General Vo Nguyen Giap: 25 August 1911 – 4 October 2013

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‘We fight for the liberty and independence of our country, for the people’s liberation, for socialism and peace. Our cause is just; we shall win.’

Vo Nguyen Giap, general of the Vietnam People’s Army, died on 4 October aged 102. The bourgeois press called him the Red Napoleon, to the Vietnamese he was Ge Luo, Volcano under the Snow. General Giap was a legendary hero of the resistance to Japanese, French, British and US imperialism, he died in hospital in Hanoi. On 13 October hundreds of thousands of people lined the route from the National Funeral House in Hanoi to the airport to bid farewell to and salute General Giap as his coffin passed by, en route to his home province of Quang Binh in central Vietnam.

The child of poor peasant farmers, Giap was expelled from school for anti-colonial activism at 15 years old. By this time the French colonialists had plundered Vietnam – then French Indochina - for more than 60 years; its coal, rubber and rice profits lining the pockets of French capitalists. At their service were Vietnam’s indigenous feudal landlords – 6,500 of whom owned almost 50% of the land – who colluded in the repression of the anti-colonial struggle; in 1930 alone the colonial administration arrested 2,963 anti-colonial activists, killed 689 during strikes and demonstrations and deported 780 more. For his involvement in the struggle, Giap was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 1929. In 1931 he joined the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), established in 1930.

Throughout the 1930s Vietnam witnessed the resurgence of strikes and peasant rebellions, in many instances led by the ICP. The French launched brutal crackdowns in which thousands of militants were arrested or killed; in 1939 the ICP was banned, and its leadership, including Giap, forced into exile in southern China. After the Japanese invasion of Indochina in 1940 Giap spearheaded the armed resistance to colonial rule, returning to Vietnam in 1942 to build a guerrilla movement. Under Giap’s strategic direction the guerrillas, dubbed the Viet Minh, gained 500,000 active members and within three years had beaten back the entire Japanese army. On 2 September 1945 Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV); Giap was appointed Minister of Home Affairs.

An independent state led by a Communist Party was intolerable to the imperialists, and on 11 September 1945 the British Labour government sent over 20,000 British troops to Vietnam. Refusing to recognise the DRV, Labour re-armed Japanese troops, who were used to oust the Viet Minh from south Vietnamese cities. French reinforcements were shipped into south Vietnam, and a secret agreement signed by Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin handed the country over to France. Labour’s manoeuvres were crucial to France’s attempted re-colonisation of Indochina, which ultimately lead to a declaration of war between France and the DRV on 19 December 1946. Ho Chi Minh warned the French imperialists, ‘You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours. In the end it will be you who tire of it.’

Under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, General Giap and the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) the Vietnamese fought the French to a standstill; the heroic victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954 demonstrated clearly that oppressed people fighting for a just cause could overcome even the strongest imperialist armies. This was the first great victory of a colonised people, who were mainly peasants, against an imperialist army backed by a large and modern military industry. The Vietnamese people had demonstrated that they were determined to fight for their country and for socialism, to the death, if necessary.

While the victory at Dien Bien Phu forced the French to surrender, the country remained divided, with an imperialist-backed puppet government in the south, led by the anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem. As the DRV embarked on a thorough programme of land reform and socialist reconstruction, Diem’s regime cracked down on nationalists and communists; between July 1955 – May 1956 Diem initiated an ‘exposing of communists’ campaign - in which 108,835 people were shot or imprisoned. The southern puppets were openly bankrolled by the imperialists, receiving $2,118m in direct US financial support from 1955 to 1961. Mass demands for national reunification in south Vietnam led to the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF - Viet Cong) in 1960, whose armed struggle found natural allies in the DRV. Giap, as leader of the VPA, played a pivotal role in this process, as did the support of the socialist countries.

The US reaction to the Vietnamese struggle for reunification is notorious – a 30-year long war in which the imperialists used rape, torture and chemical weapons. The US Air Force began bombing the Democratic Republic (the north) in February 1965. A total of 14.5m tons of explosives were rained down on Vietnam, the equivalent in explosive terms of 700 Hiroshimas – more than the entire bomb load dispatched by all sides in World War Two! 400,000 tons of napalm and 72m litres of chemical defoliants turned great tracts of land to poisonous dust and ashes. By 1968 over half a million US troops were operating in Vietnam.

While Britain has never publicly admitted its involvement in the war, it gave crucial support to the US and Diem regime. Hundreds of Diem’s troops were trained in the British-run Jungle Warfare School in Malaya in 1962-3. Britain provided covert aid to the counter-revolutionary armies, including secret air flights from Hong Kong delivering napalm and 500lb bombs. Hong Kong port was made available for US supplies and warships. Senior British civil servant Sir Robert Thompson, head of the British Advisory Mission to Vietnam, helped devise the ‘strategic hamlets’ programme which rounded up 39% of south Vietnam’s population. Those outside the ‘hamlets’ (concentration camps) could expect to be shot on sight. This system was modelled on British methods used in Malaya. Intelligence provided by the British monitoring station in Hong Kong was used to target bombing raids over the DRV as late as 1975.

Military superiority was not enough to defeat a people mobilised. Giap coordinated what he called a people’s war, ‘a war of combat for the people and by the people, while the war of guerrillas is simply a method of combat. The people’s war is a more general concept. It is a synthesised concept. It is simultaneously military, economic and political.’ In 1967 the Tet Offensive by the People’s Liberation Army proved the superiority of people’s war over imperialist armoury and strategy. Relying on the people’s support, resourcefulness and ingenuity guerrilla soldiers were able to capture provincial capitals, besiege US bases and even occupy part of the US embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) itself. Guerrilla soldiers of the National Liberation Front used a vast network of tunnels, Cu Chi, beneath Saigon and elsewhere in Vietnam to move undetected by the occupation army and puppet forces. The US Johnson administration’s confidence ‘burst like a soap bubble’ (Ho Chi Minh). Futility and disillusionment sapped the will of the US troops and public. General Giap had warned, ‘The Americans will lose the war on the day when their military might is at its maximum and the great machine they have put together can’t move anymore. That is we’ll beat them at the moment when they have the most men, the most arms, and the greatest hope of winning. Because all that money and strength will be a stone around their neck. It’s inevitable.’

The Vietnamese people’s resistance encouraged the racially oppressed Black people of the US. Significantly, Black US youth were twice as likely to be killed in Vietnam as their white counterparts, and, once enlisted, though constituting 16% of the combatants, they received half the dishonourable discharges. Malcolm X, George Jackson and the Black Panthers supported and were inspired by the Vietnamese liberation struggle; ‘First women and children in a ditch in Vietnam, ultimately executions in the civic centres of every look-alike county in this country.’ George Jackson.

When the tanks and artillery of the National Liberation Front smashed down the gates to the presidential palace in Saigon on 30 April 1975 the myth of US invincibility was punctured. The imperialists were forced to withdraw, and Vietnam had become a reunified, independent and socialist-orientated state. Doubt and hesitation were struck deep into the imperialist brain.

Giap’s role in the anti-imperialist struggle is inestimable; even the imperialists are compelled to recognise him as a worthy military strategist. However, coverage of Giap’s death has seen the capitalist press engage in its habitual racism, claiming that Giap and the Communists were willing to sacrifice millions of people in the war and launched human waves against imperialist guns. The reality was that the imperialists killed civilians wantonly, they murdered as the Nazis had murdered in Russia and eastern Europe, eliminating entire villages.

General Giap knew that the victories of the Vietnamese people were first and foremost political. As Giap explained, ‘the Vietnamese people won because their war of liberation was a people’s war…because its political aims were to smash the imperialist yoke in order to win back national independence, to overthrow the feudal landlord class…in other words, to radically solve the two fundamental contradictions of Vietnamese society’. For millions of Vietnamese peasants and workers, the struggle was a choice between the colonial yoke or a socialist future. Under Ho and Giap’s leadership, they made their choice. We do not know exactly how many Vietnamese people died fighting Japanese, European and US imperialism – perhaps 4 million people killed. Ho Chi Minh, himself once gaoled by the British in Hong Kong, noted in 1960 that ‘speaking merely of the Party Central Committee, 14 have been shot, guillotined, or beaten to death in prison’ since 1930. General Giap survived and was victorious. We owe him and the Vietnamese people a terrific debt.

Long live General Giap!
Jack Edwards and Trevor Rayne
(See FRFI 49, May 1985, Vietnam: 10th anniversary salute)

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