Ho Chi Minh: An Appreciation
Over the four decades since the death of Ho Chi Minh, debate continues to rage over whether he was a nationalist or a Communist, as well as whether he was as simple and gentle as his public persona made him appear to be or the instigator of brutal excesses carried out in his name. The questions are important because as the principal architect of victory in Vietnam, as well as the man who shares responsibility for the deaths of 55,000 U.S. soldiers and a generation of Americans traumatized by the war, Ho is one of the most influential political figures of the 20th century while also one of the most mysterious.
After reading several biographies of Ho over the years, notably William J. Duiker’s magisterial Ho Chi Minh (2000), which I recently plowed through, the conclusion is actually rather simple: Ho was all of those things, or as Duiker writes, “He was half Lenin and half Gandhi.”
Ho’s goal was to bring an end to the global system of capitalist exploitation and create a new revolutionary world based on the teachings of Karl Marx and Confucius with a dash of the French revolutionary trinity of liberty, equality and fraternity. That he more or less succeeded while playing a major role in humiliating the most powerful nation on earth is extraordinary, although post-revolutionary Vietnam still has not achieved — and may never achieve — the goals of human freedom and economic equality that he envisioned.
Much of Ho Chi Minh’s life is shrouded in mystery. Indeed, he had over 50 aliases while living clandestinely and in exile before taking the name that we know him by.
What we do know is that he war born in 1890, five years after the French took control of the kingdom of Vietnam, a land that had been occupied time and again by foreign powers. Ho’s birth name was Nguyen Tat Thanh and his father overcame his peasant upbringing to become a Confucian scholar who taught his son the classical Chinese texts as well as the writings of Vietnamese nationalists.
Ho’s rebellious streak was evident by the time he entered the National Academy in Hue in 1907 and he was expelled from the prestigious institution after only a year for supporting peasants demonstrating against the high agricultural taxes imposed by the French occupiers. In 1911, he signed on as an assistant on a steamer under the alias of Ba and traveled to ports elsewhere in Asia and in Africa, England and America. His stay in New York, where he worked as a laborer, included attending meetings of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Trust in Harlem.
He eventually settled in Paris — the heart of the French empire — where he worked as a photo retoucher. He formed an association of Vietnamese emigres and denounced France’s treatment of its colonies at meetings of the French Socialist Party. In 1919, Ho presented a petition to the Allied governments at the Versailles Peace Conference asking that President Wilson’s principal of self determination be applied to Vietnam. The petition only attracted the attention of the French police and Ho was shadowed everywhere he went.
The following year, Ho, writing under the name of Nguyen the Patriot, embraced Marxism after subscribing to Lenin’s arguments about the connection between capitalism and imperialism. After the French Socialist Party became divided over whether to join Lenin’s Third International (Comintern) — an international communist organization — he became a founding member of the French Communist Party.
When the French party proved to be disinterested in Ho’s cause, he went to Moscow at the invitation of the Comintern and in 1924 was sent to South China where he began organizing Vietnamese.
For the next 15 years, as Duiker notes, Ho organized with an emphasis on a slow and pragmatic approach, which put him at odds with Moscow. His Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League ran a training institute where he taught his own brand of revolutionary ethics which emphasized values that had far more to do with Confucian morality than Leninism and became the percepts of the Vietnamese revolution.
The next decade was a roller coaster ride for Ho that began when Premier Chiang Kai-shek began to crack down on the left, including the Communists. Ho fled to Hong Kong and from there to Moscow and then Thailand. He sneaked back into China and fled again to Hong Kong, where he was imprisoned for a year by the British before fleeing again to Moscow, where he received an icy reception by a Comintern that had repudiated Lenin.
With the rise of Nazi Germany, Ho’s fortunes changed as the Soviets finally embraced Ho’s brand of nationalism. In 1938, he created the Vietminh, a national front for the independence of Vietnam, re-entered Vietnam for the first time in 30 years and set up a guerrilla base in the mountains.
With the end of World War II in late 1945, Ho and the Vietminh moved to Hanoi where Ho declared Vietnam an independent country. Living simply as always, Ho refused to move into the French governor general’s residence, instead installing himself in a gardener’s cottage on the residence’s grounds where he would live for the rest of his life.
In a pivotal but largely forgotten turn of events, Ho courted U.S. support and even went so far as to offer the U.S. a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. How things might have turned out differently had the U.S. overcome its fears of anything smelling of Communism and acquiesced, which also presumes that he would have kept his part of the bargain.
In 1954, the Vietminh won an improbable victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu with the backing, training and war materiel of Mao Zedong’s China while the U.S., still willfully blind to larger realities, began to bankroll the French war effort. Later that year, under pressure from Beijing and Moscow, Ho acceded to a cease-fire following a Geneva peace conference accord and Vietnam was divided into two so-called regroupment zones at the 17th parallel.
Elections reuniting the country were to be held in two years under the accord, but the U.S. had refused to sign and John Foster Douglas, the bellicose secretary of state, announced the the U.S. would foster a non-Communist state in the South, the first step on the path to what would led to the Vietnam War.
While Ho was the figurehead leader of what was now called North Vietnam in the West and would remain so during the war, his role became increasingly ceremonial.
Le Duan, who had spent many years in French prisons, seized greater and greater chunks of Ho’s power. The reasons were two-fold: In 1955-56, a time of rising Chinese influence, a brutal land reform campaign was carried out that bypassed Ho’s authority but blemished his reputation, while he counseled his colleagues against launching a premature uprising in South Vietnam to avoid bringing the U.S. into the war. Most of them thought otherwise.
By the time U.S. troops began arriving in large numbers in 1965, Ho was 75 years old and no longer in charge of the country whose independence he had fostered.
Ho was a visionary until his death in 1969. He sought to move forward without resorting to military force and always was clear-eyed about global realities. The tragedy of his life was not that he fell from grace in his own country but that neither the French or the Americans had the sense to listen to him when the course of history could have been changed.