Remembering General Vo Nguyen Giap

This story was originally published on October 29, 2013


(Orange County, CA) Unlike the outpouring of grief being shown by mainland Vietnamese in response to the passing of General Vo Nguyen Giap, here in Little Saigon the response has been muted, when not antagonistic.

Little Saigon is located in Orange County, California, and is home to the largest Vietnamese population overseas.

The flag of former South Vietnam, with its yellow background and three horizontal red stripes, hangs over storefronts and residential homes here. As the name implies, Little Saigon has yet to recognize the legitimacy of the Communist government which took over Vietnam in 1975 and changed the name of its most prominent city from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.

Little wonder that few tears are being shed here for Giap’s passing, who is credited for masterminding Communist victories over the French, and then the Americans, in two of the most prominent wars of the 20th Century.

My mother, Nina Anett, was forced to flee the Communists in 1954, after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, to the south.

My father, Peter Arnett, gained prominence working as a reporter for the Associated Press during the Vietnam War and had the opportunity to interview General Giap on two occasions.

I took this opportunity to speak with my parents about the legendary General Giap, and his impact on the personal history of our family.

“My cousin died during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” my mother tells me. “She was 18 years old, working as a farmer, and Giap’s forces mobilized her, along with thousands of others in the country side, for the war effort.”

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was, of course, the decisive battle in the First Indochina War, which forced the French to withdraw all its forces from French Indochina.

The battle was a strategic success for Giap, in part to the lessons he had learned from his defeat to the French at an earlier battle at Na San. There, he had not taken the high ground, and had squandered his forces in reckless frontal assaults without proper preparation and reinforcements. At Dien Bien Phu, he made sure to occupy the surrounding hills and spent months before the battle stockpiling ammunition and emplacing artillery and anti-aircraft guns. Giap compared Dien Bien Phu to a “rice bowl”, where his troops occupied the edge of the bowl, with the French at the bottom of the bowl.

It was during this preparatory stage that Nguyen Be, my mother’s cousin, was mobilized by the Viet Minh. ” She had no specific political ideology, ” said my mother, “but like so many uneducated farmers, she just did what she was told when ordered by the Viet Minh. She died while running food and supplies to the Viet Minh during the battle.”

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu led to the signing of the Geneva Accords later that year, separating Communist North Vietnam from Nationalist South Vietnam. My grandfather, who was elected to the National Assembly in 1946, was forced to take his family to the south to avoid the Communist purge of “class enemies” taking place under the Ho Chi Minh implemented program for agrarian reform. Similar to the Cultural Revolution taking place in China, agrarian reform was being used by the Communists to break the power of the traditional village elite by redistributing land and creating a new social class that had no ownership. As a result, upwards to over 100,000 innocent people were executed as “class enemies”.

“We feared for our lives,” my mother tells me. “We heard many people were being killed. We left everything behind and fled to the south.”

Regarding the General himself, my mother thinks that “Giap was a cruel man. He had little compassion for human life, and once said in an interview that he had no regrets for his actions. I think his military accomplishments are outweighed by his inhumanity.”

My father worked as a war correspondent for many years during the Vietnam War, but it wasn’t until 20 years after the end of the war that he had the opportunity to interview Giap.

“I interviewed Giap for CNN in 1995,” he tells me. “It was the 20th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and we were broadcasting live from the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon. We had a satellite link up to General Westmoreland in a studio in Charleston, South Carolina, but he refused to be interviewed with Giap. Giap on the other hand was energetic and loquacious, launching into long responses to our questions.”

“General Westmoreland,” my father continued, “said that Giap’s willingness to sacrifice large numbers of casualties was unacceptable in todays war. But the Vietnam War was a civil war, and should be likened more to the American Civil War, or even the Revolutionary War, wherein the Americans suffered tremendous casualties.”

“I asked Giap what the key to his victory in Vietnam was, and he told me it was the existence of the Ho Chi Minh trail. He said that if the Americans were able to cut that off, it would have strangled the Communists efforts throughout the country. The Americans never were able to block it. “

The Tet Offensive was the turning point of the war, and Giap commented that it was not a “purely military strategy, but rather part of a general strategy, an integrated one, at once military, political and diplomatic.”

We were living in Saigon when the Tet Offensive took place in 1968, and as the fighting broke out, my father barricaded me, my mother, and my sister in the bathroom of our apartment, then dutifully went out to cover the story. A couple of weeks later he sent my sister and I to live in Hong Kong, accompanied by his parents, for a number of months, while Saigon struggled to regain normalcy.

“It was clear to me,” my father tells me, “that after the Tet Offensive, the war was over. ” Soon after that, my father moved us to New York City.

Giap is a paradoxical figure, inspiring strong ambivalent feelings. He is as hard to pin down personally as he was militarily. His mercurial nature proved him unpredictable to the end, becoming a critic of the regime he helped put in power and, finally, transforming into a fervent ecologist, battling bauxite mining in Vietnam.