The death of Vo Nguyen Giap, coming as America supposedly is executing a “pivot” toward Asia, is a moment to sort the truth and the myth about Vietnam. The myth — that Giap was, as the Washington Post put it, the “military commander and national folk hero who organized the army that defeated the French and then the Americans” — is no doubt going to be embroidered in one newspaper after another in the coming days, as the general goes to a very small place in Hell, to make a play on the title of Bernard Fall’s classic account of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, “Hell in a Very Small Place.”
Dien Bien Phu, where the French met defeat, was the biggest victory in Giap’s cap, and we won’t gainsay it, as courageous as the French were there. We do gainsay the notion that Giap defeated the Americans. It’s not just that his role in the second Indochina war, between 1960 and 1975, was not as great as the earlier fight. It’s also that the U.S. Army was not defeated in Vietnam. It prevailed in combat against the Soviet- and Red-Chinese-backed North Vietnamese Army. And the Viet Cong. It defeated the enemy in Tet, during which the communists massacred as many as 6,000* unarmed civilians and prisoners at Hue. Giap may be a folk hero to some, but he served a nihilistic communist regime.
We are aware of all the arguments about how, even though Tet was a military defeat for the communists, it was a strategic victory in their campaign to break America’s will. It is true that the Tet Offensive, launched in January 1968, was followed by Senator Eugene McCarthy’s peace campaign, President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not run again, and the opening later that year of peace negotiations. We’re not convinced that this was the game plan General Giap, whatever his role, had in mind when Tet was launched. Nor does it erase the main point, which is that for all the talk, Giap never defeated American GIs.
We’ve always liked a trick question about the end of the war. When the 94th United States Congress finally pulled the plug on free Vietnam, how many American combat troops were still there? We once guessed something on the order of 100,000. It turns out that when the Congress pulled the plug on Vietnam, the number of our U.S. combat troops in Vietnam was zero. When, in the 1974 elections, the Democrats widened their majority in the Congress and then, in the spring of 1975, finally defied President Ford and ended support for the free Vietnamese, the number of uniformed Americans of any kind was but dozens, mostly embassy guards.
In Giap’s final years, the New York Times reported this afternoon, the aging general was “an avuncular host to foreign visitors to his villa in Hanoi, where he read extensively in Western literature, enjoyed Beethoven and Liszt and became a convert to pursuing socialism through free-market reforms.” The Times reckons that “[h]is thinking had shifted.” It quoted him as saying that in the past the greatest challenge to Vietnam was “the invasion of our nation by foreigners.”
Who would they be? How about the purveyers of the ideology that Giap helped impose on Vietnam’s people under the heel of the communist boot? The Times reported that Giap went on to bemoan his country’s “poverty and backwardness.” They were the primary fruit of the very communist system for which Giap wielded the sword. The reason his death is noteworthy is for the chance to get this point clear. If it’s not, why are we pivoting to Asia in the first place and, if we don’t understand what happened, what kind of mistakes will we make this time around?
* Nearly a quarter of the number of Poles slain at Katyn, say, and almost 12 times the number of Vietnamese massacred by elements of the 23rd United States Infantry Division (Americal) at My Lai.