Revisitng Dien Bien Phu

Vo Nguyen Giap



On 4 October 2013, in a military hospital in Hanoi, where he had lived for the last few years of his life, General Vo Nguyen Giap, the lengendary Vietnamese, staunch, loyal and devoted communist, and a man almost universally recognised as one of humanity's greatest military geniuses of all times, sometimes referred to as the 'Red Napoleon', passed away at the grand age of 102 (103 according to the East Asian method of calculating age).

Despite his very advanced years, and the succession of generations in a rapidly changing Vietnamese society, General Giap's passing was marked by an outpouring of public grief, with many hundreds of thousands of people, of all ages and from all walks of life, tearfully mourning the last surviving leader from the liberation generation led by Uncle Ho Chi Minh, who had changed not only the destiny of their nation, but the history of the world, through decades of arduous armed struggle against successively Japanese, French and US imperialism.

Despite his undoubted military genius, Giap never studied in a military academy for even a single day. Rather, he was self-taught and learned on the battlefield.

He was familiar with Vietnam's long history of resisting foreign invasions and domination. Whilst he studied that experience, he primarily learned from the extensive contemporary military writings of China's Mao Zedong, adapting them to the concrete conditions of Vietnam. He further learned from the Vietnamese people's great leader Ho Chi Minh, as well as from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. His own military writings, published in an English language anthology, under the title, The military art of people's war, rank second only to those of Mao in outlining the path of armed struggle that needs to be followed by the oppressed nations and peoples in the epoch of imperialism.

Vo Nguyen Giap was born in 1911 to an educated farming family with strong patriotic views against French colonialism, which occupied parts, then all, of Vietnam starting in the mid-1800s. His father took part in unsuccessful uprisings against French domination in the 1880s. Years later he was arrested for subversion and was killed in prison in 1919, when his son was eight. Soon afterward, one of his elder sisters was arrested and eventually released due to illness brought about by prison conditions, and died weeks later when her younger brother was nine. When he was an adult, the French arrested his first wife, who also died in prison.

Giap's name will forever be associated with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, which even the right wing Wall Street Journal, in its obituary, described as sounding the death knell of western colonialism in Asia.

By 1953, French generals feared the insurrection was spreading across Vietnam's western border into Laos after a Viet Minh unit attacked French border outposts in that country. This convinced the French commander, General Henri Navarre, to establish a major military base near the small town of Dien Bien Phu, just 10 miles from the border in north-west Vietnam. He intended to interdict Vietnamese forces heading to Laos or lure them to attack a base that he considered invulnerable because of its fortifications, and the fact that it was surrounded by mountains, with a nearby former Japanese airstrip for resupply. Navarre believed Giap did not possess heavy artillery or the means to transport such tonnage up the mountains and into position.

But Navarre was wrong. Giap had artillery, but he kept it a secret until the right moment. His plan required 50,000 troops, thousands of support forces, 24 howitzers, and anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and all the other supplies needed for an army. Each howitzer weighed between three and seven tons.

The problem was how to get the howitzers up the mountains without being detected, in spite of the roadless and very difficult terrain. He decided that large teams of porters would push and haul each piece up the back side of the mountains, facing away from the base. Once there, they would tunnel and drag the howitzers to the forward slopes on the other side facing the enemy down below, and position them to cause maximum damage to various parts of the sprawling base. It was an incredible accomplishment.

The French - who numbered about 13,000 men - discovered the Viet Minh had heavy weapons on 14 March 1954, when the first shots came crashing down upon them. After two weeks of this bombardment, Giap sent in the troops. It was a tough fight, including in trenches. On 7 May, Giap sent 25,000 Viet Minh on a final assault on the remainder of the garrison and with this victory for the people's forces, French imperialism finally lost the will to retain a colonial presence in East Asia.

On learning of Giap's death, his Russian friend, Senior Lieutenant General Khiupenhen Anatoli Ivanovich aptly said that the victory at Dien Bien Phu could be seen as the Vietnamese equivalent of the Soviet Union's triumph at Stalingrad.

However, the dream of national unity and full independence was still to elude the Vietnamese people for decades, as US imperialism promptly stepped into the gap vacated by France, unleashing a genocidal war in which several million Vietnamese were killed, and which ended only with the liberation of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) on 30 April 1975.

Giap played a central part in every twist and turn of that epic war of liberation. One of his greatest accomplishments was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

This consisted of newly built trails connected to many refurbished old paths from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, into Laos, south through Cambodia, to various exits in South Vietnam. Much of its route is covered by thick jungle foliage, hiding the traffic from the air. It was put together, constantly repaired, and sometimes diverted because of US air strikes, between 1959 and 1975. It was clear enough by 1973, when the decisive battle for the complete liberation of South Vietnam was being prepared, for heavy trucks to travel its entire length, said to be over 600 miles.

As the Ho Chi Minh Campaign gathered momentum, on 7 April 1975, Giap signed an order that read, "quicker, even quicker, daring, and even more daring, make use of every minute, every hour to advance to the south. Determine to fight and win." Just over three weeks later, Vietnam was liberated and the last US aggressors fled by helicopter, their tails firmly between their legs.
Thus ended the first war, in which US imperialism, the most powerful aggressor in history, was completely and comprehensively defeated.

Vol. 46, No. 23, Dec 15 -21, 2013

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