HANOI, Vietnam – Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant and ruthless commander who led the outgunned Vietnamese to victory first over the French and then the Americans, died Friday. The last of the country’s old-guard revolutionaries was 102.
A national hero, Giap enjoyed a legacy second only to that of his mentor, founding president and independence leader Ho Chi Minh.
Giap died in a military hospital in the capital of Hanoi, where he had spent nearly four years because of illnesses.
Known as the “Red Napoleon,” Giap commanded guerrillas who wore sandals made of car tires and lugged artillery piece by piece over mountains to encircle and crush the French army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The unlikely victory – still studied at military schools – led to Vietnam’s independence and hastened the collapse of colonialism across Indochina and beyond.
Giap then defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government in April 1975, reuniting a country that had been split into communist and noncommunist states. He regularly accepted heavy combat losses to achieve his goals.
“No other wars for national liberation were as fierce or caused as many losses as this war,” Giap told the Associated Press in 2005 – one of his last known interviews with foreign media on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the former South Vietnamese capital.
“But we still fought because for Vietnam, nothing is more precious than independence and freedom,” he said, repeating a famous quote by Ho Chi Minh.
Giap remained sharp and well-versed in current events until he was hospitalized. Well into his 90s, he entertained world leaders at his shady colonial-style home in Hanoi.
Born Aug. 25, 1911, in central Vietnam’s Quang Binh province, Giap became active in politics in the 1920s and worked as a journalist before joining the Indochinese Communist Party. He fled French police in 1940 and met Ho Chi Minh in southwestern China before returning to rural northern Vietnam to recruit guerrillas for the Viet Minh, a forerunner to the southern insurgency later known as the Viet Cong.
In 1944, Ho Chi Minh called on Giap to organize and lead guerrilla forces against Japanese invaders in World War II. After Japan surrendered to Allied forces the next year, the Viet Minh continued their fight for independence from France.
At Dien Bien Phu, his Viet Minh army surprised elite French forces by surrounding them. Digging miles of trenches, the Vietnamese dragged artillery over steep mountains and slowly closed in during the bloody, 56-day battle that ended with French surrender on May 7, 1954.
It was the final act that led to French withdrawal and the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into north and south in 1956. It paved the way for war against Saigon and its U.S. sponsors less than a decade later.
The general drew on his Dien Bien Phu experience to create the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a clandestine jungle network that snaked through neighboring – and ostensibly neutral – Laos and Cambodia to supply his troops fighting on southern battlefields.
Against U.S. forces with sophisticated weapons and B-52 bombers, Giap’s guerrillas prevailed again. But more than 1 million of his troops died.
Said Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968: “Giap was callous. Had any American general taken such losses, he wouldn’t have lasted three weeks.”
Historian Stanley Karnow, who interviewed Giap in Hanoi in 1990, quoted him as saying: “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.”
Giap had been largely credited with devising the 1968 Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on U.S. strongholds in the south by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces during lunar new year celebrations. Newer research, however, suggests that Giap had opposed the attacks.
The Tet Offensive shook U.S. confidence, fueled anti-war sentiment and prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to announce that he would not seek re-election. But it took another seven years for the war to be won.
On April 30, 1975, communist forces marched through Saigon with tanks.
“With the victory of April 30, slaves became free men,” Giap said. “It was an unbelievable story.”
It came at a price for all sides: the deaths of as many as 3 million communists and civilians, an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese troops and 58,000 Americans.
Late in life, Giap encouraged warmer relations between Vietnam and the U.S., which re-established ties in 1995 and have become close trading partners.
“We can put the past behind,” Giap said in 2000. “But we cannot completely forget it.”