Historical Dictionary



Commander-in-chief of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) armed forces in southern Vietnam between November 1945 and September 1951. Born in Hai Hung province in northern Vietnam, Nguyen Binh came from a poor family. After finishing his primary schooling, he moved to Haiphong and then made his way to Cochinchina where he worked as a laundry boy and frequented the docks of Saigon. He also became increasingly involved in nationalist politics. It was during this time that he befriended an influential intellectual and journalist, Tran Huy Lieu, who introduced him into the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, VNQDD) in 1928. In 1930, the French sentenced Nguyen Binh to hard labor in Poulo Condor for his political activities. However, while Tran Huy Lieu crossed over to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) while doing hard time, Nguyen Binh did not. He left the island on 12 October 1934, and the nature of his activities during the rest of the 1930s remains a mystery.

During World War II, he reappeared in Hai-phong, organizing anti-Japanese and then anti-French activities in cooperation with communists working in the Red River Delta, including his long time friend Tran Huy Lieu. Following the Japanese overthrow of the French, Nguyen Binh began organizing his own local armed forces in the coastal areas of northeastern Vietnam, in what was known as the Tran Hung Dao war zone. With the emergence of the DRV in September 1945, Ho Chi Minh and other communist leaders were impressed by Nguyen Binh’s initiative in these areas. They brought him into the government and turned this independent-minded nationalist into their military commander-in-chief for a southern Vietnam already at war.

Nguyen Binh arrived in the south in November 1945 and began unifying bandit groups, sects, and religious forces as best he could into an organized armed force to fight the French forces of General Philippe Leclerc. In December 1945, Nguyen Binh became chief of war Zone VII (Bo Tu Lenh Khu VII) in eastern Nam Bo, including the colonial city of Saigon-Cholon. When all the best French forces transferred to the north in March 1946, he was able to strengthen his guerrilla activities considerably in the south. In June 1946, Nguyuen Binh joined the ICP. Later that year, he urged Hanoi-based leaders to forget about negotiating with the French and to prepare instead for full-scale war, including the leveling of Hanoi. Indeed, he ran an angry urban war against the French and their Vietnamese allies in the streets and back alleys of Saigon-Cholon throughout the rest of the 1940s. On several occasions, Nguyen Binh made his way secretly into Saigon to organize sabotage and assassination squads.

In early 1947, as the French began to break off the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao from Nguyen Binh’s united front, he took a hard line towards the defecting religious leaders. The result was civil war between Nguyen Binh’s army and the forces of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai, leading to the Viet Minh’s assassination of Huynh Phu So. In 1948, the leader of the Binh Xuyen, Le Van Vien, broke with Nguyen Binh and defected to the French side. In January 1948, Nguyen Binh was named major general in the DRV army, second only to General Vo Nguyen Giap.

In 1949, as the Vietnamese prepared for the “general counter-offensive”, Ho Chi Minh named him commander of the armed forces in the south. Nguyen Binh began building in earnest a modern army, organized in battalions and briefly as regiments. In 1949 and 1950, apparently on orders from the north, he launched head-on attacks against French posts across southern Vietnam. Thanks to superior artillery and air power, the French handed him one of his worst setbacks in his life while powerful communists began to criticize his tactics. Nonetheless, Nguyen Binh had demonstrated that not only could southerners fight an urban war, but they could also move towards creating a modern army as in the north, and this without a Chinese rear-guard and large-scale foreign aid.

In 1951, following important changes occurring at the international level and within the ICP, the DRV summoned Nguyen Binh to the north for further training and consultations in preparation for the wider war against the French, including the creation of a trans-Indochinese supply trail running from the north to the south. While crossing through northeastern Cambodia, Nguyen Binh perished in an ambush in September 1951 laid by the 4th Bataillon de chasseurs cambodgiens under Jacques Hogard. General Nguyen Binh’s remains were returned to Vietnam from Cambodia in 2000. See also ANTOINE SAVANI; COLLABORATION; HO CHI MINH TRAIL; MARCEL BAZIN.