Legendary Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap dies

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General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died Friday aged 102, was considered one of history's greatest military strategists and was the architect of Vietnam's stunning battlefield victories against France and the United States.

Second only to late revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh as modern Vietnam's most revered figure, the former history teacher's first military lesson came from an old encyclopedia entry about the mechanism of a hand grenade.

The son of a poor scholar, he went on to defeat Vietnam's colonial masters in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, the battle that ended French rule in Indochina and started direct US involvement leading to the Vietnam War.

Over the next two decades the founding father of the Vietnam People's Army, whose guerrilla tactics inspired anti-colonial fighters worldwide, again led his forces to victory with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

"When I was young, I had a dream that one day I would see my country free and united," General Giap later recounted in a PBS interview. "That day, my dream came true."

General Giap's brilliance as a strategist places him "in the pantheon of great military leaders" with the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and General Douglas MacArthur, wrote American journalist and author Stanley Karnow.

"Unlike them, however, he owed his achievements to innate genius rather than to formal training."

Classroom to battlefield

Born on August 25, 1911 in the village of An Xa in central Quang Binh province, General Giap was an admirer of Napoleon and Sun Tzu but did not always appear destined to become a soldier.

Fluent in French, he studied political economy in Hanoi before teaching history and literature at a college and working as an underground journalist.

A member of the Indochina Communist Party, he fled to China in 1939, where he joined Ho Chi Minh, the enigmatic leader who had planned the revolution during decades in exile.

Giap's wife, who stayed behind with their newborn child, died in a French prison, a personal tragedy that would fuel his anti-colonial fervor.

 
Vo Nguyen Giap (1st, L) reads the decision on the founding of the Armed Propaganda Brigade for the Liberation of Vietnam (Doi Viet Nam Tuyen Truyen Gia Phong Quan) on December 22, 1944 in in a forest in the northern Vietnamese province of Cao Bang

He returned with Ho Chi Minh to Vietnam's northern jungles in 1941 to train an army of revolutionary peasant soldiers and co-founded the Viet Minh (abbreviated from Việt Nam Ðộc Lập Ðồng Minh Há»™i, English "League for the Independence of Vietnam").

General Giap's guerrilla tactics -- which stressed the need for popular support, the value of hit-and-run attacks and the will to fight a drawn-out war -- would defeat both the French and the American armies.

"Guerrilla war is the war of the broad masses of an economically backward country standing up against a powerfully equipped and well-trained army of aggression," he wrote in one of several memoirs.

"Every inhabitant is a soldier, every village a fortress."

President Ho proclaimed his first government on September 2, 1945 and named Giap as his interior minister, army chief and later defense minister.

 
President Ho Chi Minh (C), General Vo Nguyen Giap (1st,R) and their comrades discuss the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954

The revolutionaries were forced back into the jungle when French troops reimposed colonial rule after World War II, triggering a nine-year conflict that ended at Dien Bien Phu.

"It was the first great defeat for the West," General Giap later said. "It shook the foundations of colonialism and called on people to fight for their freedom -- it was the beginning of international civilization."

General Giap remained the army's commander in chief throughout the ensuing conflict with the Americans and the US-backed South Vietnam regime, which turned into full-scale war from 1965 and claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and at least three million Vietnamese.

The fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, followed by the country's reunification, fuelled his near-mythical status overseas as a master strategist and inspired liberation movements everywhere.

"As we grew up in our own struggle, General Giap was one of our national heroes," South African President Thabo Mbeki said in 2007.

After the war, General Giap retained his position as defense minister and was appointed deputy prime minister in 1976. 

General Giap, who had been living in Hanoi's 108 military hospital for the last three years, is survived by Dang Bich Ha, his wife since 1949, and four children.

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