Jeff Berger —
On November 11, 1944, a U.S. reconnaissance plane piloted by Lieutenant Rudolph Shaw encountered engine trouble while flying over the rough mountainous terrain along the Sino-Vietnamese frontier. When Shaw landed his parachute, members of a local Viet Minh unit were the first to reach him. For the next several days they escorted him over mountains and jungle trails toward Pac Bo, walking at night and resting during the day to avoid the enemy. It took almost a month to cover only 40 miles. None of Shaw’s escorts spoke any English. When he arrived at Pac Bo, he was greeted by an old man with a wispy gray beard. Actually the old man wasn’t as old as he looked. He was 54 years old. Shaw had no idea how much suffering the man had endured during those 54 years. The old man spoke: “How do you do, pilot! Where are you from?” Shaw hugged the man and later said, “When I heard your voice, I felt as if I were hearing the voice of my father in the United States.” He might also have referred to his uncle, because this man was known affectionately as Uncle Ho.
This is the story as told by William Duiker, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and East Asian Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, in a biography called Ho Chi Minh: A Life, which was published in 2000. Stanley Karnow, who wrote the book Vietnam: A History, said of Duiker that he demystifies one of the most fascinating, enigmatic, controversial, and influential figures of the 20th century. It is not possible to understand modern Vietnam and the roots of the lengthy conflict on Indochina without examining Ho Chi Minh’s life. Ho, who was born in the small Vietnamese village of Hoang Tru, lived in London, Paris, New York and Moscow before, during and after World War I. He spent years on the run and in prison, before suddenly emerging on the world stage. The question Duiker tries to address is: Was Ho simply a patriot bent on achieving Vietnamese independence, or a chameleon who constructed a deceptive nationalist image solely to win support, at home and abroad, for a global communist revolution?
Ho as a Young Man
Ho was not unfamiliar with the Americans. He had visited the United States in 1913 when he was 23 years old. In New York City he stared in awe at the modern skyscrapers and strolled with friends in Chinatown, where he was impressed by the fact that Asian immigrants in the United States appeared to have equal rights in law if not in fact. He worked there as a domestic servant. He attended meetings of black activists in Harlem. Many years later, he told a delegation of peace activists who were visiting Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War that he had been strongly moved by the plight of black people around the world. Asked why he had gone to New York, he replied that at the time he thought that the United States was opposed to Western imperialism and would readily agree to assist the Vietnamese people in overthrowing the French colonial regime. Eventually he concluded that there was no help there to be found. Ho also claimed to have visited Boston and the southern states, where he observed the lynching of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan. While living in Moscow during the 1920s he wrote an article describing these details.
Ho was also not unfamiliar with the British. From 1911 to 1923, he lived in both France and England, where he claimed to have worked as a pastry chef. He worked a number of menial jobs. He also encountered the British in Hong Kong in 1931. They arrested and imprisoned him for two years. The British didn’t quite know what to do with Ho. The French wanted his extradition, but the British courts ruled against it. The British were sympathetic to their fellow imperialists, but Ho had not violated any British laws. It probably helped that Ho was a model prisoner. Even to the British he could seem like Uncle Ho. When the British finally decided to release him, Ho asked to be allowed to go to England, but authorities back in England wouldn’t permit it. Instead the only demand made by the British was that he leave Hong Kong. Thus, he went to the only safe place where the French could not grab him. He arrived in Moscow in an emaciated state. The year was 1934.
Prior to Ho’s visit to New York City in 1913 he had left France and spent several months at sea, visiting countries throughout Africa and Asia, including Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, India, Madagascar, and many other colonized countries. He was often reminded of the horrors of colonialism. He was shocked by what he observed at Dakar, where several Africans drowned while being ordered by the French to swim out to the ship during a storm. He later wrote, “The French in France are all good. But the French colonialists are very cruel and inhumane. It is the same everywhere. …. To the colonialists, the life of an Asian or an African is not worth a penny.”
At the end of World War I, Paris had become the worldwide center for agitation for anti-colonial groups. Debates on the subject occurred regularly in the French National Assembly. Albert Sarraut, then serving as the governor-general of Indochina, promised the Vietnamese people that they would soon see a perceptible expansion of their political rights. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had encouraged the aspirations of colonized nations by calling for self-determination for all peoples. Ho (who then called himself Nguyen Tat Thanh) and some of his friends authored a petition, moderate in tone, demanding political autonomy for the Vietnamese, as well as traditional democratic freedom of association, religion, press and movement, amnesty for political prisoners, equal rights for Vietnamese with the French in Vietnam, abolition of forced labor, and abolition of taxes on salt, opium and alcohol. The petition did not ask for independence. Nguyen personally delivered the petition to key members of the National Assembly, the President of France, and the delegates at the Versailles peace conference. He soon changed his name to Nguyen Ai Quoc, a pseudonym that he would use for the next 30 years, and published the petition. The French Assembly never responded to the petition. Wilson’s own proposals were not received well in the United States. The United States would ultimately refuse to join the League of Nations and return to a policy of isolation under Republican leadership.
After the Versailles peace conference, the French Communist Party was formed and Nguyen became part of it. The European communists were not much interested in attacking French colonialism, however. By 1923 it was becoming too dangerous for Nguyen to remain in France. He arrived in Moscow just in time to be there for Vladimir Lenin’s death, but he did not get a chance to meet Lenin. Nevertheless, Nguyen became enamored by Lenin’s revolutionary ideas.
Ho Chi Minh was not known as a communist theorist like Marx, Lenin, or Mao Zedong, though he was a prolific writer, journalist, poet and educator. One of Lenin’s ideas that set him apart from Marx was that Western colonialism was a major source of capitalism’s strength. Whereas Marx’s ideas had been Eurocentric, Lenin thought that the ending of colonialism could be a precursor to spreading the socialist revolution around the globe. But, in Lenin’s absence, there continued to be an ongoing debate in the Soviet Union about how communist revolutionaries should deal with nationalist revolutionaries such as Chiang Kai-shek. Until 1928 the idea of cooperating with other nationalists was favored, but then the idea fell out of favor, only to come back into favor in 1935 after it became clear that fascism was a greater existential threat than capitalism.
Nguyen only spent one year in Moscow. Gradually Soviet officials became more aware of him as an ambitious young revolutionary from Indochina. As one of only a few Asian revolutionaries in Moscow, he could be put to good use. Among the Asians whom Nguyen met was Zhou Enlai. In October 1923, Nguyen spoke (in French) at the International Peasant Conference in Moscow. He emphasized that the peasants were the worst victims of imperialist oppression and suffered more than anyone, and that the Comintern would become a genuine Communist International only when it included representatives of the Asian peasantry as active participants.
Underlying those remarks was much controversy because Marxist theory postulated that workers, not peasants, would be the basis of a socialist revolution. Furthermore, Marxist theory assumed that an Industrial Revolution (which had not occurred in colonial territories) was necessary before a communist revolution could succeed. The vast majority of Vietnamese people were still rural. Workers, in the sense that Marxist theory thought of them, hardly existed in Indochina. That gradually began to change during the 1920s, which was a boon for the world economy, but when the world economy collapsed in 1929, those workers began to suffer too.
At the end of 1924 Nguyen left for Canton in China where he tasked himself with trying to develop a Vietnamese communist organization. His time during the next several years was divided between Canton and Siam, but his organizing efforts were interrupted by the British. Upon returning to Moscow in 1934, Nguyen was in considerable danger. He was perhaps not aware of how much the Soviet people in the rural sections of the country were in danger, but he surely knew about the purges in the communist leadership that were orchestrated by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Nguyen could easily have been accused of being a British spy; he had been guilty of cooperating with nationalists, which the Soviets had decided in 1928 was unacceptable. It is possible that Stalin might already have begun to change his mind about nationalists in 1934, but the formal change in policy only occurred the next year. Still, Nguyen spent the next four-plus years quietly in the Soviet Union, writing and taking classes. He and other Asian revolutionaries were treated fairly well in spite of all the suffering of the Soviet people. They were even allowed to travel to Crimea for some rest and relaxation.
World War II
Nguyen was forever an optimist. Lenin had taught him that a world war was a necessary condition for a revolution, as was the case for the Russian Revolution in 1917. Nguyen could see another world war on the horizon. The Japanese had already invaded Manchuria and were gradually encroaching southward. The French surrendered to Germany in June 1940, at which point the French powers in Indochina became a puppet of the Japanese in the same way that Vichy was a puppet of Germany in France itself. Being under a Japanese yoke stoked the revolutionary flames in the cities as well as the rural areas.
In 1938 these events were still in the future, but Nguyen seemed to have predicted it all. He returned to China in September 1938 and found much friendlier relations between the communists and the nationals. In 1940 he finally crossed the border back into Vietnam. That was also when he adopted his new name, Ho Chi Minh. Most people, including his own people in Vietnam, failed to realize that it was the same person. It was his first time back in his own country in 29 years. There he began to work with his comrades to create the revolution.
In 1942 Ho returned to China, his objective unknown. What is known is that he was arrested yet again; this time by the Chinese nationalists. They didn’t know who he was and worried he was a Japanese agent. It took more than a year for the Chinese to figure out who he was. Fortunately one of the nationalist commanders was sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party, and he agreed to cooperate with Ho, with the idea that eventually the Chinese nationalists would enter Vietnam to attack the Japanese. Ho assured the nationalists that a communist revolution was not imminent but was 50 years in the future. When Ho crossed back into Vietnam in 1944, he found his comrades eager to start an offensive against the Japanese. But he urged them to wait, believing that an Allied invasion was imminent. Ho expected the Allies to defeat the Japanese and he wanted to work with them. When the Vichy government collapsed in the summer of 1944, the Japanese were suddenly at war with the French too. With the French being preoccupied with the Japanese, they lost sight of the revolution that was taking place in the countryside.
After enabling Lieutenant Shaw to reach the American base in Kunming, China, Ho went there himself in order to establish contacts with key U.S. military officials. There he met with Office of Strategic Services agent Archimedes Patti. The OSS was the precursor to the CIA. Ho’s objectives were to win formal recognition by the United States for the legitimacy of the Viet Minh Front as the legal representative of the Vietnamese people and to obtain weapons and medical supplies. He offered to help the United States defeat Japan in Indochina. Ho returned to Pac Bo accompanied by two Asian Americans. The Americans began to drop air-supplies, including medicine, a radio set, and weapons. Ho and his colleagues provided the Americans weather reports and rescued several U.S. airmen shot down over northern Indochina and returned them to China.
That winter thousands of Vietnamese were suffering from hunger, and deaths by starvation were rising rapidly. Bodies began to appear along the highways and hungry peasants begged for food. The Japanese and the French were more interested in preventing a revolution than in feeding the people. On March 9 the Japanese abolished the French colonial administration and replaced it with a puppet imperial government headed by Emperor Bao Dai but firmly under Japanese control. By terminating French rule, the Japanese had opened the north of Vietnam to a revolutionary takeover. That is what began to happen in the northern part of Vietnam, without any opposing resistance. In June the Americans asked Ho to locate a small airfield that could be used to deliver some OSS personnel and equipment to the Viet Minh headquarters at Tan Trao. On June 30 Ho radioed that he agreed to accept a team of Americans, but warned that no French personnel should take part in the operation. On July 16 an OSS team parachuted into Tan Trao on a mission to evaluate the situation and assist the Viet Minh in carrying out anti-Japanese operations. The Viet Minh hosted the OSS men, but they were not happy that a French army officer had accompanied the Americans. That officer was forced to return to China.
Nevertheless, a few days later Ho indicated his willingness to talk with a French representative and forwarded an appeal for future reforms to take place after the war. Among the points to be raised were the election of a parliament chosen by universal suffrage, the return of natural resources to the Vietnamese people, prohibition of the sale of opium, and commitments by France that all freedoms outlined in the United Nations Charter would be granted and that Independence would be restored to Vietnam in not less than five or more than ten years. There was no immediate response from the French.
The Americans continued to be impressed by the Viet Minh. The OSS began to train the Viet Minh on how to use American weapons and guerrilla tactics. Ho tried to allay the Americans’ fears about communism. He told them to “forget the Communist Bogy.” To help put the Americans at ease, he quoted the opening words to the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Americans who met Ho never stopped thinking about the gentility of that little old man. However, that little old man was a very sick man, and he went into a coma that July. One of his Viet Minh colleagues claimed that Ho had tuberculosis and he was able to cure him using medicine that he himself made. However, one of the OSS members who was a nurse said that Ho was merely suffering from malaria and dysentery, and he injected him with quinine and sulfa drugs. Whatever the truth, the Americans wanted Ho to live because they liked him and realized he was not their enemy.
The next month the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered on August 16. Viet Minh party leaders estimated that there were 100,000 Viet Minh sympathizers in Hanoi. By August 22 the Viet Minh were in control of Hanoi, and the Viet Minh red flag with a gold star was flying throughout the province of Tonkin and the upper districts of the panhandle. Japanese forces surrendered to the Viet Minh. That day more than 100,000 people gathered in the old imperial capital of Hue in central Vietnam while the local uprising committee took power, claiming to represent the Vietnamese people. There was virtually no resistance from the local imperial government or the Japanese. It is likely that few people had a clear idea of what the Viet Minh movement stood for. On August 25 Ho Chi Minh slept in Hanoi.
In the meantime, the Allies had agreed among themselves that above the 16th parallel Japanese forces should surrender to the Nationalist Chinese, and south of the 16h parallel they should surrender to the British. At the United States’ insistence, the French were excluded. However, a party of American and French officers arrived in Hanoi, including Archimedes Patti. The French immediately ensconced themselves in the Governor-General’s Palace. On August 26 Patti met with Ho. Besides expressing his hostility towards the French, Ho also expressed his fears that the Chinese were likely to sell out the interests of the Vietnamese people to obtain advantages of their own. Concerned about his own reputation as a communist, Ho protested that he was only a “progressive-socialist-nationalist” who had turned to Moscow and the Chinese because there were no alternatives. There also were other occasions during the next few years when Ho denied being a communist, depending on the audience he was addressing. There was no question that above all else he was anti-imperialist and pro-independence. Many of his statements suggested that he was pro-democracy, as evidenced by his preference to support a socialist revolution only when the people were ready for it. Given the animosity against him from the West, however, Ho had no choice but to go along with whoever would support Vietnamese independence.
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the French-Vietnam War
On September 2, 1942, Ho delivered a short speech to a crowd of people declaring Vietnamese independence:
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. … The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the citizen, made at the time of the French Revolution, also states: All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.
Ho followed those words with a litany of crimes committed by the French colonial regime in Indochina. Ho never said anything about economic systems or class warfare. At that moment there were 15,000 French citizens still living in Hanoi, waiting for Free French forces to arrive. The name of Ho’s newly declared country was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. On September 9 a large number of Chinese nationalist troops began to arrive in Hanoi, further stoking Ho’s fears about the Chinese. Also arriving were some nationalist Vietnamese forces who were opposed to the government that the Viet Minh had already established.
Of all the players in this complicated game of chess, Ho trusted the Americans more than the other parties, because only the Americans seemed to have no self-interest. He continued to hope that the Americans would continue to live up to President Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-colonial policies. The reality was that President Harry Truman had already tacitly chosen to abandon Roosevelt’s policies, in spite of disagreements from the Asian wing of the U.S. State Department, due to Truman’s fears about the spread of communism—or what Ho called the Bogy. Ho told Patti that his country badly needed U.S. investment and advice and implied a willingness to grant special concessions to U.S. commercial interests in Vietnam. Later Ho offered the Americans a naval port on the Vietnamese coastline. The Americans never took him up on the offer. As the Cold War unfolded in Europe, the Americans feared that Ho was a puppet of the Soviets. Although stubborn hostility from the West would eventually change that dynamic a few years later, Ho hadn’t been in contact with anybody in the Soviet Union since he left there in 1938, and he would not until 1950. Nor had he been in contact with the Chinese Communist Party in many years, although that too would change. In 1945 Chiang Kai-Shek was still very much in control of China and Mao Zedong was just beginning to fight.
There had been a very long history of Chinese domination over the Vietnamese people. Prior to Napoleon Bonaparte III conquering Vietnam during the 1860s, the Vietnamese had been paying tribute to their northern neighbors for a thousand years and they resented it. That resentment and suspicion was especially true in their attitudes towards the nationalist Chinese, but it would continue when the Chinese communists took power in 1949.
After September 1945, the Viet Minh government began to institute numerous progressive democratic reforms, taking no action to nationalize industries or commercial establishments. Only the lands of French colonists and Vietnamese traitors were seized. These moderate policies were calculated to win broad support, in keeping with the strategies that Ho had made clear during the prior war years, as the first stage in a Leninist revolutionary process. In some villages in central and northern Vietnam, however, newly elected councils declared the abolition of traditional religious rituals and confiscated property of the rich. Still, the government sought to reverse such measures and reduce the revolutionary spirit.
The French had left a country with only a 10 percent literacy rate. That statistic by itself is an indictment of French colonialism. By the fall of 1946 over two million Vietnamese had obtained a level of literacy. Starting in September 1945, Ho and his colleagues tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the French. Ho even backed off from his demands for independence, instead offering for Vietnam to be part of a French Union, perhaps in some kind of federation. In the summer of 1946 Ho and a team of Viet Minh delegates traveled to a peace conference in Paris. Ho was not a delegate, but as President of the DRV, he went there and acted as a public relations person. Ho was treated by the French like a famous celebrity. He even befriended and socialized with some of the French officials. However, the Vietnamese delegates to continue to demand independence and the French continued to refuse. In September the Vietnamese negotiators returned to Vietnam.
On December 19 the “First Indochina War” began. The Viet Minh government evacuated Hanoi. The situation seemed hopeless. They were completely outgunned. The French employed terrifying napalm bombs supplied by the United States. The Viet Minh barely managed to eke out an existence in the northern jungles for the next three years. The French were very confident. But in 1949 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army—the Red Army—was victorious over the Chinese nationalists who evacuated China and fled to the island of Formosa. Mao Zedong declared a new government on October 1. In December Ho and a few of his comrades traveled to Beijing, while Mao traveled to Moscow. Ho joined Mao in Moscow in February. Stalin scolded Ho for having collaborated with the Americans and the nationalists. Ho assured Stalin that he was a communist. In the end Stalin told him that he would support the Chinese and that it was up to the Chinese to support the Vietnamese. Thus, Stalin indirectly began to support the Vietnamese through Mao. But the support for the liberation of Vietnam could best be described as lukewarm.
Henceforth, Ho had no choice but to go along with the hardliners in his own party, as well as whatever demands were made on him by the Chinese communists. Those demands included the Chinese methods for indoctrinating the people to think like communists, a method that could be called brainwashing. It was the most virulent form of communism and it is the form that exists in North Korea today. The people were aroused to hate their enemies and betray their friends and family. Children were particularly susceptible. People who were unwilling to go along with the program were severely punished. “Feudalism” was to be rooted out and landlords severely punished. The result during the Great Leap Forward and the Chinese Cultural Revolution during the 1960s was that millions of Chinese people would die, mostly due to starvation.
With the support of the Chinese, the war gradually began to shift towards the Vietnamese. French morale weakened and support for the war in France gradually diminished. But the Korean War exhausted the Chinese. Also, after Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leadership began to favor negotiation. The climate in both the Soviet Union and China favored compromise with the West. During the first four months of 1954, however, the Viet Minh achieved a huge military victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu using conventional warfare. Hard-line Viet Minh party members urged to keep fighting, but both Zhou Enlai and Ho preferred compromise to end the fighting. Subsequent peace negotiations in Geneva resulted in a partitioning of Vietnam into two halves, while leaving non-Communist governments in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The dividing line in Vietnam was the 16th parallel. Each side agreed that elections were to be held in two years.
In October the Viet Minh reoccupied Hanoi and all French forces evacuated North Vietnam. It had been nearly eight years since Ho had laid foot in Hanoi. He told the French that he was willing to retain a French cultural and economic presence and to establish diplomatic contacts with other non-communist countries. He insisted that he was not a slave to hard-line elements in his Party. But he emphasized that hereafter Franco-DRV relations must be on a basis of equality. As a result, tens of thousands of refugees moved across the border in both directions.
A Divided Vietnam and the American-Vietnam War
Henceforth, the United States would replace the French as the nation that would oppose North Vietnam and that would stand in the way of democratic elections. North Vietnamese, Ho included, became increasingly hostile towards the United States and by the end the year the Americans withdrew their consulate from Hanoi. With some irony the North Vietnamese began to view the French as the good guys and the Americans as the bad guys, all at a time when the mood in the Soviet Union and China was in favor of peaceful coexistence. Stalin had died and was replaced by Nikita Krushchev the previous year.
President Dwight Eisenhower was concerned that a democratic election would result in all of Vietnam becoming 100 percent communist. Besides the fact that Ho was still very popular throughout Vietnam, the Americans had memories of the staged elections and purge trials in Soviet-occupied eastern Europe at the end of World War II, which made it difficult for the Americans to trust elections in Vietnam to make a fair assessment of popular will. In the United States the popular image of the North Vietnamese communists, including Ho, became associated with the Stalinist-style Soviet Union. Furthermore, the new government of South Vietnam, led by a Catholic, Ngo Dinh Diem, proved to be very unpopular and was itself opposed to elections. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles then told the world that the United States had no objections to free elections, but it agreed with Diem that for the time being conditions were not ripe.
Land reform in the countryside of the DRV continued, while the groundwork for full scale collectivization of farms was laid. To help improve the economic conditions in North Vietnam, the regime continued to be tolerant of private enterprise and it welcomed the help of “bourgeois experts.” But hostility towards moderate intellectuals persisted. Chinese advisers arrived to incite the local populace to criticize those who had exploited them in the past. Anybody with any wealth at all fell victim. Many who were criticized were summarily executed. In some cases, villagers took advantage to settle private feuds by accusing others of involvement in counterrevolutionary activity. Several thousand, many of whom had been loyal supporters of the Viet Minh, were accused of treason and punished. In some cases, revolutionary cadres from poor peasant backgrounds attacked Viet Minh veterans and their families. Ho opposed torture and indiscriminate punishment, but he encouraged class warfare. In the view of one Viet Minh official, Ho was intimidated by Mao and his Chinese officials stationed in the DRV. Ho’s admonishments to moderate the class warfare went largely ignored until 1956.
In February of that year, Krushchev stunned the world when he denounced the excesses of Stalin and his betrayal of Leninist principles. It is difficult to assess the impact of Kruschchev’s announcement on China and Vietnam, but the revolutionary zeal softened. Some people were released from prison and some government hardliners were demoted. Gradually the virulent form of Maoist communism abated in Vietnam, unlike in North Korea and China itself. Surely Ho was one of the main reasons for that difference. Zhou Enlai later admitted to Ho that sometimes Maoism didn’t export so well.
Still, land reforms continued and the economy continued to be very weak. Ho’s influence on domestic policies, which had gradually weakened since 1946, continued to decrease. He remained the nominal President, but his role was largely spiritual. Ho did, however, continue to urge caution, avoid coercion, use “democratic methods” to indoctrinate the rural population in the superiority of the socialist system and not be so hostile towards the bourgeoisie. Certainly to a degree the Party followed his advice, but it decided to limit Ho’s role to foreign policy and the issue of national reunification.
The issue of reunification continued to be a major issue. In 1957 the DVR began to use terrorist techniques in the south, but Diem was his own worst enemy. He was incompetent and corrupt. The United States wasn’t happy with Diem either. The people of South Vietnam were no happier than they were when they were ruled by the French. Militants in the north felt it was urgent that the DRV immediately take advantage of Diem’s unpopularity by attacking the South, but the Soviet Union and China both recommended against that. Ironically, Mao was willing to postpone Vietnam reunification indefinitely in the same way that Ho was once willing to postpone a communist revolution indefinitely. That was easy for Mao to say since he was not Vietnamese. Ho was patient, but he was not that patient.
By 1964 the rupture between the Soviets and the Chinese was substantial. While the American-Vietnam War erupted, Krushchev promised support to Vietnam. But Ho knew that it needed China’s support more than it needed the Soviets. The Viet Minh remained worried about Chinese domination, but the Chinese were sensitive to that worry. The Chinese, in fact, wanted Vietnam to bear the brunt of the attacks from the United States. When the Americans began to bomb the DVR, the Chinese refused to challenge American air superiority. However, the Chinese stationed 100,000 troops on the DRV border. They had the DRV’s back and the United States knew it. That is why the United States never invaded the DRV.
During the war Ho became weaker and his role continued to diminish. He spent much of his time recuperating in China where he could be treated by doctors. He died in 1969 on September 2, the 24th anniversary of his declaration of independence. He died a national hero. Although most American-Vietnamese immigrants would disagree, Uncle Ho is to Vietnam what George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are to the United States.
Throughout the war, both sides talked about their conditions for beginning negotiations. President Lyndon Johnson offered to negotiate if the DRV would stop sending troops into South Vietnam. Ho offered to negotiate if the United States stopped bombing the north. They never agreed. Both sides were willing to establish a coalition government. The DRV was confident that they would eventually be able to dominate any political solution. In all likelihood they would have. The war killed 55,000 U.S. soldiers. An estimated one million Vietnamese died. Thousands of Vietnamese were given refuge in the United States.
A Postmortem Analysis
During the early days of President Johnson’s presidency he said, “They were ruthless people. Ho Chi Minh was. But I mean it was ruthless of the United States government with our boasted list of freedoms, to condone assassination, because you don’t approve of a political philosophy.” It was typical of Johnson’s muddled thinking, because he seemed to be talking about the assassination and the political philosophy of Ngo Dinh Diem rather than about the political philosophy of Ho and the ruthless slaughter that President Johnson was about to wreak in Vietnam.
Trouble began in 1949 after Mao took over China and America turned a blind eye. The Republicans indicted Truman and the Democratic Party for “losing China,” as if China were Truman’s to lose. Truman then reacted by creating a strict policy of containment, sending troops into Korea in 1951. As American troops moved into North Korea, the Chinese rushed in to defend it. Unwilling to send American troops into China, the war ended in a stalemate. President Eisenhower agreed to an armistice with North Korea that holds today, but North Korea’s government is run by a psychopath. Sixty-four years later that armistice is still holding, but barely.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States’ foreign policy was centered on its relationship to the Soviet Union. Any country falling to communist rule was considered evidence that the Red Menace was knocking at America’s door, giving rise to the domino theory abroad and McCarthyism at home. Communism was the Big Bogy. Fear was the prime motivator in the United States and it still is. America’s leaders during the Cold War never envisioned that one day Apple would be manufacturing iPhones in a communist country. Of course, there was no Apple at the time, but that is beside the point.
President Richard Nixon began the detente with Mao in 1973, but even during the 1950s the leaders of both China and the Soviet Union were strongly interested in peaceful coexistence with the United States—at least until they could complete their own socialist revolutions. The Soviet Union remained interested in controlling Eastern Europe, but they had a very limited interest in Southeast Asia. China, on the other hand, was determined to prevent the United States from having a military presence on its border. The United States failed to consider how the Soviet Union damaged its reputation in Southeast Asia when it sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to suppress a reform movement. Thereafter, China’s leaders remained resentful and suspicious of Soviet bullying. Caught in the middle of their disputes, Ho sometimes acted as a mediator between the two countries.
After the DRV unified the country, they began to meddle in the governing of Laos and Cambodia, who had their own communist parties. But it was China who put a stop to that meddling. Thereafter, each country managed their own communist revolutions independently of each other. There was no domino. Archimedes Patti knew that Ho was a man of peace and that the Soviet Union had no communication with anyone in Vietnam. All of the “Asianists” in the U.S. State Department knew this. And yet, Truman insisted on supporting French colonialism and betraying the principles set out in America’s Declaration of Independence. America missed a great opportunity to help Vietnam establish itself as a strong independent nation, freed from any dependency on China or the Soviet Union. America also missed an opportunity to be handed a naval base in Vietnam.
Why? I will never understand why.