Marco Werman: He was arguably one of the greatest generals of the twenty-first century, even if he was America's enemy. Vo Nguyen Giap defeated the French and liberated his country, Vietnam, from colonial rule. Then he fought against the United States and succeeded in that too. Critics, though, remember Giap for his ruthlessness and his willingness to send large numbers of troops to the slaughter. Today, Giap died at the age of 102.
Jamie Warren: He's not really known as a great traditional strategist, I mean in the Western sense of the word.
Werman: Historian Jamie Warren has just published a biography of General Giap.
Warren: I think General Giap's greatness rather lied in his ability to see warfare in a very, very broad perspective--much broader and much more astutely than his American and French counterparts. He understood that the battles didn't mean that much in the Vietnamese context and that really what was essential was the political aspect of the fighting, which meant mobilizing and organizing the people. And also, he had a tremendous amount of guts. He was willing to sacrifice a tremendous number of his men in order to accomplish his task. That earned him a reputation as a butcher, but I think that's misconceived, Marco, because really he had no other option. I mean people were his weapon.
Werman: Jamie, do you think it was General Giap's personality that made the difference or was he just in the right place at the right time?
Warren: I think like many figures of such great importance, it was a combination of things. I think Giap had an extraordinary confidence and a deep-seeded patriotism. He jus would not truck with anyone who said this couldn't be done. I don't believe he was ever intimidated for a moment by anybody--by the French or the Americans. You see this even in his physical presence, in his stance...and the way that he conducted himself and the way he presented himself, and he just wasn't gonna be discouraged, no matter what happened.
Werman: Giap's family was largely wiped out by the French. They were tortured, they were executed. That must have had a dramatic effect on him.
Warren: It did and people that knew him, including his daughter, said that he never got over the loss of his beloved first wife, who indeed died in a French jail sometime during WWII. She was picked up in 1940 in a kind of purge of the communists in Vietnam, and never made it out. The same thing was true for his sister-in-law, and his father died at the hands of the French in about 1947, soon after the French-Indochina War began. So yeah, personal tragedy was a big part of it, and also his deep devotion and love of Ho Chi Minh, who I think was an organizational genius. I think Giap was an organizational genius.
Werman: We should also point out that General Giap showed there is always hope for reconciliation. I'd like you and our listeners to hear a clip of him speaking from an interview in 2004, where he says he holds no grudges against his former enemies.
Vo Nguyen Giap: [speaking Vietnamese] Times change. There was a French veteran who came to see me and I received him amicably. He said to me, 'I was here to fight against your people, why do you treat me so well?' I said to him, 'Back then you arrived with Thompson submachine guns, so you were welcomed like that. Now you arrive as a tourist and we welcome you like this.'
Werman: That was General Giap speaking in 2004. So, Jamie Warren, what happened to the general after the fall of Saigon?
Warren: Well, after the fall of Saigon it's generally recognized that he was sort of shunted off, so he held a number of small, more or less ceremonial posts, but he just became sort of, he's referred to often as a sort of national treasure. He continued to write at great length. He's published several--even up and through the mid-2000s--he was publishing books on Dien Bien Phu and his other campaigns. A tireless figure, but he was politically pretty much isolated and marginalized after 1980.
Werman: Jamie Warren, the author of Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam. General Vo Nguyen Giap died today at the age of 102. Jamie, thanks a lot.
Warren: Nice to talk to you.