Giap held court with us for two-and-a-half hours, talking nonstop ex¬cept for a fifteen-minute snack break of bananas, cheese, and tea. He ges¬tured with his hands to emphasize his points on the depths of Viet¬namese history, culture, and pride. He smiled and seemed to be having a good time, pausing at times so that his translator would not be rushed. However disappointed I was that he was willing to only rehash well- known stories, I had no doubt that I was in the presence of a remarkable historical figure.
The son of scholarly parents who owned a rice farm, Giap began read¬ing Marx at the age of thirteen. He attended Vietnam’s best schools, in¬cluding the prestigious Quoc Hoc Academy in Hue, whose alumni included Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem. He was expelled for organ¬izing student protests against France’s ban on nationalistic activities. He later earned a law degree from Hanoi University, was a teacher in Hanoi for a while, and married a communist militant, Minh Khai. Their only child, a daughter, would become a nuclear physicist and win, in 1987, the Soviet Union’s Kowolenskia Prize for Science.
At the age of twenty-eight, after spending time in a French prison in the north of Vietnam, Giap moved across Vietnam’s border to a commu¬nist stronghold in southern China. There, in Kwangsi Province, he met Ho Chi Minh. Although Giap had no military background and knew nothing about the strategy or tactics of guerrilla warfare, Ho entrusted him with putting together a communist army to lead the resistance against France. Back in Vietnam with his raggedy band of guerrillas, Giap lived for four years in caves, hunted by French patrols. He and his men were so short of food they often ate bark. Giap gave his camp an egalitarian structure and assigned himself the job of dishwasher.
While Giap lived in the jungles, a fugitive from civilization, his sister- in-law was arrested as a revolutionary and executed by the French. His wife was imprisoned on similar charges and died—Giap says because of ill treatment, other historical sources say because of illness—in the French prison that eventually would house American POWs and be known as the Hanoi Hilton. He later remarried and fathered three more children, but he once confided to an interviewer that the loss of Minh Khai had “ruined” his life.
Giap was not a man who knew restraint in the pursuit of his goals, and his various purges of noncommunists had covered his hands with much blood. The most murderous purge came in 1946. While Ho Chi Minh was negotiating with France outside Paris, trying to avert the First Indochina War, Giap was overseeing the extermination of thousands of noncommu¬nist nationalists. Many were radical leftists. But that wasn’t good enough. If they weren’t communists, they died. The former Vietnamese ambassa¬dor to Washington, Bui Diem, once a student of Giap’s at the elite Thang Long school in Hanoi, wrote in his book, In the Jaws of History:
Panic struck the [Vietnamese] parties as Giap’s reign of terror swept their
ranks with a force that dwarfed previous assassination campaigns the factions had launched against one another. While Ho and the French colonial ministers danced a slow minuet at the Fontainebleau, site of the future in-dependence negotiations, thousands of nationalists in Vietnam died quietly.
Those dark days of terror aren’t in Vietnam’s history textbooks. Only victory is. Giap was never held accountable for all the blood shed on’ his watch. Young Vietnamese aren’t even aware of it. Giap remains Vietnam’s last hero, among the young and the old, the final link to Ho Chi Minh’s partisans who brought the country its independence and reunification. For that, the Vietnamese are willing to overlook his transgressions.
The morning with Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, though hardly memorable in terms of historical insights, was not time misspent. Giap was the model of the Old Guard communists whose descendants still held sway over Vietnam. Like many Vietnamese he never shared every¬thing, always holding something in reserve. He was proud, given to lec-tures rather than discussions, and annoyingly self-righteous in his inabil¬ity to admit that neither he nor the Party was capable of error or misjudgment. He had been weaned on the Marxism of the 1930s and 1940s, but from reading his writings and talking to those who knew him, I gathered he had found nothing new in the world of the 1990s and 2000s. The past was his present. Perhaps, given his years in the jungles, his decades on the battlefield, his loss of family, the death of so many countrymen, that was not surprising. The revolution had sustained him. It was what all life was about. But as a man of unquestioned intellect, Giap could have contributed so much leadership and inspiration to peacetime Vietnam. If only he had felt the winds of change sweeping through his beloved country and moved with them, looking for fresh ideas to accommodate all that was new, exciting, unsettling. His military achievements still stirred spirits of national honor. But to the young gen¬eration, Giap’s calls for dedication to the revolution and the ideology of his past no longer resonated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *