General Vo Nguyen Giap — from liberation fighter to environmentalist

Issue 
Mourners line up to pay homage to General Vo Nguyen Giap on October 6 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Few people from the 20th century can really claim to have changed history. One of them was General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the Vietnamese people to defeat the French and American empires.

Giap died on October 4, aged 102.

Mainly remembered as a military leader, Giap was also one of Vietnam’s most significant political leaders. He was a revolutionary intellectual, an environmentalist and a campaigner for progressive change within Vietnam.

According to Vietnamese law, state funerals are only given to former heads of state or government. Defense minister for long periods, deputy prime minister was highest official post he rose to.

Yet the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) was always going to break the rules for Giap, regarded as a national treasure. The very suggestion of it provoked outrage. The mass outpouring for his funeral demonstrated the enormous esteem in which he was held.

Born Vo Giap in the north-central province of Quang Binh in 1911, the surname Vo in Vietnamese refers, coincidentally, to a fighter, a warrior. But one of Giap’s nicknames was Brother Van ― where “Van” means literature. “Vo” and “Van” represented the two sides of the character of this very well read, intellectual military officer.

Just one example of how these two aspects combined was his skill with languages. When he was building the people’s army in the 1940s in remote mountain regions, he learned four languages of ethnic minority peoples of the region. He even wrote poems in one of them.

Giap came from a nationalist family. His maternal grandfather had joined the Can Vuong Resistance against the French, and his father had also joined uprisings against the French in the 1880s.

His father was arrested in 1919, when Giap was eight and died in prison. One of his older sisters was arrested soon after, and died soon after release due to prison conditions.

These two events, as well as the death in prison of his first wife and fellow revolutionary, Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, in the 1940s, left indelible marks of justified hatred for the colonial oppressor on the young Giap. His daughter, Hong Anh, told Giap’s biographer, that “he carries in his soul wounds that even time cannot heal”.

Giap was already a student movement organiser at his high school, for which he was expelled and returned to his village.

There he joined the Tan Viet party, which introduced him to communist ideas. In 1926, he read Ho Chi Minh’s Colonialism on Trial, which changed his life forever.

After further arrests and a jail sentence, Giap moved to Hanoi, where he joined the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1931. In Hanoi, he studied law, and also worked as a high school history and French teacher.

Giap briefly left for China in May 1940 when the French colonial rulers outlawed the part. On his return with Ho, they set up the precursor to the famous Viet Minh, first to fight the war-time occupation by Japan and then the French when they returned.

After driving out the Japanese, Ho proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945.

However, the revolutionaries knew the French planned to return. Giap founded the Vietnamese People’s Army (VPA) on December 2, 1944, consisting of 31 men and three women.

By the time of next year's independence proclamation, the VPA had about 5000 soldiers.

Defeating France

Giap is renowned his role in leading the Vietnamese people’s war against French colonialism. In particular, he is famed for his role in the smashing victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 ― one of history’s more significant battles that a huge global impact.

In the battle, a small, poor country brought about a devastating defeat to a major imperialist power. It provided extraordinary encouragement to hundreds of millions of people throughout the colonial world trying to throw off their oppressor.

It is above all due to this victory that Giap, along with Ho, acquired mythic status among the world’s peoples.

The essence of Giap's military strategy can be found in his statement: “All citizens are soldiers. All villages and wards are fortresses, and our entire country is a vast battlefield on which the enemy is besieged, attacked and defeated.”

Giap was one of the 20th century’s leading practitioners and theoreticians of “people’s war,” involving a vast array of tactics that aimed to involve ordinary people at every level in the fight to defeat the far-better armed oppressor.

Describing the final battle of Dien Bien Phu, a strategic French military post in the mountainous north-west of Vietnam, Jack Smith wrote in the October 12 Liberation News: “Giap figured out what to do ― one of the most audacious maneuvers in modern military history …

“His plan required 50,000 troops, thousands of support forces, 24 howitzers, and antiaircraft guns, ammunition and supplies for an army ...

“The problem was how to get the howitzers up the mountains without being detected despite roadless, 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 ― discovered the Viet Minh had heavy weapons on March 14, 1954, when the first shot came crashing down upon them. After two weeks of this bombardment, Giap sent in the troops. It was a tough fight, including in trIt is a very difficult thing to look back and suggest how things may have turned out better if the Ho-Giap strategy had been adopted instead, and the offensive was thus delayed. But while Giap, as a loyal party member, always publicly defended the offensive for its impact politically, the facts show he cannot be blamed for a strategy that resulted in so much death.

Describing the final battle of Dien Bien Phu, a strategic French military post in the mountainous north-west of Vietnam, Jack Smith wrote in the October 12 Liberation News: “Giap figured out what to do ― one of the most audacious maneuvers in modern military history …

“His plan required 50,000 troops, thousands of support forces, 24 howitzers, and antiaircraft guns, ammunition and supplies for an army ...

“The problem was how to get the howitzers up the mountains without being detected despite roadless, 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 ― discovered the Viet Minh had heavy weapons on March 14, 1954, when the first shot came crashing down upon them. After two weeks of this bombardment, Giap sent in the troops. It was a tough fight, including in trIt is a very difficult thing to look back and suggest how things may have turned out better if the Ho-Giap strategy had been adopted instead, and the offensive was thus delayed. But while Giap, as a loyal party member, always publicly defended the offensive for its impact politically, the facts show he cannot be blamed for a strategy that resulted in so much death.
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“On May 7, Giap sent 25,000 Viet Minh on a final assault on the remainder of the garrison ― and it was over.”

French rule was finished.

However, after the supposedly temporary division of Vietnam into north and south at the Geneva Conference in 1954, the ruling Communist Party government in the north faced questions of how much stress to put on aiding the liberation movement in the south and pushing reunification, compared with carrying out its program for social transformation in half a country.

Taking on the US

By 1959, the US was already sending huge aid and advisors to the Ngo Dihn Diem regime in the south. It was clear the northern cadres had to step in and deliver military aid to the struggle in the south.

Differences emerged over strategy among the liberation forces, which were partly intertwined with the Sino-Soviet split that widened in the early 1960s.

In 1963, the CPV decided it needed to step up support to the military struggle in the south.

However, several cadres, led by Hoang Minh Chinh, argued the division of Vietnam could only be resolved by diplomatic and not military means, in line with the Kremlin’s philosophy of “peaceful coexistence”.

Giap and party general-secretary Le Duan both recognised the need for military intervention, but had different ideas over the nature of armed struggle and its relation to political struggle.

All agreed the struggle would involve a combination of large scale military battles, guerilla warfare, winning support of the people politically and diplomatic means. However, Le Duan gave greater weight to big battles. Giap, on the other hand, emphasised guerilla struggle, which had to go hand in hand with gathering popular support and be done in a way geared to win further support.

Giap’s views put greater stress on coordinating with the popular masses in the cities, as part of preparing for urban insurrections.

Tet offensive

Most commentary on Giap’s death claims he was the master of the famous Tet Offensive of 1968. In that offensive, North Vietnamese and southern National Liberation Front troops launched huge simultaneous surprise attacks, involving about 80,000 soldiers, on five cities, 36 provincial capitals and 64 district capitals throughout Vietnam.

Huge US counter-attacks by air killed thousands of NLF fighters. Indeed it was widely regarded as an enormous military setback and body blow to the southern guerilla forces. Some units lost the overwhelming majority of their soldiers.

However, the Tet Offensive is also regarded as the turning point in the war due to the political impact it had inside the US, where it helped provoke widespread opposition to the war and fuelled a sense the US military could be defeated.

While the political impact is undeniable, Western propaganda has used the Tet offensive to help demonise Giap as a “ruthless” military chief who was unmoved by how many of his troops were slaughtered “just to achieve his political ends”.

Of course, such arguments are self-serving hypocrisy given that the US slaughtered millions of Vietnamese. The US carried out the largest-scale carpet bombing in history, dropping more tonnage of bombs on Vietnam than during the entire World War II. It also waged history’s longest chemical war with Agent Orange.

However, recent research suggests the charge against Giap in relation to Tet is unwarranted. Actually, Giap and Ho had strong reservations about the offensive, believing it was premature and more time was needed to patiently build up conditions for popular uprisings.

It is a difficult to guess what would have happened if Giap and Ho's arguments for holding off the offensive had been heeded, but it is clear Giap cannot be blamed for the large-scale deaths it entailed.

Fall of Saigon

Le Duan had meanwhile been consolidating power via building a core of close supporters among certain cadres within the party bureaucracy and security apparatus. He used the Tet events against Giap and his supporters.

Despite being sidelined within the party apparatus, Giap continued to play the crucial role as defense minister in ensuring Vietnam’s victory over the US in 1975.

Colonel Bui Tin, who was with Giap as a journalist for the party paper Nhan Dan when Saigon fell, explained: “Giap was always in direct command throughout the 1975 offensive and it was he who really led it to victory.”

Bui Tin reports on this moving event on May 7 1975, a few days after victory, when Giap arrived at Independence Palace in Saigon: “An officer said that he had acquired a good-quality piano from a military base in the South which he would send to General Giap’s home in Hanoi.

“I have never seen Giap so angry. With his eyes blazing and uttering obscenities, he replied that it was impossible for him to accept such booty: what would everybody else who had participated in the campaign expect? After that I respected General Giap even more.”

Sidelined

The decade after 1975 was extremely hard for Vietnam. The US maintained a criminal embargo on the country, denied reconstruction aid after “bombing Vietnam back into the Stone Age” as US president Lyndon Johnston had put it, while the Chinese regime adopted an aggressive position and encouraged the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in neighbouring Cambodia to launch murderous attacks on Vietnam’s Mekong rice bowl region.

When Vietnam finally responded in 1979, entering Cambodia and helping the Cambodian people expel the Khmer Rouge, the US and China supported and armed a decade-long war by the Khmer Rouge from bases in Thailand.

China even briefly invaded Vietnam in early 1979, and although it was beaten back by heroic Vietnamese resistance, this caused significant destruction and deep psychological scars. The criminal US embargo was joined by the European Union, China, Australia, the southeast Asian capitalist dictatorships and countless other countries, crippling Vietnam’s ability to recover.

These circumstances also tied Vietnam more closely to the Soviet leadership and its policy choices than it would have preferred.

In such conditions, an inappropriately rapid and radical economic policy was pushed internally under Le Duan’s leadership, while the conditions of siege facilitated the exercise of a “war communist” style of political leadership.

It was in such circumstances that Giap, always far more a “leader of the people” than a machine man, was first removed as Secretary of the Central Military Commission in 1977, then replaced as defence minister by Van Tien Dung in 1980, and finally dropped from the Politburo at the fifth party congress in 1982.

Following the beginnings of political and economic opening (Doi Moi) after the Sixth party congress in 1986, which the military were strongly supportive of and involved in, Giap was made a deputy prime minister until 1991, when he retired at 80.

Environment and democracy advocate

One of his close friends, world famous Vietnamese ecologist (and CPV member since 1954) Professor Vo Quy, explained to me that, in the 1980s, Giap had held largely the same ideas about “development” as most of his comrades, influenced by the Soviet model. That is, that a poor country needs rapid “large-scale” development in order to catch up.

While no one denied that Vietnam needed a good dose of this, as a “one-size-fits-all” policy panacea it had enormous implications for a poor country that could ill-afford it, not to mention huge environmental consequences.

One day Vo Quy gave Giap the famous book “Small is Beautiful” by EF Schumacher. Giap, always a prolific reader, read it in one night.

While he may not have accepted the book’s arguments in toto ― it basically replaces a “big” development schema with a “small” one as a panacea ― the effect on him was immediate. He asked for more books on environmental issues, and since then Giap maintained an enormous interest in these issues.

The issue came to a head in recent years when state and party leaders supported a huge project to mine bauxite and smelt aluminium in Vietnam’s central highlands.

The highlands had already been heavily deforested due to war and post-war development (much of the latter ill-conceived); large numbers of Vietnamese scientists and environmentalists held great fears for the environmental impact of this development on the region.

Also, the region is home to a large number of ethnic minorities, whose livelihoods depend on the forest. The potentially disastrous impact on them is also a major concern.

In January 2009, Giap wrote the first of three open letters to party and state leaders, pointing out the huge environmental destruction the project would entail, as well the displacement of local ethnic minorities and the threat to national security entailed by the fact the joint project was with a large Chinese company.

Giap also made his name over the past two decades for continually speaking out on the need for political reform, promoting socialist democracy and more openness.

In April 2006, Giap joined several other military veterans in demanding a full-scale investigation into a huge corruption scandal. They demanded action “even if it led to the highest levels”.

Giap said such scandals had “frozen the leading role of the Party and the management of the State and the supervision of the people”.

The image of someone of Giap’s stature as a kind of in-house, loyal party “dissident” has tended to excite many Western journalists and analysts.

Anti-capitalist

A common form of fantasy is to suggest that, as an advocate of democracy, Giap might also be pro-capitalist.

Certainly Giap never expressed any opposition to the Doi Moi economic renovation program, launched in 1986, that has lead to Vietnam having tens of thousands of private businesses, while the larger strategic areas of the economy remain state-owned.

But in all these years of speaking out on democratic, environmental and other issues, Giap has never uttered a single pro-capitalist statement. If anything, some statements can well be interpreted as frustration with the kinds of vices openings to the market economy has brought with it.

Indeed, as pro-capitalist Vietnamese politicians never stop talking about the need for endless, classless “economic growth”, Giap’s emphasis on the environment can be interpreted as a protest against voracious capitalism that ignores human and environmental costs.

When then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez visited Vietnam in 2006, Giap praised Chavez as part of a new generation of socialist fighters: “You together with President Fidel Castro have raised the flag of nationalism and socialism.”

He was certainly a lot more forthright in identifying with Chavez as a socialist firebrand than most of the Vietnamese leaders at the time.

The thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese that have publicly paid their last respects to Giap. The outpourings in the media and social media indicate the kind of esteem in which Giap is held.

Many a time the views they expressed to the media were along the lines that, other than Ho himself, there are simply no other leaders comparable to Giap; no other CPV leaders have ever come anywhere close to having such stature among Vietnamese people.

Meanwhile, among socialist movements globally, the feeling exists that “one of the greats” of 20th century revolution has died, comparable to only few.

However, it is great movements of peoples for social liberation, for liberation from the chains of class society and its ruthless exploitation, that create the environment for people such as Giap to come forward and lead.

[A much longer version of this piece can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]


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