Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap Dead At 102

The Vietnamese General who was responsible for the campaigns that ousted France from Vietnam, and then went on to lead the military that fought American forces to a stalemate that may have well have been a defeat in the Vietnam War, has died at the age of 102:

Vo Nguyen Giap, the relentless and charismatic North Vietnamese general whose battlefield victory at Dien Bien Phu drove France out of Vietnam and whose tenacious resistance to the United States in a long and costly war there eventually sapped America’s political will to fight, died on Friday in Hanoi. He was believed to be 102.

The death was reported by several Vietnamese news organizations, including the respected Tuoi Tre Online, which said he died in an army hospital.

General Giap was among the last survivors of a generation of Communist revolutionaries who in the postwar decades freed Vietnam of colonial rule and fought a superpower to a stalemate. In his later years, he was a living reminder of a war that was mostly old history to the Vietnamese, many of whom were born after it had ended.

But he had not faded away. He was regarded as an elder statesman in a unified Vietnam whose hard-line views had softened with the cessation of war. He supported economic overhaul and closer relations with the United States while publicly warning of the spread of Chinese influence and the environmental costs of industrialization.

A teacher and journalist with no formal military training, Vo Nguyen Giap (pronounced vo nwin ZHAP) joined a ragtag Communist insurgency in the 1940s and built it into a highly disciplined force that through 30 years of revolution and civil war ended an empire and united a nation.

From The Washington Post:

From a ragtag band of 34 men assembled in a forest in northern Vietnam in December 1944, Gen. Giap built the fighting unit that became the Vietnam People’s Army. At the beginning, its entire supply of weapons consisted of two revolvers, one light machine gun, 17 rifles and 14 flintlocks, some of them dating to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, said Cecil B. Currey, Gen. Giap’s biographer.

But the original 34 men took a solemn oath to fight to the death for a Vietnam independent of foreign rule, and they promised not to help or cooperate with colonial or any other foreign authorities. By August 1945, when the surrender of Japan ended World War II, they had become an army of 5,000, equipped with American weapons supplied by the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA, to use against the Japanese who had occupied Vietnam.

For almost three decades, Gen. Giap led his army in battle against better-supplied, better-equipped and better-fed enemies. In 1954, he effectively ended more than 70 years of French colonial rule in Indochina, dealing a humiliating defeat to a French garrison in a 55-day siege of the mountain-ringed outpost at Dien Bien Phu. To millions of Vietnamese, this was more than a military victory. It was a moral and psychological triumph over a hated colonial oppressor, and it earned Gen. Giap the status of a national legend.

Twenty-one years later, on April 30, 1975, came the fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This ended a prolonged and bitter war between Vietnamese communists, based in the north, and the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam, which was based in Saigon and backed by the military might of the world’s greatest superpower.

In an internal power struggle three years earlier, Gen. Giap was replaced as field commander of the communist forces, and in 1975 he watched from the sidelines as the army he created and nurtured took the enemy capital. Nevertheless, 25 years later, he would recall the fall of Saigon as the “happiest moment in this short life of mine.”

With the capture of Saigon, Vietnam was united under a single governmental authority for the first time since its partition into North and South Vietnam after the 1954 French defeat. Gen. Giap was defense minister in the Communist government that ruled the new Vietnam and a member of the powerful politburo.

But it was as a military leader that he made his mark on history.

In the course of his career, Gen. Giap commanded millions of men in regular army units, supplemented by local militia and self-defense outfits in villages and hamlets throughout Vietnam. He journeyed to the remotest areas of his country on recruiting missions, and he learned the art of combat the old-fashioned way — by fighting.

He waged all manner of warfare: guerrilla raids, sabotage, espionage, terrorism and combat on the battlefield, and he involved as much of the civilian population in this effort as he could. Peasant women carried concealed arms, ammunition and supplies to hiding guerrilla soldiers. Children passed along information about troop movements through their villages. Everyone was a lookout for enemy aircraft.

“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,” Gen. Giap was quoted as saying.

To survive, he had to be flexible and adaptable, and he was. Facing an overpowering array of U.S. bombs and artillery, he employed a tactic that was sometimes likened to a boxer’s grabbing an opponent by the belt and drawing him too close for his punches to be effective. In close combat, the bombs and artillery shells of his enemy would be of limited use, but Gen. Giap’s men, operating in small units, could fight more effectively.

In the end, Gen. Giap would outlast his enemies. The French grew tired of paying the price of fighting him in Southeast Asia, and so did the United States, after 58,000 American deaths in a war that promised no more than a stalemate.

He said: “The United States imperialists want to fight quickly. To fight a protracted war is a big defeat for them. Their morale is lower than grass. . . . National liberation wars must allow some time — a long time. . . . The Americans didn’t understand that we had soldiers everywhere and that it was very hard to surprise us.”

To at least one U.S. military commander, this strategy was apparent even in the early years of American involvement in the hostilities. Marine Corps Gen. Victor Krulak, in a 1966 memorandum to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, wrote that Gen. Giap “was sure that if the cost in casualties and francs was high enough, the French would defeat themselves in Paris. He was right. It is likely that he feels the same about the USA.”

It turns out, of course, that Giap was completely correct in his assessment of the United States, and the fact that his military managed to create such a conundrum for the nation with the most powerful military on the planet says as much about his own skills as a commander as it does about the idiocy of the French and American leaders who got their nation involved in conflicts they should’ve stayed out of in the first place.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Obituaries, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Scott says:

    One of the errors we continually make is mischaracterizing the wars we got involved in. Vietnam was fighting a anti-colonial war against France which we should’ve/could’ve supported. But because they called themselves communists, we bliinded ourselves to the true nature of the conflict resulting in 58,000 dead Americans. The fear of monolithic Communism was belied right after we withdrew when Vietnam had a short, sharp border war with China trying to protect their new found freedom.

    We made the same mistake in Iraq where we interferred in a Sunni/Shiite/Kurd dispute by supposedly fighting terrorism.

    I’m not optimistic we will ever learn. See Syria.

  2. anjin-san says:

    Giap was a formidable adversary. Tragically, we did not learn a lot from the Viet Nam disaster.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    @Scott: You are absolutely correct and because they called themselves communists the CIA was in there messing around before the French even left.

  4. Ernieyeball says:

    We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.
    –Lyndon Johnson, Oct. 1964

    Lyndon Johnson assumed the United States Presidency on Nov. 22, 1963 the day President John Kennedy was assassinated.
    That same year 122 American Soldiers were killed in the Vietnam War.
    In 1964, 216 American Soldiers were killed.
    In 1965, 1928 American Soldiers were killed.
    In 1966, 6350 American Solders were killed.
    In 1967, 11,363 American Solders were killed.
    In 1968, the last full year of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency,
    16,899 American Soldiers were killed. 1400 a month.

    RIP…You too Lyndon…

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ernieyeball: Johnson certainly did some really good things like Medicare and the Civil rights act but his legacy will always be tarnished by Vietnam. I am a Vietnam era veteran and although I never served in Vietnam I knew may who did and lost friend and relatives there. If you listen to or read the transcripts of the Johnson White House tapes you know that Johnson knew all along that the war could not be won which makes it even more criminal.

  6. swearyanthony says:

    “fought the Americans to a stalemate”? Really? I didn’t realize Otto from A Fish Called Wanda was such an influential thinker.

    It was a *loss*

  7. Ernieyeball says:

    @Ron Beasley:…Johnson knew all along that the war could not be won…

    There are two events from the 1960’s that I can still remember exactly where I was when they occurred. The day John Kennedy was shot dead is one.

    The other was March 31,1968. Twenty years old and ripe for the draft when I heard these words:

    “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

    I was stunned!

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ernieyeball: The thing I most remember is reporting to the Army the day after the 1968 November election and realizing that everyone I had voted for had lost. That includes my valiant Senator Wayne Morris.

  9. Ernieyeball says:

    @Ron Beasley: I suspect you are thinking of Wayne Morse of Oregon.

    See Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (1964)
    Likely not the first time Congress kow-towed to the Executive concerning Article I Section 8 Paragraph 11 but might well be one of the more profound.

    It was opposed in the Senate only by Senators Wayne Morse (D-OR) and Ernest Gruening (D-AK). Senator Gruening objected to “sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated”.
    The House of Representatives, Lyndon Johnson’s lap dogs, voted 416–0.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ernieyeball: You of course correct about Morse and there is no excuse for my mistake since he was a friend of my father’s and a frequent visitor to our home.

  11. Ernieyeball says:

    @Ron Beasley: Don’t beat yourself up. I frequent the same diners and beaneries every week and still can’t remember the names of waitstaff whose faces I have seen countless times. Brain Rot I call it.

  12. anjin-san says:
  13. Ernieyeball says:

    @anjin-san: I have met at least one combat veteran of the Vietnam War who said he and his troop sang that song all the time as they were doing “what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

  14. anjin-san says:

    @ Ernieyeball

    Hard to believe we sent even a single American to die in the clusterf**k…

  15. Ernieyeball says:

    I keep reading about political polarization these days.
    I guess.
    I just don’t think we remember the political upheavel like the anti war and anti draft demonstrations in the streets across the land. Anarchy reigned from Berkely to Evanston to Columbia.
    Government troops killing unarmed citizens.
    Not that it is a challenge but I haven’t seen the Tee Party Peckerheads approach the trashing of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
    My memory of that era is that it was much more chaotic and divisive than todays political climate.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    @Ernieyeball: You are correct to some extent but the crazies weren’t members of congress and governing continued – that’s the difference.

  17. Ernieyeball says:

    @Ron Beasley:…governing continued…

    So did the war…guns and butter.