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Legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap Dies

(POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The obituary of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap was prepared three years ago and includes observations by Giap biographer Cecil Currey, who died in March.)


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Let's remember, now, a legendary Vietnamese general. Vo Nguyen Giap has died at 102. It was Giap who defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which effectively ended a hundred years of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia.

For many Americans, Giap is best known as the architect of the campaign that was a turning point in the Vietnam War. The 1968 Tet Offensive caught U.S. commanders completely by surprise; striking across South Vietnam, and leading to the conclusion that an American victory was not possible. Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Pham Thach Tam is a former artillery man and political commisar who would have followed Gen. Giap anywhere, and pretty much did. He was with the young Giap early on as he fought against the French in the mountainous north of the country, in the Red River Delta, and later against the Americans in the South.

PHAM THACH TAM: (Through translator) He ordered, we followed. No matter how great the obstacle or the hardship, we were willing to do what he said, even if it meant death. Gen. Giap had no training in military matters, yet he fought and won against the French and the Americans. For me, he was a genius.

SULLIVAN: Cecil Currey is a retired professor of military history whose biography of Giap is called "Victory at Any Cost."

CECIL CURREY: He stands with the great giants of military leadership back 2,000 years. He measures up to Alexander the Great. He surpasses Napoleon. He surpasses all of our generals. He's a great man for all time.

SULLIVAN: Giap's biggest victory was against the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French general, Henri Navar Navarre, confident that Giap would never be able to drag artillery up the steep mountains that surrounded the isolated French base near the border with Laos. Navarre was wrong. By the time the battle actually began, Giap had far more guns and men than the French, many of the guns U.S. weapons captured by the Chinese during the Korean War.

TED MORGAN: He planned it very carefully, and he relied on the lag in French intelligence so that by the time that Navarre realized that Dien Bien Phu was surrounded and that Giap's army had artillery, it was too late. The artillery was there.

SULLIVAN: Ted Morgan is the author of a new book, "Valley of Death: The Story of Dien Bien Phu." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Morgan's book was published in 2010.]

MORGAN: He followed a very simple Clausewitz formula: superior forces, superior armament, and the will to win. So you had an entrenched camp with 10,000 men in it, and Giap had 50,000 and many, many more coolies doing all the heavy lifting.

SULLIVAN: The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu spelled the end of French colonialism in Southeast Asia - a bittersweet moment for Gen. Giap, who during the years of French occupation lost his father, wife and sister, all of whom died in French prisons. But Giap was not known for being sentimental. Some critics say he sacrificed his troops indiscriminately, to achieve victory. Others say he was more concerned about his soldiers than he let on.

CURREY: I think both are true.

SULLIVAN: Biographer Cecil Currey.

CURREY: He said: At some point, everyone has to die; and it's better for people to die for our cause than to die willy-nilly. And so he was utterly willing to use large numbers of troops, and suffer their casualties. At the same time, he did as best he could. Even during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, he had an R&R team out in the field, giving the men a respite against that 55 days of horror.

SULLIVAN: There would be no respite for the French, nor for the Americans more than a decade after Dien Bien Phu - Gen. Giap, the architect of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which shocked U.S. military commanders and eroded American support for the Vietnam War back home. After the communist victory in 1975, Gen. Giap remained active in government but fell out of favor in the late '80s, and spent several decades in the political wilderness. In the past few years, however, he began speaking out - forcefully, as always - against what he saw as new threats to his country.

CARL THAYER: Well, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap will be remembered throughout the world, by people who follow Vietnam - particularly the Vietnamese community - for his recent advocacy on the bauxite mining, raising environmental issues, relations with China.

SULLIVAN: Carl Thayer, a Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defence Forces Academy, says bauxite mines now under construction in Vietnam - built by China - have angered both environmentalists and nationalists who view China with suspicion - among them, retired Gen. Giap. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Thayer's affiliation is with the Australian Defense Force - not Forces - Academy.]

THAYER: And he'll also be known for his lesser-known interventions in letters to the senior leadership, bitterly criticizing the role of military intelligence in providing information that could be used to suppress domestic dissent; and also, really arguing that the party needed to open up, and its procedures should be more democratic. So he'll be seen as a kind of retired Mandarin who is able to offer advice without anything to gain by it because mortality faced him when he made these statements. And this will be seen as acting in a highly moral and ethical fashion, in Vietnamese culture.

SULLIVAN: A warrior, and a patriot, to the end.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 7, 2013 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story was prepared three years ago and includes observations by Giap biographer Cecil Currey, who died in March. Also, Ted Morgan's book "Valley of Death: The Story of Dien Bien Phu," which we say is new, was published in 2010. Finally, we misidentify the Australian Defence Force Academy as the Australian Defence Forces Academy.
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