Looks sharp! Who was he?
General Giap was one of the 20th century’s foremost military commanders. He made his name commanding the military wing of the Viet Minh during the Second World War, before becoming commander-in-chief of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
Occupation: commander in the People’s Army of Vietnam; Minister of Defence; Deputy Prime Minster of Vietnam
Key qualities: strategy, activism, charisma
Greatest achievement: being the first general to defeat the United States in war
So what did he fight for?
Vietnamese independence. France colonised the whole of the Indochinese Peninsula between 1862 and 1945, using the agriculturally rich territory as a base from which to export raw materials for the benefit of the French colonial empire.
The Japanese invaded French Indochina in 1940, and the Vichy regime permitted them to station troops in Vietnam, as long as France retained administrative control. The Japanese rose up against the French and assumed full control of the country in March 1945, only to be defeated by the Allies in September.
During the same period, resistance to foreign occupation grew in Vietnam. Giap joined the Communist Party in 1931 to campaign against French rule, and by the mid-1940s he had gathered enough fighters to challenge both the French and the Japanese, despite being outnumbered.
That’s Brave! Did he succeed?
Over time, yes. Having been exiled to China with the rest of Vietnam’s Communists in 1940, Giap joined Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam Independence League (the Viet Minh). He helped spread the Party’s message by writing propaganda, but soon found himself back in Vietnam in armed combat.
Giap was a gifted strategist and guerrilla-war mastermind. Hiding in the mountains of north-eastern Vietnam, he built a small force of combatants sympathetic to the nationalist-Communist cause. Ho Chi Minh appointed him commander of the newly formed Vietnam Liberation Army (later renamed the People’s Army of Vietnam) in 1944, which began attacking French outposts in December of that year.
By April 1945, the Viet Minh numbered some 5,000 fighters, and, with US support, Giap’s army forced the Japanese to surrender, making huge territorial gains.
Impressive! So he got what he wanted?
Not exactly. Although Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September 1945, Truman, Churchill, and Stalin had other plans for Vietnam’s future.
Carving up the country among themselves, the Allies placed northern Vietnam under the control of Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-shek, while the British took control of the southern half of the country.
The Japanese were driven out, but the French were keen to restore their power over Vietnam. The British gave the south of the country to France in October 1945, and in May 1946 the French negotiated a deal with China that gave them full control of the north as well. But the old tensions between the Vietnamese and their French overlords quickly came to a head, culminating in the First Indochina War (1946-1954).
The war was long and gruelling, but Giap’s forces were strengthened with support from Communist China and the Soviet Union. Using guerrilla tactics in combination with conventional military strategy and heavy artillery, Giap led the Viet Minh to a decisive victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954).
Vietnam, however, remained divided between Communist forces in the North and the US-backed anti-Communist Republic of Vietnam in the South.
What was Giap’s greatest victory?
Giap’s greatest tactical victory was arguably his success at Dien Bien Phu, but it was his strategic triumph victory over the United States during the Vietnam War that secured Vietnamese independence.
The US, keen to contain the spread of Communism, had increased its military presence in South Vietnam and begun an aerial bombing campaign in the North.
In response, Giap implemented the politically successful Tet Offensive in 1968. While the offensive failed in its original aim of whipping up full-blown revolution in the South, the high casualties shocked the US and led to a widespread lack of support for the war among the American public, resulting in America’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.
Without US support, the South fell to the Communists, and North and South Vietnam were finally reunified in 1976. Giap later described the Fall of Saigon (South Vietnam’s capital) as the ‘happiest moment in this short life of mine’.