Vietnam War: Vo Nguyen Giap

Vo Nguyen Giap
Photograph Source: Public Domain

Born in the village of An Xa on August 25, 1911, Vo Nguyen Giap was the son of Vo Quang Nghiem. At 16, he began attending a French lycée in Hue but was expelled after two years for organizing a student strike. He later attended the University of Hanoi where he earned degrees in political economy and law. Departing school, he taught history and worked as a journalist until he was arrested in 1930, for supporting student strikes. Released 13 months later, he joined the Communist Party and began protesting against French rule of Indochina. During the 1930s, he resumed work as a writer for several newspapers.

Exile & World War II

In 1939, Giap married fellow socialist Nguyen Thi Quang Thai. Their marriage was brief as he was forced to flee to China later that following the French outlawing of communism. While in exile, his wife, father, sister, and sister-in-law were arrested and executed by the French. In China, Giap joined with Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Independence League (Viet Minh). Between 1944 and 1945, Giap returned to Vietnam to organize guerilla activity against the Japanese. Following the end of the World War II, the Viet Minh was given power by the Japanese to form a provisional government.

First Indochina War

In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and named Giap as interior minister. The government was short-lived as the French soon returned to take control. Unwilling to recognized Ho Chi Minh's government, fighting soon broke out between the French and the Viet Minh. Given command of the Viet Minh's military, Giap soon found this his men could not defeat the better-equipped French and he ordered a withdrawal to bases in the countryside. With the victory of Mao Zedong's communist forces in China, Giap's situation improved as he gained a new base for training his men.

Over the next seven year's Giap's Viet Minh forces successfully drove the French from most of North Vietnam's rural areas, but were unable to take any of the region's towns or cities. At a stalemate, Giap began attacking into Laos, hoping to draw the French into battle on the Viet Minh's terms. With French public opinion swinging against the war, the commander in Indochina, General Henri Navarre, sought a quick victory. To accomplish this he fortified Dien Bien Phu which was situated on the Viet Minh's supply lines to Laos. It was Navarre's goal to draw Giap into a conventional battle where he could be crushed.

To deal with the new threat, Giap concentrated all of his forces around Dien Bien Phu and surrounded the French base. On March 13, 1954, his men opened fire with newly obtained Chinese 105mm guns. Surprising the French with artillery fire, the Viet Minh slowly tightened the noose on the isolated French garrison. Over the next 56 days, Giap's troops captured one French position at a time until the defenders were compelled to surrender. The victory at Dien Bien Phu effectively ended the First Indochina War. In the ensuing peace accords, the country was partitioned with Ho Chi Minh leading communist North Vietnam.

Vietnam War

In the new government, Giap served as minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the People's Army of Vietnam. With the outbreak of hostilities with South Vietnam, and later the United States, Giap led North Vietnam's strategy and command. In 1967, Giap helped oversee the planning for the massive Tet Offensive. While initially against a conventional attack, Giap's goals were both military and political. In addition to achieving a military victory, Giap desired the offensive to spark an uprising in South Vietnam and show that American claims about the war's progress were wrong.

While the 1968 Tet Offensive proved to be a military disaster for North Vietnam, Giap was able to achieve some of his political objectives. The offensive showed that North Vietnam was far from being defeated and significantly contributed to changing American perceptions about the conflict. Following Tet, peace talks began and the US ultimately withdrew from the war in 1973. Following the American departure, Giap remained in command of North Vietnamese forces and directed General Van Tien Dung and the Ho Chi Minh campaign that finally captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975.


With Vietnam reunified under Communist rule, Giap remained minister of defense and was promoted to deputy prime minister in 1976. He stayed in these positions until 1980 and 1982 respectively. Retiring, Giap authored several military texts including People's Army, People's War and Big Victory, Great Task. He died on October 4, 2013, at Central Military Hospital 108 in Hanoi.