Peter MacDonald, Giap: The Victor in Vietnam
(New York: W.W. Norton) 1993. 368 pages, illustrated, bibliography, index
Reviewed by Cecil B. Currey
We need more studies of Viet Nam, for even after all these years we still know relatively little about its northern leadership from 1940-1973, or about Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the most crucial and important of those leaders. Little had been published about him, save for some of his own writings, prior to the appearance of this book. Before MacDonald's publication, only four biographical studies of Giap existed, some outdated, some of poor quality, and none of them now generally available: Robert J. O'Neill, General Giap: Politician & Strategist (New York: Praeger) 1969; Gerard Le Quang, Giap: ou, la guerre du peuple (Paris: Denoel) 1973; Georges Boudarel, Giap (Paris: Editions Atlas) 1977; and, last, Huy Phong and Yen Anh, Nhan dien huyen thoai Vo Nguyen Giap: hoa quang vay muon cho cuoc chien tuong tan (San Jose, CA: Mekong-Tynan) 1989. No source in English adequately covered the life of this important general. Another study was needed.
The least we ought to expect is that a new book about Giap and Viet Nam be written by someone familiar with the country and its history. If a Viet wrote a book about some famous American, we would expect its facts to be correct. Our response would be predictable if we read a Vietnamese account of our own history stating that General Robert Washington married Nancy Hanks Lincoln and, after her death, wed Marsha Curtis. Were this hypothetical history of George Washington written by a Vietnamese general, we might expect to see an analysis of the battles in which Washington participated and we would be disappointed to find no mention of Trenton or Princeton and only one sentence about Yorktown.
Giap: The Victor in Vietnam suffers from similar inadequacies. Neither text nor index of this book written by a retired British brigadier general mentions the Ia Drang battles of 19 October-27 November 1965, arguably one of the most important scenes of combat for both sides during the whole American experience in Viet Nam. Those days convinced Westmoreland that large scale airmobility and firepower were the answer to the conflict; Giap realized that, in the future, he would have to keep his soldiers so close to American lines that they would go unnoticed, and so developed his "grab them by their belts" strategy.
MacDonald mentions, but does not analyze, Operations Cedar Falls and Junction City, divisional-sized search-and-destroy missions, both of which were important actions that Giap had to counteract if he was going to continue his assault in the south. MacDonald further treats the famous attack on Khe Sanh, which Giap still insists was no more than a diversion to draw American attention away from the coming onslaught during Tet 1968, both out of chronological order and context.
The single battle discussed by MacDonald at any length is Dien Bien Phu, and even here the author does not do well, for at this point in the text appears the only footnote in the entire book. It informs readers that MacDonald has taken his account from Bernard Fall's Hell in a Very Small Place. Elsewhere, MacDonald mistakenly describes Giap as one of the world's great guerrilla leaders; an implicit confession that he does not understand the nature of "people's wars of national liberation." And, last, MacDonald falls into the trap of discussing battles that were important to Americans, rather than those of crucial consequence to Giap. His is a biography written from a western, rather than an eastern, perspective. Such failures speak volumes about the author's grasp of tactics and strategy. A general ought to have been able to provide more than this for his readers.
Norton publicity tells us how MacDonald was invited to Viet Nam by the government there to interview Giap in preparation for this book. Those unfamiliar with the workings of the current administration in Ha Noi might not know that all who travel to Viet Nam other than on group tours must be "invited" by the government, and so MacDonald's invitation was no different than that given to many others who have traveled there on research or for other purposes. We are told that he also spoke with "high level" officials there, but we see little evidence of any results from such talks in this text. When the author quotes from those conversations, the speakers invariably seem to have been some low-level military retirees (lieutenant-colonels or colonels who, forty years ago, would have been junior officers or senior enlisted personnel) or mid-level bureaucrats.
Nor did MacDonald's vaunted session[s] with Giap provide much help. He produces no new information based on any such talks and when he quotes Giap, he regularly reproduces a selection from the man's published writings. It is probably that when he met with Giap (and his illustrations include a picture of the two of them together), he listened to a set speech that Giap regularly delivers to foreign visitors in which there is no opportunity for questions, for give-and-take, or for free exchange of ideas. This has been Giap's pattern for decades and this book gives no evidence that he has changed his policy. Indeed, we reach page 178 before MacDonald informs his readers that "Giap told the author that the people and the collective leadership had won the wars, and not him...." Giap tells everyone that. It is part of his set speech to visitors. So much for the high-level and informative nature of MacDonald's interviews in Ha Noi.
Errors fill these pages. MacDonald consistently misspells French names and he is hopelessly at sea with Vietnamese ones. He repeats as fact empty gossip started by French journalists in the 1960s: Giap was a "swinger" in Ha Noi in the years immediately after the Second World War; Ho Chi Minh had to interfere to curtail his womanizing by introducing Giap to the woman who became his second wife. In fact, there is no real evidence for his purported lifestyle and Giap had known his second wife, Dang Bich Ha (MacDonald gives her name as "Ba Hanh") since she was a small girl when he lived for a time at the home of her father, Professor Dang Thai Mai (named in the book as "Dang Thai Min").
MacDonald asserts that "Dang Thai Minh" was the father of Giap's first wife, whom he names as "Nguyen Thi Minh Giang." He is thus wrong on two counts. One wonders how a man with the family name of "Dang" could be the father of a woman whose family name was "Nguyen"; in any case, her father was Nguyen Huy Binh, an employee at the Vinh train station, and her name was Nguyen Thi Quang Thai! She was four years younger than Giap and they met while in prison at the Lao Bao penitentiary in the mountains near the Laotian border to which both were sent in 1930. MacDonald mentions none of this.
The author of this book does not know when Giap was born (25 August 1911, not 28 August), nor that he went off from his home village of An Xa to school in Hué in 1923 when he was twelve (rather than in 1924 when he was thirteen). He tells us that Giap's pseudonym during the Second World War was "Nan," when it was actually "Van." He does not know when Giap learned of the death of Quang Thai. He does not know that Major Allison Kent Thomas was head of the American OSS Deer Team, which parachuted into northern Viet Nam in 1944. He tells his readers that Giap named his first military force (in actuality Tuyen Truyen Giai Phong Quan or the Armed Propaganda and Liberation Brigade) the Quan Doi Nhan Dan (which in translation means the People's Army Daily, a newspaper).
MacDonald does not know when Giap's soldiers finally abandoned Ha Noi in a fighting retreat in the face of returning French troops. Examples could be greatly extended. In his depiction of Tet 1968, MacDonald describes Giap as the enthusiastic architect of the offensive rather than its long-standing opponent. He does not know that Ho Chi Minh assigned Truong Chinh to head up land reform in the North, nor, seemingly, much of anything else. So much for any new insights in this book.
Perhaps, then, it is no wonder that the author follows a peculiar style of "documentation" throughout his book. Quotes abound, but little supports them. This is particularly aggravating when he uses Giap's words. Uninformed readers might assume MacDonald is quoting from one of his talks with Giap [sic] when, in reality, he is drawing from a printed passage out of one or another of Giap's books which have long been available in the West. His bibliography is brief to the point of paucity (those valuable conversations in Ha Noi are cited only as the result of "fourteen taped interviews with Vietnamese veterans and officials"), and he neglects to list a great number of standard texts easily available at any good library. This kind of documentation hardly supports the publisher's claim that here, "for the first time," is the full story...."
Giap never comes to life in these pages. We never learn what motivated or inspired him, save in the most wooden way. The general seems marionette-like, marching across a stage on which there are few other characters. We are left wondering what friends he had, what enemies, what loyalties. What moved the real-life man to decades of the utmost dedication to the cause of freeing Viet Nam from the boot print of foreigners in the face of staggering difficulties? Other than to say Giap was a great general (which everyone already knew) it is difficult to determine why MacDonald wrote this tome. His words plod drearily along until one speedily begins to yearn for the final page. Here there is no sparkle, no wit, no charm, no mysteries recounted or answers revealed.
Others have judged this book more generously. In the book review section of the New York Times (10 January 1993), Col. Harry Summers, Jr., called it a "balanced and most readable biography." In the latest issue of his Indochina Chronology, Douglas Pike claimed it to be a "well done full scale biography." Their words almost call into question whether we three read the same book!
MacDonald has previously written four novels, a book on bomb disposal, an account of the Bristol riots, and "a short history of the world." That record does not provide him with the appropriate and necessary credentials to craft a biography of the brilliant and successful Giap. This book has no redeeming merit either as history or biography.
Cecil B. Currey is a professor of military history at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a former Army Reserve officer who retired with the rank of colonel. Author of several books, including Self-Destruction (1981), Follow Me and Die (1984) and Edward Lansdale, he has visited Viet Nam three times between 1988 and 1990.