Vietnam’s Washington: Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013)

Defeated France and the US in Two Wars

Vo Nguyen Giap (vo nwin ZHAP) died this past week in an army hospital in Vietnam. Giap was the tenacious military leader credited with defeating France in the First Indo-Chinese War and then the US in the Vietnam War.

Giap studied military leaders such as Napoleon and T.E. Lawrence.  He especially liked Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia, for his ability to inflict maximum damage with minimum resources.  Giap is compared to Douglas MacArthur and Erwin Rommel as an outstanding military leader.

He took a page or two from the play book of General George Washington.  Like Washington he was fighting an adversary with a homeland thousands of miles away and he  had meager resources in comparison to his enemy.  Washington, once seasoned by battle, fought only when the circumstances favored him and then used tactics which would be effective against a larger and superior force.

General Washington

General Washington

Giap and Washington shared another essential characteristic: they were both fighting for freedom, Washington against the British and Giap against the French and then the US.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries Vietnam was under the effective control of foreign powers: France, Japan, Britain, and the US.  After both the First and Second World Wars control of the country was given to foreigners.  In 1919, Ho Chi Minh famously petitioned the Versailles Conference for Vietnamese autonomy only to be ignored by Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George.  After the Second World War, a similar group (Truman, Churchill and Stalin) made the same mistake in Potsdam.  The stage was set for war and the US would bear the burden of that decision.

Giap and Ho Chi Minh

Giap and Ho Chi Minh

The US entered the Vietnam war to “stop the world-wide spread of communism” after the epic French disaster at Dien Bien Phu. But we were fighting an adversary intent on freedom, a fatal mismatch of missions and ideals.  The Vietnamese would, in the partial words of JFK, “bear any burden” to win while the US clearly would not.

General Westmoreland, US commander in Vietnam, once said, “Any American commander who took the same vast casualties as General Giap would not have lasted three weeks.”  Westmoreland was, of course, correct and that fact put Giap and his forces in a superior strategic position despite their inferiority where weapons and resources were concerned.

American soldiers in Vietnam fought bravely and courageously against an enemy that simply would not give up.

The American experience in Vietnam should have taught decision makers to carefully consider the political objectives of our potential military opponents and to plan accordingly.

In retrospect, the Vietnamese appear to be rational and heroic: they were fighting a war for freedom.  They certainly appear so in relation to our current enemies who are fueled, at least in part, by religious martyrdom where death is the ultimate victory.  In Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, our new found enemies employ combat tactics that will not stand the political willpower test at home.  Our young troops are murdered by suicide killers masquerading as allies.

Afghanistan’s own history, and our’s too, proves that we will not win there as their tribal and religious ethos is completely disconnected from the primary American objective of defeating terrorism.  Both Britain and the former Soviet Union tried and failed to subdue or control the Afghans.  It is not going to happen.

Bring the troops home.

Credits:  NYT, Wiki, Bright Shining Star, Vietnam by Karnow, Hell In a very Small Place

1 Comment

  • Dennis says:


    I agree with your assessment. There should not be another drop of American blood spilled in Afghanistan. We should withdraw our troops with one caveat. We reserve the right to take any military actions in Afghanistan necessary to disrupt any terrorism operations which could impact our interests. Finally, in order to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, the administration should approve the Keystone Pipeline, expand fracking and accelerate the conversion of vehicles to CNG. There is nothing I would like to see more than Saudi and UAE Sheiks, and Iranian Mullahs drowning in their own oil.

    A cogent Middle East policy includes 1. Increased independence from Middle Eastern Oil, 2. Continued support of the only true democracy and ally in the region, Israel, and 3. Limited US Military presence to deal with Al Qaeda and it’s offshoots. No more nation building!!

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