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The Legacy of Vo Nguyen Giap
(25 August 1911 – 4 October 2013)
Expanded and Revised Edition
Alfred G. Simbulan
Vo Nguyen Giap came from a revolutionary family. His father took part in two failed uprisings against the French colonial forces (1885 and 1888) and was arrested, tortured and died in prison in 1919. His older sister was also arrested and died from effects of torture after being released. Giap’s wife was also arrested and killed after he escaped to China in 1940 during a French crackdown on nationalists. This was how brutal the French occupation forces were.
Giap never had any formal military schooling until mid 1945 when he participated in the crash course given by the OSS Deer Team. This phenomena however is not unique in history. Some people in history devoted their life to military science without military schooling or a prior war experience, like Jomini (who unraveled Napoleon’s tactics and system besting Schlieffen and Clauswitz—the classic writers of Napoleonic modern warfare) Recognizing his unique abilities, Napoleon immediately gave Jomini a rank of Colonel and allowed to join his planning sessions.
Giap mastered the classic, Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and studied Napoleon’s military campaigns (the father of modern warfare and regular mobile warfare) through pocket books, like Mao Zedong.
Ho Chi Minh played an important role in molding Giap’s military orientation. Having been schooled in Moscow’s revolutionary schools, Ho had been deployed to China by the Comintern during the Soviet sponsored, Koumintang-CCP alliance to act as Mikhail Markovich Borodin’s interpreter. Part of Ho’s stint in China was to be a lecturer in the Whampoa Military Academy. While in China, Ho Chin Minh saw how China’s Soviet Advisers Borodin and Otto Braun influenced the CCP with erroneous policies.
During Ho’s stint in China, Mao had ascended as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since the Tsunyi Conference in 1935. Mao had been demoted for his “peasant ideology” having promoted a strategy and thinking that was opposed to the line of Comintern agent Borodin and the “28 Bolsheviks” in the Chinese Central Committee. In China, Ho Chi Minh picked up many of Mao’s ideas on people’s war and shared them with other leaders of the Vietminh. Ho Chi Minh also translated Mao’s monumental book work On Protracted War, from Chinese to French making this work available to the Vietminh intellectuals such as Giap.
Running an army and employing them in warfare requires a lot of skills and knowledge that are generally embodied in general staff schooling. It requires knowledge in administration, the conduct of army maneuvers, and a deep exposure in specialized line military work — that include sciences for the employment of artillery, and mortars (mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, geography etc,), recruitment and training, intelligence, planning and operations, logistics, medical work etc. Running a revolutionary army is much more complex because the rank and file fight and die for a cause often based on ideological and political beliefs, especially the guerrilla forces who often have to be self reliant. Thus, constant ideological and political work in keeping the morale of an army exceptionally high is one of the most important aspects in running a revolutionary army that is absent in bourgeois armies who rely on material compensation, punishments and the fear of authority to make their armies fight.
Giap was an indefatigable learner and had mastered all these in the course of the long protracted war in Vietnam. He sought technical advice especially from specialists from Eastern Europe and the socialist camp in solving complex problems starting in the 1950’s when socialist solidarity became possible.
It was only in the middle of 1945, when Ho Chi Minh had any form of military schooling when Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the US Office of the Special Services (the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA) for military training from American commando trainors who parachuted to Vietnam. Giap and 200 other military cadres of the Vietminh got a formal crash course military training. The short military course included commando operations, demolition, ambushes and arms training including the use of mortars. The OSS gave the Vietminh training so they could interdict the Japanese logistical lines that passed Vietnam to supply the Japanese forces in the Chinese war theater.
This was in contrast to China’s military cadres. Mao like Deng Xioping, Zhou Enlai, Chu Teh and Lin Biao graduated from the Soviet sponsored, Whampoa Military College during the Koumintang-CCP Alliance and participated in the Northern Expedition, a war to unify China by destroying the northern warlords who each established armed independent regimes with their own government, currency and army.
In his college years, Giap became an activist and was recruited to a nationalist youth organization founded by Ho Chi Minh. He joined Ho Chi Minh in China in May 1940, during a French crackdown against nationalists in Hanoi.
Ho Chi Minh did not immediately organize the Workers Party of Vietnam. Working in China for the Comintern, Ho organized a nationalist youth organization that took roots in Vietnam the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, (Thanh nien) in 1925 as a preparatory organization targeting the youth who in turn would organize among the workers and peasants. In 1941, Ho returned from China to established the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” or Vietminh, a broad nationalist organization for independence. In 1942, Giap with 40 cadres took charge of organizing the tribesmen of the northern mountains of North Vietnam.
Major Contributions of Vo Nguyen Giap
With a core of 40 cadres, Giap slipped through Vietnam in 1942 and carried out organizing work among primitive cultural minorities in the northern mountains of Vietnam. This work was important in securing a strategic rear that would play an important role in their struggle, but presented a big challenge. It required patience and ingenuity because the tribal people of the northern mountains spoke different dialects which Giap did not understand and had no national consciousness.
From the very beginning it was clear to Ho Chi Minh and Giap that the first order of business in waging a revolution for national liberation in Vietnam was to arouse and organize the people nationwide before anything else.
In this period, they put stress in organizing and propaganda work nationwide under a united front nationalist organization for independence, the Vietminh. Armed struggle was not to be employed as the main form of struggle in this period. It was to be limited and calibrated to protect organizing work. Self Defense Units were formed within mass organizations to protect its leaders and the mass organization in their semi-legal activities. Leaders had to be protected in their activities for their neutralization would have serious organizational consequences on the life of mass organizations. Protest rallies and mass actions had to be protected from violent dispersals, agent provocateurs and their mass leaders had to be shielded from being arrested.
It was only in 1943, that Vietnamese Workers Party decided that it was a time to start the armed struggle against the Japanese occupiers. The first small unit was formed by mid-1944.
Uniting the Revolutionary Forces in Vietnam
The Vietnamese communist movement had been split into three groups when Ho was in China. These parties engaged in never ending polemics. Ho and Giap refrained from this divisive undertaking when they arrived in Vietnam to organize. At that time their forces were concentrated in the North while the two other parties held Central and Southern Vietnam respectively.
Ho and Giap demonstrated the first quality of revolutionary leaders: they unite and not divide the progressive and revolutionary forces.
The main contradiction confronting the Vietnamese people, was the issue of French colonialism (the Vichy government) who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces.
Ho established the Vietminh the unifying organization for all parties, associations and organizations. All socialist and progressive forces in Vietnam united under this banner against French colonialism and the aspirations for national independence.
Having been cut off from the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, Ho and Giap opened all possibilities to build a real fighting revolutionary army.
They made contact with the US to help them strengthen the Vietminh militarily during the Anti-Japanese War. They hid the Marxist Leninist character of their party and projecting the Vietminh aspirations for independence. After their training and receiving a shipment of arms and ammunition from the OSS, the duo requested the OSS personnel to stay for a while Ho and Giap convened a meeting of reunification with all Marxists groups in Indochina. The other groups seeing the OSS personnel stationed near the meeting place became convinced that Ho’s group had the full backing of the allied powers with an initial shipment of arms. This easily convinced them to unite under its leadership.
In a 1969 interview Giap had this to say about the episode:
In 1945, some Americans parachuted into our war zone [for a] meeting [with] our late President Ho Chi Minh. … Back then, President Roosevelt’s attitude was that the U.S. did not want to see events like the war with France coming back to Indochina, but later this attitude was changed. After the August Revolution in 1945, the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. could have been good, and we wished that it had been good.
The Thesis for a Political-Military Strategy
Can a nation with a small population, a small area and a backward agricultural economy defeat much a bigger and stronger colonial aggressor?
This was the first question Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap settled when they embarked on an armed resistance against foreign aggressors that oppressed and exploited their nation.
Giap believed they could and bared a universal principle that was relevant to the colonized peoples of Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
“…in our time, a people even though small, without vast territory, large population or developed economy, but united and determined, having a correct revolutionary line, creatively applying Marxist-Leninist principle of nation-wide uprising and people’s war to their specific conditions and enjoying the assistance of the socialist camp and progressive mankind, are fully capable of overcoming a much bigger and stronger aggressors, including the leading imperialist power, the United States. “
To unite the Vietnamese people, the basic alliance of workers and peasants had to be forged as its basic core and its orientation based on Marxist-Leninist principles.
Giap bared the secret that governed the “law of revolutionary violence” necessary to defeat powerful adversaries which is the “combination of political and armed forces, of political struggle and armed insurrection and revolutionary war.” He advocated the use of “all forms of struggle, combining attacks and uprisings, applying a strategy of offensive in all three strategic areas (highlands, the plains and urban areas, with a view of destroying the enemy, seizing and maintaining power, overthrowing the rule of colonialism and its lackeys, defeating the aggressive war of imperialism.”
Mastering the Art of Insurrection:
Vietnam’s August Revolution
The second major brilliance of Ho and Giap was their leadership in winning the August Revolution.
As war was closing to an end, a famine struck Vietnam killing more than 1 million of its population. The people wanted to rise up against the foreign powers in Vietnam: the Nazi collaborationist, Vichy colonial government and the Japanese forces. This created a revolutionary situation. But the core of the revolutionary forces were small. The Indochinese Communist Party according to Kolko had no more than 2,000 members in 1944, while the Vietminh guerillas had only 5,000 armed guerrillas. But the Vietminh had a large following and influence running to millions in the whole of Vietnam.
At the core of these forces were military cadres who had been trained armed and equipped by the Office of the Strategic Services (OSS).
The Japanese occupying forces had imprisoned officials of the Vichy French colonial government fearing they would switch allegiance with the developments in Europe. But after nuclear bombs were dropped in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan announced its intention to surrender, and in Vietnam the Japanese forces were awaiting the forces of the Koumintang and Great Britain to enter where they would formally surrender.
Ho and Giap amidst the chaotic and confusing situation saw this as a strategic moment to achieve independence.
Before the allied forces could enter Vietnam, they negotiated with the Japanese forces in Vietnam. The Japanese forces agreed to surrender their 25,000 weapons that included artillery and tanks to the Vietminh instead of the allies, persuaded by the fact that the Vietminh would give the allied forces a major headache.
With this secret agreement, the Vietminh launched a bloodless insurrection. Millions of Vietnamese all over Vietnam took over public buildings in most cases without any resistance. The Revolution took only 16 days (Aug. 14-30). Giap’s guerrilla force gave symbolic military actions and the surrendered arms from Japan gave them the opportunity to immediately form a full fledged army.
On Sept. 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh formally proclaimed independence the same day that Macarthur met the Japanese leadership and accepted Japan’s surrender aboard the US Battleship, USS Missouri.
Both Ho and Giap had mastered the art of insurrection from the Bolshevik October Revolution and the traditional experiences of Vietnam in fighting the Chinese occupying forces for over 1,000 years.
The secret for immediate victory was the existence of a revolutionary situation which they had both studied well so it could lead to a successful revolution. .
They learned from Lenin’s thesis on the revolutionary situation:
What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
In the Russian October Revolution, the actual armed insurrectionary force only numbered 30,000 (10,000 of which came from the Baltic Fleet), and they won the revolution by taking only two key cities (Moscow/ St Petersberg and Petrograd). This motley group was a weak fighting force demonstrated by their offensive that was crushed by the Germans leading to the Brest-Litovsk Agreement.
World War I created a revolutionary situation in Russia. Tsar Alexander organized an army of 20 million to fight the Germans and the Austro-Hungarian forces. By 1916 half of the Tsarist Army had become casualties (1.8 million dead, and the others wounded in action or missing in action). The population lost over a million to famine and disease and the economy had virtually collapsed. The remaining 10 million Tsarist soldiers no longer wanted to fight, and together with the population wanted immediate peace and food.
When the revolutionary situation occurred in Russia, the Bolsheviks was only a small faction among many socialist factions in Russia that included the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists, etc. Their trade unions and mass organizations were a minority.
Soviets were non-Bolshevik workers councils that were elected to represent factories and communities that the Karensky Provisional Government had allowed to be organized in districts as a compromise to workers and soldiers when it took over the Tsarist government.
Recognizing a revolutionary situation, Lenin’s political line push forward the common denominator the people aspired for in the situation: Peace, Land and Bread!. It united and electrified a critical mass of workers and soldier’s Soviets to its side. The Bolshevik differentiated itself from all other political forces who all wanted to continue the war with Germany or compromise with the Tsarist interests. Lenin called for “All Power to the Soviets” as he launched the October Revolution.
In his writings Giap made elaborations on the existence of a revolutionary situation. They were aware that timing was crucial. One critical element that he added for a revolutionary situation to lead into a revolution was the inability of the state to send its army, who is unwilling to crush the insurrection or the existence of a significant force in the reactionary army who sympathized and were willing to join the revolution.
Building the Revolutionary Armed Forces
On Sept. 1944, the Vietnamese Workers Party held its First Military Conference where it decided to establish “Armed Propaganda Brigades”, appointing Vo Nguyen Giap in charge of this enterprise. These propaganda units would organize the people for resistance which in turn would give birth to a people’s army.
The first unit organized by Giap, the “Armed Propaganda Brigade”
The Vietminh’s efforts to form an army came rather late in the war and started practically from scratch. Giap organized the Vietminh’s first propaganda “brigade” on Dec. 22, 1944 that “consisted of thirty one men and three women, armed with two revolvers, seventeen rifles, one light machine gun, and fourteen breech-loading flintlocks”.
The process of organizing the resistance started very slow because it focused in building a strong foundation, the significant organization of the masses. Army building started from the villages. Giap had pointed out that Militia and Self Defense Units were the foundations of the resistance movement from which various forms and armed organizations could spring out (i.e. regular and guerrilla forces).
This was the focus of the armed propaganda brigades/units. It was not an expansion group that opened new areas, but a consolidating group from where the Vietminh had already organized and taken root. Vietminh organizing and expansion preceded army building from May 1941 to 1944. The Vietminh as a coalition of all resistance forces and individuals was first organized in the Northern area where Giap carved a solid rear.
Without these extensive mass bases developed by the Vietminh, a revolutionary armed force could not be developed that was sustainable and indestructible.
By May of the following year, Vietminh combatants had grown to 1,000 a geometric growth from its very modest beginnings.
By September 1945, it received a big boost when the OSS Deer Team parachuted to Vietnam to give them commando military training, arms and munitions so they could interdict Japanese logistical lines passing through Vietnam. By August at the eve of the August Revolution, the Vietminh army had according to Giap, already had “ a few thousand armed men” (some historians placed it at 5,000). Not long after a much bigger leap in army building occurred as a result of the August Revolution of 1945 where they successfully negotiated the surrender of 25,000 weapons from the Japanese Imperial Army.
OSS Deer Team members pose with Viet Minh leaders Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap during training at Tan Trao in August 1945. Deer Team members standing, l to r, are Rene Defourneaux, (Ho), Allison Thomas, (Giap), Henry Prunier and Paul Hoagland, far right. Kneeling, left, are Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires. (Rene Defourneaux)
The victory of the Chinese Revolution in 1950, gave the Vietminh a solid rear they could rely on and made the solid bastion Giap had organized in the northern mountains an even greater value to their struggle as it was connected to the Chinese borders. Red China and Vietnam had common geopolitical interests.
To protect China from imperialist invasions it was its interest to strengthen the revolutionary forces in Indochina and North Korea to provide a strong buffer zone. Thus, starting in 1950, China provided military training to Vietnamese revolutionaries in various aspects of warfare and provided sustained military weapons and munitions from their large surplus of captured Kuomintang and Japanese weapons they had captured during the war and the Civil War. The Soviet Union with its 16 republics and the eastern socialist bloc also did their share as their national interests were also at stake. North Korea, for instance had common borders with the Soviet Union, and their strategic base in Vladivostok their gateway to Asia was vulnerable without friendly forces in the vicinity.
- 1. Vietnam’s Military Doctrine: Insurrections and People’s War
Giap put together many historical lessons in armed struggle from the Vitenam’s 1000 years of struggle against Chinese occupation troops, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, , the Russian October Revolution, Mao’s ideas on people’s war first publicly explained to the world by Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China but within the CCP (where Ho had access during his stint in China), Mao’s military writings became available after he assumed the leadership in 1935.
Adopting the principle “everyone a soldier” during the 1000 years of struggle against Chinese invaders, Giap, differentiated their armed struggle into two types, mass uprisings or insurrections and people’s war which sometimes were combined with each other based on the actual conditions. (This was one of the major differentiation between Vietnam’s People’s War and Mao’s People’s War.)
Uprisings or insurrections involved the whole people, the armed and the unarmed utilized when there was a revolutionary situation. The scale depended on the scope of a revolutionary situation…nationally or localized. A revolutionary situation existed when those in authority had been extremely isolated, the mass of people want to rise up to overthrow it, and the reactionary armed forces had been neutralized or unwilling to obey orders to crush an uprising or is willing to cross the lines and join the uprising. Lenin had clarified that an insurrection was not dependent on the party and its organized forces, but on the working class and the revolutionary upsurge of the people. Ho and Giap had learned from Lenin who pointed out:
“To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon such a crucial moment in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half- hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point.”
Local uprisings ensured that even though the enemy is able to retake the areas, they could no more rebuild a political and para-military infrastructure by recruiting reactionaries from the local populace. The Vietminh had ensured that there were no more traitors in the localities. The French colonialists had to bring local puppets from other areas.
Insurrections may topple the government and seize political power on the basis of historical circumstances and not because of the armed might of the revolutionary forces But it has weaknesses when used against a foreign colonial power who maintain large military strategic reserves in other colonies. Revolutionary power can be dislodged by sending a strong expeditionary forces from the outside to take power back.
A country liberated by a revolutionary regular army is a different story. The colonialist or foreign power, knows that if he sends an expeditionary force, it stands the chance of being annihilated again as their adversary have demonstrated their superior killing power.
Giap like Mao, believed that the powerful enemy could not be defeated by guerrilla forces and insurrectionary forces alone. Both believed in the necessity of having a standing army, a regular army that could fight both regular warfare and regular mobile warfare. This was also where Lenin and Trotsky differed on the question of a standing army. Lenin stood pat at the necessity of maintaining a standing army drawn from universal conscription. Trotsky’s line (dogmatically lifted from Marx and Engels whose reference point was when the people had defeated the international bourgeoisies) of abolishing the standing army, and establishing militia alone as the Soviet military backbone after their victory in the Russian Civil War, would have been disastrous.
Guerrilla forces basically saps the strength of the enemy while regular forces annihilates them. But Giap, raised the level of guerrilla warfare where it inflicted the same amount of casualties as regular mobile warfare. Guerrilla warfare removes the screws and bolts of an enemy war machine so it would not work properly, while regular mobile warfare smashes the vital parts.
In planning and projecting a revolutionary war against a powerful foreign aggressor, one could not really predict the ultimate outcome…how the enemy will react, but different conflicting scenarios can be generally be identified. This means confronting challenges boldly but managing risks and preparing for contingencies. Good strategists make sure that they are able to manage the revolutionary war to overcome whatever obstacle develops based on these scenarios.
In doing so, the revolutionary army must be configured to address whatever developments occur…whether the war would basically be long or short, won by regular mobile warfare, a combination of regular warfare and guerrilla warfare or an insurrection supported by regular and guerrilla forces. The political, economic, international and military situation creates fluidity which no analyst could correctly forecast. For an example, the Asia-Pacific War with Japan could have been short in Vietnam and China, had the US and Britain struck first militarily against Japan after they imposed an oil embargo, cutting of 80 percent of Japan’s fuel needs. But Japan had struck first crippling Pearl Harbor and conquered Asia.
For instance during the Dien Bien Phu Campaign, France urged the US to use the atomic bomb to save their impending collapse. This debate continued in Washington when the US became the main adversary in the Vietnam War.
Analyzing the situation Ho had pointed out that the US was capable only of launching a limited war, a war never the less that would cause great hardships for the people of Vietnam. The Vietnamese Workers Party contemplated upon the situation. . It had been decided that they could survive a nuclear attack, and though much more difficult, they would eventually prevail. This is probably the reason why tunnels became extensive and multi layered in all resistance areas. Strong tunnels could survive a nuclear attack.
To address all possibilities, Giap defined the organization of its military forces that would be needed to meet all possibilities.
The people’s armed forces meant all the armed units in the struggle which were composed of the (a) people’s army and the (b) armed forces of the masses.
In Vietminh terminology, the people’s army meant the (a) regular forces and the (b) regional guerrilla forces.
The armed forces of the masses meant the (a) Militia, (b) Self Defense Forces and (c) local guerrilla forces (district)
The people’s war was waged using regular mobile forces and guerrilla warfare. Giap organized three types of troops to fight the French and American forces militarily: (a) the regular troops, (b) the regional troops and (c) the militia and self defense units.
The regular troops carried out regular mobile warfare tasked in annihilating the enemy’s regular army and liberating territory. Giap differentiates this type of force vis a vis, the guerrilla forces in the following manner: (a) it is not tied to a particular region and deployable in any part of the country; (b) it is equipped with modern weapons and technical materials, (c) it can undergo intensive training for a long period of time in a systematic way according to the requirements of continually developing military techniques and art, (d) it has great combat power and high combat readiness.
The regional troops are considered regular troops because they have annihilative capability to wipe out enemy companies and platoons. They operate within a region sometimes have formations as big as several battalions capable of destroying battalions, determined by the specific character of the region…whether it was a crucial strategic area or not. Regional troops are flexible. They are concentrated and could assemble a force up to three times or more their actual strength by mobilizing guerrilla forces to compliment them in a battle or a military campaign, when they want to make wiping out operations. They also have the option to disperse into small units or military cadre teams, integrating themselves with militia units when the situation demands that the enemy be harassed everywhere in the region (also called extensive guerrilla warfare) with strong guerrilla forces. They have a capability of conducting both limited regular mobile warfare and extensive guerrilla warfare.
Giap pointed out that the militia continue economic production even while they wage guerrilla warfare. They are organized at village level while the self defense units (SDUs) are organized within mass organizations and work places or factories. Militias ensure that guerrilla warfare is extensive. They are armed with “all kinds of weapons” and “varied forms of combat.” They “liquidate the puppet village administrations, traitors and organize uprisings to seize power. “. In the course of the war, the militia developed capabilities in wiping out enemy platoons.
Unlike the regular forces, guerrilla units and the militia, which have preconditions before their establishment, SDUs are organized immediately by mass organizations and factories. SDUs protect leaders of mass organizations and mass members during rallies, and neutralize spies, bullies and local tyrants who seek their organization’s destruction. In factories, SDU’s protect the workplace including air defense when attacked.
- The Struggle Against Flunkeyism
Ho and Giap learning from the experiences with Stalin’s reorganized Comintern after the great purges and much later the Potsdam Agreement, recognized that even socialist countries had unique national and geopolitical interests that were their legitimate priorities, that did not necessarily conform with their national interests.
They did not allow themselves to be lackeys of their big socialist brothers and maintained an independent course, took national interest as the key interest and stayed away from rivalries among them. Ho in one of his correspondence at one time questioned whether the Comintern would really help Vietnam in its struggle for independence. Even Mao had said that becoming a patriot was a prerequisite in becoming a communist (or something to that effect).
However, problems with lackeys among their ranks also developed with their comradely engagements with the Socialist Camp.
Within the leadership of the Vietnamese Workers Party, pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions developed. One of the major struggles that had to contend with was after the Geneva Conventions in 1954. Both the Soviet Union and China wanted to accede to the compromise of having a North and South Vietnam, the same way as there was a North and South Korea. This way, they would be relieved of any further substantial military obligations to Vietnam’s struggle and concentrate in socialist reconstruction in their country. Having a North Korea and a North Vietnam as buffer zones was good enough for them.
Ho and Giap struggled and won within their party’s struggle over this issue, that Vietnam should and must be indivisible. The liberation of South Vietnam remains the priority in their focus. When Ho Chi Minh died, Giap had to struggle with Ho’s successor over the issue of one Vietnam. A strong current developed that North Vietnam must no more deploy its VPA Divisions or give priority to the liberation of South so they could concentrate in socialist construction. Giap won some concessions in these heated debates allowing North Vietnamese Divisions to operate in the South on certain conditions. Initially the compromise involved the use of regulars to help in the recovery of strategic areas taken by the enemy due to Giap’s insistence not to pull out the regulars.
Giap and Mao on People’s War
Mao’s ideas on people’s war was not acceptable to Borodin, Otto Braun and the 28 Bolsheviks (pro Stalin group) that dominated China’s Central Committee. Mao had been treated as a fake Marxist-Leninist who promoted a peasant ideology. He had been sacked from his position and ridiculed in the base areas he headed when China’s central leadership took over under Bogu and Borodin. But the miserable handling of the 5th Kuomintang encirclement and their handling of the initial phases of the Long March, made Mao the man of the hour that could save the Chinese revolution from certain annihilation. Mao resumed the leadership during the Tsunyi Conference where the major errors of the leadership where denounced and a reorganization was decided.
In China’s revolutionary war, Mao had discounted the possibilities of an Insurrectionary War in the context of its Anti-Japanese War, and the succeeding Civil War. Although he acknowledged the role of uprisings it was considered a localized thing that could be exploited. Mao defined people’s war in their struggle in purely military terms, unlike Vietnam’s political military strategy which was more dynamic, and flexible.
If Ho and Giap had followed Mao’s military line entirely, the successful August Revolution would not have been made possible, because clearly they were in the early stage of the strategic defensive when a revolutionary situation developed. They however, had aroused and organized the masses through the Vietminh.
To Mao’s framework, the struggle had to pass through three strategic stages: the strategic defensive, the strategic stalemate and the strategic offensive. The political and international factors were never given much importance in tilting the situation even for a tactical advantage that could produce a great leap to their strength. For Mao, the occurrence and exploitation of a revolutionary situation was out of the question. He made it clear that insurrections applied only to capitalist countries.
After Mao succeeded in leading remnants of the Red Army to Yunan, they were already historically militarily doomed. Chang Kai Shek still had more than 1 million troops backed by planes, artillery, tanks and armored cars which he was preparing for another campaign against Mao’s remaining 20,000 armed force (starting from 100,000 when the Long March started.).
A big twist in Chinese history saved the CCP and the PLA.
Marshall Zhang Xueliang, a Manchurian warlord was the commander of the North Eastern Army fighting Japan in Manchuria and Mongolia. His father had been a Japanese collaborator, but was assassinated with the complicity of Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka, after the leakage of the Tanaka Memorial (an invasion plan for Asia). Zhang became an Anti Japanese imperialist advocate and maintained relations with the Soviet Union. He was Chiang Kasi-shek’s key ally. Zhang saved the CCP in Yunan, from total destruction. He gave them the much needed space to consolidate and move forward without interference from the Kuomintang.
Alarmed that Chiang Kai-shek was more interested in destroying the People’s Liberation Army than in fighting Japan, Zhang lured Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang leadership to a conference in Manchuria, where he detained and took them all hostages. He then sent for the representatives of the CCP headed by Zhou Enlai and forced the Kuomintang to make peace with them and carry an alliance against Japan, in exchange for Chang Kai-shek’s release. Part of the negotiations may have included the release of Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo who had studied in Moscow, who denounced his father during the Kuomintang purge on the CCP and held in Russia for 12 years. The son was released and returned to China after a KMT-CCP truce had been secured.
A strategic united front against Japan was sealed. The Kuomintang became tied to the Anti-Japanese War, and Mao was able to have full reign in all the areas they had been based and the new areas they passed in the Long March. Mao was also able to receive military aid in training, weapons and logistics from the Office of the Strategic Studies (OSS) in a bid to defeat Japan. With these favorable situation, the PLA liberated many areas from Japan and found themselves in a stalemate situation after the end of the war with the Kuomintang.
Mao similarly had also made elaborations on how their regular forces operated likening them to in the utilization of a fishing net. The net is pulled to concentrate and catch the fish. In their warfare, this meant concentrating their forces to annihilate isolated sections of the enemy, one by one. Like Giap, Mao adhered to Napoleon’s tactics of seeking superiority in every battle fought and refusing battle when this could not be achieved.. Even while on the whole the enemy was ten times stronger than them they had to ensure that the battle they chose to fight, the odds were the opposite. It is through this act that territories are freed from state control and are liberated.
Completely annihilating a section of the invading force one by one has a major effect in morale of the greater mass. Mao likened this to cutting an adversary’s finger completely. The complete annihilation part by part induces the enemy to retreat, and induces panic. This psychological state of panic is then exploited. In his successful campaigns Napoleon took out the greater part of the enemy in the hot pursuit.
At other times, Mao continues, the net is cast to the sea, which means dispersing the regular forces. This is done to comprehensively consolidate wide areas taken after the enemy had retreated, or to strengthen guerrilla warfare by making it widespread and intense. Sometimes dispersing a greater part of the regular forces was necessary because of economic and logistical conditions. There was no sense maintaining a big force if it lacked logistics. Mao wrote that when an area was hard up it was better to maintain a small regular force and disperse the rest in the localities. This maintains the combat power of regulars while strengthening the localities to wage guerrilla warfare, until it becomes necessary to concentrate. In time these temporary integration, local guerrilla forces learn to raise their fighting capabilities through the actual actions led by regulars that they conduct, from annihilating small squad units to destroying whole platoons, from merely harassing small detachments to raiding and annihilating them. From merely confronting military operations with a few harassment actions to actually causing significant casualties by many actions day and night.
But he also pointed out that their regular people’s army was carrying out in essence a higher form of guerrilla warfare, which he called regular mobile warfare.
Outmaneuvering Foreign Powers Diplomatically
The Vietnamese independent republic was immediately faced with a new foreign invasion. Within days, 200,000 troops from the Koumintang Army immediately occupied North Vietnam while another big group of British forces occupied South Vietnam. The invasion was based on a Potsdam Agreement where Stalin, the US and Churchill presided upon so Japanese forces could not mount a resistance.
Giap did not resist the occupation which would have been suicidal, but instead secured their armed forces in their bases while they mapped out a strategy to deal with the situation. .
The allied forces did not recognize Vietnam’s independence despite its national popular support. Ho’s pleas to US President Truman to recognize it were ignored. Stalin had turned its back on the fate of revolutionary movements world wide. Stalin had agreed with the US, Britain and the Koumintang to have a hands off policy in the rest of the globe in exchange for Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe in the Potsdam Agreement.. Thus in Greece, Malaysia and the Philippines where similar dominant revolutionary movements existed, would be violently crushed by colonizers.
In this complex critical situation, the Vietnamese Workers Party demonstrated their mastery of the political military strategy. Not everything could be settled militarily but a combination of many political options available and the ability to make tactical compromises. They pushed for a tactical reconciliation with France offering possible compromises and hints of an autonomy compromise, if De Gaule take steps to have Britain and the Koumintang withdraw from Vietnam. Ho saw Britain and China as more dangerous and harder to fight as enemies. France was weaker because it had been defeated by Germany and had priority in rehabilitating its economy. Ho was quoted on this occasion to having remarked that it was better “to eat French shit than British and Chinese shit”.
With France left alone in Vietnam, a war of resistance lasting 9 years and ending with Dien Bien Phu was carried out by the Vietminh.
Dien Bien Phu
Dien Bien Phu was a strategic French trap designed by General Navarre to induce the elusive Vietminh forces to concentrate in the open far away from their bases where they could be hammered with artillery, air assets and the famed battle hardened French and colonial foreign legions.
The French discovered that Laos was serving as the strategic logistical route being used by the Vietminh. By cutting their logistical line by the establishment a strong defensive-offensive military complex in Dien Bien Phu, the Vietminh would become hard up and be tempted to move from their reliable bases that were far away and attack the complex to get slaughtered in the process. The Dien Bien Phu complex covered an area of 72 square kilometers (12 x 6 kms) had two airports, had a complex of artillery fire bases deployed around it.
The periphery was surrounded by several layers of barb wires with mines. After the barb wires were trenches connecting a string of strong points, fortified positions . Each strong point or resistance center could fight it alone having its own artillery battery, mortars, tanks and armored cars. They could aid other resistance centers at Dien Bien Phu when they were attacked. The complex also had two airports.
Learning from Giap’s “swift attacks, swift victories”, Gen. Navarre had correctly anticipated the general thinking of Vietminh’s Division commanders who felt that the main direction of the attack would be the Central Headquarters. Navarre strengthened its central headquarters with 10,000 troops in heavily fortified positions laying down a booby trap. But Giap would override this sentiment with another approach (steady attack, steady victory).
Gen. Navarre dismissed the Vietminh’s capability to put artillery and
anti-aircraft guns in the rugged mountains 400 kms from their bases.
He did not figure out that the French was facing the entire
Vietnamese people in this decisive campaign.
General Navarre wanted to replicate the French victory in the Battle of Na Sam in 1952 on a much bigger scale. Giap in the Battle of Na San in November of 1952 had employed Vietminh maneuver battalions targeting the Command headquarters and pinning supporting defenses.
The new French tactic was called Hedge Hodge Tactics — forcing the Vietminh in the open to attack a military complex with supporting strong points with a built in artillery defense complex, an air force and armor support. it could not be taken by simple army maneuver tactics employing superior forces..
According to Giap’s memoir it was Ho Chi Minh who first brought the idea of concentrating their forces against Dien Bien Phu by raising a question on its feasibility. The Vietminh leadership made annual assessments of their forces and the enemy’s. Based on this assessment, they charted their military campaign. They avoided the areas where the French concentrated their main forces and redeployed their Divisions and Brigades where the enemy was weak and charted the main direction of attacks in each area their main units would operate.
Giap immediately recognized that Dien Bien Phu would be a departure from their traditional tactics that continuously weakened the French. Dien Bien Phu was basically siege warfare and positional warfare. Sooner or later, the Vietminh had to shift to this type of warfare to give the enemy a decisive defeat. They chose this occasion to do it.
The Vietminh traditional tactics which they had developed in the course of the war could not be employed in this military campaign. It would also be the first time they would be employing their anti-aircraft unit which had been newly trained and organized.
Traditionally, French luring tactics for a decisive battle was shunned in favor of redeployment and mopping up the French forces where they were most weak or had limited reinforcement capability. If the French reconcentrates where they felt Vietminh main forces were located, they redeployed elsewhere, where they continued their attacks against weaker French defenses. Other traditional tactics that Giap had utilized were classically defensive but offensive in spirit which weakened the enemy. They included (a) frustrating hamletting operations in the mountains by denying them the Vietnamese masses who hid in a myriad of tunnels with all their animals and food stocks when there was an enemy operation (b) the use of the militia and local guerrillas (district, provincial and regional guerrilla units) as an effective fighting force that carried out attritive actions to inflict heavy casualties against the French. This made it a puzzle where the main Vietminh forces were deployed because local guerrillas produced as much enemy casualties as the Vietminh regular forces, the only difference was their actions were attritive while the Vietminh regular forces were annihilative in character (ie. annihilating large columns on the move, destroying medium size detachments, camps and air bases) and (c) the mass employment of booby traps (punji traps of different types) land mine warfare (cartridge foot cutters, bamboo shrapnel cannons, anti-tank mines, modified claymore mines, etc) and (d) tunnel warfare —these indigenous war technologies passed on to militia and local guerrillas for widespread use, made it possible to inflict a heavy toll on the enemy forcing the US in later years to abandon troop movements in favor of artillery, air bombardment, the employment of air cavalry and naval bombardment as the form of fighting. The widespread use of landmines and booby traps were aimed in maiming and not killing troops which in war economics were several times more costly to the invader in sustaining a war as the government had to permanently set aside a large amount for rehabilitation and medical expenses.
Punji Booby Traps
Punji Traps. Left “the Swinging Floor”, Right: the “Rolling Trap”
The French army’s continuous losing streak on all fronts had been stopped in the Battle of Na Sam where Giap’s attacking force paid a heavy price. The battle for the first time employed the French Hedge Hodge Tactics. Gen. Navarre wanted to replicate this victory into a grand strategy to crush the Vietnamese People’s Army decisively in the open at Dien Bien Phu.. (Note: Hedge Hodge Tactics in war history were first employed by the Nazi’s against the Soviet Army and had initial successes but when the Soviets employed Deep Penetration Tactics employing overwhelming forces in manpower, tanks, artillery and air force in their final offensive these tactics did not work. These Nazi resistance centers were starved to surrender or were obliterated. After the war, the US gathered Nazi military strategists and tacticians and made them write their experiences in fighting the Soviets so they could improve their battle tactics even as they filled the CIA rooster with ex intelligence officers of the Nazis.)
Giap had learned valuable lessons from Na Sam but did not concede defeat in that battle.”It wasn’t a defeat…but we suffered losses.” French official records put the Vietminh casualties at 1,544 dead and 1,932 wounded prisoners in a two week battle before Giap pulled out his troops.
To concentrate forces in Dien Bien Phu and annihilate the enemy there it was necessary to tie down the French in other areas all over Vietnam to ensure that he would not be able to muster enough reinforcements to achieve tactical parity or superiority during the great battle that lay ahead. At this point of time French forces numbered 450,000 in the whole of Indochina, while the puppet Vietnamese troops numbered nearly 200,000. How to prevent the French from mustering these forces to aid Dien Bien Phu was a colossal challenge. Because of this all their other forces of the revolutionary army including the local guerrillas had to carry out a high level of strategic pinning down actions that included large scale ambushes of troops destined for Dien Bien Phu, where enemy casualties had to be immense while the battle progressed at Dien Bien Phu. Thus, it can be said that the Dien Bien Phu campaign was a coordinated national military campaign with all regions participating.
In Feb. 1954, Giap established command headquarters 10 kilometers away at Muong Phang from the Dien Bien Phu Complex. It was situated at the back of a mountain to protect them from artillery fire. Giap spent most of his time on top of the mountain with his staff during in a camouflaged heavily fortified bunker where he could see the whole battle ground as the battle progressed. For movement, Giap rode a horse or drove a US military jeep captured in South Vietnam during field inspections and command conferences. Technical advisers from Eastern Europe accompanied him during field inspections of vital areas giving valuable advice in camouflage, fortifications, etc. Giap ensured that everything was done in the best way possible. The enemy’s capabilities had to be taken seriously in order to avoid mistakes.
Based on Giap’s memoir on Dien Bien Phu, it would have been impossible for the French to win because of the meticulous clandestine preparations that were undertaken before they started the battle campaign. For Giap, victory in this military campaign necessarily meant preparing the vast battlefield first.
Briefly summarized they included the following:
(a) Ideologically preparing the troops.
The most important factor in a military campaign or battle is the human factor. Mass heroism and great sacrifices were expected and everybody had to be prepared for this. Each officer and soldier had to fulfill their tasks even at the cost of their life. All the participants of the campaign were given mass political education. Mass meetings and cultural programs were carried out to roused all participants to high level of morale. Villages were mobilized to honor and carry out emotional ceremonies to bid their fighters goodbye as they set for the battlefield. Villagers also wrote their soldiers at the front often, encouraging them to win victories for the motherland.
At the crucial stage of the campaign when the enemy had become highly demoralized, internal problems also gripped the ranks of the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu. The continuous day and night fighting affected their morale too. Two negative tendencies began to develop which was detrimental to the campaign. Some officers suffered conservatism (the tendency to be too careful slowing down the pace of their assaults for fear of suffering more losses, wounded and hardships). Some officers suffered the opposite, by being overconfident. Tired from the continuous fighting they just wanted to finish it relying on on courage alone…wanting to just assault the enemy using pure courage — reluctance to carry out more back breaking preparatory work in building tunnels and trenches to make sure their assault would succeed. Giap took time to ideologically and politically consolidate the troops to eradicate these weaknesses and strengthen the fighting resolve of its officers and men. Once this was resolved, the final phase of totally defeating the enemy resumed.
(b) Developing and Securing the strategic logistical lines first. Because Dien Bien Phu was located 400 hundred kilometers from their base areas, Giap first insured that when their main regular forces were employed, they would never be cut off from their logistical lines from their bases, isolated and annihilated as the French wanted.
This involved infrastructure works, building guerrilla roads where trucks could pass and camouflaged after use, and underwater roads a technology developed by the Soviets in World War II against the Nazis (instead of bridges that could be seen from the air and bombed), and the building of tunnels and running trenches parallel to each other.
Half of the 400 kilometer Vietminh logistical lines utilized trucks to bring supplies while the other half of the stretch had to use hand and bicycle porters (dan cong). This demonstration of people power involved hundreds of thousands riding on convoys, horses, bicycles, small boats and on foot. French surveillance had monitored some portions of the trail, who carried out interdiction actions. However the French were not aware how massive these movements were actually were. Villagers all over Vietnam took turns in porter duties.
When the battle started, the French realized how big the Vietminh regular force they were facing. The Vietminh regulars who had already taken advance forward positions could not be dislodged because of the trenches, fortifications and tunnels that protected them.. They could however be starved to weaken them and slow their advance so they could mount counter-attacks. Artillery and bombers concentrated bombing raids against the nearest logistical lines connecting them. . As a result, many Vietminh supplies were stuck in some relay stations. Food at the front had to be rationed in small quantities, and troops had to eat gruel rice for sometime. Giap admits that at one time they were contemplating in calling off the campaign as food was not reaching the troops.
At this critical juncture, the Central Committee issued a call for the full nationwide mobilization of all its revolutionary forces to break the logistical impasse. Seasoned cadres (i.e. the most tested battle hardened troubleshooters) were deployed to lead and all the necessary manpower were sent so all roads, tunnels trenches and other infrastructure works could be rebuilt within one day after they were destroyed by French artillery and bombs. Porters ran the logistical lines 24 hours a day carrying food and military supplies.
(c) Strategic deployment of artillery. Some figures put the number of howitzers deployed at 17, while others do not place a number that included Giap’s memoir. At any rate these howitzers were deployed so their positions even when firing continuously would not be seen from Dien Bien Phu camp by artillery spotters for counter artillery duels or aerial bombardment. Camouflage and protective concealment were crucial for their artillery pieces. Because of the steep mountains, the artillery had to be dismantled and brought by hand when traversing to the mountains. Ample stocks of ammunition were also stored. Artillery had to be mobile and guerrilla roads had to be constructed so that they could be moved to better firing positions or when their location was compromised as the battle progressed. This did not include the deployment of mortars and RPG rockets that were part of the arsenal of their mobile regular forces.
Giap ensured that the bombardment of his artillery would be accurate. Readings were made on each important position in Dien Bien Phu so artillery trajectory could be adjusted to any target as the battle progressed from anticipated forward positions. As late as the 1960s, Wilfred Burchett wrote how the Vietminh using primitive methods crept into targets and used strings to get accurate readings on distances during the preparatory planning stages of important battles. Many foreign advisers from Eastern Europe helped in planning the technical aspects in the bombardment plan that would be coordinated with the infantry as they inched towards the targets. It was Napoleon who first utilized the principle of combined arms—the use of concentrated artillery fire at the decisive point in combination with the movement of overwhelming numbers of maneuver battalions and cavalry to completely annihilate the enemy section by section.
The howitzers deployed were all the Vietminh had in their arsenal and Giap saw their important indispensable role in the campaign. Without them, it would be very difficult to win. Artillery emplacements had to be well fortified to withstand enemy artillery and bombs from the air even while they had to be moved to forward positions as the campaign progressed.
(d) Mobilizing the Whole Revolutionary Armed Forces and Coordinating with the Revolutionary Armies of Laos and Cambodia to Pin Down the French Forces
Because Dien Bien Phu would require stopping the French from bringing in troops and war planes from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to overwhelm them in the battle area, everybody had to be mobilized.
As a result 2/3rds of the total French casualties during this campaign, (over 100,000) were inflicted in other parts of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. A combined force from the Lao People’s Army and the VPA wiped out 10,000 French troops in Laos as they attempted to reinforce. In Dien Bien Phu, 26,000 French forces were destroyed.
(e) Deployment of Anti-Aircraft Artillery in the mountain range. This was necessary to protect the ground troops and protect their prized howitzers from air attack. The French air forces in Indochina had troubled Giap. They could bring in unlimited reinforcements and supplies to tilt the balance during the campaign. They could also be used to bombard their artillery positions. By this time, the US was shouldering 80 percent of French military expenditure in Vietnam and had deployed US fighter bombers flown by US servicemen.
(f) Preparatory Encirclement of Dien Bien Phu through trenches and tunnels. Giap made sure once the campaign started, the French military complex would be completely surrounded in the ground. Running trenches and tunnels surrounded the complex anticipating heavy day time bombardment from the air and from artillery when the fighting started. The Vietminh also had an army of tunnel borers who during the battle, would start constructing trenches above and tunnels underneath the camp as the battle raged above. Their target were the key French defense positions where explosives would be emplaced underneath so they could be blasted in detail. Other tunnels would be used to bring troops inside the camp skirting the barb wire entanglements that littered the French military complex and avoid the landmines the French had deployed. All the roads to Dien Bien Phu were secured to ensure that no reinforcement from the ground could reach the complex. All routes from Dien Bien Phu were also secured so no escape from the land was possible when the first shots were fired. A relief column consisting of 2,100 French troops tried to use the roads to reinforce Dien Bien Phu but were slaughtered in an ambush with less than 200 making it to their destination.
“We built a system of fortifications completely surrounding the base, with hundreds of kilometers of trenches so that our fighters could wage combat both day and night under enemy bombardment,” recalled Giap.
French bombardment was devastating. According to Giap, captured documents showed that French artillery had for the first three days of the opening battle (March 13 to 15) fired more than 30,000 artillery shells. Besides this, the immediate heights surrounding the complex were napalmed, destroying all vegetation. During this period US planes unloaded bombs all night long. This alone could have destroyed the Vietminh if they had he chosen the battle tactic, “Swift Attack, Swift Victory” and not constructed hundreds of kilometers of tunnels and trenches..
(g) Deployment of Sufficient number of regular forces. Napoleon’s classic campaigns had taught that though outnumbered by an adversary, it was most important to lure, isolate and attack the adversary’s weakest column with superior numbers and fire power to annihilate them using surprise, combined arms and terrain advantage. For Dien Bien Phu, Navare used a total of 26,000 (initially 19,000) elite forces that included reinforcements that actually reached the area. According to Giap in their Dien Bien Phu Campaign, they on their part deployed “three infantry divisions and our entire artillery, engineering and ant-aircraft forces.” All in all Giap employed 42,000 troops. Although this did not reach the ideal ratio of 4 or more troops per enemy soldier, this was compensated by the quality of their infantry weapons, the use of tunnels to move forward against hard positions, and accurate artillery and anti-aircraft fire.
After 3 months of intense preparations, Giap gave the go signal for the offensive. . The battle took 7 weeks and 3 days from March 13 to May, 7 1954. Dien Bien Phu was completely sealed from land reinforcements and not long after, air planes could no more land in its airstrip. The French Foreign Legion, France elite forces crumbled in the intense fighting that took place day and night of land attacks and heavy bombardment.
According to Giap, the Dien Bien Phu Campaign at the battle area “completely destroyed 25 Battalions, and 62 US bombers, fighters and transport planes” If all efforts nationwide to bring Dien Bien Phu to victory was considered, the Vietminh Winter-Spring Campaign was even more bigger: one fourth of the total French forces in Indochina had been annihilated.
As a nationwide campaign, a total of 112,000 French forces were annihilated to prevent reinforcements, and 239 French and US planes were destroyed to prevent their employment at Dien Bien Phu. All the French weapons at the battle site were captured giving the Vietminh people’s armed forces a further basis for solid geometric growth.
Hundreds of kilometers of trenches like the above were built
to completely encircle and destroy Dien Bien Phu section by
Semi Mobile AA Gun in Action at Dien Bien Phu
Giap’s Two Main Battle Tactics
The Vietnamese People’s Army had mastered the ability to move and concentrate troops to battle without being detected so as to achieve surprise and tactical overwhelming superiority. This itself was an art.
Because the enemy controlled the skies and could bombard the VPA to smithereens at day light, the VPA had mastered night fighting and close quarter battle. But how to employ them when they reach their objective to wipe out the enemy required good battle tactics.
In regular mobile warfare, Giap developed two tactics to take out the enemy’s major fortified positions. Which tactic to be employed was settled by the leadership even before the troops went on maneuver towards the objective.
The first battle tactic which he called “Swift Attack, Swift Victory” involved hitting all the positions of the enemy simultaneously (described by Giap as “lightning clashes”) in the whole periphery of the battle zone (the area could be as big as a barangay or a municipality) not to annihilate but to initially pin down and confuse the adversary in a general area. Simultaneous with these diversionary attacks was the deep thrust of the Vietminh’s main column on the point pre selected for the main attack, the enemy Command Post itself, which he described as like “running a sword through the enemy’s heart.” (This tactic of attacking the Command Center itself has a long historical precedent, dating back to Alexander the Great). This caused panic on the enemy commander making him unable to direct an organized counter attack. The destruction of the enemy’s command, result in demoralization, panic and the collapse of enemy’s resistance in the whole battle area. In this type of battle victory was attained quickly.
During the planning stage, Giap asked his Division Commanders about their opinion on how Dien Bien Phu could be taken. Their answer was unanimous. They wanted to strike immediately while the French were still building their defenses in the area and assembling troops and equipment. They wanted to use the “Swift Attack, Swift Victory” battle tactic especially now that their military campaign would be utilizing a critical mass of howitzers.
But Giap saw that this tactic would not do in Dien Bien Phu. Taking Dien Bien Phu while the French were still consolidating would be an advantage since their defenses were still weak, but the French could reinforce the area through massive air drops and landings and cut them from their rear. France had 450,000 troops all over Indochina and an additional more or less 200,000 puppet troops from which he could organize a powerful counter attack. They would also surely bombard the Vietminh with bombs and napalm who would be massed in the open during the attack. To prevent this all the regions of Vietnam required reorganization and preparations to enable them to effectively pin down the enemy so no significant reinforcements would come to the aid of the Dien Bien Phu complex. Thus this would take time. Giap also saw the need to protect his troops and the necessity of a solid advance where they could not be dislodged in their advance. Thus, the “Swift Attack and Swift Victory” battle tactic was rejected. Ho and the top leadership, supported Giap’s proposal.
The second battle tactic was what Giap called “Steady Attack, Steady Advance” or “Step by Step Fighting”. This involved constriction, destroying enemy strong points starting from the outer peripheral defenses towards the inner. In the Dien Bien Phu Campaign described by Giap as the “biggest battle ever seen”, Giap chose the tactic, “Steady Attack, Steady Advance”.
This battle tactic employed was actually a national military campaign, and at the same time a tactical military campaign. On one hand, it would involve the participation of the whole revolutionary forces in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It would also require major engineering works which took time to accomplish.
At Dien Bien Phu, battles would be fought one at a time, while pinning the whole complex to prevent it from saving the stronghold under concentrated and intense attack. In turn all the forces in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia would take pinning down action on all French forces so they could not be mobilized to aid Dien Bien Phu. .
Further explaining, “the Steady Attack, Steady Advance” as it was done at Dien Bien Phu, he wrote:
The greatest surprise we had in store for the enemy was our refusal to engage in all-out lightning clashes with the entire strength of the Expeditionary Corps, who were firmly dug in their solidly built forts. We decided to gradually destroy pockets of resistance one by one, always choosing when and where. We could also launch attacks with overwhelming superiority in each battle.
The first battle opening the Dien Bien Phu Campaign was short and swift. Its aim was to completely destroy the Ham Lan Resistance Center, one of several centers that defended Dien Bien Phu. Two Vietminh Brigades were used to assault the fortified sub-complex defended by around 500 battle hardened French forces while an artillery Brigade gave accurate bombardment killing some key French tactical officers immediately. In the main attacking Vietminh column, their spearhead units rained grenades on the enemy in close quarter fighting. The Command post fell shortly. The whole defending unit had been destroyed (200 dead and 300 wounded surrendered). 5 Vietminh brigades pinned down and carried diversionary attacks around Dien Bien Phu to prevent reinforcements to Ham Lan. This was despite the fact that the French artillery used 30,000 shells to stop the attack.
The same tactics would be applied in the other succeeding battles. Forces used would be in superior numbers, advancing steadily in tunnels, trenches and strong points and aided by accurate coordinated mortar and artillery fire. . Other areas of the complex would be prevented from reinforcing with diversionary attacks. This was classic Napoleon.
The War Against the Allied Invasionary Forces
The US took over the war in Vietnam starting in 1955 up to 1975. It dropped twice more bombs in Vietnam that the whole number of bombs (tonnage) used by all warring parties in World War II combined. Bomb and shell duds from these massive bombardment, provided the Vietminh the high explosives for the employment of land mine warfare. Previously landmine warfare was based on black powder, with potassium nitrate, its key ingredient produced by filtering highly organic earth made from earth fermented by daily application of urine and dung . The organic rich earth produced 25% nitrate by weight.
At its peak, it placed 500,000 US troops on the ground aside from troops provided by Great Britain, Australia and the SEATO nations. They used all conceivable tactics against the Vietnamese resistance from hamletting ½ of South Vietnam’s population, chemical warfare, carpet bombing, napalm bombing, naval bombardment, large scale assassinations in urban areas (CIA operation phoenix), use of mobile Air Cavalry and Airborne tactics, mining of port areas (i.e. Haiphong), infantry sweeps supported by air and naval power, destroying extensive rice fields during harvest time, poisoning of rivers and wells, destroying all infrastructures (factories, public buildings including hospitals and schools, roads, bridges and dams).
Giap used the same tactics employed against the French but on a much bigger scale. The US was to be convinced that it would never win and continuously pay a terrible price. The US war machine all throughout the war had the capability to destroy Vietnam’s main forces within hours if they could locate them. Unfortunately, they never did.
The ability to influence the tactical disposition of the enemy and waste his munitions and most of the time is a mark of a great strategist. Giap intentionally lured the enemy with decoys and troop feints in areas they wanted them to be. The US almost always took the bait sending B-52 bombers, fighter jets and carrying out naval bombardment in these decoy areas as US tanks, armored cars and battalions were swung to what they thought was a real battle. The US could not distinguish between a diversionary feint attack from the real attack and treated them the same. Many of their statistics of NVA’s destroyed including their tanks, and lorries were actually decoys made of wood.
They did not engage the US forces when they sought decisive battles. Vietminh local guerrillas and militias continuously harassed foot patrols with landmines and booby traps forcing the US to abandon foot patrols. The main anti-aircraft defense, the Vietminh used were sappers who attacked B-52 bombers and fighter planes while they were parked in airbases forcing the redeployment of B-52 bombers to US bases in Thailand, Okinawa and the Philippines.
The ability to make your troops always invisible is also a mark of a great strategist. North Vietnamese Divisions, Brigades, Battalions and Companies used a chain of tunnels as harboring areas to completely disappear after attacking US positions to protect them from US air strikes, napalm and carpet bombing. Many times the US command thought the Vietminh regulars were just outside their borders in places the Vietminh created diversions and show of force, making them strengthen their defenses there, but unknown to them they were inside their borders sometimes just near their military camps hidden underneath layers of tunnels. When not fighting they stayed in these tunnels and coming out for fresh air during moonless nights,
A Vietminh commanding the forces in South Vietnam recounted in an interview said that he spent 15 years of the struggle mostly in tunnels and came out only at night.
Life in the tunnels was difficult. While it protected them well against US bombs and hid their location, it was subject to many problems that included partial flooding and diseases which took a heavy toll among its occupants.
International United Front
Ho and Giap used good international diplomacy within the socialist camps and did not engage in anti revisionist polemics at a time when the Soviet Union and China were threatening each other. Mao’s tactical alliance with President Nixon against “Soviet Social Imperialism” caused the redeployment of one million troops on each side to their common borders and the redirection of their nuclear missiles against each other’s key cities. Despite this problem, Ho and Giap brought the whole socialist camp to support Vietnam’s struggle for independence. Without this help it would have taken more time perhaps decades more to defeat the US and his allies who ganged up against their cause. As a result, Vietnam had no problem in weapons and logistics.
To be able to mount the final offensive in 1975, many socialist countries sent troops to secure North Vietnam from a sneak attack so the bulk of North Vietnamese army could be deployed to the South. North Korea sent 250,000 troops to protect the skies of North Vietnam while China sent 200,000 to man North Vietnam’s ground defenses.
Taking Charge of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Giap was tasked by the leadership after Ho Chi Minh’s death to take charge of maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The US was bent in preventing the infiltration of North Vietnamese regular troops from moving to South Vietnam and logistically starving the Vietminh regular army of food, munitions and weapons to the sustain the war of resistance. It was a formidable task, but Giap won in this war front. Giap wrote of this episode:
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a very extensive system; it started with a trail but later became a road. Many roads, actually: the Western road system and the Eastern road systems, criss-crossing here and there. And also there were the extensive systems of gas pipelines and communications lines, and routes on rivers and across the sea. We did everything possible to keep the whole system going. I visited many important points which were subjected to many B-52 bombings 23 out of 24 hours a day; we had many teams working toward maintaining the operation, including a team made up of women who had to use iron rings to defuse the [unexploded] bombs. …
We made big sacrifices. I visited a dozen girls who maintained the route in Dong Lap of Nghe An Province; they showed me how they invented camouflage to cover the lamps so that those in vehicles can see, but the planes could not see. They urged us to move fast; and they all died during the bombing. There was danger of the trail being cut off, but it never really was cut off. With a long procession of vehicles, and with the bombing from the B-52s, it was very difficult, but we had to use both courage and wisdom. There are some routes that the Americans did not know about, but if they had used a telescope they would have seen the routes quite clearly. But we did not use those routes. We used some secret smaller trails as a detour and we went during the day.
Cheap, Economical but Superior Intelligence
While the US spent hundreds of millions of dollars in intelligence and employed thousands of analysts and specialists from pentagon, the CIA and other intelligence services and employed the most sophisticated equipment to monitor the Vietminh they amounted to nothing. They also tried to get intelligence from prisoners and employed brutal interrogation tactics (including water cure and throwing prisoners aboard Huey helicopters if they did not cooperate). But their intelligence output paled from the Vietminh.
The Vietminh employed high quality human intelligence. A summary of the top four Vietminh intelligence operatives would demonstrate how exactly they got the most accurate intelligence and exploit them in military operations.
One top Vietminh operative was an ordinary orderly (utility man). He was assigned to the joint US-Vietnamese Command. Every time the CIA, the US and Vietnamese top level commanders made a plan, it was immediately photocopied by the orderly who was assigned to secure the documents in their vaults and sent copies to the Vietminh. Within weeks Giap was reading these highly classified documents.
Another agent was a well known Times correspondent Pham Xuan An who top CIA operative Ed Lansdale recruited to the CIA making his worth even better. Pham rubbed elbows with top CIA agents, US and South Vietnamese generals and was free to visit all military camps even the most restricted. He gave the Vietminh leadership up to date information how the enemy leadership and personalities were currently thinking or planning to do.
Pham played a key role in the planning of the Tet Offensive, and several crucial battles, allowing Vietminh planners to enter US strategic camps as his “guests” to make actual ground assessments of the enemy’s capability and dispositions during the preparatory planning stages of military campaigns..
It was Ho who personally developed Pham Xuan An as an intelligence operative. He had told him not to participate in militant mass actions of the Vietminh so as not to be politically exposed, and urged him to instead go to the United States and enroll in a good college so he could develop good credentials as a journalist. Sure enough, Lansdale who started as a journalist himself got his attention and recruited him to his CIA team.
The third Vietminh agent was a South Vietnamese General Pham Ngoc Thao. The CIA even awarded him as a model military commander to emulate, because they thought that his administrative skills and handling of problems made it difficult for the Vietminh to attack the area where he took command. They did not know that one whole North Vietnamese division stayed in tunnels wherever he was assigned.
He was also responsible for sabotaging the Hamletting Program in South Vietnam where half of the population of South Vietnam were placed in fortified hamlets and guarded. While he was one of the key planners of the program, he helped in their being turned into Vietcong strong points. In just a few years of the hamletting program at least 45 percent of the hamlets were secretly under the control of the Vietminh.
Gen. Thao was also the key planner and participant in the overthrow of South Vietnamese Presidents, Ngo Dinh Diem and the military junta of Nguyen Khanh. In the plot Thao instigated a coup de etat against Diem, which saw even President Kennedy giving the go signal to the CIA (that he did not think Diem could unite Vietnam and would not interfere if he was replaced by others). Ho Chi Minh after the successful clandestine operation against Diem, was quoted to have said: “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid”. Strategically, Thao made sure that the South Vietnamese Army though well trained, equipped and big, concentrated in in-fighting and coup plots against each other instead of fighting the Vietminh.
Gen Cao Ky had him imprisoned and assassinated by beating, after finding out that he was responsible and instigator of the successive coups that occurred in the South Vietnam. He was however given a heroes burial because the US and Vietnamese puppet politicians and generals did not believe Cao Ky. After victory, Thao was given another heroes burial this time by the revolutionary government.
There was another unnamed Vietminh undercover agent (reported in the Michigan Owosso Argus Press, October 12, 1966, apparently taken prisoner and cooperated) embedded within the South Vietnamese Army and handling a 70 man military staff. He admitted he had classified access to bombing runs of B-52 bombers coming from Thailand, Okinawa and the Philippines. He was able to warn through radio a Vietminh communication post just outside Saigon minutes after B-52 bombers took off from foreign bases to do a bombing sortie. This in turn relayed the information to the Vietminh field command on the location of the bombing raid two hours before it occurred. This enabled the Vietminh to radio their comrades in the affected areas and evacuate their soldiers, before a fleet of B-52 strategic bombers carpet bombed the area. He also admitted that the Vietminh maintained intelligence nets in various sensitive units within the South Vietnamese Army that were high and middle level officers..
The US military suffered a total of 58,209 killed in action and 153,303 wounded before it gave up Vietnam. Most of the estimated 5 million casualties in Vietnam were civilians.
The sheer economics of a war of aggression in Vietnam forced Nixon to abandon the printing of US dollars based on gold reserves in 1972 to forestall an economic crisis. They had spent so much in an unproductive venture that had no returns but continuing costs. The US up to now, would start printing unlimited money based on international and public confidence that the US economy was sound.
Perfecting Guerrilla Tactics in a War of Attrition.
Guerrilla warfare gave a deadly toll on American troops and their allies. The use of booby traps (landmines and punji traps laced with excrement to cause serious infections) were so effective that US military statistics of allied casualties showed that 11% of their dead and 17% of their wounded by 1970 were from booby traps or a total of 28 percent of their casualty rate. This was apart from casualties from sniping, raids, grenade throwing and ambushes that guerrillas initiated.
Textbook training in conducting ambushes teaches commanders to employ this method of fighting to wipe out a much weaker enemy by employing surprise, terrain advantage, firepower and flanking tactics. Vietminh Guerrillas in the face of the US ability to send reinforcements quickly expanded the application of an ambush as an act of carrying out a battle of attrition. In this concept, a much bigger enemy force is lured to a prepared trap where a few guerrilla forces hit them hard from camouflaged fox holes in good protected locations and inducing them further to sustain more casualties from land mines and punji booby traps. Guerrillas immediately melt away after this has been achieved. US troops considered the outcome of such battles as a victory because they drove away the adversary despite their having attained heavy casualties.
Vo Nguyen Giap stands out as a legacy to the entire oppressed and exploited people of the world. His contributions will never be forgotten.
The First Battle: Taking one of the Resistance French Center at Dien Bien Phu
 Macdonald, Peter (1993). Giap: The Victor in Vietnam, pp. 32
 The victory of the Russian October Revolution could have been toppled within a year, had not Lenin assigned Trotsky to reorganize the Red Army, who with great genius integrated all the former Tsarist Generals and soldiers he mobilized while imposing measures such as a system of political officers, carrot and stick (mass hostaging of families of key former generals and officers in posh enclaves), and filling up the rank and file with Soviets and Bosheviks .This saw the great transformation of the Red Army into a mob insurrectionary army into a world class army capable of fighting simultaneously in several republics. Concentrating on the control and consolidation of defenses for the Trans-Siberian railways, the Red Army was able to ship troops and supplies to battlefields overwhelming the enemy with superior forces at the point of the Red Armies’ choosing from Moscow to Vladivostok an area spanning 1/5th of the globe. It defeated the White Armies, and the invasionary forces from the US, Britain, France and Japan who tried to take chunks of Russian territory.
 The United States took a “neutral policy” at the start of World War II making its economy boom to an all time high. The US maintained factories in Nazi Germany even while it supplied the Allied forces with war material on a Lend-Lease agreement, in the process raking profits from the war. But when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, it decided that to give full support to the Koumintang in a proxy war to defeat Japan’s main forces who were invading China. But Chang was looking beyond World War II and did not fight Japan with full vigor which infuriated the US. Chang’s massive military aid from the US were hoarded for a future war against the CCP. A Japanese attack on a Kouumintang area led to the destruction of more than 500,000 tons of US war material that the US had assumed had been distributed for the resistance. This led the US to seek other allies in China which included Mao’s forces to bolster the resistance in China. . Special Commando schools numbering more than 100 were set up by the OSS to train Anti-Japanese resistance fighters. These included officers and men from the CCP’s PLA.
When the Soviet Red Army, destroyed two thirds of the Nazi Army, this was the time that the US sure of Germany’s defeat, joined the war on Germany. After the war, the US again benefited from the reconstruction of Europe, further booming its economy, through the Marshall Plan. Germany and Japan foot most of the bills for all the damages and the cost of the war, the US being the main beneficiary.
 According to accounts, when news of Diem’s assassination reached Kennedy, he became pale white and left the meeting room