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Diplomacy and Conflict • Guerrilla Warfare

Ho Chi Minh was the leading Vietnamese revolutionary and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) from 1945 until his death in 1969.

Early Years

Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in Nghe An Province on May 19, 1890, Ho was the son a mandarin and itinerant teacher. He received his formal education in Hue at the Quoc Hoc school and then taught school in a number of southern Vietnamese towns. In 1911 Ho, now called Van Ba, hired on to a French ship as a galley helper and traveled to France and the United States. While in the United States during 1912–1913, Ho supposedly was interested in the American concepts of political rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. During his years abroad he held a variety of jobs before settling on more permanent work in London as a dishwasher and an assistant pastry chef.

Nationalist Politics

When World War I erupted Ho moved from London to Paris, joining many Vietnamese nationals and changing his name to Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot). In France he accepted Marxist Leninism because of its anticolonial stance and position on national liberation. Ho argued that the true path to liberation for Vietnam rested in the writings of Lenin, and as a result Ho joined the French Socialist Party and founded the Association of Vietnamese Patriots. In 1920 after the Paris Peace Conference failed to address Indochinese independence, he helped found the French Communist Party, claiming that anticolonial nationalism and class revolution were inseparable.

In 1923 Ho traveled to Moscow to attend the Fourth and Fifth Comintern congresses and to receive formal theoretical and revolutionary training. In late 1924 Ho traveled to China, where he visited one of the most important Vietnamese nationalists of the modern period, Phan Boi Chau. Ho stayed in Canton for two years, organizing what would become the first Vietnamese Communist Party and writing his highly influential Duong Cach Mang (Revolutionary Path). In 1925 he founded the Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Dong Chi Hoi (Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League), commonly known as the Thanh Nien.

Ho's efforts within the Thanh Nien led to the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1929, and Ho spent much of 1930 recruiting skilled organizers and strategists. He also managed to carry out a fusion of three Communist parties that had emerged in Vietnam. Ho attracted the attention of the British police in Hong Kong, and in June 1931 they arrested him. After release from a British prison, Ho returned to Moscow for more revolutionary training at Lenin University.

By the early 1940s Nguyen Ai Quoc had changed his name to Ho Chi Minh (Ho the Bringer of Light or Ho the Enlightened One). With the Japanese invasion of Vietnam during World War II, he moved his revolutionary group to the caves of Pac Bo in the northernmost reaches of Vietnam. In Pac Bo at the Eighth Plenum of the Indochinese Communist Party in May 1941, Ho supervised the organization of the Viet Minh, a nationalist and Communist front organization created to mobilize the citizenry to meet party objectives.

During World War II the Viet Minh entered into an alliance with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), providing the allies with tactical and logistical support and helping to rescue downed American pilots. Some scholars have suggested that Ho's revolutionary army even received financial and military support from the OSS.

Indochina War

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Viet Minh seized power in Hanoi during the August Revolution. On September 2, 1945, with several Americans present, Ho declared Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule and announced the formation of the DRV. On March 2, 1946, he became president of the newly formed North Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, France and North Vietnam soon clashed, and a nine-year war began. Most of the Soviet-bloc countries had quickly recognized the North Vietnamese government, and it was therefore easy for the French to cast their colonial reconquest of Vietnam in Cold War terms. After years of bloody stalemate, in 1954 the French suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu and accepted the subsequent 1954 Geneva Accords that recognized the supremacy of Ho's Communists north of the 17th Parallel. The Geneva Accords called for nationwide elections in 1956 to reunify the country, but these elections never took place. Instead, the United States and southern Vietnamese nationals tried to build a non-Communist counterrevolutionary alternative south of the 17th Parallel.

The end result was the creation of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam), with Ngo Dinh Diem as its president. Diem quickly went on the offensive, rounding up thousands of suspected Communists and sending them to prison. He vowed to reunify the country and called the South Vietnamese government a historical aberration because "Vietnam is one country, and we are one people with four thousand years of history."

Vietnam War

In 1960 after six years of trying to unify the country through political means, the Lao Dong, a national united Communist party under Ho's leadership, approved the use of armed violence to overthrow Diem and liberate Vietnam south of the 17th Parallel. In December 1960 the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front [NLF]) was established to unite former Viet Minh activists with elements of southern society who opposed the U.S.-backed Diem regime. Policy makers in Washington claimed that Ho himself had presided over the birth of the NLF and that the insurgency was an invasion by North Vietnam against South Vietnam. This provided the rationale for U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In March 1965 the United States intervened militarily in Vietnam, presenting Ho with the most difficult challenge of his life. He remained steadfast in his determination to see Vietnam reunified and refused to discuss any settlement with the United States that did not recognize this objective. In addition, Ho demanded that any settlement of the war must recognize the political and military supremacy of the NLF in South Vietnam. Because the second of these two goals was not compatible with Washington's rationale for fighting the war, Ho was clearly outlining the parameters of a struggle with no clear or easy solution.

Ho was a skillful leader who knew how to adapt revolutionary strategy to meet changing conditions. In 1965 he supervised the transition from total battlefield victory to victory through a protracted war strategy. He believed from his experience with the French that Westerners had little patience for a long and indecisive conflict. From late 1965 until his death in 1969, Ho supervised the protracted war strategy that offered neither side a quick or decisive victory.

As the war dragged on, Ho used his considerable leadership gifts to mobilize the Vietnamese population. As preparations for the 1968 general offensive and uprising, known in the West as the Tet Offensive, were being made, Ho threw his enormous prestige behind the effort. He made his first public appearance in many months just weeks before the offensive to ensure universal support. Many scholars also credit Ho with ending several bitter inner-party disputes throughout the arduous conflict with the United States.

Ho proved to be an able diplomat in the international arena as well. Beginning in 1956 the Soviets and the Chinese began a period of intense rivalry caused in part by Moscow's strategy of peaceful coexistence with the West and Beijing's adamant support of wars of national liberation. For years Ho skillfully managed to avoid taking sides in the Sino-Soviet dispute and had successfully played one against the other to secure increased aid. Eventually the Lao Dong Party moved closer to Moscow, and Ho accepted the Soviet-supported strategy of fighting while negotiating. During the last year of his life, Ho worked closely with the Vietnamese negotiators in Paris, outlining the nuanced differences in the Lao Dong Party's strategy.

Death and Legacy

Despite his indefatigable drive for Vietnamese liberation, Ho never lived to see his country reunified. He died on September 2, 1969, of a heart attack on the anniversary of his independence speech. Throughout the war, the Lao Dong Party cultivated the image of Ho as the protector of the Vietnamese people, and the label "Uncle Ho" was exploited to its fullest potential. Today, Ho's remains are enshrined in central Hanoi in a public mausoleum that attracts throngs of visitors each year.

"Vietnam history." "Uncle Ho"

Further Reading

Bùi, Tín. Following Ho Chi Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995; Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2000; Halberstam, David. Ho. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987; Lacouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. Translated by Peter Wiles. Translation edited by Jane Clark. New York: Vintage, 1968; Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Sainteny, Jean. Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnam: A Personal Memoir. Translated by Herman Briffault. Chicago: Cowles, 1972.

MLA Citation

Rosenberg, Charles. "Ho Chi Minh." World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-CLIO, 2019, worldatwar.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/757534. Accessed 21 Apr. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2180538

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