Reflecting on the Man Who Defeated America and France

In October 2013, the name Vo Nguyen Giap regained the world’s attention more than 30 years after the Vietnam War, as this military mastermind died at the age of 102. A man who was often referred to as “The Red Napoleon” single-handedly conceived the tactical strategy that defeated not one, but two “great” powers, thus providing him with an immortality within history as arguably the greatest strategist of the 20th century. Giap is celebrated ultimately due to his orchestration of the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu, ending the first Indochinese war against the French. This was the first time in the history of Western colonialism that Asian troops defeated a European army in battle. The second victory was against the Americans. The loss of the Vietnam War was a significant blow to the American people, as a defeat from what Henry Kissinger once called “a fourth rate military power” undermined the national conception that their country was invincible, as for the first time, the small beat the mighty. Nguyen Giap’s victories allowed people to question whether the USA was actually a “superpower” and whether such a term gave them warranted superiority and influence.

Image courtesy of renaissancechambara, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of renaissancechambara, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Giap’s guerrilla tactics were truly visionary and completely inventive; his maxim saying that all “citizens are soldiers” redefined the norms of military warfare as he viewed the army as a force that must “not only fight but educate the masses.” [1] The key to all his victories was his people’s army; he trained them to live off the land, disappear into it when necessary and persist against the enemy until they surrendered.[2] The complete paradigm shift of strategy bemused the “great” powers, rendering their military might worthless against Giap’s People’s Army. His ruthlessness and emotional detachment provided the backbone to the army and coupled with his flexible approach of devising the best tactics for each specific battle, neither the French nor the Americans could predict his moves and defeat him. His lack of formal military training aided him further as he brought new and inventive ideas to military strategy, going against common military tactics. The combination of his character and military genius made him the ideal general and as a result, “Giap is the only general in modern history to launch battle against his foes from a position of grave weakness, lacking equipment and financial resources, beginning with no troops, yet still able to defeat in succession the armies of France and the United States.”[3]

The loss of Vietnam impacted the American national psyche to its very core, and as a response, most Americans aimed to forget about the only war they had ever lost. While the majority of the country never supported the war, as the situation escalated, national sentiment became increasingly aggressive in favour of exiting Vietnam in order to ensure further international embarrassment was not incurred. Most opinions of the Vietnam War that were eventually released echoed George F. Kennan’s view of the Vietnam War which was that it was “the most disastrous of all America’s undertakings over the whole two hundred years of its history.”[4] Most shockingly, the veterans of the war were not honoured, remembered or acknowledged; only in 1982 was a Washington DC memorial built acknowledging the sacrifice and struggle that the soldiers has suffered through, due to the nation’s involvement in the morally ambiguous war. The memorial remains today a “sombre reminder of the loss of too many young Americans, …and the nation’s messianic belief in its own overweening virtue.[5] The Vietnam War cost the USA physically, through casualties, but additionally, politically; it severely crippled public confidence in the government and people were far more questioning of government decisions regarding national “security”. In short, they neither respected nor trusted the government institutions to make suitable decisions.

While the national impact was clearly harrowing, the international impact was arguably worse. To the international community, it was a far larger shock, as the USA was one of two superpowers at the time, and this loss to a small nation made them question whether USA did indeed deserve such a title. The defeat in the war definitely hindered America’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976, as their military strength was so easily overthrown by such a small power. This was due to the inherent distrust and lack of respect for the American government, which followed the war. One could argue that the change in power dynamics introduced an entirely different spectrum for the discussion between military numerical superiority translating into military victory. By turning the international relations’ status quo upside-down, Giap reinvented the image of Vietnam as a power to be reckoned with, whose tactical strategies proved too inventive for even the greatest powers in the world. Giap remained a hero in his country, whose re-emergence as a prospering country allowed his vision to come true. His pivotal role in the victory of the Vietnamese is the reason as to why his obituaries have described him as a hero for the nation, leading the country to ultimate independence.

[1] Currey, Cecil; “Victory at any cost: The genius of Vietnam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap”, Brassey’s INc, 1997, p320-321.

[2] The Economist, “General Giap: Obituary”, 12th October 2013, (Last Accessed: 25th November 2013)

[3] Currey, Cecil; op cit, p318

[4] Chambers, John; “The Oxford Companion to American Military History”, OUP USA, 4th May 2000, p766

[5] Sitikoff, Harvard; “The Post-war Impact of Vietnam”, (Last Accessed: 28th October 2013)

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