Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Excerpt from a letter to the editor of
the American magazine Minority of One
Published in the May 1964 issue
"The Vietnamese people thank the workers', youth, students', and women's organizations, as well as progressive intellectuals, congressmen, and clergymen in the United States who have courageously raised their voices, staged demonstrations, exposed the criminal policy of aggression pursued by the U.S. government."
Vietnam has a long history of being controlled by other countries. For example, it was ruled by neighboring China during ancient times, it was a colony of France during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it was occupied by Japan during World War II. All through their nation's history, the Vietnamese people have struggled to gain their independence from foreign powers. Some historians consider the Vietnam War to be another example of the Vietnamese fighting to achieve independence and self-rule. In that war, the historians argue, the foreign country that was using its power to control Vietnam was the United States.
North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh often characterized the war as a revolution to overthrow the U.S.-sponsored government in South Vietnam and thus free the country from foreign control. "For the defense of the independence of the fatherland and for the fulfillment of our obligation to the peoples struggling against U.S. imperialism [the practice of extending power or influence over other countries], our people and army, united as one man, will resolutely fight until complete victory, whatever the sacrifices and hardships may be," he stated. "In the past we defeated the Japanese fascists [brutal dictators] and the French colonialists . . . . Our people's struggle against U.S. aggression for national salvation is sure to win a total victory."
Some people believe that this view of the war as a fight for independence explains why North Vietnam fought with such patience and determination. The United States and the South Vietnamese government it supported had superior weapons and equipment during the Vietnam War. But the North Vietnamese were strongly motivated by their desire to reunite the country and bring independence to their people. They were able to gain the support of many peasants in the South by encouraging them to view the Americans as foreign invaders, like the Chinese or the French.
North Vietnamese leaders knew that U.S. military involvement in Vietnam could not last forever, because the American people would eventually pressure the government to bring the troops home. As a result, North Vietnam was determined to continue fighting as long as necessary to achieve its goals of independence and self-rule. "Your mission is to fight for five years or even ten or twenty years," Ho told his people. Their patience finally paid off in 1975, when North Vietnamese Communist forces captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon to win the Vietnam War.
A first bid for independence
Vietnam almost succeeded in becoming an independent nation thirty years earlier, in 1945. During World War II, Japanese forces moved into Vietnam, which was then a colony of France. In fact, France had controlled all of Indochina (the region of Southeast Asia that included Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) for nearly a century. But during World War II Germany seized control of France. As a result, the French were unable to protect their colonies in Southeast Asia. France's problems enabled Japan to occupy Vietnam and set up military bases there in 1940.
In 1945, however, the Allied forces (which mainly consisted of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II. As soon as Japan was defeated, Vietnamese Communists under Ho Chi Minh—known as the Viet Minh—launched a revolution to regain control of Vietnam. "The hour is decisive for the destiny of the nation," Ho Chi Minh told his people. "Let us all arise and bend all efforts to liberate ourselves."
This so-called August Revolution was successful, as the Viet Minh took control of large areas of the country. In September 1945 Ho formally declared Vietnam's independence from both the French and the Japanese. He announced that the nation would be known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with a capital in the northern city of Hanoi. In his speech Ho used quotes from the American Declaration of Independence. Some people felt that this proved that Ho's main motivation was securing the freedom of his people, rather than creating a Communist state. But others claimed that Ho was only trying to gain the support of the United States by quoting from the famous American document. "Was it admiration for the ideals of the United States? Only a pragmatic [practical] gesture to enhance his bid for American support? The legend of Ho Chi Minh permits either answer," Henry Kamm wrote in Dragon Ascending.
In any case, it soon became clear that France—which had suffered a great deal of damage to its land, economy, and reputation as a world leader during World War II—was not willing to give up its former colony. After a year of negotiations between Ho and the French government, war erupted in Vietnam in late 1946. During this conflict, which became known as the First Indochina War, two different Vietnamese governments emerged to compete for the support of the people. One was Ho's Communist government, based in Hanoi. The other was a French-supported government led by Bao Dai, based in the southern city of Saigon. The United States recognized Bao Dai and his government as the legitimate leaders of Vietnam.
The Geneva Accords
But Ho and his Viet Minh forces continued fighting to gain Vietnam's independence from French rule. The war continued until 1954, when the Viet Minh finally defeated the French at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Afterward, representatives from Vietnam, France, the United States, and other nations met in Geneva, Switzerland, to negotiate a peace agreement to end the Indochina War. The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two sections along the 17th parallel. Ho's Communist government controlled the area north of the line—known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam or North Vietnam. A U.S.-supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem controlled the area south of the line—known as the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam. The Geneva Accords also provided for nationwide free elections to be held two years later, in July 1956, with the goal of reunifying Vietnam under a single government.
In the meantime, however, the United States and the Soviet Union had become involved in an intense rivalry known as the Cold War. Both nations competed to spread their political philosophies and influence around the world after the end of World War II. For this reason, the U.S. government began to worry about the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. It believed that if a Communist government came to power in Vietnam, then Communist forces would soon take control of other nearby nations as well. They felt that this situation would threaten the national security of the United States by increasing the strength of the Soviet Union.
U.S. government leaders knew that Ho held strong Communist beliefs. They also realized that he had connections in the Soviet Union and enjoyed great popularity across Asia. As a result, American officials feared Ho and became determined to prevent him from establishing a Communist government over all of Vietnam. Instead, the United States government provided financial aid and military advisors to Diem's government in the South. When it became clear that Diem would lose a national election to Ho, the United States and its South Vietnamese allies refused to hold the elections that were required under the Geneva Accords.
Ho and the North Vietnamese Communists became very angry when the deadline for free elections passed and no action was taken. They felt that by refusing to honor the Geneva Accords, the United States was interfering with the internal affairs of their country. Some people in South Vietnam felt the same way, especially after Diem's government began restricting their personal freedom and using violence to silence its enemies. In addition, some people who had supported the Viet Minh during the war against France had remained in the South afterward. These Communist supporters mingled with the South Vietnamese people and encouraged them to rise up against Diem and force him to hold elections. Diem renamed these Communists the Viet Cong.
In 1960 the National Liberation Front (NLF) was formed in order to organize the various groups that opposed Diem's government. By that time the Viet Cong had entered an armed struggle against Diem and his American military advisors. As opposition to Diem grew, the Communist guerilla fighters were able to gain control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside. The U.S. government responded by sending in Army Special Forces units, known as the Green Berets, to confront the guerillas and help Diem maintain control. The Americans also took steps to reduce the support for the Viet Cong in the countryside. For example, they moved peasants into fortified compounds known as Strategic Hamlets. But this program uprooted the peasants from their traditional lands and forced them to depend on the Americans. In fact, some people claim that this plan actually increased support for the Communist rebels.
The United States continued increasing its financial and military support for South Vietnam over the next several years. "By the middle of 1964, the United States had formed in South Vietnam the largest military and civilian [non-military] advisory team ever assembled abroad in 'peacetime,'" Sanford Wexler wrote in The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History. The U.S. government was more determined than ever to prevent the Communists from gaining control of Vietnam. But Ho refused to negotiate any settlement that did not include a complete withdrawal of American forces and Communist participation in the South Vietnamese government. The North Vietnamese were equally determined to continue fighting until they achieved their goal of an independent, unified Vietnam under Communist rule.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Ho Chi Minh's letter:
- In his letter Ho Chi Minh characterizes the situation in Vietnam as a "war of aggression" by the United States against the Vietnamese people. Throughout the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese leaders often claimed that they were involved in a nationalist movement to liberate their country from foreign invaders. Ho says that by refusing to honor the Geneva Accords, the U.S. government is interfering with the natural process of reunifying his country under one government. He claims that the American actions endanger not only Vietnamese independence, but also the United States' reputation in the world.
- Ho makes a distinction between the American people and the U.S. government. He is aware that many Americans oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He asks these people to demand that the U.S. government withdraw its forces and allow his country to move toward independence and self-rule. Throughout the Vietnam War many U.S. political leaders criticized the American antiwar movement. They claimed that it limited their ability to fight the war and added to the strength and determination of North Vietnam. Ho's statement makes it clear that he did feel some hope that a strong antiwar movement in the United States could eventually help him achieve his goals.
- Ho refers to the South Vietnamese government and army as agents of the United States. He claims that U.S. and South Vietnamese leaders are working together to dominate the Vietnamese people against their will. In fact, he says that the United States is simply planning to turn Vietnam into a new colony to replace the one abandoned by the French ten years earlier. At the same time, Ho refers to the Viet Cong guerilla fighters and South Vietnamese people who support the Communists as "heroic" and "patriotic." He even makes it seem as if the people of South Vietnam are fighting to end U.S. aggression on their own. In reality, however, the Viet Cong enjoyed broad support from North Vietnam throughout the war. In addition, many people in South Vietnam did not support the Communists, and some strongly favored the U.S. presence in their country.
- In May 1964, when Ho wrote this letter, the U.S. presence in Vietnam consisted of about 25,000 military advisors and some helicopters and other equipment. The United States did not send combat troops into Vietnam to wage an all-out ground war until later in 1964.
- In his letter Ho claims that between 1954 and 1964 the American and South Vietnamese forces killed 160,000 people and either tortured or arrested over one million others. These figures are hotly disputed by the other side. The South Vietnamese government and its American military advisors would argue that nowhere near this many people had been victims of the war. In addition, they would blame the Viet Cong guerillas for much of the violence that did occur in South Vietnam during these years.
Excerpt from Ho Chi Minh's letter to the editor of Minority of One:
Dear Mr. Editor,
I sincerely thank your paper for affording me an opportunity to talk with the American people on the present situation in South Vietnam. From Vietnam, some ten thousand miles away from the United States, I wish to convey to our American friends greetings of friendship together with this earnest appeal.
I hope that you will more clearly realize the bitter truth about South Vietnam which constitutes one half of our fatherland. An extremely atrocious war is raging there, a war which turns out to be the biggest, the most protracted, and the bloodiest one now going on in the world. This so-called "special war" is actually a war of aggression waged by the U.S. Government and its agents, a war which is daily causing grief and suffering to our fourteen million compatriots in South Vietnam, and in which thousands of American youths have been killed or wounded. This "special war" is reducing to ashes our villages, destroying our fields, and devastating one half of our country; it has cost the American people thousands of millions of dollars. Furthermore, this war which is replete with horrible crimes, has not only infringed upon the freedom and independence of our compatriots in South Vietnam, but also besmeared the good reputation and good traditions of the American people.
The Vietnamese people are well aware that the American people want to live in peace and friendship with all other nations. I have been to the United States, and I understand that the Americans are a talented people strongly attached to justice.
The Vietnamese people never confuse the justice-loving American people and the U.S. Government which has committed numerous crimes against them in the past ten years. Those very saboteurs of our nation's independence and freedom are also the people whohave betrayed the Declaration of Independence of the United States which highlights the truth that "all men are created equal," and the unalienable Rights of man, viz. "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
It is common knowledge that in 1954, the Vietnamese people and army defeated the forces of the French colonialist aggressors in the Dienbienphu battle. Subsequently, the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina was held with the participation of nine countries including the United States. The Geneva Accords were concluded and the participating countries, the United States included, solemnly undertook to respect the unalienable national rights, namely independence, sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity [completeness] of the Vietnamese as well as the Lao and Cambodian peoples. The Agreements also stipulate that the 17th Parallel is to be only a provisional [temporary] military demarcation line between the Northern and Southern zones of Vietnam and that in 1956 the administrations of the two zones should hold general elections to bring about the peaceful reunification of the country.
Loyal to the interests of peace and to the supreme national interests of the fatherland, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam ever since the signing of the Geneva Agreements has been unswervingly standing for respect and correct implementation of the said Agreements, and it firmly demands that the other parties should do the same.
After the Geneva Conference, the Vietnamese people should have been in a position to live in peace and to devote themselves to national construction. But the U.S. Government has trampled underfoot the Geneva Agreements . . . . Early in 1962, it openly established in Saigon a U.S. military command to take into its hands the reins directing the war in South Vietnam. It has more and more brazenly intervened in that part of our country where it has fostered [encouraged] a gang of henchmen [followers] to carry out its policy and massacre our compatriots. They have sabotaged the Geneva Agreements, prolonged the partition of our country, and thus caused heart-rending sufferings to an entire people.
Over the past ten years, our people in North Vietnam, having become masters of their own life, have been in a position to live in peace, to develop economy and culture and to build up a new life of welfare and happiness. Meanwhile, our compatriots in South Vietnam, who had, together with the whole nation, gone through nine years of hard and heroic resistance war against the French colonialistinvaders, have had to undergo ten more years of an atrocious war unleashed by the U.S. imperialists and their agents. It is due to the latter that over 160,000 compatriots of ours in South Vietnam have been killed, 680,000 tortured to infirmity and 370,000 others jailed. The victims include many old folk, women, and children.
At present, this horrible war of aggression has become fiercer under the impulse [driving force] and command of 25,000 U.S. officers and servicemen with the use of U.S. aircraft, tanks, arms, ammunition, and chemical poisons, and of the over 600,000 strong mercenary army of the South Vietnam administration, agent of the United States.
For ten years now, U.S. Governments and their agents have tried to crush the resistance of a heroic people by the use of brutal force. They want to turn our fourteen million compatriots in South Vietnam into slaves, and the southern part of our country into a new-type colony and a military base with a view to menacing the independence of the Indochinese and other Southeast Asian countries and attacking North Vietnam . . . .
But facts have shown that the path of aggression followed by the U.S. imperialists in South Vietnam is only a dark "tunnel" as admitted by the late President John Kennedy.
The heroic people of South Vietnam are resolved not to balk at the guns of the aggressors and traitors. Our compatriots would rather sacrifice everything than live in slavery. So far, under the leadership of the National Front for Liberation, the patriotic forces in South Vietnam have daily grown in strength and enjoy an increasing prestige at home and abroad. More than half of the population and over two-thirds of the territory of South Vietnam have been liberated. Over the past three years alone, the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces and people have wiped out or disintegrated hundreds of thousands of enemy troops, thousands of U.S. officers and servicemen have been killed or wounded. The Liberation Armed Forces have shot down hundreds of aircraft and captured tens of thousands of U.S.-made weapons of various kinds. All the strategies and tactics applied by the United States in South Vietnam have completely failed. Of the 8,000 strategic hamlets already set up (which are in fact fascist-like concentration camps) over 80 percent have been destroyed. All these victories of the patriotic forces in South Vietnam amply show that the people of South Vietnam by themselves are fully in a position to thwart [defeat] all aggressivemaneuvers and plans of the U.S. imperialists, and that the war of aggression now being waged by the U.S. Government and its agents is a hopeless war doomed to defeat. Such signboards as "anticommunism," "for democracy and freedom," and slanderous allegations about "intervention" or "aggression" by the North in South Vietnam which they resort to as a cover to their crimes, can deceive no one. And in spite of several "changes of horses," the U.S. imperialists cannot help being increasingly bogged down in South Vietnam, nor can they conceal their repeated setbacks from the American people who have come to be more and more aware of the truth.
That is the reason why the movement of struggle of the American people for the ending of the dirty war of aggression in South Vietnam is gaining momentum. And among the U.S. ruling circle themselves, more and more voices are being raised against the policy of blindly pursuing this hopeless war. From the bottom of their hearts, the Vietnamese people thank the workers', youth, students', and women's organizations, as well as progressive intellectuals, congressmen, and clergymen in the United States who have courageously raised their voices, staged demonstrations, exposed the criminal policy of aggression pursued by the U.S. government, and expressed their support for the just struggle of the patriotic forces in South Vietnam.
I wish to add the following for our American friends: Not only do we suffer because of the hardships and sacrifices imposed on our compatriots in South Vietnam, we also feel pity and sympathy for the American mothers and wives who have lost their sons or husbands in the unjust war carried out in South Vietnam by the U.S. militarists.
One cannot allow the U.S. Government and its agents to go on indefinitely perpetrating [carrying out] their dark designs. It is high time to stay [stop] their bloody hands. Of course, first of all our compatriots in South Vietnam must fight to the end for their own liberation.
But you, American people, are also victims of the U.S. imperialists, so together with the Vietnamese people, you should resolutely struggle against the bellicose and aggressive militarists in your own country. Demand an immediate end to the dirty war in South Vietnam! Demand the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops of aggression and all U.S. arms from South Vietnam!
Demand that the U.S. Government let the Vietnamese people decide themselves their own internal affairs. The provisions of the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Vietnam recognizing the unalienable national rights of the Vietnamese people must be strictly respected. That is the only solution to the South Vietnam question which does not involve face-losing for the United States.
I hope that this urgent appeal will reach the American people. Once again I wish to thank all American progressive intellectuals and people who, for the sake of justice and freedom, peace and the friendship between our two peoples, have valiantly opposed the U.S. Government's policy of aggression in South Vietnam.
I send you my best greetings.
What happened next . . .
The situation in Vietnam continued to escalate into war after Ho wrote his letter in 1964. In August of that year North Vietnamese patrol boats allegedly fired upon American ships in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam. Today, most historians believe that this attack never occurred. Nevertheless, President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973) used reports of this incident to convince the U.S. Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave him broad authority to wage war in Vietnam. Under this authority Johnson launched a large-scale bombing campaign against North Vietnam and sent U.S. combat troops into Vietnam in early 1965. In the meantime, Ho decided to send regular North Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces into South Vietnam in order to help the Viet Cong fight the Americans.
Over time, the Vietnam War became a source of heated debate within the United States. As the number of killed and wounded American soldiers rose, the American people grew weary of the war and pressured the government to end its involvement. In 1973 President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) withdrew the last American troops from Vietnam. Two years later, North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon to win the war. North Vietnamese leaders then took steps to reunite the country as an independent nation under Communist rule—the mission that Ho Chi Minh had set out to accomplish thirty years earlier.
Did you know . . .
- Ho Chi Minh's name at birth was Nguyen That Thanh, which means "Nguyen Who Will Be Victorious" in Vietnamese. He went by a variety of other names during his career as a revolutionary, but he became best known under the name Ho Chi Minh, which means "He Who Enlightens."
- Ho Chi Minh spent much of his life outside of Vietnam. He sailed to Europe in 1908, at the age of eighteen, as a cook's helper on a French steamship. He spent the next thirty years studying Communist political ideas in London, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong, and other major cities. He even spent some time in the United States. He finally returned to Vietnam in 1941, just in time to lead his people in a revolution to overthrow French colonial rule.
- Ho Chi Minh died before he could see his dream of Vietnamese independence come true. North Vietnam captured the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon in 1975—six years after Ho's death in 1969—to win the Vietnam War. Ho's successors then reunited the two parts of the country as an independent nation under Communist rule.
Buttinger, Joseph. The Smaller Dragon: A Political History of Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1958.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.
Fall, Bernard B., ed. Ho Chi Minh on Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920–1966. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.
Ho Chi Minh. Against U.S. Aggression, for National Salvation. Hanoi, Vietnam: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1967.
Kamm, Henry. Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese. New York: Arcade, 1996.
Marrin, Albert. America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Wexler, Sanford. The Vietnam War: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Wiegersma, Nancy. Vietnam: Peasant Land, Peasant Revolution. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.
The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence
In 1945, after the Allied forces defeated Japan to end World War II, Ho Chi Minh took advantage of the opportunity to declare Vietnam's independence from foreign control. He knew that Japan would be forced to end its occupation of Vietnam. He hoped that the Allies would then support Vietnam's bid for independence rather than allowing France to regain control over its former colony. As a way of appealing to the United States and other democratic nations, Ho quoted from the American Declaration of Independence in his statement. The following is an excerpt from the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, issued by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945:
All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.
The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: "All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights."
Those are undeniable truths.
Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity [brotherhood], have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.
In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty. . . .
In the field of economics, they have fleeced [cheated] us to the backbone, impoverished [reduced to poverty] our people and devastated our land.
They have robbed us of our rice fields, our mines, our forests, and our raw materials. . . .
In the autumn of 1940, when the Japanese fascists [brutal dictators] violated Indochina's territory to establish new bases in their fight against the Allies, the French imperialists [people who seek to extend their power or influence over others] went down on their bended knees and handed over our country to them. . . .
After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty [independence and self-rule] and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The truth is that we have wrested [taken] our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.
The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated [surrendered], Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated [given up claim to the throne]. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered [restrained] them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime [a government ruled by a king or queen] that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic.
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France . . . and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.
The whole Vietnamese people, animated [energized] by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.
We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Teheran and San Francisco [sites of peace negotiations following World War II] have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.
A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eighty years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.
For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact it is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.
Ho Chi Minh: Nationalist or Communist?
Experts on the Vietnam War have often debated the question of whether Ho Chi Minh was motivated primarily by nationalism (an intense feeling of loyalty to a country) or communism. There is little doubt that Ho believed strongly in the Communist political system, in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. But Ho also felt a deep passion for Vietnam and truly wanted to bring independence to his people. He often downplayed his Communist beliefs in order to appeal to the patriotic feelings of the Vietnamese people. He also emphasized his nationalism as he tried to gain the support of democratic nations like the United States.
In his book Dragon Ascending Henry Kamm noted that historians may never know the truth behind Ho's motivations: "What is certain is his singleminded passion for the independence of his people, by peaceful means if possible, by war if necessary. Rightly or wrongly . . . he convinced himself . . . that Vietnam's road to independence could only be Communist." But other experts claim that Ho's main goal was to institute a Communist government in Vietnam, and that his nationalist feelings were of secondary importance. "Ho was a Vietnamese Communist, not a Communist Vietnamese," Albert Marrin wrote in America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. "There is an important difference here. Being a Communist Vietnamese would have meant patriotism came first. Ho certainly loved his country, but patriotism was no longer his chief concern. It had become a means to an end, a way of uniting people. . . . His chief loyalty, however, was to communism."
By many accounts, both nationalism and communism played important roles in determining Ho's actions before and during the Vietnam War. Perhaps a more important factor in causing the war was the U.S. government's view of Ho's motivations. If American leaders had not believed that Ho was first and foremost a Communist, they may not have tried to prevent him from gaining control over Vietnam. Nationwide elections might have taken place in 1956, as outlined in the Geneva Accords, and the United States might never have become involved in Vietnam. "If Ho was sincere [in telling U.S. officials that he was motivated by nationalism], then Washington's later actions were both foolish and unnecessary," Marrin stated. "Indeed, next to the Civil War, they produced the worst tragedy in our nation's history."
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Born May 19, 1890
Nghe An Province, Vietnam
Died September 3, 1969
Hanoi, North Vietnam
President of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam
H o Chi Minh was a leading figure in the international communist movement and the principal force behind the Vietnamese struggle against French colonial rule. Founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and its chief strategist, Ho became president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Today, he remains the symbol of national pride in Vietnam. One of the most influential political figures of the twentieth century, Ho Chi Minh had magnetic appeal as well as practical leadership skills.
At a time when most of his Vietnamese colleagues were trained only in China or the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh traveled extensively and developed a broad world view. Ho spoke and wrote a number of languages, including English, French, Chinese, and Russian, as well as his native Vietnamese.
Ho Chi Minh's birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cung. The youngest of three children, he was born in 1890 in a rural hamlet in central Vietnam. Along with Cambodia, Laos, and several other countries, Vietnam forms a peninsula called Indochina, which extends from the southeastern border of China into the South China Sea. Rich in natural resources, especially rubber and rice, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam became French colonies in the nineteenth century before Ho Chi Minh was born. His mother was Hoang Thi Loan; his father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a teacher and a Confucian scholar who opposed France's presence in Vietnam. (Confucian scholars study the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who was born in 551 b.c.e.) In keeping with Vietnamese tradition, Sinh Cung's parents gave him a new name when he reached adolescence. The new name was to reflect the parents' aspirations for their child and was recorded at the village registry. Sinh Cung's father assigned him the name Nguyen That Thanh, meaning "he who will succeed." In 1907, young Nguyen was enrolled at the National Academy, a prestigious school for students wishing to become administrative officials.
Sinh Sac had moved his family to the city of Hue in 1895. Later, Sinh Sac and his family moved to the town of Kim Lien, where he was an associate of the well-known scholar and revolutionary patriot Phan Boi Chau (1867–1940), who often visited their home. Ho Chi Minh's revolutionary out-look may have been inspired by these sessions with Phan Boi Chau and then intensified by his later experiences in France.
In 1911, Nguyen That Thanh sailed from Saigon to France, working aboard the French passenger liner Admiral LaTouche-Treville. In order to pursue his political interests without placing his family back in Vietnam in danger, he traveled under the assumed name Nguyen Van Ba. Nguyen saw vast areas of the world, including Latin America and the United States, before he arrived in Paris. At that time, Paris had become the worldwide center for anticolonial groups to debate the issue of colonialism. Colonialism is the policy or practice of controlling a dependent country or people—for example, a Western European nation controlling an underdeveloped and economically dependent nation in Asia or Africa. The French colonized Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) primarily for its rice and rubber resources. Their rule of the economy drained the countries of their wealth since profits went to farm and plantation owners in France, not the Indochinese. Vietnam wanted to gain control of its economy and raise the country's standard of living.
In Paris, using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc, or "Nguyen the Patriot," Nguyen engaged in radical activities and was one of the founding members of the French Communist Party. Communism is a system of government in which a single political party, the Communist Party, controls nearly all aspects of people's lives. In a communist economy, private ownership of property and business is prohibited so that goods produced and wealth accumulated can be shared equally by all. In 1919, as Nguyen Ai Quoc, he presented a petition to democratic leaders at the Versailles Peace Conference. In this petition, titled "The Demands of the Annamite [Vietnamese] People," he outlined French colonial abuses in Vietnam: plantation owners ruling the local workers harshly, taking profits out of the country, and keeping a tight control on society to quell any rebellions. The French had established the colony through force in the first place in the 1850s and 1860s and maintained it with force. Nguyen also proposed that Vietnam would be governed by Vietnamese and would control its own economy. Not many nations wanted to challenge France because of long ties, but Nguyen's petition served as an important call to action among the Vietnamese.
Like many Asian leaders of that era, he had not had a happy experience with capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system where property and businesses are privately owned. Prices, production, and distribution of goods are determined by competition in a market relatively free of government intervention. Nguyen had personally observed the brutalities perpetuated by Western colonialism, and those experiences had led him to embrace the concept of a future global federation of communist societies, an idea proposed by the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924).
The following years of Nguyen's life were spent in the Soviet Union, China, and Indochina. In China, he learned guerrilla warfare, or irregular and independent attacks, from Mao Zedong (1893–1976; see entry), the future leader of the Communist People's Republic of China. After founding the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) among Vietnamese exiles in Canton, China, Nguyen was arrested by the British for adopting radical politics and threatening the colonial countries, and spent two years in prison. After his release, he returned to the Soviet Union and spent several years recovering from several illnesses.
In 1940, as part of their military expansion throughout Asia, Japanese troops swept into Indochina to gain control of natural resources for their own industries. Nguyen resumed contact with Indochinese Communist Party leaders and announced the formation of the League for the Independence of Vietnam, popularly known as the Vietminh. The Vietminh's purpose was to fight French rule and the Japanese occupation. In 1942, Nguyen was arrested in China by Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry) who despised communists and was fending off Mao within China. Nguyen was falsely charged with being a spy, which Chiang believed would tarnish his reputation back home in Vietnam and undercut his power. After spending thirteen months in jail, Nguyen returned to Vietnam in 1944, where he continued his resistance.
From the Vietminh, Nguyen derived his final and most famous alias, Ho Chi Minh. The name means "enlightener" or "bringer of light." When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 at the end of World War II (1939–45), the Vietminh seized power in Vietnam and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV); the DRV's capital city was Hanoi. After approximately thirty years as a revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh was about to become the first president of the new communist republic.
A changing world
After the bloody battles of World War II, the world found itself engaged in a different kind of conflict—the so-called Cold War. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the world's two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—that lasted from 1945 to 1991. The Cold War rivalry would eventually lead to the collapse of colonialism. Both sides advocated the liberation of their former colonies in order to win those colonies over and make them allies in the Cold War struggle for domination.
As a relatively small player in the global Cold War drama, France did not stand to gain much by liberating its colonies. Therefore, the French were unwilling to grant independence to their colonial subjects in Indochina, and in late 1946 war broke out in Vietnam. For eight years, Vietminh guerrillas fought French troops in the mountains and rice paddies of Vietnam. The Vietminh finally defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954; they then established North Vietnam as an independent country. However, South Vietnam remained out of Ho's grasp. The terms of the peace agreement would keep Vietnam a divided country. After his victory over the French, Ho returned to Hanoi. He devoted his efforts to constructing a communist society in North Vietnam but did not give up on his vision of a unified Vietnam under his leadership.
A simple man
Ho appeared rather humble in his threadbare bush jacket and frayed rubber sandals. When surrounded by luxury, he often seemed uncomfortable; he preferred to live in a stilt house built in the style used by citizens who lived in the mountains. He once vetoed a proposal to construct a small museum that was meant to commemorate his life. Ho argued that the funds could be better used to build a school. The Western powers sometimes suspected that Ho cultivated this image of simplicity to more easily gain popularity. Ho did openly enjoy the adulation that he received from his compatriots, but in the final analysis there is little doubt that Ho Chi Minh actually preferred to live in simple, unpretentious surroundings. He sought to portray himself as a loyal adherent of the communist teachings of German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883). However, Ho also made an effort to soften communism's strict policies in order to ease the lives of Vietnam's citizens.
The U.S. viewpoint
The United States was concerned about the situation in Indochina for a combination of reasons. Indochina had raw materials that the world needed, especially tin and tungsten; therefore, the United States wanted to continue free trade with Indochina. U.S. leaders saw Ho Chi Minh's communist victory over the French as a potential threat to free trade, because the new communist economy of Vietnam would be closed to all capitalist nations. The Americans feared that other nations in Indochina would fall to communism and that trade with the entire region would cease. There was a real concern among all the Western capitalist nations that the existence of a communist government in one country would cause neighboring countries to fall to communism. This idea was referred to as the "domino theory." In the view of the Western world, countries falling in succession to communist influence would be the beginning of the end for free trade.
Even within the United States, people feared the infiltration of communist influence, both in the U.S. government and in broader American society. Communism itself was the enemy, and top U.S. leaders, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61; see entry), sincerely believed in the domino theory; they thought that any communist victory was a threat to U.S. democracy and capitalism. Ironically, Ho Chi Minh had an honest respect for the United States. He incorporated many of its ideals in his Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. One of Ho's slogans was "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." (This slogan is still seen on billboards in Vietnam.) Despite his admiration for the United States, Ho knew that the U.S. government would not grant legitimacy to his communist government in Hanoi. In fact, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States would send a considerable number of military advisors to South Vietnam to help resist any communist advances orchestrated by Ho.
A hot war
In foreign policy, Ho adopted a practical attitude and moved slowly in order to adjust his communist goals to the conditions of the world at the moment. The Vietnam War (1954–75) involved U.S. efforts to protect noncommunist South Vietnam from being taken over by Ho's communistruled North Vietnam. U.S. aid to South Vietnam began as early as January 1955. Steadily, U.S. military support escalated until hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were in Vietnam by 1967. As American casualties mounted, U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69; see entry) was increasingly anxious to arrange peace negotiations with North Vietnam. However, Ho made it clear to Johnson that North Vietnam would never negotiate. Even as the war physically destroyed his country, Ho remained committed to Vietnam's independence. Millions of Vietnamese fought and died to attain the same goal. Ho saw communism as a means to reach independence.
During the war, Ho was frequently ill or in China for medical treatment. He died of heart failure in 1969 at the age of seventy-nine. He did not live to see the unification of Vietnam that occurred six years later when North Vietnam and South Vietnam joined together to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). But the final communist triumph—the capture of Saigon, South Vietnam's capital city, in 1975—was the result of Ho Chi Minh's lifelong revolutionary efforts. After the fall of Saigon, Ho's colleagues renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.
Last will and testament
Upon Ho's death, an official statement from Moscow lauded the Vietnamese leader as an important communist leader and friend of the Soviet Union. The reaction from Western capitals was more muted. Some U.S. news media that had protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War memorialized Ho as a worthy adversary and a defender of the weak and oppressed. Even those who opposed Ho's regime respected Ho himself as someone who had dedicated his life to the independence and unification of his country. Ho's critics, on the other hand, refused to overlook his long record as a follower of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry), the brutal communist dictator of the Soviet Union. This group felt that Ho's decades of service to the communist world revolution had done irreparable damage to the cause of democracy.
Ho Chi Minh's last will and testament contained his wish to be cremated; it also indicated that he wanted his ashes deposited at three unnamed locations in the northern, central, and southern sections of Vietnam. Ho intended this to be a symbolic act that would express his devotion to the cause of national reunification. However, Communist Party leaders ignored Ho's request for a simple funeral ceremony and cremation. They decided to erect a mausoleum (a building where bodies are entombed aboveground) to display his embalmed body for future generations.
For More Information
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Embree, Aislie T., ed. Encyclopedia of Asian History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.
Levinson, David, and Karen Christensen, eds. Encyclopedia of Modern Asia. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2002.
Nixon, Richard. No More Vietnams. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Time/CBS. People of the Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
"Domino Theory Principle, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954." Public Papers of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/domino.html (accessed September 4, 2003).
Names and Aliases
The Vietnamese people, like the Chinese, place their surnames first and their given names second. For example, Ho Chi Minh's surname was Ho, so he was called President Ho or Chairman Ho. Ho Chi Minh spent many years in exile, and at times he lived in hiding in his own country. Ho lived and traveled under a variety of aliases (assumed names). It is estimated that he adopted more than fifty assumed names during his lifetime. Many of his writings were also under assumed names, including several flattering biographies that he penned for himself.
The Tet Offensive
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year, which is celebrated at the turning of the lunar year (the appearance of the first new moon after January 20). During the Vietnam War, it was customary for both sides to observe a truce during the Tet celebrations. However, in 1968, Vietcong guerrilla fighters (rebel forces within South Vietnam who supported Ho's Communist forces) violated the temporary truce and surged into more than one hundred towns and cities, including Saigon, South Vietnam's capital city and the center of operations for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. This surprise attack, known as the Tet Offensive, was the final turning point in the Vietnam War. When communist forces seized the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the American public's opinion about the war shifted; it no longer seemed that the United States was winning—or could ever win—the war. Only a few months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson cut back on U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, and eventually the United States withdrew from the war in defeat.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Born May 19, 1890
Nghe An Province, Vietnam
Died September 2, 1969
Hanoi, North Vietnam
President of North Vietnam, 1945–1969
Ho Chi Minh is probably the most influential figure in modern Vietnamese history. A committed revolutionary throughout his life, Ho led Vietnamese Communist forces fighting for the independence of his country. He became the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (which later became known as North Vietnam) in 1945, when the Communist-led Viet Minh revolutionary group took control of Vietnam following World War II. He continued to lead the Viet Minh against French colonial forces during the Indochina War. He remained president of North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War, when Communist forces fought for control of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Ho died in 1969, six years before North Vietnam finally won the war, but many people still consider him the father of Vietnamese independence.
Becomes a revolutionary leader
The man who became known around the world as Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19, 1890, in the small village of Kim Lien in Nghe An province in central Vietnam. According to many reports, his name at birth was Nguyen That Thanh, which means "Nguyen Who Will Be Victorious" in Vietnamese. He went by a variety of other names during his career as a revolutionary, but he became best known under the name Ho Chi Minh, which means "He Who Enlightens."
At the time of Ho's birth, Vietnam was a colony of France known as French Indochina. His father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a local government official who resigned from his job in protest against French colonial policies. The youngest of three children in his family, Ho inherited a strong patriotic spirit from his father. In fact, he began carrying messages for an anti-French resistance group at the age of nine.
Ho received his education at the National Academy in Hue, which was known as one of the top schools in Vietnam. After teaching and studying in Saigon for a short time, he left Vietnam around 1912. By this time, he had begun to feel threatened by the colonial government due to his anti-French activities. He also hoped to gain firsthand knowledge of political systems around the world. He would not return to Vietnam for thirty years.
Ho spent several years at sea, working as a cook's helper on a French steamship. After visiting New York, London, and other cities, he settled in Paris around 1917. Ho soon became involved in the political debates surrounding the negotiations to end World War I. Calling himself Nguyen Ai Quoc ("Nguyen the Patriot"), he wrote a petition demanding self-rule for the colonies held by European nations. He attempted to deliver this petition to American President Woodrow Wilson at the peace conference, but he was unsuccessful.
Over the next few years, Ho's reputation in political circles continued to grow. In 1920 he joined the French Communist Party. He also wrote a series of pamphlets and articles protesting French rule in Indochina. He demanded that the Vietnamese people be allowed to elect their own leaders and receive representation in the French government. Some of these works were published under the name Nguyen O Phap ("Nguyen Who Hates the French"). When copies of his writings made their way to resistance leaders in Vietnam, Ho was hailed as a hero in his homeland.
In 1923 Ho traveled to Moscow, where he received training to become a revolutionary leader. The Communist government of the Soviet Union supported his plans to organize groups of Vietnamese nationalists (people with strong feelings of loyalty for their country) to fight for Vietnam's independence from France. Toward this end, Ho and other young anticolonial activists formed the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League in 1925.
Leads the Viet Minh fight for independence
In 1930 Ho met with a group of fellow Vietnamese revolutionaries in Hong Kong, including future North Vietnamese political leaders Le Duc Tho (see entry) and Pham Van Dong (see entry). They joined forces to create the Indochinese Communist Party. Some members of the party returned to Vietnam, where they encouraged peasants to protest against the French colonial government. The French reacted violently to one such protest, sending fighter planes to fire upon a crowd of demonstrators. Over a hundred Vietnamese people were killed. Ho used such instances of French brutality to attract support to the Indochinese Communist Party. In 1931 Ho was arrested in Hong Kong and spent some time in prison. Upon his release, he continued organizing uprisings against the French from hideouts in southern China.
During World War II (1939–45), France suffered a series of military defeats and surrendered to Germany. Unable to protect its colonies in Indochina, the French government allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and set up military bases there in 1940. The following year, Ho returned to Vietnam for the first time in many years. He and other nationalists viewed the Japanese occupation as an opportunity to regain control of the country from France.
At this time, Ho and his supporters formed the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoa (League for the Independence of Vietnam). This Communist-led nationalist group, usually known by the shortened name Viet Minh, was determined to fight for Vietnamese independence from both the French and the Japanese. In order to attract support from the broadest range of people, they downplayed their Communist roots and instead emphasized the ideals of patriotism and freedom from foreign control. The Viet Minh helped the American forces that were fighting against the Japanese during World War II. They hoped that the U.S. government would reward their efforts by supporting their bid for independence.
In 1945 the Allied forces (which mainly consisted of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II. As soon as Japan was defeated, the Viet Minh launched a revolution to regain control of Vietnam. This so-called August Revolution was successful, as the Viet Minh took control of large areas of the country. In September 1945 Ho formally declared Vietnam's independence from both the French and the Japanese. He announced that the nation would be known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with a capital in the northern city of Hanoi. He also stated that he would serve as the first president of the newly independent nation.
But it soon became clear that France—which had suffered a great deal of damage to its land, economy, and reputation as a world leader during World War II—was not willing to give up its former colony. After a year of negotiations between Ho and the French government, war erupted between the French and the Viet Minh in late 1946. Nine years later, the Viet Minh finally defeated the French. The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the Indochina War, divided Vietnam into two sections. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist government led the northern section, which was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam but was usually called North Vietnam. The southern section, which was known as the Republic of South Vietnam, was led by a U.S.-supported government under Ngo Dinh Diem (see entry).
The peace agreement provided for nationwide free elections to be held in 1956, with a goal of reuniting the two sections of Vietnam under one government. But U.S. government officials worried that holding free elections in Vietnam would bring power to Ho and the Viet Minh, who had led the nation's war for independence from France. They felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, South Vietnamese President Diem and his American advisors refused to hold the elections.
Encourages his people during the Vietnam War
Ho and the other North Vietnamese leaders grew very angry when the elections did not take place as scheduled. They remained determined to reunite the two parts of the country under a Communist government, by force if necessary. Within a short time, a new war began between the two sections of Vietnam. North Vietnam's main weapon during the early years of this war was a group of South Vietnamese Communist rebels known as the Viet Cong. Using tactics of guerilla warfare, the Viet Cong gradually gained control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s the U.S. government sent money, weapons, and military advisors to help South Vietnam defend itself against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson (see entry) authorized U.S. bombing missions over North Vietnam and sent American combat troops to South Vietnam. But deepening U.S. involvement failed to defeat the Communists. Instead, the Vietnam War turned into a bloody stalemate.
During the 1960s Ho's health began to fail. His role in the North Vietnamese government gradually decreased. But he remained a beloved symbol of patriotism and freedom to the North Vietnamese people. In the early years of the Vietnam War, "Uncle Ho" repeatedly expressed his determination to fight on until the Communists gained a complete victory. He characterized the war as a fight for Vietnamese independence from foreign control. He claimed that the U.S. government was controlled by imperialists (people who seek to extend their power or influence over others) who were interfering in the national affairs of Vietnam. Many Vietnamese rallied around Ho and found him to be a source of inspiration in their struggles.
Ho Chi Minh died of a heart attack on September 2, 1969, exactly twenty-four years after he had declared Vietnamese independence following World War II. He still expressed confidence in the Communists' mission at the time of his death. "Our compatriots in the North and in the South shall be reunited under the same roof," he wrote in his final statement. "We, a small nation, will have earned the unique honor of defeating, through a heroic struggle, two big imperialisms—the French and the American—and making a worthy contribution to the national liberation movement."
Ho's death in the middle of the war was a difficult blow for North Vietnam. But the Communists continued fighting. In 1975 North Vietnamese forces captured the South Vietnamese capital city of Saigon to win the Vietnam War. They finally achieved Ho's dream of reuniting the two parts of Vietnam under one Communist government. Many Vietnamese people view Ho Chi Minh as the father of Vietnamese independence, and historians have recognized his gifts as a leader, organizer, and motivator in the Vietnamese revolutionary movement.
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Fall, Bernard B., ed. Ho Chi Minh on Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920–1966. New York: Praeger, 1967.
Fenn, Charles. Ho Chi Minh: A Biographical Introduction. New York: Scribner's, 1973.
Halberstam, David. Ho. New York: Random House, 1971.
Ho Chi Minh. Against U.S. Aggression, for National Salvation. Hanoi, Vietnam: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1967.
Sainteny, Jean. Ho Chi Minh and His Vietnam: A Personal Memoir. Chicago: Cowles, 1972.
Ho Chi Minh Complains about U.S. Interference in Vietnam's Affairs
In 1950 the United States provided military aid to France in its war against the Viet Minh. This decision infuriated Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh. In the following excerpt from a 1950 interview, Ho charges that America's decision was part of a U.S. plot to gain control of Vietnam and the other nations of Indochina (Cambodia and Laos):
The U.S. imperialists [people who try to establish authority over other nations] have of late openly interfered in Indochina's affairs. It is with their money and weapons and their instructions that the French colonialists have been waging war in Viet-Nam, Cambodia, and Laos.
However, the U.S. imperialists are intensifying their plot to discard the French colonialists so as to gain complete control over Indochina. That is why they do their utmost to redouble their direct intervention in every field—military, political, and economic . . . . The U.S. imperialists supply their henchmen [thugs] with armaments [weapons] to massacre the Indochinese people. They dump their goods in Indochina to prevent the development of local handicrafts. Their pornographic culture contaminates the youth in areas placed under their control. They follow the policy of buying up, deluding [fooling], and dividing our people. They drag some bad elements into becoming their tools and use them to invade our country . . . .
To gain independence, we, the Indochinese people, must defeat the French colonialists, our number one enemy. At the same time, we will struggle against the U.S. interventionists. The deeper their interference, the more powerful are our solidarity [unity] and our struggle. We will expose their maneuvers before all our people, especially those living in areas under their control. We will expose all those who serve as lackeys [servants] for the U.S. imperialists to coerce, deceive, and divide our people . . . . We are still laboring under great difficulties but victory will certainly be ours.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was the most famous Vietnamese revolutionary and statesman of his time. He was one of the shrewdest, most callous, dedicated, and self-abnegating leaders, a man apart in the international Communist movement.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, the little Asian country that held two leading Western powers—France and the United States—at bay after the end of World War II, was founded and proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh in 1945. In spite of his shrewdness, the frail, little Ho looked like an old peasant with a gaunt face, an expression of simplicity and gentleness, and nothing surprising except his amazingly lively eyes. His familiar garb consisted of a linen work suit and rubber sandals made of discarded tires.
Ho was born Nguyen That Thanh on May 19, 1890, in the village of Kim Lien, province of Nghe An, central Vietnam, into a family of scholar-revolutionaries, who had been successively dismissed from government service for anti-French activities. At the age of 9 Ho and his mother, who had been charged with stealing French weapons for the rebels, fled to Hue, the imperial city. His father, constantly persecuted by the French police, had left for Saigon. After a year in Hue, his mother died. Young Ho returned to Kim Lien to finish his schooling. At 17, upon receiving a minor degree, Ho journeyed to the South, where he spent a brief spell as an elementary school teacher.
At the news of the first Chinese revolution, which broke out in Wuchang, the fiercely patriotic Ho left for Saigon to discuss the situation with his father. It was then decided that Ho should go to Europe to study Western science and survey the conditions in France before embarking upon a revolutionary career. Unable to finance such a trip, Ho nevertheless managed to obtain a job as a messboy on a French liner.
Years in Europe
By the end of 1911 Ho began his seaman's life, which took him to the major ports of Africa, Europe, and America. As World War I broke out, Ho bade farewell to the sea and landed in London, where he lived until 1917, taking on odd jobs to support himself. It was here that Ho cultivated contact with the Overseas Workers' Association, an anticolonialist and anti-imperialist organization of Chinese and Indian seamen.
In 1917 Ho departed for France. He settled in Paris, working successively as a cook, a gardener, and a photo retoucher. Ho spent half his time reading, writing, trying to gain French sympathy for Vietnam, and organizing the thousands of Vietnamese, who were either serving in the French army or working in factories. He also joined the French Socialist party and attended various political clubs.
Distressed by the Western powers' indifference toward the colonies both during and after the Versailles Conference in spite of the Fourteen Points of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, Ho, whose only interest up to that time had been Vietnam's independence, began to drift toward Soviet Russia, the champion of the oppressed peoples. At its Tours Congress in 1920, the French Socialist party split on the colonial issue: one wing remaining indifferent to the problems of the colonies and another advocating their immediate emancipation in accordance with Lenin's program. Ho sided with the latter faction, which seceded from the parent organization and formed the French Communist party.
In 1921 Ho organized the Intercolonial Union, a group of exiles from the French colonies which was dedicated to the propagation of communism, and published two papers, one in French, Le Paria, and one in Vietnamese, the Soul of Vietnam, which carried emotional articles denouncing the abuses of colonialism. His most important work, French Colonialization on Trial, was also written during this period.
In November-December 1922 Ho attended the Fourth Comintern Congress in Moscow. In October 1923 he was elected to the 10-man Executive Committee of the Peasants' International Congress. Late in 1923 Ho went to Moscow, where he absorbed the teachings of Marx and Lenin. Two years later he arrived in Canton as adviser to Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin, who was then adviser to the Chinese Nationalists.
Early Organizing Efforts
Passing for a nationalist, Ho brought the Vietnamese émigrés in Canton into a revolutionary society called Youth and organized Marxist training courses for his young fellow countrymen. The Youth members were the nucleus of what was to be the Indochinese Communist party. Those who refused to obey Ho's orders were severely punished; Ho would forward their names to the French police force, which was always eager to put them behind bars. Ho also set up the League of Oppressed Peoples of Asia, which was to become the South Seas Communist party.
In April 1927, as the Chinese Nationalists broke with their Soviet advisers, Ho had to flee to Moscow. Subsequently, he received a brief assignment to the Anti-Imperialist League in Berlin. In 1928, after attending the Congress against Imperialism in Brussels, Ho journeyed to Switzerland and Italy, then turned up in Siam to organize the Vietnamese settlers and direct the Communist activities in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Early in 1930 Ho went to Hong Kong, where on February 3 he founded the Indochinese Communist party.
A year later Ho was arrested by the Hong Kong authorities and found guilty of subversion. Thanks to a successful appeal financed by the Red Relief Association, Ho regained his freedom. He immediately left for Singapore, where he was again arrested and returned to Hong Kong. Ho obtained his release by agreeing to work for the British Intelligence Service. Back in Moscow in 1932, Ho underwent further indoctrination at the Lenin School, which trained high-ranking cadres for the Soviet Communist party. In 1936 Ho returned to China to take control of the Indochinese Communist party.
In February 1941 Ho finally crossed the border into Vietnam and settled down in a secure hideout in a remote frontier jungle. With a view to bringing all resistance elements under his control, winning power, then eliminating all competitors and creating a Communist state, Ho founded an independence league called the Viet Minh, whose alleged program was to coordinate all nationalist activities in the struggle for independence. (At this time Ho adopted the name Ho Chih Minh—"Enlightened One.") While the Viet Minh included many nationalists, most of its leaders were seasoned Communists.
In August 1942 Ho went back to China to ask for Chinese military assistance in return for intelligence about the Japanese forces in Indochina. The Chinese Nationalists, who had broken with the Communists and been disturbed by the Viet Minh activities in both Vietnam and China, however, arrested and imprisoned Ho on the charge that he was a French spy. After 13 months in jail Ho offered to put his organization at the Chinese service in return for his freedom. The Chinese, who were in desperate need of intelligence reports on the Japanese, accepted the offer. Upon his release Ho was admitted to the Dong Minh Hoi, an organization of Vietnamese nationalists in China which the Chinese had set up with the hope of controlling the independence movement. Ho repeatedly offered to collaborate with the United States intelligence mission in China, hoping to be rewarded with American assistance.
As the war approached its end, Ho made preparations for a general armed uprising. Following Japan's surrender, the Viet Minh took over the country, ruthlessly eliminating their nationalist opponents. On Sept. 2, 1945, Ho proclaimed Vietnam's independence. In vain he sought Allied recognition. Faced with a French resolve to reoccupy Indochina and determined to stay in power at any cost, Ho acquiesced in France's demands in return for French recognition of his regime. The French, however, disregarded all their agreements with Ho. War broke out in December 1946.
Many nationalists, while aware of the Communist nature of Ho's government, nevertheless supported it against France. The war ended in July 1954 with a humiliating French defeat. An agreement, signed in Geneva in July 1954, partitioned Vietnam along the 17th parallel and provided for a general election to be held within 2 years to reunify the country. Because of mutual distrust, absence of neutral machinery to guarantee freedom of choice, and opposition of South Vietnam and the United States, the scheduled election never took place.
Ho, who had hoped that a larger population under his control, a Communist-supervised election in the North, and a more or less free election in the South would produce an outcome favorable to his regime, became greatly frustrated. He ordered guerrilla activities to be resumed in the South. Regular troops from the North infiltrated the South in increasing numbers. The United States, correspondingly, increased military assistance, sent combat troops into South Vietnam, and began a systematic bombing of North Vietnam.
Ho refused to negotiate a settlement, hoping that American public opinion, as French public opinion had done in 1954, would force the United States government to sue for peace. Apprehensive that his lifework might be destroyed and anxious to spare North Vietnam from further devastating air attacks, Ho finally agreed to send his representatives to peace talks in Paris. As the antiwar feeling mounted in the United States and other countries, Ho stalled, intent on obtaining from the conference table what he had failed to get on the battlefield. While the talks were dragging on, Ho died on Sept. 3, 1969, without realizing his dream of bringing all Vietnam under communism.
Of the several biographies of Ho Chi Minh, the most comprehensive, and critical is N. Khac Huyen, Vision Accomplished?: The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh (1971). A short and sympathetic biography is David Halberstam, Ho (1971). A short, quasi-official, and highly propagandistic biography was published by the government of North Vietnam: Tru'o'ng-Chinh, President Ho-chi-Minh: Beloved Leader of the Vietnamese People (1966). The following books contain enlightening chapters on Ho: Harold R. Isaacs, No Peace for Asia (1947); Frank N. Trager, ed., Marxism in Southeast Asia: A Study of Four Countries (1959); Bernard B. Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963; rev. ed. 1964); Hoangvan-Chi, From Colonialism to Communism: A Case History of North Vietnam (1964); and Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled (2 vols., 1967). Recommended for general historical background are Ellen J. Hammer, The Struggle for Indo-China (1954); Donald Lancaster, The Emancipation of French Indochina (1961); Patrick J. Honey, ed., North Vietnam Today: Profile of a Communist Satellite (1962); Robert A. Scalapino, ed., The Communist Revolution in Asia: Tactics, Goals, and Achievements (1965; 2d ed. 1969); and Frank N. Trager, Why Vietnam? (1966). □
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was the founder and first leader of the Vietnamese Communist Party. He led the movement for Vietnamese independence and unity through struggles with France and the United States. He also served as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1945 until his death in 1969.
Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung on May 19, 1890, in Nghe An province in central Vietnam. Nghe An had been the center of resistance to the thousand-year Chinese control of Vietnam from 111 b.c.e. to 939 c.e. and the Ming Dynasty in the fifteenth century. Many of the leaders of the opposition to French control in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also came from the province. Ho's father, Nguyen Sinh Huy, educated himself to pass the civil service exam and worked for the government. He eventually resigned in protest against French involvement in Vietnamese affairs. When Ho was ten years old, his mother died while giving birth. Ho had two older siblings, a sister named Thanh and a brother named Khiem.
Ho's opposition to colonialism (the rule of an area and its people by another country) began at the age of nine, when he worked as a messenger for an anticolonial organization. His father also introduced him to several revolutionaries. Ho went on to attend the National Academy in Hué, Vietnam. Dismissed from the academy after taking part in protests against the French in 1908, he traveled to southern Vietnam in 1909 and worked briefly as a schoolteacher. Ho signed on as a cook with a French steamship company in 1911. At sea for two years, he visited ports in Europe, Africa, and the United States and began to develop his language skills, eventually learning Chinese, French, Russian, English, and Thai in addition to his native Vietnamese.
Committed to communism
During World War I (1914–18), Ho worked in London, England, and Paris, France. This is when his lifelong commitment to communism and Vietnamese independence began. Communism refers to a system in which the means of production (such as land, factories, and mines) are owned by the people as a whole rather than by individuals. Communists believe that such a system can be achieved only by revolution and government by a single party. In Paris, Ho adopted the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot) and attracted attention when he presented a written request to the Versailles Peace Conference demanding independence for Vietnam. Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920. From 1920 to 1923, he was an outspoken leader of the Vietnamese community in Paris, participating in the Intercolonial Union formed under Communist sponsorship and publishing two anticolonial journals.
Ho was invited to Moscow, Russia, in 1923, where he studied at the University of Oriental Workers. In 1925 he was sent to China to organize a communist movement. He formed the Thanh Nien (Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League), whose members were mostly Vietnamese students in the southern Chinese port city of Canton. The league called for independence, redistribution of land, fair taxation, and equal rights for men and women. In 1927 Ho was forced to leave Canton after a Chinese government crackdown on local communists. During his absence, the league began to split into different factions, or groups. Ho returned to South China in early 1930 to unite the factions as a formal Communist Party, drawing its members from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He continued his organizing in Hong Kong and Shanghai but was arrested by the British in 1931 and imprisoned for two years. Released in 1933, he spent the next several years in the Soviet Union.
Return to Vietnam
In 1940 Ho returned to South China and met with members of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). The following May, with most of Vietnam under Japanese occupation, he chaired a meeting of the party's Central Committee inside the Vietnamese border, marking his first return to Vietnam in thirty years. Ho and the ICP then announced the formation of the Viet Minh (League for Vietnamese Independence), an organization demanding independence from French rule and Japanese military occupation. From 1941 to 1945, although imprisoned again in China for more than a year, Ho led the ICP in seeking support for the Viet Minh, forming alliances with American diplomats and intelligence officers in South China, helping victims of a famine that killed over two million people in north and central Vietnam from 1943 to 1944, and building up the party's military forces.
In August 1945 Viet Minh forces attempted to seize power in Vietnam. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh, as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, stood before thousands of supporters in the city of Hanoi. He proclaimed "that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country—and in fact is so already." At the end of World War II (1939–45), the French tried to regain control of Vietnam. Although Ho reached a settlement agreement with the French in March 1946, calling for the creation of a Vietnamese "free state" within the French Union, the French changed their minds. In December, war broke out between Vietnamese and French forces. By 1954 the French had tired of war and sought a settlement at the Geneva Conference. In July an agreement was reached calling for a truce and division of Vietnam into a Communist north and a non-Communist south.
After 1954 Ho Chi Minh remained president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and chairman of the Communist Party but slowly turned over day-to-day responsibilities to others. Ho was active internationally, where he promoted Vietnamese interests within other countries and attempted to prevent a split between the Soviet Union and China. A land reform campaign from 1954 to 1956 was a major failure. Modeled on land redistribution plans developed by Chinese Communists, the reforms were very unpopular among Vietnamese peasants, some five thousand of whom were killed by Ho's government in its determination to make the plan work.
Ho also oversaw the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in 1960, a movement of resistance against the non-Communist government in southern Vietnam. Clashes between that government and the NLF led the United States military to step in on the side of the South Vietnamese. As the American military commitment increased, with the arrival of American ground troops and the beginning of a heavy bombing campaign against northern Vietnam in 1965, Ho sought to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union and China in order to obtain military assistance and supplies from both Communist powers.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Ho Chi Minh's health declined, and he made only occasional public appearances. He never married, but he was widely viewed in North Vietnam as the father of his country and often referred to in his later years as Bac (Uncle) Ho. He died of a heart attack on September 3, 1969, almost six years before the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government was defeated and Vietnam was unified. The city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.
For More Information
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981.
Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Halberstam, David. Ho. New York, Random House, 1971.
Kahin, George. Intervention. New York: Knopf, 1986.
Lloyd, Dana Ohlmeyer. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh 1890-1969
Ho Chi Minh played a pivotal role in the global processes of anticolonialism and decolonization that accompanied World Wars I and II. His leadership has become an enduring symbol of third world resistance to the West during the twentieth century.
Ho Chi Minh was born in on May 19, 1890, in central Vietnam. Biographers have estimated that he used over fifty aliases during his career. He was educated in the Confucian classics, instructed in three languages (Chinese, French, and romanized Vietnamese), exposed to a modern multidisciplinary curriculum, and steeped in Vietnamese history. In 1908 he was expelled from the National Academy for his involvement in a peasant demonstration.
In 1911 Ho Chi Minh resolved to leave Vietnam to experience life in France. He secured employment with a steamship company and traveled widely to ports in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States. He claimed to have lived in New York in 1912. In 1913 he moved to London, where he studied English, and in 1917 he returned to France.
In 1919 Ho Chi Minh gained notoriety when he presented to the major powers gathered at the Versailles peace conference a petition arguing that Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points should be applied to the colonial peoples in Indochina. This document was signed “Nguyen Ai Quoc,” a pseudonym he used for the next quarter century. In 1920 Ho Chi Minh joined a breakaway faction of the French Socialist Party that joined the Communist Third International.
In 1923 Ho Chi Minh moved to Moscow and began a career as an agent of the Communist Third International (or Comintern). He was assigned to China in 1924. In February 1930 he presided over the founding conference of the Vietnam Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary career was interrupted by his arrest and detention by British authorities in Hong Kong (1931–1933). He resumed work with the Comintern in Moscow after his release, and in 1938 he was posted back to China.
In February 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after an absence of three decades. In May of that year he founded the anti-Japanese Viet Minh Front. He was detained by Nationalist authorities in southern China the following year and released in 1943. While in China, he made his first contacts with U.S. officials. He professed admiration for President Franklin Roosevelt’s anticolonial sentiments. In 1944 Ho Chi Minh reached an agreement with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in China. He agreed to supply intelligence and assist in the rescue of downed pilots in exchange for OSS assistance to and training of Viet Minh troops.
In August 1945 the Viet Minh seized power, and on September 2 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent, citing the opening words from the American Declaration of Independence. He used his OSS contacts to convey messages to President Harry Truman requesting support. In 1946 Ho Chi Minh twice offered the United States access to Cam Ranh Bay.
Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese people in a successful eight-year war to expel the French (1946–1954). From 1954 until his death on September 2, 1969, he held the twin positions of head of state and chairman of the party in North Vietnam. In reality power over domestic affairs was held by the party general secretary and senior members of the politburo. Increasingly he focused his energies on foreign affairs and national reunification.
Ho Chi Minh was both a Communist and a nationalist. His brand of communism was more pragmatic than doctrinaire, while his patriotism was uncompromising. In Ho Chi Minh’s words, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion.
Quinn-Judge, Sophie. 2002. Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Carlyle A. Thayer
Ho Chi Minh
A sailor for two years, Ho worked between Le Havre, London, and New York. During World War I, he lived in London, working as a domestic. Back in France, he became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920, and, in Moscow from 1923, a Comintern (Communist International) expert on colonial and Asian questions. During long periods in China Ho was instrumental in forming the proto‐Communist Vietnamese Youth League in Canton (1925) and the Indochinese Communist Party in Hong Kong (1930).
Ho returned to Vietnam in 1941 and emerged at the head of the Vietnamese Independence League (Viet Minh). Using the code name “Lucius,” he supplied anti‐Japanese intelligence to American authorities in Kunming, China, in 1944–45. As he led the Viet Minh to power in Vietnam in the August 1945 revolution, Ho's attempts to gain American support against a resumption of French rule continued, but failed. During the thirty‐year war for independence against French rule and American intervention, he remained president of the DRV until his death. Although he wanted to be cremated, the myth of the “Uncle‐President” became so central to Vietnamese political culture that Ho's body was embalmed and placed in a mausoleum.
[See also Vietnam War: Causes; Vietnam War: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Jean Lacouture , Ho Chi Minh, A Political Biography, 1968.
Charles Fenn , Ho Chi Minh: A Biographical Introduction, 1973.