During the Vietnam War, two names from the other side were burned into the awareness of the U.S. public and news media: Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam, and his close colleague, Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the army and minister of defense.
By long tradition, Ho and Giap have gotten most of the credit for forcing the French and the Americans to withdraw from Southeast Asia. In recent years, though, the legends have undergone considerable reexamination and a different picture has begun to emerge of North Vietnam’s wartime leadership.
Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam’s great national hero and president of North Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969. He was listed by Time magazine as one of the “100 Most Important People of the “Twentieth Century.” War correspondent Bernard Fall described him as “a frail 77-year-old gentleman with a wispy beard and rubber sandals, ruling a country the size of Florida.”
News reports called General Giap “the Red Napoleon” and “the greatest military strategic logistician since Hannibal.” He built the army from a cadre of 34 peasant soldiers in 1944 and, in 1954, Giap managed to haul his artillery overland and inflict a humiliating defeat on a technologically superior French force at the isolated mountain outpost at Dien Bien Phu.
One of the greatest misconceptions of the Vietnam War was that Ho Chi Minh was the uncontested leader of North Vietnam.Columbia University historian Lien-Hang Nguyen
However, by the 1960s—and unknown by the outside world—the political power in North Vietnam had shifted. Ho and Giap no longer had the strength they possessed earlier. This has been revealed mainly through the work of Columbia University historian Lien-Hang Nguyen, who interviewed sources in Vietnam and had access to previously unavailable North Vietnamese records.
“One of the greatest misconceptions of the Vietnam War was that Ho Chi Minh was the uncontested leader of North Vietnam,” she said. “In reality, he was a figurehead, while Le Duan, a man who resides in the margins of history, was the architect, main strategist, and commander in chief of North Vietnam’s war effort.”
Le Duan, the party first secretary, lacked Ho’s popular appeal and exerted his power from behind the scenes. His right-hand man was Le Duc Tho, who would later be the negotiator who met with Henry Kissinger at peace talks in Paris.
As late as 1967, “America’s military intelligence and civilian leaders had no real idea of who was actually calling the shots in Hanoi,” professor Nguyen said. Two major events usually attributed to Giap, the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the Easter Invasion in 1972, were actually the doing of Le Duan.
Ho Chi Minh, born in 1890, was a committed Communist, an admirer of Lenin. He left Vietnam in 1911 on the crew of a passenger ship and spent his early years abroad, notably in Paris and Moscow. He rose in the ranks of the Communist International. “Soon Ho was roaming the earth as a covert agent for Moscow,” said historian Stanley Karnow.
In 1930, Comintern sent Ho to Asia where he settled differences among dissidents and formed the Indochinese Communist Party. He was sentenced to death in absentia by the French but they were unable to extradite him from Hong Kong, where he was in a British jail, having been arrested for subversive activities.
In 1940, he was operating from Kunming in southern China, where he met Giap for the first time. In 1941, Ho revived the inactive Viet Minh independence movement and organized the anti-French, anti-Japanese resistance around it. Giap was military leader of the Viet Minh.
In 1941, Ho returned to Vietnam after an absence of 30 years and set up his headquarters in a large cave in a mountainside near the Chinese border. He went by various names before settling on Ho Chi Minh, which means “He Who Enlightens.”
Giap began to read the anti-colonial articles published by the expatriate who would become known as Ho Chi Minh when he was 13 years old. He obtained a law degree from the French university in Hanoi, but did not practice law because he failed the examinations. Instead, he taught history at a private school.
In 1940, the Communist Party—which Giap joined in 1931—sent him to China to join Ho, with whom he formed a close relationship. He was self-taught in military matters. He wrote extensively on strategy and tactics, but his work derives almost completely from Mao Zedong’s theories of “people’s war.”
In 1945, Ho, as president of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, declared independence in Hanoi. The crowning achievement for Ho and Giap was Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
For 56 days, Giap’s insurgent army pinned down 11 French battalions. His artillery, firing from the hills, pounded the encampment in the valley below. Ground routes were cut off. Airplanes could not land on the besieged airstrip. The only way in was by parachute. There was no way out. The fall of Dien Bien Phu was the final blow for the French in Indochina. Almost 30,000 victorious Viet Minh troops entered Hanoi, where Ho set up the Communist government.
The Comrades Le
Le Duan came into contact with revolutionary thought through his work as a railway clerk. He became a Communist Party leader, and was imprisoned several times in the 1930s and 1940s. When independence was declared in 1945, he hoped to be named minister of defense of defense. Ho chose Giap instead, which “might be one source of Le Duan’s lifelong disdain for Giap and Ho Chi Minh,” professor Nguyen said.
Instead of going to Hanoi, Le Duan remained in the south to direct subversive operations. In the 1950s, he was head of the Central Office of South Vietnam. The party leadership sent him Le Duc Tho, who became Le Duan’s trusted deputy.
Le Duc Tho, a revolutionary at age 15, had worked as a post office radiotelegrapher while organizing demonstrations against the French. He made his mark as a regional press and propaganda chief. In later years, U.S. officials made the mistake of believing Le Duc Tho was a moderate. Both Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were reassigned to Hanoi in 1957.
The reputation of the new regime had been severely damaged by a “land reform” debacle. The idea of redistribution of agricultural acreage to peasants was forgotten as party cadres and “people’s courts” seized farms and executed those accused of being landlords. Most of the land wound up in state-owned collective farms.
The first secretary of the party got most of the blame and was driven from office. Ho assumed the first secretary’s title himself and in 1959, appointed Le Duan—the only official not tainted with the land reform disaster—to handle everyday responsibilities of party leadership.
In 1960, the party congress named Le Duan first secretary and the second-ranking member of the Politburo. Ho remained head of the Politburo, as well as party chairman and president. It was Le Duan, though, who held the daily levers of power, including internal security, by means of which he established an effective police state.
As early as 1956, the Politburo had explored the idea of overthrowing the South Vietnamese government to reunify the country under northern control. A “people’s war” in the South was approved in 1959.
Ho and Giap were aligned with the “North Firsters,” who wanted to concentrate on building North Vietnam. Conquest of the South would be gained through protracted insurgency with assistance from North Vietnam.
The “South First” faction, of which Le Duan and Le Duc Tho were part, wanted to move faster to secure an all-out victory. In 1963, the party central committee approved Le Duan’s proposal for a General Offensive/General Uprising (GO-GU) strategy, employing full-scale military force to stimulate mass political uprising in the South.
“Le Duan proceeded to implement this strategy not once but three times over the course of the war (1964, 1968, and 1972), at great costs to the revolution,” professor Nguyen said. Giap opposed such actions as foolhardy.
The first GO-GU effort included an assault on U.S. ships in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 and an attack on the U.S. air base at Pleiku in 1965. The result was not what Le Duan expected. The U.S. responded with deployment of aircraft in substantial numbers, followed by introduction of ground troops, a sustained air campaign against North Vietnam, and a relentless buildup of U.S. ground forces.
Le Duan was not able to try GO-GU again until the Tet Offensive of 1968. In preparation for it, he carried out a purge in 1967 of those insufficiently enthusiastic about his plan. He did not strike directly at Ho or Giap, but he arrested and imprisoned dozens of their allies.
Ho went to China, returning to make a futile last stand against the offensive at the Politburo meeting in December 1967. Giap fled to Hungary, where he remained until early 1968. He took no part in the Tet operation, which was commanded by others reporting directly to Le Duan. Neither Ho nor Giap challenged Le Duan publicly.
On the night of Jan. 30-31, 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong insurgents attacked cities, towns, and military bases all over South Vietnam, striking in more than 100 locations. The offensive was defeated at every point. The Viet Cong lost 80 percent of its infrastructure and was destroyed as an effective fighting force.
However, U.S. leaders managed to turn battlefield victory into a strategic defeat. Having depicted the war as almost won, they lost faith, abandoned the goal of winning the war, and sought a negotiated settlement. That was not what Le Duan wanted. His second shot at winning the war had failed and it would be years before he had the resources for another attempt.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials repeated their misperceptions. The State Department said that “Ho Chi Minh and leaders in Hanoi planned the Tet Offensive,” and U.S. commander Gen. William C. Westmoreland declared that “the myth of General Giap’s military genius was discredited.”
The New York Times noted the absence of Giap in Hanoi but had an explanation: He had moved temporarily to a command center closer to the action in the South. Westmoreland believed reports from his intelligence staff that Giap had been seen “coming and going” around the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh. As late as 2013, a retrospective in the Washington Post said the Tet Offensive “was orchestrated by General Giap.”
Ho Chi Minh died Sept. 2, 1969. Most of his titles were relegated to ceremonial use. “Collective leadership” was supposedly in force, but Le Duan continued in firm control via his position as first secretary. At the funeral, he read Ho’s political will, which urged the preservation of party unity and predicted the defeat of the United States.
Giap published several journal articles urging concentration on mobile strike units instead of massed forces. According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence took this to mean that “in the light of the failure of the big enemy offensives in 1968, the 57-year-old defense minister had evolved a new strategic concept, making a virtue out of a necessity.”
The Easter Invasion
In 1972, with virtually all U.S. ground forces withdrawn from Vietnam, Le Duan saw a renewed opportunity. He threw 90,000 North Vietnamese troops into a three-pronged invasion across the DMZ and out of Laos and Cambodia. Unfortunately for him, some US air power remained and it was rapidly augmented.
As airstrikes intensified, Hanoi sustained huge losses in a failed effort. The bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong in December 1972 forced Le Duan and Le Duc Tho to bargain for a settlement. The Paris Peace Accords were signed Jan. 28.
U.S. negotiator Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize. Tho declined to accept, saying that “peace has not yet been established.” In fact, North Vietnamese losses and the cease-fire had the practical effect of delaying conquest of South Vietnam for another two years.
Giap was kept on the sidelines during the 1972 operation, but the press held him responsible anyway. The New York Times reported that it was Giap who “bore the brunt of criticism” for the defeat. The Washington Post said, “He was relieved of his command after his Easter Offensive failed.”
In March 1975, with the United States long gone from Vietnam, Le Duan finally launched a successful invasion of the south, a massive operation that led to the fall of Saigon within six weeks. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Giap was removed from his nominal position as Minister of Defense in 1980 and lost his seat in the Politburo in 1982. Enough was left of his earlier fame for him to be permitted a small role as vice prime minister for science and education.
Le Duan died in 1986. Even then, he was still seen in the shadow of Ho Chi Minh, his own history misconstrued once again. His obituary in the New York Times said that “he had proved to be a faithful and able executor of the political will of Ho Chi Minh by managing to maintain the collective leadership that Ho left as a legacy on his death in 1969.”
Le Duc Tho’s death in 1990 drew limited attention, his influence having been in decline for some time.
The Legends Persist
Fifty years after the Vietnam War, the legends of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap appear to be firmly rooted, both in the United States and in Vietnam.
Giap outlived all of the others. When he died in 2013 at the age of 102, the major newspapers gave him full credit for the military victory. The obituary headline in the Washington Post said, “Giap Defeated French, U.S. Forces in Vietnam Conflicts,” and the New York Times headline referred to him as “Giap, Who Ousted U.S. From Vietnam.”
According to the Telegraph in Britain, Giap stands “second only to the late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as modern Vietnam’s most revered figure.”
Today, Ho’s picture appears on all Vietnamese currency, as well as in most public buildings and schools. His birthday is an official state holiday.
Since 1975, Ho’s preserved body has been on display in a glass-enclosed casket at a mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi, where Ho read the Declaration of Independence Sept. 2, 1945. The queue of those waiting to enter stretches for several hundred meters.
Ho’s expressed wish was that he be cremated, but the regime had a different need for the symbol of the nation.