General Vo Nguyen Giap lived an extraordinary life. His philosophy on combat, including the concept of a ‘people’s war’, is now taught not only in militaty academies in Viet Nam, but also around the world.
Sunday Viet Nam News publishes excerpts from his book People’s War, People’s Army, released in Ha Noi by The Gioi Publisher in 1961. It was reissued in 1974, and is now out of print.
Viet Nam is a nation in South East Asia with a very old history. With its 329,600 square kilometres and 30 million inhabitants and its geographical situation in the Pacific area, it has now become one of the outposts of the socialist world.
In the course of its thousands of years of history, many a time the Vietnamese nation victoriously resisted the invasions of the Chinese feudalists. It can be proud of its traditions of undaunted struggle in safeguarding national independent.
After its invasion of Viet Nam in the second half of the 19th century. French imperialism made the country its colony. Since then, the struggle against French colonialism never ceased to extend; uprisings succeeded each other in spite of repression and attracted ever wider strata from all social classes.
In 1930, the Indochinese Communist Party was founded. Under its firm and clear-sighted leadership, the movement for national liberation of the Vietnamese people made new progress. After ten years of heroic political struggle, at the start of World War Two, the Party advocated preparation for armed struggle, and to this end the launching of a guerilla war and the setting up of a free zone. The anti-Japanese movement for national salvation, in the irresistible upsurge, led to the glorious days of the August Revolution of 1945. Taking advantage of the major events in the international situation at the time – the victory of the Soviet Red Army and Allied forces over Japanese fascism – the Vietnamese people rose up as one man in a victorious insurrection and set up a people’s power. The Democratic Republic of Viet Nam was born, the first people’s democracy in South-East Asia.
The political situation in Viet Nam was then particularly difficult and complicated. Chiang Kai-shek’s troops had entered the North and those of Great Britain the South of the country, to disarm the Japanese who were still in possession of all their armaments in those first days of their capitulation. It was in those conditions that the French imperialists, immediately after the founding of the Democratic Republic, unleashed a war of reconquest against Viet Nam, hoping to impose their domination on this country.
In response to the appeal of the Party and the Government headed by President Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese people rose up as one man for the defence of the Fatherland. A sacred war for national liberation began. All hopes of a peaceful settlement were not lost, however. A preliminary Agreement for the cessation of hostilities was signed in March 1946 between the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam and that of France. But the French colonialists regarded it only as a delaying scheme. Therefore, immediately after the signing of the Agreement, they shamelessly violated it by successively occupying various regions. In December 1946, the war spread to the whole country. It was to rage for nine years, nine years after the end of World War Two, to end with the brilliant victory of the Vietnamese people.
Our war of liberation was a people’s war. It was this essential characteristic that was to determine its laws and to decide its final outcome.
At the first gunshots of the imperialist invasion, General Leclere, the first Commander of the French Expeditionary Corps, estimated that the operation for the re-occupation of Viet Nam would be a mere military walkover. When encountering the resistance of the Vietnamese people in the South, the French generals considered it weak and temporary and stuck to their opinion that it would take them ten weeks at the most to occupy and pacify the whole of southern Viet Nam. Why did the French colonialists make such estimation? Because they considered that to meet their aggression, there had to be an army. The Vietnamese army had just been created. It was still numerically weak, badly organized, led by inexperienced cadres, provided with old and insufficient equipment, a very limited stick of munitions and had neither tanks, airplanes nor artillery. With such as army how could serious resistance be undertaken and the attacks of the powerful Second Armoured Division repelled? All it could do was to use up its stock of munitions before laying down its arm. In fact, the Vietnamese army was then weak in all respects and was destitute of everything. The French colonialists right in this respect. But they could not understand a fundamental and decisive fact: the Vietnamese army, though very weak materially, was a people’s army. The war in Viet Nam was not only the opposition of two armies. In provoking hostilities, the aggressive colonists had alienated a whole nation. And, indeed, the whole Vietnamese nation, the entire Vietnamese people rose against them. Unable to grasp this profound truth, the French generals who had believed in an easy victory, would instead meet certain defeat. They thought they could easily subdue the Vietnamese people, when in fact, the latter were going to smash them.
Even to this day bourgeois strategists have not yet overcome their surprise at the outcome of the war in Indochina. How could the Vietnamese nation defeat an imperialist power such as France which was backed by the US? They have tried to explain this extraordinary fact by the correct strategy and tactics, the forms of fighting and the heroism of the Viet Nam People’s Army. Of course all these factors contributed to the happy outcome of the resistance. But if the question is put: “Why were the Vietnamese people able to win?” the most precise and most complete answer must be: “The Vietnamese people won because their war of liberation was a people’s war.”
When the Resistance War spread to the whole country, the Indochinese Communist Party emphasized in the instructions that our Resistance War must be the work of the entire people. Therein lies the key to victory.
Our Resistance War was a people’s war, because its political aims were to shatter the imperialist yoke to win back national independence, to overthrow the feudal landlord class to bring land to the peasants; in other words, to radically solve the two fundamental contradictions of Vietnamese society – contradiction between the nation and imperialism on the other hand, and contradiction between the people, especially the peasants, and the feudal landlord class on the other – and to pave the socialist path for the Vietnamese revolution.
Firmly holding to the strategy and tactics of the national democratic revolution, the Party pointed out to the people the aims of the struggle: independence and democracy. It was, however, not enough to have objectives entirely in conformity with the fundamental aspirations of the people. It was also necessary to bring everything into play to enlighten the masses of the people, educate and encourage them, and organize them to fight for national salvation. The Party devoted itself entirely to this work, to the regrouping of all the national forces, and to broadening and strengthening of a national united front, the Viet Minh, and later the Lien Viet, which was a magnificient model of the unity of the various strata of the people in the anti-imperialist struggle in a colonial country. In fact, this front united the patriotic forces of all classes and social strata, even progressive landlords: all nationalities in the country – majority and minority: patriotic believers of each and every religion. “The greater the unity, the greater the victory” this slogan launched by President Ho Chi Minh became a reality during the long and hard resistance.
We waged a people’s war, and this in the framework of a long-colonised country. Therefore, the national factor was of first importance. We had to rally all the forces likely to overthrow the imperialists and their lackeys. On the other hand, this war proceeded in a backward agricultural country where the peasants, making up the great majority of the population, constituted the essential force of the revolution and of the Resistance War. Consequently the relation between the national question and the peasant had to be clearly defined, with the gradually settlement of the agrarian problem, so as to mobilize the broad peasant masses, one of the essential and decisive factors for victory. Always solicitous about the interests of the peasantry, the Party began by advocating reduction of land rents and interest rates. Later on, as soon as the stabilization of the situation allowed it, the Party carried out with great firmness the mobilization of the masses for land reform in order to bring land to the tillers, thereby to carry on and step up the Resistance.
We waged a people’s war, and this in the framework of a long-colonised country. Therefore, the national factor was of first importance. We had to rally all the forces likely to overthrow the imperialists and their lackeys. On the other hand, this war proceeded in a backward agricultural country where the peasants, making up the great majority of the population, constituted the essential force of the revolution and of the Resistance War. Consequently the relation between the national question and the peasant question had to be clearly defined, with the gradual settlement of the agrarian problem, so as to mobilize the broad peasant masses, one of the essential and decisive factors for victory. Always solicitous about the interests of the peasantry, the Party began by advocating reduction of land rents and interest rates. Later on, as soon as the stabilization of the situation allowed it, the Party carried out with great firmness the mobilization of the masses for land reform in order to bring land to the tillers, thereby to carry on and step up the Resistance.
During the years of war, various erroneous tendencies appeared. Either we devoted our attention only to the organization and growth of the armed forces while neglecting the mobilization and organization of large strata of the people, or we mobilized the people for the war without seriously heeding their immediate everyday interests: or we thought of satisfying the immediate interests of the people as a whole, without giving due attention to those of the peasants. The Party resolutely fought all these tendencies. To lead the Resistance to victory, we had to look after the strengthening of the army, while giving thought to mobilizing and educating the people, broadening and consolidating the National United Front. We had to mobilize the masses for the Resistance while trying to satisfy their immediate interests and to improve their living conditions, essentially those of the peasantry. A very broad national united front was indispensable, on the basis of the worker-peasant alliance and under the leadership of the Party.
The imperatives of the people’s war in Viet Nam required the adoption of appropriate strategy and tactics, on the basis of the enemy’s characteristics and of our own, of the concrete conditions of the battlefields and relationship between the forces facing each other. In other words, the strategy and tactics of a people’s war, in an economically-backward, colonial country.
First of all, this strategy had to be the strategy of a protracted war. It does not mean that all revolutionary wars, all people’s wars must necessarily be long wars. If from the outset, the conditions are favourable to the people and the balance of forces turns in favour of the revolution, the revolutionary war can end in a quick victory. But the war of liberation of the Vietnamese people started in quite different conditions: we had to deal with an enemy much stronger than us. It was patent that this balance of forces took away from us the possibility of giving decisive battles from the opening of the hostilities and of checking the aggression from the first enemy landing operations on our soil. In a word, it was impossible for us to win a quick victory.
It was only by a long and hard resistance that we could wear out the enemy forces little by little while strengthening ours, progressively turn the balance of forces in our favour and finally win victory. We could not have acted any other way.
This strategy and slogan of protracted resistance was decided upon by the Indochinese Communist Party since the first days of the war of liberation. It was in this spirit that the Viet Nam People’s Army, after fierce street-combats in the big cities, beat a strategic retreat to the countryside on its own initiative in order to maintain its bases and preserve its forces.
The protracted revolutionary war had to include several different stages: stage of contention, stage of equilibrium and stage of counter-offensive. Actual fighting was, of course, more complicated. There had to be many years of more and more intense and widespread guerilla fighting to realize the equilibrium of forces and develop our war potential. When the conjunctures of events at home and abroad allowed it, we went over to a counter-offensive first by a series of local operations then by others on a larger scale which were to lead to the decisive victory of Dien Bien Phu.
The application of this strategy of protracted resistance required a whole system of education, a whole ideological struggle among the people and Party members, a gigantic effort of organisation in both the military and economic fields, extraordinary sacrifices and heroism from the people as well as from the army, at the rear as well as in the front. Sometimes erroneous tendencies appeared, which consisted in trying either to bypass the stages to end the war earlier, or to throw important forces into military adventures. The Party rectified them through a stubborn struggle and persevered in the line it had fixed. In the difficult hours, certain hesitations revealed themselves, but the Party faced them with vigour and with determination in the struggle and faith in final victory.
The protracted people’s war in Viet Nam also called for appropriate forms of fighting: appropriate to the revolutionary nature of the war as well as to the balance of forces which revealed at that time an overwhelming superiority of the enemy over the still very weak material and technical bases of the People’s Army. The adopted form of fighting was guerilla warfare. It can be said that the war of liberation of the Vietnamese people was a long and sweeping guerilla war proceeding from simple to complex guerilla warfare then to mobile warfare in the last years of the Resistance.
Guerrila 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. Is the enemy strong? One avoids him. Is he weak? One attacks him. To his modern armament one opposes a boundless heroism to vanquish him either by harassing or by annihilating his forces according to circumstances, and by combining military operations with political and economical action: there is no fixed line of demarcation, the front being wherever the enemy is found.
Concentration of troops to realize an overwhelming superiority over the enemy where he is sufficiently exposed in order to destroy his manpower: initiative, flexibility, surprise, suddenness in attack and retreat. As long as the strategic balance of forces remains disadvantageous, resolutely to muster troops to obtain absolute superiority in combat in a given place, and at a given time. To wear down little by little by small victories the enemy forces and at the same time to preserve and increase ours. In these concrete conditions it proves absolutely necessary not to lose sight of the main objective of the fighting, that is, the destruction of the enemy manpower. Therefore, losses must be avoided even at the cost of losing ground. And this, for the purpose of recovering, later on, the occupied territories and completely liberating the country.
In the war of liberation in Viet Nam, guerilla activities spread to all the regions temporarily occupied by the enemy. Each inhabitant was a soldier, each village a fortress, each Party cell, each village administrative committee a staff.
The people as a whole took part in the armed struggle, fighting according to the principles of guerilla warfare, in small groups, but always in pursuance of one and the same line, and the same instructions, those of the Central Committee of the Party and the Government.
Unlike many other countries which waged revolutionary wars, Viet Nam, in the first years of its struggle, did not and could not engage in pitched battles. It had to rest content with guerilla warfare. At the cost of thousands, of difficulties and countless sacrifices, this guerilla warfare developed progressively into a form of mobile warfare that daily grew in scale. While retaining certain characteristics of guerilla warfare, it involved regular campaigns with greater attacks on fortified positions. Starting from small operations with the strength if a platoon or company to annihilate a few men or a group of enemy soldiers, our army went over, later, to more important combat with a battalion or regiment to cut one or several enemy companies to pieces, finally coming to greater campaigns bringing into play several regiments, then several divisions to end at Dien Bien Phu where the French Expeditionary Corps lost 16,000 men of its crack units. It was this process of development that enabled our army to move forward steadily on the road to victory.
People’s war, protracted war, guerilla warfare developing step by step into mobile warfare, such are the most valuable lessons of the war of liberation in Viet Nam. It was by following that line that the Party led by the Resistance to victory. After three thousand days of fighting, difficulties and sacrifices, our people defeated the French imperialists and American interventionists. At present, in the liberated half of our country, sixteen million of our compatriots, by their creative labour, are healing the horrible wounds of war, reconstructing the country and building socialism. In the meantime the struggle is going on to complete the democratic national revolution throughout the country and to reunify the country on the basis of independence and democracy. — VNS