General Giap's reputation grows with age

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2008, 12:00am

Taxi drivers zipping down Hoang Dieu in central Hanoi like to point out the house of its most famous resident.

'That's where General Giap lives,' they say in hushed tones, nodding in the direction of a French-era villa shaded by tall trees. Despite the blare of horns, it is one of the Vietnamese capital's best neighbourhoods, home to retired senior party and military officials.

For General Vo Nguyen Giap, it is perfect real estate. Across the street is the ancient citadel, home to the People's Army of Vietnam he founded with a tiny band of armed peasants, and built into one of the world's most feared standing armies, capable of both sustained guerilla campaigns and more conventional strikes. Out the back and across Ba Dinh Square, his comrade Ho Chi Minh lies in state.

General Giap, 97, is the last surviving link to the earliest days of Ho's revolution - an effort that grew out of the ashes of the second world war to drive France from colonial Indochina before the long struggle against the former South Vietnam and its US allies.

This month, Vietnamese historians are planning to honour the 60th anniversary of General Giap becoming a general by presenting him with an ancient sword and ceremonial seal. They will be celebrating one of the most influential figures in modern history, known for his charisma and military brilliance - and ruthlessness.

The event may also be one of General Giap's last public appearances. While he has remained active, ill health has dogged him in the past few months.

That activity saw him play an unscripted role at the Communist Party's 10th congress two years ago. Sidelined two decades earlier by greyer apparatchiks, General Giap finally found his moral authority unquestioned as the sole survivor of the party's earliest days. Meeting younger leaders as a 'special adviser', the white-haired general urged greater internal democracy and transparency, and demanded tougher action against corruption.

'A party that conceals its defects is a spoiled one,' he wrote just ahead of the five-yearly meeting. 'A party that dares to admit and clarify as well as fix its errors is a brave, strong and true one.'

The comments were seen as a knock against more conservative forces wary of further reform, surprising many observers who had counted out General Giap years earlier. 'He's been like a lion in winter for 25 years,' said one party source at the time. 'Suddenly, it is spring in his garden.'

The road to that moral authority began in the early 1930s as the young man, the son of a low-ranked mandarin, dabbled in student nationalism and teaching, regaling his charges with vivid descriptions of Napoleon's battles from memory.

Despite being arrested by the French as an agitator, he graduated in law from Hanoi University in 1937, fleeing to the jungles of southern China to join Ho Chi Minh's fledgling Indochina communist movement as the second world war broke out.

His energy, motivation and intensity - his wife and child had died in prison - impressed Ho, who sent him back into Vietnam's mountainous borders to build an army from scratch, instructing him to absorb the lessons of Mao Zedong's guerilla tactics.

He threw himself at his work, becoming Ho's defence and interior minister when he proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. The French returned, however, and Ho and General Giap retreated to the mountains. The general played a key role in internal purges as the fledgling communists weakened other nationalist groups.

He quickly forged a formidable peasant force of 60,000 guerillas, motivated by revolutionary Leninist doctrine and strict discipline to win over local support. They swept across northern Vietnam at will, staging repeated ambushes against French convoys on isolated mountain passes, pinning down small garrisons for weeks. Funded by Washington, which reversed its flirtation with Ho and General Giap, France already had more than 150,000 casualties when it embarked on its fatal folly - a fortified camp in the high mountain valley of Dien Bien Phu, a key pathway to the relative safety of Laos.

General Giap launched a 55-day bombardment, cutting off the French supply lines. More than 4,000 French fighters died and the French were forced to leave Indochina, seeing an international agreement cut Vietnam in two.

He took the lessons into the fight against American forces seeking to protect South Vietnam a decade later. Facing massive firepower, he successfully argued internally to keep US forces off guard with guerilla strikes rather than set-piece battles, reasoning a protracted jungle war would wear them down.

The strategy still required great risks. In 1968, the height of the conflict, he launched the Tet Offensive, losing more than 15,000 of his best fighters - including his vast southern underground network - to attack dozens of cities and towns simultaneously. At one point, they even occupied the US embassy in Saigon. The offensive was a shattering military defeat, but a political victory that turned Americans against the war.

In his landmark work on the army that General Giap built, military historian Douglas Pike noted his skills as an organiser and a strategist but said his logistical prowess singled him out. He shocked the French by having his men haul artillery pieces high up sheer mountain faces to rain shells onto Dien Bien Phu, and formed the vast north-south supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the start of the war, it was a jungle trail of couriers struggling with heavily laden bicycles. By 1975 it was a road capable of taking fleets of trucks, so when northern forces finally took Saigon, they arrived in tanks.

The peace that followed was one battle that General Giap struggled to win. As younger generals took his role, he unsuccessfully argued against a conventional invasion and long occupation of Cambodia to destroy the Khmer Rouge, preferring to create and support a provisional government with guerilla tactics. Despite being right, he was sidelined into improving Vietnam's scientific resources and family planning.

While the party's collective leadership may have curbed his influence until recently, it has still quietly burnished his reputation at home and internationally. That process appears set to accelerate in the weeks and months ahead.