A series examining contentious issues of the Vietnam War
Since the early 2000s quotes attributed to Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s top commander for most of the war, have been circulating online as evidence that North Vietnam would have surrendered if the United States had applied just a bit more military pressure.
In one version, Giap purportedly says in his 1985 postwar memoir How We Won the War that the United States had been on the verge of defeating North Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive.
In the second version, the quote relates to the intense U.S. B-52 bombing campaign in December 1972 during Operation Linebacker II, which struck Hanoi and Haiphong. The alleged quote is something along these lines: “What we still don’t understand is why you Americans stopped the bombing of Hanoi. You had us on the ropes. If you had pressed us a little harder, just for another day or two, we were ready to surrender.”
Did Giap actually say that? The short answer is no. The Giap quote is a myth. As it turns out, the original source is not a communist official but rather a British counterinsurgency expert. I will explain.
First, let us dispense with the obvious falsehoods. Giap’s memoir was originally published in 1976, not 1985, and nowhere inside its pages does he say that North Vietnam contemplated surrendering at any point in the war. Indeed, the essential point he makes in his memoir—as with every other book, article and speech he produced—was his unshakable resolve to keep fighting until Hanoi had reunified North and South under a single government controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
So where did the bogus quote originate?
In an unlikely place. In the spring of 1974, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts held a colloquium on “The Military Lessons of the Vietnam War” attended by a mix of former government officials, academics and media figures. Those proceedings appeared in an edited volume by Crane, Russak & Company titled The Lessons of Vietnam.
One participant, British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, commented on the Operation Linebacker II campaign, which forced North Vietnam back to the conference table and resulted in the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973.
Thompson, who had no special insight into North Vietnamese thinking or sources, wrote on Page 105, “In my view, on December 30, 1972, after eleven days of those B-52 attacks on the Hanoi area, you had won the war! It was over!” However, Thompson makes it clear that his phrase “won the war” referred to North Vietnam’s willingness to sign the peace treaty, which allowed the United States to leave the war but did not produce an actual U.S. victory.
With the explosion of social media channels in the 2000s, Thompson’s quote was borrowed, transformed and then repeated on a massive scale. Now the truth can be known.
Dr. Erik Villard is a Vietnam War specialist at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort McNair in Washington D.C.
This article appeared in the August 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: