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Posts Tagged ‘Indochina’

A Review of Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam

Posted by Scott Holstad on October 16, 2013

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in VietnamGiap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility — that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings — a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam’s most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America — both countries, he knew, that wouldn’t have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America’s 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table — a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

“The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war’s outcome…. Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas…. the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns…. He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home.”

“Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers’ and citizen’s commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory…. When all is said and done, Giap’s enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others.”

Giap than, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho’s second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war’s end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I’m an American, I’ve studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war — which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap’s commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can’t think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world’s superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

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A Review of Ho Chi Minh: A Life

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 25, 2013

Ho Chi Minh: A LifeHo Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Ho Chi Minh, one of history’s most mysterious yet prominent figures. I’ve read what little there is on him over the years, and then finally came across this book, William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. What a thoroughly researched and detailed book! Duiker does a truly admirable job of piecing together information from archives and sources from all over the world to give us the best possible picture of Ho, and he does it in a reasonably objective way.

Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19th, 1890 with the given name, Nguyen Sinh Cung, to a Confucian scholar in the Nghe An province of Annam, part of French Indochina, a colonial territory. Duiker writes a great deal about the history of Vietnam, how it had been conquered and occupied for centuries (much of it by the Chinese) and how the 20th Century Indochinese resented their French occupiers for many legitimate, assorted reasons. As young Cung was about to enter adolescence, his father gave him a new name – something customarily done then – Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning “he who will succeed.” Thanh learned Chinese and Confucian history. He also started being influenced by displaced nationalists who wanted to see an independent Vietnam. However, Thanh felt it important to first understand their oppressors, so he began studying French and the French culture at a Franco-Vietnamese preparatory school in Vinh. Thanh’s attitudes about the French were also no doubt influenced by his father, who despised the imperial government the French allowed to rule over the three sections of Indochina.

In 1907, Thanh enrolled in National Academy, the highest level Franco-Vietnamese school in Hue, the imperial capital. He learned French, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but he was considered somewhat of a country bumpkin by his peers. Still, Thanh’s patriotic instincts were stoked while at this school. Indeed, his first direct involvement in political action came during this period as a wave of unrest swept the countryside and there were many demonstrations. On May 9th, he was beaten and fired upon by French troops during a demonstration. Thanh was dismissed from school and left Annam for Cochin China (South Vietnam) where he taught school for a period before deciding to go to France to study, leaving on a liner where he worked for passage under the name, “Ba.”

In France, Thanh took up odd jobs and started attending labor union meetings and meetings of socialists and Marxists, who supported more freedoms for colonial territories. He started writing articles under pseudonyms and publishing them in numerous media. In 1918, Thanh drafted an eight point petition to the government demanding Annamite freedom. He signed his document, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot,” a name he would carry forward with him for decades to come. Eventually, the French police and secret police started taking notice, and he went to New York and London to escape their notice for awhile, before returning to France. He became rather prolific there and the voice for the Vietnamese people, as well as others. In 1924, he left for Moscow, where Lenin had radicalized Russia, a newly Communist country with great goals of expanding communism to the third world, including Indochina.

One thing I’ve always been curious about regarding Ho is whether he was a patriot fighting for national independence or a communist fighting to spread communism. The author of this book addresses this issue at several points throughout the book. He writes, “There are valid reasons for the argument that Nguyen Ai Quoc was above all a patriot. In 1960 he himself conceded in [a] short article … that it was the desire for Vietnamese independence that had drawn him to Marxism in the first place.” Yet, “there is also persuasive evidence that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc viewed Marxism-Leninism as more than just a tool to drive out the French…. Quoc believed that the struggle against the forces of imperialism throughout Asia would culminate in a global revolution.” And there you go. He was both.

Whatever the case, Quoc stayed in Moscow a very long time, studying at the Stalin School and writing things like The Revolutionary Path, his first major effort to introduce Marxist-Leninist doctrine to his countrymen. He moved from Moscow to China next, where he established himself with a network of like-minded nationalist/communists who sought Vietnam’s independence. From there, he oversaw the battle for Vietnam’s independence on behalf of both Russia and China, playing both countries against each other brilliantly – something he’d do for the rest of his life.

Rumor had it he was married to a Chinese woman and had a daughter, but he had to leave them and flee to avoid arrest by the ever aggressive French, returning to Moscow. There he set up a system for patriotic countrymen to come study Marxist philosophies and to go home to spread their knowledge. In 1941, Quoc traveled back through China under the assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. (It meant “He Who Enlightens.”) During the World War Two years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho traveled back to Vietnam for the first time in decades, to head the Vietminh Front, along with future general, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. With China’s help, they carved out for themselves some territory in northern Vietnam and solicited help from both Russia and the US, of all countries.

After the war was over, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country, much to the delight of his countrymen who viewed him as a hero. The French had other plans, and with US backing, returned to re-colonize Indochina. Ho and the Vietminh went into hiding and started conducting guerrilla warfare, eventually demoralizing the French and gaining power, ultimately resulting in the military destruction of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and France’s essential surrender, resulting in a split Vietnam, where the northern part would be governed by Ho, and the southern by a corrupt president propped up by the US, one who would later be assassinated with America’s permission and knowledge.

One thing you have to understand is this – the Vietnamese wanted a free and independent unified Vietnam, even most of the southerners. Thus, the Viet Cong, who started making their appearance in 1961 with the north’s backing. Ho continued to seek a political solution, but Lyndon Johnson would have none of it and with the suspicious Gulf of Tonkin incident, he brought the US right into the war. Something that will forever be remembered as one of the most stupid things done by a US president. It was an unwinnable war. Ho said that the Vietnamese may lose 10 soldiers for every one American soldier, but that Vietnam would outlast America, and he was right.

Ho’s influence started to wane as he aged, on into the 1960s, but even as a figurehead, he still played a large role. Power had shifted to other Vietnamese leaders, such as Le Duan, but until Ho’s death on September 2nd, 1969, he was viewed as the legitimate leader of his people and a fighter for the oppressed the world over.

The book, aside from an epilogue, ends with Ho’s death and briefly describes the end of the war, so you won’t get much information about how the war ended or why, but this book goes a long way to demystifying a mythical man of immense power and stature, and for that, the author should be applauded. Perhaps I should end this review of this strongly recommended book by citing the final paragraph in the book, a book written by a man who worked at the US Embassy in Saigon back during the war:

“Ho Chi Minh, then, was … an ‘event-making man,’ a ‘child of crisis’ who combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice. Because these forces transcended the borders of his own country, Ho was able to project his message to colonial peoples all over the world and speak to their demand for dignity and freedom from imperialist oppression. Whatever the final judgment on his legacy to this own people, he has taken his place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes who have struggled mightily to give the pariahs of the world their true voice.”

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