Perhaps the worst problem Giap faced was not U.S. ground forces but an almost unbelievable amount of attacks from the air that not only slaughtered untold numbers of civilians in both halves of Vietnam but came close to destroying Hanoi’s economy, making it more dependent than ever on supplies from China and the Soviet Union. One response, which Giap approved, was to dig underground tunnels throughout the country — some with living space — so families, farmers, workers and soldiers could find safety from bombs, shells, napalm, and Agent Orange poison defoliant.
U.S. bombs and heavy artillery pulverized Indochina. The Pentagon detonated 15,500,000 tons of air and ground munitions —12,000,000 tons on South Vietnam alone. By comparison, the U.S. detonated only 6,000,000 tons of ground and air munitions throughout World War II in Europe and the Far East. All told, by the end of the war, 26,000,000 bomb craters pockmarked Indochina, nearly all from U.S. weapons and bombers.
Vietnam’s most famous battle of the war was the Tet Offensive, led by about 85,000 National Liberation Front and Vietnam Peoples Army troops from the north between Jan. 30-March 28, 1968, against soldiers from South Vietnam, the U.S., South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. (Tet is the lunar newyear.) Two smaller, follow-up phases of the offensive took place May 5-June 15 and Aug. 17-Sept. 23. (It is estimated that some 200,000 NLF/VPA may have participated in the entire campaign. The U.S. et al troop strength was about a million.)
Liberation fighters attacked Saigon, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, a few autonomous cities, 64 district capitals and dozens of hamlets. They raided many military bases and airfields. In Saigon, they attacked the U.S. embassy and the Presidential Palace.
Ultimately, the attack did not succeed in militarily terms. NLF/VPA troops suffered far higher casualties and retained only a trace of territory. The uprising that the planners believed would take place throughout South Vietnam — a prime objective — did not happen.
Politically, however, the Tet Offensive was a strategic success for the Vietnamese, leading to U.S. withdrawal in five years and to complete victory two years later.
On the home front before Tet, Washington was promising that victory we near, and the truth is that that the DRV and the Liberated Zones of South Korea had taken a terrible beating. But many Americans had already turned against the war. The antiwar movement was large and vocal. Gradually, the truth about America’s brutal conduct in the war began to leak out. For many Americans the enormous scope of the Tet offensive was a shock, propelling many more into the antiwar camp.
As a direct result of Tet and the shift in public opinion, Johnson made two historic moves. (1) In March he announced that America’s vicious bombing campaign, Operation Rolling Thunder, would end Nov. 1, paving the way for peace talks. (2) This was followed by an announcement March 31 that Johnson would not run for a second term in the November elections.
Giap is often depicted as the brilliant general behind Tet, but that does not appear to be accurate. He evidently entertained qualms about a massive attack as opposed to expanding a guerrilla-type struggle. For almost a year, the upper political and military echelons of the government and Workers Party discussed, argued about and finally planned the Tet Offensive. Some of the arguments reflected differences in approach that evidently emanated from the Sino-Soviet ideological split. Once the decision was made, all sides — certainly including Ho, who seemed to be in the middle — united to make it as successful as possible.
Gen. Hoang Van Thai led the Tet campaign. Giap himself was now the Defense Minister, and worked for its success, though he was critical of the failure to order the withdrawal of troops in vulnerable situations. Over the years Giap made these comments about Tet:
“The Tet offensive had been directed primarily at the people of South Vietnam, but as it turned out, it affected the people of the United States more. Until Tet, they thought they could win the war, but now they knew that they could not.”
He told the journalist Stanley Karnow: “We wanted to show the Americans that we were not exhausted, that we could attack their arsenals, communications, elite units, even their headquarters, the brains behind the war…. We wanted to project the war into the homes of America’s families, because we knew that most of them had nothing against us.”
Ho Chi Minh died at the age of 79 on Sept. 2, 1969. He had been ill and relinquished his offices four years earlier, remaining one of the party leaders. He was and is Vietnam’s most beloved figure. Ho was also Giap’s mentor and close ally.
U.S. Troops pulled entirely out of Vietnam in 1973.
The final days of the war for liberation, reunification, and socialism began with the 1975 Spring Offensive led by Gen. Van Tien Dung, who was Giap’s chief of staff during the fight for Dien Bien Phu. Giap was consulted but did not play a big role. Virtually the entire armed forces where thrown into the campaign to capture Saigon, the capital, of southern Vietnam, which succeeded on April 30, 1975. The name Saigon was soon changed to Ho Chi Minh City, now a thriving metropolis. The name of the unified state was the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Giap advised against the invasion of Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge, which took place Dec. 25, 1978. He was removed as Defense Minister earlier that year. He lost his position as a long time member of the party’s top organization, the Politburo, in 1982, and his tenure as deputy prime minister ended in 1991.
He was without portfolio, but that did nothing to reduce his extreme popularity among the Vietnamese people, where it remains to this day. Giap was out of power, but he lived quite comfortably. In his latter years, he became an outspoken environmentalist. In time, he regained considerable public recognition. The party brought him back to public view when he was honored at the 40th anniversary of the victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1994, and the 30th anniversary of victory and the naming of Ho Chi Minh City in 2005.
This writer attended the 2005 ceremonies as a guest. Giap was seated in the front row of a grandstand during a military parade celebrating the liberation. Up close, he was a very old, very small man with pure white hair, adorned in a splendored white general’s uniform with golden epaulets. He had only one medal on his chest. He was also the center of attention — a giant of a man who helped slay the dragons of Japanese, French and American imperialism.