Fifty-nine years ago, Vietnam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap rang a death knell for Western colonialism in Asia, masterminding the defeat of France's armed forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam. He later went on to play a crucial role in forcing the U.S. out of Vietnam, burnishing his standing as one of the 20th century's most important military leaders.
But at the time of his death—in a Hanoi military hospital Friday at the age of 102—Gen. Giap was engaged in a fresh battle: This time, to protect Vietnam's fragile ecology from the strip mining driven by its fast-growing economy and that of its giant neighbor, China.
Gen. Giap's re-emergence as an eco-warrior in his twilight years was typical of his unconventional style, and demonstrated how he never quite fit in with the Communist Party ideologues who later came to run Vietnam, even as they promoted the nationalist cult that soon grew up around the feisty commander.
"There's no doubt the Vietnamese authorities have made the most of his reputation," says Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "But Gen. Giap has also run into political trouble in the party. After Vietnam was partitioned into north and south, decisions were made collectively and one can discern moments when he was left on the outside."
A schoolteacher and journalist in his 20s and 30s, Gen. Giap had no military training prior to joining Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam's nationalist Viet Minh forces in China, to evade French colonial authorities. While Gen. Giap was in exile, his wife was arrested and later died in prison, he told historian Cecil B. Currey in 1988. His sister-in-law and grandfather were executed.
He returned to Vietnam in the 1940s as a top military commander, hoping to take advantage of Japan's defeat to prevent France reasserting control. A close student of Mao Zedong's guerrilla tactics in China, he argued for gradually wearing down French colonists before abruptly switching tactics at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the far north of Vietnam, near the border with Laos in 1954. It was the battle that would make his name.
Gen. Giap executed a ruse, sending Viet Minh forces toward Laos to lure French troops into the area in a bid to cut them off. The general then built a series of trenches around the French garrison to starve his opponents of food and ammunition, in a brutal 57-day siege. The French artillery commander, overcome with guilt at underestimating the Viet Minh's prowess, blew himself up with a grenade.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu was, many historians say, a turning point in post-World War II history. Gen. Giap himself said in a 1999 interview with the U.S. Public Broadcasting System that it was "the first great victory for a weak, colonized people struggling against the full strength of modern Western forces. This is why it was the first great defeat for the West. It shook the foundations of colonialism and called on people to fight for their freedom."
Later, he drew plans for the 2,000-mile-long Ho Chi Minh trail—a snaking series of roads and jungle paths that became one of the most-bombed stretches of land in the history of warfare and a vital supply chain from northern Vietnam to the Viet Cong guerrillas fighting U.S.-backed forces in the south of the country. People win wars, Gen. Giap was fond of saying, not weapons.
Still, Gen. Giap had his rifts with other leading members of the Communists' ruling politburo. One of the most serious was over the planning of the Tet Offensive in 1968, which eventually helped turn the course of the war—although not in the way Gen. Giap and other top generals intended.
A number of historians say Gen. Giap wasn't as keen as some of his colleagues on the plan, which called for a massive land assault on the southern Vietnamese government in the hope of provoking a popular uprising and bringing a rapid end to the war against the U.S.-backed forces. Instead, Gen. Giap and other moderates preferred to build up the North Vietnam economy and gradually wear down the enemy by engaging in a protracted, guerrilla-style and political campaign.
Conservatives in Hanoi overruled Gen. Giap, who was by then defense minister, and he was left to oversee the implementation of the plan.
The Tet Offensive was, at many levels, a failure. It didn't trigger the uprising that the Communist Party mandarins in Hanoi had hoped for. It also cost the lives of several tens of thousands of troops, not to mention the many thousands of civilians who died. The offensive did, however, undermine U.S. public opinion toward supporting the war in Vietnam and, as southern Vietnamese forces retreated to defend the cities, the countryside was left for the Viet Cong guerrillas to control. The war dragged on for another seven years.
One of Gen. Giap's main antagonists, U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland, who died in 2005, was critical of his counterpart's apparent readiness to send tens of thousands of his own men to their deaths. "Such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius," Gen. Westmoreland told George magazine in 1998.
Nonetheless, in his later years, Gen. Giap began to focus heavily on environmental causes. Like other older Vietnamese, he worried that the breakneck pace of modernization in the country was uprooting traditional ways of life. He also was concerned about China's growing economic and political influence on Hanoi.
His particular grudge was against open-cast mining for bauxite, an ore used in the production of aluminum, which is highly sought after in China. Vietnam's Communist leaders for years have pushed the extraction and export of bauxite as a means of developing the economy of the remote Central Highlands region, an area that is home to many ethnic minorities and in which travel is severely restricted. Gen. Giap wrote a number of open letters to the government protesting the development of bauxite mining, and emerged as the symbolic patriarch of Vietnam's fledgling green movement, which is also supported by bloggers and other online activists.
Vietnam's leaders have been reverential toward Gen. Giap's efforts, going out of their way to refer to him as "a national treasure."
Gen. Giap's last stand could end in defeat, however: Vietnam's government says it is determined to pursue its mining plans.