The Vietnam War era, much like every war era, had its “Osama Bin Laden”. WWII had Hitler, The War on Terror had Osama…and then Saddam for some reason. Vietnam had Ho Chi Minh. Although Ho Chi Minh was despised by the U.S., and he likewise despised the U.S. until the end of his days, it can still be argued that perhaps this man should have been nominated for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Not many people in history have accomplished so many of their intended goals with so much adversity. In this essay we will review Ho Chi Minh’s political career, and his opposition of the French who had been the colonial rulers of Vietnam for the past century. We will see why Ho Chi Minh became a Communist. Most importantly we will discuss why those that were closest to Ho Chi Minh proclaimed that “he was a Nationalist first and a Communist second”.
Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Tat Tanh in 1890. In Vietnam culture it is common to change ones name based on events occurring throughout ones life, and thus his name upon his death on September 2, 1969 was Ho Chi Minh (which when translated means “he who enlightens”). He was born to a Mandarin Class (essentially the bureaucrat class in Vietnam), and his father worked for the French government. His father, named Nguyen Sing Soc, was very much opposed to French Colonialism and in protest refused to let his children wear the Ao Dai (the traditional Vietnam Peasant “uniform”); they were required to wear only brown canvas instead.
In 1900 Nguyen lost his mother at an early age. His father who had been known to outwardly protest French Colonialism was dismissed from his job in the French government. It was around this time that Nguyen Tat Tanh and his family began to move around frequently, creating what was essentially safe houses for known Vietnam Independence Revolutionaries; this included revolutionary leaders such as Pham Boi Chou, and Pham Chu Trinh. Being exposed to such revolutionary ideas allowed Nguyen Tat Tanh to hear both sides of the argument on the Vietnamese condition. Pham Boi Chou believed that the Mandarin Class was the reason that the Vietnamese people were in such a terrible state; however Pham Chu Trinh believed that French exploitation was the reason behind the whoa. This continued throughout Nguyen Tat Tanhs childhood.
At the age of eighteen Tat Tanh worked as a teacher; he did this for one year in 1910 and left his job by 1911. It seems as though Nguyen Tat Tanh realized quickly that if he wanted to make any real changes for his country, he would not be able to do so in the classroom. By 1911 Tat Tanh began working in trade school as a printer; however he despised working for the French. Tanh found this work to be unfulfilling as well and by 1912 he was employed as a Cabin Boy on a French Vessel. Although Nguyen Tat Tanh was still working for the French, he at least felt as though he was not playing such a direct part in the French colonial machine. During this time Tat Tanh traveled the world (a luxury not afforded to many in those days, especially for the Vietnamese), most importantly he traveled to South Africa, New York City and the United Kingdom.Travel is the best teacher. During his time as a cabin boy Nguyen Tat Tanh saw much of the world and learned much more than he ever dreamed he could. While in South Africa Nguyen Tat Tanh discovered that Vietnam was not the only country being exploited by Western Europe. The Boars had been the victims of Germany for example, and of course England and other countries had their greedy hands in the cookie jar as well.
While in the U.S. Tat Tanh admired the country. This is what originally led Nguyen Tat Tanh to believe that Democracy and Capitalism could be the path for a united Vietnam. He was amazed at how fast everyone and everything seemed to move; he also noted that Americans seemed to be very impatient; a piece of information that would prove very useful in the future.
Nguyen Tat Tanh visited the United Kingdom in 1914 in his travels. During this time Tat Tanh became trapped in the country due to World War I until 1917. While in the U.K. Tat Tanh was able to hear the Imperial side of the story and their involvement in colonialism. Tat Tanh learned that the Imperial Government used propaganda to portray Vietnam in a negative light; using racism and cultural ignorance to portray the Vietnamese as incapable savages in need of the French and “The White Man’s Burden”. Tat Tanh also realized that the nation was shaky behind the curtains; it was not the glorious and perfect world that had been portrayed to the Vietnamese people. Very disillusioned he finally left the U.K. in 1917, now referring to himself as Nguyen Ai Quoc.
The French had involved themselves in the colonization of Vietnam in 1845, then from 1895 to 1955 (with a brief rule by Japan during WWII); however this was not the first time the Vietnamese had encountered the French. In the 1600’s (during the Western European Reformation Era) the original French missions of the Roman Catholic Religion were taught and spread throughout Vietnam. The French mission work also provided the Vietnamese with its own lexicon. Unfortunately not all of the French’s involvement with Vietnam was so helpful to the Vietnamese people.
It is no surprise that Ho Chi Minh opposed his colonial rulers. The French became very brutish people during the Vietnamese colonial period; however the methods of colonialism used by the French were nothing new. To paraphrase, one method of stealing land within the new colony was the use of “The Hut Tax”. Essentially the hut tax can be broken down into phases:
1. The colonizing government (The French) install new government facilities and various new industries “to improve the lives of the natives”.
2. The colonizing government insists that since these unasked for services are provided for the natives own well-being, they must pay a tax for the good or service. Even though the profits rendered from these new services are kept for the colonizing government, the locals are expected to earn money through what little work that they do for themselves outside of the exploitative work forced upon them “for their own good”.
3. Unfortunately the local community is very limited on the foreign currency to pay the mandatory tax, so ultimately the property of the Native is taken to “recover” the lost taxes.
While in Vietnam, the French used their newly acquired land to force the locals to grow Rubber plants. While this was a lucrative resource to sell on the global market, the Vietnamese reaped none of the reward for the hard work. To make matters worse, Rubber plants leach minerals from the soil. This caused increased difficulty in growing already much needed food throughout the country. Worst of all, in the event of low rice yields, the Vietnamese were the ones to pay the price. This led to famine and the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese people. Unfortunately for the people of Vietnam there seemed to be no sign of change in the near future.
By 1919, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Now commanding the French Communist Party, consisting of over 140 thousand ex-Vietnamese Rebels) had returned to France to participate in the “Peace of Paris Talks”, spearheaded by Woodrow Wilson. It was the hope of the U.S. president (a concept that would soon be referred to “Wilsonian Idealism”) that peace could be attained without there being a clear and definite nation at fault, or left to believe that they had been defeated (very Idealistic indeed). In Wilson’s 12 points of discussion at the talks he pushed for disarmament, self-determination for all, and other points that would eventually give way to “The League of Nations”. The Peace of Paris talks were to be a discussion of peace terms with the defeated Central Powers of WWI. It was the hope of Wilson that there could be “Peace without Victory”, meaning that he hoped the war could end without one or few nations having to “be the loser”. Wilson believed that losing would be too harmful to any nation and hoped to avoid it.
For the Peace talks Nguyen Ai Quoc, attempted to present an eight point resolution for the treatment of the Vietnamese people. These points were only asking for the basics of human dignity, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful assembly. Nguyen Ai Quoc even took the trouble to fashion his statements to look like those of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Unfortunately for Ai Quoc, he was dismissed and his points were never read on the floor of the peace talks. It was becoming apparent to Nguyen Ai Quoc that democracy and capitalism may not be the promising economic standard for Vietnam that he had originally hoped. This was the first of three times that the future leader of Vietnam would be burned for trusting the U.S.
Having abandoned notions of Capitalism for Socialism due to the letdown of the Peace of Paris Talks, Ho Chi Minh quickly began to understand that socialism was simply watered down communism and would also not work to bring about a united Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh abandoned Socialism shortly thereafter for Communism, after reading “The Thesis on National & Colonial Questions” by Lenin. It would prove to be the economic standard and ally needed to finally unite Vietnam under the rule of Vietnam.
By as quickly as 1921 Nguyen Ai Quoc began working as a Soviet agent. He was highly prized for the Asian Communist movement by notable soviets Lenin and Trotsky. During his time as a Soviet agent he worked closely on the border of China and Vietnam, smuggling communist agents through the border. By 1940 Nguyen Ai Quoc would be known as Ho Chi Minh for the rest of his life…”He who enlightens”.
WWII brought devastation throughout the world. France had become so devastated that they could no longer maintain positive control over their Vietnamese colony. Japan seeing this as a golden opportunity to absorb some additional resources and to enforce their policy of “Asia for the Asians” decided to fill the void in Vietnam that France had left behind. Ho Chi Minh, leader of the newly founded “Vietminh” decided to work with that Japanese rather than fight to push them out. Fortunately for Ho Chi Minh, Japan would not be able to hold their new colony for very long. The day that Japan surrendered unconditionally to the U.S., Ho Chi Minh announced Vietnamese independence in a speech that almost mirrored our own Declaration of Independence. Ho Chi Minh and the rest of Vietnam assumed that there was no one left to fight, they would soon discover that there struggle was not over yet.
Unfortunately France, along with the rest of Western Europe felt that it was important to rebuild France in an effort to help defend against the rising economic power of the Soviet Union, to this end the United States promised to help France as much as possible, to include betraying the people of Vietnam and helping France to recolonize. Vietnam had only recently removed the Japanese oppressors and now they must fight a war all over again to push out the French. To make matters worse Great Britain had begun to rearm Japanese soldiers in an attempt to subdue the Vietnamese fighters.
By 1946 Ho Chi Minh was returning to France to discuss the Franco-Vietminh Accord on behalf of the Vietminh army he now commanded. The provisions of the accord were already biased toward the French; however Minh was ready to play ball. Some of the provisions of the accord called for French Sovereignty, the recognition of the North Vietminh as a Free State, with national elections “coming soon”; however while Minh was away in France, the French attempted to install Georges d’Argenlieu as the Vietnamese leader. This afforded the French the ability to renig on their promise of elections. This was strike two as far as Ho Chi Minh saw it.
Ho Chi Minh, forced to fight for his own country yet again continued his attacks against the French rule. The country of Vietnam had been torn apart, at the 17th parallel to be specific. To the north the Vietminh were the dominant ruling party whereas in the south a puppet government installed by the U.S. called “The State of Vietnam” ruled. By 1954 Ho Chi Minh found himself in talks again this time in Geneva with the nations of U.S., the U.S.S.R, China, Great Britain, France, The State of Vietnam and His Vietminh. The Geneva Accord was to be the peace talks to end the Violence in Vietnam. As part of the accord, Vietnam would remain divided at the 17th parallel with one year of free movement between the North and South. Afterward elections were to be held in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh made sure to get a solid date for the elections this time), of course the U.S. called off these elections as well. Strike three.
As we can see the rise of Vietnam’s independence has been hard won. Due to misunderstandings, racism, and propaganda many people remained uninformed and died because of it. Had the world done the right thing and granted Vietnam the basic rights they deserved none of this would have happened. People and soldiers wouldn’t have had to die. The story of Ho Chi Minh shows us that the U.S. (at least at the government level), has no concern with the spread of democracy, it cares for nothing more than its own selfish ends; however to be fair the U.S. seems to be in good company. America is only a player in this game of colonization yet like McDonalds and fast food, it gets all of the blame. This isn’t a justification, it is only proof of the statement “heavy is the head that wears the crown”.