I stood on the bank of the Hoan Kien Lake in downtown Ha Noi in the gloaming of the day The park was still alive in early evening with people enjoying themselves. It is a very popular place in Ha Noi for people to gather, to relax, to eat picnics, to do group Tai Chi exercises, to walk, to meditate, to hold hands. I had come here, aged 80, in these last days of 2011 on a journey of reminiscence and goodbye to see this ancient city once more and for the last time to see a man I had come to know well, Senior General (Dai Tuong) Vo Nguyen Giap, now old and sick in his 101st year of life.
As I lingered near the water in the growing darkness, I recalled how the lake had gotten its name: the Lake of the Returned Sword. In the year 1418, a Vietnamese patriot, Le Loi (1384-1433), had grown increasingly angry at the Chinese Ming dynasty's control over the land and how its overlords badly treated his people. He wanted them gone! He wanted to fight them but had no weapons. Beside the waters of the lake in Ha Noi, he bowed in prayer to Buddha and asked for help.
Suddenly, up out of the water came a giant turtle (Kim Qui) known as the Golden Turtle God, carrying in its mouth a magic sword on whose blade was inscribed the legend "the will of heaven." It laid the sword at Le Loi's feet. Le Loi picked it up and now while holding the weapon having the strength of many men, he went in search of fellows, for there was no Vietnamese army to call upon. Gathering a force of common people, he went up against the Chinese and in a war of national liberation defeated the Mings and forced them from the land. Following his victory Le Loi went back to the lake and returned the sword to the Golden Turtle God which then submerged into the dark waters of the lake, never to be seen again. Thus the waters became known as the Lake of the Returned Sword. Le Loi went on to found the Le dynasty of Vietnamese emperors and is today recognized as one of the nation's greatest heroes. Hardly a town or village that does not have a Le Loi street.
The man I had come to see was, like Le Loi, a hero to his countrymen and, like him, the leader of a war of national liberation. This modern Le Loi also had no weapons when in 1940 he began his task of freeing Viet Nam from foreign occupation. France had controlled and occupied Viet Nam for one hundred years, siphoning its riches and viciously treating any who resisted its power. Uprisings had occurred, but had been quickly smashed. Now, in 1940 the Japanese had taken over from the French using Viet Nam as a staging area for an attack upon India. Giap had no military experience, once commenting that he had learned the art of war by fighting. "My only academy was the bush." In the northern hills, this former history teacher in Ha Noi, under supervision of Ho Chi Minh, established a "beach head." Working with tribes there, he put together a small fighting force, unifying their hatred of the French. By war's end they had freed many of the northern provinces from foreign influence.
As the French came back in the first years of peace that followed the conflict, Giap and his growing force fought them, culminating in 1954 with the absolute defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. But the French still controlled the southern half of Viet Nam and so Giap and his growing army continued the fight. The French finally gave up and left, but the United States now entered the fray on behalf of the newly created southern government, the Republic of Viet Nam. Years passed. Fighting continued until 1976 when, ignominiously, the American forces returned home. Giap was triumphant!
Yet his work was not done. After 1976 neighboring Cambodia, now Kampuchea, under Pol Pot, had been making incursions on Vietnam's western borders. Finally in 1978, Giap moved his army against them and by 1979 had overthrown Pol Pot's army, forcing its remnants into the jungle. China had been an ally of Kampuchea, and angry that Viet Nam had invaded Kampuchea, attacked from the north. Once again, Giap was victorious, pushing the invaders back across the northern frontier into their own territory.
Giap had now defeated, in succession, Japan, France, the U.S., Kampuchea and China. In each conflict he had been victorious, making him one of history's most successful generals. Yet he was still and always had been a shadowy figure, not well known to any of his enemies. The ancient Chinese warrior, Sun Tsu, had once said that in battle it is always necessary "to know your enemy." Yet we had not known Vo Nguyen Giap. Part of the reason was that, like most Vietnamese, he was naturally reclusive, not willing to share information about self and family with others. Part had also been learned during the days of French occupation, for the less those colons known about one, the safer it was. And so even at the height of American involvement against him, no one was clear about this man, his origins, his training, his ability to fight outnumbered and ill equipped and still win. No biography of the man had been written in the West.
I determined to write that book. The road to completion was long and torturous, but in the end was accomplished. That effort proved worthwhile and brought unexpected results.
In 1996 at Hartford, Connecticut, at the annual meeting and banquet of the Association of Third World Studies (ATWS), I was selected to receive an award for publishing the best book length manuscript, by any member, on the Third World appearing that year. The book, published by Brassey's (not Potomac Books), then specializing in military history, was entitled Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's General Vo Nguyen Giap and it included an enthusiastic "Foreword" by the world famous military historian, John Keegan.
Research had entailed a month long trip to Viet Nam, an interview with General Giap and others there who had known him, study at Douglas...