During World War II, a group of Vietnamese men was traveling through southern China on their way to establish a base in the mountains of northern Indochina for operations against their country’s Japanese and French masters. One of their number was pretty coy about his identity, speaking only French and claiming to be Chinese; the name he gave them, Ho Che Ming, was certainly Chinese but sounded fake (it meant “he who enlightens”). At one point, one of the party got careless with a cigarette and Mr. Ho said “Your pants are on fire” in Vietnamese before he could check himself. So his cover was blown, but Ho Chi Minh (to use the Vietnamese transliteration), who until then was best known as Nguyen I Quoc (another of his many noms de guerre, “Nguyen the Patriot”), stuck with his latest pseudonym.
Later in the war, a downed American pilot was found by a rag-tag band of Vietnamese guerrilla fighters in those same northern mountains. They marched him off to a cave, where he was shocked to be greeted by their commander in fluent and friendly English. For Ho, in his twenties, had worked as a gardener in New York and a pastry sous-chef in London, as well as a photo-colorizer in Paris.
Ho used the rescue of the pilot to establish relations with American intelligence officers in China, offering to gather intelligence and keep an eye out for other pilots in return for material support. At first this consisted simply of a radio, but eventually the Americans sent Ho’s group, the Viet Minh, weapons and advisors to help train them in guerrilla tactics. The American officers were quite impressed with the Viet Minh and especially Old Man Ho (he was about 54 but had led a hard life), whom one described as “a sweet guy.” They were convinced that he was a freedom-fighter, not a tool of the Kremlin.
When the collapse of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere left a power vacuum, the Viet Minh were able to take over the northern half of the country in a nearly bloodless coup. Ho, aware of the late President Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views, hoped that the US would oppose the French in their inevitable attempt to reconquer Vietnam; in this context, it is not so surprising that he began his speech announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with a quote from the US Declaration of Independence.
Some of the Asian specialists at the State Department were sympathetic to Ho, but there was a strong desire not to antagonize the French (I’m not sure why) and the fear that the Viet Minh were mostly Communists (which was true) and that they were under Moscow’s thumb (which was not, at this point) outweighed all other considerations. Allied authorities allowed the French Army back into Vietnam, and the Viet Minh, which had endorsed fairly moderate policies, ultimately turned to Mao for help and, along with guns and trucks, imported the Chairman’s fondness for ideological persecution and brutal collectivization.
The obvious question is whether we missed a real opportunity here to pull Vietnam in a more humane direction, not to mention sparing the French their costly humiliation over the next eight years and of course saving ourselves the trouble of destroying the country in order to liberate it. Was Ho sincere when he said that his main goal was to free his country from its colonial enslavement, or was he just blowing smoke up our ass? It must be conceded that his claim not to be a Communist was a flat lie..I mean, he studied at something called the Stalin School, and got frostbite at Lenin’s funeral. Still, it might be claimed that Ho was drawn to Lenin simply because his was the only game in town for an anti-imperialist in the ‘20s, and that he would have been happy to embrace an alternative to Stalin.. It may be useful to know a little more about who Ho was.
Ho’s early education was heavily influenced by Confucian tradition; his father was a scholar of the Chinese classics upon which civil service examinations had been based for many centuries, achieved the degree of Pho Ban, which was such a big deal that his native village was thenceforth entitled to call itself a Civilized Place. The village rewarded the elder Mr. Nguyen with a house of three rooms, in one of which lived the water buffalo The future Ho (at this point called Nguyen Sinh Cung) also learned about Vietnam’s long struggle against imperial domination, beginning with the Chinese almost 2000 years before the French arrived.
Later the family moved to the capital, Hue, where Cung got to know the French. He attended the Lycee National, where he saw his fellow students beaten beneath a sign that read “Aimez la France, qui vous protégé” (Love France, which protects you). One day there was a peasant protest and Cung served as an interpreter so that the protesters could make themselves understood to their betters, who of course spoke no Vietnamese. The next day an official turned up at the Lycee and Cung was promptly expelled.
From then on, he was pretty much on the run. He taught school, worked on the docks, where he claimed to have seen Frenchmen laughing as they watched Vietnamese sailors drown, and eventually got a job as low-end kitchen help on a ship bound for France. Entering a café in Marseilles, he was addressed for the first time in his life as “Monsieur’—in general, he found the French in France vastly more humane than the French in Indochina.
In the West, Cung encountered Marxism, and was particularly drawn to Lenin, who (unlike many Marxists) devoted serious attention to colonialism and allowed for a broad-based democratic revolution before a later socialist one. Cung joined the French Communist Party and began to publish articles under various names, including Nguyen I Quoc; as that name implies he remained devoted above all to the liberation of his own country, a focus that encountered indifference from many of his FCP comrades and sometimes ran afoul of the Comintern party line, when it required internationalism, frowned upon attention to national identity, and emphasized ideological purity.
Cung/Quoc/Ho won over many people with his earnestness and simplicity (even after he became a star, he was not above sweeping the floor or doing laundry, and he gave his most famous speech wearing flip-flops), but he was also adept at telling his audience what they wanted to hear, and willing to play a long strategic game. For example, when he faced a choice between occupation by the KMT (Chinese nationalists) or the loathed French, he went with the French. To his alarmed comrades he explained, “The last time the Chinese came here, they stayed for a thousand years.” The French would be easier to get rid of, so they were to be preferred, no matter how much one hated them.Which is by way of saying that he was quite capable of bamboozling us Americans, using our support for a while, and then discarding us. All the same, if we had been able to make moderation look like a winning strategy for independence, I think Ho would have run with it, and more power would have gone to the moderates in the Viet Minh than to the Maoist fanatics. Given the tapestry of blunders, tragedies, and atrocities that unfolded, could we possibly have done any worse?
The stuff in this post is based on William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh, which I recommend except that the endless meetings and disputes between acronymic entities (FCP, ICP, CCP, VNQDD, DRV, DalBuro, FEB….) can waer you down. The meetings must have been the second-worst thing about being a Communist in the ‘30s, barely behind getting purged by Stalin.
For a reminder of the shocking stupidity and brutality of our own role in Vietnam, read Thomas Powers’ recent article in the New York Review of Books: