HONG KONG — The principal architect of Vietnam’s military victories over France and the United States turned 102 the other day, and the old general, Vo Nguyen Giap, while frail, is said to be holding his own.
He had a firm handshake and a ready smile when I interviewed him 10 years ago in Hanoi, and he talked easily about the “American War,” about his legendary battles at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, and about Ho Chi Minh.
It was hard for foreign journalists to get an audience with General Giap, but he agreed when I said I brought greetings from Maj. Allison Kent Thomas — the American major who had parachuted into General Giap’s jungle camp in 1945 to help train his fledgling Viet Minh guerrilla army. The major’s younger son and I were friends from university, and I had been allowed to read his father’s diaries and personal wartime letters.
All three men — Thomas, Giap and Ho — receive detailed and scholarly attention in a new account(published last week) of the beginnings of the Vietnam War, “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” by the Cornell University professor and historian Frederik Logevall.
A review by Lawrence D. Freedman in Foreign Affairs calls the book “magisterial.”
Mr. Logevall addresses the nagging historical question: Was Ho Chi Minh a resolute communist from his very beginnings, or was he a nationalist and freedom fighter who eventually moved toward socialism? The subtext to the question, of course, is whether the United States, with some more prescient diplomacy, might have struck an alliance with Ho and avoided the horrific quagmire of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Logevall, in a recentinterview with Jeff Glor of CBS, said that Ho “saw communism as the best path of development for his country, but it was alwayshis country.” Independence from Japanese invaders and French colonialists was his original intent, highest priority and enduring goal.
“Ho emerges as an unexpected hero in this balanced book, first seen trying to buttonhole Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference of 1919,” says a new review in The Economist.
“But gradually he and his fellow North Vietnamese were viewed as agents of international communism, not admirable rebels against colonialism. Mr. Logevall bemoans the fact that Ho’s admiration for American political ideals and French culture did not lead to a life-sparing compromise.”
Ho was clearly admiring of the Americans in 1945, and he actively sought their help. As a sweetener, he had allowed some of the men under General Giap to rescue downed American pilots.
Major Thomas, then working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the C.I.A., was the leader of a unit called the Deer Team, which helped General Giap to organize his “army” of 200 peasant recruits at their Tan Trao redoubt in northern Vietnam.
The major (who was later promoted to lieutenant colonel) got hung up in a banyan tree while parachuting into the camp, but he was quickly freed and greeted with a banner that said “Welcome to Our American Friends.” The date was July 16, 1945 — the same day that the United States tested the first atomic bomb, in New Mexico. World War II was nearly over.
Major Thomas’s private journal says he arrived to find Ho very weak and suffering from chills and fever. (The major refers to him as “Mr. Hoo” in his earliest entries. So much for that bit of intel.) A medic with the American team treated Ho for dysentery and malaria, and he quickly improved.
General Giap’s account was different. He said a local herbalist, an ethnic Tay man, had dug up a root in the forest, burned it and sprinkled the ashes into a bowl of rice soup. After Ho ate the soup, General Giap said, “the miracle occurred” and “the president emerged from his coma.”
Major Thomas, who died in 2005 after a long career as an attorney in Lansing, Michigan, radioed his O.S.S. superiors based in Kunming, in southwestern China, that they needn’t worry about Ho’s political leanings.
“Forget the Communist Bogy,” he wrote. “Viet Minh League is not Communist. Stands for freedom and reforms from French harshness.”
Mr. Logevall’s appraisal, in his book, said Major Thomas got it “wrong, or at least incomplete.”
“If the Viet Minh stood for independence and against French repression, its core leadership that summer also remained staunchly Communist. But Ho in particular among top strategists wore the ideology lightly, so much so that even Soviet officials questioned his Communist credentials. In Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party, too, analysts wondered where the Viet Minh, should it win the right to rule a free Vietnam, would take the country.”
While offering the proviso that “history by analogy is a treacherous business,” Mr. Logevall also draws a political parallel between the Indochina wars of yesteryear and the current conflict in Afghanistan. From his interview with Mr. Glor:
“Both in Indochina — the French and the Americans — and now in Afghanistan, we were supporting governments that did not have broad popular support, that were riven by infighting, by intrigue, were corrupt in many respects. And it’s very, very difficult, Indochina teaches us, to succeed in that kind of environment.”
General Giap has sometimes been criticized for losing huge numbers of troops in any number of battles, including at Khe Sanh, even though the victories he directed were crucial to Vietnam’s eventual independence. Here is Mr. Logevall on the defeat of the French in 1954:
“The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. The Viet Minh had won. Vo Nguyen Giap had overturned history, had accomplished the unprecedented, had beaten the West at its own game. For the first time in the annals of colonial warfare, Asian troops had defeated a European army in fixed battle.”