Commentary: Giap: Not since Hannibal


WASHINGTON, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Each year 140.4 million people are born in the world while 56.7 million die. That's a net increase of 83.6 million, the equivalent of the entire population of Egypt or Germany or Iran. And those who die each year are the same number as the entire population of Italy.

These were the kind of stats that made Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who died last week at 102, the greatest military strategic logistician since Hannibal. He defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu May 7, 1954, and then defeated the United States ("demoralized the U.S. Congress" would be more accurate) with the Paris Peace Accords of 1973.


The U.S. Congress cut off all aid to Army of the Republic of Vietnam -- the South Vietnamese army. This, in turn, collapsed what little ARVN morale was left.


The 1968 Tet offensive marked the critical year for the change in U.S. attitudes about the war.

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Led by CBS's superstar Walter Cronkite, Tet was described as an unmitigated disaster for the United States. In reality, as confirmed by North Vietnamese officials after the war, it was an unmitigated military disaster for Hanoi.

Cronkite had declared the war lost and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson then decided not to run again. There was direct cause and effect.

In the Tet offensive, almost the entire Vietcong guerrilla army and several North Vietnamese army elite units were wiped out by the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. Communist guerrillas were repulsed from the 27 cities and towns and bases attacked simultaneously on Jan. 30, 1968.

This, in turn, forced Hanoi to throw almost its entire regular army into the ongoing guerrilla war in South Vietnam.

Giap didn't care about casualties. For him, based on history, combat deaths were statistics. Exponential population growth would soon erase human losses.

To defeat the French, Giap drove his army through 180 miles of mountainous jungle from Hanoi's Red River Delta region to the hilltops overlooking the valley of Dien Bien Phu, including 200 artillery tubes and Russian Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, shells, ammunition and food, all by hand as well as detached into smaller pieces on thousands of bicycles.


Porters humped 60-pound loads averaging 15 miles a night.

French recon aircraft detected nothing by day. Yet Giap's army kept moving under double canopy jungle.

The French had 24 105mm light howitzers. They also had 10 tanks, flown in small pieces and reassembled in the valley. And their strong points were codenamed Beatrice, Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, Isabelle, Huguette and Dominique, all rumored to be named after former mistresses of the handsome French commander Gen. Christian de Castries.

Giap's logistical tour de force had everything in place by March 12, 1953, unbeknown to French intelligence.

The effective camouflage of Giap's artillery blinded French artillery and its commander, one-armed Col. Charles Piroth went into his bunker, pulled the pin on a grenade and killed himself.

Monsoon rains flooded bunkers and command posts and fighters frequently found themselves in waist-high water.

French commander for North Vietnam Gen. Rene Cogny correctly assessed the pending disaster. This reporter was with Cogny on the first day of the operation, as French Foreign Legion paratroopers were still dropping from DC-3s into the valley.

Cogny confided, off the record, that the overall French supremo for Vietnam, Gen. Henri Navarre, declined his request for more troops to hold the high ground around the valley.


Cogny thought Giap was capable of moving a substantial force from Hanoi to the valley of Dien Bien Phu. Navarre concluded such a logistical feat would be mission impossible for Giap.

Navarre, meanwhile, had received instructions from his defense minister in Paris (which he relayed to Cogny, who showed them to me off the record as we flew into Dien Bien Phu Nov. 19, 1953, on the first day of the entire operation): "Urgent you launch spectacular operation with minimum losses and maximum publicity," said the minister's order.

This reporter testified before a pre-court-martial hearing in Paris that was convened to determine whether charges against Cogny would be justified. He was exonerated of any wrongdoing and died in 1968 in the crash at sea of a military aircraft returning from Corsica to Marseilles.

The Geneva conference on Indochina convened two weeks before Dien Bien Phu fell to Giap's troops after a 170-day siege. The Soviet Union, China, France, Britain and the United States attended.

France's 800-man battalions had been reduced to 80 men by Giap's artillery. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Some 2,500 were killed and 5,000 severely wounded out of 15,000. And some 2,000 prisoners died on the grim, almost 300-mile forced march up and down mountains back to the Hanoi area.


Many of the French troops were Algerian while Foreign Legion units, following World War II, were up to 50 percent Wehrmacht survivors (waving the rule of no more than 20 percent from the same country).

The miracle was that Ho Chi Minh's victorious Communist regime agreed to partition Vietnam at the 17th parallel, leaving South Vietnam free for a division that endured until 1975 when the Paris Peace Accords sealed, in effect, a final victory for Giap's strategy.

Under the Eisenhower administration, the United States was slowly tempted to get involved in the post-Dien Bien Phu era, confining the effort to military advisers assigned to rebuild a South Vietnamese army.

John Kennedy had neither such inhibitions nor such investment. Before Kennedy's assassination, 16,000 U.S. advisers had already been reassigned as fighters.

With 20/20 hindsight, the Vietnam War played no role in the final outcome of the Cold War.

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