HANOI, VIETNAM – Former Vietnamese general and perennial Democratic presidential candidate Vo Nguyen Giap died this morning at his home in Hanoi. He was 102.
In Washington, flags were ordered to fly at half-mast for the soldier Henry Kissinger once credited as “the man who single-handedly got the U.S. out of the Vietnam War.”
Several leading Congressional representatives, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), held a moment of silence on Capitol Hill for the fallen soldier. Giap was technically a constituent of hers, having been made an honorary citizen of San Francisco in 1968. Pelosi has already sponsored a resolution to have Giap’s name added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has sponsored his own resolution, unofficially backed by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, thanking Giap for the “years of hospitality” and offering to repay the favor by having Giap’s body flown by helicopter from the rooftop of the American embassy in Vietnam and dumped in the South China Sea.
The general leaves a mixed legacy. He is a household presence in much of the United States, his name frequently uttered along with other four-letter words in Veterans Affairs hospitals throughout the country.
Surprisingly, he is relatively unknown in his own country, mostly due to popular perception that the war was a Vietnamese defeat. In fact, a poll conducted by the Thanh Nien newspaper last year found that more than 80 percent of Vietnamese now believe the United States won the Vietnam War.
The legendary general had made headlines recently with his revelation last spring that the government of North Vietnam was literally days away from quitting the Vietnam War, even as its troops overran Saigon in 1975. He was interviewed by Duffel Blog in April 2013 at his private residence in Hanoi, on the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.
“As our tanks were rolling into the presidential palace [in South Vietnam], if America had conducted just one more air strike we would have thrown in the towel,” Giap admitted. “And thank god they didn’t,” Giap added, “because, let me tell you, that tank was running on fumes.”
The general, who had previously given multiple interviews about the conduct of North Vietnam during the conflict, told reporters that he felt the time was right to set the record straight about “our long national nightmare.”
“We had actually been looking for a way to end this endless war or ‘quagmire,’ that we had found ourselves stuck in, ever since 1945,” Giap said. “Just when we thought we were done fighting the Japanese we found ourselves fighting the French and then the Americans.”
Giap also added, “We weren’t even supposed to win [the Vietnam War]. We were just trying to get rid of a group of political prisoners and create the face-saving conditions for us to sue for peace.”
After ten years of bloody stalemate, North Vietnam launched one, last-chance offensive in 1975 using several thousand “expendable” old men and prisoners, pushing mostly wooden tanks and carrying loudspeakers meant to simulate an entire army.
“When we saw pictures of the American helicopters over their embassy, we just assumed they were bringing in reinforcements and figured the game was up,” Giap laughed. “Even after the South Vietnamese surrendered, we thought it was some kind of trick and fled to the hills for a month until we found out we’d actually overrun the country.”
Duong Xuan Dung, a soldier with the 324th Division in the People’s Army of Vietnam, was one of Giap’s soldiers.
“They just kept sending us south and assumed we were all getting killed,” Comrade Dung told Duffel Blog in his village of Ap Bac. In reality we kept looking for someone to surrender to, but all the South Vietnamese we saw ran away from us. We figured if we went all the way to Saigon, someone there would have to accept our surrender.”
“I think when we burst into the presidential palace it was a race to see who could surrender faster — us or the enemy.”
Actress and sometime-girlfriend Jane Fonda has already confirmed she will be singing “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Giap’s favorite song, at his funeral.