Makers of the Twentieth Century: Ho Chi Minh

'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' was the chant of radicals in the 1966s and 1970s, idolising the Communist leader who led Vietnam's Revolutionary struggle first against French colonialism and then against the United States' involvement in Vietnam. An article by Milton Osborne.

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh circa 1946.
Portrait of Ho Chi Minh circa 1946.

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. Nearly five decades later it is difficult to remember the passion his name generated in the West as he led Vietnam, first in the struggle for independence against France and then in the war against a rival Vietnamese state backed by the vast power of the United States. Even his bitterest opponents found it hard not to accord him grudging respect for his single-minded pursuit of the goal of Vietnamese independence and unity. Among students in both Europe and the United States in the turbulent 1960s he became a rather unlikely cult figure, so that the chant ‘Ho, Ho, Ho, Chi Minh’, was as much part of radical demonstrations as the singing of the ‘Internationale’ or the clashes with police. Whether he was seen as a hero or a vicious dictator, he certainly was a person who could not be ignored and seemed unlikely to be forgiven.

Ho Chi Minh has not, of course, been forgotten in his own country, nor by students of Vietnam in the West, but his posthumous reputation outside Vietnam appears less striking than the fame he achieved during his lifetime. In part this is a reflection of a shift in world interest to other crises and problems. So much has changed over the years since Ho died. The Middle East has replaced South-east Asia as a focus for attention. America’s rapprochement with China has led to a new set of alliances in which a readiness to disregard Vietnam, or to treat it as an appendage of the Soviet Union, has become a feature of governmental thinking in the United States. More is involved, however, in the present lack of interest in Ho Chi Minh. His name has faded from international awareness for reasons that go beyond the lapse of time and the redirection of interest towards new issues. In part the partial eclipse of his reputation reflects the way in which Ho was often seen as a symbol rather than as an individual revolutionary politician. It is not too much to say that in the West there were many Ho Chi Minhs. There was a French one and an American one. There was one admired by radicals and one condemned by those who supported the American role in Vietnam.

Similar comments might be made about other world figures who were praised or reviled for the virtues or failings they were believed to symbolise. In the case of Ho Chi Minh another factor is involved which probably goes some additional way towards explaining the limited amount of attention his name currently receives. More than anything else, Ho was a man of political action. His reputation grew as he and his fellow revolutionaries became the leading force fighting against French colonial power and then against the United States. He was not a theorist. His achievements were enormous and then he gained success against tremendous odds. In Vietnamese terms he was the man of his time. But he was not a Lenin nor a Mao. Overall, his Selected Works makes dull reading, not simply because they are often marked by repetitious Communist jargon, but equally because Ho wrote in relation to immediate political issues. Read outside the time and the circumstances in which they were written his speeches and messages seem like routine exercises than stirring calls to revolutionary action. Yet this was a man who helped to shape the twentieth century. How did this happen, and what were Ho’s lasting achievements?

Much of the mystery that once surrounded Ho Chi Minh’s life has been dispelled. In the late 1940s there was still doubt concerning the true identity of the man who led the Viet Minh in the struggle against the French. Politicians and scholars asked whether Ho Chi Minh was the same man as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, the passionate Vietnamese Communist who first came to prominence in the period immediately after the First World War. Now we know that Ho Chi Minh and Nguyễn Ái Quốc were indeed on and the same person. We know that his name at birth was again different. Born Nguyễn Sinh Côn​, in Nghe An province of Central Vietnam on May 19th, 1890, he changed his name many times throughout his life. His two best known public names are significant for their meaning. As Nguyễn Ái Quốc​ he was asserting his deep feeling for his country, for the name may be translated as ‘Nguyen who loves his country’, or, as is more usually the case, ‘Nguyen the Patriot’. When, during the Second World War, he chose to use his other well-known public name he was underlining his own conviction as well as that of others that he was the man to lead Vietnam’s revolution against the French. For as Ho Chi Minh his name indicated that he was ‘Ho who enlightens’.

Nothing gives greater emphasis to the remarkable character of the man than the fact that his return to Vietnam in 1940, still calling himself Nguyễn Ái Quốc​, came after an absence of nearly thirty years. During that time he had travelled the world as a member of a ship’s crew, worked as a hotel employee in London – possibly as an assistant to the great chef Escoffier – and been one of the founding members of the French Communist Party. As an agent of the Comintern he had been active in China and Thailand as well as working directly in relation to his own country. His return to Vietnam in 1940 was followed by yet another of the remarkable developments that were a feature of his long and varied career. After a lifetime successfully spent evading the French security services he was thrown into prison in China when he made a visit there in 1942 with the aim of establishing a working relationship with Chiang Kai-shek. He was to remain in prison for about eighteen months, a period when he wrote poetry that many judge to be his finest literary achievement. His release was followed by the temporary triumph of the August 1945 Revolution, which proclaimed Vietnam’s independence from France. He was the undisputed leader of the subsequent bitter Franco-Vietnamese War, the First Indochina War, and his leadership remained vital despite his advanced age during the Second Indo-China War, which was still raging when he died on September 3rd , 1969. No false emotion is evoked in remarking that the memory of Ho’s leadership played a large part in sustaining the Vietnamese politicians and generals who finally brought the Second Indo-China War to a successful military conclusion nearly six years after his death.

With a life as long and as complex as Ho’s a detailed chronological account of his actions would require an article of encyclopaedic dimensions. An attempt to focus on the most notable events of his life does, however, emphasise Ho’s achievements and so aids a retrospective assessment of his career. Almost every account of Ho’s life pays attention to the fact that he was born in a region of Vietnam famed for being a cradle of rebels and for resistance against French colonial power. Rather less attention is paid to the decision young Ho Chi Minh made not to join with the existing groups working against French colonial rule but instead to travel abroad. Ho's travels are rightly emphasised for the way in which through them he gained an awareness that repression and inequality existed in other countries as well as his own. That he should have decided to undertake these travels, which took him to Africa, England and France, and possibly to the United States, suggests a striking maturity of judgement. To argue that when he left Vietnam in 1911 at the age of twenty-one he was already set on his political career would be absurd. It does seem clear, however, that he already recognised the need to know more of the world outside Vietnam.

When Ho's early travels came to an end with his arrival in Paris in 1917 he quickly became involved in political action. The six years he spent in Paris were important for many reasons. It was in Paris that he became a member of the French Communist Party and a convert to Lenin's views on the colonial issue. The Paris years showed him to be a man of tireless energy, one who was concerned to present his political views in a direct and untheoretical manner. Not that Ho Chi Minh was able to muster a large number of supporters for his position. But he achieved much in the face of considerable handicaps. When, shortly after he arrived in the French capital, the Versailles Peace Conference took place Ho's French was insufficiently expert for him to draft the document he wished to present to the conference delegates listing the 'Claims' of the Vietnamese people. Nevertheless, he was able to enlist the assistance of a compatriot and the Revendications du peuple annamite became the first major document associated with Ho's name and was distributed to the delegates and to members of the French parliament.

While he worked to support himself Ho studied and wrote. He founded a newspaper, Le Paria , in which some of the important sections of his lengthy critique of French colonialism, Le Procès de la colonisation française, were first published. He observed the French and came to the conclusion that, even among those who should have been the first to recognise that there was a shared community of interest among the underprivileged throughout the world, there was virtually no sympathy for colonised people such as the Vietnamese. This was a formative period so it was not surprising that the new disciple of Lenin could also be something of a devotee of the city in which his intellectual and political growth took place. One can believe the observation attributed to him that although Moscow was the revolutionary capital of the world it was in Paris that his 'soul could breathe'.

Ho's Parisian period ended with a summons to Moscow in 1923. Then in late 1924 he returned to Asia, but not to Vietnam. Acting for the Comintern, Ho was sent to Canton where he began working to establish a Vietnamese Communist organisation – not a party since, in a judgement that seems to have been both his and the Comintern's, it was decided that knowledge of Communism within Vietnam was still too rudimentary to permit the founding of a party at this stage. A variety of factors made this period a propitious one for the kind of revolutionary activity Ho was seeking to promote. Resistance to the French, whether active or passive, had never ceased in Vietnam, but by the 1920s it had become clear to many of Ho's countrymen that the kind of resistance being urged by such men as Phan Bội Châu​ and Phan Châu​ Trinh was unsuited to the political and economic conditions that prevailed. These two men had been important for the way in which they broke with the thinking of the past in the early 20th century. By the time Ho Chi Minh was in Canton at the end of 1924 it was apparent that new revolutionary thinking was required. Drawing recruits from Vietnamese exiles in China, Ho argued that Communism provided the answers to Vietnam's problems. After months of arguing and organising he was able to establish the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam in June, 1925. As the forerunner of the Vietnamese Communist Party the Youth League, or Thanh Nien (Youth) as it was commonly called, was the first vital step along the road to a wholly Communist Vietnam that Ho never lived to see. Its establishment and the subsequent recruitment of young Vietnamese to study Communist theory and practice in the years immediately after 1925 were very much Ho's personal achievements. Once this new organisation was established, however, Ho moved to other tasks.

Between 1926 and 1930 Ho worked in both Asia and Europe. Just as he had been the man chosen to establish the Youth League, so was he sent by the Comintern to be the person charged with bringing order out of the chaos of factionalism among Vietnam's left-wing revolutionaries in early 1930. Although the foundation of the Youth League had been a vital step in itself and had led to a significant upsurge in revolutionary activity, it had by no means totally preempted the field of anticolonial activity in Vietnam. Not only were there other, rival groups claiming to represent Communist thought. Additionally, there was an apparently growing challenge to the Youth League from a non-Communist group affiliated with the Chinese Kuomintang. This was the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. In circumstances of considerable disarray, therefore, Ho travelled to Hong Kong to heal the breach. In Hong Kong Ho once again was the organiser and the conciliator. In a fashion that was to be characteristic of Ho Chi Minh throughout his life he showed a capacity to recognise where common interests lay and to use these common interests as the base from which to pursue his own political goals. In February, 1930 the competing factions of the Communist movement within Vietnam agreed to form a new party, the Communist Party of Vietnam, and to work within a framework of aims and procedures laid down by that party. Later in the same year the party was to change its name, on direction from the Comintern, to the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). It is not clear that Ho regarded this change of name as a defeat, despite the fact that he had advocated the party name agreed on at the February meeting.

Although he was not to return to Vietnam for a further ten years Ho's reputation grew within his country during the 1930s. There is no need to accept all of the examples provided in the official literature published in Hanoi emphasising the appeal Nguyễn Ái Quốc​ had for the adherents of the ICP working in Vietnam. There is, however, quite sufficient evidence to show that during the often extremely difficult years immediately after the foundation of the ICP Ho's name was a rallying point for supporters of the non-Trotskyist, orthodox Communist movement inside the country. Ho's life continued to be as full of incident as before. He was imprisoned by the British in Hong Kong, condemned to death in absentia by the French, and, finally, able to escape to southern China. After a period of study and teaching in the Soviet Union he returned to China in 1938. From there he issued one of his most famous political documents, a series of points laying down the ICP's line of political behaviour in the light of the developing situation in the Indochinese region, and in particular in terms of Japan's expansion towards South-east Asia. 'For the time being', Ho wrote, 'the Party cannot put forward too high a demand [national independence, parliament, etc.]. To do so is to enter the Japanese fascists' scheme. It should only claim democratic rights, freedom of organisation, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, a general amnesty for all political detainees, and struggle for the legalisation of the Party.' To achieve these goals, Ho continued, 'the Party must strive to organise a broad Democratic National Party'.

Prepared in 1939, this document contains the essential judgement that was to ensure the growth of the Vietnamese Communist movement during the Second World War and its domination -Of the struggle against the French subsequently. Faced with an external enemy, Ho argued that it was essential to develop a broadly based national front to oppose that enemy, while ensuring that the real leadership of the front remained firmly in the hands of the Communists. Following Ho Chi Minh's return to Vietnam in 1940 he worked tirelessly to create such a front. Both in Vietnam and in bases in southern China he sought to reconcile all those who opposed the Japanese and French influence in Vietnam. The result of this effort was the foundation in 1941 of the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (the Vietnam Independence League) that was more familiarly known as the Viet Minh. In working towards this goal Ho was ably assisted by two younger men whose names also were to become households words, Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap.

Mention of these two men draws attention to a further vital feature of Ho's success. He and the organisation he headed demonstrated a striking capacity to attract able recruits to their ranks. Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap are only the best known of a series of gifted politicians who, as a group, formed the single greatest reservoir of political talent in Vietnam. This judgement does not mean that there were no other, non-Communist Vietnamese of ability. Nor should it be taken to suggest that the Communist leadership never made mistakes or encountered failure. The contrary was often the case. When these important qualifications are noted, however, the fact remains that the Communist Party under Ho's leadership managed to draw to it men of great capacity. When Ho returned to Vietnam during the Second World War the ICP had already gained the adherence of those men who were to be its leaders for the next 35 years. In Pham Van Dong, Ho had the support of an administrator of great ability. Some commentators have suggested that Dong as Prime Minister of Vietnam played a role similar to Premier Chou En-lai in China. Both Dong and Chou were outstanding political administrators and both worked under leaders who laid down the broad policy lines to be followed by the state. In Dong's relations with Ho, however, there was never any suggestion of the fundamental policy disagreements that occurred between Mao and Chou, particularly in the latter years of Mao's life. Rather, Pham Van Dong and Ho Chi Minh appear to have worked in harmonious tandem, with each clearly recognising and accepting the functional requirements of the other's role.

More of a case can be developed to show that there were times when Vo Nguyen Giap doubted the correctness of Ho Chi Minh's decisions. In particular this was so in the period immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War when Ho was ready to negotiate with the French rather than follow a policy of armed confrontation. But in general Ho's leadership prevailed and the men he gathered about him showed a notable capacity to combine ruthless political skill with unwavering loyalty to the policies he advocated. This was a vital factor as Ho prepared for the end of the Second World War and the struggle to gain Vietnam's independence.

As the war in Asia drew towards a close Ho and his lieutenants worked feverishly to capitalise on the increasingly predictable end to Japanese power in Indo-China. Ho himself had survived eighteen months in Chinese prisons during 1943 and 1944 before he returned to take personal charge of Viet Minh activity. The key to this activity was a constant effort to assemble the broadest possible coalition of forces that could oppose the return of the French once Japan had been defeated. The military power of the Communist-led front was still small as the critical days of 1945 approached, but the Viet Minh had moved rapidly towards assuming an unassailable position as the political movement opposing the reintroduction of French colonialism. Ho's contribution to this achievement was immense. Equally he must be allotted responsibility for the readiness of his movement to act ruthlessly against those political opponents who showed themselves prepared to resist the dominance of the ICP-led Viet Minh. Contrary to arguments that are sometimes advanced in relation to this period there seems no reason to believe that there was any doubt about the Communist identification of the leadership of the Viet Minh. Those non-Communists who supported the Viet Minh were aware of Ho's affiliations and of the role played by the ICP at the head of the movement, but they accepted that its goals were also national in character.

Despite that fact that Ho Chi Minh's declaration of Vietnam's independence was followed by a bitter and protracted war against the French, there is a strong case to be made that the August 1945 Revolution represented his finest hour. Whatever the problems that had to be faced in the future the Viet Minh, with the ICP firmly in control, emerged in 1945 as the clear leader of Vietnam's struggle for independence. With Ho as its guiding spirit the ICP had survived near disaster in the 1930s and seized the opportunities that were offered during the Second World War to develop from a revolutionary movement with a limited power base to be the leaders of a mass-based movement that ultimately was able to confront and defeat the French. That this victory was finally possible was a testimony to the accuracy of Ho's assessment that the successful implementation of Communist policy within Vietnam could only follow the mobilisation of a broad section of the population in favour of a revolution that had a strong national character in addition to longer-term Communist aims.

Without a broad base of support throughout the country it would have been impossible for the Vietnamese Communists to wage the protracted guerrilla war that, by 1951, began in northern Vietnam to change its character into a conflict in which main force engagements became as important as the fighting that took place on a smaller scale. The fact that the great battle of Dien Bien Phu was the symbolic end to the first Indochina War is significant in this respect. Although some fighting took place after the Vietnamese defeated the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in May, 1954, it was this set-piece battle involving thousands of casualties on both sides that ensured that France would have to quit· Vietnam. Vo Nguyen Giap as the Vietnamese army commander demonstrated the military ability to achieve this vital victory. But it was Ho who had created the political conditions in which Giap was able to pursue his military goals.

By the time the Vietnamese Communists had won their partial victory in 1954 Ho Chi Minh was an elderly man, and one who had suffered considerable physical privation during his life. In these circumstances he played less and less part in the day-to-day affairs of the state. He cultivated the air of an elder statesman and there seems every reason to believe that the image he presented to the public was matched by the actuality of his political role. Nevertheless, his intervention at key moments remained of great importance. It was Ho who sorted out the grave difficulties that followed the ill-advised radical land reform programme introduced by yet another of his band of younger associates. When Truong Chinh in 1955-56 introduced a series of land reform measures that involved many summary executions and brought widespread resentment, it was Ho who calmed the population and admitted that the government had erred in its policy.

From the mid-1950s until his death in 1969 the role Ho assumed at the time of the land reform crisis was the one he played in relation to Vietnam's broader political problems. He, more than ever before, was the leader who embodied the revolution that had taken place and the centrepiece of public ceremonies calling for unity in the struggles that lay ahead. He was 'Uncle' Ho, a Vietnamese style of address given to men honoured in their old age and a role that Ho himself, no doubt with considerable awareness of the political benefit to be gained from it, performed to perfection. Ho's combination of apparent reasonableness, coupled with unwavering determination to keep Vietnam on a path towards total independence, remained vitally important as the Second Indo-China War grew in intensity. As long as Ho lived he continued to hint at his willingness to see tactical compromises as a way of bringing the war to an end. He never gave any sign that he was prepared to compromise on his government's ultimate strategic aims.

What judgement might be made of this remarkable politician who combined apparent public accessibility with so much enigma? Earlier in this article the point was made that Ho was not a theoretician. This fact needs repeated emphasis. Only by studying his achievements in relation to certain key phases in the development of the Vietnamese Communist Revolutionary movement is it possible to gain some sense of the importance of his contribution to that movement's ultimate success. Probably the greatest error of external observers has been the desire to see Ho in onedimensional terms. For any of a hundred different reasons external commentators have wanted Ho Chi Minh to be the symbol or the archetype of aspects of his character that were never, in reality, separate features of a complex private and public personality. So, it is not enough to proclaim Ho to have been a 'Communist' or 'nationalist' or 'internationalist'. He was all these and more. Critical Westerners ridiculed Ho for playing the role of 'uncle' to his nation of 'nieces' and 'nephews', forgetting that in Vietnamese eyes there was no conflict between a leader who cultivated the image of a man devoted to his 'family' but who was ready to act with the utmost severity against those who were his enemies. Equally, foreign commentators were wrong when they tried to depict Ho as pro-Chinese or pro-Russian. Whatever has happened since Ho's death, he tried during his lifetime not to become too closely associated with either of the great Communist giants but to keep to a policy that has been aptly described as a 'straight zigzag'.

In the final analysis Ho Chi Minh emerges as being very much a man who embodied the ideas explicit in his earlier nom de carriere, Nguyễn Ái Quốc. He was 'the Patriot' who, aware of the potential power of international Communism, sought to apply that power to Vietnam's national problems. It would be impossible to overestimate the force of his personality, a force that was reflected in the appeal he had for his countrymen despite the long periods he lived outside Vietnam. If his writings lack the attraction of theory, they were clearly appropriate to the circumstances in which they were written in the eyes of his countrymen. History does not permit us to assess what might have happened if someone other than Ho had been at the helm of Vietnam's revolutionary struggle and its wars against the French and the Americans. He was there and his strength of purpose laid the basis for the defeat of those who believed it was possible to maintain a divided Vietnam, part Communist and part non-Communist. To the extent that the American defeat in Vietnam was a major feature of contemporary world history, Ho Chi Minh's role in bringing that defeat makes him one of the notable figures among 20th-century leaders. Whether he would have seemed so important if the French had not tried to return to Vietnam and if the United States had not intervened to support the Diem regime in southern Vietnam is another, ultimately unanswerable, question.

Dr Milton Osbourne is Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, The Australian National University.

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