Hồ Chí Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary and statesman who was Prime Minister (1946/1955) and President (1946/1969) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Ho led the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onward, establishing the communist-governed Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and defeating the French Union in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. He lost political power inside North Vietnam in the late 1950s, but remained as the highly visible figurehead president until his death. He was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, while the former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.
Hồ Chí Minh was born, as Nguyen Tat Thanh, in 1890 in Hoàng Trù Village, his mother's hometown. From 1895, he grew up in his paternal hometown of Kim Liên Village, Nam Đàn District, Nghệ An Province, Vietnam. He had three siblings, his sister Bạch Liên (or Nguyễn Thị Thanh), a clerk in the French Army, his brother Nguyễn Sinh Khiêm (or Nguyễn Tất Đạt), a geomancer and traditional herbalist, and another brother (Nguyễn Sinh Nhuận) who died in his infancy. Following Confucian traditions, at the age of 10 his father named him Nguyễn Tất Thành (Nguyễn the Accomplished). Ho's father, Nguyễn Sinh Sắc, was a Confucian scholar, small time teacher and later an imperial magistrate in a small remote district Binh Khe (Qui Nhon). He was later demoted for abuse of power after an influential local figure died several days after receiving 100 canes as punishment. This however was merely a pretense by the French-controlled government to get rid of Sac, whose sons had been involved in nationalist, Anti-French activities at the Duc Thanh school, founded in 1907 by patriotic scholars who hoped to imitate the success of the Hanoi Free School. Deferent to his father, Ho received a French education, attended lycée in Huế, the alma mater of his later disciples, Phạm Văn Đồng and Vơ Nguyên Giáp. He later left his studies and chose to teach at Dục Thanh school in Phan Thiết.
First sojourn in France
On 5 June 1911, Hồ Chí Minh left Vietnam on a French steamer, Amiral Latouche-Tréville, working as a kitchen helper. Arriving in Marseille, France, he applied for the French Colonial Administrative School but his application was rejected. During his stay, he worked as a cleaner, waiter, and film retoucher. Hồ spent most of his free time in public libraries reading history books and newspapers to familiarize himself with Western society and politics.
In the USA
In 1912, again working as the cook's helper on a ship, Hồ Chí Minh traveled to the United States. From 1912 to 1913, he lived in New York (Harlem) and Boston, where he worked as a baker at the Parker House Hotel. He worked in menial jobs and later claimed to have worked for a wealthy family in Brooklyn between 1917 and 1918, and during this time he may have heard Marcus Garvey speak in Harlem. It is believed that while in the United States he made contact with Korean nationalists, an experience that developed his political outlook.
At various points between 1913 and 1919, Hồ lived in West Ealing, west London, and later in Crouch End, Hornsey, north London. He is reported to have worked as a chef at the Drayton Court Hotel, on The Avenue, West Ealing. It is claimed that Ho trained as a pastry chef under the legendary French master, Escoffier, at the Carlton Hotel in the Haymarket, Westminster, but there is no evidence to support this. However, the wall of New Zealand House, home of the New Zealand High Commission, which now stands on the site of the Carlton Hotel, displays a Blue Plaque, stating that Hồ worked there in 1913 as a waiter.
Political education in France
From 1919/1923, while living in France, Hồ Chí Minh embraced communism, through his friend Marcel Cachin (SFIO). Ho claimed to have arrived in Paris from London in 1917 but French police only have documents of his arrival in June 1919. Following World War I, under the name of Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Nguyen the Patriot), he petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people in French Indochina to the Western powers at the Versailles peace talks, but was ignored. Citing the language and the spirit of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Ho petitioned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for help to remove the French from Vietnam and replace it with a new, nationalist government. His request was ignored.
In 1921, during the Congress of Tours, France, Nguyen Ai Quoc became a founding member of the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party) and spent much of his time in Moscow afterwards, becoming the Comintern's Asia hand and the principal theorist on colonial warfare. It was at this time that Nguyễn Ái Quốc took the name of "Hồ Chí Minh", a Vietnamese name combining a common Vietnamese surname (Hồ, 胡) with a given name meaning "enlightened will" (from Sino-Vietnamese 志明; Chí meaning 'will' (or spirit), and Minh meaning 'light'), in essence, mean "bringer of light". During the Indochina War, the PCF would be involved with antiwar propaganda, sabotage and support for the revolutionary effort.
In the Soviet Union and China
In 1923, Hồ left Paris for Moscow, where he was employed by the Comintern, and participated in the Fifth Comintern Congress in June 1924, before arriving in Canton (Guangzhou), China, in November 1924. During 1925-26 he organized 'Youth Education Classes' and occasionally gave lectures at the Whampoa Military Academy on the revolutionary movement in Indochina. He left Canton again in April 1927 and returned to Moscow, spending some of the summer of 1927 recuperating from tuberculosis in the Crimea, before returning to Paris once more in November. He then returned to Asia by way of Brussels, Berlin, Switzerland, Italy, from where he took a ship to Bangkok in Thailand, where he arrived in July 1928. He remained in Thailand, staying in the Thai village of Nachok, until late 1929 when he moved on to Hong Kong, and Shanghai. In June 1931, he was arrested in Hong Kong and incarcerated by British police until his release in 1933. He then made his way back to the Soviet Union, where he spent several more years recovering from tuberculosis. In 1938, he returned to China and served as an adviser with Chinese Communist armed forces.
In 1941, Hồ returned to Vietnam to lead the Việt Minh independence movement. He oversaw many successful military actions against the Vichy French and Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II, supported closely but clandestinely by the United States Office of Strategic Services, and also later against the French bid to reoccupy the country (1946-1954). He was also jailed in China for many months by Chiang Kai-shek's local authorities. After his release in 1943, he again returned to Vietnam. He was treated for malaria and dysentery by American OSS doctors.
After the August Revolution (1945) organized by the Việt Minh, Hồ became Chairman of the Provisional Government (Premier of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and issued a Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that borrowed much from the French and American declarations. Though he convinced Emperor Bảo Đại to abdicate, his government was not recognized by any country. He repeatedly petitioned American President Harry Truman for support for Vietnamese independence, citing the Atlantic Charter, but Truman never responded.
In 1945, in a power struggle, the Viet Minh killed members of rival groups, such as the leader of the Constitutional Party, the head of the Party for Independence, and Ngo Dinh Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi. Purges and killings of Trotskyists, the rival anti-Stalinist communists, have also been documented. In 1946, when Hồ traveled outside of the country, his subordinates imprisoned 25,000 non-communist nationalists and forced 6,000 others to flee. Hundreds of political opponents were also killed in July that same year. All rival political parties were banned and local governments purged to minimise opposition later on.
Birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
On 2 September 1945, after Emperor Bao Dai's abdication, Hồ Chí Minh read the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, under the name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. With violence between rival Vietnamese factions and French forces spiraling, the British commander, General Sir Douglas Gracey declared martial law. On 24 September, the Viet Minh leaders responded with a call for a general strike.
In September 1945, a force of 200,000 Chinese Nationalists arrived in Hanoi. Hồ Chí Minh made arrangement with their general, Lu Han, to dissolve the Communist Party and to hold an election which would yield a coalition government. When Chiang Kai-Shek later traded Chinese influence in Vietnam for French concessions in Shanghai, Hồ Chí Minh had no choice but to sign an agreement with France on 6 March 1946, in which Vietnam would be recognized as an autonomous state in the Indochinese Federation and the French Union. The agreement soon broke down. The purpose of the agreement was to drive out the Chinese army from North Vietnam. Fighting broke out with the French soon after the Chinese left. Hồ Chí Minh was almost captured by a group of French soldiers led by Jean-Etienne Valluy at Việt Bắc, but was able to escape.
In February 1950, Hồ met with Stalin and Mao in Moscow after the Soviet Union recognized his government. They all agreed that China would be responsible for backing the Viet Minh. Mao's emissary to Moscow stated in August that China planned to train 60-70,000 Viet Minh in the near future. China's support enabled Ho to escalate the fight against France.
According to a story told by Journalist Bernard Fall, after fighting the French for several years, Hồ decided to negotiate a truce. The French negotiators arrived at the meeting site, a mud hut with a thatched roof. Inside they found a long table with chairs and were surprised to discover in one corner of the room a silver ice bucket containing ice and a bottle of good Champagne which should have indicated that Hồ expected the negotiations to succeed. One demand by the French was the return to French custody of a number of Japanese military officers (who had been helping the Vietnamese armed forces by training them in the use of weapons of Japanese origin), in order for them to stand trial for war crimes committed during World War II. Hồ replied that the Japanese officers were allies and friends whom he could not betray. Then he walked out, to seven more years of war. (From Last Reflections on a War, Fall's last book, published posthumously.)
In 1954, after the important defeat of French paratroopers at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, France was forced to give up its empire in Indochina.
The 1954 Geneva Accords, concluded between France and the Vietminh, provided that communist forces regroup in the North and non-communist forces regroup in the South. Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam relocated to Hanoi and became the government of North Vietnam, a Communist-led single party state. The Geneva accords also provided for a national election to reunify the country in 1956, but this provision was rejected by South Vietnam and the United States. The U.S. committed itself to oppose Communism in Asia beginning in 1950, when it funded 80 percent of the French effort. After Geneva, the U.S. replaced France as South Vietnam's chief sponsor and financial backer, but there never was a treaty between the U.S. and South Vietnam.
Following the Geneva Accords, there was to be a 300-day period in which people could freely move between the zones of the two Vietnams. Some 900,000 to 1 million Vietnamese, mostly Catholic, left for South Vietnam, while a much smaller number, mostly communists, went from South to North. This was partly due to propaganda claims by a CIA mission led by Colonel Edward Lansdale that the Virgin Mary had moved South out of distaste for life under communism. Some Canadian observers claimed that some were forced by North Vietnamese authorities to remain against their will. During this era, Hồ, following the communist doctrine initiated by Stalin and Mao, started a land reform in which hundreds of thousands of people accused of being landlords were summarily executed or tortured and starved in prison. This also caused millions of people to flee to South Vietnam.
At the end of 1956, Lê Duẩn was appointed acting party boss and began sending aid to the Vietcong insurgency in South Vietnam. This represented a loss of power by Hồ, who is said to have preferred the more moderate Giáp for the position. The so called Hochiminh Trail was built in 1959 to allow aid to be sent to the Vietcong through Laos and Cambodia, thus escalating the war. Duẩn was named permanent party boss in 1960, leaving Hồ a figurehead president and symbol of Vietnamese Communism.
In late 1964, North Vietnamese combat troops were sent southwest into neutral Laos. During the mid to late 1960s, Lê Duẩn permitted 320,000 Chinese volunteers into northern North Vietnam to help build infrastructure for the country, thereby freeing a similar number of North Vietnamese forces to go south.
By early 1965, U.S. combat troops begins arriving in South Vietnam to counter the threat imposed by both the local Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese troops in the border areas. As the fighting escalated, widespread bombing of North Vietnam by the U.S. Air Force and Navy escalated as Operation Rolling Thunder. Hồ remained in Hanoi for most of the duration of his final years, stubbornly refusing to negotiate with the Americans and demanded nothing but an unconditional withdrawal of all foreign troops in South Vietnam. By July, 1967, Hồ and most of the Politburo of North Vietnam met in a high-level conference where they concluded that the war was not going well for them since the American military blunted every attempt by the Peoples Army of Vietnam to make gains, and inflicted heavy casualties. But Hồ and the rest his government knew that there were two weaknesses: there was still no disguising the continuing ineffectiveness of large portion of the South Vietnamese army, shielded by U.S. firepower, and that American public opinion was not wholeheartedly in favor of the war. With Hồ's permission, the North Vietnamese army and politicians planned to execute the Tet Offensive as a gamble to take the South by force and defeat the U.S. military.
Although the offensive was a huge tactical failure which resulted in the decimation of whole units of Viet Cong, the end result was a moral victory for it broke the U.S. will to fight the war and public opinion in the U.S. turned against the government which resulted in the bombing of North Vietnam halted, and negotiations with U.S. officials opening as to how to end the war.
By 1969, with negotiations still dragging on, Hồ's health began to deteriorate from multiple health problems, including diabetes among other ailments, which prevented him from participating in further active politics. However, he insisted that his forces in South Vietnam continue fighting until all of Vietnam was reunited under his government, regardless of the length of time that it might take, believing that time and politics were on his side.
With the outcome of the Vietnam War still in question, Ho Chi Minh died on the morning of 2 September 1969, at his home in Hanoi at age 79 from heart failure.
News of his death was withheld from the North Vietnamese public for nearly 48 hours due to not wanting to announce his death on the anniversary of the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He was not initially replaced as president, but a "collective leadership" forming up of several ministers and military leaders took control of North Vietnam to continue his goal of conquering South Vietnam to unite it under Hồ's founding government.
Six years after his death, when the communists were successful in conquering South Vietnam, several North Vietnamese tanks in Saigon displayed a poster with the following quote, "You are always marching with us, Uncle Ho".
The former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City on 1 May 1975 shortly after its capture which officially ended the war.
Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is on display in a granite Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum modeled after Lenin's Tomb in Moscow. This is similar to other Communist leaders who have been similarly displayed before and since, including Mao Zedong, Kim Il-Sung, and for a time, Joseph Stalin, but the "honor" violated Hồ's last wishes (as well as the three leaders mentioned above). Several months before his death, he wished to be cremated and his ashes buried in three urns on three different hilltops of Vietnam (the North, Central and South areas). He wrote, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene but also it saves farmland".
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is dedicated to his life and work.
In Vietnam today, he is regarded by the Communist government with almost god-like status in a nationwide personality cult, even though the government has abandoned most of his economic policies since the mid-1980s. He is still referred to as "Uncle Hồ" in Vietnam. Hồ's image appears on the front of every Vietnamese currency note, and Hồ's portrait is featured prominently in many of Vietnam's public buildings. In 1987, UNESCO officially recommended to Member States that they "join in the commemoration of the centenary of the birth of President Ho Chi Minh by organizing various events as a tribute to his memory", considering "the important and many-sided contribution of President Ho Chi Minh in the fields of culture, education and the arts" and that Ho Chi Minh "devoted his whole life to the national liberation of the Vietnamese people, contributing to the common struggle of peoples for peace, national independence, democracy and social progress".
In contrast, some Vietnamese who lived through the war hated Ho Chi Minh for bringing chaos to the country. Vietnamese people living outside of Vietnam, commonly known as Overseas Vietnamese, have more hostile opinions of Ho Chi Minh. In particular, the Vietnamese in the U.S., who fled communist rule after 1975, view Hồ as a murderer and traitor who ruined Vietnam by starting a war.
- "Nothing is more valuable than independence and freedom".
- "Those who wish to seize Vietnam, must kill us to the last man, woman, and child"
- "I follow only one party: the Vietnamese party".
- "You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win". - referring to France and America in their wars in Vietnam.
- "It is better to sacrifice everything than to live in slavery!"
- "The Vietnamese people deeply love independence, freedom and peace. But in the face of United States aggression they have risen up, united as one man".
- "We have to win independence at any cost, even if the Truong Son mountains burn".
- "In (Lenin's Theses on the National and Colonial Questions) there were political terms that were difficult to understand. But by reading them again and again finally I was able to grasp the essential part. What emotion, enthusiasm, enlightenment and confidence they communicated to me! I wept for joy. Sitting by myself in my room, I would shout as if I were addressing large crowds: "Dear martyr compatriots! This is what we need, this is our path to liberation!" Since then (the 1920s) I had entire confidence in Lenin, in the Third International!"
- "When the prison doors are opened, the real dragon will fly out".
- "It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me".
- "Remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability".
- "My only desire is that all of our Party and people, closely united in struggle, construct a peaceful, unified, independent, democratic and prosperous, and make a valiant contribution to the world Revolution". (Hanoi, 10 May 1969.)
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