Vietnam marks legendary general's 100th birthday
HANOI — Legendary Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap built his career on never backing down, even against seemingly impossible odds. Now, decades after ousting the French and later the Americans, he's celebrating another major victory: his 100th birthday.
Giap is revered by Vietnamese second only to former President Ho Chi Minh. Together, they plotted gutsy campaigns from jungles and caves using ill-equipped guerrilla fighters to gain Vietnam's independence, eventually leading to the end of French colonial rule throughout Indochina.
Two decades later, Giap's northern Communist forces also wore down the U.S. military, forcing them out of the former South Vietnam.
"It can be said that some of the country's most glorious and most important events are associated with his name and his cause," Do Quy Doan, vice minister of Information and Communications, said at a reception in Hanoi this week ahead of Giap's birthday on Thursday.
The four-star general has been hospitalized for about two years. But Giap continues to sign cards — including a thank-you note to his "comrades" for their outpouring of birthday wishes — and is still briefed every few days about international and national events, said Col. Nguyen Huyen, Giap's personal secretary for 35 years.
"He has helped to defeat two major powers," Huyen said. "Gen. Giap is the big brother of the heroic Vietnamese People's Army."
Though he was shoved out of the inner circle of political power decades ago, the slight white-haired military strategist remains a national treasure and still welcomed foreign leaders to his French-style villa in Hanoi until three years ago.
In 2009, he spoke forcefully against a bauxite mining plan in Vietnam's Central Highlands, calling on the government to reconsider the Chinese-led project because it posed environmental and security risks. He also protested the demolition of Hanoi's historic parliament house, Ba Dinh Hall. Both projects, however, went ahead.
The country's top leaders, including Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Giap on Wednesday to congratulate him on reaching the milestone, the party newspaper Nhan Dan reported Thursday. There were no photos or any mention in state-run media about Giap's ill health or that he has long been hospitalized.
At an exhibition in Hanoi marking his birthday, black-and-white photographs show Giap visiting troops during the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, a surprise attack that forced the French to surrender and cemented his reputation as a brilliant military strategist willing to endure huge losses to clinch victory.
Vietnamese students like Tran Hong Thong, 20, lingered over photographs of Giap's early revolutionary days.
A 1946 image "shows a young, skinny man, but he's already a high-ranking officer in the Vietnamese army," said Thong, who began learning about Giap in junior high school.
Other images show the aging general meeting prominent politicians, including fellow Communist revolutionary and former Cuban President Fidel Castro.
One shot shows Giap smiling as he shakes hands with his old Vietnam War enemy, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. In 2004, during the 50th anniversary of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, Giap recalled that 1997 visit.
"I told McNamara ... the U.S. lost in Vietnam because the U.S. did not understand Vietnam," Giap told foreign journalists at the time.
The war ended on April 30, 1975, when northern Communist forces seized control of Saigon, the capital of the former U.S.-backed South Vietnam. Some 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese and civilians died in the fighting.
Giap later became a strong supporter of friendly ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Since the two sides normalized relations in 1995, trade and investment has flourished. Military ties have also strengthened.
And Giap has lived to see his once war-torn country rise from poverty and embrace capitalism and peace.
"He keeps going," said John Ernst, a Vietnam War scholar at Morehead State University in Kentucky. "I think it adds to his mystique and popularity."
The Associated Presse - August 24, 2011
General Giap relevant as ever on 100th birthday
Vietnam is awash with birthday wishes this week as the nation celebrates the 100th birthday of General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of Vietnam’s historic military victories over French Colonialism and American Imperialism.
Amidst a cornucopia of celebrations, Vietnamese people across the nation are praying for the well-being of General Giap, the country’s most highly-regarded modern revolutionary figure after founding father Ho Chi Minh. Giap turns 100 on Thursday (August 25).
“I was told that he’s doing well,” said Duong Trung Quoc, a Vietnamese historian who used to work closely with Giap.
“Vo Nguyen Giap is not simply a person who has surpassed 100 years of age,” said Quoc. “He is not only a mere witness but one of the key architects of Vietnamese history.”
“General Giap is a historic personality, not only in Vietnam’s history but the history of French and American colonialism,” said Ben Kerkvliet, a Vietnam expert at the Australian National University. “General Giap’s military achievements are also known in other countries that won independence from colonial rule after World War II.”
Born in 1911 in the north-central province of Quang Binh, the General stunned the world with his victory over a French garrison in the northwestern town of Dien Bien Phu. The battle and triumph there is famous for effectively ending French colonial rule in Vietnam.
“In defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, he Giap heralded the end of imperialism,” Time Asia wrote in a 2006 article that honored Giap as one of the continent’s greatest heroes.
The victory is said to have “struck down the myth of Western invincibility” and represented the first time an Asian resistance movement triumphed against a colonial army in conventional combat.
Fourteen years after Dien Bien Phu, the General masterminded the Mau Than Campaign, also known as the Tet Offensive of 1968, which was considered the turning point of the Vietnam War, which ended seven years later. The offensive was credited with having a huge political impact, swaying American perceptions about the conflict and spelling doom for support of the US presence in Vietnam.
Giap commanded Vietnam’s military and insurgent forces for more than three decades against the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Giap is among 59 military leaders portrayed in the book “Great Military Leaders and Their Campaigns” by Jeremy Black. He is the only living person among the 59 selected figures in this book. Historian Stanley Karnow has also described Giap as ranking with Wellington, Grant, Lee, Rommel, and MacArthur.
A recent photo book published by the Authority of Foreign Information Service quoted Tran Van Tra, who commanded the Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam, as saying that, “Vo Nguyen Giap was the commander of commanders, the political commissar of political commissars…and the commander-in-chief who bore the pain of every wound of each soldier and who knew the loss of every drop of blood of each combatant.”
“Every person who died for out nation’s liberation was like a son or daughter, a brother or sister to me. I carry each and every one of them in my heart,” Giap himself said in the late 1980s.
Defending the nation on all fronts
Giap was installed as Vietnam’s defense minister in 1975 and as a Deputy Prime Minister a year later.
Giap stepped down from his post at the Defense Ministry in 1980 and left the Party’s elite Politburo, the group at the pinnacle of Vietnamese power, two years later. But he remained on the Party Central Committee and was a Deputy PM until 1991.
In his retirement, Giap did not cease to play a pivotal role in the country’s development.
In an open letter addressed to the Party and the press in 2007, Giap lambasted the country’s education system and called for an across-the-board, if not revolutionary, shakeup. Otherwise Vietnam’s education would continue to trail far behind neighboring countries, Giap wrote in the letter.
But perhaps most notably, Giap stood up to defend his country once again in 2009 by writing another letter to the Vietnamese government warning that two bauxite mining developments in the Central Highlands would be detrimental to the environment, displace ethnic minority populations and threaten national security.
The project, approved by the Politburo in late 2007, calls for an investment of US$15 billion by 2025 to exploit reserves of bauxite – the key mineral in making aluminum – that by some estimates are the third largest in the world.
Vinacomin, the Vietnamese mining consortium that is aiming to produce up to 6.6 million tons of aluminum at the mines by 2015, has awarded the engineering, procurement and construction contract for both the complexes in Lam Dong and Dak Nong provinces to China Aluminum International Engineering Co (Chalieco).
“General Giap has criticized party policies and… government policies. And well he should if he thinks the party and government that he helped to establish and served for decades has taken improper or incorrect or even dangerous paths,” said Kerkvliet, the Australia-based Vietnam analyst.
“His letters criticizing bauxite mining in the Central Highlands were, in my view, very relevant. They highlighted the strategic dangers for Vietnam of allowing so much Chinese involvement in that mining, in Vietnam, and in Vietnam’s financial dealings.”
Giap’s letter was hailed as having enough teeth to force the Vietnamese government to heed his warnings. Deputy PM Hoang Trung Hai later responded that the country would not consider exploiting the mineral at “any cost” and would readjust the project in an effort to minimize damage to the environment.
The letter also enabled the public to have a say on the issue and opened the floor for further debates at the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature.
“General Giap’s voice on policy matters has influenced many Vietnamese citizens and probably some Vietnamese authorities,” Kerkvliet said. “I’m not aware of his views causing authorities to reverse or significantly change course. But perhaps time will tell a different story.”
Vietnam will produce the first alumina from a bauxite complex in the Central Highlands in September after months of delays caused by adverse weather, power shortages and slow equipment delivery, the official Vietnam News Agency reported last month. Vinacomin has also been developing the Nhan Co project in Lam Dong's neighboring province of Dak Nong, with projected initial output of 600,000 tons of alumina. Vinacomin planned to start operating the Nhan Co complex in Dak Nong in 2012.
Giap’s stature as a symbol of Vietnam’s hope and national pride has continued to inspire people in his country, analysts say.
“Even in his retirement, Giap’s philosophies on the building and defense of national sovereignty as well as his striving for the country’s democracy and prosperity make him a symbol for every Vietnamese to be proud of and to tell the whole world about,” said Quoc, the Vietnamese historian.
“To my knowledge, Vietnam is the only country to call its founder Uncle (Uncle Ho) and the only country whose veterans call their commander-in-chief Eldest Brother (Anh Ca and Anh Van, where Van is Vo Nguyen Giap’s most common nickname),” said Lady Borton, an American author who has written extensively on Ho Chi Minh and General Giap.
“I can’t imagine a French Foreign Legion trooper calling General Navarre ‘Brother’ to his face, and I certainly can’t imagine an American draftee addressing General Westmoreland as ‘Brother,’” Borton said.
Nguyen Kim Phuong, 81, fought in the guerilla resistance movement against both the French and Americans.
Like his peers, Phuong is celebrating the 100th birthday anniversary of his commander.
“I don’t think Vietnam will have a second general like Giap in the future,” said Phuong, whose father was killed by the French and whose father-in-law was confined at Con Dao prison, notorious for its infamous “tiger cages.” “But Giap has been able to train generations of successors who have imbibed his soul, his spirit, and his quintessence.”
“With such high-caliber people, I think Vietnam stands ready to defend its independence and national sovereignty under any circumstance,” Phuong said.
“And… that should be the most significant message to celebrate on General Giap’s 100th birthday.”
By An Dien - Thanh Nien News - August 26, 2011
General Giap reaches 100
In 1954, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap masterminded the crushing defeat of the French empire in Indochina at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. It was a victory that changed history. For a start, it destroyed the assumption of Western invincibility. But it also inspired anti-colonial struggles across the globe.
After the Geneva Conference, war broke out again. This time, Giap faced apparently impossible odds with his poorly-equipped North Vietnamese army and Vietcong guerrillas pitted against the technologically superior United States, with its mastery of the skies. Still, US forces were humiliated and eventually defeated by 1975.
But tomorrow, the General, widely considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century, will reach a more personal milestone – his 100th birthday.
His military career may be over, but he showed in 2009 that he still had plenty of fight left in him as he vocally opposed environmentally devastating open-cast bauxite mining in the country.
Such opposition would presumably have surprised Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who appears to have believed this old soldier died years ago – in her address to Australian war veterans, Gillard suggested that Vietnam’s greatest war hero had been killed.
Although he is now physically frail, suffers from respiratory problems and currently resides in a Hanoi military hospital, Giap’s mind remains surprisingly lucid.
The former right-hand man to revered President Ho Chi Minh was surprisingly ejected from the Politburo in 1982, a demotion of the popular hero that shocked the nation.
Why? In the post-war period, hard-liners in control of the Vietnamese Communist Party had become jealous of his international stature and intellectual prowess.He was appointed as one of several deputy prime ministers, but his humble portfolio was limited to family planning, science and technology.
For several years, Giap almost disappeared from public view. But even after officially retiring from government in 1991, Giap was never inactive, and was always in demand. Visiting world leaders lined up to meet him, including Lula Da Silva from Brazil, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and South African leader Thabo Mbeki. Giap also delivered numerous lectures, and wrote about the history of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Over the past decade, Giap has indicated that he believes Vietnamese society is still far from achieving the ideals that inspired his heroic struggles to secure the nation’s independence.
In 2006, he complained that ‘the prevailing bureaucracy, corruption and red tape reduce the party’s reputation and threaten its very existence.’ But for many war veterans, his criticism didn’t go far enough.
Lobbying at the 1986 Party Congress for him to become prime minister was nipped in the bud by senior party leaders, who feared the charismatic Giap might take Vietnam in a very different socialist direction. But more than two decades later, Giap showed he still had a role to play in the country’s future.
By 2009, the Vietnamese government had signed a joint venture deal to exploit bauxite in the Central Highlands. But Giap was angry over the potential environmental impact and fired off an open letter to the Vietnamese prime minister warning that open-cut mining would destroy vast areas of forest and crops, leaving huge deposits of toxic sludge.
‘Giap was our first leader after the war to focus on environmental problems,’ says Nguyen Huu Ninh, who was part of a UN team awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change.
Upset that there was no response from the Vietnamese government to a second open letter, Giap made sure that his fiery salvo was published by the media. In the letter, he recalled that as deputy prime minister, he had blocked the same bauxite project in the Central Highlands from being developed by the Soviet Union, and noted the same environmental problems remained.
The campaign snowballed, with 135 intellectuals, scientists and communist cadres signing a petition to the Vietnamese National Assembly, a rare act of protest in this one party state.
Of all the leading Vietnamese figures over the past 30 years, Giap – who listened to French radio news every morning and insisted on briefings throughout the day – was probably the best-informed, an intellectual with an impressive breadth of reading both in politics and literature.
Sadly, he was never given the opportunity to match in civilian life what he achieved on the battlefield.
By Tom Fawthrop - The-Diplomat.com - August 24, 2011