by William J. Duiker

Ho Chi Minh was not a typical Vietnamese. A typical VNese would be a farmer in some rural area. Ho, however, represents the essence of the VNese people:

Ho Chi Minh’s image was part Lenin and part Gandhi, with perhaps a dash of Confucius.
… combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice.

In his struggle to bring about independence, Ho was given limited choices, and has tried to make the best choices out of it. In this post I’ll present some quotations from the book to underline my own conclusion: Vietnamese is an unfortunate people that struggle for independence under the wheel of history. Ho’s life reflects that struggle.

Colonial Vietnam, the effort, the choices, and the luck

1. Choice of Dynasty

But there was a price to pay for the nation’s military success, as territorial expansion led to a growing cultural and political split between the traditional-minded population in the heartland provinces of the Red River delta and the more independent-minded settlers in the newly acquired frontier regions to the south. For two centuries, the country was rent by civil war between ruling famailies in the north and the south.

and the luck

In 1853 the third emperor of the Nguyen dynasty died, and the Vietnamese throne passed into the hands of a new ruler, the young and inexperienced Tu Duc. It was his misfortune, and that of his people, that on his shoulders was placed the responsibility of repulsing the first serious threat to Vietnamese independence in several centuries. Although well-meaning and intelligent, he was often indecisive and nagged by ill health. When French troops landed at Da Nang harbor in the summer of 1858, Tu Duc’s first instinct was to fight. Contemptuously rejecting an offer to negotiate, he massed imperial troops just beyond French defenses on the outskirts of the city. Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, the French commander, had been assured by French missionaries operating in the area that a native uprising against imperial authority would take place, but it failed to materialize. At first, the admiral hoped to wait out his adversary, but when cholera and dysentery began to thin out the European ranks, he decided to abandon the city and seek a more vulnerable spot farther to the south. Early the following year the French resumed their attack at Saigon, a small but growing commercial port on a small river a few miles north of the Mekong River delta. Imperial troops in the area attempted to counterattack, but their outdated weapons were no match for the invaders, and after two weeks Vietnamese resistance collapsed.

2. Choice of ideology

Yet the trend in Asian nationalist circles toward socialism should not be ascribed totally to expediency. For many Asian intellectuals, the group ethic of Western socialist theory corresponded better to their own inherited ideals than did the individualist and profit-motivated ethic of Western capitalism. and nowhere was this more pronounced than in Confucian societies like China and Vietnam. Chinese and Vietnamese nationalists from scholar-gentry families often found the glitter of the new commercial cities more than vaguely distasteful. In the Confucian mind, Western industrialism was too easily translated into greed and an unseemly desire for self-aggrandizement. By contrast, socialism stressed community effort, simplicity of lifestyle, equalization of wealth and opportunity, all of which had strong overtones in the Confucian tradition. under such conditions, the physical transition from Confucius to Marxism was easier to make than that to Adam Smith and John Stuart Mills, who stressed such unfamiliar concepts as materialism and individualism.

3. Choice of Allies

Ho tried his best to make allies with the US. Initially the effort succeeded:

Ho came along with a younger man named Fam. Ho wasn’t what I expected. In the first place he isn’t really “old”: his silvery wisp of beard suggests age, but his face is vigorous and his eyes bright and gleaming. We spoke in French. It seems he has already met Hall Blass, and de Sibour [OSS officers in Kunming], but got nowhere with any of them. I asked him what he had wanted with them. He said — only recognition of his group (called Vietminh League or League for Indepedence). I had vaguely heard of this as being communist, and asked him about it. Ho said that the French call all Annamites communists who want independence. I told him about our work and asked whether he’d like to help us. He said they might be able to but had no radio operators nor of course any equipment. We discussed taking in a radio and generator and an operator. Ho said a generator would make too much noise — the Japanese were always around. Couldn’t we use the type of set with battery, such as the Chinese use? I explained they were too weak for distant operation, especially when the batteries run down. I asked him what he’d want in return for helping us. Arms and medicines, he said. I told him the arms would be difficult, because of the French. We discussed the problem of the French. Ho insisted that the Independence League are only anti-Japanese. I was impressed by by his clear-cut talk; Buddha-like composure, except movements with wrinkled brown fingers. Fam made notes. It was agreed we should have a further meeting. They wrote their names down in Chinese characters which were romanized into Fam Fuc Pao and Ho Tchih Ming. …

Bernard and I were due to collect Ho at ten-thirty 29 March for the appointment at eleven. I noticed that Ho had replaced the missing button on his cotton jacket, no doubt to celebrate the occasion. Presenting ourselves at Chennaulf’s outer office we are told that the general is engaged … Chennault told Ho how grateful he was about the saved pilot. Ho said he would always be glad to help the Americans and particularly to help General Chennault for whom he had the greatest admiration. They exchanged talk about the Flying Tigers. Chennault was pleased the old man knew about this. We talked about saying more pilots. Nothing was said about the French, or about politics. I heaved a sigh of relief as we started to leave. Then Ho said he had a small favour to ask the general. ‘Here we go boys, hold your hats’, was written all over Bernard’s face. But all Ho wanted was the general’s photograph. There’s nothing Chennault likes more than giving his photograph. So he presses the bell and in comes Doreen again. In due course it’s some other girl who produces a folder of eight-by-ten glossies. ‘Take your pick,’ says Chennault. Ho takes one and asks would the general be so kind as to sign it? Doreen produced a Parker 51 and Chennault writes accross the bottom, “Yours Sincerely, Claire L. Chennault.” And out we all troop into Kumming’s sparkling air.

but the wheel of history was stronger than anyone’s will:

… in Hanoi, de Gaulle met with Truman at the White House. Although Truman urged his visitor to pledge the future independence of Indochina, de Gaulle demurred, remarking that any public statement to that effect would be just “fine words”. He did assure his host that the French government would take appropriate steps that would eventually lead to self-government for the peoples in the area.

Finally, the US swings to the French side:

Europeanists in the State Department took issue with such reasoning. H. Freeman. Mathews, chief of the Division of European Affairs, argued that it would be preferable to see if the British and the French could work out the problem themselves. A commission, Europeanists feared, could lead to only one result – the final eviction of the French from Indochina. It could also encourage Moscow to demand a role in the region for the USSR. This, said one, “would be bad for the French and the West, and generally be bad for the Indo-chinese themselves.”

During the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet relationship plays an important role in Vietnam political dynamics. While insisting that “nothing is more valuable than independence and freedom”, more than once Ho had to adapt to the mood swing from Beijing and Moscow.

4. Choice of Leaders
While Ho was a moderate, he does not possess a dominant trait like Stalin or Mao.

By the time it had become clear that Vietnamese socialism was subject to many of the same flaws as its Soviet counterpart, Ho apparently lacked the clarity of vision or the political courage to speak out firmly in opposition.

A combination of Chinese influence, Russian influence, and Ho’s indecisiveness has led to the emergence of more extreme political figures such as Truong Chinh, Le Duan, and quite a few others.

The result were tragic for a country just emerging from a generation of war. When the regime suddenly announced the nationalization of industry and commerce in Marche 1978, thousands fled to seek refuge overseas. A program to begin the collectivization of agriculture antagonized much of the rural population in the South. By the close of 1970s, the Vietnamese economy, shaken by the party’s ill-advised effort to lay the foundation of a fully socialist society before the decade ended, was in a shambles.

5. Choice of Policies
In many cases, the young government did not have many choices.

During the land reform:

Ho was also opposed to the future of torture. Certain cadres, he charged, are still committing the error of using torture. It is a savaged method used by imperialist, capitalist, and feudal elements to master the masses and the revolution. Why must we, who are in possession of a just program and a just rationale, make use of such brutal methods?

Ho Chi Minh’s remonstrances against the use of brutal techniques – which in any case appear highly unrealistic, given the circumstances – apparently had little effect. In one case, a landowner in Thai Nguyen province who had loyally supported the revolutionary movement for eyars (and had on occasion even sheltered Truong Chinh and Hoang Quoc Viet from colonial authorities) was accused by a Chinese land reform cadre of being a cruel landlord and sentenced to death. When local villagers came to her defense, they in turn were accused of being lackeys of the enemy. After Ho Chi Minh was informed about the case, he raised the issue with Truong Chinh, and the severity of the sentence was reduced. That outcome, however, was apparently a rarity and, before the campaign’s end late in 1956, several thousand people would be executed and countless others would be harassed, persecuted, and humiliated by being labeled with the indelible stigma of “class enemy” of the people. Although Ho Chi Minh may have been appalled at the indiscriminate violence that accompanied the campaign, in the view of one Vietnamese observer, he had been intimidated by Mao Zedong and was afraid to contradict Chinese officials stationed in the DRV.

In the Tet Offensive, a failure in military was traded for a success in politics

For years, Ho Chi Minh had insisted that the best time to launch such a campaign was during a U.S. presidential election year, when Hanoi could exert the maximum pressure on the American political scene. Attacks by PLAF units in the countryside were to be coordinated with a popular general uprising in the major cities. At a minimum, this would destabilize the South and force the United States to negotiate in a position of weakness, but the ultimate goal was to bring about the collapse of the Saigon regime. The decision to launch the general offensive and uprising during the Tet New Year’s holidays in early February was just being finalized by the Politburo in December, when Ho Chi Minh returned from China. Ho gave his approval to the plan and then immediately went back to Beijing for additional treatment.

However, the luck was not on the Vietnamese people’s side, as the next president was a Republican Candidate, Nixon.

In early November, peace talks convened in Paris after Washington agreed to a complete halt to bombing, even though Lyndon Johson refused to put the promise in writing. There was no cease-fire in the South, although Hanoi promised not to launch a major attack similar to the Tet offensive. But the breakthrough on peace talks came to late to help Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential candidate. Humphrey, who had won the nomination during a tumultuous national convention held in Chicago in August, had become a silent critic of the war, but had been forced by his position as Johson’s vice president to keep his reservations to himself. Growing public sentiment against the war hurt his own candidacy, while the Republican nominee, Richard M. Nixon, promised that he had a “secret plan” to bring an end to the war. In the November election, Nixon brought the Republicans back into the White House for the first time in eight years.

Ironically, Nixon’s “secret plan” was “Operation Linebacker II” that aims to bring the Vietnamese people back to Stone Age. Had Humphrey been elected, the Vietnamese people could have obtained independence about 5 years earlier.
Titbits about Ho Chi Minh

He might have been a cook instead:

Later he switched to the Carlton Hotel and worked under the famouse chef Auguste Escoffier. If the following story in Ho Chi Minh’s autobiography is accurate, he must have had promise as a chef:
Each of us had to take turns in the clearing up. The waiters, after attending customers had to clear all the plates and send them by means of an electric lift to the kitchen. Then our job was to separate chinaware and silverware for cleaning. When it came to Ba’s turn he was very careful. Instead of throwing out all the bits left over which were often a quarter of a chicken or a huge piece of steak, Ba kept them clean and sent them back to the kitchen. Noticing this, Chef Escoffier asked Ba, “Why didn’t you throw these remains into the rubbish tin as the others did?”

“These things shouldn’t be thrown away. You could give them to the poor.”
“My young boy, listen to me!” Chef Escoffier seemed to be pleased and – said, smiling, “Leave your revolutionary ideas aside for a moment, and I will teach you the art of cooking which will bring you a lot of money. Agreed?”
And Chef Escoffier did not let Ba at the job of washing dishes but took him to the cake section where he got higher wages.
It was indeed a great event in the kitchen for it was the first time the “kitchen king” had done that sort of thing.

He was initially not good at public speaking:

Ho was a rather shy boy when he first joined the radical activists in Paris:
Souvarine recalled that he was “a timid, almost humble young man, very gentle, avid for learning”, that other participants dubbed him the “mute of Montamartre”.
Eventually, however, Poldes encouraged him to speak publicaly as a means of conquering his timidity. on his first occasion, when he was called upon to describe the suffering of his compatriots under colonialism, Thanh was so nervous that he stuttered. But although few in the audience understood what he was saying, they were sympathetic to his theme. At the close of his talk there was wide applause. He was soon invited to speak again.

And he looked funny.


After his release from a Hong Kong prison in late December 1932, Ho made his way by a circuitous route back to Moscow, where he finally arrived in the late spring of 1934. This photograph, which was apparently taken in the Soviet Union, suggests that his prison experience must have been an arduous one.


In early June 1946, the French representative Jean Sainteny escorted Ho Chi Minh from Biarritz to paris to attend the peace conference at Fontainebleau. Here Ho and Sainteny await the arrival of their plane at the airport in paris. Sainteny, in his memoirs, noted that Ho Chi Minh appeared exceptionally nervous on the occasion.