Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was a revolutionary, military strategist and political thinker who became the leader and figurehead of Vietnamese nationalism. Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in Nghe An province, northern Vietnam. His father Nguyen Sinh Huy was a teacher who worked for French colonists, before losing his job for refusing to learn the French language. This independent spirit was passed on to 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. In these menial jobs, Nguyen encountered many instances of poverty, exploitation or worker mistreatment. In 1917 Nguyen Sinh Cung 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 to have the rights of Vietnamese people recognised; both requests were ignored. In 1920 he began using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (‘Nguyen the patriot’). Quoc 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 Quoc travelled to China and worked with the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), lecturing on revolutionary tactics at the Huangpo Military Academy. During Quoc’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, Quoc 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 Quoc 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 Chi Minh 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 and Ho quickly attempted to create an independent state. 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 sought international recognition for the newly independent Vietnam but these overtures were ignored by all major leaders, including US president Harry Truman. Meanwhile, continuing violence and unrest in Vietnam provided the French with a pretext for returning troops to its former colony. France’s attempt to revive colonialism in Vietnam triggered the First Indochina War, with Ho leading the Viet Minh against the French, while refusing several offers of a negotiated peace. Following the division of Vietnam at the Geneva conference in 1954, Ho and the Viet Minh established themselves in the country’s north. There he mimicked the early policies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong by redistributing land to peasants while encouraging the interrogation and brutal punishment of former landlords. When it became apparent that US-backed 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 Second Indochina War or Vietnam War (1964-75).
TIME magazine, 1968
In 1959 Ho Chi Minh resigned as general secretary of the Lao Dong, North Vietnam’s ruling party, though he remained in the party’s Politburo. The image of Ho Chi Minh as the dictatorial ruler of North Vietnam was fostered by the West but was not based on reality. American presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon often addressed their tirades and peace proposals to “Old Ho” – and Ho sometimes personally responded – but in reality his political authority was limited. As the father of Vietnamese nationalism, Ho’s 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 also flexible, always willing to adapt and compromise. He understood his enemies better than they understood him. Ho’s popular image was exploited by his comrades, particularly after his death. Shortly before Ho died in September 1969, aged 79, he 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. The North Vietnamese government ignored his wishes and embalmed Ho’s body, putting it on public display in a mausoleum in Hanoi. It remains there today, still open to public view.
Party strategists constructed a Ho Chi Minh personality cult, not unlike those created around Vladimir Lenin, Joseph 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 argued that Ho himself contributed to, 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, obscured or manipulated. The image of Ho as ‘father of his people’ may be one that Ho himself encouraged, as suggested in this 1999 article from TIME Asia magazine:
“What is the truth? It is difficult to know because Ho’s life is shrouded in shadows and ambiguities. Even the date of his birth has been obscured by the authorities, who believe this uncertainty will somehow add to his mystique. The official date is May 19, 1890, but archives in Paris and Moscow show six different dates from 1890 to 1904 … Ho himself aided in the creation of his myth. A booklet written in 1948 under the name of Tran Dan Tien describes President Ho as a modest man of the people who was nonetheless the father of the nation and a hero greater than Le Loi and other luminaries of Vietnamese history. When in 1990 I pointed out that Tran Dan Tien was a pseudonym used by Ho and thus Ho was praising himself, I was called a traitor and berated for attempting to tarnish the image of Uncle Ho.”
1. Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890. His father was a teacher who held strong nationalist views. As a young man, he travelled the world, working in Europe and petitioning for Vietnamese independence at Versailles.
2. On his return to Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh came to lead the nationalist Viet Minh, which assisted the United States in the struggle against Japanese forces during World War II.
3. After World War II Ho sought to exploit the power vacuum in Vietnam, declaring independence in September 1945. Between 1946 and 1954 he led the Viet Minh against French colonial forces in the First Indochina War.
4. Ho became the figurehead and ideological mentor of both North Vietnam and its ruling party, the Lao Dong, though his authority as a dictator was overstated in the West.
5. Ho’s leadership, calm nature, intellect and frugal way of life made him enormously popular with his people. He became the centre of a personality cult, the origins of which are in dispute.
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], https://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/ho-chi-minh/.