Vietnam celebrates General Giap's 100th birthday | Connect Asia

Vietnam celebrates General Giap's 100th birthday

Vietnam celebrates General Giap's 100th birthday

Updated 18 January 2012, 15:45 AEDT

Thursday marks the 100th birthday of Vietnam's legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap.

He's perhaps best known as the architect of Vietnam's victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu, the decisive battle that turned the first Indo-China war.

The second Indo-China war - better known in the West as the Vietnam War - saw General Giap take on the Americans, with similar results.

The four-star general has been hospitalised for two years now, but still meets people and is considered a national hero.

Someone who has met General Giap several times is Raymond Burghardt who began his Foreign Service career in Vietnam, returning in 2001 as the US Ambassador to Vietnam.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speaker: Raymond Burghardt, director for seminars at the East West Centre in Hawaii

BURGHARDT: General Giap was certainly viewed as someone who the government in the north, North Vietnam in those days thought of as their great hero. He obviously was their great hero of the war against the French. In the period of when the government in Hanoi was fighting us in the south, also of course fighting the anti-communist government in the south at the same time there was also civil war of course. In that period Giap was certainly still a very important general, highly respected, but he shared authority in the military a bit more than he had during the French period. There were some other military leaders who were also important in that period.

COCHRANE: And can you tell us of your impressions when you met him?

BURGHARDT: Got to meet him maybe half a dozen times when I was there as ambassador from 2001-2004. He was very alert, very glad to talk with us, met with him by myself a few times, went with American military commanders. I remember going with Admiral Dennis Blair when he was the commander of our Pacific Command to meet with General Giap. There was no sort of bitterness from the years of the war at all, he was always quite astute and alert. There was a period in the middle of my time there where he sort of dropped out of circulation, but actually one of my last meetings before I left in the fall of '04 was with General Giap. What was interesting though is that even then there started to be stories that Giap behind the scenes in the political environment of Vietnam was quite critical of corruption, of abuse of authority on the part of the Vietnamese leadership. But he was pretty careful, he never wanted to talk about that stuff with foreigners.

COCHRANE: He did speak out though a couple of years ago didn't he about a bauxite mine in the Central Highlands, and was critical in his comments to radio.

BURGHARDT: Very definitely, he was critical of the mine in large part because it was seen as a concession to a Chinese company, giving them a larger role than many Vietnamese who were instinctively suspicious of the Chinese, thought was appropriate.

COCHRANE: That must have been a great challenge for the Vietnamese government of the day?

BURGHARDT: It was, it was difficult, and there had been earlier rounds of that. I remember just before I left in '04 there were letters that were circulating among the leadership and I was able to see them, and these were signed by a number of the old guard, including General Giap criticising corruption, criticising use of the intelligence service by the party to spy on other party leaders, things like that. Giap could be fearless, he was the great national hero, they weren't going to do anything to him. He lived in a villa right in the centre of the city in an area where only somebody very important would have a house.

COCHRANE: Getting back to some other meetings between General Giap and some US officials, one of the most fascinating post-war meetings must have been with the former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. Can you tell us about that meeting?

BURGHARDT: I wasn't there then, that was before my time. Of course McNamara did have more than I guess any other major American figure during the war sort of devoted his last years to apologising and giving out various forms of mea culpas, so that would have made the meeting with Giap go very well I would think.

COCHRANE: And they got to the issue of what happened in 1964 and the disputed versions of what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. Can you tell us about what was said and confirmed there?

BURGHARDT: I'm sorry, I don't remember the whole history there, but I mean it is definitely true and I suppose what you're alluding to I guess McNamara must have conceded that the extent to which the Gulf of Tonkin shoot-up really was a threat against the American naval ships was quite contrived.

COCHRANE: General Giap was an advocate of closer relations with the US. How important do you think he was in bringing the two former foes together?

BURGHARDT: I think he helped, I think he was within the Communist Party of Vietnam for many years there was some degree of factional disagreement over how close to be to the United States. Some of the people on the other side wanted to retain a closeness with China. That split also tended to overlap with sort of split between those who wanted to progress more rapidly in terms of economic reform versus those who wanted to hold on to more of a state-controlled system. Having General Giap, a great war hero, a man who was seen as having defeated both the French and the Americans be an advocate of improving relations with America was obviously very helpful, very useful for allies in the leadership to have his voice on their side.

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