The Ho Chi Minh saga

Print edition : April 28, 2001

Ho Chi Minh by William J. Duiker; Hyperion, New York; pages 695; $35.

'HALF Lenin, half Gandhi', this is how William J. Duiker describes Ho Chi Minh, father of the new Vietnam. Professor Duiker has written several books on Vietnam. He tries to solve the riddle of the mysterious personality of Ho Chi Minh in a lucidly written biography based on the research of some years. Duiker could lay his hands on substantial records and documents, but he cautions the readers that the bulk of the archival material is still to be opened in Vietnam, China, the United States and Russia.

Ho's father Nguyen Sinh Sac was a teacher. Sac was also studying for the civil service examinations. After some strenuous years, he passed the examinations but opted out to work as a teacher. He was steeped in the philosophy of Confucius, as he disliked the Emperor who was subservient to the French. Nevertheless after resisting it for a long time, he had to join the imperial service. By that time his wife had died and he had to take his children to Hue, the then imperial capital. Nguyen Thi Cung was Ho Chi Minh's "milk name". When he reached adolescence, he was assigned the name Nguyen Tat Thanh. When Thanh came to Saigon from his village he had some sort of a cultural shock. The city was colonial, with so many French buildings and institutions. There were so many French people and they dominated the political, social and cultural life. When in school he was a witness to a march by some peasants demanding reduction of taxes. He joined it. He was rusticated from the school for this.

Thanh had the desire to see the world, and especially France. He wanted to know who these people were and how they could rule Vietnam after coming from thousands of miles away. He took a job on a ship docked in the Saigon harbour. He had to work as an assistant to a cook from very early in the morning till dark. He had a smattering of French. Thanh stayed in Paris for some time. There he got acquainted with some Vietnamese. He was bold enough to send a letter to the President of the Republic, seeking his help to get him admission in a school. As he did not hear from the President, he joined a ship with which he was at sea for about two years. During these wanderings he visited several African countries and also India. Thanh was in New York and Boston doing odd jobs, and for a few months he was in London. He got a job in the kitchen of Carlton hotel where he took lessons from the chef.

Thanh was more interested in the labour movement. He used to join some demonstrations and meetings. From London he wrote letters under assumed names to his friends in Paris, about the political situation in Vietnam and also about the course of action to be taken. These letters fell into the hands of the French, but they could not catch Thanh. Thereafter, he developed this skill of eluding the police and assuming names to hide his identity. In fact, Thanh, according to Duiker, assumed at least 50 names. He changed countries and names and became fluent in French, English, Russian and Chinese.

Thanh was back in Paris in 1917. He was involved in Left politics. He struck friendship with Socialist leaders and started writing in leftist periodicals and newspapers. His theme was the freedom of the colonies, especially of Vietnam. As his views were very strong, he had differences with the socialist and communist leaders. There were several Vietnamese workers in Paris. Thanh decided to organise them. He and his colleagues founded a new Vietnamese political organisation called the Association of Annante Patriots. Thanh was then going about under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc. He came in contact with Boris Souvarine, a famous historian.

At the end of the First World War a peace conference was held at Versailles in which President Woodrow Wilson played a prominent part. Quoc sent him a petition on behalf of the people of Vietnam. This annoyed the French government. Quoc was dissatisfied with the outcome of the peace conference which did nothing for the independence of the colonise people.

At this time Quoc read Lenin's 'Theses' and realised that Lenin was the only leader who understood the colonial question. Lenin was quite forthright about the right of the colonial people to organise themselves and wrest independence. The effect of Lenin on Quoc was electric. Later he recounted: "There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled in me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds. Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is the path of our liberation." Lenin had pointed out that imperialism had prevented the emergence of progressive forces in Africa and Asia. Local bourgeoisie, unable to play its assigned progressive role in waging the capitalist revolution in their own country, could be a force to be relied upon. The middle class would require the help of other progressive forces. These two could be harnessed by the combined forces of the poor peasantry and workers. Lenin was, thus, calling the Communists from the West to join hands with the nationalists in Africa and Asia.

Quoc was thinking on the same lines, and in Lenin he found a master. He immediately applied for the individual membership of the Third International and was admitted. From then on, Quoc who was leaning towards the socialists, joined the Communist movement. He started writing articles in the Communist paper L' Humanitee, and also started editing a journal, La Paria. In January 1920, a conference of the French Socialists was held in Tours, where the three factions in the party fought with one another. Their main point of contention was about joining the Communist International. Quoc made two speeches. He blamed the party colleagues for neglecting the question of colonies. He also appealed for unity and for joining the Communist International. A section opposing such membership of the International walked out of the conference and the party. Afterwards he joined issue with some European socialists on whether communism could not be introduced in the backward countries of Asia and Africa. Quoc maintained that imperialism had prepared the ground in these countries through exploitation and by making the people miserable; and it was for the communists to sow the seeds and then reap the harvest.

The National Conference of the Communist Party of France was held in October 1922 in Paris. Quoc and some of his colleagues brought forward a resolution asking the international Communist movement to pay more attention to the people in the colonies. At the conference Quoc met Dimitri Manuilsky, a senior official of the Commintern, who was impressed by the former. In 1923 Manuilsky called Quoc to Moscow to assist him in preparing a report about the colonial question. After the work on the report was finished, it was found that Quoc was not sufficiently trained in Marxist theory. He was, therefore, asked to enlist himself in the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, started at the instance of Lenin. Later the university came to be known as the Stalin School. The school was run on strict military discipline. Students also received military training and were taught how to instigate strikes and so on.

In Moscow, Quoc came to know Bukharin and other leaders. He was asked to give lessons to the Vietnamese students there. This kept Quoc busy, but he was not satisfied. His goal was to organise the people of his motherland and bring about independence from French rule and also bring about a revolution. He therefore requested the leadership of the Communist International that he be sent to South China, from where he would operate and organise the Communist Party of Vietnam. Quoc had to wait for quite some time and then was permitted to proceed to South China.

The task of organising the party and training the party cadre was not easy. Duiker has given details of the activities of Quoc. He travelled a lot. For some time he was in Hong Kong, where the French were on his trail. Once he escaped from the British colony with the help of the local authorities. Quoc used to visit China very often, where he met Chinese leaders such as Zhou Enlai. China at that time was under various warlords. Sun Yat-Sen had formed a revolutionary regime in Canton. Commintern leadership decided to cooperate with Sun Yat-Sen. One need not go into the details of the relations of the Commintern with the Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists in the course of years. Meantime, Quoc visited the Soviet Union where the power struggle between Stalin and his colleagues was going on. His record also came under scrutiny. That he could escape the French police with the help of the British authorities in Hong Kong was a cause for him to be asked to appear before a special committee. He was, however, cleared of all suspicion.

The Communist Party, which was built up under the supervision of Quoc, had some groups holding different views. Some favoured an immediate insurrection. But Quoc explained the difficulties. He told them that the party was not fully prepared and was short of arms. Besides, the people were not ready to support such an insurrection. As such, it would be merely an adventurism. He was firmly of the opinion that in Vietnam, a broad organisation of patriotic people, especially of youths, should be built up. He wanted to build the Youth League on the twin pillars of nationalism and social revolution. He told even Manuilsky that the revolutionary activities in Vietnam were premature.

Another group wondered whether a Gandhian path should be emulated. Quoc did not approve of such a course. He said that Gandhi was for reform, and even if reform is accompanied by violence, some residue of the old order would remain. Gandhi was a reformer and not a revolutionary, while in Vietnam they were striving for a revolution. Gandhi also had the advantage of an organised political party, which was not the case with Vietnam. Quoc told his colleagues that they should not compare their country with India or Egypt. He said that those countries were like automobiles while Vietnam was like a chassis.

When the Second World War broke out and Japan invaded China as well as other Asian countries, Quoc's task became difficult. But in the end Japan was defeated and Quoc (who now assumed the name of Ho Chi Minh) and his colleagues thought that their hour had come. When the Japanese left or were taken prisoners, first the British and then the French arrived. Ho Chi Minh made overtures to the British, but was rebuffed. The French were bent on resurrecting their rule. The Vietnamese had by now procured sufficient arms, many of them given them by American soldiers. The French, who returned, were mostly in the South. In the North there was a famine. Ho Chi Minh appealed for an insurrection, to which the response was encouraging. He also asked Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate, which he did. Ho was declared President on September 2, 1946. At the inaugural ceremony, he quoted the first few lines of the American Declaration of Independence, and the Americans in the audience were pleasantly surprised. But Ho Chi Minh was not satisfied with the success in the North. He was convinced that with the French holding the South, his hold on power would be tenuous.

Ho's forces were fighting the French on various fronts. But the battle at the Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was decisive. The French suffered a heavy defeat. At the same time, the Chinese were making moves to settle the Korean question. They did not want these efforts to be hampered by the stepped up battles in Vietnam. The Russians were also keen to have some sort of understanding with the U.S. So a conference was held in Geneva and a settlement was arrived at. This settlement divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. This was not to the liking of the Vietnamese delegation. But Zhou Enlai impressed upon them that vacating the French was much more important. This was then agreed to. When this agreement came under attack by some of his colleagues, Ho Chi Minh took a realistic attitude. In a report to the Central Committee he wrote: "Some people, intoxicated with our repeated victories, want to fight on at all costs, to a finish; they see only the trees, not the whole forest; with their attention focussed on the withdrawal of the French, they fail to detect their schemes; they see the French but not the Americans; they are partial to the military action and make light of diplomacy. They are unaware that we are struggling in the international conferences as well as on the battlefields in order to attain our goal." He also told them that the struggle for peace was hard and complex. He was prepared to compromise but he kept his options open.

The Americans did not endorse the Geneva agreement. The Eisenhower government announced that it would do everything possible to keep South Vietnam out of the reach of the Communists. For some time Ho Chi Minh was banking on the U.S. to prevail upon the French to leave Vietnam. He was not unrealistic, as before the end of the World War President Roosevelt had made clear his intention not to assist the French to regain their empire. Unfortunately, Roosevelt died and his successor Truman changed the policy. The Americans were alarmed over the advance and expansion of Soviet power in Eastern Europe. They therefore adopted a policy of containment. The U.S. wanted to contain both the Soviet Union and China. It believed that if it did not put its feet firmly in South Vietnam, then the whole of South Asia would be run over by the Communists. As the Americans wanted the French to assist them in building a strong base in Western Europe, France pressured the U.S. to help it retain its imperial power in Vietnam. The U.S. therefore refused to read the signals sent to it by Ho Chi Minh.

It was Bao Dai who told the French that even if they came back they would not be able to rule because the resentment and anger among the people of Vietnam were intense. Ho Chi Minh, when confronted by the American military might, was confident of success because of his belief in the people's power and intense desire for independence. He said the American power was like that of an elephant. A tiger cannot make a frontal attack on the elephant. So it retreats and hides in a jungle, and at the opportune moment attacks the elephant from the rear, mounts on its head and breaks its skull. He wanted to assert that Vietnam would do the same. His prophecy came true. But he was not alive to see it. He died on September 2, 1969, a quarter century after Vietnam's declaration of independence.

The rest of the history of the Vietnam War is well known, and Duiker has not added to it. Americans were blinded by the Cold War politics and suffered a humiliating defeat. The wound might have healed, but the scars have remained. Why was it so? Barbara Tuchman, a historian, has pointed out a historical truth. She has said, "We all know, from unending repetition of Lord Acton's dictum that power corrupts. We are less aware that it breeds folly; that the power to command frequently causes failure to think; that the responsibility of power is to govern as reasonably as possible in the interest of the state and its citizens. A duty in that process is to keep well-informed, to heed information, to keep mind and judgment open and to resist the insidious spell of wooden-headedness."

Ho Chi Minh accepted the inevitable in Geneva and did not close his option of uniting the country. The North, over which he presided, faced tremendous odds. He had also to face the situation created by internal politics in both the Soviet Union and China. Some of his colleagues wanted to discard ties with the Soviet Union and be close to China. But Ho Chi Minh persuaded them to keep relations with both. He said that he could not forget the help given by the Soviet Union. The nationalist in him had not forgotten that China ruled his country for some centuries. He was both a dedicated communist and a nationalist. Nehru tried to impress upon the Americans that Ho Chi Minh was more a nationalist than a communist, who wanted to spread the revolution throughout the world. M.N. Roy described Ho Chi Minh's politics as nationalism painted red.

While ushering in a new order in Vietnam, numerous excesses were committed by his assistants. Extreme positions were taken with regard to the land and the economic reforms. It was Ho Chi Minh who advised moderation and caution. In a statement prepared before his death, he advised the same. He was keen about the social revolution. But he wanted the least bloodshed. He preferred conciliation as far as possible. There was a rare combination of a revolutionary and a nationalist in him. He was thus half Lenin and half Gandhi.

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