Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap was one of the greatest commanders in the history of warfare. Turning the ragtag revolutionaries of Communist Vietnam into a highly effective army, he took on and defeated two wealthy western powers. A master of tactics, strategy, and supply, he used bicycles and mules to defeat armies equipped with Cold War military technology.
Origins of a Revolutionary
Giap was born in 1912. His father had fought against the French takeover of Vietnam in the 1880s, an event which shaped Giap’s attitude.
During the 1920s, Vietnamese opponents of France split into two groups. Giap aligned himself with the more radical element that included Ho Chi Minh. He was expelled from the French-run National Academy at the age of 15 for taking part in protests. In response, he joined the Communist-led Tan Viet to fight the French oppressors.
Following his arrest during a failed revolt in 1930, Giap took a path of peace, becoming a teacher. He was an active and senior Communist until he was forced into exile in China in 1940. In his absence, his wife died in prison, and the French executed his sister.
Fighting Against Japan
During WWII the Japanese invaded Vietnam. Giap trained guerillas to fight against them. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh united the divided Vietnamese resistance under him as the Vietminh.
Fighting Two Enemies
The Vietminh knew that, when the Japanese were driven out, the French, Chinese, and British would step in to dominate Vietnam. To pre-empt this happening, in December 1944, Giap began leading attacks against the French.
Once the Japanese were defeated, Giap joined in the negotiations over Vietnam’s future. It soon became apparent the French would not leave without a fight.
If Vietnam wanted freedom, then there would have to be war.
The Indochina War: 1940s
In November 1946, war broke out in earnest. Giap led the Communist rebels in his first major battle the following year, halting one side of a French pincer movement into the Communist-held North.
It was a difficult war. The French had superior numbers and supplies. Giap learned from his experiences and the example of Mao Tse-tung in China. Instead of forcing battles, he focused on guerilla warfare and winning hearts and minds.
The Indochina War: 1950s
Mao’s success led to a flow of supplies from China to the Vietminh. Giap was finally able to organize and equip units on the same scale as his opponents. In 1950, he launched his first major offensive, capturing a significant French base at Lang Son and its valuable supplies.
Defeats in 1951 and growth in American support for the French added to the pressure. Giap persisted, kept in command by Ho Chi Minh.
Dien Bien Phu
The final decisive action of the war came at Dien Bien Phu between November 1953 and May 1954. The French dropped a large force behind Vietnamese lines. Giap surrounded them, using bicycles and mules to bring artillery onto nearby hilltops. Over months of siege, he picked off parts of the French camp. When the French surrendered on May 7, it was a huge political and psychological victory for the Vietminh.