Vietnam's Legendary General Giap

Update: October, 11/2013 - 18:43
General Giap meets Vietnamese veterans in March 2005 in Ha Noi. — VNA Photo Tung Lam

By Lee Keun-yeop

HA NOI― Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square is the same as it was on September 2, 1945 when President Ho Chi Minh delivered to the nation the "Declaration of Independence" before half a million Hanoians here.

The slight difference is that at the western rim of the square stands the massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The same trust and respect can be seen on the face of every pilgrim from all over the land and overseas, waiting for their turn to pay tribute to the man they have cherished in their hearts intimately as Bac (Uncle) Ho in a queue of several hundred meters.

Under a shady grove at the southern rim nestles a modest two-story house facing a red flag with a golden star hoisted on top of the nearby Army Museum tower. This is the residence of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's legendary lord of the battle field.

Here he strolls, meets with visitors, and most of all writes a lot. His major works are "Dien Bien Phu" and "Road to Dien Bien Phu." The former represents his strategies, the latter being his autobiographical depictions in which readers may peep into his humanitarian views on the war.

The May 9, 1954, front-page headline in The Korea Times in blunt letters reads: "DIEN BIEN PHU FALLS." The wire service story says, "Dien Bien Phu fell today (May 7) in the Asian debacle that sealed with blood one of the most glorious and disastrous chapters in the annals of French armies … Fate of de Castries, the garrison commander and the defenders is not immediately ascertained …"

Prior to it, Time magazine (May 3, 1954) reported, "To Colonel De Casties in his commanding bunker came an unexpected message from President Eisenhower, `In common with millions of my countrymen, I salute the gallantry and stamina of the commander and soldiers who are defending Dien Bien Phu."'

"The next day Sir Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, paid tribute to the `heroic resistance' of the defenders of the Dien Bien Phu garrison."

The Dien Bien Phu campaign (March 13-May 7, 1954) was a battle between the French colonial army led by Colonel Christian De Castries and the Viet Minh regular army led by Gen. Giap in a densely fortified valley in the northwestern highland of Vietnam.

Colonel De Castries represented "Gallantry." General Vo Nguyen Giap (Mars the Armour) was called by a French journalist "a snow-covered volcano."

On the evening of May 7, 1954 after 55 days of bloody fighting, Giap's spokesman through Peking Radio announced the fall of Den Bien Phu. This marked the end of 96 years of French colonial rule.

Yet President Ho Chi Minh in 1954 said that the victory was just the beginning (hinting another war against the United States). Considering Eisenhower and Churchill's concerns over Dien Bien Phu, we can easily understand the view that the Vietnam War was a continuation of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Young Vo Nguyen Giap left home in An Xa commune and was admitted to the Lycee Quoc Hoc in the royal city of Hue in central Vietnam.

At the school we find the following names: Nguyen Tat Thanh (Ho Chi Minh's name when young), Ngo Dinh Diem, Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap. Time magazine called the three men "the Iron Triangle of the Vietnam War."

In 1926, at the school, Giap joined the Revolutionary Party for New Vietnam. He led the students' anti-French strike, for which he first experienced the bitter taste of six months detention.

After graduating from another Lycee and the University of Indo-China in Hanoi with a bachelor's degree, he became a professor at Thang Long College in Hanoi and went on to teach history. His history lectures were full of inspiration and revelations.

In 1940 after a pathetic parting with a newlywed wife at Hanoi's West Lakeside, he crossed the Sino-Vietnamese border with Pham Van Dong and reached Kunming to meet Ho Chi Minh who was returning from the Soviet Union. Shortly after his wife was arrested and died at Vinh Prison two years later.

On Dec. 22, 1944, Giap organized the first Viet Minh unit. His troops grew to be one of the most fearsome armies of the world through countless ordeals.

During a Sino-Vietnamese border campaign between October and November 1947, Giap's units delivered several powerful blows to the 12,000-men French corps and drove them to surrender.

During the campaign Giap's father, a village scholar teacher, was arrested and guillotined. No one has seen his tears through the 30 years of war: through the Dien Bien Phu campaign (1954) and Quang Tri-Thua-Thien-Hue campaign (1972), another landmark victory comparable to the Dien Bien Phu victory of 18 years before.

Professor Dang Bich Ha, wife of Gen. Giap, loved and encouraged the general during times of difficulty as a staff member at headquarters.

Bernard Fall writes, "… the sentimental history professor of the 1930s, the self-taught guerrilla leader of the early 1940s, and the brilliant strategist of the 1950s ― the West may find it difficult to produce a worthy match for him in the foreseeable future." ("Vo Nguyen Giap," 1962).

I feel very much rewarded that my somewhat "lonesome" comparative study of Gen. Helmut Bernhardt von Moltke and Gen. Giap was given relevance by Mark Henderson's work, "Top 100 Greatest Military Leaders," (Times of London, News International 1997) in which Moltke and Giap rank 39th and 40th respectively.

I think, apart from ranking, the combination of both men is fantastic.

Moltke wrote historical fiction, while Giap was a history professor-turned general. Moltke was the builder of the Prussian army that brought about German unification. Giap is the builder of the Viet Minh army which brought about Vietnamese reunification.

Moltke's Prussian army defeated Denmark, Austria, and France, while Giap defeated the Japanese garrison in early 1945, France, and the mighty United States. Moltke fought in the imperialistic power conflict.

As defense minister for 34 years and the right arm of President Ho Chi Minh, Giap fought the longest war in the 20th century for his fatherland. Giap will remain in military annals as does Moltke as a classic.

Once again Hanois's Ba Dinh Square. The green foliage of the happy grove reflects the celestial light. Here, Gen. Giap enjoys good health at the age of 97. Long live, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap!

Dr. Lee Keun-yeop taught education philosophy at Yonsei University in Seoul. He is director of the nonprofit Korea Center for Social Sciences and Humanities on Vietnam and an Eastern Europe and Balkan analyst. He is a regular contributor to The Korea Times. He can be reached at .This article was published in The Korean Times, June 11, 2009