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Saturday, 21 January 2012

General Vo Nguyen Giap - Principal Commander of Socialist Vietnam forces - Vietnam Wars


In year of 2012 General Vo Nguyen Giap was 101 years of age.

Most people, around the world know of Ho Chi Minh, and his political leadership of Communist Vietnamese ambitions to cast off the cloak of old European colonialism. The struggle of Vietnam to achieve their socialist nation’s independence was monumental, to say the least. This is because the political regime that Ho Chi Minh’s, Lao Dong Party, wanted was allied to the political ways of Communist countries like USSR and China. This caused great concern to western democratic nations in Europe and the North Americas, especially the USA. What followed, for Vietnam, was a war of thirty years against colossal powers to achieve this aim. Even to this day the durability of Socialist Vietnam is mind boggling.


Vo Nguyen Giap
and Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was helped in this great and horrendous endeavour by a principal commander. This man’s name was Vo Nguyen Giap. As I write this blog on 21st January 2012; Vo Nguyen Giap is 100 years old and will be 102 if he reaches 25th of August this year. I think the success of this man and his Vietnamese communist forces is largely due to incredible durability and being able to take colossal losses without giving in. Also the good use of whatever advantages his Communist forces could use and learning to adapt from mistakes. Vietnam’s wars were destined to become a roller coaster ride of gigantic and epic proportions that would span four decades from 1945 to 1975 and principal commander Vo Nguyen Giap would play instrumental parts in the titanic struggle of jungle and guerrilla warfare.


First would be a war with colonial France who was trying to reclaim her imperial conquered territories of French Indochina after her liberation from German occupation in World War Two. These countries were Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. During the World War II, Japan had conquered French Indochina, while Vo Nguyen Giap had been in China. He had fled here before Japan had over run French Indochina because colonial France had outlawed Communism and the political party he belonged to. Giap had married in 1939 and his wife had born him a daughter. He had to leave them behind with his family to evade capture by French authorities. However, his wife, baby daughter, sister, father and sister in law were all arrested and interned by French colonial authorities. In prison, Giap’s family were said to have been tortured before being executed, while his baby daughter perished in prison due to neglect. Understandably this would deeply embitter anyone and fuelled Giap’s determination to confront foreign powers occupying Vietnam. 

In China, Vo Nguyen Giap had become firm friends with Ho Chi Minh and both returned in 1944 when Japan was leaving Indochina. For a while British and Japanese soldiers tried to police the southern area of Vietnam while Nationalist China occupied the North. This was when the Second World War ended. In January 1946 the British agreed to pull out of the South while Nationalist China pulled out of the North. France wanted to re-establish colonial rule in French Indochina. What followed was the First Indochina war when France fought against Vietnamese Communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh and his principal military commander Vo Nguyen Giap. For the first three years, until 1949, France battled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s insurgent force that was called the Viet Minh. It was a guerrilla war in tropical forest and cultivated paddy fields where most of the Vietnamese people eked out a living. It was these peasant people that would become the victims of the dreadful wars that would unfold. Most found the notion of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam attractive and also feared betraying their countrymen who were struggling against an occupying European power. Some of the Vietnamese did side with the old colonial power of France but their commitment could not always be counted on. During this time Vo Nguyen Giap fought a difficult campaign to keep alive the idea of a Socialist Vietnam free of foreign interference. The struggle was becoming challenging but was costing the French huge sums of money to finance. The longer the Viet Minh could hold the countryside, the greater the colossal cost to France. This was a time when all the old imperial European powers were forced to pull out of former colonial possessions. The United Kingdom was negotiating withdrawals from many of its old former Empire areas. India was independent and across the world Europe was waking up to a new dawn. There were two new kids on the block; the USA and USSR and colonialism was out. Perhaps France took a little longer to realise this and, to a degree, believed she could carry on pre-1939.



Nationalist China was losing its own civil war against Communist Chinese forces, and in 1949 Vietnam’s northern border became linked to Communist China. This opened opportunities for the Viet Minh to acquire better weapons from allies in Red China and the Soviet Union. The war between Colonial France and the Viet Minh suddenly become more intense and major French outposts in North Vietnam were captured. This put France on a back foot and increased the intensity of the war. Back in France there was growing public concern against the costly war and many French people questioned why their nation should be fighting in a far off place when they needed the financial resources of the Indochina war for themselves after German occupation. Then in 1950, Commander Vo Nguyen Giap took part in a battle to capture a French Northern border outpost called Lang Song. This was a good success for the Viet Minh and marked the first turning point that was truly in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s favour. It sent shock waves through the French regime and began to deflate their will to continue the war.

In France the recruitment of its civilian population to fight in Indochina was deemed illegal because the war was most unpopular at home, where it was being referred to as the ‘dirty war.’ Vo Nguyen Giap was to become adapt on his enemies’ civilian population and lack of desire for such war. He began to learn how to capitalise on such things. The French forces consisted of some Vietnamese loyal to French colonial authorities, also Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and the infamous French Foreign Legion. The latter is believed to have had its ranks filled with ex-German soldiers from SS and even fugitive Gestapo tortures.


In November of 1951 French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny tried to lure the Viet Minh into an open conflict – hoping to deliver a crushing blow upon the Communist insurgents at Hoa Binh . Vo Nguyen Giap knew he had to meet the French in a more frontal and conventional battle because Hoa Binh was essential to oversee strategic valleys where the Viet Minh enjoyed the flow of troops weaponry and other things of logistical significance to maintain its war with France. The battle for Hoa Binh lasted from November 1951 to February 1952. The French occupied Hoa Binh but the Viet Minh continued to attack the supply route into the town. Every time French air forces cleared the areas, the Viet Minh would come back. In December of 1951, Vo Nguyen Giap launched a counter attack and heavy fighting ensued. The French held firm but the Viet Minh would not give up its renewed attacks on the supply route 6 leading to Hoa Binh. In January, French General de Lattre de Tassigny died from cancer and he was replaced by General Raoul Salan. France continued to fight with Viet Minh in the Hoa Binh region and along supply route 6, but by late February the French realised that keeping Hoa Binh was not cost effective. They pulled out of Hoa Binh and the region became Viet Minh controlled. Vo Nguyen Giap was wearing the French down with his continuous war of attrition. His forces had also acquired Soviet Union weaponry including anti-aircraft guns and other artillery pieces. The Battle of Hoa Binh became another strategic victory for Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh fighters, even though his forces lost considerably more soldiers during the conflict. He had 3,445 Viet Minh killed, 307 captured and 7,000 plus wounded against French casualties of 894 killed or missing and 2,060 wounded.


France realised she was fighting a long drawn out and costly war and began attempts to negotiate with the Viet Minh, promising help and a view to Vietnamese independence. The Viet Minh would not trust these promises and continued to take the war to a new and more concentrated stage while listening unenthusiastically. As this preparation and peace convention was going on the war continued. France sent troops to fortify an area called Dien Bien Phu in of 1954. It was a military post that blocked a supply route from Laos and again; the French forces hoped it would draw the Viet Minh into more open conflict. Vo Nguyen Giap would be forced to reckon with the French soldiers at Dien Bien Phu. The determined Vietnamese principal commander had Ho Chi Minh’s support to confront the new obstacle of French power in any way he could. Vo Nguyen Giap managed to get his Viet Minh forces to haul huge artillery pieces through tropical jungle and over hilly terrain and covertly hide these artillery pieces in the surrounding jungle overlooking Dien Bien Phu. It was March of 1954 when the Viet Minh forces opened up with their artillery and began the battle siege of Dien Bien Phu. It would become an epic siege in which the French defenders would fight valiantly. Their air force would attempt to supply these defenders from the air but as the defencive perimeter shrunk the situation became more desperate. The battle lasted 54 days and despite parachute drops and reinforcements the Viet Minh finally over ran and captured the remaining forces of France. It left them with stronger negotiating powers at the peace conference and was the final nail in the coffin for French involvement in Indochina. Vietnam was lost to France after this battle.


At the Battle of Dien Bien Phu; French casualties were around 4,000 dead and missing with over 6,000 wounded among the 11,721 men captured by Viet Minh forces when the fortification fell. Of these prisoners, around 8,000 would die as prisoners of war. The French believe that around 23,000 Viet Minh soldiers perished during the siege while Vietnamese say their losses were around 5,000 dead and missing and 10,000 wounded. Also at least two US pilots were killed during the battle as US interests in Vietnam began to drag them into the conflict that would ensue in the future. France announced that she was to pull out of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam independent at Hanoi in 1954.


However, in Saigon to the south; an anti-communist government was formed. From the Geneva conference Vietnam was split in two - North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and to the south; Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) which was allied to the USA. The turbulent times ahead would see even more dreadful consequences for the Vietnamese people. North Vietnam wanted their country whole and could not agree to the separation but had established a firm base of operation for a new insurgent war to capture the south of Vietnam. There was a line called the 17th parallel between the north and south and although communist soldiers and insurgents began to penetrate the south, it was difficult for non-communists to venture north. In the south US military advisers tried to train the Saigon led troops and for almost 10 years continued to help battle against this new communist led insurgent force from the north. Some of the puppet leaders of the south were not up to the job and gradually the war become ever more intense until the USA decided to become directly involved in the defence of South Vietnam in 1965.



This new ominous phase of Vietnam’s independence war was to be catastrophic for the people that lived through this terrible time in Vietnam’s recent history. Vo Nguyen Giap was now leading in a new principal commander’s roll for Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam in which many of the peasants of South Vietnam would be caught up in a terrible hearts and mind’s conflict between two bitterly opposed foes. The USA had allies of the South Vietnamese army, Kingdom of Laos, Thailand, Republic of Korea, (South Korea) Australia and New Zealand. However the main heavy fighting was to be conducted by USA and South Vietnam. For the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Communist North Vietnam) there would be two principal fighting forces. The North Vietnam Army and South Vietnam insurgents loyal to Ho Chi Minh’s communist nation called Viet Cong.




Despite being the most powerful nation in the world; the USA was in a conflict where she had to abide by certain clear rules or find herself caught up in a bigger war with Red China and perhaps the USSR. In short the USA could not send troops across the 17th parallel into North Vietnam the results would be like the Korean War all over again. Instead she could fly bombing missions against the North but all ground war was fought in the south. There was also conflict in Laos and Cambodia that was not admitted too. This time, principal commander Vo Nguyen Giap’s communist forces were up against the most formidable enemy in the world, but with one distinct advantage. North Vietnam would not be attacked by land forces and this one advantage was used to the full. Every time the NVA or the Viet Cong were beaten by US led forces; North Vietnam remained a sanctuary where she could lick her wounds and remain ever resilient to renew fighting efforts against the south and her American protectors. This was a tremendous disadvantage to the USA as she had to fight with a hand tied behind her back. It is a common phrase expressed by Americans on the Vietnam War and is very true.



Because of television technology the US fought war in Vietnam was in our living rooms during evening times. I can remember as a kid watching some of the news reel clips and it began to sway many people’s view of the war. In the USA anti-war movements started up and North Vietnam’s principal commander Vo Nguyen Giap was able to later capitalise on such things. He made a few military mistakes at first when he tried to use his NVA forces to attack US army units in open conflict in 1965 during the early stages. However, US helicopter units were better equipped to re-supply their soldiers then the previous French forces. Technologically the American army, navy and air force were too good for them. However they had the sanctuary of the north beyond the 17th parallel and here they could retreat, reorganise and try again and again. They struggled for years fighting jungle guerrilla warfare with the Viet Cong trying to ambush American patrols. The NVA would launch attacks and try to occupy strategic geographical locations, though the US would always dislodge them and drive them away. There were some very big sieges by both sides but the US led forces were always prevalent in these encounters. Once again, Vo Nguyen Giap was to show his forces remained ever durable with attempts to continuously infiltrate the state of Vietnam (South Vietnam) along a supply route called the Ho Chi Minh trail. It led from the North to the South roughly along its border with Laos and Cambodia. The US constantly bombed and attacked the supply route with all sorts of weaponry from air and land, but could not stop the flow of supplies from the North of Vietnam. The war of attrition began to way heavy on the USA despite the military victories she was inflicting against the Viet Cong and NVA with colossal dead communist enemy body counts. Vo Nguyen Giap always seemed to find more Vietnamese to fight the war in the South and it began to be realised that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) had the endless will to continue fighting while she had the North as a sanctuary no-go area against the USA. It seemed that an endless stalemate had been reached because the communist forces could not hope to win a military victory against the USA. However, a political one could do damage and one such act did the trick for Vo Nguyen Giap’s forces. It came in 1968 and was called the Tet Offencive.


Tet was a cease fire time to celebrate Vietnamese New Year and it was broken the length and breadth of South Vietnam when regular NVA and Insurgent Viet Cong came out of the wood work and attacked strategic locations throughout the country of South Vietnam. It took the USA and South Vietnam by surprise. In Saigon, communist insurgents attacked the US embassy and though all attackers were killed during a gun battle; newsmen brought the action into living rooms all over the world via television news. Militarily the Vietnamese forces were quickly killed – many brutally. One famous news reel showed a bound Viet Cong man paraded in the streets of a South Vietnamese street. As the Viet Cong prisoner stands before the news camera he is shot in the side of his head by a South Vietnamese soldier. The wretched Viet Cong prisoner crumples to the ground with a dreadful fountain of blood escaping from his head – a live execution that came into people’s living rooms. The political implications of the Tet offencive were devastating to the US military and it started the beginning of the end for their continued involvement and support. The US would fight on doggedly winning more battles for another 5 years but would withdraw from the conflict in 1973, leaving the South Vietnam Armed forces to continue fighting the communist North. The USA direct intervention lasted from 1965 to 1973 and would result in over 53,000 US personnel killed with over 303,000 wounded. To be fair, the USA did not get defeated militarily, but was unable to defeat North Vietnam militarily either, because she could not access fortress North Vietnam – it was a no-go area for the USA ground forces.



I think it is also fair to mention that the US stand in Vietnam did achieve one long term result for anti-communists. It stopped Thailand and other neighbouring countries falling to communist rule. What North Vietnam achieved through resilience, perhaps the USA did through endurance on a much grander scale. I say this because bigger communist threats lost to a similar tactic trying to confront the USA during the cold war period.


However, back to the principal military leader of Vietnam’s communist forces; Vo Nguyen Giap played another key role when the North Vietnam army launched new offensives against the South after the US forces left in 1973. For a time the South held the communists back but a new offencive signalled the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Saigon fell to North Vietnam forces and the country became united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.


Vo Nguyen Giap remained minister of National Defence after the war and was made deputy Prime Minister from 1976 to 1980. He remained a prominent figure in Vietnamese politics and retired in 1990. Today he is 100 years of age and greatly respected by most Vietnamese and, I would imagine, by some of his former foes. He has met some prominent US officers from the bygone days of the war on more amicable occasions. In 1995 Vo Nguyen Giap met former US defence secretary Robert McNamara. The US politician asked what happened during the second Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 which led to President Johnson sending US troops into Vietnam. Giap replied that nothing happened and believed the incident was prefabricated, which surprised Robert McNamara.


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