At 5 p.m. on the evening of May 3rd, 1940, the Hanoi school teacher Võ Nguyễn Giáp made his way to the park for what appeared to be a habitual stroll. As he made his way up Co Ngu road, a woman with an infant in her arms approached from the opposite side. Onlookers could spot an intimate conversation between the mother and Giáp which only lasted a moment. Giáp ran his hand on the infant’s head, smiled to himself, and hastily hollered a rickshaw.
Early in the following morning, Giáp was on a train to the Chinese border. Traveling with him was a sickly Phạm Văn Đồng, the man who would later become the prime minister of Vietnam. They spent their time trying to avoid interactions with the colonial police during regular searches on the railway. In a moment of respite, Giáp replayed the previous day’s events in his head. His close comrade, Hoang Van Thu, had told him that he could meet the legendary and elusive Nguyễn Ai Quoc—Nguyễn “The Patriot”—in China.
It was an irresistible chance. Giáp had been a committed revolutionary since his participation in a student protest at age 19. The shadow of Nguyễn had followed and fascinated him as he had continued his devoted service to the Vietnamese cause. In the preceding years, he often wrote for the Hanoi socialist paper Notre Voix. Sometimes the editors would receive articles from overseas, mysteriously signed “P. C. Lin.” Often, they started with the sentence: “If I were a Vietnamese revolutionary…” Sharing a few pages in the same magazine was the closest Giáp ever got to Nguyễn, yet his shadow hung heavily over Giáp’s every act.
Giáp also thought about the conversation he had at the park. He thought of his wife—Comrade Thai, as he liked to call her—and their child, Hong Anh. He remembered that they promised to meet again in the underground to continue their mission. What Giáp didn’t know at that moment was that he had seen them both for the last time. The following year, Comrade Thai would be captured by the police and court-martialled. His wife and child would die in prison.
Giáp and Đồng got off at Lao Cai station on the Chinese border. They had just entered their theater of operations: the Viet-Chinese border, with its remoteness and Chinese communist strongholds. It would become the cradle of Vietnamese independence. They commandeered a raft and crossed into Chinese territory at the Nam Ti river. There was no return from here. Giáp crossed his Rubicon.
What might have seemed like an escape was actually a baptism by fire. The situation in China in 1940 was significantly more dire than the relative stability of French Indochina, which then encompassed Vietnam and a number of neighboring regions. In Indochina, Giáp was a persecuted revolutionary under the watch of the French police. In China, he was assisting the Chinese communist war effort against the Japanese.
Although the Chinese communists were technically allied to the Kuomintang, both parties would take advantage of the chaos of the conflict to destroy each other. “Only the Soviet Red Army and the Chinese Red Army are fraternal to us,” Giáp was told by his superiors. He was forced to hide from Kuomintang troops throughout his sojourn in China in safe houses provided by Chinese communists. His work alongside his Chinese comrades and the conflict in China would deeply mark his understanding of politics, war, and popular determination.
The only way to survive under these circumstances was through the complex system of revolutionary networks. These were organized to be hard to enter. Membership was based on extreme vetting and personal trust. On a summer day in Kunming, Giáp met a mysterious comrade under the name of Vuong on the banks of a local river. Comrade Vuong was a middle-aged man in a suit and fur hat. Giáp describes him with remarkable clarity in his own words:
I immediately recognized the man as Nguyễn Ai Quoc… I still remember that, when I met him, I had no particular feeling as I had expected I would, except that I found in him that simplicity of manner, that lucidity of character, which later when I worked by his side, had the same impact on me. Right at that first meeting I found him very close to me as if we were old acquaintances. I thought that a great man like him was always simple, so simple that nothing particular could be found in him.
One day, Nguyễn Ai Quoc would become globally renowned under a different name: Hồ Chí Minh. When the two met, Giáp was a 29-year-old radical with limited experience of the wider world. Nguyễn was a professional revolutionary with a decades-long career that had brought him all across the world. He had helped found the French Communist Party, attended black liberation meetings in the United States, and taught revolutionary theory in Russia. He had learned at the feet of earlier generations of revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks. He had arrived on the Vietnamese anti-colonial scene early and was personally responsible for developing the Vietnamese communists into a viable state-building movement.
A significant part of Nguyễn’s legitimacy as the face of Vietnamese liberation was that he was the handpicked Comintern leader for Vietnam. This granted him the benefits of official support from both the Soviet Union and the Chinese communist movement. But more importantly, he had undergone the necessary training as a professional revolutionary: an agent whose professional abilities were the foment and execution of socialist revolution.
Western histories tended to dismiss the figure of the professional revolutionary either as an agent of Moscow, sent abroad to further Soviet realpolitik, or a deluded idealist being taken for a ride. A close look at Hồ Chí Minh’s journey reveals that this prejudice is patently unwarranted. He was a lethal political agent who spoke several languages: Vietnamese, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Russian. He assisted in the supply of ammunition and weapons by the Soviet Union to the Chinese communist forces, assisted in the creation of the Comintern itself, and systematically learned from revolutionary movements across the world.
By the time of his meeting with Giáp, Nguyễn had dealt with traitors within inner circles, intelligence and political recruitment, imprisonment, power games, party purges, and the secret police of almost every major European state and several Asian ones. He was in every sense a political rockstar.
The communists had created a replicable model for building disciplined political parties anchored in mass movements. The system was political dynamite in the 1920s. Giáp, the younger man, was the right protegé at the right time. When Nguyễn Ai Quoc and Giáp met, they were guests of the Chinese Communist Party, sharing exile in a wartorn country. But circumstances were about to turn in their favor. Though they couldn’t have known it, their focus on organizational development in dire circumstances was a bet that would pay off. The fraternity between them that was formed on that fateful summer day in Kunming would sweep not one, but two empires under the rug and change Vietnam forever.
From French Indochina to Japanese Occupation
In his writings, Giáp quoted one sentence from Nguyễn at that meeting: “It is a good thing that you have come; you are badly needed here.” Over the next few years, they would prepare a revolution right on the Chinese border. The province of Cao Bang, in the Vietnamese highlands, provided an easy refuge for those fleeing the law. Numerous revolutionaries found themselves in hiding and were subsequently integrated into the organization now known as Vietminh—short for Vietnamese Independence League—that Giáp and Nguyễn were building in secret. Operating as a front for the Communist Party, which itself went through several iterations, the Vietminh would become the vehicle for fighting the independence war.
Besides integrating fugitive revolutionaries, the bulk of their work was in the villages of the region, among the Nung people. They helped with carrying food and collecting firewood. They also taught socialism to the villagers, seeing themselves as the missionaries of the revolution. Living among them, close to the ground, was the secret behind the support networks Giáp and Nguyễn built.
If the logic of the mass movement was radical then, it is almost entirely extinguished in the current era. The printing press and the radio were the means by which the working, toiling masses could be assembled into politically useful structures. They allowed mass communication between organized groups with access to the infrastructure, but were closed off to individuals. This allowed for the enforcement of party lines. The system’s logic extended beyond communism: both fascism and wartime liberalism—a tradition embodied by men like FDR—were mass party movements.
Nguyễn’s training within the Comintern was in building exactly this kind of mass organization. All communist parties took for granted that the “consciousness of the masses” needed to be raised by the revolutionary vanguard. This meant that the revolutionaries living in the villages, among the people, had to prepare the peasants of Vietnam to be marshaled into a popular force. Before the revolutionaries could teach socialism at all, they had to teach the peasants to read.
In the Indochina of 1941, the options on the political table were the de facto French colonial rulers, concerned mostly with running the rubber plantations, the encroaching Japanese imperialists, interested in setting up a puppet regime in the image of their imperial system, and the Vietnamese nationalists, who were Kuomintang copy-cats and willing Japanese collaborators. The Vietminh built up popular support against these more powerful allies by sharing meals with local villagers, laboring alongside the peasants, and teaching entire villages how to read and defend themselves. It was a formula developed during the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and Nguyễn was a master practitioner.
Nguyễn, Giáp, and the other lieutenants were doubly concerned with their own education and that of the inner party. They spent a significant amount of time reading, writing, and discussing not just revolutionary texts but also history, geopolitics, and poetry. The historical tropes about internal party methods have mostly focused on the extreme excesses: self-criticism and struggle sessions used to enforce outlandish ideological positions. However, these were only some of the more chaotic manifestations of discipline in a highly potent Leninist structure.
The organizational discipline employed by the Vietnamese communists was based on keeping the party core informed, correcting the strategic course, and building a unified revolutionary inner culture in which to inculcate new cadres. The mass popular fronts could not survive without this hard core of revolutionaries. Nguyễn taught his lieutenants the intricacies of revolutionary theory even as they subsisted on what little husk rice they could get their hands on.
It might have seemed like a counter-intuitive use of time and effort by a group at risk of being wiped out by hunger. But the lifestyle allowed them to take full advantage of their close ties to the peasants. The Vietminh were obsessed with absorbing knowledge that would prove useful in accomplishing their goals and they dedicated an enormous amount of effort to that endeavor. Without this foundation in organizational culture and discipline, astonishing feats like the construction of the Hồ Chí Minh trail—which relied on detailed knowledge of jungle footpaths and village networks—would never have been possible.
In 1941, Nguyễn, Giáp, and the other lieutenants took on the tremendous task of building up the organizational structures capable of carrying out a revolution across Vietnam. They did this while hiding in the Cao Bang tribal regions at the remote edge of the country. The initial core of the Vietminh was to be formed by forty or so members of a local revolutionary organization who had escaped from the cities and the northern provinces after a bout of repression by the French colonial police. In order to assemble the disparate rebels into a cohesive group, Nguyễn, Giáp and the others organized a training course to discipline them into the structure and rally them firmly under Nguyễn’s leadership.
One of the first tasks of the early Vietminh organization was setting up spaces and locales where revolutionary work could be carried out. Often hiding in caves and safe houses, the different cells of the Vietminh would move around to avoid detection by the police. Using a stone, some paper, and some ink Nguyễn, Giáp, and the other lieutenants launched a magazine called Viet Lap which was smuggled out of the mountains and distributed throughout the country. The insistence was on simplicity and ease of readability. From that point onwards, the Vietminh’s voice could be heard throughout the entire country.
The cells formed by the original forty or so Vietminh comrades spread to the entirety of the northeastern border region. Henceforth, the goal was a local cell in every village. Nguyễns gamble on the original forty paid off; membership, assistance, and goodwill among the local population flourished. It was also during this time that the decision was made to create self-defense units in each locality. In addition to Viet Lap, they turned their printing press toward producing short guides on guerrilla warfare based on the experiences of the Chinese communist fighters. They distributed these to all the self-defense units across the region.
The self-defense units became a military necessity as the repression by French authorities took on a new dimension. The shelling of physical assets, summary executions of collaborators with the Vietminh in the villages, and anti-guerrilla operations against the local-self defense units became commonplace. Isolation no longer protected the movement.
Under such circumstances, trust was invaluable. The Vietminh cell structure already kept members connected only to a small number of collaborators. Nguyễn, Giáp, and the other lieutenants were the central node of this nervous system. The redundancy of the cell system allowed the Vietminh to beat the repression rained down by the Surêté, the French political police responsible for crushing anti-colonial movements in Indochina. A network of decentralized, self-contained units that the central node could spur into action was difficult to repress. Because the Vietminh cells were so locally ingrained, any action against them steeled the local population’s resolve even more, winning more goodwill and support for the Vietminh. It was a scalable, anti-fragile political structure.
Up to this point, Giáp’s work had been that of a leading party member and revolutionary operator. Nguyễn and Giáp worked extremely closely on matters of political organization as direct collaborators: leader and lieutenant. But the nature of Giáp’s work changed in 1944 when a Japanese defeat seemed increasingly likely in the Pacific theater of the war. Nguyễn personally approached and entrusted Giáp with the creation of a military and political organization called the Vietnam Liberation and Propaganda Unit (VLPU).
Military and political work were inextricably linked for the fledgling Vietminh. The political dimension of the military struggle was the most important component of how Nguyễn and Giáp understood armed revolution overall. The regular army units of the French and Japanese forces had the goal of achieving militarily relevant strategic and tactical objectives. In contrast, the purpose of the VLPU was to score political victories and expand the base of support of the Vietminh.
Nguyễn and Giáp’s agreement on this question was foundational to their political alliance. Nguyễn had constructed a potent ideology for the Vietnamese war. But it was only the political discipline that Giáp ultimately built into this fighting force that ensured the Vietminh did not simply get absorbed by more powerful actors, be they Chinese, European, or rival nationalists. That decreased risk of absorption made possible a strategy that would serve the Vietminh well: strategic alliances with more powerful actors.
The original VLPU group was formed out of 34 members of the Vietminh selected among members of the self-defense units in the villages and towns, as well as party cadres and select specialists. Giáp personally led it. Within a few days of formation, they launched an attack on two advanced posts in Phai Khat and Na Ngan. These were Giáp’s first victories as a military man. Though small, he used them for propaganda material to stir the local population against French authorities and to show that the anti-guerilla operations would be met with a response. The militarily insignificant victories became major political ones. Giáp’s team also seized new ammunition and weapons in those attacks and he set immediately on growing the number of fighters in the unit.
Initiating Meigō Sakusen
The situation in Saigon was very dire in 1944. The Indochinese authorities had remained nominally loyal to the Vichy regime in France from 1940 onwards but the supremacy of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean made all practical maritime links impossible. The French Indochinese government, led by Admiral Decoux since 1940, was effectively isolated. Decoux was profoundly aware of the imbalance of power vis-à-vis Imperial Japan, China, Great Britain, and now the U.S. With no hope of military assistance from the French metropole, he opted for a strategy of stalling, taking on the impossible task of maintaining neutrality and independence in the midst of a global conflict reducing all of Asia to ashes. He opted for the only possible strategy given the geopolitical situation and the resources at hand: wait and see.
The Japanese saw things differently. As soon as 1940, the Japanese began diplomatic maneuvers to establish themselves in Indochina. The French leadership, fully aware of the situation but without the resources to push the Japanese out, proposed a defensive alliance with the Japanese to formalize their recognition of Indochinese sovereignty. Over the years, the Japanese took advantage of the formal alliance to send ever more troops into Indochina in the spirit of “mutual defense.” As the war went on, Tokyo hardened its position. Requiring full access to air bases, naval ports, roads, and resources without the friction of diplomatic niceties, the Japanese came to the conclusion that the Indochinese administration was more trouble than it was worth.
On March 9th, 1945, under the pretext of a discussion around the supply of Indochinese rice to the Japanese army, the Japanese ambassador Shunichi Matsumoto made his way to the governor-general’s palace. At 7 p.m., after concluding the routine discussions around rice supplies, the Japanese ambassadors handed a memorandum to Admiral Decoux. Citing the degradation of the military situation in the theater of operations, the Japanese ambassador requested “the close collaboration” of the Indochinese authorities: it was code for total French subordination to Japanese forces in Indochina. The Japanese requested a response by no later than 9 p.m. Decoux attempted to stall the discussions by suggesting a platform for bilateral negotiations on the subject at a later date. The Japanese took the response as a refusal and immediately launched Meigō Sakusen—Operation Moonlight.
All over the Indochinese peninsula, French forces were annihilated. Within three days, the Japanese had liquidated the entirety of the French colonial apparatus. Under the banner of “Asia for Asians,” the Japanese installed a puppet government headed by Emperor Bao Dai, who loyally declared independence on the waves of Radio Saigon. The European population of Indochina was interned in ghettos. This was the coup de grâce for European prestige in Indochina. The psychological effect of white French colons being rounded up into trains by “yellow faces” was profound and shattered any remaining legitimacy the French administration might have had.
These developments placed the Vietminh in a dangerous situation. The French colonial power was being rolled back by an even more aggressive empire. In order to parlay with the various powers trying to carve up Vietnam, Giáp and Nguyễn had to ensure that their own organization was loyal first and foremost to their own political vision—and to them personally. In pursuit of that goal, Nguyễn himself now took on the name of Hồ Chí Minh: the surname is a common Vietnamese one, while Chi Minh means “bright spirit,” an expression of willpower. It was the beginning of a personality cult that would endure through decades of propaganda, both during and after the wars.
Giáp began an aggressive propaganda campaign to enroll local youth in the Vietnam Liberation and Propaganda Unit, which now became called the Liberation Army. This was a military application of the “popular front” concept developed by the Comintern. The popular front was intended as an umbrella movement to unite different forces—including bourgeois and other non-communist ones—into a single organization to achieve a stated larger goal. The cadres of the organization would be communists, but the rank and file had no harsh ideological demands beyond commitment to the purpose of the front. The Vietminh was such an organization. So was the Liberation Army, which was designed with the singular purpose of snatching independence for Vietnam. In practice, the strength of the popular front guaranteed the power and influence of the local communist party at its core.
In the same way, the success of the Vietnamese Communist Party was now dependent on the success of the arms of the Liberation Army. The numbers grew from a few hundred to three thousand; suddenly, the fledgling group had grown into an important force in the border regions in the north. With the encouragement of Nguyễn, Giáp began the task of centralizing control over the various factions conducting armed uprisings against the Japanese. In the summer of 1945, Giáp received orders from the central committee to come down from the forests and the mountains and begin battle southwards. He led a successful attack against the Japanese at the city of Thai Ngyuen, which opened the road to Hanoi.
It was in this context that the revolution of August 1945 took place. The French administration had already been decapitated and the Empire of Japan ultimately surrendered to Allied forces on August 15th. The various Vietnamese nationalist parties who rallied to the Japanese puppet regime were now discredited among the general population. The only standing political player in Vietnam was the Vietminh. The U.S. had already foreseen this outcome earlier in the conflict and directed the OSS to assist Giáp and the Vietminh against the Japanese. The Vietminh had begun an earnest collaboration with the U.S. Combat Section’s Southern Command. In exchange, the Liberation Army built by Giáp received equipment and training.
The advisors sent to support the Liberation Army were extremely sympathetic to the Vietminh, in line with broader U.S. goals for rolling back European colonial power in Asia and Africa. Local OSS agents likely foresaw a similar collaboration to that of Mao’s Communists and the Kuomintang Nationalists that was occurring in China, which at the time had strong support from the U.S. But the promises made in informal discussions did not translate into wholesale support for the Vietminh from the Truman Administration in Washington.
Nor did the Vietminh expect such support. The Marxist education of the party core played an important role in shaping the relationship with the U.S. advisors. While happy to cooperate with the U.S. as it acted as an anti-colonialist power, the Vietminh held to their adage: “only the Soviet Red Army and the Chinese Red Army are fraternal to us.” Hồ Chí Minh had ingrained the principle in them during the war in China, basing it on the Marxist belief that fundamental class interests rendered all other alliances temporary. The U.S., like the Kuomintang, based its anti-colonial project on reactionary and capitalist foundations. Its loyalty could not be relied on beyond an alliance of convenience against Japanese imperialism.
This careful approach was the dividend paid by the educational and decision-making culture now ingrained within the Vietnamese Communist party at its highest levels. Ultimately, it paid off. The U.S. began propping up French forces in Indochina in the late 1940s as part of its containment strategy against the communists.
The apathy towards the Vietminh and the anti-colonial position of the U.S. at the time provided a window for Hồ Chí Minh to launch the August Revolution. Hồ called for a general insurrection on August 10th and the entire country was set aflame. By August 17th, Giáp and his Liberation Army came down from Thai Nguyễn and simply walked into Hanoi to an ecstatic crowd. Even at this late stage, the Vietminh had remained a pariah movement living in difficult conditions in the Vietnamese highlands. Its influence on major population centers had been limited. Now, it marched straight into the limelight of history waving a red banner with a yellow star.
The intense political effect, amplified by a massive propaganda campaign, was that the Vietminh positioned itself as the only political option in Vietnam’s power vacuum. By the end of August, the Vietminh eliminated all practical nationalist challengers. Its influence spread throughout Saigon and wider Cochinchina, the administrative zone in southern Vietnam which had been ruled directly by France.
The resounding success in which the entirety of Vietnam was captured within weeks was the result of the collaboration between Hồ Chí Minh and Giáp. Hồ Chí Minh, the competent visionary and strategist, bid his time for years in the mountains and carefully selected the moment of insurrection. Giáp, the effective lieutenant, operator, and planner, created the centralized military structure to carry it out and integrated new elements as the Vietminh took power. By the time of victory, Giáp managed to grow the Liberation Army to tens of thousands of fighters.
The Road to Hanoi
The Vietminh had effectively taken over the Indochinese peninsula. It declared independence as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with Hồ Chí Minh as head of state. But the French had every intention to reestablish control of their sovereign territory. It was easier said than done: the situation in which De Gaulle’s post-war government found itself was nearly hopeless. The Inter-ministerial Committee of Indochina noted: “Without the pejorative connotation of the term, the task which is in front of us can only be qualified as a reconquest.”
While the Vietminh revolution was sweeping through the country, a man named Jean Sainteny was flown into Hanoi on August 22nd to act as the representative of the De Gaulle government. Sainteny, who was the head of the French mission in Kunming, was able to establish a dialogue with Giáp, who was already commander-in-chief of the Liberation Army. During this period, Giáp, along with Hồ Chí Minh, sought a negotiated solution to Vietnamese independence and the intricacies of the Japanese surrender.
The Vietminh were the masters of the country. But the formal surrender document of the Japanese forces spelled out that the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese troops had to be done by British and Chinese forces. The British favored a return of French rule to Indochina; the Chinese wanted a Kuomintang-style nationalist government, but mainly took advantage of the surrender procedures to pillage the north of the country. But their hostility undermined the Vietminh’s ability to gain international recognition of their victories. Giáp had to return from his role as a military commander to that of a political operative. The Vietminh maintained their dialogue with Sainteny because the French still held international legitimacy, despite U.S. anti-colonialist positions.
On October 5th, 1945, General Leclerc at the head of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps—barely scratched together in time from wartime volunteers—landed in Tan Son Nhut and quickly reached Saigon. He immediately launched a reconquest operation in Cochinchina and pacified the region using the 2nd Armored Division (2° Division Blindé). While the Vietminh resisted the attack, the support and center of the Liberation Army were in North Vietnam. The new, untrained Vietminh troops in South Vietnam were simply no match for French armored troops, which achieved victory by January 1946. Vietnam was now effectively divided between north and south; the stage was set for negotiations.
Sainteny and General Salan, in North Vietnam, were partisans of a strategy of peaceful negotiations with the Vietminh. Back in Paris, post-war France was now under a partnership between the Gaullists and elements of the French Communist Party, which supported French sovereignty over its colonial holdings. Among their opponents, many were sympathetic to the Vietminh cause. The Vietminh itself played up French socialist, liberal, and nationalist influences in its outward-facing propaganda. The negotiations in North Vietnam led to the recognition of a “Vietnamese Republic” within a “French Union”—the details set to be worked out in a subsequent round of negotiations that would take place in Fontainebleau.
Hồ Chí Minh and Phạm Văn Đồng—Giáp’s train and raft companion—accompanied General Salan to Paris for negotiations. While Hồ was giving interviews to the French press and Đồng was leading an interparliamentary friendship delegation to the French National Assembly, Giáp was left behind as the de facto head-of-state. As such, he had to oversee the day-to-day operations of the stalled hostilities. It seems that Hồ Chí Minh trusted his lieutenant to such an extent that Giáp had free reign to deal with the rapidly evolving situation on the ground. The Vietminh leadership suspected that the negotiations were in bad faith and being used to purchase time for the organization of a reconquest operation. Thus, Giáp took measures to counteract and delay French preparations.
Giáp’s new role as an independent decision-maker and accurate reading of the field proved crucial for the survival of the Vietminh. With Hồ abroad, Giáp decided to maintain the pressure through a guerilla harassment campaign against French troops in Cochinchina.
Giáp, who was kept in the loop of the negotiations in France, perceived the growing abyss between the two sides as a precursor to open conflict and began preparations for the restart of hostilities. He assembled a formal regular army of 30,000 troops, supported by thousands of auxiliary militias called Tu Vé. As expected, the French command in Indochina attempted to enlarge their zone of movement in Tonkin, which had been restrained by the Sainteny-Hồ agreement that preceded the negotiations in Fontainebleau. On August 3rd, 1946, with negotiations in Fontainebleau still ongoing, Giáp launched a brutal ambush on a French convoy composed of 60 trucks to check French operations in northern Vietnam.
While Hồ Chí Minh signed a modus vivendi compromise agreement with the French on September 14th, Giáp was preparing a coup de force. Giáp baited the French General Valluy into opening hostilities which degenerated into the bombing of the Vietnamese quarter of Hải Phòng, the port city outside of Hanoi, on November 22nd.
In December, Giáp launched a general offensive against French forces in Hanoi to throw them out to the sea. Using auxiliaries to absorb casualties and preserve his regular troops, Giáp fired the first shot of the Indochinese war with the prospect of prolonged conflict in mind. It was a conflict he would personally conclude at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when he baited, surrounded, and destroyed the bulk of French forces in northern Vietnam. Resupplying using bicycles, the artillery went on foot up to the hills surrounding the French forward operating base. There, they bled the French to the last man, overcoming a superior force through adaptability and determination.
Once diplomatic efforts failed, Giáp’s role as commander-in-chief of the Liberation Army propelled his importance. The armed struggle had to be won and Giáp was the man to do it. He was given free rein to conduct a conflict in which his troops were significantly outmatched by the enemy and to resort to unusual and creative methods for attaining victory. These strategies relied on the enormous political capital that the Vietminh had built as the basis of their national project. Even with regular forces now assembled, Giáp fought the war according to the principle that political objectives far outweigh tactical success. That principle had guided the Vietnam Liberation and Propaganda Unit when it was only 34 men strong and it would be responsible for the success of the Liberation Army too. Giáp relied on the assistance and willpower of the local population as tools to overcome the enemy’s technical superiority.
By the time of the operations in Hanoi, Giáp had become an independent player in Vietnamese politics. Commanding the loyalty of Vietminh soldiers and the Communist Party, he was no longer merely the lieutenant of Hồ Chí Minh. Giáp had become a trusted equal in the campaign for independence. While Hồ Chí Minh was the spiritual father of the country, Giáp became the most important man in the Vietnamese war camp. The success at Dien Bien Phu was the ultimate proof that Giáp’s conception of a “People’s War” was a winning formula. The same philosophy would inform the coming conflict against American and rival Vietnamese forces for the reconquest of the south.
Giáp had become a power broker in his own right by virtue of creating the Liberation Army. But his political fortunes within the party were still tied to those of Hồ Chí Minh, who had favored him as successor. In the end, Giáp was ultimately passed on as First Secretary in favor of Lê Duẩn, due in part to the blame he took for losses during the Tet Offensive. Instead, his enormous skills as an operator were put to good use as defense minister, where he built the PAVN, North Vietnam’s regular army, into a modern military force on the Eastern Bloc model. By the time of the siege of Saigon in 1975, Giáp’s PAVN was itself under the command of one of his own lieutenants, Văn Tiến Dũng. Saigon’s fall concluded Giáp’s long service as a commander and political operator.
By the end of the war, the Vietminh had long since given way to a unified Communist Party that now ruled the entire territory of Vietnam. Hồ and Giáp’s skill in building mass political movements had been instrumental in their establishment. The structure of a Leninist party had proved surprisingly adaptive to the peasant villages of colonial Vietnam. Once established, its purpose was to provide discipline and structure that could outlast the founding generation. By the time Vietnam was reunited, a new generation had risen to maturity. It was time for Giáp’s own protégés to take the reins of power.