Vo Nguyen Giap was born on August 25, 1911, in Quang-Binh province of Vietnam. He studied at Lycee Albert-Sarrant in Hanoi where he earned his law degree in 1937. He became a professor of history at Lycee Than Long in Hanoi. He joined the communist party and in 1938 married Min Thai. Together, they worked for the Indo-China Communist Party. He was active in anti-colonial activities and was an ardent nationalist. When the party was outlawed by the French authorities he escaped to China where he joined Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam Revolutionary League (Viet Minh). In Vietnam, Giap’s sister-in-law and his wife were captured by the French. His wife later died in prison in 1939.
The Japanese occupied Vietnam during the Second World War. Giap organized a resistance group that fought the Japanese until the end of the war. He also supported the goals of Ho Chi Minh’s independence movement. After the Japanese forces were defeated in 1945 Ho announced the independence of the country and formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He then appointed Vo Nguyen Giap as commander of all police and internal security forces and as commander-in- chief of the armed forces. But the French reestablished its authority on its possession in Indo-China after the war. It refused to recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and armed conflict followed as a result.
The war turned favorable for Ho Chi Minh when in 1949 Mao Zedong defeated the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shik and established a communist government in China. A big next door neighbor became an ally and a supporter. Ho Chi Minh’s forces could now bring supplies and men from there and seek refuge there when the situations were bad.
The cost of war in terms of lives and money for the French were mounting, and there was no victory in sight. Above all, the French public thought that there was no moral justification for the war, and it increasingly became unpopular at home. The French promised to set up a national government and to grant Vietnam independence. However, the Viet Minh did not trust the French, and the war continued.
General Henri Navarre, the commander of the French forces In Vietnam devised a plan to draw the Viet Minh to the negotiating table. He thought of defeating the communist in a large scale conventional battle by blocking the route of men and supplies from Laos at Dien Bien Phu which is at the northwest of Vietnam. Navarre thought and hoped that If Giap took the bait he could destroy his forces.
General Giap did not see the possible outcome of the battle the way Navarre did. He accepted Navarre’s challenge. The French positioned about 14,000 troops, artillery and other weapons at Dien Bien Phu. Giap put up about 70,000 men and enveloped the French position. He brought artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns across the most difficult terrain which the French had not anticipated. He then placed them in vantage positions and dug trenches and secret tunnels leading to the positions of the French. When the fighting commenced the French forces were all but outclassed. Giap’s anti-aircraft guns that were brought from China also made it difficult or impossible for the French to bring in reinforcement of fresh troops and supplies.
On May 7, after 55 day of siege the French forces surrendered to the forces of General Giap. The French suffered 7,000 casualties and 11,000 were held as prisoners of war. The following day, on May 8, 1954, the French government announced its intention to withdraw its forces from Vietnam.
In the aftermath of the French debacle at Dien Bien Phu, a conference at Geneva was held. On May 8, 1954, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel and a reunification election was to be held in 1956. In the divided Vietnam the north was allied with the USSR and China. The south was allied with the United States. In the north Vo Nguyen Giap became the deputy minister, minister of defense and commander in chief of the armed forces.
South Vietnam’s distrust of the communists resulted to the non realization of the reunification election. President Ngu Dinh Diem stated that he was not bound by the Geneva accord and declared the Independence of South Vietnam in 1955. Diem’s actions were implicit declaration of war against the north. And battle lines were drawn between the two neighboring brothers.
The entry and interference of the United States in the conflict escalated the war. There were the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and the US forces pitted against the North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front (NLF) which was also called the Viet Cong. USSR and China provided assistance to the north and the NLF in terms of war materiel.
The United States, wary of communist takeover of Vietnam and the fall of other Asian neighbors to the communists, made its strong presence felt in the Vietnamese conflict. In 1961, there were only two helicopter companies with 4,000 US soldiers. In 1965 the US strength was up at 200,000 and in 1968 it ballooned to 525,000.
North Vietnam in which Vo Nguyen Giap was the commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army devised a plan to score big victory in the magnitude of Dien Bien Phu to weaken US resolve to continue the war. A massive, simultaneous, and coordinated attack by the North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong to coincide with the Vietnamese lunar New Year called Tet would be launched against 100 urban targets all over South Vietnam.
The Tet Offensive turned out to be a tactical disaster to the communists instead. It lost 45,000 of its best troops and the NLF was virtually crippled. The military defeat of the communist however had unintended consequences that were favorable to them. The Tet Offensive had created an impression to the American political and military leaderships that the war in Vietnam could not be won. Moreover, the horror of war as shown on TVs and media heightened the anti-war sentiment of the American public.
US leadership thought that a negotiated withdrawal could be its solution to the problem that it had gotten itself into. The US sued for peace negotiations. A peace talk collapsed in December 16, 1972, and President Nixon ordered massive bombings of Hanoi and Haipong by B52 bombers to bring the communists back to the negotiating table.
On Jan 27, 1973, In Paris, delegations from the United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the provisional government signed agreement ending the war and restoring peace. Some conditions of the deal was the withdrawal of all US and allied forces from South Vietnam, the return of POWs on both sides and an international monitoring committee composed of Hungary, Poland, Canada and Indonesia to oversee the implementation of peace accord. However, President Nguyen Van Thieu was apprehensive with the deal since 145,000 troops from the north would still remain in the south. He called the peace deal made by Henry Kissinger and Le Dhuc Tho a “sell out”.
Kissinger and Tho were both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the peace deal. Kissinger accepted it but Tho did not. Tho correctly thought that peace was not attained with the deal and beyond that deal major battles loomed ahead. Peace could only be attained when communist victory was in hand.
After escalating a war that caused 57,685 American lives plus 153,303 wounded and a spending that cost about 686 US billion dollars, the US forces left Vietnam in 1973. To some observers, the withdrawal was an implicit admission of defeat. The US left the task of fighting the communist to the government of South Vietnam which it called “Vietnamization”. Under that policy the US would continue to give financial and material support to the south to prosecute the war. Nixon even hinted that the US would come to the aid of the south if the north violated the peace deal.
The US pullout had an immediate impact on the Vietnamese economy which depended too much on the spending of the US troops. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 sent the price of oil skyrocketing and it made the operation of US left behind war equipments such as planes and tanks more expensive to operate. Furthermore, Nixon’s credibility was greatly eroded by the Watergate Scandal. Although another republican Gerald Ford took over the presidency from Nixon, the 1974 mid-term election saw the democrats who were anti-war winning the majority of both the lower and upper houses of US congress.
The democrats made resolution to phase out the war funding. It was decreased in 1975 and cut off in 1976. Furthermore, the Case-Church amendment of 1974 prohibited the intervention of the US in case of a re-escalation of the war in Vietnam.
As soon as the US forces were gone, the North Vietnamese under General Giap’s guidance and leadership as the commander-in-chief began attacking south and most of the south’s key positions were overran by the communists. President Ford wanted to help but his hands were tied by congress. There was no way the south could stave off defeat. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell and the Republic of Vietnam surrendered unconditionally. And the north and the south were unified as one country under the rule of the communists.
Vo Nguyen Giap was the chief of the People’s Army throughout the war with the United States. His resoluteness to fight a protracted war, his willingness to accept staggering battlefield losses in furtherance of his ends and his ability of move men and war materiel across impossible terrain in sufficient numbers to accomplish his goals have enabled him to become one of the most successful military commanders in recent history.
From 1976 when north and south were united Giap served as minister of defense, he also became the deputy prime minister in 1976. He was a member of the politburo of the communist party until 1982.