JPRI Critique Vol. XIX No. 7 (October 2013)
Vietnam’s Napoleon
by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher

On October 4, 2013, General Vo Nguyen Giap died in Hanoi. He was 102, the last of his revolutionary generation. Giap served Ho Chi Minh as his military strategist in Vietnam’s two mid-century wars of independence: the first against France, the second against the United States. These struggles comprised another Thirty Years War (1945-1975), this one in Asia instead of Europe.

They were an odd team; Giap called his leader “Uncle” and in his turn the leader called him “beautiful as a girl.” They had been at school together and met up later in exile in southern China. By then Giap, the son of a scholar, had earned a law degree, wrote poetry, spoke impeccable French, and, like his father, had taught school. Diminutive in stature and a dapper dresser, he continued to wear a white linen suit with club tie when reviewing troops. As a history teacher he had no military training but harbored a deep hatred of the French colonial regime, which he believed had tortured his father and first wife to death. The French called him “a volcano under snow.” This volcano had infinite patience combined with ruthless determination.

02At the conclusion of World War II in Southeast Asia, a defeated Japan withdrew and European powers returned, the Dutch to Indonesia, the British to Malaya, and the French to Indochina. All three colonial powers encountered fierce fighting from nationalists; within ten years all three departed. Nowhere was this departure more brutal and bloody than in Indochina, made up of a trio of states—Cambodia, Laos, and the richest, Vietnam. The latter state had three Pacific-Rim regions: in the south Cochin, in the middle Annam, and in the north Tonkin, which was the heartland of the Vietnamese people. In 1945 it served as the epicenter of modern Vietnamese nationalism in the person of Ho Chi Minh. Here he organized a government before the French returned, tried and failed to negotiate with the returning French military, traveled to Paris (leaving Giap to watch over Hanoi) to negotiate with French politicians, and failed again.

Having lost at the military and political levels, and receiving no meaningful international help, Ho had no choice but to fade into the countryside with his political and peasant apparatchiks. Yes, the core were communists, had been from the beginning. But they rode the tiger of nationalism, all the way to victory. And Giap served as the tiger’s trainer. He drilled his miniscule musket-and-flint-lock guerrilla band-of-brothers so they could live off the land. And live and grow they did.

A French film starring Catherine Deneuve, Indochine, captures those postwar days for the colonial elite who had made Saigon the Paris of the Pacific. One tony district, Gia Dinh with its tree-lined boulevards and swank hotels such as the Continental where one could dine on crab and corn soup and where Graham Green wrote The Quiet American, looked like the 6th arrondissement in Paris, and a river, the Song Saigon, ran close by. But a deluge was coming, and not from the nearby rice-rich Mekong Delta but far to the north near the Red River route close to the mountainous border with Laos. Its name was Dien Bien Phu.

Inasmuch a historical happenstance, this location garnered little attention when General Henri Navarre, commanding the French Corps Expeditionnaire, sent troops there to guard the nearby road into Laos. This he did on orders from Paris where Gallic doves and hawks debated France’s colonial wars. While the United States paid in dollars for France to keep this “domino” from falling, France paid in blood, a price too high for some such as Pierre Mendes-France. Laos had agreed to support France, join the French Union upon independence, and let Paris lead. Thus the conventional wisdom held that Laos must not be lost.

Initially Giap thought the French operation on the Laotian border represented one of many French short-range operations to pacify and move on to the next target, too little time for Giap to strike, a typical counter-insurgency tactic to keep Giap’s Viet Minh forces off-balance. But once Navarre ordered this exposed base fortified, Giap struck with Napoleonic audace. At his Lycée in Hue he had found his hero in Bonaparte; as a teenager he would sketch Napoleon’s battle plans in chalk, as a general he would modify them to fit his golden Austerlitz. The Hue Lycée also educated both Ho and his mandarin rival, Ngo Dinh Diem, who later served as President of South Vietnam before his murder near a Saigon church in a coup blessed by President Kennedy, a murder calling out for a Vietnamese T.S. Elliot.

The French high command knew that no army could climb, cross, and circle the foggy, forested, and forbidding mountains above their valley base. They were wrong. Giap quoted the Corsican revolutionary: “If a goat can get through, so can a man. If a man can get through, so can a battalion.” Did not the young Napoleon lead the French army across the Alps into Italy in a snowstorm only to fall upon a surprised Austrian army twice the size of his and defeat it? With speed and stealth Giap ordered 55,000 soldiers supported by 260,000 peasants with baskets, 20,000 bicycles, and 12,000 bamboo rafts to redeem their native land. Redeem they did. Critical for success, the heavy artillery had to be obtained and carried up in sections, a tale of international derring-do.

The short version: In June 1950 war broke out on the Korean peninsula. A U.S. led force pushed its way to the Chinese border along the Yalu River. The Chinese army (PLA) then struck and routed the U.S. force, sending it in headlong retreat back toward the old North-South Korean partition line and leaving behind a treasure in weapons and ammunition, which the PLA took back to China. Four years later Beijing reluctantly decided to increase its aid to Hanoi rebels, a historic Chinese foe dating back almost two thousand years to the Han dynasty. But ever flexible, Beijing now wanted a quid pro quo for Washington’s aid to Paris. By this juncture, Giap, always a student, had learned Chinese.

The jewel in this martial gift: twenty-four U.S. made 105 howitzers, with ammunition. Napoleon was an artilleryman; Giap became one as he pulverized the French force from on-high in a fifty-five-day siege. He had massed his artillery and won. Then, on May 7, 1954, all fell quiet on this western front, two days before negotiations were to start in Geneva, an agreement Paris had made earlier before France imagined the unimaginable, defeat by peasants. The best description of this agony comes from a French journalist, Bernard Fall, in Hell Is a Very Small Place. (Fall later covered the agonizing American defeat, dying himself in the process.) For negotiating purposes Paris had needed a victory at Dien Bien Phu. Without it French Asia was gone. But a Vietnamese schoolteacher had used Napoleon to defeat them with American canons, the fickle finger of fate.

At Geneva fate’s fickle finger now turned against Ho and Giap. The powers rewarded them with half a victory; even their erstwhile communist allies, Stalin and Mao, betrayed them, proof positive that Marxist-Leninist totalitarians, once in power, were typical tyrants, this time in proletarian garb, not messianic militants for universal communism. In the West that global view of monolithic communism existed mainly in the nightmares of paranoid politicians in right-wing circles and in the dreams of left-wing academics.

After Geneva the world faced two Vietnams, one in the north, one in the south, divided by the 17th parallel. How similar to the two postwar 1945 Koreas with their division at the 38th parallel. Like the Koreas, both Vietnams claimed to be democracies, all four were in fact dictatorships. American Cold Warriors felt obliged to support South Vietnam, the half domino they hoped to bolster into a barrier. In the last weeks of the Dien Bien Phu siege Washington insiders spoke of the use of atomic bombs. The aging warrior in the White House negated that nuclear option; instead Eisenhower agreed to furnish military aid to the new Saigon regime. Meanwhile Ho and Giap had to reconfigure and strengthen a guerrilla apparatus in the south, the Viet Cong. Both sides took the rest of the 1950s to prepare.

In the early 1960s the U.S. roster changed: Eisenhower was retired, Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson was commander-in-chief. Ike had given Saigon military aid, JFK raised the ante with military advisers, LBJ committed U.S. troops. Ho and Giap adjusted to each escalation of violence, matching their patience to LBJ’s impatience, the volatile Texan calling the Vietnam struggle “a piss-ant war.” But these ants were pissed and persistent.

Not everyone in the Hanoi politburo preached patience. By 1967 the militant young turks led by General Thanh and First Secretary Le Duan, ideologically disposed to a decisive battle, faced off against General Giap and the moderate segment that favored continuing the guerrilla strategy—talking while fighting. Giap lost, the militants won, the Tet Offensive came at the end of January 1968 while Giap was seeking medical treatment in Hungary. Under cover of darkness, Viet Cong troops raced down to attack over fifty urban areas near to the coast, in the process exposing their key Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) within the local peasantry. When the predicted and critical general uprising of civilian support failed to occur, the Viet Cong and their VCI were exposed to slaughter, as they tried to make a daylight dash back to their inland and border bases. Disaster on a national scale. (For a taste of that disaster read Don Oberdorfer’s account Tet!

Clearly the Tet Offensive failed militarily in the streets of Vietnam’s villages and towns. Just as clearly, but surprisingly to all at the time, the Tet Offensive succeeded politically in the streets of America’s towns and cities. Giap is not responsible for either outcome.

The Viet Cong never recovered, LBJ gave up hope of reelection, the long-drawn-out Paris Peace talks began, America’s civil society almost imploded, Nixon won the presidency, and in 1969 Ho died. Nixon bombed his way to “peace with honor,” and in 1975, in an old fashion invasion, the Army of North Vietnam occupied their South as Americans watched the televised debacle of their occupiers fleeing in helicopters to their off-shore aircraft carriers. Disaster on a national scale.

01Giap watched from Hanoi, now a discarded general. Hanoi militants did not seek his advice when, as their first big foreign move after reunification, they started a border war with China, instituted ruthless reeducation camps in the south for anyone who had worked for or with the former Saigon regime, dismissed their Viet Cong brothers from any role in ruling the south, and, by their draconian decisions drove their best and brightest to seek asylum as boat people. (Many boat people made new homes in southern California and coastal Texas. See Andrew X. Pham in Catfish and Mandala.) This Giap also witnessed.

Unlike Napoleon his enemies gave him no offshore island for his long exile. Instead Giap waited at home. But he outlived his homegrown critics. If living longest is the best revenge, he won. And he will always have his victory at Dien Bien Phu.

00Dr. Patrick Lloyd Hatcher fought in Vietnam in 1968-69. After his U.S. Army service he earned his Ph.D. in American history at UC Berkeley. In 1990 Stanford University published his CAL dissertation as The Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists in Vietnam. He led a California Alumni group in 2007 to a new Vietnam with a mixed economy of American and European five-star resort hotels and golf courses along the coast in addition to big capitalists investments in manufacturing such as the billion-dollar INTEL chip facility near old Saigon. He wonders what Giap would make of this revolution!

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