Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), Vietnamese Communist leader, who was the first president (1945-1969) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the principal force behind the Vietnamese struggle against French colonial rule after World War II (1939-1945).
Ho’s childhood name was Nguyen Sinh Cung, but in accordance with Vietnamese custom, he received a new name, Nguyen Tat Thanh, at the age of 10. Ho was born in the village of Kim Liên in Annam, a region that now makes up central Vietnam. At the time, Vietnam was part of a French colony known as the Indochinese Union, or French Indochina, although it remained under the nominal rule of an emperor. Ho’s father served as an official at the Vietnamese imperial court, but French authorities eventually dismissed him for criticizing French domination of his country. As an adolescent, Ho attended a French-run school in Hue. Expelled for rebellious activities in 1908, he then briefly taught at a private school in Phan Thiet. In 1911 Ho signed on as a cook for a French steamship liner, and then worked in the United States and London, England. It was while living abroad that Ho evidently became acquainted with the ideas of German political theorist Karl Marx, which form the basis of communism.
|II||EARLY POLITICAL CAREER|
Ho settled in Paris in 1917 as World War I (1914-1918) was concluding. There, under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), he attempted to present a petition demanding self-determination for the Vietnamese people to the victorious Allied leaders attending the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles. The petition was ignored. Rebuffed, Ho began to engage in radical activities and became a founding member of the French Communist Party. In 1923 he was summoned to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for training at the Moscow headquarters of the Communist International (popularly known as Comintern), an organization created by Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin to promote revolution throughout the world. In late 1924 Ho traveled to the city of Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China, where he organized a revolutionary movement among Vietnamese exiles. He was forced to leave China in 1927 when local authorities cracked down on Communist activities, but he returned to the region in 1930 to found the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in Hong Kong. He remained in Hong Kong as a Comintern representative responsible for overseeing the creation of Communist parties throughout Southeast Asia.
In June 1931 British police arrested Ho in Hong Kong during a crackdown on political revolutionaries. After his release from prison in 1932, Ho made his way back to the Soviet Union, where he spent several years in relative obscurity. He was reportedly under suspicion by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin at this time because of his unorthodox views. Contrary to Marxist theory, Ho emphasized national liberation over social revolution, and he believed that rural peasants rather than urban workers were likely to be the driving force behind Asian revolutions. In 1938 Ho returned to China and served as an adviser to Chinese Communist armed forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). After Japan occupied Indochina at the beginning of World War II (1939-1945), Ho resumed contact with ICP leaders, and in 1941 returned to Vietnam for the first time in 30 years. There, he helped found a new Communist-dominated independence movement, popularly known as the Viet Minh, which began to fight Japanese military forces inside Indochina.
|III||PRESIDENT OF VIETNAM|
When Japan surrendered in August 1945, Viet Minh units seized power in northern Vietnam and proclaimed the formation of an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), with Ho as president. At this time Ho formally adopted the pseudonym Ho Chi Minh, which means “he who enlightens.” But Ho’s hope that his new government would be recognized by the victorious Allied powers was soon dashed. In October, French troops returned to southern Vietnam and drove Viet Minh and other anticolonialist elements out of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and into the countryside. With some reluctance, the United States recognized the restoration of French sovereignty in Indochina, but urged the French government to grant more autonomy to local political forces inside the country. During the next year Ho Chi Minh engaged in delicate negotiations with French representatives to reach a compromise agreement and avoid war. When those talks failed, in December 1946 Viet Minh troops attacked French units stationed in the DRV and the First Indochina War broke out.
For the next eight years, Viet Minh guerrillas fought French troops in the mountains and in the rice paddies of Vietnam. The French occupied the coastal regions and the major cities, while Ho and the Viet Minh sought refuge in the mountains north of the Red River Delta. Assisted by Ho’s rising popularity as a resistance leader, the Viet Minh won wide popular support from the Vietnamese people for their struggle to end French colonial rule. After an exhausting and inconclusive conflict, the French tired of the war, and negotiations at Geneva, Switzerland, in the spring and summer of 1954 resulted in a compromise peace. A cease-fire was signed and French troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, which was provisionally divided into a Communist North (retaining the name Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and a non-Communist South (called the Republic of Vietnam). National elections were to be held in 1956 to reunify the North and South under a single government. In October, Ho Chi Minh and his fellow party leaders returned to their capital at Hanoi.
|IV||SECOND INDOCHINA WAR|
Ho now devoted his efforts to constructing a Communist society in North Vietnam and bringing about the reunification of the country under the party’s rule. The DRV introduced socialist economic reforms, with the twin goals of developing industry and collectivizing agriculture. However, land reforms undertaken in 1955 to redistribute land from landlords and wealthy peasants to poor peasants and the landless resulted in bloodshed. Overzealous local tribunals often carried out the reforms arbitrarily, and in a climate of growing paranoia, imprisoned and executed thousands of people they determined to be “counterrevolutionary elements.” In 1956 Ho was forced to admit that his government had made mistakes.
In the meantime, South Vietnamese leaders refused to cooperate in holding national elections as scheduled. By 1959 conflict resumed in the South, where Communist-led guerrillas mounted a rebellion against the U.S.-supported regime in Saigon, launching the Second Indochina War (also known as the Vietnam War). In poor health, Ho Chi Minh was reduced to a largely ceremonial role by the mid-1960s, and policy was shaped by others. He died in Hanoi in September 1969. A mausoleum was erected there in his honor after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.
In Vietnam today, Ho Chi Minh is viewed as the very soul of the Vietnamese revolution and the country’s long struggle for independence. His personal qualities of simplicity, integrity, and determination brought him respect and admiration not only in Vietnam but all over the world. Yet there is wide disagreement about his character and his accomplishments. To some, he is a patriotic figure who used Communist doctrine and strategy as a means of freeing his people, but whose basic instincts were humanitarian and democratic. To others, he was a scheming revolutionary who pretended to be well meaning and concerned about the welfare of people in order to manipulate enemies and rivals and set the stage for the creation of a totalitarian regime. Today the struggle over his legacy continues in Vietnam, where reformists seek to invoke his memory to build a more pluralistic society, while conservatives support their own agenda by citing Ho’s determination to build a utopian society based on the principles of Marx and Lenin. Whatever the controversy over his real beliefs and intentions, there is no doubt that Ho Chi Minh was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century.