Giap’s Generalship

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Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese Military Genius

Võ Nguyên Giáp
Photograph of Võ Nguyên Giáp
Born 25 August 1911
Lệ Thủy, Quảng Bình, French Indochina
Died 4 October 2013 (aged 102)
108 Hospital, Hanoi, Vietnam
Nationality Vietnamese
Known for Battle of Dien Bien Phu

Sol Sanders

In the spring of 1951, the Vietminh commander, Vo Nguyen Giap, sensing the coming French defeat, decided to attack Nam Dinh, an important provincial center in the southern part of the North's Red River Delta, with a large conventional force. Giap's troops without air cover were massacred by French aircraft—wretched as those were including old tri-motored Junker transports turned into bombers, seized from the Germans after their defeat in 1945. De Lattre's command took me to the battlefield shortly after the action where the local province chief, Pham Van Dong, former commander of the special Nung (a local Cantonese-speaking Vietnamese ethnic group) paratroop battalion, replayed the battle for me. We were to become lifelong friends after he came south in 1964 and then on to America after 1975. It was perhaps the final French victory in the war. But de Lattre paid a heavy price—his son was killed there. It was seen in both Vietnamese and French circles as a product of Vo Nguyen Giap's military incompetence. Still, like so many misunderstandings associated with both Vietnam wars, the legend of Giap's prowess as a strategist lived on, to be celebrated by many a Western writer who knew little about the Indochina scene. And according to at least one commentator, the Chinese command was to say that their greatest problem in the bloody battle at Dien Bien Phu was Giap's interference.

Still, Giap was the Vietminh and later the North Vietnamese defense minister whom American journalists—and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert P. McNamara—raised to iconic status. But, in fact, after the battle at Nam Dinh, Giap's role was curtailed if not eliminated in strategic and tactical military planning by the Vietnamese Communists. Notoriously useless as a military figure, Giap was powerful politically in the Indochinese Communist movement because of his childhood spent with his French adoptive parents, the head of the French Sûreté (secret police) and his metisse wife, in prewar Hanoi. That childhood relationship had led Giap to important relations with the French Communist Party hierarchy, always a factor in French negotiations and the wars.[1]

Qiang Zhai

The Navarre plan posed a new challenge to the Viet Minh. On August 13, 1953, the VWP sent a cable to the CCP requesting help in "reviewing the situation and working out the direction of the future war effort." In the meantime, the PAVN scrapped its original plan to concentrate on the Northwest and Lai Chau and proposed instead to attack the enemy in the Red River delta. Luo Guibo attended the meeting held by the VWP politburo on August 22, during which Giap talked about operations in the flat area of the delta, ignoring Lai Chau and downplaying the importance of the Laotian campaign. (Wei Guoqing was back in China at this time.) Luo reported the discussions to Beijing. The CCP leadership sent two telegrams to Luo on August 27 and 29, analyzing the situation in Vietnam since Navarre's arrival and insisting that the PAVN stick to its original plan of focusing on the Northwest and Laos. "By eliminating the enemy in the Lai Chau area, liberating the northern and central parts of Laos, and then expanding the battleground to the southern part of Laos and Cambodia to threaten Saigon," the CCP's August 29 cable pointed out, the VWP could “reduce the supplies of soldiers and money for the puppet army, scatter French forces . . . expand the PAVN itself, and weaken and annihilate the enemy gradually and separately." If this approach was to be adopted, the leaders in Beijing contended, the Viet Minh could prepare its forces for the later seizure of the Red River delta and the eventual defeat of the French colonial authority in Indochina. For the moment, the Chinese leaders insisted, the Viet Minh should first occupy the Northwest and northern Laos before pushing, toward the south.3 Accordingly, the Chinese advisers suggested to the PAVN that it select the Northwest as the main theater with the goal of occupying Lai Chau so as to attract French troops and to annihilate them on a terrain favorable to the Viet Minh. The Red River delta, the Chinese advisers insisted, should be a secondary theater, where the Viet Minh could conduct guerrilla assaults to coordinate with operations in the main theater and to lay the foundation for future occupation of Hanoi and Haiphong.4 Clearly, the Chinese advisers recognized that the Red River delta was not an ideal place for the PAVN to have a major engagement with the French at this time.

In September, the VWP politburo discussed the war plan for the winter of 1953-54. Favoring the Chinese idea, Ho Chi Minh concluded that "the strategic direction remains unchanged.” Mainly the Viet Minh would concentrate on the Northwest and northern Laos. He vetoed Giap’s plan to focus on the Red River Delta.

Beijing notified Ho on October 10 that it had appointed Wei Guoqing as general military adviser and Luo Guibo as general political adviser to the Viet Minh.6 After returing to Vietnam, Wei Guoqing on October 27 reaffirmed Beijing’s proposals regarding the Viet Minh's military strategy, handing to Ho Chi Minh a copy of the Navarre plan that China had obtained. After reviewing the French plan, the VWP leader said that the CCP leaders' suggestions were correct and that if the Viet Minh followed them, it could smash the Navarre Plan.7 That Beijing gave a copy of the Navarre plan to Ho indicates the close cooperation in intelligence sharing between the two Communist parties during the First Indochina War. In mid-November, the PAVN's 316th Division and parts of the 325th and 304th Divisions headed for Lai Chau. In line with the Chinese suggestion of seeking access to South Vietnam via Laos, Ho's government during this time also worked out a road construction plan for 1954. The plan envisioned the building of a number of roads through Laos. But Zhou Enlai found the plan to ambitious. In a telegram to Luo Guibo on December 12, Zhou pointed out that “the number of civilian laborers required by the plan is too large" and that this heavy demand on civilian workers "will increase excessively the burden of the people and undermine production a great deal." Zhou urged the DRV to scale down its plan by concentrating on just the three most important lines, the one running through Sam Neua.8

After receiving intelligence reports about the Viet Minh movement in the direction of Lai Chau, General Navarre decided to occupy Dien Bien Phu, a small valley village in the northwestern highlands of Vietnam, on the road to Luang Prabang. When the news of the French occupation reached Wei Guoqing, he was on his way to the Northwest with the Viet Minh army. After discussing the new situation with other members of the CMAG, Wei proposed to the VWP campaign to surround and annihilate the French at Dien Bien Phu while continuing the original plan to attack Lai Chau. He also reported his plan to Beijing. Approving Wei's proposal, the CCP Central Military Commission stressed that the Dien Bien Phu campaign would have not only military and political importance but also international consequences. Promising to provide all the weapons that the PAVN required, the Chinese leaders instructed the CMAG to help the VWP leadership "make up its mind" and to assist it in the direction of the campaign.9 Clearly, Mao had international diplomacy in mind when he considered military developments in Vietnam. In September 1953, the Communist world had started a peace initiative. On September 28, the Soviet Union had sent a proposal to the United States, France, and Britain, calling for a five-power conference, including China, to examine ways of reducing international tensions. About ten days later, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai had issued a statement supporting the Soviet suggestion. On November 26, Ho Chi Minh had told the Swedish newspaper Expressen that he was prepared to negotiate with the French on the Indochina conflict. Mao wanted a victory at Dien Bien Phu in order to strengthen the Communist position at the negotiating table. Accepting the CMAG’s proposal, the PAVN command worked out a battle plan for the Dien Bien Phu operation, which was approved by the VWP politburo on December 6. The Dien Bien Phu Campaign Command was subsequently established with Vo Nguyen Giap as commander in chief and Wei Guoqing as general adviser. Ho Chi Minh asked the entire party and the Vietnamese people "to exert all their efforts to ensure the success of the campaign."10

In retrospect, the September 1953 meeting of the VWP politburo was a major turning point of the First Indochina War. Given the fact that Navarre's deployment of troops in Dien Bien Phu in November that year was a direct reaction to the Viet Minh push toward Lai Chau and northern Laos, Ho Chi Minh's rejection of Vo Nguyen Giap's plan to concentrate on the Red River delta was critical, If he had proceeded with Giap's strategy, there would have been no Viet Minh-French showdown at Dien Bien Phu.[2]

The above quotes are notes for an essay to be completed at a future date when time permits.


  1. Sanders, Sol (May 26, 2015). People!. Athens, GA: Deeds Publishing. ISBN 9781941165720. Retrieved 25 October 2017. 
  2. Zhai, Qiang (April 3, 2000). China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975 (New edition edition ed.). Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9780807825327. Retrieved 25 October 2017. 

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