25 years ago, the late journalist and historian Stanley Karnow travelled back to Vietnam to finally meet the legendary Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap. Karnow’s daughter Catherine, a young photographer, went along a few months later and came to share her father’s unique access to the enigmatic North Vietnamese General.
Stanley Karnow, a veteran reporter of the wars against the French and subsequently the US-supported Saigon regime, was one of the very first Americans who anticipated the implications of the US engagement in Vietnam. Shortly after the Kennedy administration came into power, Karnow asked the President’s primary adviser Robert Kennedy, if Vietnam should not be seen as the major foreign policy challenge for the US.
“We got 30 Vietnam’s a day,” Robert Kennedy retorted.
Karnow went on to cover the war until the end in 1975. As the first American journalist after the war, he was allowed to visit communist Vietnam in 1982 on a research trip for his widely admired ‘Vietnam – A History’. To Karnow’s frustration, Giap along with other enigmatic top figures like Le Duc Tho was unavailable. ‘Only’ Prime Minister Pham Van Dong – a legend in his own right – would speak to Karnow.
Eight years later, Giap finally agreed to talk to Karnow. The outcome was a fascinating interview with the old general in the New York Times.
On this rare occasion, Giap shared with Karnow his life from the early days, when he was expelled from school for subversive activities against the French Colonialist regime, the death of his first wife in a French prison, the sleepless nights before the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, The 1968 Tet Offensive, and the ‘final victory’ in 1975, when the North Vietnamese forces and their Southern allies moved into Saigon.
Here is how Karnow heard Giap, reflecting on a long life at war:
A typical retired general, Giap now devotes much of his time to revisiting battlefields and addressing veterans. ”If I had not become a soldier,” he reflects, ”I probably would have remained a teacher, maybe of philosophy or history. Someone recently asked me whether, when I first formed our army, I ever imagined I would fight the Americans. Quelle question! Did the Americans, back then, ever imagine that they would one day fight us?”
He gripped my hand as we parted, saying: ”Remember, I am a general who fought for peace. I wanted peace – but not peace at any price.” With that he walked off briskly, leaving me to contemplate the cemeteries, the war monuments and the unhealed memories in France, America and Vietnam, and the terrible price their peoples paid.”
Here is a link to the full interview:
In the interview, there is no indication of any kind of personal hostility from Giap towards the Americans. On other occasions Giap spoke highly on his very first encounters with US military personnel. During WW II, Giap and his comrades received weapons and training assistance from the US Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of CIA. At the time, the US saw the Vietnamese guerillas as important allies against the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam.
Giap himself fondly remembered, how a young American soldier, Henry Prunier, had trained him to throw hand grenades. In 1995, Giap spotted Prunier in a visiting US delegation to Hanoi. Giap picked an orange from the bowl in front of him and lobbied it hand grenade style to Prunier, the General’s way of showing his visitors that he had not forgotten the past.
During WW II, the relations between the Vietnamese resistance leaders and the so called ‘Deer Team’ (the code name for the military advisers) became cordial to the point that US team leader assisted Ho Chi Minh in drafting the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence.
Just a few months ago, I had the privilege to meet Catherine Karnow in Hanoi at her exhibition of photos, taken in Vietnam during the past 25 years. Her works are some of the very best I have seen on post-war Vietnam. In my eyes, her portrait of Vo Nguyen Giap is the finest of them all.
Ms. Karnow and the Art Vietnam Gallery made a print available for me, which is now on the wall in our home here in Hanoi. Below the portrait is a comfortable couch, perfect for reading once again her father’s 1983 tour de force ‘Vietnam – A History’. His compelling narrative was instrumental in making me pack my bags for Vietnam as a young reporter in those days.
In 2013, General Giap, Henry Prunier and Stanley Karnow all passed away at the age of 102, 91, and 87, respectively. Catherine Karnow continues to work around the globe, turning out some truly amazing work. Here is a link to her website: