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Ho Chi Minh

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Ho Chi Minh, communist revolutionary leader of Vietnam, shortly before his death

Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam, in 1969.

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Ho Chi Minh prepares to ride out to fight the French in Indochina, 1944.

Ho Chi Minh during the fight against French colonialism in Vietnam, 1944.

Three Lions/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Who was Ho Chi Minh? Was he a kindly, patriotic man, who sought only freedom and self-determination for the people of Vietnam after decades of colonization and exploitation? Was he a cynical and manipulative schemer, who could seem caring while also tacitly allowing horrifying abuses of people under his command? Was he a hard-core communist, or was he a nationalist who used communism as a tool?

Western observers still ask all of these questions and more about Ho Chi Minh, almost four decades after his death. Within Vietnam, however, a different portrait of "Uncle Ho" has emerged - the saintlike, perfect national hero.

But who was Ho Chi Minh, really?

Early Life:

Ho Chi Minh was born in Hoang Tru Village, French Indochina (now Vietnam) on May 19, 1890. His birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cung; throughout his life, he went by many pseudonyms including "Ho Chi Minh," or "Bringer of Light." Indeed, he may have used more than fifty different names during his lifetime, according to biographer William Duiker.

When the boy was little, his father Nguyen Sinh Sac prepared to take the Confucian civil service exams in order to become a local government official. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh's mother, Loan, raised her two sons and daughter, and took charge of producing a rice crop. In her spare time, Loan regaled the children with stories from traditional Vietnamese literature and folk tales.

Although Nguyen Sinh Sac did not pass the exam on his first attempt, he did relatively well. As a result, he became a tutor for village children, and the curious, smart little Cung absorbed many of the older kids' lessons. When the child was four, his father passed the exam and received a grant of land, which improved the family's financial situation.

The following year, the family moved to Hue; five-year-old Cung had to walk through the mountains with his family for a month. As he grew older, the child had the opportunity to go to school in Hue and learn the Confucian classics and Chinese language. When the future Ho Chi Minh was ten, his father renamed him Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning "Nguyen the Accomplished."

In 1901, Nguyen Tat Thanh's mother died after giving birth to a fourth child, who lived for just one year. Despite these family tragedies, Nguyen was able to attend a French lycee in Hue, and later become a teacher.

Life in the US and England:

In 1911, Nguyen Tat Thanh took a job as a cook's helper aboard a ship. His exact movements over the next several years are unclear, but he seems to have seen many port cities in Asia, Africa, and along the coast of France. His observations of French colonial behavior around the globe convinced him that French people in France were kind, but colonials were badly-behaved everywhere.

At some point, Nguyen stopped in the United States for a few years. He apparently worked as a baker's assistant at the Omni Parker House in Boston, and also spent time in New York City. In the United States, the young Vietnamese man observed that Asian immigrants had a chance to make a better life in a much freer atmosphere than those living under colonial rule in Asia.

Nguyen Tat Thanh also heard about Wilsonian ideals such as self-determination. He did not realize that President Woodrow Wilson was a committed racist who had re-segregated the White House, and who believed that self-determination should apply only to the "white" peoples of Europe.

Introduction to Communism in France:

As the Great War (World War I) drew to a close in 1918, leaders of the European powers decided to meet and hash out an armistice in Paris. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference attracted uninvited guests, as well - subjects of the colonial powers who called for self-determination in Asia and Africa. Among them was a previously unknown Vietnamese man, who had entered France without leaving any record at immigration, and signed his letters Nguyen Ai Quoc - "Nguyen who loves his country." He repeatedly attempted to present a petition calling for independence in Indochina to the French representatives and their allies, but was rebuffed.

Although the political powers of the day in the western world were uninterested in giving the colonies in Asia and Africa their independence, communist and socialist parties in western countries more sympathetic to their demands. After all, Karl Marx had identified imperialism as the last stage of capitalism. Nguyen the Patriot, who would become Ho Chi Minh, found common cause with the French Communist Party and began to read about Marxism.

Training in the Soviet Union and China:

After his early introduction to communism in Paris, Ho Chi Minh went to Moscow in 1923 and began to work for the Comintern (the Third Communist International). Despite suffering frostbite to his fingers and nose, Ho quickly learned the basics of organizing a revolution, while carefully staying clear of the developing doctrinal dispute between Trotsky and Stalin. He was much more interested in practicalities than in the competing communist theories of the day.

In November of 1924, Ho Chi Minh made his way to Canton, China (now Guangzhou). He wanted a base in East Asia from which he could build a communist revolutionary force for Indochina.

China was in a state of chaos following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the 1916 death of General Yuan Shi-kai, self-proclaimed "Great Emperor of China." By 1924, warlords controlled the Chinese hinterland, while Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were organizing the Nationalists. Although Sun cooperated well with the nascent Chinese Communist Party that had sprung up in the cities of the east coast, the conservative Chiang intensely disliked communism.

For almost two and a half years Ho Chi Minh lived in China, training about 100 Indochinese operatives, and gathering funds for a strike against French colonial control of Southeast Asia. He also helped to organize the peasants of Guangdong Province, teaching them the basic principles of communism.

In April of 1927, however, Chiang Kai-shek began a bloody purge of communists. His Kuomintang (KMT) massacred 12,000 real or suspected communists in Shanghai, and would go on to kill an estimated 300,000 nation-wide over the following year. While Chinese communists fled to the countryside, Ho Chi Minh and other Comintern agents left China entirely.

On the Move Again:

Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) had gone overseas thirteen years earlier as a naive and idealistic young man. He now wished to return, and lead his people to independence, but the French were well aware of his activities and would not willingly allow him back in to Indochina. Under the name Ly Thuy, he went to the British colony of Hong Kong, but the authorities suspected that his visa was forged and gave him 24 hours to leave. He made his way then to Vladivostok, on Russia's Pacific coast.

From Vladivostok, Ho Chi Minh took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow, where he appealed to the Comintern for funding to launch a movement in Indochina itself. He planned to base himself in neighboring Siam (Thailand). While Moscow debated, Ho Chi Minh went to a Black Sea resort town to recover from an illness - probably tuberculosis.

Ho Chi Minh arrived in Thailand in July 1928, and spent the next thirteen years wandering among a number of countries in Asia and Europe, including India, China, British Hong Kong, Italy, and the Soviet Union. All the while, however, he sought to organize opposition to French control of Indochina.

Return to Vietnam and Declaration of Independence:

Finally, in 1941, the revolutionary who now called himself Ho Chi Minh - "Bringer of Light" - returned to his home country of Vietnam. The outbreak of World War II and the Nazi invasion of France (May and June, 1940) created a powerful distraction, allowing Ho to evade French security and re-enter Indochina. The Nazis' allies, the Empire of Japan, seized control of northern Vietnam in September of 1940, to prevent the Vietnamese from supplying goods to the Chinese resistance.

Ho Chi Minh led his guerrilla movement, called the Viet Minh, in opposition to the Japanese occupation. The United States, which would formally align itself with the Soviet Union once it entered the war in December of 1941, provided support for the Viet Minh in their struggle against Japan through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA.

When the Japanese left Indochina in 1945, after their defeat in World War II, they handed over control of the country not to France - which wanted to reassert its right to its Southeast Asian colonies - but to Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party. The Japan's puppet emperor in Vietnam, Bao Dai, was set aside under pressure from Japan and the Vietnamese communists.

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president. As specified by the Potsdam Conference, however, northern Vietnam came under the stewardship of Nationalist Chinese forces, while the south was reoccupied by the British. In theory, the Allied forces were there simply to disarm and repatriate remaining Japanese troops. However, when France - their fellow Allied Power - demanded Indochina back, the British acquiesced. In the spring of 1946, the French returned to Indochina. Ho Chi Minh refused to relinquish his presidency, but was forced back into the role of guerrilla leader.

Ho Chi Minh and the First Indochina War:

Ho Chi Minh's first priority was to expel the Chinese Nationalists from northern Vietnam. After all, as he wrote early in 1946, "The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years... The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go." In February of 1946, Chiang Kai-shek withdrew his troops from Vietnam.

Although Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists had been united with the French in their desire to get rid of the Chinese, relations between the remaining parties broke down rapidly. In November of 1946, the French fleet opened fire on the port city of Haiphong in a dispute over customs duties, killing more than 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. On December 19, Ho Chi Minh declared war on France.

For almost eight years, Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh fought against the better-armed French colonial forces. They received support from the Soviets and from the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong after the Chinese Communists' victory over the Nationalists in 1949. The Viet Minh used hit-and-run tactics and superior knowledge of the terrain to keep the French at a disadvantage. Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla army scored its final victory in a large set-piece battle over several months, called the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a masterpiece of anti-colonial warfare that inspired the Algerians to rise against France later that same year.

In the end, France and its local allies lost about 90,000 dead, while the Viet Minh suffered almost 500,000 fatalities. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Vietnamese civilians also were killed. France pulled out of Indochina completely. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, Ho Chi Minh became president-in-fact of northern Vietnam, while a US-backed capitalist leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, took power in the south. The convention mandated nation-wide elections in 1956, which Ho Chi Minh would have won handily.

Second Indochina War / Vietnam War:

At this time, the US subscribed to the "Domino Theory," which hypothesized that the fall of one country in a region to communism would cause the neighboring states to topple like dominoes into communism. In order to prevent Vietnam from following as the next domino after China, the US decided to support Ngo Dinh Diem's cancellation of the 1956 nation-wide elections, which would very likely have unified Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.

Ho responded by activating the Viet Minh cadres who remained in South Vietnam, who began to wage small-scale attacks on the southern government. Gradually, US involvement increased, until it and other UN members were involved in all-out combat against Ho Chi Minh's army and cadres. In 1959, Ho appointed Le Duan to be the political leader of North Vietnam, while he focused on rallying support from the Politburo and other communist powers. Ho remained the power behind the president, however.

Although Ho Chi Minh had promised the people of Vietnam a quick victory over the Southern government and its foreign allies, the Second Indochina War, known as the Vietnam War in the US and as the American War in Vietnam, dragged on. In 1968, he approved the Tet Offensive, meant to break the stalemate. Although it proved a military fiasco for the north and the allied Viet Cong, it was a propoganda coup for Ho Chi Minh and the communists. With US public opinion turning against the war, Ho Chi Minh realized that he only had to hold out until the Americans got tired of fighting and withdrew.

Ho Chi Minh's Death and Legacy:

Ho Chi Minh would not live to see the end of the war. On September 2, 1969, the 79-year-old leader of North Vietnam died in Hanoi of heart failure. He did not get to see his prediction about American war fatigue play out. Such was his influence on North Vietnam, however, that when the southern capital at Saigon fell in April of 1975, many of the North Vietnamese soldiers carried posters of Ho Chi Minh into the city. Saigon officially was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.

Sources:

Brocheux, Pierre. Ho Chi Minh: A Biography, trans. Claire Duiker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh, New York: Hyperion, 2001.

Gettleman, Marvin E., Jane Franklin, et al. Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War, New York: Grove Press, 1995.

Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919-1941, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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