Who Was Ho Chi Minh?

Carol Brightman is the author of "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World." She was the founder and editor of Viet-Report and in recent years has returned to Vietnam several times to gather oral histories on the two Indochina wars

There is an epic sweep to the life of Ho Chi Minh, who was possessed of an idea for which the world refused to make room. This was not just the dream of an independent Vietnam, liberated from the bondage of empire, but Ho's vision of the revolution that would bring it about. As it happened, it was a revolution that was sometimes insufficiently Leninist to suit his own Party chiefs, not to mention Stalin and later Mao, and was originally fired in no small way by the ideals of his enemies. Liberty, equality and fraternity--also the American Revolution's celebration of righteous resistance and the pursuit of happiness--fairly crackled with purpose when they were attached to the 30-year struggle he led.

"No national leader has stood so stubbornly or so long before the enemy's guns," wrote Time magazine when Ho died in 1969. Similarly no nation's leadership resisted taking the measure of its enemy longer than did Washington. This resistance deepened the ignominy of America's defeat, but it was impermissible, at least on the battlefield, to see in the Vietnamese revolution anything other than a conspiratorial, technically adroit, terrorist uprising, which could (or couldn't) be defeated in South Vietnam with superior technique, showy doctrines of reform and the relentless deployment of overwhelming military force. To view it otherwise--to see the guerrilla as someone with a commitment to justice who had the support of his or her people and was willing to make sacrifices for the sake of a cause or ideology--was to cede the moral ground that traditionally fueled America's wars, something Ho well understood.

William Duiker's book, the first full-scale biography outside Vietnam, is a welcome intrusion on the silence that has surrounded Ho Chi Minh, especially in the United States. Duiker, a retired professor of East Asian studies at Penn State and the author of several books on modern China and Vietnam, has written an impressive diplomatic history of Ho's life.

Duiker relies heavily on intelligence sources, mainly French, British, Chinese and Comintern spymasters, better informed, one hopes, than the FBI or CIA. From these sources "Ho Chi Minh" draws its profusion of detail. The figure who emerges: the young Comintern agent, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho's nom de guerre for 25 years, darting across continents, building alliances, neutralizing enemies and slowly organizing the party that will help fulfill his dream, is the man of a hundred aliases seen through the eyes of a thousand policemen.


Ho's vision of an independent Vietnam was first set forth in 1919 at Versailles, when he appealed to Allied leaders to apply Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination to French Indochina. He was 28, a politically aroused son of central Vietnam's scholar-gentry class, with no future at home but jail. Born Nguyen Tat Thanh in 1890, he shipped out of Saigon as a cabin boy on a French liner in 1911. After four years at sea, with stops in Boston and New York, he settled in Paris, where he worked as a photographer's retoucher and (in Ho's words) "a painter of 'Chinese antiquities' (made in France!)." There he began to probe public opinion about the crimes committed by French colonialists in Vietnam. He joined the French Socialist Party in which he found some sympathy for the cause, and became a founding member of the French Communist Party.

Versailles was the scene of the first of Ho's many efforts to convince Western democracies to honor the freedoms they espoused. But in the West, the "sacred right of all peoples to decide their own destiny" (Ho, speaking in 1919) did not extend to the subject peoples, not then and not at the end of World War II, when similar promises were made by Franklin Roosevelt.

Missing from Duiker's account, however, is a sense of place, starting with post-World War I Montmartre, where everyone was debating everything, not just Ho's new comrades in the French Socialist Party, who were debating the merits of the Second, Second-and-a-half and Third International (Lenin's), but young artists and writers from around the world who argued in the cafes, including the one at the end of Rue Monsieur le Prince, where Ho lived and where, nearly 50 years later, young Vietnamese emigre revolutionaries lived too.

Duiker's real missed opportunity is China, where Ho spent a good part of the 1920s, '30s and '40s and was no doubt caught up in the Byzantine politics of the Kuomintang via his friend Mikhail Borodin, Stalin's arms dealer to Chiang Kai-shek. Among the Western writers feasting on the chaos of wartime China was Christopher Isherwood, whose colorful descriptions ofthe crowd included "Chiang Kai-shek, Agnes Smedley, Chou En-lai, generals, ambassadors, journalists, foreign naval officers, soldiers of fortune, air men, missionaries, spies." This was some of the company Ho kept, disguised as a prosperous Chinese businessman named Mr. Ling. In 1945 in Kunming, headquarters of the United States 14th Air Force, Ho was recruited as an OSS agent, code-named Lucius. In exchange for intelligence on the Japanese in Vietnam, the OSS provided his fledgling guerrilla army (the Vietminh) with light arms and training. What a time this was, but Duiker doesn't set the scene.

In 1954, after the Vietminh finally drove the U.S.-backed French Expeditionary Corps out of Vietnam, Western promises were withdrawn. But so, too, was a crucial pledge of Ho's Communist allies, who were more interested in placating Washington after the Korean War than in advancing national liberation struggles. At the Geneva Conference in 1954, Chinese and Soviet negotiators withdrew their support for a reunified Vietnam in favor of a compromise plan to divide the country at the 17th parallel until 1956, when elections would be held (they weren't) to determine whether the colonial remnant called South Vietnam wished to join the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), whose independence Ho had decreed in 1945.

Duiker offers new information about the shaky relations that Ho had with both the Soviet Union and China. Russian interest in the Vietnamese revolution had been at low ebb, not just after World War II and in 1954 but since 1923, when Ho went to Moscow to apprentice himself to the world revolution, and Stalin suspected that the Comintern had acquired a nationalist rather than an internationalist. In 1924, when Ho left Moscow to try to organize a Communist party among Vietnamese emigres in China, it was without Stalin's imprimatur. When, at the end of World War II, he established a fragile tie with the United States--a brilliant move, which vanquished his nationalist competitors and, after the Japanese surrender, permitted a rapid seizure of power--Stalin was doubly suspicious of his loyalty.

In 1947, two years after Vietnam's proclamation of independence--when Ho had introduced the new government with these words: "All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. . ."--the Chinese Communists recognized the DRV's legitimacy, and the USSR did not. (When the American OSS officer Archimedes Patti read a draft of Ho's speech in 1945, he asked in amazement if Ho really intended to borrow the Declaration of Independence. "I don't know why it nettled me," he later wrote, "perhaps a feeling of proprietary right. . . ." Ho leaned back in his chair, his fingertips touching his lips, and asked softly, "Should I not use it?")

In 1950, a year after the Communists took power in China, Ho was invited to accompany Mao and Zhou Enlai on a train trip to Moscow, where China and Russia would sign a 30-year pact, and Ho, it was hoped, would "confer" with Stalin about the war against the French and win Soviet support. But Stalin, according to Nikita Khrushchev, treated him with contempt. At the treaty ceremony, when Ho suggested that Stalin sign a similar agreement with Vietnam, Stalin replied that because Ho was in Moscow on an unofficial visit, this wasn't possible. Ho proposed, perhaps in jest, that he be flown around town in a helicopter and then land at the airport with suitable pomp, whereupon Stalin snapped, "Oh, you Orientals. You have such rich imaginations."

But Ho did persuade the USSR to recognize the DRV that year and to deliver material assistance to the Vietminh on Stalin's condition that China play a prominent role in directing the struggle. Looking back, one sees how wrong Stalin was about Ho; he was an internationalist and became a Communist because he was also a nationalist. As his old friend Pham Van Dong once said (leaving both East and West uncertain of his meaning): "The Communist is the most genuine patriot."

The DRV's real problems came later with the Chinese, who were convinced in 1950 that war with the United States could break out at any point along their borders. (It was, after all, the year the Chinese army crossed the 38th parallel in Korea.) Thus it was important to build up Chinese defenses in Indochina. These decisions naturally provoked the Truman administration to greater involvement and, by April, both Washington and Beijing were supplying arms and sending aid missions to their allies in Vietnam. Reviewing the volatile events of 1950, one realizes how much China and the United States owed their respective containment strategies in Southeast Asia to the showdown in Korea and how the American war fell captive to the Cold War long before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.


Ho's troubles with Chinese intervention in domestic affairs built slowly. Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap was already using the Chinese model of people's war against the French, and the arrival of China's advisory teams was not unwelcome. But it soon became clear that Stalin's directive to Mao included a revamping of the Indochinese Communist Party (which Ho founded in Hong Kong in 1930) along more orthodox lines. Under Ho's guidance, the Leninist model of a two-stage revolution--in which a broad coalition completes the task of national liberation before the party initiates the transformation to socialism--had lingered, in the opinion of hard-liners such as Truong Chinh (Mao and Stalin as well), for too long at the first stage. With the triumph of Communist forces in mainland China and heightened prospects for a Vietnamese victory over the French, party leaders voted in 1951 to embrace the second stage.

After this shift to the left, drives like China's "speak bitterness" crusade were launched at the village level, where land reform regulations focused on reducing the economic and political influence of the landlord class. Duiker, an ex-Foreign Service officer who worked in the Saigon Embassy in 1965, where his interest in Ho Chi Minh began, first tracked these ideological debates in "Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam." In that book, as in "Ho Chi Minh," he draws heavily on French intelligence and the testimony of Vietminh defectors, with the result that the debates are largely viewed as power struggles between party leaders and are lifted out of a context in which the "anti-feudal revolution," as the second stage was called, can be understood. It was a kind of recruiting effort, a way to reward the peasantry for its loyalty and to justify further sacrifices, to enlarge the "sea" in which the party and army swam. Or, as Le Duc Tho, then a leading party cadre in the south, remarked in 1952: "If one wishes to lead the peasants to take up arms, it is first necessary to arouse in them a hatred of the enemy" as well as to speak to their practical needs.

Duiker suggests that Ho, a gradualist, chafed at this new direction because it restricted his capacity to manipulate the international situation and because it resulted in a degree of subservience to Chinese tutelage that he had resisted in the past. ("It is better to sniff French shit for a while than to eat China's for the rest of our lives," Ho said around 1946, apropos his attempt to negotiate with France during the Chinese Nationalists' postwar occupation of northern Vietnam.) When he praised the new government in Beijing, Duiker observes, it was an instance of his mastery of "the art of flattering his benefactors. . . ." In any event, when the new program was put into practice, it was more bark than bite; and Ho's policy of placating moderates survived until 1954, when countervailing voices, incited by Mao's advisors, drowned him out.

After it became clear that Washington was going to block elections in the south, a new more vengeful land reform was launched, in which recalcitrant landlords, many Catholic, were sometimes tortured and even killed. Ho spoke out forcefully against indiscriminate class warfare and "the error of using torture," a savage method used by imperialists: "Why must we, who are in possession of a just program, make use of such brutal methods?" he demanded. But only when Vietminh veterans protested the humiliation of their own families did the party step back and conclude, in 1956, that officials had "overestimated the enemy." It was too late, however, to halt the exodus of nearly 600,000 Catholics (900,000 remained), who were exhorted by their priests to follow the Virgin Mary south, where many entered the welcoming arms of Maryknoll-trained President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Duiker comes down hard on Ho in this period, or rather on the "system" which is Communism. Though Ho was not directly implicated in either the excesses of land reform or the suppression of intellectual dissent that accompanied it, "he was willing to condone such actions by his subordinates in the larger interests of the cause," claims Duiker. "Ho Chi Minh had become a prisoner of his own creation . . . unable in his state of declining influence to escape the inexorable logic of a system that sacrificed the fate of individuals to the higher morality of the master plan."

Vietnamese wariness of Chinese influence, meanwhile, escalated during the American war. Hanoi's enormous material needs were sometimes choked in a cross-fire of denunciations between Moscow, which had embraced peaceful coexistence with the West in 1956, and Peking, which by the late '60s was promoting the Cultural Revolution. In 1967, when I was in North Vietnam, you could hear a pin drop when a Chinese delegation filed solemnly into a crowded hall to watch a cultural performance.

Ho's "declining influence" paralleled the rise of "Uncle Ho" (Bac Ho) in the media, a kindly gentleman who no longer dressed as a peasant and walked 30 miles a day with a pack on his back, as he did in the liberated zones in the mid '40s, ending with a brisk game of volleyball or a swim. As Bac Ho's mythical power to embody the country's faith in itself, its collective will, increased, his actual influence over faction-filled party affairs diminished. His successors, surprisingly (to me), were not his younger comrades Giap and Pham Van Dong but Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, ideologues for whom Duiker has scant regard, who helped direct what Lyndon Johnson called "Aggression from the North."

In the 1960s, Ho Chi Minh inhabited a tiny house on stilts behind the Presidential Palace in Hanoi where Prime Minister Pham Van Dong received foreign visitors. Standing by the lofty French doors, one could sometimes see him, dressed in khaki and sandals, walking briskly through the green shade of the acacia trees. In "A Last Testament," written after President Richard Nixon took office, a few months before Ho died on Sept. 3, 1969, at 79, he warned that the war "may drag on." There would be "new sacrifices," as indeed there were; but "the Imperialists shall have to quit. Our Fatherland shall be reunited. 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."

And so it happened: only after the war in which 1.9 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans lost their lives, national uprisings in Nicaragua, Angola, Mozambique and Iran faltered over problems the Vietnamese avoided, among them militarism and a failure to morally isolate their adversaries. Nor have revolutionary leaders before or since had the audacity to believe, as Ho did, that in fighting for national salvation, their movements were fighting for the world's.

Duiker takes the American war to its bitter end in April 1975 when, under Operation Ho Chi Minh, the last U.S. aircraft took off from the rooftops of Saigon. He briefly scans the trials of Vietnam's postwar embrace of market socialism and of a more open attitude toward the expression of ideas, called doi moi ("renovation"). He points out that when reformers are blocked by conservatives, they often appeal to the legacy of Ho's pragmatism and to his image as a humanist with a broad tolerance for opposing ideas. To the oft-raised question of Ho's ideological purity, Duiker responds: "Whether or not he was an orthodox Marxist, under his patriotic exterior beat the heart of a dedicated revolutionary." The revolutionary strain in his outlook Duiker traces not to Moscow but to the shipboard experiences from which Ho learned that the sufferings of his countrymen were shared by people elsewhere in Asia and Africa living under imperialism. As for why he turned to the Socialist bloc when that jeopardized his overtures to the United States, he said that the Soviet Union alone of the major powers was "a friend in need and a friend in deed."


As a character, Ho flattens out after 1950, when he exits the records of the imperial police and the lively memoirs of Khrushchev and French diplomat Jean Sainteny. Duiker does an admirable job of documenting the consolidation of the Vietnamese state, but even with his access to Hanoi's ample archives, Duiker's President Ho is no match for Nguyen Ai Quoc. One wants to know more about the man who crossed Kwangsi Province in 1940 disguised as a French-speaking Chinese correspondent, with Pham Van Dong acting as his interpreter. And about the bard who wrote of Wendell Willkie, while confined to a Chinese Jail:

Both of us are friends of China,

Both are going to Chungking.

But you are given the seat of an honored guest,

While I am a prisoner, thrown under the steps. . . .

And what about the man who wrote this letter to an OSS agent in Kunming in August 1945 (not cited in Duiker's book):

"Dear Lt. Fenn: The war is finished. It is good for everybody. I feel only sorry that all our American friends have to leave us so soon. And their leaving this country means that relations between you and us will be more difficult.

"The war is won. But we small and subject countries have no share, or very small share, in the victory of freedom and democracy. Probably, if we want to get a sufficient share, we have still to fight. I believe that your sympaty [sic] and the sympaty [sic] of the great American people will always be with us. . . ."

And President Ho in Paris in 1946, on a last-ditch attempt to avoid war with France--who feels like a "Vietnamese Charlie Chaplin" when he is hounded on the Champs-Elysees--where is he? It's hard to find this quirky character in "Ho Chi Minh," which in style is a bit like the mausoleum where today Ho lies embalmed in Hanoi: "heavy and ponderous. In total contrast to the whimsical humor and unpretentious character of its occupant. . . ."

Duiker, of course, is up against a man whose talent for disguise exceeded the demands of the underground life. "Ah, but you know, I'm an old man, a very old man. . . . I like to hold on to my little mysteries," Ho told French journalist Bernard Fall in 1962, when Fall was in Hanoi trying, unsuccessfully, to learn something about Ho's private life. Duiker uncovers a Chinese wife, an affair with a female comrade, rumors of a tragic liaison in Hanoi in 1955 but little about Ho's inner life.

Strangely, he has overlooked an important source: the writings of a multilingual revolutionary who packed a typewriter nearly everywhere he went--Paris, London, Moscow, China, Siam, Macao, Hong Kong--before slipping back into Vietnam in 1943. Over the years Ho dispatched a volley of articles and commentaries on political struggles around the world; open letters to statesmen and police chiefs, messages to compatriots; novels, plays, poems, even cartoons, most signed "Nguyen Ai Quoc." Duiker, who finds Ho's writing "pedestrian in style and devoid of ideological interest," ignores this larger cache, which reveals a more complex character than historians have conveyed.

This writing, and Ho's insatiable appetite for print (he haunted the U.S. Office of War Information library in Kunming), suggest another facet of Ho's character besides the "master motivator and strategist" presented in "Ho Chi Minh." In his 32 years away from Vietnam, Ho had become an intellectual whose broad vision and wealth of political connections endowed the revolution he led with a worldliness and depth of heart and mind unmatched by any other. Thus it was that his country's engagement with Goliath became a defining moment of the 20th century. Ho's legacy, and the fact that Vietnam's victory provided the first clear indication of the limits of U.S. power, is why it can be said, to paraphrase Duiker, that after Ho, the world would never be the same.

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