AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The general who helped end French colonial rule in Vietnam has died. Vo Nguyen Giap was 102. He famously surprised and overwhelmed French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Later in 1968, Giap led the Tet offensive, catching U.S. commanders and the American public by surprise. After Tet, many wondered is victory in Vietnam even possible? Michael Sullivan has this look back at a man considered one of history's greatest military tacticians.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Phun Tum Dun is a former artillery man and political commissar who would have followed Gen. Giap anywhere. He was with the young Giap early on as he fought against the French and later, against the Americans.
PHAM THACH TAM: (Through translator) He ordered, we followed, no matter how great the obstacle or the hardship. Gen. Giap had no training in military matters, yet he fought and won against the French and the Americans.
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.
SULLIVAN: Giap's biggest victory was against the French at Dien Bien Phu, in 1954. The French Gen. Henri 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.
CURREY: He relied on the lag in French intelligence so that by the time that Navarre realized that Dien Bien Phu was surrounded, it was too late.
SULLIVAN: Ted Morgan is the author of "Valley of Death: The Story of Dien Bien Phu."
TED MORGAN: He followed the very simple Clausewitz formula - superior forces, superior armament, and the will to win.
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. At the same time, 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 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.
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 procedure 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.
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CORNISH: That story from reporter Michael Sullivan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.