He Beat Us In War But Never In Battle

To defeat any adversary, the late North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap permitted immense casualties and the near total destruction of his country.


I met Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap – who died on Friday – twice. The first time was in the Vietnamese military hospital where I was taken shortly after my capture in 1967. My father commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, which made me an object of curiosity in some quarters of the North Vietnamese government.

I remember several high-ranking visitors in addition to the guards and interrogators I saw daily. Giap, North Vietnam’s minister of defense, was the only one I recognized. He stayed only a few moments, staring at me, then left without saying a word.

Our second meeting was in the early 1990s, during one of many trips I made to Hanoi to discuss the POW/MIA issue and the normalization of relations between our countries. I had asked then-Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach and his deputy, Le Mai, to arrange a brief interview with the legendary commander of the People’s Army of North Vietnam.

The next day I was ushered into the grand reception room of the Beaux-Arts presidential palace the French had built for their colonial governors, where the general was waiting. Smiling, diminutive, aged but spry, and dressed in a gray suit and tie, he hardly looked like his wartime reputation as a ruthless fighter with a fierce temper.

Giap greeted me warmly beneath an enormous bust of Ho Chi Minh, who had led Vietnam in the wars against the French and the United States. Both of us clasped each other’s shoulders as if we were reunited comrades rather than former enemies.

I had hoped our discussion would concentrate on his historical role. After I came home from Vietnam in 1973, I read everything I could get my hands on about both the French and American wars there, starting with Bernard Fall’s “Hell in a Very Small Place,” his classic study of the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, where French colonial rule effectively ended and Giap’s genius first became apparent to an astonished world.

I wanted to hear Giap describe that nearly two-month long battle, to explain how his forces had shocked the French by managing the impossible feat of bringing artillery across mountains and through the densest jungles. I wanted to talk to him about that other marvel of logistics, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I knew he was proud of his reputation as the “Red Napoleon,” and I presumed he would welcome an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about his triumphs. I wanted us to behave as two retired military officers and former enemies recounting the historical events in which he had played a critical part and I a small one. But he answered most of my questions briefly, adding little to what I already knew, and then waved his hand to indicate disinterest.

That is all in the past now, he said. You and I should discuss a future where our countries are not enemies but friends. And so we did, two politicians discussing the business between our countries that had brought me to Vietnam.

Giap was a master of logistics, but his reputation rests on more than that. His victories were achieved by a patient strategy that he and Ho Chi Minh were convinced would succeed – an unwavering resolve to suffer immense casualties and the near total destruction of their country to defeat any adversary, no matter how powerful. “You will kill 10 of us, we will kill one of you,” he said, “but in the end, you will tire of it first.”

Giap executed that strategy with an unbending will. The French repulsed wave after wave of frontal attacks at Dien Bien Phu. The 1968 Tet offensive against the U.S. was a military disaster that effectively destroyed the Viet Cong. But Giap persisted and prevailed.

The U.S. never lost a battle against North Vietnam, but it lost the war. Countries, not just their armies, win wars. Giap understood that. We didn’t. Americans tired of the dying and the killing before the Vietnamese did. It’s hard to defend the morality of the strategy. But you can’t deny its success.

Near the end of our meeting, I made another attempt to test Giap’s candor. I asked him if it were true that he had opposed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. He dismissed that too, with something like, “the party’s decisions are always correct.”

With that, our meeting came to an end. We stood up, shook hands, and as I turned to leave, he grasped my arm, and said softly, “you were an honorable enemy.”

I don’t know if he meant that as a comparison to Vietnam’s other adversaries, the Chinese, the Japanese or the French, who had killed his wife, or if it was an implicit recognition we had fought for ideals rather than empire and that our humanity had played a part in our defeat. Maybe he just meant to flatter me. Whatever his meaning, I appreciated the sentiment.

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