HO CHI MINH (1890-1969) AND THE FOUNDING OF THE COMMUNIST MOVEMENT IN VIETNAM

HO CHI MINH AND VIETNAM

The rise of Vietnamese Communism and the life of Ho Chi Minh are inextricably intertwined. Ho was one of the founding members of French Communist Party, established in Moscow in 1920. In 1925, he formed the short-lived Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth League) in Guangzhou (Canton). It was replaced by the Vietnamese Communist Party founded by Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong in 1930. Ho later said, "It was patriotism, not communism that inspired me."

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh established the League for the Independence of Vietnam (better known as the Viet Minh), a Communist-led nationalist guerilla movement, that later was perceived by Vietnamese as the legitimate guardians of their national identity.The Viet Minh was the only group that staged any armed resistance against the Japanese in Vietnam in World War II. They received support from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the C.I.A.) and controlled large portions of northern Vietnam by the spring of 1945.

The Viet Minh also carried out extensive political activities during World War II. Despite its nationalist programme, the Viet Minh was, from its inception, dominated by Ho’s communists. But Ho was pragmatic, patriotic and populist and understood the need for national unity.[Source: Lonely Planet]

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969)

"A gaunt, emaciated figure with a wispy goatee, who lived like a monk and dressed in threadbare bush jacket and rubber sandals,"Stanley Karnow wrote in Time Magazine’s piece on the 100 greatest people in the 20th century, "Ho Chi Minh, married nationalism to communism and perfected the deadly art of guerilla warfare...He was a seasoned revolutionary and passionate nationalist obsessed by a single goal: independence for his country."

The Vietnamese affectionately refer to Ho Chi Minh as "Bach Ho," or Uncle Ho. He is loved, worshiped as a god and perceived as an 'ascetic saint." Statues and pictures of him are everywhere. His birthday is celebrated with patriotic songs and dances and dramatizations of his life. Women pray to his statues to relieve the suffering of their children. His life is shrouded in myth and propaganda is sometimes difficult to ascertain fact from fiction. Even the date of his birth is not known for sure. Documents found in the archive in Moscow list six different dates of birth from 1890 to 1904.

Some see Ho Chi Minh as a great nationalist leader. Others see him as repressive dictator. One conservative historian labeled him "a minor clone of major Communist" who conducted purges, repressed opposition and set up re-education camps modeled after Soviet gulags. He was an enthusiastic proxy for the Soviet Union and is often blamed for starting the wars with France and the United States—but in truth in many instances he went out of way to avoid war. With Vietnam any form of criticism of Ho Chi Minh is generally taboo.

Ho Chi Minh died at the age 79 in Hanoi of a heart attack on September 2, 1969. In his will he said said, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland." His embalmed body remains on public display in an imposing granite Hanoi city center mausoleum.

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “Ho, one of the great minor men of the 20th century, fused Marxism, Confucianism, and nationalism into a weapon against the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, laying the groundwork for Vietnam’s successful resistances against three world empires. [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 <*>]

Popularity of Ho Chi Minh Today

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: "Today's Vietnam may be striding toward a capitalist future, but it still clings to the memory of a Communist leader born in a thatched, dirt-floor hut ringed by rice fields. Among communism's giants, Mao Zedong is played down in China, Stalin is reviled and Lenin has lost his luster in Russia, but the red star of Ho Chi Minh still shines brightly in Vietnam. His portrait — gaunt and goateed — hangs in millions of homes and offices, including those of foreign companies. Children and senior officials get big doses of "Uncle Ho's" teachings. But the influence Ho wields goes beyond that of the historical figure who led the Vietnamese to victory over France and then the United States — making possible the unification of North and South Vietnam six years after his death in 1969. "Ho Chi Minh's thoughts remain the main ideology, actions and policy of the Communist party and people of Vietnam," said Tran Khac Viet of the Ho Chi Minh National Political Academy, which schools the country's ruling elite. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, April 28, 2008]

Ticking off Vietnam's core directions, the political scientist argued each was embedded in Ho's thought. What about the country's embrace of free-market economics? "In his will, Ho Chi Minh said he wanted to see Vietnam a much more prosperous country," Viet said. Vietnam becoming a more open, democratic society in the future? "Uncle Ho said people were the masters and the government only a servant of the people. We are following his definition that the government is for the people, by the people, of the people," Viet said. The country's continuing communist political system, the rapid transformation of an agriculture-based economy into an industrialized one, an open door to foreign investment and the Internet also are justified by Ho's interpreted texts and myth.

Ho is decidedly less popular in the former South Vietnam, and it's doubtful that the younger generation in the north — especially the urbanized segment — spends a great deal of time meditating on Ho. But indications are that a 2000 survey of the postwar generation by Youth Magazine still holds true. In that poll, Ho was voted the person they most revered, followed by Vo Nguyen Giap. Ho is certainly more popular among the rising generation than communism itself, many foreign experts say. The young, still nationalistic, focus on Ho as father of the country, the man who sundered the foreign yoke.

The purges and other ruthless deeds of his regime are ignored, not known or unacknowledged. Treasured is the image of a humble, simple-living father figure. Having posters of pop star Britney Spears next to one of Uncle Ho, as they do in Hanoi, poses no contradiction. The sentiments of the older generation in the north, those who suffered through decades of conflict and deprivation while Ho led the country, are less equivocal. "Every Vietnamese loves him. I didn't know much about Ho when I was young, but when he called, I followed. Everybody did," said Do Van Viet, a 75-year-old veteran, paying his respects at Ho's birthplace. The medaled ex-colonel fought against the French and Americans and was wounded eight times. But his proudest moments, the old warrior said, were meeting Ho on four occasions.

Ho Chi Minh’s Early Life

Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in Kim Lien village, Nghe An Province in May 1890, Ho was the son of Nguyen Sinh Sac (or Huy), a scholar from a poor peasant family, and the youngest of three childre. Following a common custom, Ho's father renamed him Nhuyen That Thanh at about age ten. Ho was trained in the classical Confucian tradition and was sent to secondary school in Hue. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Time magazine, April 13, 1998, Library of Congress ><]

According to the official Vietnam Communist Party story Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19, 1890 in Hoang Tru, a rural village in Nghe An province central Vietnam. His father has held a position in the imperial court but quit to become an itinerant teacher, partly out of sympathy for peasants who suffered under French and imperial rule. In reality Ho’s father beat a peasant to death while drunk and fled in shame to southern Vietnam where he made a living as a herbal specialist. ><

The thatched cottage where President Ho Chi Minh used to live during his childhood is built from bamboo and wood. It has five rooms. The interior furniture is similar to that of other farmers' houses: a wooden bed, a bamboo chong (a bamboo bed without raised walls at the two ends), a hammock made from hemp, and an altar. It and the “Worship House” described below are tourist sights today.

The “Worship House” is a simple cottage built by Hoang Duong, Ho Chi Minh's maternal grandfather, in 1882 to make it a place for worshipping his paternal grand grandfather, grandfather, and father. The altar is decorated in a simple but solemn fashion. The pair of parallel sentences hung in the front of the house, which praise the family clan's fame. The house has five rooms and two lean-tos. Three outer rooms adjoin with the worship house; so it is well ventilated. Mr. Hoang Duong used to teach his students while sitting on the wooden bed placed in the first room. In the second room, there is a bamboo sofa and a table where he placed his pen-brushes and ink-slab. He and his students would take a rest on the bed put in the third room. The remaining two rooms were used as his wife's bedroom and the family's living room.

According to the Communist Party story Ho was involved in a series of tax revolts while still in his teens and moved to France in 1891 to pursue revolutionary interests. In reality he was so upset by what happened to his father that he left school to petition for his reinstatement to the court. Ultimately he was unsuccessful. ><

After working for a short time as a teacher, Ho Chi Minh went to Saigon where he took a course in navigation and in 1911 joined the crew of a French ship. Working as a kitchen hand, Ho traveled to North America, Africa, and Europe. Ho lived in London for a while and worked briefly as a cook in Harlem. Ho left Vietnam at age 21 and did not return for 30 years. He spoke English, French, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. ><

Ho Chi Minh’s Home and Village

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: Ho Chi Minh’s "birthplace in this central Vietnam village is probably the country's prime pilgrimage site. Each year, some 1.5 million people reverentially view the simple rustic dwellings where he was born and spent his boyhood. Visitors also flock to the museum where the likeness of this man who espoused an atheistic doctrine is enshrined over a Buddhist altar clouded by incense. Visitors swell during special times. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the Vietnam War's end, hundreds of veterans, their chests ablaze with red and gold medals, have been arriving from across the country. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Associated Press, April 28, 2008]

Village of Ho Chi Minh (about 15 kilometers form Vinh, which is 291 kilometers south of Hanoi) is called Sen Village. It also the native village of Ho Chi Minh's father. Starting from Vinh City, take Road No. 49 until the 13th kilometers marker, then turn into a red earth path lined with eucalyptus and casuarinas trees. The path will lead you to Sen, also known as Kim Lien (Golden Lotus), village where there are many lotus ponds.The thatched cottage where President Ho Chi Minh used to live during his childhood is built from bamboo and wood. It has five rooms. The interior furniture is similar to that of other farmers' houses: a wooden bed, a bamboo chong (a bamboo bed without raised walls at the two ends), a hammock made from hemp, and an altar. It was built in 1901 with the help and donations of the villagers as a present to Nguyen Sinh Sac, President Ho Chi Minh's father, when he gained the doctoral title at the court exam, which glorified his village.

Village of Ho Chi Minh’s Mother (two kilometers from Sen Village) is called Chua Village. This place where Ho Chi Minh was born and brought up by his mother. Walking through a bamboo gate and a path lined with low plums; visitors will see two simple thatched cottages, Ho Chi Minh's house. The Worship House is a simple cottage built by Hoang Duong, Ho Chi Minh's maternal grandfather, in 1882 to make it a place for worshiping his paternal grand grandfather, grandfather, and father. The altar is decorated in a simple but solemn fashion. Attractive to visitors is the pair of parallel sentences hung in the front of the house, which praise the family clan's fame. The house has five rooms and two lean-tos. Three outer rooms adjoin with the worship house; so it is well ventilated. Mr. Hoang Duong used to teach his students while sitting on the wooden bed placed in the first room. In the second room, there is a bamboo sofa and a table where he placed his pen-brushes and ink-slab. He and his students would take a rest on the bed put in the third room. The remaining two rooms were used as his wife's bedroom and the family's living room.

Ho Chi Minh's Family, Character and Interests

Ho said he never married and presented himself as a celibate, but in truth he had at least two wives and may have had affairs with other women. One of his wives was Chinese. The other was General Vo Nguyen Giap's sister-in-law, who was guillotined by the French. There are rumors of a third wife, a hill tribe servant, who is said to given birth to one of Vietnam’s recent rulers. [Source: Mostly Stanley Karnow, Time magazine, April 13, 1998 ///]

Ho was bowlegged and a chain smoker who favored American-made Camels and Lucky Strikes. He enjoyed dancing and listening to the music of the French singer Maurice Chevalier. A French said in 1953, "France undervalued...the power [Ho] wielded. There's no doubt that he aspired...to become the Gandhi of Indochina." Ho is said to have been very good to his friends. If one of them died he personally broke the news to their families and made the funeral arrangements himself. ///

Ho Chi Minh enjoyed writing poetry. One he dedicated to friend went: The mountain birds sing at my windows/ The spring flowers flutter down on my inkwell/ The panting horses bring news of victories/ And my thoughts go to you with this poem . He also wrote much of his own propaganda. In one brochure he wrote in the late 1940s he described himself both as a modest mandarin and a hero greater that the legendary Vietnamese hero Le Loi. ///

Ho Chi Minh in France

Ho Chi Minh arrived in Marseilles, France on the passenger ship on which worked as a galley boy. In France he worked as a photo retoucher, waiter, gardener, snow sweeper, and stoker. It was in France that Ho developed his interest in politics. In 1918, he became involved in French socialist politics. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Time magazine, April 13, 1998, Library of Congress ><]

While in Paris from 1919-23, Ho took the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot). In 1919, he rented a mourning suit and attempted to meet with United States President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference in order to present a proposal for Vietnam's independence and a petition entitled "The demands of the Vietnamese People.", but he was turned away and the proposal was never officially acknowledged. ><

During his stay in Paris, Ho was greatly influenced by Marxist-Leninist literature, particularly Lenin's Theses on the National and Colonial Questions (1920), and in 1920 he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. He read, wrote, and spoke widely on Indochina's problems before moving to Moscow in 1923 ><

Ho Chi Minh's Early Life as a Revolutionary

After becoming a Communist, Ho Chi Minh traveled the world under more than 50 aliases and a number of disguises (such as Chinese journalist and Buddhist monk). He spent time in Calcutta, Rangoon and Canton and suffered from tuberculosis and other diseases. He bred revolution in the shadows in Hong Kong , where he spent some time in prison. On several occasions he was reported dead. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Time magazine, April 13, 1998]

Ho moved to Moscow in 1923 and attended the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, also called the Comintern, in 1924. In late 1924, Ho arrived in Guangzhou, where he spent the next two years training more than 200 Vietnamese cadres in revolutionary techniques. His course of instruction included study of Marxism-Leninism, Vietnamese and Asian revolutionary history, Asian leaders such as Gandhi and Sun Yat- sen, and the problem of organizing the masses. As a training manual, Ho used his own publication Duong Cach Menh (The Revolutionary Path), written in 1926 and considered his primer on revolution. Going by the name Ly Thuy, he formed an inner communist group, Thanh Nien Cong San Doan (Communist Youth League), within the larger Thanh Nien (Youth) organization. The major activity of Thanh Nien was the production of a journal, Thanh Nien, distributed clandestinely in Vietnam, Siam, and Laos, which introduced communist theory into the Vietnamese independence movement. Following Chiang Kai-shek's April 1927 coup and the subsequent suppression of the Communists in southern China, Ho fled to Moscow. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the1930s, Ho was trained by the Communist International in Moscow. According to information found in a Moscow archive he was less than an ideal student. For failing to display the correct revolutionary spirt he was required to spend time in a re-education facility. He appeared to have redeemed himself. In 1950 he sat side by side with Stalin and Mao Zedong at a banquet in Moscow.

After spending nearly three decades abroad, Ho Chi Minh slipped across the Chinese border into Vietnam during World War II and urged his countrymen to fight both the Japanese and the French. In the mountains of Vietnam's he founded the Viet Minh and took the nom de guerre Ho Chi Minh (meaning "Bringer of Light'). See Viet Minh

Ho Chi Minh and the Founding of the Indochinese Communist Party

June 17, 1929, the founding conference of the first Indochinese Communist Party (ICP--Dang Cong San Dong Duong) was held in Hanoi under the leadership of a breakaway faction of Thanh Nien radicals (Thanh Nien was the pro-independence, revolutionary party founded by Ho Chi Minh in 1925). The party immediately began to publish several journals and to send out representatives to all parts of the country for the purpose of setting up branches. A series of strikes supported by the party broke out at this time, and their success led to the convening of the first National Congress of Red Trade Unions the following month in Hanoi. Other communist parties were founded at this time by both supporting members of Thanh Nien and radical members of yet another party revolutionary with Marxist leavings but no direct tie with the Comintern, called the New Revolutinary Party or Tan Viet Party. [Source: Library of Congress *]

At the beginning of 1930, there were actually three communist parties in French Indochina competing for members. The establishment of the ICP prompted remaining Thanh Nien members to transform the Communist Youth Leaque into a communist party - the Annam Communist Party (ACP, Annam Cong San Dang), and Tan Viet Party members followed suit by renaming their organization the Indochinese Communist League (Dong Duong Cong San Lien Doan). As a result, the Comintern issued a highly critical indictment of the factionalism in the Vietnamese revolutionary movement and urged the Vietnamese to form a united communist party. *

Consequently, the Comintern leadership sent a message to Ho Chi Minh, then living in Siam, asking him to come to Hong Kong to unify the groups. On February 3, 1930, in Hong Kong, Ho presided over a conference of representatives of the two factions derived from Thanh Nien (members of the Indochinese Communist League were not represented but were to be permitted membership in the newly formed party as individuals) at which a unified Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) was founded, the Viet Nam Cong San Dang. At the Comintern's request, the name was changed later that year at the first Party Plenum to the Indochinese Communist Party, thus reclaiming the name of the first party of that named founded in 1929. At the founding meeting, it was agreed that a provisional Central Committee of nine members (three from Bac Bo, two from Trung Bo, two from Nam Bo, and two from the overseas Chinese community) should be formed and that recognition should be sought from the Comintern. Various mass organizations including unions, a peasants' association, a women's association, a relief society, and a youth league were to be organized under the new party. *

Ho drew up a program of party objectives, which were approved by the conference. The main points included overthrow of the French; establishment of Vietnamese independence; establishment of a workers', peasants', and soldiers' government; organization of a workers' militia; cancellation of public debts; confiscation of means of production and their transfer to the proletarian government; distribution of French-owned lands to the peasants; suppression of taxes; establishment of an eight-hour work day; development of crafts and agriculture; institution of freedom of organization; and establishment of education for all. *

The formation of the ICP came at a time of general unrest in the country, caused in part by a global worsening of economic conditions. Although the size of the Vietnamese urban proletariat had increased four times, to about 200,000, since the beginning of the century, working conditions and salaries had improved little. The number of strikes rose from seven in 1927 to ninety- eight in 1930. As the effects of the worldwide depression began to be felt, French investors withdrew their money from Vietnam. Salaries dropped 30 to 50 percent, and employment, approximately 33 percent. Between 1928 and 1932, the price of rice on the world market decreased by more than half. Rice exports totaling nearly 2 million tons in 1928 fell to less than 1 million tons in 1931. Although both French colons and wealthy Vietnamese landowners were hit by the crisis, it was the peasant who bore most of the burden because he was forced to sell at least twice as much rice to pay the same amount in taxes or other debts. Floods, famine, and food riots plagued the countryside. By 1930 rubber prices had plummeted to less than one-fourth their 1928 value. Coal production was cut, creating more layoffs. Even the colonial government cut its staff by one-seventh and salaries by one- quarter. *

Nghe-Tinh Revolt

In the late 1920s, the Communists staged strikes and claimed parts if the Nghe An and Ta Tinh province. Strikes grew more frequent in Nam Bo in early 1930 and led to peasant demonstrations in May and June of that year. The focus of reaction to the worsening economic conditions, however, was Nghe An Province, which had a long history of support for peasant revolts. Plagued by floods, drought, scarcity of land, and colonial exploitation, the people of Nghe An had been supporters of the Can Vuong movement and the activities of Phan Boi Chau. By late 1929, the ICP had begun organizing party cells, trade unions, and peasant associations in the province. By early 1930, it had established a provincial committee in the provincial capital of Vinh and had begun to found mass organizations throughout Nghe An. [Source: Library of Congress *]

French sources reported that by mid-summer 1930 there were about 300 Communist activists in Nghe An and the neighboring province of Ha Tinh. This figure rose to 1,800 a few months later. The communists helped to mobilize the workers and peasants of Nghe-Tinh, as the two-province area was known, to protest the worsening conditions. Peasant demonstrators demanded a moratorium on the payment of the personal tax and a return of village communal lands that were in the hands of wealthy landowners. When the demands were ignored, demonstrations turned to riots; government buildings, manor houses, and markets were looted and burned, and tax rolls were destroyed. Some village nobles joined in the uprisings or refused to suppress them. Local officials fled, and government authority rapidly disintegrated. In some of the districts, the communists helped organize the people into local village associations called soviets (using the Bolshevik term). The soviets, formed by calling a meeting of village residents at the local dinh, elected a ruling committee to annul taxes, lower rents, distribute excess rice to the needy, and organize the seizure of communal land confiscated by the wealthy. Village militias were formed, usually armed only with sticks, spears, and knives. *

By September the French had realized the seriousness of the situation and brought in Foreign Legion troops to suppress the rebellion. On September 9, French planes bombed a column of thousands of peasants headed toward the provincial capital. Security forces rounded up all those suspected of being communists or of being involved in the rebellion, staged executions, and conducted punitive raids on rebellious villages. By early 1931, all of the soviets had been forced to surrender. Of the more than 1,000 arrested, 400 were given long prison sentences, and 80, including some of the party leaders, were executed. With the aid of other Asian colonial authorities, Vietnamese communists in Singapore, China, and Hong Kong were also arrested. *

Indochinese Communist Party Rebuilds and Grows before World War II

The early 1930s was a period of recovery and rebuilding for the ICP in Vietnam. Reorganization and recruitment were carried on even among political prisoners, of whom there were more than 10,000 by 1932. In the prison of Poulo Condore, Marxist literature circulated secretly, an underground journal was published, and party members (among them future party leaders Pham Van Dong and Le Duan) organized a university, teaching courses in sciences, literature, languages, geography, and Marxism-Leninism. The party also began to recruit increasingly from among Vietnamese minorities, particularly the Tay-Nung ethnic groups living in the Viet Bac. Located along Vietnam's northern border with China, this remote mountainous region includes the modern provinces of Lang Son, Cao Bang, Bac Thai, and Ha Tuyen. [Source: Library of Congress *]

This period also marked the rise of a Trotskyite faction within the communist movement, which in 1933 began publishing a widely read journal called La Lutte (Struggle). The Comintern's hostility toward Trotskyites prevented their formal alliance with the ICP, although. informal cooperation did exist. In 1935 a combined slate of ICP members and Trotskyites managed to elect four candidates to the Saigon municipal council. Cooperation between the two groups began to break down, however, when a Popular Front government led by the French Socialist Party under Leon Blum was elected in Paris. The Trotskyites complained that, despite the change of leadership in France, nothing had changed in Indochina. From the communist viewpoint, the major contribution to Vietnamese independence made by the Popular Front government was an amnesty declared in 1936 under which 1,532 Vietnamese political prisoners were freed. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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