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Vo Nguyen Giap dies at 102; Vietnamese general led North to victory

The unpretentious communist general masterminded the defeat of French and American forces and became known as one of the 20th century's military geniuses.

October 04, 2013|By David Lamb, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Vo Nguyen Giap, the communist general widely regarded as one of the military geniuses of the 20th century, who masterminded the defeat of the French and the war against the Americans in Vietnam, has died. He was 102.

Giap died Friday at a military hospital in Hanoi, the Associated Press reported, citing a government official.

Though Ho Chi Minh was the symbol of Vietnam's fight for independence and reunification, it was Giap who carved out the victories. From Dien Bien Phu to Khe Sanh to the Tet offensive, his name became synonymous with the battles that defined a chapter of world history and emboldened liberation movements from Africa to Latin America.

A man of little pretense and great ambition, Giap had no formal military training and used to joke that he was a self-taught general. His early nationalistic calling was as a writer and propagandist. Never having touched a gun, he protested when Ho ordered him to prepare for a war with France: "I wield a pen, not a sword."

But he followed orders, and on Christmas Eve 1944 he and a band of 33 partisans armed with knives and flintlock rifles attacked two isolated French outposts. Thirty years later, with the French gone and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces now near collapse, his army was the world's third largest, numbering 800,000. Through three decades of war, he was his nation's supreme military commander, a service record with few, if any, parallels in modern times.

Giap understood what the French and Americans did not: that a peasant army, imbued with patience, nationalism and a willingness to endure untold suffering, could defeat a far more powerful force whose cause was not enthusiastically supported at home. Giap lost an estimated 1 million communist soldiers in winning Vietnam's independence as a unified state, but he never expressed the slightest doubt that such huge casualties were worth the sacrifice.

"Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this Earth," Giap said in 1969, adding that he was prepared to fight as long as necessary for ultimate victory. "The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little."

Said Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet offensive: "Giap was callous. Had any American general taken such losses, he wouldn't have lasted three weeks."

In later life, Giap — a short, white-haired man with a round face and soft hands—had lived quietly in Hanoi in a downtown villa, deified by the city's residents as a national hero. His parlor was lined with busts and portraits of Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. He chatted with visitors in perfect French, sometimes receiving them in his military uniform, and could recall various campaigns — Napoleon's and his own — in brilliant detail.

He saw the war against the United States as merely an extension of the war against France and always believed that Washington's resolve eventually would wither, as had Paris'. "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours," he once said to the Americans, repeating what he had warned the French more than a decade earlier. "But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

Toward the end of his long life, Giap spoke out strongly, although unsuccessfully, on another issue. His was one of the most prominent voices to urge the Vietnamese government in 2009 to reconsider its plans for a vast Chinese-run bauxite mining operation in Vietnam's central highlands, which Giap and others said posed environmental and security risks. But the project proceeded.

Giap was born Aug. 25, 1911, in the village of An Xa, just north of what would become the Demilitarized Zone. His father was a scholarly rice farmer who taught Giap to read — the first book he read was a child's history of Vietnam — and who scrimped to send his son to the best schools available.

Young Giap attended the prestigious Quoc Hoc academy in Hue, whose alumni included Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, an intense anti-Communist who would become prime minister of South Vietnam. Giap, then just 13, began reading Marx, organized student protests against France's ban on nationalistic activities and was expelled.

By 1938, he was a professional agitator. He had spent time in a French prison, earned a law degree from Hanoi University, taught history in a private school to support himself and married a communist militant, Minh Khai. They had one child, a daughter, Vo Hong Anh, who would become a nuclear physicist and who would win, in 1987, the Soviet Union's Kowolenskia Prize for Science.

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