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Makers of the Twentieth Century: Ho Chi Minh

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'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.

More than a decade has passed since Ho Chi Minh died. With that passage of time it is already 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 eleven years since Ho died. The Middle East and the energy crisis have 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 Hos. There was a French Ho and an American Ho. There was a Ho admired by radicals and a Ho 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 wasthe 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 Nguyen Ai Quoc, 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 Nguyen Ai Quoc were indeed on and the same person. We know that his name at birth was again different. Born Nguyen Sinh Cuong, 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 Nguyen Ai Quoc 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 Nguyen Ai Quoc, 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 whenhe 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 Procère , Nguyen Ai Quoc. 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 twentieth-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.

Further reading: 
  • The best available biography of Ho Chi Minh is the thoughtful and very readable work by Jean Lacouture, Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography (New York, 1968)
  • A failry slim Vietnamese account of his life, available in translation, is that written by the well-known Hanoi politician, Truong Chinh, President Ho Chi Minh: Beloved leader of the Vietnamese people (Hanoi, 1966)
  • Ho's own writings are available in a four volume English translation, Ho Chi Minh, Selected Works , four volumes (Hanoi, 1960-62)
  • Much of what is contained in the Hanoi publication may be found in Bernard Fall, ed., Ho Chi Minh on Revolution (New York, 1967).  
Historical dictionary: Ho Chi Minh


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