Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET on 2013-10-04
Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap, the independence hero who led a stunning defeat of French colonial forces and later formulated a protracted war strategy against the Americans in South Vietnam, died Friday at the age of 102.
Giap passed away at around 6:00 p.m. at a military hospital in Hanoi where he had been battling illnesses for several years, official Vietnamese media reported.
A self-taught military strategist and the founding father of the Vietnam People’s Army, he was the last of the old guard of revolutionary leaders with a legacy second only to that of Ho Chi Minh.
State-run online newspaper VNExpress said Giap’s body has been moved from the special care zone to the morgue at the hospital with an honor guard.
The so-called “red Napolen” led a ragtag guerilla army to crush French troops in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, in a surprise victory which is still studied at military schools.
Though an inspiration to anti-colonial forces worldwide, to millions of South Vietnamese who fought alongside U.S. troops and fled their homeland after the war, he was the face of an implacable enemy who cared not if hundreds of thousands of young men from both sides lost their lives on the battlefield.
New research shows that years before the North Vietnamese army defeated the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces in 1975, Giap was frequently sidelined in top-level military strategy debates in Hanoi.
Giap had opposed the Tet offensive of 1968 and was not involved in a significant way in planning another major offensive in 1972, according to a well-documented book published by scholar Lien-Hang T. Nguyen in 2012.
After the war, Giap was relegated to the sidelines of the Vietnamese Communist Party, losing his post as defense minister in 1980 and later being eased out of the Politburo.
But in the north of Vietnam, he remained popular as a military hero and was regarded as an elder statesman whose views had softened after the war, supporting economic reform and closer relations with the United States.
He spoke out against corruption and in his late 90s emerged as a prominent critic of the controversial Chinese-backed bauxite mining project in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, siding with activists against the project and writing rare open letters to the prime minister calling for it to be halted.
He is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.
'Talented and strong-willed'
Former Colonel Bui Tin, a Vietnamese dissident who had long served with Giap and used to be his chief of staff, said he remembered the general as a “talented, strong-willed” man who had lived simply and straightforwardly.
He lamented that Giap had not been able to play a stronger leadership role in the party as his influence waned after Ho Chi Minh’s death, saying if he had not been pushed to the sidelines of the party, in the later decades he could have helped avert corruption.
“After [the war], his talents rarely had the chance to show because of the Politburo and because of [Central Committee General Secretary] Le Duan, who overwhelmed Giap,” Tin said.
But Giap had not been completely silenced or shut out of the party, Tin said, saying Giap had told him former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong had wanted to tap him for a cabinet post related to science and technology.
“It is not correct to say that he was shunned,” he said.
Giap’s open letters against the bauxite mining in his last years had indeed been written by the former general himself, as Giap had still been well enough to write at the time despite his illnesses, Tin said.
Tin recalled how Giap had told him that when planning the army’s attack in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu the general “could not sleep for two days” while fretting over his strategy.
Giap had feared that the French forces were more prepared than they had been when the original plans for the attack were laid, so after several sleepless nights he changed his strategy from “quick attack, quick victory,” to “slow advance and sure win” in what proved to be a brilliant move, Tin said.
“That change made the victory,” he said.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.