Vo Nguyen Giap, the ‘Red Napoleon’
Last Sunday, Vietnam buried Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, hero of the epic 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in a state funeral that paid tribute to him for masterminding the historic military defeats of France and the United States in the post-World War II decolonization period in Asia.
As the Vietnamese mourned Giap, who died on Oct. 4 at age 102, they also sent a chilling message to the communist one-party regime in Hanoi: It cannot bolster its legitimacy amid charges of corruption by capitalizing on the mystique of Dien Bien Phu, a legacy left by Giap in Vietnam’s war for independence.
Thousands of Vietnamese lined the streets of Hanoi in a demonstration of their own people’s funeral quite apart from the pomp and circumstance of the state-sponsored ceremony, cheering, crying, and holding aloft pictures of their hero.
Giap is hailed as the “Red Napoleon” and is acclaimed by historians as among the 20th century’s most important military commanders, in the league of such giants as the British Bernard Law Montgomery, the American Douglas MacArthur, and the German Erwin Rommel. He is best remembered among Asians as an Asian general who, commanding unconventional guerrilla forces recruited mainly from the peasantry, defeated the vastly better equipped armies of the Western colonial powers—France in 1954, and the United States in 1975—forcing them to withdraw from the former Indochina. From this point of view, Giap, who had no formal military training, was a giant slayer, a military genius bred in the hinterlands of Third World Southeast Asia.
In death, Giap stood out as the most revered Vietnamese independence leader second only to Ho Chi Minh. His death brought out a show of unity not seen by generations of Vietnamese leadership since the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. In a funeral oration, Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the ruling Communist Party, described Giap as “the general of the people, always in the people’s heart and in history.”
At the funeral, the Politburo in Hanoi and even the common people in the streets basked in the glory of the battlefield victories engineered by Giap at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and in the 1968 Tet Offensive that culminated in the 1975 liberation of Saigon, the then capital of the former South Vietnam. But there was no hiding the fact that Vietnam was simmering in discontent over land ownership laws, entrenched graft, and a slowing economic growth. Reuters reported from Hanoi that “after Uncle Ho and General Giap, it would be hard to find anyone like them, who dedicate their lives to the country without thinking of his personal interest.”
The official glowing accounts of military successes in the Indochina wars for national liberation failed to mask the undercurrent of stories on the shunting of Giap from the center of power after Ho’s death in 1969. Prof. Carl Thayer, the Australian expert on Vietnam, said recently: “There will be stories [in the Giap funeral]. First, the official one that he was a perfect general, strategic mastermind, everything that the party wants you to hear. Then there will be the sore tale of a general … who was shunted aside.”
Giap’s success on the battlefield earned him powerful enemies at home, and he was pushed to the political sidelines after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. He was eased out of the Politburo in 1982 and left the party officially in 1991. He spoke well into his 90s, writing open letters using anniversary events to rail against everything from corruption to controversial bauxite mining. In 2006, he wrote that the Communist Party had “become a shield for corrupt officials.”
Born in 1911 in Quang Vinh province in central Vietnam, Giap was a son of a rice grower. He attended local schools before joining the clandestine nationalist movement. According to his obituary published by BBC, while studying at Hanoi University, from where he graduated with a doctorate, he taught history at a private school. Although he never received formal military training, he was a student of the military tactics of Napoleon Bonaparte, and it is said he could draw the latter’s various battle plans from memory. By 1938 he had become a member of Ho Chi Minh’s Indochinese Communist Party, helping Ho found the Viet Minh, which was aimed at ending French colonial rule.
Giap organized armed groups and, in 1944, waged guerrilla warfare against the occupying Japanese forces. After Japan surrendered and withdrew from Indochina, Hanoi fell to Viet Minh forces on Aug. 19, 1945. Ho proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, appointing Giap as his interior minister. Giap assembled thousands of guerrillas in the Tonkinese Mountains to begin a hit-and-run campaign against French military and commercial installations. The climax came in the valley of
Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after the French parachuted in 12,000 troops, in a tactic to draw Giap’s guerrilla forces to battle. Giap had set up heavy guns on the hills surrounding the valley, bombarding the trapped French forces for almost two months.
In my book, “Afro-ASIA in Upheaval” (2008), a chapter, “Mystique of Dien Bien Phu,” describes the epic battle thus:
“In that battle, the guerrilla army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam annihilated the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu, a village in northwestern Vietnam near the Laotian and Chinese borders, ending 90 years of French colonial rule in Indochina. After 55 days of siege, the French stronghold, defended by between 13,000 and 16,000 troops, mainly of the legendary French Foreign Legion, was overrun by 70,000 Vietnamese soldiers, who encircled it in a set-piece battle, marking the defeat of a modern Western army at the hands of an Asian guerrilla army.”
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