Robert McNamara, America's defense secretary at the start of the Vietnam War, passed in 2009. Westmoreland passed in 2005. Giap's passing represents the end of an era. (Harvey Georges / AP)
You have to search hard to find a foreign general whose death makes it into the top stories in the U.S. media. Vo Nguyen Giap died earlier this month. He made the list.
Giap was the genius who defeated the U.S. in Vietnam. Knowing that history might — might — help the U.S. avoid similar such defeats in the future.
America’s defeat in Vietnam was almost pre-ordained. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote to President Harry Truman asking for U.S. help freeing Vietnam from its French colonial occupiers. He saw his country as a latter-day America, fighting for independence from European rule.
Indeed, the opening words of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence came verbatim from Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But rather than help the Vietnamese, the Americans helped the French.
Truman sent advisers to assist the French and by 1953 the U.S. was paying 80 percent of their costs of the war. After the French were defeated in 1954, they left Vietnam but America picked up the sword.
They boycotted the elections that were stipulated in the Geneva Accords which ended the French war. Asked why, Eisenhower stated bluntly, “Our guys would have lost.” Instead, the U.S. set up a separate government, “South Vietnam.” They even installed as its ruler the “emperor,” Bao Dai, whom the French had used as their puppet.
To be sure, the U.S. had its reasons for these actions. It believed it was losing a global battle against communism. In 1947, newly-independent India had declared for the Soviet camp. In 1949, China fell to the communists. And the Korean War was only fought to a draw in 1953, never won. Vietnam looked to the U.S. like the next “domino” to fall.
But the Vietnamese would never forget these betrayals. They constituted the “original sin” of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. They would make it impossible for the U.S. to ever “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese people. Without such support, victory could never be won.
It was Giap who led the military campaigns that exploited these resentments and defeated the Americans. His strategy is worth understanding.
The U.S. had vast superiority in firepower, mobility and resources. It believed these would allow it to grind down the Vietnamese and force them into submission. And it tried, mightily.
Over the course of the war the U.S. dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs, more than were dropped in all theaters, by all sides, in World War II combined. It sprayed 21 million gallons of Agent Orange. It spent $450 billion and gave up the lives of 58,000 of its young men. More than three million southeast Asians were killed. Yet the U.S. lost. Why?
Against the U.S. strategy of attrition, Giap carried out a strategy of “enervation.” Enervation meant sapping the enemy of his will to fight.
On the battlefield, it meant dragging out the war, harassing the enemy, avoiding serious engagement except where the likelihood of success was high, and withdrawing from firefights before serious losses were incurred.
It meant hiding in plain sight among civilians and sabotaging the infrastructure on which the American war machine depended. Enervation meant infiltrating the opposition to learn its battle plans and counting on the American public to tire of a seemingly immoral and unwinnable war.
This is the strategy Giap had used to defeat the French. It worked equally well to defeat the Americans.
In 1967 the U.S. military undertook a domestic “success offensive,” traveling the country telling people to hang in there, that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.” That fantasy was exploded by the Tet Offensive in January 1968 where the enemy attacked hundreds of installations throughout the South. It was the beginning of the end.
The next month Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense, resigned. In March, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run again for president. Plans were drawn up for withdrawal, though they would studiously try to disguise the fact of U.S. defeat.
In 1995, McNamara published his memoirs, “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.” He wrote, “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”
Defeat at anything is hard for Americans to stomach. That’s why we’ve almost wiped Vietnam out of our collective consciousness.
Perhaps General Giap’s death can help us learn from the first war America ever lost. If not, we are surely doomed to more.