Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Vo Nguyen Giap (1911–)

Senior general in the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN, North Vietnamese Army) during 1946–1972 and minister of defense of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and later the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) during 1946–1986. Vo Nguyen Giap was born in An Xa, Quang Binh Province, in central Vietnam on 15 August 1911. He attended the Lycée Nationale in Hue but was labeled an agitator and expelled. He then worked for a time as a journalist, and he joined the secret Revolutionary Party for a New Vietnam.

Giap was arrested by the French in 1930 and was sentenced to two years' hard labor. Upon his release from prison, he studied at the Lycée Albert Sarraut at Hanoi, graduating in 1934. He then taught history and French at the Lycée Thuong Long. He also published a number of journals and newspapers, most of which were shut down by the authorities. In 1938 he earned a law degree from the University of Hanoi.

Giap joined the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in 1937. The ICP ordered him to southern China in 1940. He was forced to leave behind his wife and daughter, and in 1941 the French arrested his wife. She was subsequently tortured to death.

In China, Giap met Ho Chi Minh. Under Ho's orders, Giap returned to northern Tonkin, where he organized opposition to the French and became a leader of the Vietnam Independence League (Viet Minh), formed in 1942.

In December 1944 Giap formed thirty-four men into the Vietnam Armed Propaganda and Liberation Brigade, the beginnings of the PAVN. His troops underwent strict political indoctrination and military training. Giap was responsible for refining the rural revolutionary warfare theories of Mao Zedong that combined political and military activity into revolutionary warfare.

At the end of World War II, Giap became minister of the interior in the new North Vietnamese government formed in September 1945. He was subsequently named minister of defense with the rank of full general and command of all North Vietnamese military forces.

Giap led the Viet Minh against the French in the long Indochina War (1946–1954), in the course of which he built an army of nearly 300,000 men. He suffered heavy losses when he went over prematurely to major pitched battles against the French Army, but he achieved victory in May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu in the most important battle of the war.

Giap also led PAVN forces in fighting in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) after President Ngo Dinh Diem's refusal to hold the elections called for in 1956 by the 1954 Geneva Accords. Giap often engaged in intense debates with military commanders and political leaders over strategy. He generally cautioned patience, while others sought more aggressive action against South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. He opposed the 1968 Tet Offensive and was proven correct, as the offensive failed, producing high casualties for his own troops and no popular uprising in South Vietnam. However, the Tet Offensive also produced an unexpected psychological victory for Hanoi and led Washington to seek a way out of the war.

In 1972, Giap reluctantly ordered a massive invasion of South Vietnam in what became known as the Easter Offensive. Once again, he was proven correct when the South Vietnamese, supported by massive U.S. airpower, blunted the attack and inflicted heavy casualties on the North Vietnamese. Still, when the offensive was over, PAVN forces occupied territory that they had not previously controlled, and the subsequent 1973 peace agreement did not require their removal.

Sharp disagreements within the North Vietnamese leadership regarding Giap's military judgment led to him being stripped of his command of the PAVN, although he retained the post of minister of defense until 1986. His protégé, General Van Tien Dung, directed the final offensive in 1975 that resulted in the defeat of South Vietnam. Appointed to head the Ministry of Science and Technology, Giap opposed the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. In 1991 he was forced to give up his last post as vice premier in charge of family planning. After his retirement, the government designated Giap a national treasure.

James H. Willbanks

Further Reading
Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.; Van Tien Dung. Our Great Spring Victory. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.; Vo Nguyen Giap. Unforgettable Days. Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1978.

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