The War with the French 5

Giap, at the time unaware of the new party, was caught in the French dragnet and sentenced to three years in a prison camp in the mountains near the Laotian border. A sympathetic French official released him before the end of his term, and he went to Hanoi, where he enrolled in the Lycée Albert Sarraut, a secondary school reserved for the French. Continuing his education, he earned a law degree at the University of Hanoi, another French institution. A French pro¬fessor, impressed by his abilities, urged him to go to France. But Giap spurned the advice, explaining that he could not desert his comrades.
He was meanwhile earning a living by teaching at the Thang Long school, a private establishment, whose faculty included several other young nationalists. One of Giap’s specialties was Vietnamese history— “to imbue students with patriotism,” he told me. His courses also included one on the French Revolution, through which he aimed, as he put it, “to spread the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.” He had read Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot and the other French philosophes. When I asked him to name his French hero, he snapped, “Robes¬pierre!” Astounded, I remonstrated, “But he was the architect of the Terror.” Giap, disregarding me, repeated, “Robespierre! Robespierre went jusqu’au bout—right to the end in the struggle for the people.” Was it true, as I had heard, that he admired Napoleon? “Bonaparte, yes. He was a revolutionary. Napoleon, no. He betrayed the people.”
In 1936, the “Popular Front” government in Paris, a coalition of Socialists and Communists, relaxed controls in Vietnam. Giap had by then enrolled in Vietnam’s Communist party, which was permitted to publish newspapers in French and Vietnamese. While still teaching, he wrote articles in both languages as well as a pamphlet on peasant revolution that borrowed heavily from Mao Zedong’s doctrines. He married a fellow Communist by the name of Minh Khai, and they had a child—who was the woman physicist I subsequently met at his home in Hanoi.
Giap avidly read Ho Chi Minh’s writings as they reached Vietnam from abroad. “I tried to imagine this man,” he recalled to me. “I looked forward to meeting him some day.”
His chance came in early 1940, after war had erupted in Europe. Ho, who was then in China, calculated that events in Europe would distract the French colonial administration, and he decided to reinforce his movement in Vietnam. He asked his agents to send him two young organizers, and they chose Giap and Pham Van Dong. Giap left Hanoi on the weekend, when his absence from school would not be noticed. His wife wept as he bade her farewell beside one of the city’s lakes. Arrested soon afterward by the French, she died in prison. Her sister and their brother-in-law, both Communists, were executed by a French firing squad. Giap did not learn of their deaths for three years, and he was distraught when he heard the news. He subsequently uncorked his emotions to a couple of French officials one evening over drinks, saying that the tragedy “destroyed my life.” Eventually he married again, this time the daughter of a professor.
Traveling without baggage, Giap and Dong went by train to Kun¬ming, the capital of Yunnan province, in southwestern China. There they met a frail figure with a wispy beard, the future Ho Chi Minh, who then went by the name of Vuong. Giap recalled his initial dis¬appointment. “Here was this legend,” he told me, “but he was just a man, like any other man.”
Judging perceiving Giap to be a potential military leader, Ho ordered him to undergo training at Mao Zedong’s sanctuary in Yenan, in north China, where the Chinese Communist conducted courses in guerrilla warfare. Giap objected, saying, “I wield a pen, not a sword.” But he departed nevertheless, wearing an oversized Chinese army uniform. He was en route when a telegram from Ho reached him, counter¬manding the order. France had fallen to the Germans, and the French colonial administration in Vietnam was in for a shock. On Ho’s in¬structions, Giap returned to Vietnam immediately, arriving in time for the founding of the Vietminh.
“Political action should precede military action,” Ho asserted, in¬sisting that supporters had to be mobilized and inviolable bases built before armed struggle could begin. He had selected northern Vietnam as his center because of its proximity to the Chinese frontier, over which agents and weapons could move easily. The rugged terrain of mountain jungles and hidden valleys also offered security. Giap and his comrades started by enlisting the poor, alienated hill tribes of the region, like the Hmong, the Thai and the Tho, pledging them au¬tonomy in an eventually independent Vietnam. They trekked through the area like itinerant missionaries, holding meetings, preaching sal¬vation and creating cells, each composed of five men and women whose job was to convert other villagers to the cause. The cells mul¬tiplied swiftly—testimony to Giap’s organizational skill’.
Meanwhile, Giap faced the task of forming guerrilla bands, which would ultimately become the core of an army. By then he had assumed a nom de guerre—Van—but he had no military experience. Except for a dud Chinese shell, he had never even handled a lethal device—not even a gun. His partisans possessed only knives, spears and a few old flintlocks. Once, when they somehow acquired a grenade, he could not figure out how to detonate it. He also attempted without much success to transform his ragged ranks into real soldiers. Punctuating the cadence as he recalled the effort to me, he said, “We didn’t even know how to drill in French style—un, deux, un, deux. So I translated the numbers into Vietnamese—mot, hai, mot, hai.”
Daunting obstacles confronted his groups. Relentlessly hunted by French patrols, they retreated into the forests, where they suffered from malaria, dysentery and other diseases, and subsisted on insects, roots and free bark. But Giap taught them to move during rainstorms to deter pursuit, or wade through streams to cover their tracks. He trained them to store supplies, to weave a secret communications web and to eradicate spies and informers. Despite his chronic fear that they would buckle, the guerrilla units grew. They owed their appeal largely to the fact that they opposed both the French colonial regime and the Japanese occupation army—and thus benefited from Vietnamese na¬tionalist sentiment.
Through it all Giap remained an intellectual, often aloof from his barely literate followers. He wrote long, theoretical treatises, which he published in a mimeographed journal. On one occasion, after scan¬ning the articles, Ho sniffed, “No peasant will understand this stuff.”

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