When American combat forces were committed, it was a myth that we could not fight and win because they were so powerful. ... We survived because of our courage and determination, together with wisdom, tactics and intelligence.
D'ai T'ong (Great General) Vo Nguyen Giap was a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party in North Vietnam from 1951 to 1982, and the Vietnamese Minister of Defense from 1946 to 1980. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest military commanders in history, having brought the world's greatest military force to its knees with a ragtag Third World army in the Vietnam War.

Born in the An Xa province (straddling the DMZ) in 1911, he attended the Quoc Hoc Academy in Hue and went to law school at the French University of Hanoi. It was during this time that he became a communist: after the colonial government banned communism in 1939, Vo fled to China, where he met Ho Chi Minh and became an officer in the Viet Minh. Vo's men fought the Japanese during their occupation of French Indochina from 1940 to 1945.

After VJ Day, Vo was named defense minister for Ho's short-lived Communist government in Hanoi. As troops from France returned to Indochina, the Viet Minh were forced to go underground: while Vo escaped, his father, child, and two sisters were imprisoned. His hatred of France led him to develop a brilliant three-phase strategy to retake Vietnam from its colonial rulers:

  1. Through terrorism, control as much of the population as possible.
  2. Through guerilla warfare, attack isolated outposts of the French occupation.
  3. Build combat units and mobilize the population in the name of revolution.
From 1945 to 1950, he proceeded to implement the first two phases in the jungles and hills of northern Vietnam. His first attempt to move to Phase III culminated in the Battle of the Red River Valley, where his troops lost miserably in a head-on confrontation with the French.

Vo returned to the hills and began plotting his next offensive, eventually settling on a target in 1953, the isolated French outposts at Dien Bien Phu. The French had built the outposts in a mountain valley as a lure to Vo, hoping that he would bring his troops in from the mountains and be slaughtered by the waiting gunners below. What Vo actually did was procure artillery and antiaircraft guns from the Soviet Union and China, which he disassembled and had his troops carry by backpack and bicycle across the mountains. By setting up an effective no-fly zone around Dien Bien Phu, he was able to starve the French bases: with the artillery as cover, his 80,000 troops were able to creep down the valley. The French surrendered on May 7, 1954, in one of the most astounding victories in military history: a third of their 15,000-man force was dead, and another third was wounded, all at the hands of an army without a state. North Vietnam was soon liberated.

Vo continued his Phase I and II policies through the Viet Cong in South Vietnam, hoping to unify the two Vietnams under a Communist flag. Even as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson began committing American troops to the Vietnam War, Vo was able to hold the GI's back and strike fear in their hearts. Along with Le Duc Tho, Vo was one of the major organizers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail route that supplied VC units in the South.

In 1968, Vo again moved to Phase III, this time with the Tet Offensive and the siege of Khe Sanh. This time, however, he was using a severly outmoded military force against the newest NATO weaponry, and so his forces had to pull back within six weeks. However, once he returned to guerilla warfare and random terrorism, his troops were able to dramatically change public opinion in America and force the beginning of the Vietnamization program, which gradually diminished the strength of the forces in South Vietnam. As he put it, "The war was not only moving into the cities, to dozens of cities and towns in South Vietnam, but also to the living rooms of Americans back home."

Vo's career as a field commander ended in 1972 with the disastrous Easter Offensive: he was forced to return to Hanoi and join the Vietnamese bureaucracy, and retired from the Vietnamese Army in 1973. He remained active in government until retiring from the Defense Ministry in 1980 and the Politburo in 1982, taking up a largely ceremonial job as chief of the Science and Technology Commission. Today, he is one of the most well-regarded elder statesmen in Vietnam, but his old age and health prevent him from being active in Hanoi politics.


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