Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890. His father, Nguyen Sinh Huy, was a teacher who worked for French colonists, before losing his job for refusing to learn the French language. Nguyen Sinh Huy’s independent spirit was passed on to the young Nguyen Sinh Cung and his siblings. As a teenager, the intrepid Nguyen Sinh Cung left Vietnam on a world trip that took him to more than a dozen countries, including the United States, Britain and France. Along the way he worked as a kitchen-hand or waiter – despite being a qualified teacher – and encountered many examples of poverty, exploitation or worker mistreatment. In 1917 Nguyen settled in Paris, where he was exposed to the works of Marx, Lenin and other communists. In 1919 he compiled a petition to the Versailles peace conference and lobbied US president Woodrow Wilson, in an attempt to have the rights of Vietnamese people recognised; both requests were ignored. In 1920 Nguyen became a foundation member of the French Communist Party; shortly after he was sent to Moscow to study Marxist-Leninism and became an Asian agent for Comintern (the Soviet-led Communist International). In 1924 Ho traveled to China, where he worked with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), lecturing on revolutionary tactics at the Whampoa Military Academy.
Towards Vietnamese independence
During Nguyen Sinh Cung’s three years in China he married Zeng Xueming, a local woman 15 years his junior. When the Chinese nationalist government started persecuting communists in 1927, Nguyen Sinh Cung was forced to flee. He spent the next decade wandering, visiting countries as far afield as Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, China, Hong Kong and Thailand. In 1940 Nguyen Sinh Cung began using the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning ‘he who enlightens’. The following year he returned to Vietnam to take charge of the Viet Minh in its struggle against the Japanese invaders and Vichy French collaborators. During this time Ho received support from the United States Office of Strategic Services (or OSS, the forerunner to the CIA). The defeat of the Japanese in August 1945 created a power vacuum in Vietnam, so Ho quickly attempted to create an independent state, free from foreign control. At the beginning of September he presented a Vietnamese declaration of independence, drawing heavily on similar documents from America and France:
“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution made in 1791 also states: All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights. Those are undeniable truths … From the autumn of 1940, our country ceased to be a French colony and became a Japanese possession. After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty, and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French. The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland.”
Ho Chi Minh sought international recognition for the newly independent Vietnam, but these overtures were ignored by major leaders, including US president Harry Truman, who believed Ho to be an imperialist controlled by Moscow. Meanwhile, continued violence and unrest in Vietnam gave the French a pretext to move large numbers of troops back into its former colony. This triggered the First Indochina War, with Ho leading the Viet Minh against the French, refusing several offers of a negotiated peace. After Vietnam was divided at the Geneva conference in 1954, Ho and the Viet Minh established themselves in the north. There he mimicked the early policies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong, by redistributing land to peasants and encouraging the interrogation, torture and execution of former landlords. When it became apparent that South Vietnam would not participate in elections for the reunification of Vietnam, Ho and his ministers began planning to overthrow the South. This strategy led to American military intervention and the unfolding of the Vietnam War (1964-75).
Time magazine, 1968
In 1959 Ho Chi Minh resigned as general secretary of the Lao Dong (the Vietnamese Communist Party), though he remained a member of the party’s Politburo. The Western media gave the impression that Ho Chi Minh was the authoritarian ruler of North Vietnam, however this was not based on reality. American presidents like Johnson and Nixon often addressed their tirades and peace proposals to “Old Ho” – and Ho sometimes personally responded – but his political authority within North Vietnam was limited. As the father of Vietnamese nationalism, his views were heard and considered with esteemed reverence. As a Politburo member he participated in discussion and debate. But political authority ultimately rested with the Politburo, which made decisions collectively and democratically. Ho backed the decisions of the Politburo, whether or not he personally agreed with them.
Perhaps Ho Chi Minh’s real value to North Vietnam was as a figurehead. His own lifestyle was modest and frugal. Even into his 70s Ho walked several kilometres each day; he dressed casually, ate little and had few significant personal possessions. He spoke calmly and thoughtfully, rarely losing his temper. He enjoyed meeting and speaking with others, particularly children. As one historian noted, some of the same qualities of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela could be found in Ho Chi Minh. He was a deep thinker but was flexible, always willing to adapt and compromise. He understood his enemies better than they understood him. Ho’s image was ruthlessly exploited by his comrades. Shortly before his death in September 1969, aged 79, Ho requested his ashes be gathered up and scattered without fanfare. The Vietnamese people, Ho said, “do not have the time or money” for anything else. But against his wishes, Ho’s body was embalmed and put on public display in a mausoleum in Hanoi. It remains there today, still open to public view. Party strategists confected a personality cult, not unlike those created for Lenin, Stalin and Mao Zedong. The dead Ho Chi Minh was portrayed as ‘Uncle Ho’, the Strategist, the Theoretician, the Thinker, the Statesman, the Man of Culture, the Diplomat, the Poet, the Philosopher. Some historians have suggested that Ho Chi Minh contributed to, and perhaps even manufactured this personality cult. Evidence on this is scant. What is certainly true is that little is known about many aspects of Ho’s life, and that a good deal of information has been concealed or manipulated.
1. Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890. His father was a teacher who held strong nationalist views.
2. He traveled the world, working in Western nations and petitioning for Vietnamese independence at Versailles.
3. On his return to Vietnam, Ho led the nationalist-communist Viet Minh, assisting the US during World War II.
4. He declared independence in September 1945, then led the Viet Minh in an eight-year war with French colonials.
5. Ho became the leader of North Vietnam until his death in 1969, then the centre of a widespread personality cult.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Ho Chi Minh”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/ho-chi-minh/.