Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam General Who Beat French, Dies at 102

Vo Nguyen Giap, whose defeat of a French army in the remote Vietnamese valley of Dien Bien Phu more than a half-century ago symbolized the end of an era of colonial domination, died yesterday. He was 102.

He died in a military hospital, the Vietnamese government said today on its website, citing a statement from the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Giap had become frail in recent years, halting his custom of attending the opening sessions of the country’s National Assembly. He resided at Central Military Hospital 108 in Hanoi as of February, the army newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan reported.

As the general in charge of the Viet Minh, Giap led a “people’s war” against French forces that culminated in victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the peace agreement that led to the dividing of Vietnam into north and south.

“After Ho Chi Minh, he was the most important figure in the 20th century Vietnamese experience,” Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author who covered the Vietnam War, said in a 2008 telephone interview. “He was a self-taught general, and the key to his generalship was a strategy of sheer endurance.”

Within a decade of the French defeat, Vietnam found itself pitted against another Western power, as U.S. involvement increased in what is known locally as the American War. “The aggressor army of the U.S. imperialists, although over-supplied with arms and ammunition, cannot escape the doom that has befallen the other invaders on this soil,” Giap wrote in 1972.

‘Brilliant’ Strategist

Vietnam will hold a two-day national mourning period in honor of Giap from noon local time on Oct. 11, to noon on Oct. 13. All offices will hang the flag at half mast and entertainment activities will stop, the government said. The general will be buried in his home province of Quang Binh, in central Vietnam, on Oct. 13, after a funeral Oct. 12 in Hanoi.

U.S. Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years, said yesterday in a Twitter message that Giap was a “brilliant military strategist who once told me that we were an ‘honorable enemy.’”

Giap’s transformation from imperialist-bashing revolutionary to honored elder statesman mirrored Vietnam’s move from international outcast to its self-described “friend to all nations” policy. By 1995, Vietnam had opened diplomatic relations with the U.S., now a top market for Vietnamese exports.

Patriotic Father

Giap was born on Aug. 25, 1911, in the central province of Quang Binh, a sparsely populated province with poor-quality land pressed up against the Laotian border. Quang Binh is just to the north of the Ben Hai River, the de facto border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam until reunification in 1975.

The eldest surviving son in his family, Giap received a strong dosage of patriotic ideals from his father, a scholarly rice farmer who taught local children to read in his spare time.

At age 13, Giap went to study in the central city of Hue, seat of the imperial court, which by then had become a virtual puppet under the control of the French colonial administration.

Protests against French prohibitions on nationalist activities resulted in Giap’s expulsion from school, his introduction to Marxist studies, and ultimately to an arrest at the age 18 for taking part in political activities. Once freed, Giap went to Hanoi for the first time and earned a law degree from a French-run university.

Ho Chi Minh

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius today termed Giap an “exceptional man” and said that the general had been “profoundly attached” to French culture, as well as a fluent speaker of French.

Giap’s joining of the Communist Party of Vietnam resulted in both a marriage to a fellow militant -- who later died in prison after being arrested by the French -- as well as eventually a move to China where he first met Ho Chi Minh, who was directing anti-French activities.

He assumed responsibility for forming guerrilla units after returning to Vietnam and although lacking formal military training, took control of the military activities of the Doc Lap Dong Minh Viet Nam, known to the Western world as the Viet Minh.

Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent in September 1945, which led after a breakdown of negotiations with France to full-scale warfare by the end of 1946.

The “people’s war” led by Giap was an all-out societal mobilization that included a willingness to sacrifice troops to make it clear to the enemy that it was involved in a drawn-out war of attrition.

‘Holy Cause’

“You could say that Giap’s strategy was brutal, but to him this was akin to a holy cause,” said Karnow, who had interviewed Giap, and who died in January 2013. “There was no limit to what he was prepared to accept in terms of losses.”

At Dien Bien Phu, Giap had troops haul supplies, including howitzers, by hand through mountainous and jungle-laden terrain to surround a French outpost, set up to protect neighboring Laos.

A two-month siege following a Viet Minh attack in March 1954 resulted in the one-by-one taking of French positions and the humiliating French surrender in May.

“Much of the credit for Dien Bien Phu should go to Giap and the way he adapted to the situation,” said William Duiker, a retired professor of East Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of several books on Vietnam. “His strategy was to find a place where the defeat of the French would maximize its propaganda effectiveness.”

Living Legend

While Giap remained the formal military commander-in-chief during fighting against the U.S., and was seen in the West as the key military decision maker, his influence declined during the 1960s, according to Duiker.

Though Giap served as defense minister and a deputy prime minister in post-reunification Vietnam, he was removed from the Politburo by the early 1980s. By the 1990s, when Vietnam began fully opening its society and economy to Western influences, he had become entrenched as a living local legend.

In 2009, his name resurfaced in the news after he wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to call for a temporary halt to a planned bauxite project in order to study the potential environmental impact.

Giap was visited in February 2013 in the Hanoi military hospital where he resided by Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh ahead of Vietnam’s Tet lunar new year holiday, the Quan Doi Nhan Dan newspaper reported.

“His major legacy was the role he played in the war against France and his association with the idea of people’s war, which is symbolic of the way in which a weaker force can oppose a stronger, more technologically advanced force, using political as well as military means,” Duiker said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.