General Giap and the Myth of American Invincibility

(Excerpted from article by James A. Warren, Daily Beast, October 12, 2013)

Just before the American ground war in Vietnam began in March 1965 with the landing of a brigade of US Marines at Danang, General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had been commander in chief of Communist armed forces in Vietnam since 1944, told a television interviewer that “Things are going badly for the enemy, because the South Vietnamese soldiers do not want to fight for the Americans. But we are in no hurry. The longer we wait, the greater will be the Americans’ defeat.”

It was not the first time Communist Vietnam’s senior military strategist spoke with such insouciant prescience about an adversary who possessed the most powerful military force in the world. Nor would it be the last. Giap, a self-trained soldier from a small village in Quang Binh Province, central Vietnam, had already trounced Vietnam’s colonial masters, the French, after eight years of war (1946-1954).

He had begun fighting against the fabled Foreign Legion and the regular French army with a force of a few thousand partially trained guerrillas. The war against France culminated in a spectacular Communist victory over 15,000 French troops in the remote valley fortress of Dien Bien Phu. Henri Navarre, the French commander, hoped to lure Giap into a set-piece battle there, in which France’s vastly superior firepower could be brought to bear and destroy the better part of Giap’s People’s Army.

To the astonishment of French intelligence, Giap’s men dragged 150 heavy artillery pieces into the mountains rimming the valley with oxen and block and tackles. The big guns, some captured American howitzers from Korea, blew the French base to pieces while People’s Army infantrymen gradually punched in the perimeter until further resistance was hopeless.

Once the Americans arrived in strength in 1965 after nine years of quasi-war, nothing they did—not the massive expansion of ground operations against the Vietcong insurgency, the steady escalation of the bombing of North Vietnam, or invasions of both Cambodia and Laos designed to destroy the People’s Army’s sanctuaries—seemed to shake Giap’s infectious confidence in his army’s and his people’s ability to force the Americans to come to their senses and leave Vietnam to the Vietnamese.

Giap, who died October 4th at the age of 102, outlived by many years all the French and American commanders with whom he fought for so long. A slight, small man with a high forehead, darting eyes and an air of sharp intelligence, he had been among his nation’s most brilliant students, winning a coveted scholarship to study at the University of Hanoi.

He joined the Communist Party in the late 1930s, working as a covert agent and underground journalist by night, and high school teacher by day to pay the bills—and lure promising students into the Communist fold. With Ho and Pham Van Dong he laid the foundations for the Vietminh front organization that so deftly marginalized its competitors and came to be seen as the only legitimate voice for Vietnamese independence by millions of peasants.

The avuncular ascetic Ho Chi Minh was, of course, the spiritual father and living symbol of Vietnamese independence from the 1940s through the 1960s, but it was Giap who bore primary responsibility for meshing Communist organizational and propaganda techniques with the explosive yearnings of a colonized people for independence. And after the French war, it fell to Giap to expand and modernize the army to withstand the American onslaught and to plan its major campaigns.

I expect there are a number of reasons why Giap’s reputation has languished for so long despite the enormity of his accomplishments. Sour grapes is the most obvious. Virtually all American military historians prefer to locate the defeat of the United States in the inadequacies of its own strategies and tactics, giving only passing recognition to the effectiveness and resourcefulness of the enemy’s.

American fighting methods were counterproductive. American weapons, troops, and largesse could never bestow legitimacy on a corrupt and incompetent Saigon regime. And US firepower was so destructive that it killed hundreds of thousands of the civilians it was meant to “save” from the horrors of Communism.

By protracting the conflict against the United States and portraying US war policies as needlessly destructive and unjust through the Revolution’s vast propaganda programs, Giap believed he could sap the will the Americans to a point where military victory would be impossible. He was entirely correct.

The hallmarks of Senior General Giap’s way of war, in the end, were strategic flexibility, careful preparation, audacity, and a rare gift for seeing a conflict as it was, not as he wished it to be. The diminutive history teacher turned soldier once said he learned his trade in the bush. In thirty years, he learned well—well enough to provide his adversaries with a very costly education in warfare simply by doing what worked.

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