General Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013)

France in the Orient: The French Emperor Napoleon III sent a French military expedition (alongside the English) to support the Chinese emperor against the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) in 1860. Along the way, the French intervened in Vietnam and forced the Vietnamese emperor to cede to France the southern third of the country around Saigon and the Mekong River delta, which became a direct French colony. In the 1880s the French forced the Vietnamese emperor to accept a French protectorate over Annan (center) and Tonkin (north) (France established protectorates over the kings of Tunisia and Morocco).

Giap was born in central Annan to a father who was said to be literate. Ho Chi Minh had been born to a father who was a minor mandarin and taught at village school. When the French abolished village schools to concentrate on French government schools for the well-off, Ho’s father started an opposition private school movement. Giap in 1930 started a newspaper advocating Vietnam’s independence. He was jailed and joined the Communist party. Ho who had studied in Moscow ousted the earliest leaders of the party who advocated narrow Marxist slogans. Ho instead translated words such as socialism as ‘defense of traditional village values’.

Giap became a professor of French history in a private lycee in Hanoi. He was especially interested in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. In 1940 Marshall Henri Petain established the French government in Vichy and appointed as governor-general of French Indochina, an admiral who had returned to service after retiring from the navy after the First World War to become a cloistered hermit monk. With the occupation of northern France by Germany in 1940, Japan became an overseer of the French administration of Indochina and closed off the port of Haiphong and the railroad along the Red River to Kunming in Yunnan, China (which was the route the US supplied the Nationalist forces and the US Flying Tiger air forces). The US established economic sanctions against Japan over closign Haiphong, and added sanctions on aviation fuel to Japan, leading to December 7, 1941. With establishment of the Free French government in Paris, the French military in Indochina sought to challenge the Japanese role and by a Japanese coup de main were driven into the jungles in March, 1945. The US tried to supply the French by airdrops and from Kunming aided the Vietnamese nationalists led by Giap with old flintlock rifles. With the Japanese surrender in August, 1945 it was agreed that Lord Louis Montbatten’s British Army of India would take the surrender of Japanese forces south of the 16th parallel, and the Chinese Nationalist forces would take the Japanese surrender north of the 16 parallel. The Indian forces took the Japanese surrender and put down a communist rebellion in Saigon.

Chiang Kai-shek delegated the Japanese surrender to the war-lords of Yunnan province (two generals who were brothers-in-law). The Chinese forces moved very, very slowly as they looted their way to Hanoi. In the meantime, the US Office of Strategic Services station in Kunming flew US officials to Hanoi (accompanied by Ho Chi Minh) and took part in end of the war ceremonies with Ho in Hanoi. Ho’s League for Vietnam Independence (Vietminh) took arms from the Japanese. When the Chinese arrived they found that the Chinese central government had taken over Yunnan so they could not return to control. The Chinese generals were provided with gold by the Vietnamese in exchange for their US weapons and the generals retired to Hong Kong.

The French, who had earlier returned to Saigon following the British, moved French troops to occupy the north. The forces of Ho and Giap moved into the countryside. Giap tried unsuccessful offensives against the French forces but had control of some of the countryside (but not the bishoprics, coastal provinces which Catholic converts had reclaimed from the sea and which were patrolled by Catholic militias). In October, 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed and it sought the China seat at the UN Security Council in January, 1950. UK and the Commonwealth had recognized the PRC as the government in place, so the US looked to France to join in the US veto as US did not wish to veto alone. The US agreed to send supplies to the newly developed Vietnamese army in exchange for France’s veto. (In protest the Soviets withdrew from the UN Security Council; thus the Soviets were not present to veto the UN resolution to intervene in Korea.)

The Korean War led to major changes. When President Truman order US naval, air and army forces to confront the North Korean forces in South Korea (June, 1950), he also order the US fleet to the Taiwan Straits to protect the Nationalist Chinese government and a US military assistance mission to Hanoi to assist the French. Meanwhile, the PRC, which had not supported the Vietminh in the hopes of diplomatic recognition by France, gave support to the Vietminh. In November, 1950 ChiCom forces massively over-ran the US army and marine divisions near the Chinese-North Korea border. The ChiCom forces captured large amounts of US weapons and munitions. Since the PRC used Soviet weapons, they transferred the US weapons to the Vietminh. As the US was increasing its supplies to France’s Vietnamese troops, the Vietminh could supply their US weapons by capturing supplies or buying US supplies on the black market.

Large offensives by the Vietminh were unsuccessful. The French thought that a new fort in the mountains near the Laos border would draw the Vietminh into a trap because they could not bring enough munitions to take it. Instead, the French Foreign Legion (including former German soldiers), Vietnamese and North African soldiers at Dien Bien Phu surrendered. Giap was able to supply the artillery and anti-aircraft guns which isolated the fort. Contrary to French strategy, Giap used endless numbers of laborers to carry the munitions over the mountains, or followed the example of the unexpected success of the Japanese imperial army’s use of pushing bundles on bicycles through the jungles in Malaya and Singapore. At the time, a second military disaster for the French occurred in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. A major force led by France’s Korea Regimental Combat Team (the Korean Armistice was in July, 1953) along with Moroccan and Vietnamese regiments was travelling the main highway in the Central Highlands. The Vietminh dynamited the bridges along the highway isolating and defeating in turn the separated units. In March, 1954 in Geneva a conference of major powers was to meet regarding a peace treaty for Korea. That was never achieved but there was an Agreement to end the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam was to be divided at the 17th parallel: the Vietminh controlling the north, and Premier Diem controlling the south. The French were to leave, and the US became the sponsor of the south.

Two valuable studies were published by Bernard Fall: Hell in a Very Small Place: The Seige of Dien Bien Phu; and A Street Without Joy.

The south had remained out of Vietminh hands because while the French were fighting in the north, they had armed local militias of the three so-called ‘religious sects’: Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen. These had destroyed the Vietminh forces in the south. But, the US advisors saw them as a relic of the French administration, and allowed Diem to destroy them. As Diem established dictatorial rule, opposition developed, mainly led by the Vietcong, supported by Giap. As the internal situation in the south became more in crisis and the US became more deeply involved, northern forces came south. In 1966, the South Vietnamese army commanders in the I-Corps (the northern of the four sectors of operations), which were working with the US Marines, challenged the corrupt generals in Saigon. US ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and Lyndon Johnson supported the Saigon generals who defeated the    I-Corps divisions which melted into the jungles and joined the Vietcong. In February, 1968 when Giap launched the Tet New Year offensive, these I Corps forces re-emerged to hold Hue and other cities for long sieges. Lyndon Johnson drew the conclusion that the conflict would not be soon terminated and announced he would not seek re-election and began peace negotiations in Paris. The Vietnam peace agreement was finalized under Richard Nixon.

Giap sacrificed hundreds of thousands of his forces in combat following the Czarist and Soviet strategy of sacrificing their troops (with shortage of weapons, they had the rear troops pick up the weapons of the dead first ranks). After the Vietminh took over South Vietnam, Giap’s final battle was against a Chinese Communist invasion of Vietnam in 1979 in response to Hanoi’s defeat of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. The Chinese were repulsed, and Vietnam tends to prefer to align with far away US rather than very near by China.