Leadership & Role of Vo Nguyen Giap in the First Indochina War

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  • 0:04 Who Was Vo Nguyen Giap?
  • 0:41 Early Life
  • 1:16 The Making of a General
  • 2:04 The First Indochina War
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, we'll examine the military leader General Vo Nguyen Giap. You'll learn how a man who started off his adult life as a professor became a key military figure in the First Indochina War.

Who Was Vo Nguyen Giap?

When learning about Vietnamese history in the twentieth century, you won't get very far before you'll hear the name Ho Chi Minh, the nationalist leader of the Viet Minh who advocated for independence from French colonialism.

However, another figure in Vietnamese history, Vo Nguyen Giap, was just as committed to the cause of Vietnamese independence at any cost. Giap is best known for working with Ho Chi Minh as the military general who wore down both the French and the United States' efforts in Vietnam. This lesson looks at the leadership traits and tactics that led to his ultimate success against the French in the First Indochina War.

Early Life

Vo Nguyen Giap was born to family who opposed French rule and so he started his life with the mindset he would need to defeat them years later. By the late 1930s, Giap had an education in law and political economics and became a professor with a passion for advocating for Vietnamese independence.

After joining Ho Chi Minh in the Indochinese Communist Party, Giap was forced to flee to China when the Communist party was outlawed by the French. Some of his family members, including a wife and daughter, suffered and died at the hands of the French, though he wouldn't learn of this until later.

The Making of a General

At this point you might wonder how a professor became a powerful and decisive military leader. Though he lacked formal military training, Giap was influenced by the guerrilla tactics used by Chinese Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong.

By the early 1940s, a small group of armed men began to antagonize the French with Minh and Giap's guidance, causing terrorist-style disturbances and using propaganda to promote their cause against colonialism. Within a few short years, the revolutionaries gained enough momentum to warrant negotiations with the French.

As Giap rose through political ranks during this time, he remained uninterested in a compromise with a colonial power. When negotiations failed, he and his Viet Minh forces were poised for war.

The First Indochina War

In the early days of the First Indochina War, the French forces were able to prevent the Viet Minh from taking control of areas where the French were already stationed. Instead of trying to engage the French in a battle, the Viet Minh worked to bide their time and build support for their cause in what Giap would call 'The People's War.' The People's War was not just about tactics and strategies on the battlefield, but about how to engage as many people as possible willing to fight and die for the cause.

Giap believed that for the Vietnamese people to achieve their goal of independence, they had to be willing to endure high death tolls. Many of their engagements with the French would lead to heavy casualties and even appear unsuccessful. Yet, over a long period of time, he believed they would be victorious. Some estimates place the loss of Vietnamese life during the First Indochina War in the neighborhood of 300,000 or more. During the war with the Americans later on, that number would climb much higher.

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