The Life and Ideas of Ho Chi Minh – Part 1: The Life of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was one of the most influential Marxists of the 20th Century. He led the Vietnamese people through the anti-Japanese struggle, the struggle against French colonialism, and the fight against American imperialism. His example as a brave, humble, and caring leader of his people has resonated throughout the world. From the street activists in the USA to the guerrillas fighting in the Philippines; many see Ho Chi Minh as an inspiration and example to emulate. This is not the picture often painted in the West, who have demonized and painted Ho Chi Minh as a monster comparable to the worst of human history. This is not right and is a disgrace to the memory of Ho Chi Minh and those who fought with him for the freedom and independence of the Vietnamese people. It is our goal to explore Ho Chi Minh’s life, ideas, and legacy. We will provide a view contrary to what many see in the West. Doing this paints a clearer picture of him and his ideas, allowing people to see a different facet than the one that is usually presented.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Tat Thanh (or Nguyen Sinh Cung) on the 19th of May, 1890 in the village of Kim Lien in the Nghe An Province of Vietnam. When Ho was born, Vietnam was under the colonial rule of the French. The young Ho Chi Minh was exposed to much in the way of resistance by his father, Nguyen Sinh Sac. Sac was a Confucian scholar and a magistrate in the small village of Binh Khe (modern-day Qui Nhon). He was demoted at some point for an abuse of power relating to the punishment of a local influential figure. Despite being a Confucian and former imperial magistrate, Sac would not enter the imperial bureaucracy under the French protectorate. This is because he refused to serve French colonialism. Rebellion against French rule was common in the province Ho grew up in which contributed to his political development. Ho Chi Minh would receive a French education at a lycée (secondary school) in the city of Hue. After attending school in Hue for a few years, Ho would travel around Vietnam looking for work and opportunities. He took a position at Duc Thanh school in the city of Phan Thiet for six months. After this, he made his way to Saigon. From Saigon, Ho would begin to work on a French steamship known as the Amirale de Latouche-Tréville. This steamship would take Ho to France. Ho would settle in Marseille to try and apply for the French Colonial Administrative School in order to enter the French civil service. He would be rejected from the school and would leave France to travel the world by working on ships.

Ho Chi Minh’s travels would take him to many different countries between 1911 and 1917. In 1912, Ho travelled to the United States while working as a cook’s helper on a steamship. Between 1912 and 1913, Ho may have lived in the United States in the cities of New York and Boston. Ho later claimed to work at a series of jobs while residing in the United States. His time in America also influenced his political development. Ho read the works of Pan-Africanist thinker Marcus Garvey and was said to have attended the meetings of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which was a Pan-Africanist group founded in the early 1900s that is still around today. Besides his time in America, Ho also spent time in the United Kingdom working odd jobs as he had done in America. The details of his stay in the UK vary but, most agree that he lived there for some period of time. Around 1919, Ho Chi Minh moved back to France and became involved with the Socialist Party of France. When in Paris he joined a group of other Vietnamese nationalists. This group called on the Allied Powers to recognize the right of the Vietnamese to self-determination in the Versailles Treaty. They were ignored. During this time Ho had become involved in Bolshevism and began to give speeches on Lenin’s ideas applied to Asian conditions. He was also trying to convince many of the socialists in France to join the Third Communist International. In December of 1920, the French Section of the Socialist International held the Congress of Tours. Ho Chi Minh was selected as a representative for the Socialist Party of France. The Congress voted overwhelmingly to join the Third International and then created the French Communist Party. Ho would take a position on the Colonial Committee. During his time on the committee, Ho would try to draw attention to the plight of the people in French Indochina. This fell on deaf ears and was mostly unsuccessful. During his time in the PCF, his writings and speeches would be brought to the attention of Dimitry Manuilsky, a high-ranking Comintern member. Manuilsky would sponsor Ho to travel to the Soviet Union and learn more about Marxism.

While in the Soviet Union, Ho would study at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. Soon the Comintern would send Ho to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou), China to meet with Vietnamese exiles and Chinese communists. While in China, Ho organized education classes for revolutionary Vietnamese young people where he would give socialist lectures. This would sow the seeds for the strong Vietnamese communist movement several years later. Ho Chi Minh would be forced into exile again in 1927 following Chiang Kai-shek’s coup. While living in exile, Ho continued to work for the Comintern as an agent. In July of 1928, the Comintern sent him to Bangkok, Thailand as a senior agent. While there he would oversee Comintern activities in Bangkok and Thailand as a whole. Spending two years in and around Southeast Asia, Ho would continue to solidify the Vietnamese communist movement. This culminated in 1930 with the founding of the Communist Party of Vietnam in Hong Kong. Following this, in 1931, he was arrested by British colonial forces. He would be released in 1933. Throughout the rest of the 1930s, Ho would spend time in the Soviet Union studying and would finally end up back in China as an advisor to the Chinese Communists. In 1940, Ho would officially take on the name Ho Chi Minh, although he had been using it for some time. It was then that he would return to Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam and began leadership of the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam). The Viet Minh was a broad anti-imperialist liberation front against French colonialism. It would soon develop into a guerrilla army as the Japanese invaded in 1941. 10,000 guerrillas would provide the strength needed to beat back both the Japanese and the Vichy French fascists that took control of parts of Vietnam. During the Second World War, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh would work with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in their fight against the Japanese. In August of 1945, the Viet Minh would launch the August Revolution. Ho Chi Minh then headed a provisional government and declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to be independent. The government would force the abdication of the former emperor, Bao Dai, but many major powers would not recognize the new republic. During the period of state building following independence, the Viet Minh would clamp down hard on dissent coming from monarchists, French collaborators, and non-Viet Minh aligned socialists. The subsequent chaos following the declaration of independence would lead to clashes between the returning French and Allied forces. Saigon would be declared under martial law as riots broke out. The Viet Minh also declared a general strike in order to dissolve the economic machinery of French colonialism. In March 1946, Chiang Kai-shek and the Republic of China, which had been occupying Northern Vietnam, capitulated to the French. This capitulation meant that the French would receive their old areas in Shanghai and that Vietnam would be reincorporated into the French Union as the Indochinese Federation. To the Viet Minh and most Vietnamese, this was an insult to the independence they had been fighting for years to gain. Hence, when the French marched back into North Vietnam, the Viet Minh resisted. Ho Chi Minh would continue to operate the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North from the capital of Hanoi. There would be several attempts at peace before the Indochina War and they would all end in failure as Ho Chi Minh realized that the French had no desire to establish an independent Vietnam. On the 19th of December 1946; the Democratic Republic of Vietnam would declare war on the French Union.

For seven years, Ho Chi Minh would lead the Viet Minh against the French in the fight for independence. Through a combination of guerrilla war, diplomacy, and determination; the Vietnamese people would force the French into the 1954 Geneva Accords. These accords would set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North with the capital in Hanoi and a French (later American) puppet state in the South with the capital in Saigon. Negotiations on a unification referendum would collapse and the status quo of two Vietnams would remain. During this time, Ho Chi Minh and the people of North Vietnam took on the immense task of political and economic development. Agrarian reform was introduced. The former plantations of the French were redistributed to Vietnamese peasants. Collectivization was also done in order to allow for collective ownership of land. Industrial ability was boosted in the North, with many industrialization programs undertaken. These were not always very ambitious due to the conditions the government was under. As soon as the mid-1950s, the idea of overthrowing the status quo and reunifying Vietnam was already being proposed by some in the North Vietnamese government. In 1959, Ho Chi Minh began to push for increased aid to be sent to the Viet Cong (the liberation movement in the South). In March of 1959, North Vietnam would declare a people’s war against the South. In July of 1959, the Pathet Lao and DRV army would invade Laos in order to set up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This was a supply line in order to keep the Viet Cong well-equipped. During the 1960s the People’s Army of Vietnam would invade the South directly and through Laos and Cambodia. The Americans would enter the war in 1965 and the fighting escalated. Ho Chi Minh would remain a stalwart and popular leader throughout the war as the South Vietnamese government descended into corruption and mismanagement. The Americans would also commit many atrocities across Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh would be in Hanoi during his final years. Until his death, he would demand the unconditional withdrawal of foreign soldiers from Vietnam and unification of his country. In 1969 his health was failing due to a combination of medical problems. This prevented him from being as active in politics as he once was. Despite this, he still insisted that the soldiers keep fighting, even if he died. To Ho Chi Minh, there was no surrender. He never capitulated, never waned in his love for his country and his people. He never went back on his devotion for the workers of the world and their movement. He was also more than this. Ho Chi Minh was a writer, poet, and journalist. He was a polyglot, being able to speak French, English, Russian, Cantonese, and Mandarin alongside his native Vietnamese. According to his secretary, he enjoyed reading and gardening. He also visited the schools and homes of the Vietnamese, never becoming divorced from them. Affectionately, his people called him Uncle Ho. Sadly, he would never live to see his nation and people united and free from colonialism. Ho Chi Minh would die on the morning of September 2nd, 1969 from heart failure at the age of 69. He would leave behind a legacy of greatness and inspiration for many around the world. Ho Chi Minh stands as an example to all those who yearn to be free that it is possible. In many ways, Ho Chi Minh is still here. His spirit lives on through his legacy and his ideas. His actions resonate still today with the people of the world. In the words of Vietnamese composer Huy Thuc:

Bác vẫn cùng chúng cháu hành quân” (“You are still marching with us, Uncle Ho”.)

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