Vo Nguyen Giap in Memoriam:
People’s War and Peace
Opening speech at the 3rd annual conference
of Uppsala University’s East Asian Peace program,
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam,
Hanoi, 18th October 2013 
Peace Research Institute Oslo
and East Asian Peace program, Uppsala University
The rise and fall of People’s War is a central theme in twentieth century history. People’s War is a strategy allowing an army with inferior weapons but solid popular support and a substantial hinterland to win its wars against enemies with more and better arms. People’s War strategy emphasizes resilience rather than rapidity, the size of its armed forces rather than their efficiency, and People’s Warriors are psychologically prepared to accept and absorb huge losses of life. The doctrine of People’s War has a dual origin in the Napoleonic Wars, in both the tactics of Napoleon himself and in that of his adversaries. The French revolutionary army that came under the dominance of Napoleon Bonaparte practised the “levée en masse,” with armies of a size never seen before, and with enormous loss of human life in battle. When advancing into Spain, Germany and Russia, the French at first evoked enthusiastic support among oppressed peoples who sought liberation from their tyrants, but soon the new masters provoked resentment and resistance of an intensely emotional kind. Spanish, German and Russian nationalisms were born. The Spanish had inferior weapons but resorted to what they called “small war” (guerrilla), with no big battles but many scattered attacks carried out by fighters who did not use uniform but hid among the population during the day and attacked at night. The result was the kind of French reprisals that have been depicted so vividly by the Spanish painter Goya. Such reprisals, of course, invigorated local anger and willingness to fight. Guerrilla tactics also played an essential role when the Russians defeated the French invasion in 1812: A popular Russian army used small guerrilla groups to defend the nation and its tsar by repeatedly attacking the flanks of the formerly revolutionary army, which Napoleon had transformed into an imperial army of conquest.
Guerrilla tactics and mobilization of huge armies were combined in the 20th century strategy of People’s War. Its main theoretician, Mao Zedong, said it should move through three stages: first guerrilla, then stalemate, and finally a general offensive. It is important to notice that guerrilla tactics dominates only at the first stage. At the second and third stage of a People’s War, guerrillas are just auxiliary forces, helping the main armies, whose main body is a huge infantry. When a People’s Army is ready to launch an offensive against a solidly entrenched and better armed enemy, then it may resort to “human wave” tactics to crowd out its opponents. Line after line of attackers will succomb before the force of the enemy’s superior firepower but in the end overwhelm him all the same if only there are enough soldiers willing to die. Among the most well-known theoreticians and practitioners of People’s War in the twentieth century were Lawrence of Arabia, Leon Trotsky, Marshal Tito, Mao Zedong, Vo Nguyen Giap, Truong Chinh, Che Guevara … and the Indonesian strategist Abdul Haris Nasution. It is noteworthy that People’s War doctrine has not just been used by leftist movements but also by national armies fighting against local communist rebels. Two examples of this are in Indonesia and Burma. The main military strategist in Indonesia was General Nasution, who survived the communist revolt in 1965 by escaping from his house when it came under attack, and remained influential throughout the long reign of General Suharto. Nasution always reminded Suharto that he was not a leader in his own right but was brought to power by a People’s Army, to which he owed loyalty. The Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, was also seen by its commander and later President, Ne Win, as a People’s Army. In Burma one People’s Army fought another People’s Army until the communist one was defeated in an internal rebellion in 1989.
Future military historians are likely to see Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap as the two most successful practitioners of twentieth century People’s War. Mao’s Red Army survived its Long March 1932-34, established new headquarters in Yenan in northern China, used the anti-Japanese resistance 1937-45 to build solid strength among the peasants in the country-side, overran the forces of Chiang Kai-shek during 1946-50, formed the People’s Republic of China with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and forced the American forces in Korea to retreat back to the 38th parallel in 1950. In the 1960s, however, the People’s Liberation Army went into a period of decline, did not perform well in its war with the Soviet Union in 1969, and a few years after Mao’s death, in 1979, it failed to teach Vietnam a lesson. This led to reforms that moved China away from People’s War doctrine. The People’s Liberation Army was transformed into a smaller army who should be able to fight successful battles under modern conditions, with more precise firepower and fewer losses.
The Vietnamese army that turned the Chinese lesson into a counter-lesson in 1979 was the same army that, according to official Vietnamese history, had been founded 35 years before in the border region to China by a 33 year old history professor: Vo Nguyen Giap. He is called the Anh Ca (elder brother) of the Army because he was instructed by Ho Chi Minh to form an Armed Propaganda Brigade in December 1944, one of the forerunners of the People’s Army of Vietnam, together with armed groups led by the ethnic minority leader Chu Van Tan, the guerrilla leader Nguyen Binh and others.
Like so many other of Vietnam’s great leaders Vo Nguyen Giap came from central Vietnam and in the 1920s went to secondary school – a French lycée – in the old imperial city of Hue. He learned French history and was fascinated by Napoleon, read all he could find about his military campaigns. At the same time, already as a teenager, Vo Nguyen Giap became an anti-colonial activist, was expelled from his lycée, and was in 1930 convicted to two years in prison after having collected money in support of the Yen Bay uprising. However, his intelligence seems to have impressed his interrogators so much that they arranged for him to be released ahead of time on 18 November 1931, perhaps in the hope that he would become more pro-French. His early release, and the fact that he later received a scholarship to study in Hanoi, so he could complete his baccalauréat and even graduate from legal studies at the University of Hanoi in 1937, created suspicion among other left wing militants, notably the Trotskyites, who thought he had become a French agent. He would get ample chance to prove such suspicions wrong. In the 1930s he was part of a team that studied the economy and living conditions in the countryside under the leadership of a French geography professor, Pierre Gourou. Together with Truong Chinh, the later Secretary General of the Indochinese Communist Party, Vo Nguyen Giap wrote a book on the basis of these studies in 1937-38, called “The peasant question”. The gist of his and Truong Chinh’s thinking was that a revolution was needed in the countryside to liberate the villages from traditional superstition and replace village elders with young leaders ready for change. While undertaking his peasant studies Giap also taught history at the Thang Long school in Hanoi.
In May 1940, after a new French government had cancelled the liberties allowed in the colonies under the French Popular Front government, which was led by the socialist Léon Blum, Giap expected to be arrested once again and therefore left Hanoi together with his comrade Pham Van Dong to join up with communist organizers in the border region to China. This was just as Hitler launched his assault on France. By the time Giap and Pham Van Dong established their presence in the Chinese province of Yunnan, the French army was defeated and Philippe Pétain signed an armistice with Hitler, who allowed the aging Marshal to hold on to half of France and all of its colonies. It was at this time, when it could be seen that a favourable occasion might arise for national liberation, that Giap met the main Vietnamese communist leader of his time: Nguyen Ai Quoc. Quoc was twenty-one years older than Giap, had lived in exile since 1911, been a prominent member of the international communist movement since the founding of the French Communist Party in 1920, had taken part in the founding of communist parties in Thailand and Malaya, had served a prison sentence in British Hong Kong, survived Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union, and had now come down from Russia through China. He assumed the leadership of a new national liberation front, the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Viet Minh for short) and also took up a new name for himself: Ho Chi Minh. Giap, before joining up with Ho Chi Minh, had left his wife and little daughter behind in Hanoi. Nguyen Thi Quang Thai was the younger sister of a legendary female communist of the first generation, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, who had been close to Nguyen Ai Quoc in the early 1930s and was executed by the French in 1941 for her role in a 1940 uprising. Giap’s wife Quang Thai was also soon arrested, and Giap learned in 1943 that she had died in a French prison. He was thus no doubt reminded that when he was still just a boy, the French had also killed his father.
The role assigned to Giap in Vietnam’s northern border region was to recruit young fighters from among the local ethnic minorities and train them in guerrilla and other military tactics. When I first had a chance to interview Giap in 1991, we discussed this formative period of his career, and at one point he was annoyed by my ignorance. There was an essential book I had not read. Then he realized that the book had been published only in Vietnamese and that I could not even read Vietnamese. He stared at me in the way of a school master and scolded me in his absolutely flawless French for not having bothered to learn such an easy language. When he was my age, he explained, he had learnt four minority languages and even written poems in one of them while building up Vietnam’s Army of National Liberation: “Are you married?” he asked me. I immediately understood what he was driving at. He was going to suggest that I learn Vietnamese on a pillow. So I interrupted him: “Yes, I am married and I’m so happily married that I shall not even think of asking for a divorce in order to learn the six tones of your language. When hearing this, he laughed heartily and apologized for intruding into my personal life.
22 December 1944. Since this was the day Giap formed the first Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Viet Minh it was decided at some point that this was the foundation of the People’s Army of Vietnam. It is therefore celebrated every year as Army day. The strategic aim of the Viet Minh leaders in 1944-45 was to use its various armed groups in a general offensive against the Japanese and French forces in Indochina in conjunction with an Allied invasion, which could come either from the sea or China or both. Japan had compelled French Indochina in 1941 to allow its army to establish local bases. They were used as stepping stones for the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia in early 1942. By late 1944 it was easy to foresee that the French Indochinese forces would turn against Japan and join the allied cause once the expected invasion began. Petain was gone, and Charles de Gaulle had in August 1944 established a new French government in Paris. The Viet Minh would now have to compete with the French for the favour of the Allies and seek to establish a position of strength that could be used to liberate Vietnam not just from Japan but also from French colonialism. As happens often in history, what happened next was different from what everyone had thought. Japan also anticipated an Allied invasion and therefore launched a coup against the French and disarmed them on 9 March 1945, although no Allied invasion happened. This had two contradictory effects on Giap and the Viet Minh. Firstly, the sudden disappearance of the French administration removed both the army and the police that had oppressed the people. The Japanese had no capacity to take over the running of the country. Hence an opportunity was opened for rapidly expanding the Viet Minh movement throughout the Red River delta and also further beyond. Another similar movement, the Vanguard Youth, spread out in southern Vietnam. These movements were greatly reinforced by communists and other leftists who were now released from French jails. When Japan surrendered on 15 August, city-based activists were thus able to utilize the power vacuum and seize power in a rapid and almost nonviolent revolution. Secondly, the disappearance of the French colonial regime made Giap’s armed forces temporarily irrelevant. They were far away from the main action. Giap and other leaders had been assembled at a remote place called Tan Trao, with no means of communication with the people who seized power in the cities. Giap led his troops into a small and unnecessary confrontation with a Japanese force at Thai Nguyen but his brigades could actually march unhindered all the way to Hanoi. When they arrived in the capital to form the nucleus of a new national army, all the main cities in Vietnam were already in the hands of the Viet Minh, which was dominated by communists who had either survived clandestinely under the combined “Franco-Japanese yoke” or recently got out of jail. Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh were actually on the side-lines when the August Revolution happened.
Giap’s main task after the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September 1945, was to build a national army under infinitely more favourable conditions than before. Yet he faced serious difficulties. He had to avoid battle with a huge Chinese army, which entered Vietnam from the north in compliance with a decision by the Allies that China would occupy northern Indochina to disarm the Japanese there, while Britain would occupy the southern half. Giap also had to prepare his forces for resisting a French return. The French made a quick comeback in the south, with British help, but did not land in the north until 6 March 1946. This was a trying moment in Giap’s life. His forces were ready to resist the French invaders but it was essential to avoid a two-front struggle against the French and Chinese at the same time. Since China had just made an agreement with France allowing it to return to northern Indochina, Giap and Ho Chi Minh decided to be inspired by Lenin’s 1918 agreement with Germany at Brest Litovsk and sign an agreement with France, allowing it to re-establish garrisons in the main cities of northern Vietnam against a promise to let Vietnam become a “free state”. The term “independent” was not used. Giap took upon himself the task of explaining to a mass meeting in Hanoi the need for a “Brest Litovsk” with the French being allowed to return.
In the next period, Giap made a short and unsuccessful stint as negotiator, serving as deputy head and de facto leader of a Vietnamese delegation to negotiate with France at Dalat in the central highlands. No agreement was reached. Although this was mainly because of French recalcitrance, Giap was not as impressive as a diplomat as he was as a teacher and commander, so a more natural division of labour developed in the Viet Minh leadership afterwards, with Giap concentrating on military and police matters while Pham Van Dong, Hoang Huu Nam – and Ho Chi Minh himself – took care of diplomacy. The French would soon see Giap as a hardliner, and kept looking for ways to create dissension among the Vietnamese leaders so Giap could be marginalized. After unsuccessful Franco-Vietnamese negotiations in France during the Summer of 1946 the bilateral relationship quickly deteriorated, and Giap’s main task became to prepare for a coming People’s War. It would be a drawn-out war, a war for the survival of his forces. That there would soon be full-scale war became more than likely when the French bombed and seized control of the port city Haiphong on 23 November. In this period, autumn 1946, Giap made some cynical statements that have since been associated with his name and been repeated even in some of the obituaries in the international press. In December 1946 Giap met a representative of the US State Department, Abbot Low Moffat, who was deeply impressed by Ho Chi Minh but not by Giap. Moffat thought Giap had a disconcerting “deadpan” face and acted like an archetypical communist cadre. When Moffat asked him about all the suffering that would ensue if war were allowed to break out between Vietnam and France, Giap just spoke of the need for “sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice”. “We may not win a war against France,” Giap conceded, “but neither will France”. And in the end France would give up. Ho Chi Minh used to say that it would be a war between a tiger and an elephant or between grasshoppers and elephants but Ho said this just allegorically. He did say directly that millions of people would have to die. Giap called a spade a spade and said it would not matter if thousands or millions died. All the sacrifice needed to ensure national liberation was worth it. These were chilling words. Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrows of War carries the opposite message: Perhaps it was not worth all the suffering. Giap saw a need to convince his interlocutors that Vietnam would hold out no matter what; if he expressed any element of sorrow, fear or worry, then it might seem that he was not fully determined to fight until victory. Perhaps he was too honest or direct to express himself in less cynical terms. At any rate his statements from late 1946, not just to Moffat but to others as well, are discomforting. I sometimes seek comfort in the memory of having attended at some point in the early 1990s a commemorative event for war veterans in the Museum of Revolution here in Hanoi. As a foreign guest I was offered a seat next to Giap. He was not treated as the most important man in the room, but sat in the audience together with the rest of us, on the second row of chairs if I remember correctly. The kind of respect that the little man next to me showed for the war veterans in the room thoroughly impressed me. I was especially impressed when two psychologically deranged former soldiers insisted to take over the podium from the designated speaker in order to read out some extremely long poems. Giap just sat there patiently listening to their ramblings.
Sometimes I also think of the fact that my friend and colleague Duong Trung Quoc, one of the historians who worked with Giap on his memoirs in the 1990s, never met his own father. He was killed in late December 1946, in the battle that Giap had initiated.
Giap and I have quarrelled both orally and verbally over what happened in Hanoi on 19 December 1946, the day the all-out war with France began. He claimed that a conscious decision was made to launch an attack as a way of taking the initiative and demonstrating a will to fight. If any mistake were made, he asserted, it was “that we waited too long.” He let militias and some small parts of his army join the fighting in the city, while withdrawing the rest of his troops to safety. In my view, he was lured into a trap on 19 December by the local French authorities who feared that a new French government under the socialist Leon Blum would engage in new talks with Ho Chi Minh. The local French wanted war. They wished to place Blum before a fait accompli but could not take the initiative themselves for fear of being repudiated. They thus wanted Giap to act first. I think he made a tremendous tactical mistake in launching his attack at the very moment when a new French government might repudiate the aggressive actions undertaken by its local representatives, who had been appointed by General de Gaulle. I think the outbreak of war was avoidable – at least at that point of time. Giap always maintained that the outbreak of war was inevitable.
From 1946 to 1954, Giap fought a classic People’s War in the paradigmatic Maoist fashion, where the first phase 1947-49 was mainly about keeping his forces intact while engaging in small scale guerrilla tactics. The French called it “la sale guerre” (the dirty war). Then, when the Chinese People’s Liberation Army arrived at the other side of the border in 1950, Giap sent his officers to China for training and got Chinese military advisors and weapons. This allowed him to launch his first conventional battle at Cao Bang near the Chinese border in October 1950, and to win a decisive victory. The French had to evacuate the border region. This led to over-confidence on Giap’s side, and to several costly defeats when the French had reorganized their forces and put them under a new decisive commander-in-chief.
Giap and his colleagues learned from these mistakes before launching a great campaign in late 1953 to surround and destroy a newly established French fortress at Dien Bien Phu, way up in the northwestern highlands near Laos. The battle of Dien Bien Phu is so well known that I will mostly bypass it here. It marked the apex of Giap’s military career and rendered him famous world wide. Dien Bien Phu was one of the epic battles of the twentieth century, and one of those where an Asian force won against a Western one: Tsushima 1905, Pearl Harbor 1941, Singapore 1942, Dien Bien Phu 1954. This was the third stage of People’s War, the general offensive. It depended on a massive mobilization of porters, on troops being willing to sacrifice themselves in attacks against heavily fortified positions, and on massive Chinese assistance. Yet the outcome was not a given. The attackers were sometimes close to a physical and psychological breaking point, and the greatest contribution Giap made to victory was probably his decision to call off the final onslaught at a time when it had been decided but when victory was not yet certain, and continue to build strength for some more time before closing in on the French bastions. When the last one fell on 7 May 1954, the stage was set for Pham Van Dong’s negotiations in Geneva, leading to the temporary division of Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, the subsequent departure of the French and the coming of American advisors in the South.
Vo Nguyen Giap remained minister of defence but had lost some of his power. As Ho Chi Minh became older, and Secretary General Le Duan built up his discrete and uncharismatic power, a new generation of less colourful military officers took control of the army. General Nguyen Chi Thanh, not Giap, was the main brain behind the Tet offensive in 1968, which may have resulted from a miscalculation on the part of Hanoi. There had always been tension within the international communist movement between proponents of city-based revolution and rural-based People’s War. The Russian Revolution began as a city-based revolt and then became a civil war with armies moving against each other along the main axes of communication. The urban tactics failed in Guangzhou 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek clamped down on the communists. When Mao rose to power afterwards, he applied a consistent strategy of People’s War, with armies converging around the cities so they would fall in the end as ripe fruits. The Tet offensive was launched inside the main cities of Saigon and Hue, probably in a hope of unleashing a popular uprising. Militarily the Tet offensive was a defeat, and its tremendous impact on US public opinion can hardly have been foreseen in Hanoi, although many would pretend this later. After the Tet offensive, Giap’s influence increased again for a short while, and he remained Minister of Defence until 1980, but he never regained the kind of control he had held during the French war. When the Ho Chi Minh offensive was launched in 1975, two years after the withdrawal of American forces in fulfillment of the January 1973 Paris agreement, the campaign was carried out by a new commander, General Van Tien Dung, in close cooperation with Le Duc Tho. The offensive was undertaken in the classic conventional – and Maoist – fashion, with armies surrounding and cutting off the cities. No urban uprising happened or was expected to happen. The main factor ensuring rapid victory was the demoralization of the South Vietnamese army, the fact that the United States did not return to help it, and that President Nguyen Van Thieu ceded power inthe end to General Duong Van Minh (“Big Minh”), who decided to surrender instead of allowing Saigon to be destroyed. The role of Big Minh was touched upon in a statement made by former prime minister Vo Van Kiet a couple of years ago. In this statement, Kiet, who had played a key role in the war in the south, expressed his appreciation of Big Minh’s surrender, which had made 30 April 1975 so much less bloody than it would otherwise have been.
During an essential part of of the period when the heroic Giap was Minister of Defence in Hanoi, his counterpart in Washington was Robert S. McNamara, one of the twentieth century’s most tragic personalities. McNamara was not, of course, a military man. American secretaries of defence are always civilians. Yet McNamara was someone used to command. The best period of his professional life was when he directed and reformed the Ford Motor Company using modern, scientific management techniques. His tragedy began when he was persuaded by John F. Kennedy to become one of his “best and brightest” and revolutionize the Pentagon with scientific management techniques. McNamara’s war was not a People’s War but a Computer’s War, built on rational choice theory. Victory in war should be won the same way you make a winning product for the market. The basic idea was that any adversary will have a breaking point as far as number of casualties is concerned, no matter what kind of cause the enemy is fighting for. If a sufficient number of Vietnamese soldiers were killed, then North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam would come to a breaking point where they would be willing to negotiate on American or South Vietnamese terms. This never happened, of course. When it did not, when the casualty figures just continued to increase beyond any reasonable breaking point and the enemy still continued to fight and even escalated the fighting, McNamara started to have doubts. He was a deeply moral Presbyterian, someone with a deep longing to do good, and he suffered terribly from his Vietnam failure. In the end he resigned as Secretary of Defence but dit not tell the American public why. He was too loyal to President Lyndon B. Johnson to go public with his doubts. Instead he tried to compensate for his personal failure by taking up an obvious do-good job as President of the World Bank. As such he insisted on a huge increase in loans to developing countries. He wanted to get massive amounts of people out of poverty by kickstarting economic growth. Thus he inadvertently contributed to the long debt crisis in Africa and Latin America, which stifled development for a couple of decades and was only really overcome in the 2000s, when Chinese demand led to higher prices for African raw materials.
In his old age, McNamara became an anti-war activist, and spent much of his collossal energy on digging into his own past mistakes. In his quest for redemption he made two pilgrimages to Vietnam and published two books about how badly he and America had been mistaken. During his first trip to Vietnam in 1995 he had a brief meeting with Giap, who confirmed that there had been only one attempt to shoot at US ships with torpedoes in the “Tonkin Gulf incident” in early August 1964. The alleged second attack, which prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to seek the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (the closest that the USA came to a declaration of war), never actually took place. When McNamara learned this news from Giap, he faxed his publisher back in the United States with instructions to make a last-minute change to his first self-flagellating book In Retrospect. When McNamara came back to Vietnam in 1997 with a whole team of political scientists and historians to work on his second book, he was extremely eager to once more meet his old nemesis Vo Nguyen Giap. He wanted it at first to be a private meeting but this did not work out. Perhaps Giap preferred it otherwise. Perhaps the Vietnamese Communist Party did not want Giap and McNamara to meet under four eyes. For myself and quite a few others, it was wonderful that the two former enemies were unable to meet privately since this allowed us to be present.
It was 23 June 1997 in a hot and humid Hanoi. Robert McNamara had been mastering a four day conference in the luxurious Hotel Metropole to discuss mutual misunderstandings and missed opportunities between Washington and Hanoi during 1961-69. Only a few hours were now left till McNamara’s plane was due to take off from Noi Bai airport. But first he expected to be received by General Giap. The meeting would take place in the former French “Résidence supérieure” where the revolutionaries had seized control in the first phase of the August Revolution on 19 August 1945, and which for more than a year in 1945-46 had served as office for President Ho Chi Minh but been captured by heavily armed French assaillants in the night of 19-20 December 1946. After Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva accords of 1954 Giap’s forces had returned there to stay. In the 1960s and early 1970s the building had been evacuated during each of the American bombing campaigns but it was never actually hit. To Giap, the colonial style facade and interior of the building, nicely renovated in 1993, were as familiar as could be. He had received innumerable foreign dignitaries in that building as the Government Guest House of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Now, two years after the publication of his first book, and following an acrimonious discussion in the USA about the sincerity and limitations of the former defence secretary’s belated self-criticism, McNamara was preparing for a frank and open-minded discussion with the small but lucid Asian General. However, their encounter would prove to be a piece of theater, leaving the two men at an even greater mental distance than before. Two men with most of a war and over three million dead men and women between them. Two calculating brains with so many choices to regret or be proud of. They had so much in common, and yet their minds got no chance to actually meet.
We were some fifty people in the room, mostly Vietnamese and Americans, lining the walls, eagerly waiting to know if the two men would allow us to stay during their talk. Then there was a rush at the door. General Giap walked slowly through the room in his impeccable uniform amidst a moving circle of blitzing cameras. He smiled a perpetual smile and sat down in the host’s chair, to the right of his guest’s empty chair.
Where was McNamara? The host, according to custom, is supposed to come in last. But in this case it had been agreed that the guest would enter last, and the host would first make sure that no journalists were present. McNamara’s dream was to have a free, non-scripted discussion undisturbed by hostile media. His greatest hope was that Giap would reciprocate and offer some regrets for his past actions, for his own mistakes during the war, for his failure to negotiate and end the war much earlier so lives could have been spared. If Giap could also express his regrets, then the two could seek redemption together. God would forgive Giap just as he had forgiven McNamara. The problem with this approach, of course, was that Giap had fought the war in his own country against a foreign invader while McNamara had sent his soldiers to die in a country at the opposite side of the great Pacific. Giap of course had no regrets that he had won the war.
We stood there waiting for McNamara to arrive, with Giap sitting quietly in his chair. Someone expressed excuses on McNamara’s behalf; he must have been delayed. But then the tall, old, athletic man strode in, taking vigorously command of the room. In just a few giant steps he had advanced through the whole of the room, then leant his long body down over the small General in a show of secretarial might and said he would like to introduce his team.
A short embarrassing scene ensued. McNamara was gently shown his chair. But before sitting down he turned around to look at all of us from his standing position. Then he discovered to his obvious disappointment that the journalists and cameras were still there, in violation of the agreement he had obtained. He then insisted that all journalists must leave the room before the dialogue could begin. Amidst begrudgings most of the cameras were carried outside, and the doors were shut, but the rest of us remained inside. One person who was obviously a journalist also remained, a young woman in a mini skirt with neatly sewn three-dimensional flowers along the hem. McNamara could not avoid seeing her and asked that she be removed. She protested that she had General Giap’s permission to stay but McNamara had his way. On her way out she shouted insults to the former Secretary of Defence. The doors closed behind her. The rest of us were still inside. We sighed.
There was a brief pause while the two men competed for control, each with the help of an interpreter. Giap had an official one from Hanoi. McNamara had brought an overseas Vietnamese from home. Both did a remarkable job. McNamara again wanted to introduce his team, a move with a potential from transforming the scenario from a meeting of two men to a hearing where Giap would be questioned by a group of international experts. Giap interfered to say he wanted to make a brief statement. He spoke quietly while retaining the same steady smile. McNamara gave up his plan to introduce his team but interrupted Giap to state his desire that the conversation must last at least one hour. “Yes,” said Giap: “One hour will be enough.”
During the first part of Giap’s brief statement, McNamara took frantic notes but when the statement turned out to not be brief at all, his hands stopped scribbling and instead formed fists in preparation for making interruptions each time Giap was forced to draw his breath. To no avail. Giap seemed to breath while talking and did not even look at the impatient American. He stared out in the room at the rest of us and spoke softly but emphatically about the escalation of the US war from Kennedy to Johnson and about the Vietnamese determination to resist. McNamara waited and waited and waited but in the end he could no longer hold down his impatience. First he demonstratively took off his watch and put it on the table. When this failed to produce any effect he tried to use his fist and mouth instead. Giap had just stated: “Since I am a soldier, please let me be frank,” when McNamara seized a chance to break in: “Yes, please be frank. And then I would like to interrupt you and move to another subject.”
Giap could not be moved. He continued his statement with the same soft voice, like an old teacher ignoring a young oversized schoolboy who has not yet learned good manners. Giap never actually looked at McNamara. He spoke out in space, let the interpreter translate, spoke again, allowed the translation, spoke… in a kind of rhythmic hymn that could last eternally. From the moment he had uttered his first words he was in full control of the scene. McNamara did not rise from his chair and Giap could talk as long as he wanted. McNamara and his team would listen, try to interrupt from time to time, exchange glances but remain seated. Giap sang for almost an hour, about US strengths and weaknesses during the war, about correct decisions made in Hanoi, and mainly about the will of the people to resist: “The Vietnamese people fought and had to fight. If necessary we would have fought a hundred years. Because of our determination we achieved our national independence a hundred years early.” And “we fought on our own account. There were no foreign voluntary troops, even though there were 500,000 foreign troops in South Vietnam.” There were, he conceded, some friends who said the Vietnamese could not win against the United States. He could not name those friends. But he himself was always convinced that the Vietnamese people could win. The United States made a strategic error when it intervened in Vietnam, leading to the greatest military defeat in US history. The winners of the war were the Vietnamese people and also all the progressive peace-loving people in the world, including the progressive peace-loving people in the United States who opposed the war.
At one point McNamara managed to insert another question. He wanted to know which of all US decisions that caused the most worry in Hanoi. The word “worry” does not exist in the Vietnamese vocabulary, said Giap. He was then asked what caused the most “fear” but replied that the word “fear” also does not exist in Vietnamese. After each of these interruptions the General continued his monologue:
“Nothing is as precious as freedom and independence. The victory of the Vietnamese people was not just a physical victory. It was also the first time a small country could break the myth of great power domination. Nowadays, however, under different geopolitical and cultural conditions, there is nothing that stands in the way of improving Vietnamese-American relations. Normalization is in our mutual interest, particularly in view of Vietnam’s geopolitical position and cultural importance. I believe a better relationship between Vietnam and the United States will contribute to peace and stability in the region. The Vietnamese people sincerely wants to cooperate with the American people.”
Finally Giap allowed a few questions from the US team, letting each inspire a new monologue. Most of the Americans had now reached a stage of resignation. They seemed somewhat in awe of the little General who on this day was winning another battle: “General, you are certainly winning the war of words today,” McNamara exclaimed. “I now see why you have become a legend in your time. You are secure in your legend,” said General Dale Vesser, a member of McNamara’s team.
“No, not a legend,” the legend replied, “but a People’s General. When I stand next to a soldier, I feel like a soldier. To be commander-in-chief is an important task, but the soldier is the one who is directly in charge. Therefore I highly respect the soldier.”
Towards the end, when Giap said he must make another important point, McNamara just let him have his way. “Go ahead!” And then, while Giap proceeded to speak, McNamara let his shoulders sink and smiled a good-natured smile. His energetic posture gave way to an almost humorous resignation. This, perhaps, is where the two men might have started to look at each other, maybe even talk – about People’s War and body counts, about successes and failures, about the tragedy of so many lost lives. It never happened. The encounter was over. Hands were shaken. Doors were opened. Cameras came back while the General and Secretary walked out. For more than an hour Giap and McNamara had been in the same room but they had not actually met.
The fact that Vo Nguyen Giap was politically side-lined in much of the 1960s, and again in the 1970s, leaves ambiguous feelings in me. On the one hand I admire the first and second generation of Vietnamese leaders more than the third and the fourth, and I hold Ho Chi Minh’s main lieutenants in the Viet Minh period, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap in very high esteem. Hence I would be curious to see what Giap would have done in the 1970s and 1980s if he had been more influential. On the other hand it may perhaps be an advantage for Giap’s memory that he did not hold too much responsibility for the many mistakes that were made after the fall of South Vietnam: the too rapid unification; the attempt to collectivize southern agriculture, the destruction of the commercial class, the close alliance with the Soviet Union, the failure to manage Vietnam’s relations with China, the long occupation of Cambodia, the many years it took before the policy of renovation (Doi Moi) was launched.
Giap held power at the time when People’s War was on its ascendancy. The doctrine lost force from the 1980s onward. The last successful socialist revolution of a People’s War kind was in Nicaragua 1979. After that some central elements of People’s War were “turned around” and utilized in so-called “low intensity warfare” against socialist regimes in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and other places. But this kind of warfare also declined after the end of the Cold War, when major powers mostly ceased to support insurgencies in other countries and when modern roads, modern surveillance tecniques and the cutting of trees made it more and more difficult to hide in jungles.
From the side-lines, Giap watched the East Asian region and also other parts of the world become more peaceful, more rich and also more morally depraved. He was now able to spend time on his original field, history, which is also the discipline of his wife Dang Bich Ha. With the help of some of Vietnam’s best historians Giap wrote a readable three-volume memoir that was published both in Vietnamese and French. He also found time during the last few decades of his life to develop a critical view of certain developments in his party, and sometimes he expressed his criticism in letters to the party leadership. The independence of mind thus demonstrated must have further endeared him to the Vietnamese public. Giap became a national icon, and his funeral became the focus of intense national mourning. In his old age, a bit like McNamara, Giap also spoke more often about peace.
Vo Nguyen Giap was 102 or 103 years old when he died (depending on whether we count the European or the Vietnamese way). He thus became even older than his French mentor in the study of the Red River villages during the 1930s, Pierre Gourou, who died in 1999 at the age of 99 (one wonders what they ate when conducting their village fieldwork). General Giap’s life spanned 89 years of the twentieth century and almost thirteen of the twenty-first.
I saw him last on 20 December 2005, two days before his army celebrated its 61st birthday. He received me in his house here in Hanoi, in a room filled with memorabilia – among them several portraits of Uncle Ho – and he rose up in front of me to express a wish for world peace. Vo Nguyen Giap had an impressive personality. He did not perhaps possess the same personal warmth as Uncle Ho. Who does? But Giap was witty, knowledgeable and argumentative. He had a sharp tongue. His eyes revealed an exceptional intelligence and commanded great authority. He expected soldiers to be ready for great sacrifice, and he deeply respected those who were. He now lies buried in his ancestral land of Quang Binh.
May General Giap rest in peace! May his wish be fulfilled that Vietnam and the world can live in peace. In this twenty-first century there should be no place either for People’s War or for its opposite; the war that comes out of the sky, from B52 bombers, cruise missiles or drones.
What we now need is People’s Peace.
 with small corrections made in Hanoi, 13 Nov 2013.
 As John Kleinen has noted in “Tropicality and topicality: Pierre Gourou and the genealogy of French colonial scholarship on rural Vietnam” (2005: 348-349), Vo Nguyen Giap collected field data for Gourou’s ‘supplementary thesis’ about Vietnamese housing in central Vietnam as early as 1935. According to Gourou the two of them had met for the first time in 1931 when Giap was freed on probation. They met again in 1946 at the Dalat conference. See: Tuoi Tre. (Thanks to John Kleinen for this information.)
 In the early 1990s, Giap travelled to Brussels to see his old professor. According to Gourou (interviewed by John Kleinen in 1994) it was a polite and pleasant event. Thanks to John Kleinen for this information.
Texte envoyé depuis Hanoi et publié sur Mémoires d’Indochine avec l’aimable autorisation de l’auteur que nous remercions chaleureusement.