In mid-August 2011, I traveled to India for a short stay of less than a week. I remained in the nation's capital of New Delhi and especially visited one elderly relative to get his insights before I traveled onward to Vietnam. My relative's name is Jatindra Nath Chaudhry, and he was India's first Ambassador to Vietnam, from 1950-1955. Since India had traditionally been in the forefront of the Third World anti-colonial movement (as well as a leader amongst the Non-Aligned nations), India recognized North Vietnam as the official Vietnamese government and Hanoi as its capital. While posted there, Ambassador Chaudhry also happened to be India's youngest ambassador at the time (in his twenties). He soon formed a long-lasting acquaintanceship with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had appointed him.
I visited Ambassador Chaudhry for over one hour and had an excellent discussion with him about his experiences in Vietnam as well as his advice for my pending trip to Hanoi. He provided me with a handwritten note as well as nearly a dozen historic black-and-white photographs from his time in Vietnam. Some of the priceless photos included images of his officially receiving the International Control Commission delegations that arrived in Hanoi in 1954 after the Geneva Agreement. One such photograph also featured himself standing behind a table at which were seated North Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Dong, Indian Prime Minister Nehru, and the legendary Chairman Ho Chi Minh himself. Another photograph featured Ambassador Chaudhry visiting then-Saigon on a token diplomatic visit to briefly meet South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem (and to whom, in the photo, he is presenting a small gift as a goodwill gesture). I was delighted with the photographs and the fruitful discussion from Ambassador Chaudhry. Before parting ways, he told me that he had rarely met Ho Chi Minh, and that he met General Vo Nguyen Giap on only a few occasions as well (in the 1950s while as Indian Ambassador, and most recently in 1984 when Gen. Giap visited India himself). He also told me that after he returned to India from Vietnam, he later befriended President Kennedy's Ambassador to India, the distinguished economist John Kenneth Galbraith. He added that he was invited to dinners and other gatherings with Prime Minister Nehru and Ambassador Galbraith, and that quite often Nehru had verbally cautioned Galbraith to get America out from a dire situation in Vietnam. He said these things with the best intentions for the United States and its young president. I thanked Ambassador Chaudhry for these insights and his gift of vitally historic photographs and soon departed for Vietnam.
Vietnam During the Vietnam War
By late August, I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city with perhaps the highest degree of humidity I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening journey to visit a defiant capital that, through the ages, had been besieged by, but proudly resisted the French, the Japanese, the Americans, and even the long-ago marauding armies of Genghis Khan. Within a few days of my arrival, I managed to visit two different places that would aid me in my goal of trying to contact and meet legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap. Mindful that General Giap's centenary birthday celebration was in two days time on August 25, 2011, I visited a temporary exhibit in downtown Hanoi featuring photographs of his life and military campaigns. While there, I talked with a young exhibit organizer who got me in touch with an American expatriate who had been in Vietnam since the height of the war in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her name was Lady Borton and she had come to Vietnam as a Quaker relief worker many decades earlier to assist in humanitarian efforts. First working in South Vietnam, she was eventually trusted enough to be invited across the border into the North and assist in relief efforts there.
I telephoned Lady Borton (her actual name birth name, not a British-sounding title) and soon met her at her office in Hanoi. She gave me guidance about traveling the city but cautioned that meeting General Giap would be nearly impossible. She also mentioned that he had been placed in the permanent care of Military Hospital 108 in Hanoi where the staff could keep a 24-hour watch on his fragile health. When I asked if he was facing life-threatening conditions, she replied no, that he simply needed assisted living. She added that he was still cognizant and often read daily. Thanking her, I nevertheless arrived at my next destination the following day, the Indian Embassy in Hanoi. Armed with full determination as well as Ambassador Chaudhry's handwritten note and historic photographs, I set out to meet the right authorities who would aid in my quixotic quest to meet General Vo Nguyen Giap.
At the Indian Embassy, I was initially told to schedule an appointment with the Defense Attache for the following day. I did so and arrived the next day to meet the colonel (name withheld due to his insistence on keeping the arrangement discreet) who was then the current military attache to the embassy. I presented him the personalized note given by Ambassador Chaudhry on my behalf as well as the one dozen historic black-and-white photos from 1950s Vietnam during his official tenure there. The colonel gazed intently at the photos and was both intrigued and pleased with the historic images, commenting that he was seeing many of them for the first time. In fact, he said, even the embassy and its archives did not have many such photos. He asked me permission to have the pictures photocopied on the embassy's in-house copier and I quickly gave my assent. We then returned to the subject of the purpose of my visit. Beneath a giant framed wall photo depicting Prime Minister Nehru standing with Ho Chi Minh, I conferred with the colonel on how best to approach the possibility of meeting General Giap. He remarked that he had once met the famed general himself a few years earlier when he first arrived as attache to the embassy. However, the general's health had declined since then and he was thus placed in the care of Hospital 108 by his family. The colonel counseled that it was highly unlikely that I would be able to meet Gen. Giap because the family wanted his health and privacy kept out of the public eye (to such an extent that only the Vietnamese Prime Minister and the nation's top military leaders were allowed to visit him at his hospital suite). Sensing my disappointment, the colonel did suggest one final option. He mentioned the name of one native Vietnamese employee at the embassy who not only assisted the Indian staff in communications with the Vietnamese local officials and government, but who also happened to be a close family friend of General Giap's youngest son. I was told once more to arrive at the embassy for a special and discreet appointment with a certain individual to help facilitate the possibility of meeting either General Giap or his family. I held my breath and waited to see how things would unfold.
I arrived for the final time at the Indian Embassy to meet a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman who had been a lifelong friend of Vo Hong Nam, General Giap's youngest son. Throughout our conversation, this helpful gentleman kindly corrected me when I mentioned the names of historical figures in Vietnam's turbulent twentieth century history (for instance, Diem was pronounced "Xiem" and Giap was pronounced "Jop" or "Zop"). As the appointment ended, this helpful fellow provided me with the email address of General Giap's son, Mr. Vo Hong Nam, and suggested that I send an email right away explaining my background (such as being related to Ambassador Chaudhry) as well as my intentions for meeting with the family. The rest would be up to the son on whether I would be allowed to visit him at the family home or not. The Vietnamese gentleman wished me good luck as I thanked him and immediately left to compose a proper email requesting a meeting. After sending off the email by evening, I waited in nervous anticipation the next day for any form of reply. Soon enough, it came from Mr. Vo Hong Nam himself, who told me to pay him a visit on the afternoon of September 4, 2011. He also provided me his telephone number and address. I was elated that, at long last, I could now finally meet the immediate family of one of the great military figures in twentieth century world history.
I set out on Sunday, September 4, 2011, for the home of General Vo Nguyen Giap. Located in a residential area some distance from downtown, my taxi wandered past neighborhoods of people out on their bicycles or taking leisurely walks. I soon arrived at a massive compound with a gated entry. I got out and walked up to the curbside guardhouse booth out of which stepped a fully-uniformed Vietnamese soldier who asked me in halting English my name and the purpose of my visit. I explained my appointment to meet with Gen. Giap's son. No sooner had he dialed the direct line to the house, that off in the distance I saw a man in slacks and shirtsleeves leaving the home and approaching us via the long oval-shaped driveway that led to the front gates. Soon enough I was waved inside and walked halfway across the driveway to meet up and shake hands with Mr. Vo Hong Nam, the youngest son of General Vo Nguyen Giap. He gave me a quiet welcome and smile and pointed toward the side route by which to enter the house. I glanced once more at the massive driveway and sprawling front lawn, remembering that his had been the residence of the French governor prior to Dien Bien Phu.(1) Arguably one of the largest houses in Hanoi, it was, in the aftermath of the battle, given as a well-earned award from Ho Chi Minh to his victorious general and right-hand man, the ever-loyal and indefatigable Vo Nguyen Giap.
Once inside, I was taken to a small sitting room decorated with Southeast Asian art and furniture. After initial greetings and pleasantries, Mr. Vo Hong Nam asked me about my interest in Vietnam, etc. Before further explaining my intent of writing a book on President Kennedy's final year in office, I first opened the packet of photos given to me by Ambassador J.N. Chaudhry. Detailing exactly how the former ambassador was related to me, I also mentioned two other relatives who had served at high levels in India's previous administrations. One relative from my father's side, Baldev Singh, had been India's first Minister of Defense. And another from my mother's side, Balram Jakhar, had been Speaker of the Parliament before eventually becoming Minister of Agriculture, then retiring as governor of India's largest province in 2009. Vo Hong Nam then looked with deep interest at the old black-and-white photos, especially the ones depicting the International Control Commission delegations arriving in Hanoi in 1954. I saved the best one for last. Having had it framed, I gave it as a gift to Mr. Vo. It was the photo of Ambassador Chaudhry standing behind the three great anti-colonial Asian legends, and Mr. Vo himself said their names out loud as he pointed to each one from left to right, "Pham Van Dong, Jawaharalal Nehru, and Ho Chi Minh". He smiled at the framed photo. Unfortunately I did not have one of his illustrious father, but I explained that Ambassador Chaudhry had met him on a few occasions in the 1950s as well as most recently in India in 1984.
I next asked the key request which had been the main purpose of my entire trip. I asked Mr. Vo if it was in any way possible to visit his elderly father at Hospital 108. He emphatically shook his head and said "no". Recognizing the tone of finality to his reply, I did not argue the point further. I did, however, congratulate him on the fact that his father had recently celebrated his 100th birthday, and that he was indeed the greatest military figure of the twentieth century. He thanked me for my sincere remarks. We then moved on to the heart of the discussion and the reasons for my visit. I reminded him that I was interested in writing about President Kennedy's final year in office and how transformational the year 1963 truly was. When I conceded that President Kennedy had not been quite perfect in his earlier foreign policy, Mr. Vo immediately interjected and said with a firm nod of his head, "Cuba!" I was a bit taken aback at his blunt assertion but realized that he was technically right (at least in the context of 1961 and the Bay of Pigs, although this was not the proper time nor place to argue that it had been Richard Nixon's and Allen Dulles' plan carried over from 1960). I then moved on and discussed other events from 1963 such as the iconic self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc as well as the Nov. 1-2, 1963, coup against Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu. I asked Mr. Vo for his advice about looking through government or newspaper archives for these critical events and he said to hold on for a moment. He picked up a phone and explained that he was dialing the editor of the prominent "Nhan Dan" newspaper, which had been the official paper of record in Hanoi and the North since independence. After conferring with the editor and then interrupting once to ask me specifically, "Do you only need headlines from 1963?" (to which I replied yes), he soon ended the inquiry by phone. I quickly realized that this was the personal power and connections that only the son of someone with the stature of General Giap could carry.
He then stated in a very clear and firm voice,
President Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam in late 1963.
I then moved on to the penultimate topic regarding 1963, the change in Southeast Asia policy, specifically for Vietnam, that President Kennedy was carefully but confidently carrying out. When I mentioned this vital policy to Mr. Vo, I said, "President Kennedy was finally changing his foreign policy in regards to Vietnam in 1963", and before I could even finish my sentence, Mr. Vo interrupted and added, "He was withdrawing from Vietnam." Momentarily surprised by what I had just heard, I then quickly asked him to repeat what he had just said so as to be sure I had heard right. He then stated in a very clear and firm voice, "President Kennedy was withdrawing from Vietnam in late 1963." I was beyond a loss for words and sat transfixed at what I had just heard. The son of General Vo Nguyen Giap, sitting just a few feet across from me, had just unequivocally confirmed what many scholars and experts had pieced together and been saying for years, only to be dismissed by the Establishment as "wishful thinkers" and starry-eyed idealists or, in some cases, as "Kennedy apologists". Some had even been challenged as to the validity of their sources although many correctly cited the available U.S. government record from the Kennedy Administration papers as well as the National Security Action Memorandums (NSAMs) signed by President Kennedy in October 1963. Yet, here was the most astonishing and perhaps unimpeachable source of proof, right in front of my eyes. What could be a more credible and original direct source than the former "enemy", General Vo Nguyen Giap (represented by his son), confirming that its rival's leader, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was indeed logistically carrying out a de-escalation policy for American personnel to withdraw in phases (until there would be virtually no military advisors left by 1965). Most likely General Giap's military and intelligence operatives and analysts had to have discovered this by tracking the patterns of oppositional foreign (American) troop movements and the quantifiable logistical reductions that were visibly ensuing. It may also be likely that word of President Kennedy's NSAMs might have somehow leaked and reached North Vietnam, who probably rejoiced with relief at hearing that a potential deadly foe was withdrawing from the embattled homeland (with only future promises of financial aid and war materiel to sustain South Vietnam). Nevertheless, I was both amazed and grateful for Mr. Vo's candid statement and assessment regarding that most crucial and pivotal period of the Kennedy Presidency.
As the hour drew to a close, I realized it was time to leave, and I was most satisfied that my discussions with Mr. Vo Hong Nam ended with a most unexpected yet reaffirming statement regarding President Kennedy and his intentions for America and Vietnam. I never knew that I would be leaving the home of Vietnam's most famous and victorious general with an added insight and gem of historical knowledge. This was more than proof enough for all the naysayers and critics who doubted the slain president's true peaceful intentions. Although he could not speak beyond the grave for himself, such living participants and legendary foreign figures could bear witness to that era and the dynamic breakthroughs that were in the midst of occurring. As I profusely thanked Mr. Vo for his time and honesty, I rose to shake his hand and then realized that I should definitely snap a photograph of my hospitable host while situated in his historic and noteworthy residence. In Vietnamese, he called out for someone and soon a young woman in her late teens appeared. Likely his daughter, he asked her to hold my camera and take a photograph of us standing next to a large marble bust of his famous father. I thanked her and then he and I proceeded out the door by which we came.
As we were walking out towards the lush green backyard and landscaping, I again sensed the historical significance of the residence and asked if Chairman Ho Chi Minh had visited here often and if he remembered him. Although he was just a young teen himself at the time of Chairman Ho's death, he said, "Yes, I remember him well". Walking back to the front of the house and the enormous driveway, a middle-aged woman appeared in a low front balcony of the house. She said "hello" and was holding a camera herself. I said "hello" as well and then asked Mr. Vo if that was his wife and he nodded yes. He then spoke again in Vietnamese, and she responded by waving us together and to hold still. She then snapped a picture of us together before disappearing back into the balcony. As we passed a gate separating the house from the driveway, I realized I should take one final photo of Mr. Vo myself. He complied and stood at the foot of the gateway, with the fabled house behind him. He then motioned for me to likewise stand where he was, to thus take a similar photo of me standing in front of his house. After that, we walked the length of the driveway to the front gates where he saw me off. He asked for the guard in the booth to call another taxi for me, and then I thanked him one final time for his revealing insights and to give my sincerest regards to his legendary father. We shook hands one last time and then he turned and left.
Soon enough, a taxi came and as I got in, I took one last look at the brush with history that I had just experienced. I had been fortunate enough to visit the home and son of Dai Tuong Vo Nguyen Giap, the most victorious general of the twentieth century, a man whose starting ambition in life was to be a history teacher until the cruel realities of fate had changed his destiny. And the realization crystallized that we once had a president who was willing to make a truce with these strong and resilient people, whose leader Ho Chi Minh had visited America on the eve of World War I and had even translated our Declaration of Independence into Vietnamese at the end of World War II in an effort to forge a friendship with the United States. How foolish and tragic of us to have rejected his olive branch, only to learn the hard way that these were a people who could not be subjugated. Alas, we once had a young president not so long ago who had come to this realization himself.