Most military commanders would be happy winning a single war. Giap, the North Vietnamese general who died Oct. 4 at 102, could claim two. His 1954 defeat of French troops at Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French Indochina. Then, as his nation’s Defense Minister in 1968, the self-taught strategist oversaw the Tet offensive against American forces that hastened the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the ultimate fall of South Vietnam.
Second in standing only to his mentor, North Vietnam’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh, Giap was ruthless, willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of his fellow Vietnamese. “Any American commander who took the same vast losses would not have lasted three weeks,” said Army General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. But Westmoreland’s infamous “enemy body counts” didn’t count what mattered. The Vietnamese were fighting for their homeland, and Washington seemed unable to grasp that it was largely nationalism, not communism, that fueled Vietnam’s bloody efforts to rid itself of outsiders.
This text originally appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of TIME magazine.
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