"Our mountains will always be..."
“Our mountains will always be; our rivers will always be.
The invaders defeated, we will rebuild our land more beautiful.”
“To be a man one must suffer the blows of misfortune.”
-Ho Chi Minh
He was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in a small province of Vietnam in 1890. His father was a Confucian scholar who made sure that Cung learned the Chinese characters (script) and the profound ethical mandates of Confucius.
In those years Vietnam was ruled by an emperor, but in reality the French had a large presence in the country (particularly in the south) and it could be fairly said that nothing of importance happened without their consent.
Cung was an avid and brilliant student. He wrote poetry in two languages. Once his father died he had to make his own living. This led to numerous travels all over the world. He did whatever it took to make a living, most often something related to food or cooking.
At one point he landed in France. There he became a voice that advocated for better treatment and education for the less fortunate. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party. He traveled to Russia and received further training on Communist principles of government. In those days many people with lofty ideals of an egalitarian state believed Russia to be an example of what such a country would be like.
When WW I ended and the great powers got together in Versailles to plot the direction the world would march on, Ho and several friends drafted a petition to ask for the right to have Vietnam rule its own fortunes. They were ignored.
More travels followed. He changed his name several times; there were instances where he needed a new name in order to be able to travel; other times he was trying to evade capture and imprisonment. He was treated for tuberculosis (twice), malaria, dysentery, and much later in life diabetes (which was his cause of death). He was jailed twice. It can be safely said that for most of his younger life he was not sure of where his next meal would come from, or where he would get to sleep in a week.
The early 1940’s found him back in China and at times in Vietnam. He adopted one more name, the last change that he would make: Ho Chi Minh (Ho is a common surname in Vietnam; Chi Minh means “He who has been enlightened.”) He was cofounder of the Viet Minh, a group committed to Vietnamese independence. He was persecuted by Chiang, China’s head of state. He organized Communist opposition to Chiang; he was also heavily involved in trying to get rid of the French colonialists in Vietnam. Once Japan invaded Vietnam during WW II he directed his attention to fighting the Japanese. At the same time, he dealt with Vietnamese nationalists who had their own ideas on how to lead the resistance movement. When compromise failed the Vietnamese communists forcefully eliminated that opposition, often in violent form.
Once the Japanese surrendered in 1945 the Far East was submerged in chaos. Mao and Chiang were slugging it out in China. India wanted independence. The French wanted to continue to be masters of all of Indochina. The British had a considerable military presence in southern Vietnam; their troops had been stationed there to fight the Japanese and now they were entrusted with keeping the order. Southern Vietnamese who had been educated in the French way (many of them had become Catholic) had no interest in allowing the communists to take over. Northern Vietnamese who did not believe in a one-party state also were not sympathetic to Ho Chi Minh’s cause. Ho asked for President Truman’s help: he wanted the US to recognize an independent Vietnam and to establish commercial links. He was ignored.
Chiang sent 200,000 troops to Hanoi to accept the Japanese surrender. Even though Ho was Chiang’s sworn enemy, Ho Chi Minh gleefully cooperated with this show of force in order to get rid of one occupying force. The French, weary of war, allowed this mini-invasion to happen. Ho used this relative lack of war to get rid of all the anticommunist leaders in the north.
Once Chiang’s troops left Vietnam Ho began earnest negotiations with the French, his hope being to establish a single, independent, Communist state.
That went nowhere. After almost a year of concessions and bickering it was clear that France had no intention of leaving Indochina. The French bombed Haiphong, a major northern port. War was declared.
Eight years of massive upheaval followed. Vietnam was impoverished. Russia and the communist Chinese supplied all the weapons and much of the military advice that Ho used against the French. His general (Giap) became very adept at making the French Army’s life miserable with a combination of guerrilla warfare, sabotage, and intimidation of people who dared to help the French. Public opinion in France, which initially leaned heavily toward keeping the colony and annihilating these backwards and ungrateful rebels, shifted as the number of young French boys who came back dead or crippled rose. Victory was nowhere in sight.
The French generals decided that a final massive show of force was the only way to win. In 1954 they concentrated French troops in Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam. They were sure that in an apocalyptic showdown their superior technology and knowhow would defeat the barbaric communists who were likely to be armed only with pitchforks. Common sense measures of warfare were ignored. The troops were positioned in very vulnerable locations.
The Vietnamese army had a field day. Part of Giap’s success as a general was that he was able to convince his troops that death was an acceptable outcome for them. Thousands of Vietnamese stormed the French positions; when they were killed thousands more rained down on them. The French Army was defeated and humiliated.
The Geneva agreement of 1954 split Vietnam in two. The 17th parallel became the location of a demilitarized zone, similar to what we still have in Korea. People were allowed to move from one side to the other freely for several months. Hundreds of thousands of northerners, unsure of what a Communist world would be like, moved south. A much smaller number moved north. Ho tried to negotiate some form of commercial cooperation with France. He was ignored.
The new leaders of South Vietnam called off scheduled elections that would decide the future of the country. Intrigue and coups followed. President Eisenhower’s advisors convinced him to send American troops to South Vietnam to help fight Communist rebels who had remained in the South under the name of Viet Cong. As we know, American fighting forces eventually numbered 500,000. At this point they were no longer helpers. They were doing most of the fighting.
Because of the massive American presence and the fierce opposition that South Vietnamese leaders had to any form of compromise, Ho was once again forced to seek help from Russia and China. Weapons and money in any amount needed were provided. Tens of thousands of American boys and close to a million Vietnamese were killed. Once the Tet offensive (more on this later) proved to the American public that these stubborn Vietnamese Communists were not about to give up, American military commitment decreased and eventually disappeared.
South Vietnam’s corrupt and divisive leaders were unable to defend their country. Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The day before, the last two American servicemen to die in Vietnam were killed during a bombardment of the Saigon airport.
Ho did not get to see his country united. He died in 1969 from complications of diabetes.
Although official Vietnamese records will dispute this, it is very likely that Ho was once married to a Chinese woman. He left no children. A Vietnamese personality cult has developed. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh city. Ho’s face graces all Vietnamese currency. Contrary to his wishes, his body was preserved and is kept in a Hanoi mausoleum. Children are asked to read his poetry.
My take on what kind of man he was: deeply flawed as all of us. Although he tried many times to reach his goal of freedom through negotiation and commerce, he did not hesitate to use violence to obtain independence and power. He suffered through imprisonment, persecution, hunger, and disease and never hesitated. Even when he was given a large home in Hanoi to live out his days, he preferred to sleep in a simple house on stilts located in the back yard. He was a brilliant and determined man.
Unfortunately, too many Western politicians failed to take him seriously.
May we never forget that lesson.