[News] May 7, 1954 Vietnamese victory over French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 7 11:07:47 EDT 2012
Interview with Vo Nguyen Giap
Viet Minh Commander
Q: Was Diên Bin Phû a conventional military
victory or was it a victory for military warfare?
Giap: The victory at Diên Bin Phû was a victory
for the people. But then, of course, while the
concept of a people's war and guerrilla warfare
are not entirely separate, they are separate
nonetheless. In this case, it was the people's
war that was victorious. And guerrilla warfare
was one aspect of that people's war. It's all
quite complicated.... What is the people's war?
Well, in a word, it's a war fought for the people
by the people, whereas guerrilla warfare is
simply a combat method. The people's war is more
global in concept. It's a synthesized concept. A
war which is simultaneously military, economic
and political, and is what we in France would
call "synthesized." There's guerrilla warfare and
there's large-scale tactical warfare, fought by large units.
Q: What was new about the idea of the "People's War"?
Giap: It was a war for the people by the people.
FOR the people because the war's goals are the
people's goals -- goals such as independence, a
unified country, and the happiness of its
people.... And BY the people -- well that means
ordinary people -- not just the army but all people.
We know it's the human factor, and not material
resources, which decide the outcome of war.
That's why our people's war, led by Ho Chi Minh,
was on such a large scale. It took in the whole population.
Q: What do you think about the significance of Diên Bin Phû for the world?
Giap: The history of the Vietnamese people goes
back thousands of years. During that time we've
repelled thousands of invaders. Only, in former
times the countries that tried to invade us were
on the same economic level as we were. Theirs,
like ours, was a feudal society. That was the
case, for example, when we fought the Chinese in
the 13th century. But Diên Bin Phû was a victory
in another era. What I mean is that in the latter
half of the 19th century, when western
imperialism divided the world into colonies, a
new problem emerged. How could a weak,
economically backwards people ever hope to regain
its freedom? How could it hope to take on a
modern western army, backed by the resources of a
modern capitalist state? And that's why it took
us 100 years to fight off the French and French
imperialism. Diên Bin Phû was the first great
decisive victory after 100 years of war against
French imperialism and U.S. interventionism. That
victory that put an end to the war and marked the
end of French aggression. From an international
point of view, 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 -- it
was the beginning of international civilization.
Q: Was Diên Bin Phû an easy victory because the French made so many mistakes?
Giap: It's not as simple as that. We believed
that in the French camp, French general staff and
the military chiefs were well informed. They'd
weighed up the pros and cons, and according to
their forecasts, Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. It
has to be said that at the beginning of the
autumn of '53, for example, when our political
headquarters were planning our autumn and winter
campaigns, there was no mention of Diên Bin Phû.
Why? Because, the Navarre plan didn't mention it
either. They had a whole series of maneuvers planned.
For us, the problem was that Navarre wanted to
retain the initiative whereas we wanted to seize
it. There is a contradiction that exists in a war
of aggression whereby you have to disperse your
forces to occupy a territory but rally your
mobile forces for offensive action. We took
advantage of this contradiction and forced
Navarre to disperse his forces. That's how it all
started. We ordered our troops to advance in a
number of directions, directions of key
importance to the enemy although their presence
wasn't significant. So the enemy had no choice
but to disperse their troops. We sent divisions
north, northwest, toward the center, towards
Laos; other divisions went in other directions.
So to safeguard Laos and the northwest, Navarre
had to parachute troops into Diên Bin Phû, and
that's what happened at Diên Bin Phû. Before
then, no one had heard of Diên Bin Phû. But
afterwards, well that's history, isn't it? French
General Staff only planned to parachute in
sufficient troops to stop us advancing on the
northwest and Laos. Little by little, they
planned to transform Diên Bin Phû into an
enormous concentration camp, a fortified camp,
the most powerful in Indochina. They planned to
draw our forces, break us, crush us, but the
opposite took place. They'd wanted a decisive
battle and that's exactly what they got at Diên
Bin Phû -- except that it was decisive for the
Vietnamese and not for the French.
Q: Before Diên Bin Phû, do you think the French
ever imagined you could defeat them?
Giap: Well, everyone at Diên Bin Phû, from the
French generals and representatives of the French
government to the American generals and the
commanding admiral of the Pacific Fleet, agreed
that Diên Bin Phû was impregnable. Everyone
agreed that it was impossible to take. The French
and then the Americans underestimated our
strength. They had better weapons and enormous
military and economic potential. They never
doubted that victory would be theirs. And yet,
just when the French believed themselves to be on
the verge of victory, everything collapsed around
them. The same happened to the Americans in the
Spring of '65. Just when Washington was about to
proclaim victory in the South, the Americans saw
their expectations crumble. Why? Because it
wasn't just an army they were up against but an
entire people -- an entire people.
So the lesson is that however great the military
and economic potential of your adversary, it will
never be great enough to defeat a people united
in the struggle for their fundamental rights.
That's what we've learned from all this.
Q: Why was the National Liberation Front so
successful in expanding the areas it controlled between 1960 and 1965?
Giap: Throughout our long history, whenever we've
felt ourselves to be threatened by the enemy, our
people have closed in the ranks. Millions of
people, united, have called for "Unification
above all," for "Victory above all".... The
National Liberation Front was victorious because
it managed to unite most of the people and because its politics were just.
Q: Did you change your tactics at all when the
American troops began to arrive after 1965?
Giap: Of course, but even so, it was still a
people's war. And, a people's war is
characterized by a strategy that is more than
simply military. There's always a synthesized
aspect to the strategy, too. Our strategy was at
once military, political, economic, and
diplomatic, although it was the military
component which was the most important one.
In a time of war, you have to take your lead from
the enemy. You have to know your enemy well. When
your enemy changes his strategy or tactics, you
have to do the same. In every war, a strategy is
always made up of a number of tactics that are
considered to be of great strategic importance,
so you have to try to smash those tactics. If we
took on the cavalry, for example, we'd do
everything we could to smash that particular
tactic. It was the same when the enemy made use
of strategic weapons.... And, when the Americans
tried to apply their "seek and destroy" tactic,
we responded with our own particular tactic that
was to make their objective unattainable and
destroy them instead. We had to...force the enemy
to fight the way we wanted them to fight. We had
to force the enemy to fight on unfamiliar territory.
Q: Was your Têt offensive in 1968 a failure?
Giap: As far as we're concerned, there's no such
thing as a purely military strategy. So it would
be wrong to speak of Têt in purely military
terms. The offensive was three things at the same
time: military, political, and diplomatic. The
goal of the war was de-escalation. We were
looking to de-escalate the war. Thus, it would
have been impossible to separate our political
strategy from our military strategy. The truth is
that we saw things in their entirety and knew
that in the end, we had to de-escalate the war.
At that point, the goal of the offensive was to try to de-escalate the war.
Q: And did the de-escalation succeed?
Giap: Your objective in war can either be to wipe
out the enemy altogether or to leave their forces
partly intact but their will to fight destroyed.
It was the American policy to try and escalate
the war. Our goal in the '68 offensive was to
force them to de-escalate, to break the American will to remain in the war....
We did this by confronting them with repeated
military, as well as political and diplomatic
victories. By bringing the war to practically all
the occupied towns, we aimed to show the
Americans and the American people that it would
be impossible for them to continue with the war.
Essentially, that's how we did it.
Q: You are familiar with those famous pictures of
April 1975, of American helicopters flying away
from the American Embassy. What do those pictures mean to you?
Giap: It was as we expected. It marked the end of
the American neo-colonial presence in our
country. And, it proved that when a people are
united in their fight for freedom, they will always be victorious.
When I was young, I had a dream that one day I'd
see my country free and united. That day, my
dream came true. When the political bureau
reunited Hanoi with Laos, there were first
reports of evacuation. Then the Saigon government
capitulated. It was like turning the page on a
chapter of history. The streets in Hanoi were full of people.
The pictures of the helicopters were, in one way,
a concrete symbol of the victory of the People's
war against American aggression. But, looked at
another way, it's proof that the Pentagon could
not possibly predict what would happen. It
revealed the sheer impossibility for the
Americans to forecast the outcome. Otherwise,
they would have planned things better, wouldn't they.
The reality of history teaches us that not even
the most powerful economic and military force can
overcome a resistance of a united people, a
people united in their struggle for their
international rights. There is a limit to power.
I think the Americans and great superpowers would
do well to remember that while their power may be
great, it is inevitably limited.... Since the
beginning of time, whether in a socialist or a
capitalist country, the things you do in the
interests of the people stand you in good stead,
while those which go against the interest of the
people will eventually turn against you. History bears out what I say.
We were the ones who won the war and the
Americans were the ones who were defeated, but
let's be precise about this. What constitutes
victory? The Vietnamese people never wanted war;
they wanted peace. Did the Americans want war?
No, they wanted peace, too. So, the victory was a
victory for those people in Vietnam and in the
USA who wanted peace. Who, then, were the ones
defeated? Those who were after aggression at any
price. And that's why we're still friends with
the people of France and why we've never felt any
enmity for the people of America....
Q: Who invented the idea of People's war? Whose idea was it originally?
Giap: It was originally a product of the creative
spirit of the people. Let me tell you the legend
of Phu Dong...which everyone here knows well.
It's a legend set in prehistoric times. The enemy
was set to invade, and there was a three-year-old
boy called Phu Dong who was growing visibly
bigger by the minute. He climbed on to an iron
horse and, brandishing bamboo canes as weapons,
rallied the people. The peasants, the fisherman,
everyone answered his call, and they won the war.
It's just a legend and like popular literature,
the content is legendary, but it still reflects
the essence of the people's thinking. So, popular
warfare existed even in legends, and it remained with us over the centuries.
Q: Why do you think Vietnam is almost the only
country in the world that has defeated America? Why only Vietnam?
Giap: Speaking as a historian, I'd say that
Vietnam is rare. As a nation, Vietnam was formed
very early on. It is said that, in theory, a
nation can only be formed after the arrival of
Capitalism -- according to Stalin's theory of the
formation of nations, for instance. But, our
nation was formed very early, before the
Christian era. Why? Because the risk of
aggression from outside forces led all the
various tribes to band together. And then there
was the constant battle against the elements,
against the harsh winter conditions that prevail
here. In our legends, this struggle against the
elements is seen as a unifying factor, a force
for national cohesion. This, combined with the
constant risk of invasion, made for greater
cohesion and created a tradition -- a tradition that gave us strength.
The Vietnamese people in general tend to be
optimistic. Why? Because they've been facing up
to vicissitudes for thousands of years, and for
thousands of years they've been overcoming them.
Q: What was the contribution of Marxism and
Leninism to your theory of a People's War?
The People's War in Vietnam pre-dated the arrival
of Marxism and Leninism, both of which
contributed something when they did arrive, of course.
When the USSR collapsed, we predicted that 60 to
80 percent of our imports and exports budget
would be eliminated because we depended upon aid
from the USSR and other socialist countries. So
people predicted the collapse of Vietnam. Well,
we're still hanging on and slowly making
progress. I was asked what I thought of
Perestroika, so I answered that I agreed with the
change and thought it was necessary in political
relations. But Perestroika is a Russian word,
made for the Russians. Here we do things the
Vietnamese way. And we make the most of our hopes
and the hopes of those in Russia, China, the USA,
Japan, Great Britain -- but we try to assimilate them all.
As I mentioned, the Vietnamese people have an
independent spirit, stubborn people, I suppose,
who do things the Vietnamese way. So now the plan
is to mobilize the entire population in the fight
against backwardness and misery. While there are
the problems of war and the problems of peace,
there are also concrete laws, social laws, great
laws, which retain their value whether in peace
or war. You have to be realistic. You have to
have a goal. You have to be a realist and use
reality as a means of analyzing the object laws
which govern things. To win, you have to act
according to these laws. If you do the opposite,
you're being subjective and you're bound to lose.
So, we learn from the experience, both good and
bad, of Capitalism. But, we have our own
Vietnamese idea on things. I'd like to add that
we are still for independence, that we still
follow the path shown us by Ho Chi Minh, the path
of independence and Socialism. I'm still a
Socialist but what is Socialism? It's
independence and unity for the country. It's the
freedom and well-being of the people who live
there. And, it's peace and friendship between all people.
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