The War with the French 4

Commenting on my fluency in French, he remarked, “I’m glad to see that you are cosmopolitan”—as if he felt that we shared a bond as products of France’s grande mission civ- ilisatrice. Like many Vietnamese nationalists of his generation, Giap had embraced French culture while resisting French colonialism. As a young man, perhaps to advertise his Western tastes, he affected a white suit, striped tie and gray fedora—a contrast to Ho’s ascetic tunic and rubber-tire sandals.
As he started to talk seriously, Giap exploded in a torrent of words. He modulated his voice with practiced precision—sometimes whis¬pering, sometimes raising his pitch to stress a point, sometimes re¬peating phrases for emphasis. Endowed with a prodigious memory, he remembered the names of old comrades, or evoked events dating back decades. He was often didactic, a vestige of his youth as a school¬teacher, and he frequently lapsed into hackneyed political slogans that recalled his revolutionary vocation. Like generals everywhere, he also glossed over his failures. He reluctantly conceded when I mentioned his dark periods that, yes, “there were difficult times—moments when we wondered how we could go on.” But, he thundered, “we were never pessimistic. Never! Never! Never!”
The French had conquered Vietnam by the early twentieth century, but they never entirely eliminated its nationalist fervor, and their au¬thority was chronically challenged by protests and uprisings, many of which they quelled brutally. Giap was nurtured in this roil of rebellion.
The elder of two sons in a family of five children, he was born in 1911 in the Quangbinh province village of An Xa, just north of the line that partitioned Vietnam forty-three years later. The region of rice fields, coconut groves and jungles, set against a horizon of hazy mountains, had been recently “pacified” by the French, and the ex¬ploits of its partisans were still fresh in the minds of villagers. At the local kindergarten Giap was taught elementary French, but at home his parents manifested their patriotism by speaking only Vietnamese. His mother, the daughter of a holdout against the French, told him stories of Vietnamese heroes. A scholarly peasant in the Confucian tradition, his father demonstrated his nationalism by teaching Viet¬namese in Chinese ideographs rather than quoc ngu, the romanized alphabet introduced by the French. From his father Giap learned to read his first book, a history of Vietnam for children. “In that book I discovered our forebears, our martyrs, our duty to expunge our past humiliation,” he told.me. Then, switching from French to Vietnam¬ese, he recited a couplet from a poem his father had taught him, evoking the legendary dynasty that founded Vietnam three thousand years before Christ:
We are descended from the Hong Bang.
Ancient shame is never forgotten.
Giap’s father, like many Vietnamese, was a strong proponent of education, and he sent his son to board at the province school. Looking back three-quarters of a century to the day he left home, Giap said wistfully, “My mama and I were separating for the first time, and we both wept.” He excelled as a pupil and, in 1924, went to the old imperial capital of Hue to attend the prestigious Quoc Hoc academy, whose alumni included Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem. There, at the age of thirteen, his political education began.
He joined a clandestine youth group that met to discuss anticolonial books and periodicals—among them smuggled copies of Le Paria, edited by Nguyen Ai Quoc, as Ho then called himself. But Giap and his comrades drew more direct inspiration from Phan Boi Chau, the veteran nationalist, whom the French had put under loose house arrest in Hue. At their gatherings Chau would recite poetry, lecture on history and deliver exhortations: “The cock is crowing! Arise, arise, arise! Stand firm, and prepare for action!”
Thus aroused, the students staged a strike to protest against a French ban on nationalist newspapers. The strike fizzled, Giap was expelled from school, and the French police inscribed his name in their dossiers, thereby making him a perennial suspect. “We now wondered what to do next,” he recalled. “Nobody knew. We lacked direction.” Giap found his gospel after he was hired as assistant to a Vietnamese teacher who owned an illicit collection of Marx’s works in French. “I spent my nights reading them, and my eyes opened,” he said. “Marx¬ism promised revolution, an end to oppression, the happiness of man¬kind. It echoed the appeals of Ho Chi Minh, who wrote that downtrodden peoples should join the proletariat of all countries to gain their liberation. Nationalism made me a Marxist, as it did so many Vietnamese, especially intellectuals and students.” Still he clung to the Confucian ethic he had inherited from his father. “Marxism,” he went on, “also seemed to me to coincide with the ideals of our ancient society, when the emperor and his subjects lived in harmony, when everyone worked and prospered together, when the old and children were cared for. It was a utopian dream.”
Drifting back to his native village, Giap considered going to China to join Ho, who had formed a youth league there. But instead he returned to Hue as an organizer for an underground movement. By 1930, the global depression was devastating Vietnam’s economy, and peasant uprisings spread throughout the country. The French brutally repressed the revolts, summarily executing some eight hundred Viet¬namese and jailing thousands without trial. Seeing the disorder as an opportunity, Ho founded the Indochinese Communist party.

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