Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road

General Vo Nguyen Giap, Hanoi, 1966. Photo by Wilfred Burchett.

In order to understand the present struggle in South Vietnam and to draw lessons from it which may be of value for struggles for national liberation in other colonial or semi colonial countries, it is necessary to view the events in South Vietnam in their historical context. Specifically, this means that the war in the South cannot be understood apart from the 2,000 year Vietnamese struggle against foreign occupation and invasion. The contemporary period of the Vietnamese struggle for national independence is inseparably linked to the Vietnamese revolution, for the development of the revolution has paralleled and was an intrinsic part of the struggle against French colonialism. From this point the recent past merges with the present because the basic political-military strategies elaborated by Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and other revolutionary leaders of the Vietnamese fight against French colonialism are today being utilized and proven anew by the “Vietcong.”

Ho Chi Minh has formulated the overall strategic concepts of the Vietnamese revolution and has been its principal inspiration. But it was his associate Giap, with a brilliant grasp of political questions and a genius for organizational details, who developed concrete, detailed plans for the application of Ho’s concepts. Giap’s method is to proceed from scientific analysis to planning; from planning to organization; and, after every step along the way has been carefully tested, finally to action; first political action, then a combination of political and military action. The background and development of the Ho-Giap concepts presented in this chapter are essential for a full comprehension of events in the South.

Giap is the political-military soldier par excellence. He did not make his first move until he had made a profound study of Vietnamese society and had defined his future allies for the struggle ahead. (This, accidentally, is another illustration of the essentially national nature of the Vietnamese revolution.)

More than 30 years ago, Giap, together with Truong Chinh,[1] published a masterly analysis of the Vietnamese peasant and his place in Indochina’s colonialist feudal order. Entitled Van De Dan Cay (The Peasant Problem ), the two-volume work[2] dealt with such obvious subjects as the exploitation of the peasantry by taxation and high land-rents; serfdom and slavery in the countryside, the holding of huge tracts of land for plantations by the French and the land-hunger of millions of peasants. Giap and Truong Chinh also delved deep into the character, traditions, tendencies and aspirations of the peasantry. It was the first thorough study of the economic, political, sociological and psychological aspects of the role of the lowly peasant in Vietnamese society. The authors exposed the rottenness of the feudal order and the intolerable exploitation and repression to which the peasants were subject under the dual scourge of colonialism and feudalism, and stressed the vital role of the peasant in the struggle for national independence. (Shortly after the second volume appeared, the French authorities ordered all copies of both volumes to be seized and destroyed. A few copies were hidden away, however, and Giap’s and Truong Chinh’s profound study of Vietnamese society, The Peasant Problem, served as the basis for the Communist Party and later Vietminh policies toward the peasantry; notably, rent and tax reductions as first steps toward land reform, policies which helped win the peasantry as the main force in the long armed struggle that was being prepared.)

“Vietnamese society at that time…” Giap wrote later,[3] “was characterized by two fundamental contradictions, the one between imperialism and the whole country; the other between the feudal landowning class and the people, essentially the peasant masses; of these two contradictions, the first had to be considered as the essential… Of the two fundamental tasks, the one anti-imperialist, the other anti-feudal, the first, which aimed at the overthrow of imperialism, and national liberation, had to be considered as the most essential…” The political-military sights were adjusted accordingly and organizational work went on to arouse the peasantry and gradually lead them along the road to armed insurrection.

“During the first years, when the people’s political movement was far from being powerful and enemy forces were still stable, it was imperative that preparation for the armed insurrection had to be centered on political work among the masses. Propaganda among the masses and organization of them throughout the country, especially in the key areas, constituted a task of decisive importance…”

At the outbreak of World War II the French Communist Party was banned and in Indochina from late 1939 there were harsh measures of repression. The Communist Party of Indochina was forced completely underground, but its leaders formed the Vietminh[4] on May 19, 1941. In September 1940, the first armed action had taken place at Bac Son in Cao Bang Province in the extreme North, and from that time on small resistance groups were set up in Cao Bang, armed mainly with bamboo spears and crossbows, with a few flintlocks contributed by local hunters. These first village self-defense groups were mainly intended to secure and protect bases for the leadership of the insurrection. By 1942, under the direction of Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong, numerous self-defense units in Cao Bang, drawn from the Vietminh mass organizations, began to link up until whole regions became inaccessible to the French and the Japanese, who had taken over real power.

In late 1942 a force adopting the name “Vanguard Unit To Advance Southward,” was formed under Vo Nguyen Giap. Basing itself in the Cao Bang resistance area, the aim of this force was to expand outward and southward. But once the units moved away from their own homes and villages, once they lost their original self-defense functions, they began to run into difficulties. In confrontations with an enemy immeasurably superior in effectives, equipment and training, they began to take heavy losses. During this period Ho Chi Minh was sweating in Kuomintang prisons, often enough with his legs in chains and a yoke around his neck. For two years, Giap and Pham Van Dong had to do the best they could, without benefit of advice from Ho Chi Minh, who had been captured by Kwangsi elements of the Kuomintang while on a mission to Chungking – then the seat of Chiang Kai-shek’s government – to try to negotiate a common front between Vietnamese and Chinese against the Japanese. (After being marched for 80 days up and down steep mountain trails, his hands chained behind his back, testing the qualities of 30 Kuomintang prisons on the way, Uncle Ho was finally thrown into jail for nearly two years in Kweilin, then the capital of Kwangsi Province.)

Vo Nguyen Giap has written about these difficult days in a remarkable work, Liberation Army, published in 1947 in a very limited Vietnamese edition which has never been translated. In giving me extracts from this work in April 1968, General Giap pointed out that when the book was written and published, the Communist Party was still “underground” and that some of the references to Ho Chi Minh’s instructions and advice actually meant instructions from the leadership of the underground Communist Party. This work, even more than the well-known and widely translated, People’s War, People’s Army, provides profound insight into Giap’s thinking and his own insistence on the predominance of political over military aspects of warfare. I quote long extracts from this work, quite unknown abroad, because Liberation Army is a veritable treasure trove of information on Giap’s military concepts and helps to explain the successes of the NLF in the South, although Giap disclaims any credit for this.

“I thought I knew something about people’s war,” he told me in 1964 (when I met him after my first visit to the NLF-controlled areas). “I even wrote a book about it. But now, in the light of what our compatriots are doing in the South, I realize I know nothing about the subject.” But Giap was being too modest. It was he who developed the basic rules for conducting a people’s war, which has cost the careers and reputations of the United States’ most eminent military, diplomatic and political leaders.[5]

“The slogan of ‘Armed Insurrection’ was the first adopted by the assembly of the Independence League at its inaugural meeting in May 1941… Once the slogan was launched, some doubters wondered how with our low political level, the far from perfect state of our organization, how are we going to be able to defeat imperialism?…

“Such people did not understand that there are no limits to the power of the people. In a specific situation it may remain latent and quiescent but when events require it, this power can become violent, tempestuous as the tide at its fullest, something that no enemy can restrain.

“There were others, more realistic, who, hearing about armed insurrection thought immediately about military techniques… of the arms and munitions at our disposal… it’s even difficult to find a bit of steel, a single cartridge – in that case how can we defeat imperialism?

“Such people do not understand that political strength is the basis of everything; the basis of military strength… [Giap’s emphasis] To prepare an uprising, the principal task is to carry out propaganda among the people, organize the masses, establish extensive political bases…” Giap went on to describe the various organizations that were set up by the Vietminh and the instruction “to select resolute elements to be organized into self-defense groups.

“Such groups were formed from young volunteers, ready at the word of command to go forth to exterminate the enemy. According to the rules, everyone had to get hold of a weapon of some sort, a bamboo spear, a club, a musket or flintlock and, if possible, find ways and means of getting hold of a rifle.

“To form self-defense groups was one thing. But to train such groups was another. One of the greatest weaknesses of the revolutionary movement in our country was the lack of military instructors. When there was a shortage of cadres, how could the problem of training be solved?…

“The problem of arms was no less difficult There were plenty of muskets in the highlands and the [Red River] Delta but they were not always in the hands of politically conscious people. In addition, the question of implanting confidence in primitive weapons against the enemy’s modern arms was not an easy thing. To use a flintlock to kill game in the forest was one thing, but to use it to kill soldiers of the imperialist army was not so simple. As for hand grenades and rifles, at that time a Vietnamese, unless he was a soldier in the French army, considered himself lucky if he could even touch or admire from afar a French rifle, let alone, even in his wildest dreams, buy one. We already had the intention of studying the manufacture of grenades and we set up small arsenals. There was a lack of technical cadres, a scarcity of machines and raw material. Working conditions in the jungle and mountains were very primitive. At the beginning of 1944, we gathered together to try out the first grenade and the first mine produced in our secret arsenals. The experiment was a failure.

“All we had for arms in the Viet Bac [the northern highlands area, now the Thai-Meo autonomous zone] were flintlocks, muzzle loaders and a few dozen grenades provided by Chinese frontier troops, or a few muskets made by the ‘Thô’ tribes people…

“Throughout the whole Viet Bac area, but especially in the provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Can and Lang Son, self-defense units and combat groups, some of them even including women fighters, were in continuous training. Each course lasted 10 to 15 days. In 1943 the most enthusiastic and courageous members of the combat groups were recruited during the training courses. Toward the end of that year, there were already parades of the combat groups through the various districts, and hundreds of participants took part in mock battles. But the second training course for cadres could not get under way because of a violent wave of repression. The committee at inter provincial level had to leave it to local organs to carry on the work.

“The enemy’s terrorist activities started in 1943. Then in 1944 the situation became really serious. French fascists, by then valets of the Japanese, decided to wipe out all the anti-Japanese bases we had set up throughout the country. They paid particular attention to the Cao-Bac-Lang;[6] these three provinces having become centers for the movement for national salvation. Among other reasons, they wanted to prepare a relatively secure base for themselves to withdraw into when things got too hot – and there, bide their time.[7] What a slaughter of revolutionary militants took place! How many houses and entire villages burned to cinders! Imperialist savagery could be measured in terms of their inhuman cruelty.

“In the beginning, faced with the enemy’s policy of violent terrorism, our organizations in some places were almost completely liquidated. In one place, for example, where there were some 30,000 people in our mass organizations, only 15 or 20 of the most loyal remained. After having concentrated the villages, transforming them into concentration camps with solid rampart defenses, and very strict guards in charge, one allotted to each hamlet to control any outside visitors, the imperialists went one step further.

They promulgated a state of emergency, enforcing martial law to limit movements, encircling the forests with military posts from which patrols were sent out to control right up to the fringe of the mountains.

“Revolutionaries on the run became more and more numerous. They had to flee secretly. But gradually, underground organizations were set up everywhere. Supply depots for each group were set up with secret means of communication linking one with another. According to orders from above, in order to cope with the armed repression of our French enemies, the various groups had gradually to prepare to wage guerrilla warfare to transform themselves into military units. These provided the nucleus for our future armed forces.

“Nevertheless, except for emergency situations, they were to be on the defensive only. Higher authorities[8] had not yet authorized the use of firearms against the enemy. The first revolutionary shots had not yet been fired. Conditions for armed struggle were well developed by January 1944, when the Cao-Bac-Lang inter provincial committee published its decisions on armed activities.

“This decision on armed activities was a progressive step in the direction of armed insurrection but one also fraught with grave mistakes.

“The decision authorized districts to select the most courageous among the self-defense and combat groups to form specialized armed groups at district level, composed of seven to 12 members. These groups had as their mission to wage action in their own localities to wipe out traitors, liquidate isolated enemy groups and to act in such a way as to render themselves masters of the forests.”

“But there was one catch in this decision, namely, that armed action should only take place in areas in which there were no bases, in order to avoid terrorist reprisals.

“The decision had been published in January but until August it had had practically no effect, except for a few unimportant executions. Because the armed forces were still much too dispersed, there was a lack of cadres and weapons for the specialized armed groups. Because these groups operated only in areas where there was no popular support, there was a lack of intelligence agents. Further, the topography was unknown to them, communications and supply were difficult problems; it was difficult to find the right moment to enter into action. Often, even before they had entered into action, they were discovered. This erroneous experience was a lesson for the Cao-Bac-Lang movement and remains one for us even today.

“Within six months, the situation had rapidly changed. Terrorism was being employed in the highest degree. If the armed organizations had not acted in time the movement could no longer have survived. Every day the sound of enemy rifles was heard. Everybody impatiently awaited the sound of revolutionary return fire. At that time, the victory of Allied armies in the Pacific area, as well as in Western Europe, aroused excitement within the democratic movement to fever pitch. When the Allied forces opened the front, the Pétain government collapsed; everybody felt the time to act had arrived. The suppression of the French by the Japanese, foreseen for some time past, now seemed inevitable throughout the whole territory of Indochina.

“After having analyzed and summed up the situation, a conference of the Cao-Bac-Lang inter provinces, meeting in July, voted unanimously to stage an uprising. Following two months of preparations guerrilla warfare was to be unleashed in all three provinces.

“Preparations were carried out in a most animated atmosphere. Guerrilla group chiefs and their political cadres were trained all over again; with the exception of a few on active service with the guerrillas, the reservists were also given fresh training. Young cadres and older people who remained in the rear bases were to get themselves elected to the people’s committees or could concentrate on organizing support for the resistance struggle. They also went through detailed training…

“Filled with hatred for years past, awaiting only the moment to throw  their chains, the people of Cao-Bac-Lang were filled with happiness when they learned of the date set for the uprising…

“In certain places, old people encouraged the young ones to enlist. The  people voluntarily offered to take over and increase production and to take  defending the rear areas. People everywhere rejoiced at the prospects opening up before their eyes, the cadres the most enthusiastic of all. Most of them had the same thoughts. After so many years of working underground, the day was fast approaching when they would stand up in revolt, arms in hand and kill their enemies. Even to wipe out a few of the enemy, to hear the first shots of their own arms, to unfold the banner of revolt in the forests and mountains of Cao-Bac-Lang, they were prepared to spend their last drop of blood.

“Indeed, the moment of revolt is an unforgettable day in the life of the oppressed.

“When the order for insurrection went out, everybody forgot his troubles, dangers. In the depths of the jungle, the dawn rays shone through like the rising sun. Afterward we would banish the clouds forever. The light of independence would bring happiness to the whole people, to the whole country.”

“Expectations, great emotions, enthusiasm.

“But amongst the responsible cadres, no one saw at the time the error of deciding on the insurrection.

“From the political viewpoint this decision was premature, wrong, notably because at this time, the countryside was not yet ready to sustain armed insurrection in the Cao-Bac-Lang region. An isolated uprising could have been crushed by concentrated forces of the enemy.

“From the military viewpoint, the decision on insurrection was contrary to the rules of concentration of forces. Cadres and arms were dispersed between groups of regional guerrillas. There was a complete absence of an active, concentrated force fanned from the best cadres with good weapons.

“As a result, in October 1944, President Ho, returning after his long sojourn in foreign lands, ordered an immediate halt to the insurrection.[9]

“On receipt of this new order and without understanding the reason, cadres were very unhappy, very irritated. Just as the dawn rays were beginning to shine through they were suddenly extinguished.

“But President Ho ordered the cessation of the uprising in order to give the cadres very precise instructions for a form of armed struggle which would certainly ensure victory.

“On this occasion the Liberation Army was born.”

The instructions given by Uncle Ho dealt with one of the many original Vietnamese contributions to people’s warfare, the use of “armed propaganda units” as vanguard units of insurrection under conditions where the enemy was solidly established as an occupation force with a more or less stable administration. Writers who have made specialized studies of guerrilla warfare, like Régis Debray on Latin America and William Pomeroy on the Philippines, have questioned the value of armed propaganda units. It seems clear that their role in the Vietnamese war against the French and as the vanguard units in the first period of the war against the U.S.-Diem regime in the South, is insufficiently known. The impression given by Debray is that the armed propaganda units were composed only of speechifiers with pistols in their pockets, exhorting young people to join the rebellion but not playing any military role themselves.

“Better than two hundred speeches,” he writes, “the liquidation of a truckload of troops or the public execution of a police torturer have a much greater propaganda effect… on the neighbors population…”[10] In fact, it was to carry out just such tasks, among others, that the armed propaganda groups were conceived. But emphasis on the political, in all armed activities, was the key factor in their operations; they were the nucleus and forerunners of the highly politically oriented army in which every military action was

linked with a defined political aim. By December 1944, the formation of armed propaganda units had reached the point at which President Ho laid down the guidelines for their activities:

“1. The name ‘Propaganda Brigade of the Liberation Army,’ ” wrote President Ho in a directive at that time,[11] “means that the political activity of the brigade is more important than its military efforts. Above all it carries out propaganda. In military affairs, in order to function efficiently, the fundamental principle is to regroup existing forces. Thus, according to new directives of our organization, it will be necessary to choose the most resolute and ardent elements from among the Bac Can, Lang Son and Cao Bang guerrilla groups, and set up our main brigade. We will give the latter the greater part of available arms.

“Our resistance being of a popular character, we can mobilize and arm the whole people. That is why at the same time that we regroup our forces to set up the first brigade, we should think about retaining the regional forces, coordinating their activities and helping them in all possible ways. The brigade must back up the regional cadres, look after their training, provide them with weapons when possible and do everything to enable the regional forces to expand.

“2. Regarding the regional forces, regroup cadres to train them, afterward send them to the various local regions, carry out exchange of experiences, maintain close liaison between units, coordinate their combat

“3. Concerning tactics, practice guerrilla methods: secrecy, speed, initiative (today in the East, tomorrow in the West); appear and disappear by surprise, without leaving a trace.

“The Propaganda Brigade of the Vietnamese Liberation Army is called upon to become the eldest of a large family. May it see new brigades born as quickly as possible to support it.

“Modest, to be sure, at the beginning, but opening up before it are the most glorious perspectives. It is the embryo of the Liberation Army, with the whole territory of Vietnam from North to South as its field of activities.”

It was Giap who was entrusted with heading the first platoon of the propaganda Brigade.” Named after Tran Hung Dao, the famous 13th century general who defeated the Mongol invaders, the platoon soon entered into action.

“Initiative, speed, secrecy,” Giap continues the account in Liberation Army, “[are] simple words which suffice to express the essence of a guerrilla’s stock-in-trade. President Ho paid great attention to secrecy. If was imperative to preserve absolute secrecy, to conceal our forces well, disorient the enemy. It is essential that the enemy underestimate our strength, that he completely ignore our activities. At the beginning, when we decided to collect certain equipment from the imperialist troops to camouflage and disguise our own, the President advised us to show ourselves, even in disguise, only in case of absolute necessity; better not to show ourselves at all. That could only attract the enemy’s attention and secrecy could be lost. When we received our first mission, the President wrote us twice again to recommend [that] ‘you must maintain secrecy…’ ”

(The ability of the Vietnamese resistance fighters to “maintain secrecy” was strikingly demonstrated during the 1968 Têt offensive in which scores of thousands of “Vietcong” troops and hundreds of thousands of supporting civilians, operating under the very noses of a formidable CIA network and the enormous Saigon security network, made their preparations for days and weeks and struck from one end of South Vietnam to the other, with absolute secrecy maintained till the last. CIA authorities later admitted they never received a single warning authentic enough to act upon.)

“As for launching the first action,” Giap continues, “President Ho made two points. First, our first combat action must be victorious. He stressed that this action would have a great effect and to a large extent would determine the group’s future. Second the time and place of the action should be carefully chosen, the action carefully organized in such a way that it would provoke a reaction throughout the whole country and abroad. Each victory should thoroughly be exploited to expand our propaganda activities. The liberation forces must achieve their propaganda aims in appealing to the solidarity of the whole people, appealing for the armed uprising, and must attract foreign attention to the antifascist struggle of the Vietnamese people…”

Giap goes on to speak of the formation of his famous platoon: “I was charged, with some other cadres, to form the propaganda group. Before deciding, the President asked me: ‘Is it possible to find a secure, inviolable base that the enemy can never destroy?’ I replied: ‘This is possible. Certainly! The enemy can never wipe us out.’

“Thus, having received our orders, we were able to mobilize 34 cadres and members of regional armed groups with two muskets, 17 rifles, 14 flintlocks and Chinese arms. It was very fortunate for us that two days previously we had received from a Monsieur Tong Minh Phuong, a Vietnamese living at Con Minh [China], an American machine gun with 150 cartridges, six fuse bombs, a case of time bombs and 500 piastres for expenses.

“At that time – it was at the beginning of December – I took leave of the President for the mission, a new mission which, according to orders, I must carry out within a month.

“It was natural that we were full of confidence. We already thought of the brilliant future of our propaganda group. But we did not forget either that for this future to become reality and not remain a legend, everything depended on our courage and our concrete plans, that in addition we had to be skillful, stouthearted and also prudent to execute our plans…”

Thus Giap, the historian, started to write a new chapter in the history of Vietnam when his platoon, divided into two groups, simultaneously attacked the two French forts of Phay Khat and Na Ngan in Cao Bang Province, wiping them out and seizing all arms and equipment. The attack took place on the night of December 22, 1944, which has since been taken as the birth date of the Vietnamese Liberation Army. News of the victorious attack spread like wildfire. Giap and his men had prepared leaflets with the simple appeal:

Dear compatriots!

Together With The Liberation Forces

Destroy The Enemy, Save The Country

It was signed: “Vietnam Liberation and Propaganda Unit.”

The leaflets spread almost as fast as the news, at first through the Cao-Bac-Lang area but also further afield, as fast as the liaison agents could take them.

“Our propaganda group never forgot its main task,” Giap writes. “Political affairs more important than military, propaganda more important than operations… Before engaging in combat, think first about the propaganda effect. When one has brought off a victory, exploit it by expanding propaganda activities… Political and military forms of action are linked with one another, and the links must be strengthened

“At that time, the news of the victory of the propaganda group spread through all districts, down to the villages. We felt that if the victory was known to a hundred people it would only influence these hundred. But if a thousand people knew of it, then we could consider that we had achieved 10 victories or one victory 10 times as great…

“In the village markets, leaflets began to appear urging the puppet troops to turn their arms against the enemy, to join the Liberation Army. Slogans were scrawled up everywhere: ‘Respect the People,’ ‘Support the People,’ ‘Defend the People’…”

Giap noted that the very first blows, certainly because of the effective propaganda exploitation of them, had a salutary effect on local tyrants and those Vietnamese employed in the French agencies of local repression. They began to be more polite, returning goods seized from the villagers, some of the higher-ups even seeking out Vietminh cadres to apologize for their past activities, blaming the French or Japanese for the orders they had been forced to execute. Exactly the same thing happened in the South when the first NLF armed propaganda units in 1960 started executing a few of the most bloodthirsty of the local officials, posting up tracts to explain why and warning others to mend their ways. From widely separated areas I heard similar stories of an immediate change in attitude and usually the greater the bully, the more ingratiating were his apologies, the more fervent his promises to turn over a new leaf.

At a later period when the CIA was pushing its “Revolutionary Development” teams as the key instrument in “pacification,” the Americans also formed what they considered the equivalent of “armed propaganda” groups. Actually, these were gangster-type assassination squads, who sought out “Vietcong” suspects and shot them in front of the villagers for the terror effect. “Propaganda” consisted in stating that “one more Communist bandit” had been dealt with. Since the “bandit” was usually one of the most honest and courageous men in the village, shot down in front of his family and friends, the “propaganda effect” can be imagined. The CIA further revealed its desperation by clothing “Revolutionary Development” cadres in the black, pajama-like costumes of the “Vietcong” in the hope of stealing some of the latter’s prestige.

Seven years had passed from the time Vo Nguyen Giap had published his analysis of the revolutionary potential of the peasants’ role in Vietnamese society until the moment he began to lead them in armed uprising, an eloquent commentary on the painstaking, infinite attention to detail and organization, which is the typical style of work of President Ho and his closest disciples. But once they moved, they moved quickly. Within eight months of Giap’s first blow, the revolutionary forces were strong enough to stage a nationwide uprising which in a period of nine days[12] starting August 19, 1945, had victoriously swept through the length and breadth of the land, leading to the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945.

It is worth noting again that before he set off to launch the first blow in the armed insurrection, Giap was asked by Ho Chi Minh if he was sure he could establish a “secure, inviolable base” and Giap replied affirmatively. It was typical of the Vietnamese armed struggle against the French and now against the Americans that the leadership has been able to operate from secure bases. This is different from Latin America about which Debray[13] writes that “the present experience in Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela seems to confirm the Cuban[14] experience on this point [that of fixed bases]. The occupation fixed base is not the condition sine qua non of the start of the first nomadic period of slowly settling down in a particularly favorable operational zone…”

This difference in Latin American and Vietnamese experience is probably due to the long period of political organization, of forming bases “in the hearts and minds of the people” that preceded armed action in Vietnam.

On the question of bases, Vo Nguyen Giap has written,[15] “When our party decided on the preparation for armed insurrection, we had no military forces in our hands, we had not even an inch of free territory to serve as a springboard for our activities. Afterward we created minuscule, secret armed centers and succeeded in setting up a base, including the rural areas of six provinces of the Viet Bac.[16] The experience of the August [1945] Revolution brilliantly confirmed the importance of creating revolutionary bases…

“… The problem of bases and rear areas was posed from the beginning of hostilities and throughout the whole length of our resistance; our party attached great importance to the maintenance of our bases and the consolidation of our rear areas… The French colonialists stopped at nothing in trying to destroy our bases but they went from setback to setback to end up with total defeat… Our bases were continuously consolidated and played a fundamentally great role in the development of the army and in satisfying the needs of the front. It was because of this that we were able to pursue a long war of resistance and finally bring off a glorious victory…”

The French launched many offensives in the Cao-Bac-Lang area after their return to the North in 1946, just as the Americans have launched offensive after offensive into the Tay Ninh forests northwest of Saigon where they believe the NLF has its main bases.

But the French were never able to lay their hands on the Vietminh leadership or disrupt their bases, and the Americans have been equally unsuccessful.

“Fixed bases are necessary,” said Le Vinh, the regimental political officer quoted earlier.[17] “We need them for education, training and supplies, and for command. The real bases are in the hearts of the people, but you have to have fixed bases as well, where a headquarters command can coordinate political and military activities throughout the country. We have the enemy ahead of us. He thinks he control most of the country. But the Americans despite all their gadgetry have no intelligence information, because they have no bases in the hearts of the people – where we have our most important ones. With our permanent bases and our bases among the people – even in the occupied cities – the enemy is doomed.”


[1] Truong Chinh, one of the outstanding leaders of the Vietnamese revolution, a former secretary-general of the Lao Dong Party, is a member of the latter’s Political Bureau and chairman of the Standing Committee of the National Assembly.

[2] Published by the Duc Cuong publishing house in 1937-38, when a Popular Front government in France made such activities possible, The Peasant Problem was signed by Van Dinh and Qua Ninh, pseudonyms for Vo Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh respectively. A third volume, Colonialist Policy Concerning the Peasant Problem, was secretly written by Truong Chinh in a peasant’s hut after the Popular Front government fell and repression was stepped up against the revolutionaries. The manuscript was subsequently lost during a mopping-up operation and was never published. The first two volumes were republished in Vietnamese only, in December 1959.

[3] Guerre du Peuple, Armée du Peuple, page 84, Foreign Languages Publishing House Hanoi.

[4] Abbreviation for “Vietnam Independence League.”

[5] The following is my own translation of an unofficial French translation of the original Vietnamese of General Vo Nguyen Giap and therefore does not do full credit to Giap’s own rich literary style.

[6] The three provinces of Cao Bang, Bac Can and Lang Son.

[7] The Japanese, after having tolerated a sort of Vichy French administration in Indochina, seized complete power in an unopposed coup on March 9, 1945. It was in expectation of this that the French had their eyes on hideouts in the mountainous provinces of the North.

[8] Vo Nguyen Giap in using the term “higher authority” as that of Ho Chi Minh was referring to the leadership of the underground Communist Party.

[9] In fact President Ho returned from his two years in Kwangsi prisons, but the fact that he had been imprisoned by the Kuomintang Chinese was not revealed at the time Giap was writing.

[10] Révolution dans la Révolution, page 53.

[11] Translated from Oeuvres Choisies du Président Ho Chi Minh, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, 1962, pp.28-29.

[12] In Hanoi, the uprising took place in August 19, 1945, in Hué on August 23, Saigon on August  25 and in Rach Gia in the Mekong Delta on August 28, by which time state power was in the hands of the Vietminh throughout the whole of Vietnam.

[13] Révolution dans la Révolution, pp. 65-66.

[14] In Cuba, Fidel Castro obviously had no time to set up bases in the early stages of the Cuban Revolution. Having performed the incredible feat of effecting a landing, which was immediately spotted, Castro and his tiny group of survivors from the first savage attempt to wipe them all out were forced to engage in a life and death, hide-and-seek struggle from the very beginning. Secrecy and the long drawn out political preparations essential for the establishment of bases was not possible. The military concept of mobile columns and the speed with which the armed struggle developed also made the question of bases and rear areas less important. In the case of Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela, judged by the Vietnamese experience, it seems inevitable that the question of bases must be posed if armed struggle there continues to develop. In the case of Bolivia, it seems that the tragic death of “Che” Guevara must be linked with the absence of a “secure, inviolable” base in which the leadership of the revolution can be properly protected.

[15] Translated from the French edition of People’s War, People’s Army. The passage in Hanoi’s English edition is on p. 78.

[16] The three Cao-Bac-Lang provinces and the three adjoining ones were quickly liberated after Giap launched the first armed action.

[17] See Chapter 2.

NEXT: Chapter 15 – Armed Propaganda

Wilfred Burchett was an Australian journalist, who covered World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. His many books include Shadows of Hiroshima, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist and Vietnam Will Win. Burchett died in 1983.