Obituary: Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap / Ruthless Viet general defeated France, U.S.

Aug. 25, 1911 - Oct. 4, 2013


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Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant and ruthless commander who led a ragtag army of guerrillas to victory in Vietnam over first the French and then the Americans, died Friday. The last of the country's old guard revolutionaries was 102.

A national hero, Gen. Giap enjoyed a legacy second only to that of his mentor, founding president and independence leader Ho Chi Minh.

Gen. Giap died in a military hospital in the capital of Hanoi, where he had spent nearly four years because of illnesses, according to a government official and a person close to him.

Known as the "Red Napoleon," Gen. Giap commanded guerrillas who wore sandals made of car tires and lugged artillery piece by piece over mountains to encircle and crush the French army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The unlikely victory -- still studied at military schools -- led to Vietnam's independence and hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.

Gen. Giap then defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government in April 1975, reuniting a country that had been split into communist and noncommunist states. He regularly accepted heavy combat losses to achieve his goals.

"No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war," Gen. Giap told The Associated Press in 2005 -- one of his last known interviews with foreign media on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the former South Vietnamese capital.

"But we still fought because for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom," he said, repeating a famous quote by Minh.

Although widely revered in Vietnam, Gen. Giap was the nemesis of millions of South Vietnamese who fought alongside U.S. troops and fled their homeland after the war, including the many staunchly anti-communist refugees who settled in the United States.

Born Aug. 25, 1911, in central Vietnam's Quang Binh province, Gen. Giap became active in politics in the 1920s and worked as a journalist before joining the Indochinese Communist Party. He was jailed briefly in 1930 for leading anti-French protests and later earned a law degree from Hanoi University.

He fled French police in 1940 and met Minh in southwestern China before returning to rural northern Vietnam to recruit guerrillas for the Viet Minh, a forerunner to the southern insurgency later known as the Viet Cong.

In 1944, Minh called on Gen. Giap to organize and lead guerrilla forces against Japanese invaders in World War II. After Japan surrendered to Allied forces the next year, the Viet Minh continued their fight for independence from France.

The general drew on his Dien Bien Phu experience to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clandestine jungle network that snaked through neighboring -- and ostensibly neutral -- Laos and Cambodia to supply his troops fighting on southern battlefields.

Against U.S. forces with sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Gen. Giap's guerrillas prevailed again. But more than 1 million of his troops died in what is known in Vietnam as the "American War."

Historian Stanley Karnow, who interviewed Gen. Giap in Hanoi in 1990, quoted him as saying: "We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn't our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war."

Gen. Giap had been largely credited with devising the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on U.S. strongholds in the south by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during lunar new year celebrations. Newer research, however, suggests that Gen. Giap had opposed the attacks, and his family has confirmed he was out of the country when they began.

The Tet Offensive shook U.S. confidence, fueled anti-war sentiment and prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election. But it took another seven years for the war to be won.

On April 30, 1975, communist forces marched through Saigon with tanks, bulldozing the gates of what was then known as Independence Palace.

"With the victory of April 30, slaves became free men," Gen. Giap said. "It was an unbelievable story."

Throughout most of the war, Gen. Giap served as defense minister, armed forces commander and a senior member of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, but he was slowly elbowed from the center of power after Minh's death in 1969. The glory for victory in 1975 went not to Gen. Giap, but to Gen. Van Tien Dung, chief of the general staff.

Gen. Giap lost the defense portfolio in 1979 and was dropped from the powerful Politburo three years later. He stepped down from his last post, as deputy prime minister, in 1991.

Despite losing favor with the government, the thin, white-haired man became even more beloved in Vietnam as he continued to speak out. He retired in Hanoi as a national treasure, writing his memoirs and attending functions -- always wearing green or eggshell-colored military uniforms with gold stars across the shoulders.

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