General Võ Nguyên Giáp: Shattered Dreams of a Surrendering Heart and Mind

Thăm nhà Đại tướng Võ Nguyên Giáp -5127

Vo Nguyen Giap (Photo credit: hetv)

General Võ Nguyên Giáp (1912-2013) died on October 4th. This dreamer of a perfect country of Vietnam, with pure blood and freedom from foreigners, lived to see many of his people disillusioned and anxious to leave Vietnam even at the risk at their lives. General Giap was the pure warrior who obeyed his leader’s command in an absolutely way. First inspired by his anti-colonialist father–then by his revolutionary wife and sister-in-law–the young Giap found himself alone and abandoned as those individuals died in French prisons, even his only child, a daughter.

Today the name Vo Nguyen Giap does not probably strike a lot of people as a household name. Still, General Giap stands as a great military leader, shoulder to shoulder with Lee, Grant, and Rommel. His strategic and tactical genius was both in guerrilla warfare and in traditional warfare.


Ho Chi Minh

The ultimate anchor for Gen. Giap’s power was the commanding voice of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam. For Gen. Giap, Ho Chi Minh was a father figure, a commander, an inspiration, and the embodiment of all the ideals of the new Vietnam: racial and ideological purity, absolute discipline, unquestioned obedience. Both Giap and Ho Chi Minh had attended the same high school; both spoke French fluently; and both were determined to show the French that they were just as good as the French in terms of culture, valor, and political organization.

In Giap’s and Ho’s mind, the ultimate battle was the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954), which was the culmination of the Indochina War. Through incredibly brilliant maneuvers, the Vietnamese Army astounded the world by defeating the French and ending the French colonial presence in South East Asia. As far as they were concerned, that battle ended colonialism once and for all.

For Giap and Ho, the path was now wide open to create their new perfect Vietnam of national unity. They envisioned a society in which all the men were of pure Vietnamese blood and lived to obey the command of their leaders, even at the cost of their lives. And all the women–beautiful and healthy–would spend their days dressed in shiny uniforms, as they danced from activity to activity while singing patriotic songs. Women’s greatest pride was to produce heroic offsprings for the fatherland. When they spoke, they were to recount their heroic past.

The American Distraction

Though Gen. Giap fought many battles against the United States, his most brilliant and decisive moment was in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu against the the French in 1954. In a certain sense, his biography became frozen in 1954–and the battles against the US Armed Forces were rather a distraction from his real goal of taking over the entire Vietnam and imposing his will for national unity.


US Armed Forces in Vietnam

Frozen in his “anti-colonialist” mode, Giap never understood the aims and goals of the US presence in Vietnam. He pictured the United States as a neo-colonialist power, which had invaded Vietnam in order to dominate it. In his speeches, he would tell the people that the US had come to take France’s place as a new colonial power. Thus, he would say, the people must rise up and fight a “people’s war” for national liberation.

But that “people’s war” against the United States was more fiction than reality. Those Vietnamese who had come in contact with the American forces in Vietnam knew that Americans were there rather reluctantly and would be happy to leave sooner rather than later. The Americans had no intention of dominating Vietnam. They were there to help prevent a Communist takeover of Asia. Those Vietnamese knew that the image of the US as a “neo-colonialist” power was a ruse invented by Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Giap.

Also–in spite of Giap’s many speeches about the “people’s war,” many Vietnamese people were thrilled that the Americans had brought so many innovations and business opportunities to Vietnam. They were delighted that the Americans were staying for a few years.

Still, there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were willing to die in obedience to Giap’s battle plans, even though all of Giap’s battles against the United States had ended in disaster for the North Vietnamese. So, how did Giap managed to create that fiction of a “people’s war”?

This semblance of national unity came at a huge price. First, Giap and Ho Chi Minh exercised absolute control over media outlets so that no view was proposed unless it represented the official view. Also, people were ruthlessly brought into national submission and national unity through suppression of any dissent. Thus Giap, an avid reader of Sun Tzu and Napoleon, became a quintessential ideologue of the “people’s war.” He amassed popular support by following a four-point system:

1. Giap defined himself as the absolute and sole representative of the people. He showed himself as the quintessential example of socialist obedience, as he united absolutely with Ho Chi Minh.

2. Giap summarily executed anyone who dissented from his views and refused to obey his command. Even Fidel Castro went to Vietnam to learn from the great teacher.

3. Giap channeled the bulk of the North Vietnamese economy toward weapons and military salaries. The military jobs were the best jobs in the country, with the most privileges. And of course, the price of getting and keeping these choice jobs was ideological purity and unquestioned obedience.

4. Giap’s command to the military was absolutely followed to the last consequences. A military person had to go forward to fight the enemy, and those who refused would be shot as traitors, together with their families.

Shattered Dreams


Fidel Castro and Vo Nguyen giap

In that way, Giap fulfilled his dream of blood purity, “national unity,” and “people’s war.” Yet, Giap’s dreams began to crumble when he saw many changes take place. What he had fought so hard to accomplish was being unraveled. For example:

a. Giap was removed from the centers of power in Vietnam.

b. Giap’s will no longer embodied the national will. He could no longer tell the people, “Obey me and be united.”

c. He saw crowds of his beloved Vietnamese people escape from Vietnam as quickly as they could, often at a huge risk to their lives. Many preferred to perish at sea in search of hope rather than to languish in the hopelessness and madness of Vietnam.

English: 35 Vietnamese refugees wait to be tak...

d. He saw his dreams of a Communist workers’ paradise collapse as country after country in the Communist bloc shattered the ideological wall of totalitarianism in order to find freedom.

e. After whipping the people into military obedience, Giap felt increasingly frustrated that he could not force the Vietnamese people to create a vibrant economy. Somehow the economy escaped his ruthless control.

f. Giap himself capitulated to the pressures of economic failure when he encouraged the Vietnamese government to invite the foreigners to return to Vietnam. After working for so long to kick out the French, he was forced to call them back.

In the final years of his life, when Gen. Giap received visitors from France and the United States, he would encourage them to leave the past behind and to think about a prosperous future of partnership and economic cooperation. It had been a long haul, but Americans had finally gained the heart and mind of this fierce Vietnamese warrior. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who spoke so often about the Vietnam War as a war to gain the hearts and minds of the people, would have been proud.

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