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Home > Back Issues (Journal) > Journal V29 N2 (Apr - Jun 2003) > Personality Profile: General Van Tien Dung

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Personality Profile:

General Van Tien Dung

After generations of military and political struggle in Vietnam, the Communists achieved final victory with the conquest of Saigon on the 30th April, 1975. This "Great Spring Victory" ended 30 years of war, which saw the defeat of the colonial French, whom General Van Tien Dung fought at the decisive 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, then the United States and finally the South Vietnamese government in the Ho Chin Minh Campaign. As the Chief of the General Staff of the army from 1953-78, General Van Tien Dung played instrumental roles in all these campaigns. However, it is debatable if it was really Dung or his predecessor, the more popular General Vo Nguyen Giap, who was the true strategist behind these victories.

General Van Tien Dung was born on 2nd May, 1917 in Co Nhue village in a suburb of Hanoi. In his youth, Van Tien Dung never thought of becoming a soldier. He did however take an interest in the cause of national liberation and construction which drew him towards revolutionary activities. As a textile worker in 1936, he took an active part in a movement to fight the French who were then the colonial power. Similar to other Vietnamese of peasant stock with little schooling, he was recruited a year later into the Indochina Communist party run by Ho Chi Minh and was to take part in the leadership of Fraternity Association among textile workers. Dung was then only 20.

Soon after his recruitment, the French arrested and imprisoned Dung in 1939 for belonging to an illegal organisation, but through

his resolve and aid from Party members, he managed to escape from prison. Upon returning to the Party in April 1945, he became secretary of the Northern Party Organisation and was also concurrently appointed permanent member to the Northern Revolutionary Army Committee.

On 13th August 1945, the day that the Japanese surrendered to the US, the Indochina Communist party convened a national congress and decided on the resolution to end foreign aggression and restore national independence, before the arrival of Allied troops. Dung was tasked to assist in laying the groundwork for the preparation of the general insurrection of August 1945. Consequently, on 25th August 1945, one million people from Saigon and neighbouring areas, protected by armed groups marched through the city and established communist mile. The August revolution of 1945 put an end to 80 years of French colonialisation, abolished the monarchy and established Vietnam as an independent nation.

The French government countered by taking a series of urgent measures aimed at re-establishing French sovereignty. In the war of resistance against the French, Dung was made the commander and political commissar of various military regions. In one of the more significant campaigns during the anti-French war in 1952, Dung was asked by then President Ho Chi Minh to be the commander and political commissar of Brigade 320. With a command of 10,000 troops, the army successfully crossed the Red River for the first time to penetrate into the enemy controlled area which was a pivotal strategic position for the northern battlefields. Previously, it was thought not possible to dispatch a large-scale army unit to this area as it was easily exposed to enemy bombardment. However, with the support from the army, the local militia, and the guerrillas from within and outside the region, Brigade 320 scored a resounding victory with appropriate military tactics. This triumph put many enemy troops out of action, expanded territorial control under the resistance and enabled them to set up more guerilla bases. Thereafter, the Vietnamese continued their offensive and defeated the French at the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. On 26th April 1954, the Geneva Conference met and conferred sovereignty upon Vietnam, but stipulated that the southern half of Vietnam be handed over to a provisional administration, to be returned after two years. However, soon after the agreement was signed, Washington, with the French government's consent set up a pro-western regime in Southern Vietnam. Once again, the war for national liberation continued, one which would last for the next 20 years.

In the war against the United States, Dung's roles and contributions were numerous in many military campaigns and operations. In the last months of 1974, Dung's personal planning and directing of the Central Highlands campaign opened up a series of military operations in the South. By using diversionary tactics, Dung succeeded in causing the Americans to inaccurately speculate about their objectives, allowing the Northern Army to speed up their deployment of forces. This vastly improved the North's fighting position and created the right conditions for the final offensives effectively cutting short the time needed for the liberation of South Vietnam from two years to one.

Soon after the Central Highlands campaign, came the historic "Ho Chi Minh Campaign" in January 1975, which was personally led by Dung, the appointed army Commander in Chief. For this final offensive of the war, Dung had under his command an army of 800,000 men, the third largest in the world supported by tanks and aircraft. Whilst waves of armed forces launched swift attacks, locals and military personnel inside and surrounding Saigon rose to join the regular army to form a sweeping force to liberate the country. On 30th April, 1975, the 55-day communist offensive culminated in the fall of the United States ­ backed Saigon government. The Americans were forced to withdraw after losing 58,000 soldiers over a period of 20 years.

It often remains a point of dispute as to which communist general was more instrumental in the fall of Saigon. Though Dung had put himself at the forefront in his memoir in 1976, supporters of the more well-known communist general, Vo Nguyen Giap, then defence minister, argued that it was the latter that did most of the planning. Regardless of which general should have been more deservingly credited, both Western and Vietnam historians have recognised Dung as an outstanding military commander and strategist whose brilliant planning and execution of great victories stunned the Western world. In February 1980, Dung was elected to the Party's Politburo and appointed Minister of Defence. However, he was dropped from the Politburo in 1986 as the ruling party adopted new market-orientated reforms. Dung was then criticised as being too autocratic in the people's army congress. He was replaced as defence minister the next year.

After his fall from grace, Dung retreated from the limelight. In his memoir, Dung once said "A small nation with a small land mass and a small population which knows how to consolidate and knows its leadership can defeat a greater power." Apt words from one who has played an instrumental role in achieving victory over a mighty military power. On the 17th March 2002, Dung passed away at age 85 after a prolonged illness in Hanoi's Central Military Hospital. He would always be revered by the Vietnamese as one of their greatest military leaders during the two wars of resistance.

Bibliography

1. Van, Tien-Dung, Our Great Spring Victory, New York: Monthly Review Press (1977)

2. McGarvey, Patrick, Visions of Victory, California: Hoover Institution (1969)

 
Last updated: 03-Jul-2006


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