WHO RUNS VIETNAM 7

Giap lived quietly near Ho’s mausoleum in a tree-shaded villa at 30 Hoang Dieu Street, set back from the road, his parlor filled with busts and portraits of Ho, Marx, and Lenin. He was a sort of official greeter whom the government showcased periodically for the legions of foreign visitors and dignitaries requesting an audience. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of him around town, a celebrity’ surrounded by well-wishers. I would see him at opening performances in the Opera House or coming out of a VIP reception, his brown army uniform immaculately tailored and bearing four gold stars on each shoulder. Although he was nearly ninety and needed an aide’s arm to negotiate stairs, everyone who had spoken to him, in Vietnamese or French, said he still had a quick mind and a sharp memory. He could recall various military campaigns— Napoleon’s and his own—in brilliant detail.
He declined most requests for interviews and only consented to press conferences on special occasions; certainly the twenty-fifth anniversary of North Vietnam hoisting the Viet Cong flag in Saigon qualified. Resident foreign reporters were told to submit their questions in advance to the government press office. At 11 A.M. three days later we were summoned to an ornate meeting hall in the foreign ministry’s guesthouse. The leg¬endary general waited there, in a large armchair, its red-upholstered back towering above his head. I was surprised how short Giap was, no more than five-foot-three, I guessed. He was white-haired with a round face and the shrunken cheeks of a chipmunk. His hands were soft-skinned, his voice animated.
Giap’s name had become synonymous with battles that shaped a gen¬eration of world history. His victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 had emboldened liberation movements from Africa to Latin Amer¬ica. His construction of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the 1960s was an engi¬neering and logistical feat bordering on the miraculous. His diversionary siege at Khe Sanh in 1968 set the stage for the Tct Offensive, which so in¬tensified antiwar sentiments in the United States that President Lyndon B. Johnson was forced to begin the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops the next year. I was loaded with questions and excited that I finally would have an opportunity to get some long-sought answers.
“I’ve read your questions,” Giap said to us. “I see there is a lot you want to ask. Most of your questions are about my role in the war, so let me start there.” He shuffled the stack of typewritten pages he was holding and started reading. Alas, as often happens with Vietnamese officials, there were to be no questions, no exchange of dialogue—only Giap, center- stage, lecturing on history and war, repeating tired stories from a genera¬tion or two ago and carefully avoiding any of the intimate details or per¬sonal reminiscences that bring history to life. It was as though Giap’s life had gone into slow motion after his troops took Saigon.
Of the three “golden milestones” in his life—Vietnam’s declaration of independence in 1945, its victory over France at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and its triumph over the U.S.-backed Saigon regime in 1975—the last was the most joyous, he said.
Speaking of the Vietnamese as “the most peace-loving people in the world,” Giap said: “Finally, we were rid of the enemy. It fulfilled the dreams the Vietnamese people had held for hundreds of years. The para¬dox is we had to fight for our freedom, our independence. But the U.S. soldiers did not understand Vietnam. I have read their books. One wrote, ‘I didn’t understand why I was in Vietnam or what I was fighting for.’ That was the common point between the United States and French sol¬diers. Their morale and fighting spirit were low.”
U.S. commanders were in awe of Giap’s military skills, but they were also shocked by his ruthlessness and his willingness to sacrifice legions of men without apparent guilt. The Tet Offensive, which earned Hanoi a psychological victory in the United States but represented a devastating military defeat for the Viet Cong, claiming the lives of thousands, was a case in point. “Giap was callous,” General William Westmoreland, the U.S. troop commander, said after Tet. “Had any American general taken such losses he wouldn’t have lasted three weeks.”
Giap was a hard, uncompromising man. Victory was everything. The cost of achieving it was immaterial. “Every minute, hundreds of thou¬sands of people die on this Earth,” Giap said in 1969. “The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little.”
A master logistician and skilled artillery tactician, Giap built, with Moscow’s help, one of the world’s most sophisticated air defense systems in North Vietnam. He saw the war against the United States as an exten¬sion of the war against France and never wavered in his belief that Wash¬ington’s resolve would eventually whither, as had Paris’s. “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours,” he once warned the Americans, repeating what he had told the French more than a decade earlier. “But even at those odds you will lose and I will win.”

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