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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 43, October 12, 2013

Vo Nguyen Giap: ‘General of Peace’

Monday 14 October 2013, by Sumit Chakravartty


General Vo Nguyen Giap is no more. He died in an Army hospital in Hanoi on October 5, 2013 at the age of 102, according to Tuoi Tre Online. The New York Times described him as the “relentless and charismatic North Vietnamese General whose battlefield victory at Dien Bien Phu drove France out of Vietnam and whose tenacious resisance to the United States in a long and costly war there eventually snapped America’s political will to fight”.
While offering our heartfelt tributes to one who was put in the company of MacArthur, Rommel and other greats of the twentieth century, we reproduce the following piece by the editor published in the April 29, 1989 issue after an interview that he gave to this journal during his visit to this country around that time.)]

The first-ever visit to India of 78-year old General Vo Nguyen Giap—the legendary hero of Vietnam and the real architect of the Vietnamese people’s strategic victories over the French colonialist and American imperialist aggressors—has not received adequate attention in our national press.
General Vo Nguyen Giap was from 1946 the Minister of Defence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (as North Vietnam was called after the people there had seized power in Hanoi under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh in August 1945) and Commander-in-Chief of both the Vietnam Liberation Army and the Self-Defence Militia. In 1976, after the complete liberation of Vietnam and reunification of the country, he was elected Vice-Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Deputy Prime Minister) of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV)—a post he holds to this day—and the SRV’s Minister of Defence (he retained that designation till 1980).

General Giap was the moving spirit and chief strategist behind the Vietnamese people’s struggle in the historic battle of Dien Bien Phu that raged for 55 days till the French were decisively defeated on May 7, 1954, thereby changing the entire course of the war. It is striking that he visited this country, undoubtedly one of the Vietnam’s closest friends in Asia, in mid-April around the time of the 35th anniversary of that battle.

While narrating the experience of the struggle culminating in the victory at Dien Bein Phu, General Giap made a brilliant analysis of the war in his article “To Arm the Revolutionary Masses, to Build the People’s Army”. Excerpts from that article are worth reproducing in order to get a clearer idea of the factors behind the success of the Vietnamese struggle against foreign powers.

“In the resistance against French aggression, our main force grew from small units in the beginning to a strategic mobile force composed of battlehardened mobile combat groups with continuously improving equipment, good training, high morale and great fighting power... The Dien Bien Phu battle showed the very advanced stage of development reached by our strategic mobile forces in the resistance war against French aggression. While our army and people were winning great victories in many aspects, our crack mobile combat groups on the Dien Bien Phu battlefront, reinforced by technical units and with the strong support of the entire people, wiped out the biggest enemy stronghold in Indo-China....

“The development of the people’s armed forces into three forces forming the regular forces and regional forces forming the people’s army, the militia and guerilla forces being the armed forces of the masses, show that our military organisation during the people’s war against French colonialist aggression was an organisation of the entire people.....

“The aggressors had to deal not only with the revolutionary army but also with an entire people who had risen up to join their revolutionary armed forces in a resolute resistance in all fields. The aggressor troops were submerged in the ocean of people’s war. They faced a war without a frontline and without rear, with a battlefront which was nowhere and everywhere.....

“This was the first victory for a national liberation war in a colonial country. It proves that in our era, a small nation with no vast territory and no large population and no developed economy, is quite capable of waging a revolutionary war to defeat an old-type colonialist war of aggression.” (Vo Nguyen Giap—Selected Writings; Hanoi, 1977, pp. 406-411)

The experience of that struggle helped the Vietnamese people withstand the savage onslaughts of the US aggressors in the subsequent period. In that struggle too General Giap’s military leadership proved to be invaluable. Using the same strategic concept of combining guerilla war with conventional war, the Vietnamese people achieved their remarkable victory through liberation of the whole country by the end of April 1975.

General Giap came to this country today under totally different conditions. As Deputy Prime Minister he is currently supervising the efforts of Vietnam at national regeneration in the sphere of science and technology in particular. In these efforts cooperation with India (in science and technology and various fields of economic development) is of crucial importance. General Giap’s talks and exchanges of views here were intended to give a further boost to Indo-Vietnamese economic ties.

On the political front, he apprised the Indian leaders of the import of Vietnam’s unilateral decision to complete its troop withdrawals from Kampuchea by September this year. General Giap is convinced that peace will be maintained after the pull-out. But he lays emphasis on
the formation of an International Control Commission for Kampuchea with India as chairman and Poland, Canada and Indonesia as members (on the lines of the 1954 International Control Commission on Cambodia that oversaw the withdrawal of Vietnamese volunteers from that country).

The old war-horse looked tired, but he retains the same agility and charm of yester years. And his infectious smile radiates the same confidence with which he had charted out the strategy of the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Age has only added a new, lasting dimension to the legend associated with his name.

“I am the General of peace, peace in honour, peace in independence and freedom,” General Giap said in an exclusive interview to this correspondent in his hotel in New Delhi on April 16.

He spoke at length on the battles the Vietnamese people conducted against the French and US for freedom. The source of strength of the Vietnamese, he explained, was simple: “We rely on the people: the whole nation united.”

He made a special mention of the strong bonds of friendship and cooperation between India and Vietnam; highlighted the efforts being made by Vietnam to mend fences with China; and underscored the importance of the close Soviet-Vietnamese ties.

Following is the full text of the interview:

Ques: What were the most striking features of the Vietnamese people’s armed struggle against French colonialism and US imperialism in which you, sir, played one of the most crucial roles? What are the major lessons to be drawn from this struggle for the benefit of the newly emerging countries?

VNG: What was the most important thing in our war of resistance against foreign aggressions? I can just summarise what President Ho Chi Minh said: “Nothing is more precious than independence and the spirit to be the master of one’s destiny.” This spirit we inculcated a long time ago in our history. Therefore, when our country was facing the danger of being invaded in the contemporary period everybody followed the appeal of President Ho Chi Minh.

We would rather sacrifice everything than being invaded and being enslaved. Therefore, everybody took up the cause in right earnest.

We have accumulated vast experience in our struggle: the policy of our Party; the military science and technique of the people’s war; the support we received from the international community, from the Soviet Union, from China; the sympathy and support from our other friends in the worid including the Indian people. But if we put it in a nutshell: we rely on the people. That is the strength of the entire nation: the whole nation united; if we are not united then we face difficulties.

In the present situation in the world today to maintain world peace is our primary task. That is, preserving peace in the world. We would like to say that Vietnam had been struggling for the past several decades. We had been struggling for decades in order to bring about peace on our land, and that kind of peace which must be closely related to independence and freedom. Today and in the future too, the peoples of nations in the world should unite with each other to struggle for lasting peace on our planet, to fight against the danger of a nuclear war and to fight against other schemes of war.

Peace must always be linked to national independence; to development in political, economic and social fields of all nations in the world. That’s how we understand peace. This significance of peace is based on our common understanding, that is, the Indian people too understand it the same way.

Ques: To what particular battle in this struggle would you attach maximum importancde and why?

VNG: We went through at first the political strugglle and then the military struggle. There were three main events: first, the general insurrection in August 1945 that led to the coming into being of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This demonstrated that if the people, united with each other, rose up in patriotic struggle, they could win great victories.

The second major event was the victory of Dien Bien Phu. This showed for the first time that a young army of a poor nation could defeat the modern army of a great power of the West. This led to the liberation of the northern part of Vietnam, made a deep impact on the international situation and encouraged other nations to rise up.

The third major event was the great victory in the spring of 1975 wholly librating our country. If we had time we could talk a lot about these battles.

Ques: What are the prospects of lasting peace in Indo-China?

VNG: You ask me about the prospects of peace in our part of the world—Indo-China and South-East Asia in general. I can assure you that the prospects are good.

Why? Because the Vietnamese people, the people of Laos and the Kampuchean people all desire peace.

In September this year we will withdraw all our forces from Kampuchea. I would like to recall that this is the third time we sent our troops to Kampuchean. The first time we went there to help the Kampuchean people in the struggle against the French colonialists. When the Geneva agreement was signed we withdrew our forces.

The second time we sent our forces there to help them fight US aggression and once the Americans were defeated we withdrew our forces.

This time we went there to help the administration of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea to fight against the genocidal danger of the Pol Pot clique. Now that the Kampuchean people have established themselves, developed and become masters of their own destiny—we feel that our duties towards them have been fulfilled. So the withdrawal of our forces from Kampuchea has created favourable conditions for peace and stability in South-East Asia and I think for large areas of South Asia too.

This is a just policy pursued by Vietnam. This shows that we always respect the independence and sovereignty of others. That’s why this act of Vietnam has been warmly, widely welcomed by peoples of different countries. We wish and hope that India, as in the past, will contribute to the trend of peace and stability in this part of the world in South-East ASia.

Ques: How do you evaluate the present Chinese role vis-a-vis the Kampuchean problem?

VNG: I would like to say that the Chinese people and Vietnamese people have a tradition of friendship which is longstanding and age-old, against imperialism.

The Government and people of China supported and assisted us in the past in our struggle against the French colonialists and thereafter against American aggression. We are very grateful to them.

On the other hand, we hope that in the coming period the relations between our two countries will be normalised as soon as possible. That is our aspiration because it is in the interest of our two peoples. And I believe that the prospects of restoring the traditional friendship are strong because that is the aspiration of the peoples of Vietnam and China.

Naturally there are problems in relations between the two countries but these are only some dark clouds in the blue sky of friendship. We believe that these clouds will disappear. I hope that the mass media and journalists would help in reflecting what I said, that is, in respect of the aspirations of peace and friendship of the Vietnamese people.

In particular conditions the Vietnamese people did never forget the assistance of the Chinese people in the past two recent wars.

What is the Chinese role in the Kampuchean problem? Why don’t you ask that question to the Chinese leaders? I can only add that they have been saying that they want a peaceful, political solution of the problem.

Ques: This is what they have been saying now?

VNG: Well, they have been publicly saying so for long.

Ques: How significant are Gorbachev’s policies in the international field from the standpoint of Vietnam’s national interests?

VNG: As far as relations between the Soviet Union and Vietnam are concerned, these relations are very good. The Soviet Union has helped us a great deal. On the question of consolidation and defence of peace in the would we fully agree with the Soviet policy. I think the Soviet Union also agress with us that peace must always go alongwith national independence and social development of all nations in the world.

I think the Soviet leaders always respect the independence of other countries. I did not want to comment on the policies of Comrade Gorbachev when he is not here. But in my opinion Comrade Gorbachev advocates both peace and national independence for all countries.

Ques: How do you assess the growing relations, both political and economic, between India and Vietnam? Are you hopeful that your mission to India would giva a further boost to Indo-Vietnamese cooperation?

VNG: My visit to India here is at the invitation of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. I am very thankful to him.

Friendship between Vietnam and India dates back to antiquity. In recent times it has been growing since the period of Ho Chi Minh and the father of Jawaharlal Nehru as well as Jawaharlal Nehru. But much before that in history, Indian culture came to Vietnam always in conditions of peace. These relations have been longstanding in history.

Our leaders, Madame Indira Gandhi in particular, helped the process of strengthing of relations. Recently the visits of Rajiv Gandhi to Vietnam and Nguyen Van Linh to India have deepened and reinforced the bonds of friendship between the two countries.

In the present situation obtaining in the world today the bonds of friendship and cooperation between India and Vietnam in many fields are a factor which contributes to peace and stability in South-East Asia and South Asia. Moreover, as members of the NAM, Vietnam and India unite with each other in the world strengthening their friendship with other nations in the interest of the happiness of our respective peoples and in the interests of peace and independence of other nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America and other parts of the world.

I think that this friendship has a basis for further development especially when the relations between the Soviet Union and India are developing in a fine manner.

Recently the relations between India and China have undergone a new change and development. Now we see a strengthening of the bonds of friendship among nations not only in our respective regions but also in the region of the Asia-Pacific and the world at large.

We highly value India’s friendship with us and we are sure that this friendship will continue to develop forever in the interest of our two peoples.

The cooperation between India and Vietnam is all-sided. In the economic field we have cooperation in many areas, especially in the sphere of oil and gas. In economic relations the cooperation is closely related to scientific cooperation. We are both friendly, developing countries situated in the tropical region. We, the Vietnamese, can learn a lot from the scientific achievements of India.

I came here and held fruitful discussions with the Indian leaders on closer cooperation between our two countries. I came to learn a lot about the development of India brought about by many Indian scientists and economic managers. I hope that my visit will make a humble contribution towards further strengthe-ning of cooperation between our two countries.

Ques: The economic problems that Vietnam is facing today are, I think, not only due to the mistakes you committed in the field of economic management but also because of the huge army that Vietnam is forced to maintain. Are you thinking of taking steps to reduce the army and thus lighten the heavy burden on the national exchequer?

VNG: We will reduce our army. But how and to what extent it will be reduced I cannot say just now. However, we will reduce our army in such a way that our army and people are able to defend our independence and sovereignty in peace as well as in all eventualities.

Ques: What are the general impressions you are carrying with you after your meetings with the Indian leaders?

VNG: We have had very good talks with the Indian leaders here. Vietnam and India are friends. We have common objectives: every person must be free, every nation must be independent. We had set these objectives before us a long time back. Both of us greatly cherish—and more than anything else what the Vietanmese people cherish most is—peace.

I am the General of peace, peace in honour, peace in independence and freedom. That’s why I came here and met our loyal friends.

I met the Indian freedom fighters, many other friends of Vietnam and many Indian leaders. All of them I met for the first time. But when I met them I got the impression from our conversations that we know each other for a long time.

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