In the history of communist Vietnam, Giap is second only to Ho Chi Minh in the impact he had. Ho named Giap commander in chief of the Vietminh forces fighting the French at the end of World War II. Giap orchestrated the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1953 and was named minister of defense of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Giap was also the chief military strategist against the U.S. led Vietnam War.
Giap was born in central Annam, just north of the 17th parallel, on August 25, 1911, to Nguyen Thi Kien and Vo Quang Nghiem. His early life was spent in one of the poorest sections of Vietnam. However, Giap’s father was a member of the tiny middle class of his region, a rice farmer who tilled his own land and rented another small portion, in addition to being a practitioner of traditional Asian medicine.
From age five until eight, he attended school in An Xa. The school was supervised by the French but taught by Vietnamese. In 1923 he received a certificate for finishing elementary studies, which was not very common. The following year he took the entrance examination to qualify for additional education at Hue but failed. He studied diligently and passed the exam in 1925. He attended school at the Quoc Hoc, which was a known seedbed of revolution; his leadership abilities and intelligence helped him excel as a student.
Giap then became a history teacher, a profession he retained throughout the 1930s. At the same time, he was active in various revolutionary movements. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, and assisted in founding the Democratic Front in 1936. He was a devoted scholar of military tactics and studied Napoleon and the ancient Chinese military tactician Sunzi extensively. The French outlawed communism in 1939, so Giap, along with Ho Chi Minh, fled to China, where he studied guerrilla warfare.
From 1939 until around 1947 Giap was busy developing and directing the military plan that defeated the French and eventually caused the United States to abandon its efforts in Vietnam. It was a multifaceted plan that included gathering popular support for his efforts and mobilizing the people to join the communist cause. Giap’s military strategies caused millions of people to lose their lives, including millions of Vietnamese, both North and South, and over 58,000 Americans. Many American soldiers were impressed with the diligence of the Vietnamese, the skill of the North Vietnamese army, and their discipline. Much of this was due to the leadership of Giap.
When the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established in 1975, when North Vietnam conquered the south and united the nation, Giap served as deputy prime minister and minister of defense. After his retirement, he wrote several books. In 1992, he was awarded the Golden Star Award, Vietnam’s highest decorative honor.
- Currey, Cecil B. Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Vietnam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc., 1997;
- O’Neill, Robert. General Giap: Politician and Strategist. New York: Praeger Books, 1969;
- Vo Nguyen Giap and Van Tien Dung. How We Won the War. Philadelphia: Recon Publishing, 1976.
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