Ho Chi Minh-Symbol of World Revolution
On September 4 the death of Ho Chi Minh, President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was announced in Hanoi. Cu Bac (the revered Uncle) Ho was one of the elder statesmen of the twentieth century, a man who contributed significantly to the course of modern history and, by his actions more than his words, to the development of revolutionary socialist ideology. As a patriot (one of his many aliases was Nguyen Ai Quoc, meaning Nguyen the Patriot) he was greatly loved by the Vietnamese people to whom he became, by virtue of his rcmarkable combination of restraint and persistence, a continual source of inspiration. To the feuding theorists of the Communist world, Ho was an egnimatic figure who steadfastly refused to throw in his lot with either Peking or Moscow and who was consequently able to hold on to the support of each.
Since the Geneva Conference of 1954 Ho Chi Minh's relationship with the Western world had become less and less direct. To most Westerners he was a sort of backstage figure, an old man whose indefatigable energy was largely responsible for perpetuating the interminable war in Vietnam. To others, including Third World revolutionaries and, more recently, radical students in Europe and the United States, he was a symbolic figure who represented an external version of their struggle against a political and social order which, from within, they could do little to change.
The real significance of Ho Chi Minh lay in the fact that he was everything that people thought of him. He was first and foremost a patriot, a man totally dedicated to the Vietnamese people, and this was the basis of his thought and his actions. At an early age he became convinced that revolutionary socialism was the only ideology genuinely sympathetic to people oppressed by colonialism and imperialism. In an age bedevilled with ideological splits and splinterings, Ho adopted a flexibility which allowed him co-ordinate the energies of divergent groups. Essentially he was a believer in the patriotic revolution before the social revolution and so found himself in some considerable agreement with both Stalin and Mao, while his political experience in many countries made him sympathetic enough to the internationalist movement to feel no ideological qualms about enlisting the support of even the Trotskyists.
It is appropriate that Ho should have become, despite his nationalism, an international symbol. He was a widely travelled man, versed in many languages and familiar with many different cultures. Everywhere he went he seemed to gravitate towards the underprivileged, whether they were minority groups or deprived masses.It is strangely coincidental that he was very deeply moved by the conditions of the American negroes with whom he once lived, sharing the shame they felt at being coloured.It was their con dition combined with the American involvement in Vietnam which brought about the first major questioning of Western, anti-communist mythology since the bcginning of the Cold War. Ho's wide experience of humanity prcvented him developing the kind of racialist outlook that characterises so many ardent nationalists. His political and social philosophy confirmed what experience taught him, namely that the patriotic struggle was aimed at a system which oppressed the masses in the home countries as well as those in the colonies. He also came to understand that the whole military-industrial machinery which perpetuates colonialism and imperialism can become quite divorced from the people and governments of the home countries. "The trouble is," he told an interviewer in 1965, "that Johnson is not in charge of the situation. It is the military men in the Pentagon who are now dictating American policy."
NGUYEN VAN THAN, or NguyenWho-Will-Be-Victorious, later to be known as Ho Chi Minh, was born on May 19, 1890, into a poor peasant family in north-central Vietnam. His father, a self-cducated ardent nationalist, was dismissed from a post in the imperial administration for his refusal to learn French and for his involvement in rebellious secret societies. The Nguyen clan are everywhere in Vietnam and, unlike other great families, have never lost contact with the peasants and rural workers who constitute four-fifths of the people of Vietnam.
The total population of Vietnam is about 31 millions, of whom 16! millions live north of the 16th parallel and 14! million south of the parallel. Of these, 26 million are ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese (the French called them Annamesc) speaking a common language with the usual dialectic variations. The other 5 million are made up of the aboriginal" Montagnards" of the Central HigWands, clans and settlers, some of them highly cultured, others forming a kind of slum or jungle proletariat.
In pre-Christian centuries the Vietnamese fought the Siamese Empire which extended into Tonkin, the northern province of Vietnam. Later they fought for centuries against the Chinese and enjoyed long periods of independence until Tonkin was incorporated into the Chinese Empire in 1406. By the mid-nineteenth century the" Emperor" of Annam, the Central province whose capital is at Hue, had established his rule over most of the country.
Then came the French, playing their part in the general drive of the Western imperialist powers to divide up Asia and Africa between them, under the usual prctext that peaceful traders and missionaries had been persecuted by the natives. They overran Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, converting what they called" Indo-China" into a series of colonies and protectorates. By 1892 Cochin-China (the French name for South Vietnam) was given the status of colony; Annam was made a protectorate, still under the rule of its own king or emperor; and Tonkin was made a protectorate directly administered by resident French governors.
By the year 1910, when Japan occupied Korea, the movement of revolt against capitalism and imperialism was beginning to spread from the West to the imperial possessions in Asia and Africa.That same year Nguyen Van Than finished his courses in a strongly nationalistic Lycee school in Hue. He saw sporadic revolts often rutWessly suppressed and resolved to devote his life to achieving the independence of Vietnam.
In January 1911, at the age of 21, the future leader took work in the kitchens of a French steamship and lcft Vietnam on a journey which was to bring him through the French empire in North Africa, France itself, England, North America, Russia, China, Siam (or Thailand) and Hong Kong. During his stays in these countries, Nguyen earned a meagre living by such work as shovelling snow or touching up photographs, devoted most of his energy to study and writing, learned the language of the people and became involved in the organisation of political parties and revolutionary cells.
Through his many activities, including lecturing and the distribution of leaflets, Nguyen tried to focus the attcntion of the French people on the atrocities that were being committed in Vietnam. He quickly became known to many Vietnamese workers in France who adopted him as their champion. In 1920 he joined the French Socialist Party believing in the need for great co-operation between militant socialists in the imperialist home countries and the patriotic peasants and intellectuals in the colonies.
From Socialism to Communism
The split between the social reformists who favoured the reconstitution of the Second International, and the Russians and their supporters in the rest of Europe, who decided to found a new revolutionary Third International, was inevitably reflected at the 1920 French Socialist Party Congress at Tours. To his own, as well as everyone else's surprise, Nguyen found himself making an impassioned speech in support of the revolutionary Third International.
As well as being a founder-member of the French Communist Party, he founded the Inter-Colonial Union, a body of nationalists from colonial territories, and edited their weekly publication. This was a polemical newsletter called Le Pan'a (The Outsider) through which he hoped to keep interest alive in the conditions of all the French colonies.As well as a playlet called the Bamboo Dragon, which he wrote to ridicule the Emperor Khai of Annam on a ceremonious visit to Marseilles, Nguyen wrote a pampWet about this time which he called Le Proces de la Colonisation Francais.
He attended the Comintern Congress at Moscow in 1922 and, except for two short visits to France, remained there until 1925, studying at the Toilers of the East University. He was active in the establishment of the South East Asian Department in the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. He subscribed to Pravda, wrote two pamphlets - China and Chinese Youth and The Blach Raceand showed the first signs of his lifelong determination to avoid doctrinal disputes in favour of action and empiricism.
Return to Far East
In the year 1925 he accompanied the Borodin mission to China, ostensibly working as a translator in the Soviet consulate at Canton. There he formed the Revolutionary Youth League which brought young Vietnamese nationalists to Whampoa Military Academy for training under Soviet instruction. This league, more commonly known as Thanh Nien, provided the basis for the organisation of revolutionary cells throughout South East Asia. While Nguyen Van Thanh Icctured on Marxism and made contact with the Chinese Communist Party, Pham Van Dong undertook the dangerous job of initiating cells in Vietnam. After the split between Chiang Kaishek and the Chinese Communists in 1927 Nguyen returned to Moscow. In 1928 he turned up in Thailand and travelled among Vietnamese exiles organising political groups and publishing newspapers that were smuggled over the border into Vietnam. By 1928 the working-class population of Vietnam had increased enormously due to French development of mining, cotton and weaving mills, and rubber plantations. In that year serious strikes took place in most of the major cities, including Saigon, Haiphong and Hanoi. As a result of these developments, Thanh Nien cells argued as to whether or not the time had come for the establishment of a Communist Party.
The Indo-Chinese Communist Party Nguyen Van Thanh's position at this time is difficult to assess. However, it is doubtful that he was in favour of Phan Van Dong, Premier of the Republic of North Vietnam. both groups with a programme acceptable to each and instructed them to join the third splinter group and take it over.
The party, whose name Nguyen had changed from the Vietnamese Communist Party to the more international sounding Indo-Chinese Communist Party, transferred its headquarters from Hong Kong to Haiphong and later to Saigon. In a ten-point manifesto issued by the Central Committee, Nguyen clarified the major priorityfreedom from colonialism before social revolution.
A futile and ill-planned nationalist uprising took place in Annam in 1930 and brought about brutal reaction on the part of the French authorities. Despite Nguyen's warnings, another rebellion was staged later that year in northern Annam in which Soviets, knicknamed " Xo- Viets" to give them a nationalist ring, were established. They were also suppressed, and Pham Van Dong and Ton Duc Thang (now Ho's successor as President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam), were both imprisoned. Ho was now on the black list of Siirete, the French secret police, and was sentenced to death in absentia.
He was arrested by the British authorities and charged with being a Soviet agent seeking to overthrow the Hong Kong government. A sentence of expulsion was repealed by the House of Lords and Ho then went to Singapore. Here, however, he was arrested, sent back to Hong Kong and once more imprisoned. The French failed to have him extradited and his British lawyer, convinced that the British and French police were acting in collusion and that his client's life was in danger, smuggled him out of prison and away to a Chinese friend's villa, where he stayed as a mandarin for a short while.
After spending some time working among Vietnamese exiles in Shanghai, Ho went to Moscow for the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935 which came out strongly in favour of the line proposed by Ho and Dimitrov: namely the creation of broad popular fronts in the struggles against colonialism and imperialism. These could involve any Democratic Nationalist groups which, in the case of Vietnam, included even French residents. At this Congress the ICP (Indo-Chinese Communist Party) was formally recognised.
From 1934 to 1938 Ho studied in Russia, lecturing (sometimes in verse to facilitate memorisation) in the Lenin Institute under the name of Livov. He subscribed many articles to indigenous Vietnamese publications under the psuedonym Line, carefully avoiding ideological disputes. During this time he suffered greatly from tuberculosis.
In 1936, Leon Blum's Communist backed Popular Front government in France announced an amnesty in Vietnam and many of Ho's colleagues were released from prison. The ICP was now allowed operate legally on Indo-Chinese soil. This alliance between the Popular Front and the Communists lasted in France and in Indo-China till 1938.
Meanwhile Japan from her base in Korea had invaded Manchuria and was starting on her Great Asian War which was to last 14 years. Neither the League of Nations nor the Western Powcrs did anything to stop her till she bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941. With no opposition other than the Chinese she swept right through eastern China to South East Asia which she overran with the cooperation of Thailand, the French readily accepting her demands.
In 1938 Ho had gone to China where the Japanese threat had reconciled Chiang and the Communists. In Mao's Yemen he found himself instructing Chiang Kai-shek's troops in guerrilla tactics. In South China in 1940 Ho rejoined his colleague Pham Van Dong, and was introduced to a young man who had been searching everywhere for the leader, carrying a photograph with which he hoped to identifyhim.Hisname was Vo Nguyen Giap.
After sporadic Vietnamese uprisings in 1940 and 1941 Ho slipped back into Vietnam and set up headquarters in a cave at Pac Bo, near the Chincse border. Here in May 1941 the eighth plenum of the Central .Committee of the IndoChinese Communist Party was held and a broad popular front known as the Viet Minh was established, involving other left-wing and nationalist groups. Giap, who was appointed as organiscr of the military side of the Viet Minh, made a close study of the strategy of Mao Tse Tung. Later that year he was able to mobilise guerrilla propaganda units throughout Vietnam.
Ho saw the moment for revolt drawing near. The French were discredited for having sold out and the Japanese, who were fighting on many fronts, were over-extended. Using the name of Ho Chi Minh to convince Chiang's police that he was a Chinese journalist stationed in Vietnam and the name by which he is now generally referred to, he set off to gain the support of Chiang and Mao for the Viet Minh.His disguise and his forged papers did not help him as he quickly fell into the hands of Chiang's police and was thrown in prison.
He was extremely badly treated in prison and his health deteriorated. The main things that kept him alive were his writing (most of his poetry was written during this time) and his companionship with the other prisoners. The latter helped to sustain his faith in humanity through conditions that were so bad that, onc night, a prisoner died in Ho's arms.
Release and war against Japs
Meanwhile Chiang himself promoted the formation of a nationalist front to offset the Viet Minh by creating a "government in exile."The Viet
Minh were to be excluded, but Ho's involvement was considered necessary, since he was the only figure with any support among the people of Vietnam. It was presumably on this basis that Ho secured his release after a year in " government" at a conference in Liuchow in March 1944.
Ho then returned to the cave at Pac Bo and succeeded in dissuading Giap from an insurrection. In March 1945, the Japanese staged a coup and completely overthrew French rule in Vietnam. Ho advocated a campaign against the Japanese based on stealth. The activities of the propaganda units were stepped up and the American OSS, who had negotiated Ho's release with Chiang, contacted the Viet Minh, who were now the only resistance to the Japs in Vietnam. Ho visited the Office of Strategic Services in Kunming and arrangements were made for the dclivery of arms to the resistance fighters.
To offset De Gaulle's expressed intention of recolonisation of IndoChina, Ho sent a manifcsto of the Viet Minh's aims to Gcneral Saintcny, who was later to become France's main negotiator with Ho Chi Minh. The French Popular Front government, however, announced a plan in 1945 to keep Vietnam divided. On August 5 of that year Hiroshima was bombed and ten days later Tokyo was asking for an armistice. The Viet Minh acted swiftly.
Democratic Republic of Vietnam
On August 16, 1945, two days after the Japanese surrender, Ho Chi Minh called upon the pcople to rise up and take power in the name of an independent Vietnam.They answered the call under the leadership of the Viet Minh in almost every city, town and village from the far North to the deep South.
Within seventeen days the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had been proclaimed with Ho Chi Minh as its president, the Emperor Bao Dai had abdicated, recognised the Republic and transferred his powers to the President, and Ho Chi Minh had broadcast a proclamation to the world inviting all the United Nations to recognise Vietnam as an independent state entitled to equal sovereignty with all other states in accordance with the San Francisco Charter.
On September 2, 1945, the day Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam an advance party of Ghurka troops was landed in Saigon. French forces also arrived in British ships and under the custody of a British general they entered Saigon shooting the Viet Minh out of the City Hall and other public buildings.
Japanese prisoners were released, rearmed and employed alongside the British troops to suppress the" disorders" which brokc out following the re-entry of the French later that month. The French general, Leclerc, swept ruthlessly through the cities and towns of the South, ousting the political representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Buddhist sects.
Meanwhile Sainteny had arrived in Hanoi and informed Giap of an arrangement whereby the French were to re-occupy the southern provinces while Chiang would take over Tonkin. Small forces of Chinese proccedcd to garrison the main towns of the north, including Hanoi, Haiphong and Hue. In the midst of all this turmoil, which was further aggravatcd by a fierce famine necessitating harsh measures on the part of the Viet Minh, Ho tried to negotiate with Sainteny.
Negotiation or War
The reinstating of the French was complicated by Chiang's presence and his tacit recognition of Ho Chi Minh. Therefore, the French High Commissioner in Saigon, Admiral d' Argenlieu, started negotiations with Chiang and made an agreement with the Chinese whereby French concessions in Chinese towns, such as Shanghai and Canton, would be abandoned in exchange for the sphere of influence in Northern Indo-China (including Toukin) which China had secured at the Cairo Summit in 1943.
Tortuous negotiations then began between Ho and Sainteny. The French were anxious to secure an Indo-Chinese Federation and establish a French Union or Commonwealth composcd of all the protectorates and colonies in Indo-China, but they wanted the status of Cochin-China to be decided on the basis of a local referendum. Ho Chi Minh, who saw the popularity of the Viet Minh increasing daily, wanted an independent and united Vietnam. As tension increased between the French and the Chinese forces, both of whom seemed out of the control of their respective governments, Ho tried to moderate between the varied components of the Viet Minh coalition.He saw the determination of the French to restore their lost prestige, and he saw that if war broke out between the French and the Chinese before some kind of an agreement was reached between France and the Viet Minh, the final settlement would be made over the heads of his government.
Settlement and Swindle
Eventually, on March 6,1946, during a serious clash between French and Chinese forces in Haiphong, Ho Chi Minh and General Sainteny, on behalf of a new French popular-front government which had taken over after De Gaulle's resignation in January, signed an agreement whereby Vietnam was recognised as a free state within the French Union and the Indo-Chinese Federation, though the status of Cochin-China was to be decided by referendum. On this last point there would bc further" frank and friendly" discussions.
While he was on board a plane to Paris in June 1, 1946, to take part in these" frank and friendly" discussions, he learned by radio that the Republic of Cochin-China had been proclaimed in Saigon on Admiral D' Argenlieu's instructions, as " a free state having its own government, its own parliament, its own army and its own finances, forming part of the Indochinese Federation and the French Union." D'Argenlieu, who had taken advantage of the Chinese withdrawal to move his own troops northwards towards Hanoi and Haiphong and who had defied the policy of his government in refusing to readmit the political representatives of the Viet Minh to Saigon and other southern cities, had now set up a proFrench middle-class government in Saigon, thus hoping to sever CochinChina from the rest of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh spent three months in Fontainbleau trying to persuade the French government to honour its agreement. However, it was not the first or last time that imperial forces operating in Vietnam were out of the control of the home governmcnt and Ho achieved little more than platitudinous assurances.
The War with the French
Within days of Ho's return to Vietnam, French troops had occupied northern towns and on October 15, 1946, attempted to take over the Haiphong Customs Building. Ho's second war of liberation began.
Under American pressure the French agreed to concede independence within the French Union to the whole of Vietnam. Bao Dai was to be invited to return to Vietnam as Emperor of a new" National Union Front" government, revoking his abdication and denouncing his agreement with Ho
Chi Minh. Consequently on June 14, 1949, Bao Dai proclaimed himself Emperor, but added, to the alarm of both the French and the Americans, that he would offer the choice of a monarchy or a republic in a referendum. On October 1, 1949, the Chinese People's Republic was proclaimed in Peking and on January 19, 1950, Mao Tse Tung recognised thc Democratic Republic of Vietnam as an independent state. Within weeks the USSR and the other Communist countries had followed suit. John Foster Dulles of the US State Department retaliated with express support for" The State of Vietnam." This was a bizarre revival of the concept of state authority in the absence of de facto authority, which had not been in use, ironically enough, since the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. It had been dug up by the Americans to avoid having to recognise the new Chinese government. In Vietnam it took no account of the fact that the DRV was still, in spite of massive French and British interference, exercising political authority over threequarters of the territory and more than half of the population of Vietnam. The effect of this new concept of state authority on the US which was backing the defeated Chiang, moving the Seventh Fleet along the China coast and becoming freely involved in Korea, alarmed the French.Thcy
tried to ignore American advice, while accepting American aid. Finally they offered Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam independence within the French Union, establishing pro-French rule in Cambodia and in the parts of Laos not in the control of the left-wing Pathet Lao forces. They tried to persuade Bao Dai to abdicate his powers to a political regime in Saigon, but the Emperor once more proved stubborn.
On the military front the Frcnch had set in motion their Navarre plan. The strategy was to build up large bodies of troops and massive stocks of war material on the coastal areas and from these strongholds to launch enormous drives into the rural heartlands in which the Viet Minh had taken refuge.Simultaneously they were to scal off the frontier with China by moving in from northern Laos.
General Giap's strategy was to allow the enemy concentrate their forces in a junction of mountain roads between China, Laos and Vietnam, and there to surround them and seal them off from reinforcements. The name of the key junction was Dien Bien Phu. On May 8, 1954, while Viet Minh forces throughout the country kept the French pinned down in their bases, General de Castries surrendered to General Giap. By the opening of the Geneva Conference on IndoChina on May 4, 1954, the balance of military power throughout the north and centre and in the rural areas of the south was decisively in favour of Ho Chi Minh.
Throughout the eight years of the war with the French, Ho made repeated appeals to the French people. However, communications with the guerrilla leaders had to come through the High Commissioner in Vietnam, and d' Argenlieu frequently intercepted dispatches and even envoys from France to Ho Chi Minh.
Geneva and After
After the failure of Ho's negotiations with the French in 1946, it was surprising that he was able to hold on to the leadership of the party and the support of the people. It was even more surprising that he had the power to bring the party once to the conference table at Geneva in 1954. The ICP, which he had dissolved in 1945, had been reconstituted in 1951 to replace the broad popular-front of the Viet Minh and was now called the Vietnamese Workers'Party. The name itself showed at least a concession to the hardliners, who had never been too sympathetic to either the Viet Minh's popular front policy or the compromising agreements with the French. Besides, the victory of Mao Tse Tung and the open support of Communist China created a strong pro-Chinese wing, the most significant of whom was Truong Chinh, the main theorist of the new Vietnamese Workers' Party. Nevertheless, Ho personified the struggle against both the Japanese and the French and his hand is clearly visible in the DRV's acceptance of the final settlement at Geneva in the person of Pham Van Dong. In every respect the settlement was unfavourable to the DRV. Western Intelligence sources were agreed in assessing that Ho Chi Minh's popularity would have won him a four-to-one majority in any free electoral contest with America's Ngo Dinh Diem. The proposed military boundary bore no relation to this popular support, as the 17th parallel, where it was to be set, was merely a geographic mid-point.
Nor did it bear any relation to the military advantage gained at Dien Bien Phu. The DRV would be compelled to withdraw 100,000 troops and guerrillas, most of whom were southerners, to the north, while the few Vietnamese supporting Diem of the French would have to make no withdrawal at all. On the question of nationwide elections to be held within two years, Ho had absolutely no guarantee that either Diem or the Americans would feel bound by an agreement on which they refused to vote. It seems that once more Hoover-estimated the amount of pressure he was capable of bringing to bear, this time on the Americans through the French and the other signatories of the agreement.
After the Geneva Conference Vietnam kept a vacillating friendship with both great communist powers, Russia and China. After 1960 with an increasingly large war on its hands, Russia, the greater military power, was dominant. But in the last year China has begun to recover from the Cultural Revolution and relations with and aid to North Vietnam have been extended.
Ho Chi Minh remained dominant in internal affairs.After the failure of Truong Chinh's agrarian collectivisation programme in 1956 Ho took over his duties and indicted him for serious and collective errors. In the following year the pro-Chinese faction attempted to seize power while Ho was in Eastern Europe. On his return this effort was crushed. Relations with China became wcaker with the failure of the Great Leap Forward in China in 1960.
In the early 1960s Ho campaigned strongly to stop an open breach between Russia and China. At this time he refused to acquiese in the Sovict witchhunt aimed at throwing the Albanian party out of the World Congress just as he refused to allow the same thing to happen in China eight years later.
Between 1962 and 1964 the proChinese group benefited from the worsening relations of the two powers and Ho's star grew dim. By 1965 he was fully returned to power. By this time a large scale war with the U.S. was in progress and good relations with both powers was logistically essential as was national unity in the face of enormous U.S. attacks. Ho's policy of national struggle overcame the clear need for class struggle. Vietnam only managed to pursue such a frighteningly debilitating war by forging a new national unity of the classes.
Ho's significance in this phase cannot be under-estimated. He symbolised, led and ideologised the national struggle. He led the propaganda of the war which was to persuade much western opinion that the war was national as well as communist. This had the effect of creating a crisis in the cold war mentality among the professional classes in the U.S.