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Proletarian issue 44 (October 2011)
1911 special: General Giáp's hundredth birthday
Master of the art and science of people’s war; loved and respected by the Vietnamese and all oppressed people.
The great Vietnamese general, Võ Nguyên Giáp, was born in An Xa village in Quang Binh province on 25 August 1911. On this 100th anniversary of his birth, we send comradely greetings both to him and to the proud Vietnamese people.

Giáp is known and celebrated worldwide. Not for his longevity, which is remarkable, but for his genius in military organisation and battle preparation, and for his stunning victories against French, Japanese and US imperialist forces.

Revolutionary beginnings

Giáp’s early life in that small farming village was marked by the deaths in quick succession of first his father and then his elder sister at the hands of the French colonial regime. Mr Giáp Senior, who had been a long-time activist against colonial rule and had participated in uprisings against the French in 1885 and 1888, was imprisoned for ‘subversive activity’ and died in prison a few weeks later.

Shortly thereafter, one of Giáp’s two sisters was also arrested and imprisoned. Although she was later freed, she became ill and died as a result of the harsh prison conditions within weeks of her release.

These traumatic events had a great impact on the young Giáp and would help to keep him focused throughout his life on the grim reality of imperialist domination and the need to destroy it.

At the age of 13, Giáp left the village to attend a roman catholic-administered school where he became fluent in French and from where his clandestine nationalist activities eventually got him expelled.

Fighting the French

In the following years he made the journey from nationalism to communism and studied military history and political economy in depth. He was a member of the semi-legal communist party, but when the French fully banned it in the late 1930s there began a serious round-up of leading members, many of whom were shot instantly.

Giáp’s wife and sister-in-law were caught. His sister-in-law, Nguyễn Thi Minh Khai, a leading member of the Vietnamese Communist Party who had studied in the Soviet Union, was executed after a hasty trial, while his young wife, Nguyễn Thi Quang Thai, received a 15-year sentence, but died in prison within a short period. Giáp, along with many other comrades, escaped to China where they regrouped, studied and planned.

Although the Chinese communists had their hands full leading the fight against the Japanese invasion of China, the Vietnamese comrades were well looked after.

Giáp wrote of this time: “Since my coming to China, I had realised all the more clearly to what extent the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions were closely related to each other. I was especially aware of the heartfelt care the Chinese communist party showed the Vietnamese revolution. Our Chinese comrades were very helpful. Wherever we went we were treated like blood brothers.

Fighting the Japanese

As the second world war developed, conditions in Vietnam and around the world ripened and turned against German and Japanese fascism. The Vietnamese revolutionaries, now grouped in the Vietnam Independence League, or Viet Minh for short, melted back across the border to raise their people in armed revolt against the French colonial troops that occupied Vietnam under the direction of the Vichy government and the Japanese.

Horrific punishments and mutilations were meted out to many captured revolutionaries before they were executed, and families and whole villages were often included in the retribution of the enraged imperialists, but still the Vietnamese rose and followed their leaders. Every atrocity that was committed to cow the people only succeeded in firming their resolve to be rid of the imperialist bloodsuckers.

After the liberation of Paris, the Japanese turned on the French and left the Viet Minh with one enemy instead of two. Giáp was given command of the Propaganda and Liberation Unit (the nucleus of what would later become the National Liberation Army) and as new units were formed and joined by armed villagers a massive revolutionary force came into being very quickly. In fact, as the army advanced, uprisings of the people were springing up ahead of its arrival, so that the whole country became an unstoppable revolutionary mass, which overran the Japanese occupiers and their puppet administration.

In September 1945, Comrade Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He was elected as national President of the country’s first independent administration, while Giáp was Minister for the Interior.

The people’s celebrations were short-lived, however. Almost immediately, British imperialism, using a mixture of its own troops and Japanese prisoners that they rearmed for the purpose, invaded, suppressing the new government so that the French could be reinstated as colonial masters. It was the start of an eight-year struggle to once more remove French imperialism from Vietnam.

Dien Bien Phu

It was during this struggle that Giáp first earned worldwide fame in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, during which he not only convinced his adversary, General Henri Navarre, that the Vietnamese would not and indeed could not attack the strong defensive position of Dien Bien Phu, but, by attacking small, French-held towns and military columns around the area, got Navarre to bring even more of his forces into the area and concentrate them at Dien Bien Phu.

Dien Bien Phu was in a valley, but included several raised positions, each of which had a good view of the others. It was viewed as an impregnable fortress and, with a well-defended airstrip, Navarre was confident that he could keep pouring men and supplies into the area via the air, thus denying his enemies the chance of ambushing his supply lines.

So confident was General Navarre that, in December 1953, just before the battle of Dien Bien Phu, he said “A year ago none of us could see victory. Now we can see it clearly, like light at the end of the tunnel.”

Giáp, meanwhile, had been secretly building up the Vietnamese liberation forces in the area, using night marches and excellent camouflage until he had filled the surrounding hills with troops, heavy artillery (which was constantly being moved) and anti-aircraft guns. He rained the French positions with shells, made sure that planes could not land to re-supply the French troops and shot down many of the planes that tried to drop supplies and men by parachute.

Giáp’s troops dug trenches down from the hills right up to each of the French positions, which they took piecemeal rather than trying to overrun the whole ‘impregnable fortress’ in one go, keeping themselves under cover from French bullets and shells for as long as possible. The battle took 55 days and when it was over the French had not only lost Dien Bien Phu and thousands of soldiers, but had also lost the will to keep fighting.

The French surrendered on 7 May 1954. The next day, they announced their intention to withdraw from the country. It is worth noting that in the last days of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the US air force flew several bombing raids over the surrounding hills in an attempt to support the trapped French imperialist troops and stop the ‘godless communists’.

Fighting the USA

Following what became known as the Tonkin incident, which was a fabrication of the CIA, the US threw its not inconsiderable military weight into Vietnam, installing a series of puppet governments in the south of the country, and setting up a rival capital at Saigon in opposition to the legitimate government, whose capital was Hanoi.

In his role as the Commander in Chief of the People’s Army, Giáp masterminded many battles and strategies during the epic resistance against the US war machine. This included the universally acknowledged turning point of the war, the Tet Offensive, which totally wrong-footed the US forces and their satellites and without which the US butchers’ ignominious flight from Saigon as the people’s army’s tanks rolled in might have been postponed for years.

Giáp did not have the technology available to the US forces, but he had a better understanding of the situation than the American generals and he understood that “The decisive factor of victory on the battlefield is the readiness of the revolutionary masses to go forward, shed their blood, make all the sacrifices required of them, and fight for their fundamental class interests and for the nation’s right to life.”

Vo Nguyen Giáp’s military abilities are beyond question. He is the general who was in supreme command of his nation’s army for a full 30 years and was never defeated; a man who went from commanding 34 soldiers to around a million, yet he always combined his soldiering with political duties. He served throughout the 1960s and 70s as deputy prime minister and defence minister, and even at the age of 80 he was still deputy chairman of Vietnam’s council of ministers.

Indeed, General Giáp’s political understanding shone through his military decisions. Asked by the Liberation News Service in early 1969 if he could say that the US had lost the war, suffered a military defeat, Giáp, speaking a truth that US imperialism couldn’t understand then or now, answered in the affirmative, explaining that “What [the American Generals] didn’t know was that, in their weakness, the Saigon leaders wouldn’t be able to take advantage of American aid.

“Because what was the purpose of the American aggression in Vietnam? To build up a new-style colony with a puppet government. But to build up such a colony you need a government that’s stable, and the Saigon government is unstable in the extreme. It has no influence on the population; people don’t believe in it.

“So look what sort of jam the Americans have got themselves into. They can’t withdraw from Vietnam even if they want to, because in order to withdraw they’d have to leave a stable political situation behind them. That is, a bunch of lackeys to take their place. But lackeys that are solid and strong.

“And the puppet government of Saigon isn’t strong and it isn’t solid. It’s not even a good lackey. It can’t be kept going even with tanks to hold it up.

“So how can the Americans withdraw? And yet they have to get out. They can’t keep six hundred thousand men in Vietnam for another ten or fifteen years. That is their political defeat: they can’t win politically in spite of all their military apparatus.”

We note that this lesson, so simply put by General Giáp more than 30 years ago, has still not been learned by the imperialists, who are finding themselves in the same bind in Afghanistan and Iraq – and now Libya.

Giáp is loved and revered not only by the Vietnamese masses, but by oppressed and anti-imperialist people all over the world. He is a living symbol of the indomitable revolutionary spirit, and an inspiration to any and all who line up against imperialism. It will be our great pleasure to raise a salute to this hero of the people on his 100th birthday.

All quotes are taken from The Military Art of People’s War – Selected Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap and Giap – The Victor in Vietnam by Peter Macdonald.

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