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A Worthy Opponent

General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died in Hanoi on October 4 at age 102, evoked a wide range of emotions from opponents and compatriots alike, but ambivalence was not among them. To some he was a reviled butcher willing to expend lives wholesale to achieve his military goals, to others a revered mastermind who successfully drove two Western powers from Vietnam against incredible odds.

Giap made his name at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when his Viet Minh troops surrounded a French garrison and forced its surrender after a 55-day siege. In a 1999 PBS interview, he called it “the first great victory for a weak, colonized people struggling against the full strength of modern Western forces.”

A little more than a decade later, against an even more formidable Western adversary, he formulated a strategic plan that over several years gradually eroded that nation’s will to continue the fight, eventually forcing its withdrawal. Whether you consider America’s ultimate defeat in Vietnam the result of misguided strategy, political meddling, social upheaval at home, negative media coverage or some combination of those factors, the fact remains that Giap was the architect of that defeat.

Although the full extent of his involvement in planning the 1968 Tet Offensive is unclear, Giap was charged with carrying it out, and like any good military man he did his best to achieve its goals. But by any measure Tet was a military disaster for the Communists, who sustained more than 50 percent casualties in the two months following the offensive’s January 30 launch. Many Viet Cong units were decimated, and the hoped-for uprising against the South Vietnamese government failed to materialize.

Perhaps more important, though, Tet was a public relations nightmare for U.S. military commanders and political leaders, who had been led to believe the enemy was incapable of such an audacious multifront assault. As James A. Warren writes in our excerpt from his new book, Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam , “It clearly set into motion a series of events that would lead to the abandonment of America’s long quest for military victory and a decision by President Lyndon Johnson to de-escalate the conflict.” In that sense, Warren says, it was a military masterpiece on the order of Dien Bien Phu.

With the benefit of hindsight, Giap himself recognized that. As he told journalist Stanley Karnow in 1990, “We wanted to project the war into the homes of America’s families, because we knew that most of them had nothing against us.” Whether Giap truly sought to use Tet to change public opinion in America or whether it was an unintended consequence of the offensive remains open to question. In the end, it doesn’t really matter: The result was the same.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.