. military as a way to balance China’s growing power in the disputed South China Sea.

“We can put the past behind,” Giap said in 2000. “But we cannot completely forget it.” (end)

Mason, who reported from Jakarta, Indonesia, covered Vietnam for the AP from 2003-12 and met Giap on several occasions.

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