Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communists during their fight for Vietnamese independence, is simultaneously one of the most important and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, here are six things you didn’t know about Ho Chi Minh.
He Had Many Different Names
Direct information about Ho Chi Minh can be hard to come by, but part of why he remains such an elusive character is that he had several different names. At birth, he was given the name Nguyễn Sinh Cung. Following Confucian tradition, it was changed at the age of 10 to Nguyễn Tất Thành (Nguyễn the Accomplished). During his sojourn in France from 1919 to 1923, he became interested in politics, writing under the pseudonym Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Nguyễn the Patriot), the name he would use when he became a famous revolutionary. For over two decades, Nguyễn engaged in all kinds of clandestine activities and used anywhere between 50 and 200 aliases. Eventually, he settled on the name Hồ Chí Minh (he who has been enlightened). His admirers would come to know him as “Uncle Ho.”
His French Rulers Were Brutally Repressive
With Europe in seemingly constant chaos for much of the early 20th century, it’s easy for Americans to forget about what was happening in the far-flung French colony of Indochina before the Vietnam War. But for Vietnamese citizens like Ho Chi Minh, the French colonial government was impossible to ignore.
Though the French often spoke of “civilizing” Vietnam, they did little more than plunder it.
The French began their conquest of Vietnam in 1858 and consolidated their hold over the nation in 1885. Though they often spoke of “civilizing” Vietnam, they did little more than plunder it. Massive taxes were levied, and government monopolies were imposed. Politically connected landlords exacted huge rents from the increasingly impoverished peasants. Civil liberties were virtually non-existent, and protests were often met with merciless violence.
One particularly harrowing incident occurred in September 1930, when thousands of demonstrators marched on the road toward the city of Vinh. Imperial soldiers were mobilized to halt the advance, shooting anyone who dared to challenge them. So ruthless were the French authorities that they even dispatched military planes to drop bombs on the marchers. Hundreds were killed and more were wounded, while a reported 51,000 were imprisoned.
It was this regime that Ho Chi Minh fought to overthrow.
He Admired Western Values
Despite his vehement opposition to French imperialism, Ho Chi Minh had a lot of respect for the French people and for Western democratic values. He stunned his Western listeners when he opened an important speech by quoting America’s Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The French were not an evil people, he said, but their hypocritical government was ignoring the principles they professed to hold.
Unlike other revolutionary leaders who stirred up hatred by demonizing their foreign enemies, Ho took a much more nuanced stance. The French were not an evil people, he said, but their hypocritical government was ignoring the principles they professed to hold. It was the colonial system, Ho argued, that made the French behave so brutally toward their Vietnamese subjects.
He Favored a Gradual Approach to Socialism
Ho Chi Minh was convinced that in the long run, the global capitalist system would collapse. This was the standard Marxist theory at the time. But whereas his comrades—particularly those in China—recommended abrupt government takeovers, Ho preferred a slow transition.
Ho told a Western journalist that Vietnam would need an advanced industrial and agricultural base before they could impose full communism.
Ho did this for two reasons: First, as he learned from his hero Vladimir Lenin, an immediate socialist transformation would ruin all prospects for economic growth. He told a Western journalist that Vietnam would need an advanced industrial and agricultural base before they could impose full communism, and therefore a regulated capitalist system would be maintained for the time being.
Second, Ho wanted to present a moderate face to the capitalist West. To initiate large-scale socialist reforms would have scared off the Americans (whom he was courting for diplomatic support) and possibly encouraged them to intervene on the side of the French.
As it happens, Ho’s predictions came true: once the Soviet Union and China publicly recognized Vietnam as a socialist ally, the US began considering military action.
Stalin Didn’t Like Him
It was during his four years in France that a young Ho Chi Minh officially became a communist. He worked tirelessly writing articles criticizing the capitalist West and participated in several international organizations established by the Soviet Union. As one former colleague recalled, by 1923 Ho was a “committed Stalinist.”
Ironically, Josef Stalin himself had little respect for his Vietnamese comrade. He questioned Ho’s devotion to international communism, fearing Ho was really just a nationalist. Stalin’s concerns were amplified when, after World War II, Ho attempted to establish good relations with the United States.
When Ho came to Moscow on a diplomatic mission in 1950, Stalin treated him with open contempt. A humorous anecdote nicely sums up their relationship: Ho, apparently still filled with admiration for the murderous dictator, asked Stalin to autograph a Soviet magazine for him. Stalin obliged, only to regret the decision later and order his bodyguards to discreetly steal it back.
He Said He Disapproved of Violence, But...
Perhaps what most distinguished Ho Chi Minh from his socialist contemporaries was his distaste for bloodshed. Whenever possible, he attempted to find a peaceful alternative to violence. Ho went to great pains to be as conciliatory as possible toward the French, who in 1946 sought to reassert their authority after their expulsion from Vietnam by the Japanese during World War II. Though most of his compatriots wanted to fight, Ho realized that their forces were woefully unprepared to fight a well-trained and well-equipped Western enemy. During the revolution in August 1945, several non-communist journalists and politicians were arrested and executed by the communist coalition “Vietminh” forces.Hoping to strike a deal with the French in which Vietnam would be granted autonomy, Ho promised that they would be welcomed back as friends but not as conquerors.
Unfortunately, a peaceful resolution was not in the cards. Vietnam had to achieve independence through a war that would see hundreds of thousands killed.
Though Ho tried to avoid war, he was certainly not a pacifist. He was more than willing to use violence to further his political ends. During the revolution in August 1945, for example, several non-communist journalists and politicians were arrested and executed by the communist coalition “Vietminh” forces, apparently with Ho’s tacit approval. Further political purges would occur all across the country.
Ho clearly did not revel in violence, but he did believe it was necessary. When a political opponent was assassinated in Saigon, “Ho shed a brief tear for the ‘great patriot,’ but then added, ‘All those who do not follow the line that I have set out will be smashed.’”
And smashed they would be. Scorched-earth tactics were employed by the Vietminh throughout the countryside in an effort to ensure the loyalty of the Vietnamese people. Europeans were attacked and brutalized. Anyone thought to be consorting with the French was executed.
Despite his best intentions, Ho could never have prevented the violence socialism inevitably brings.
In 1953, the Vietminh began to expropriate land from landlords. If they were accused of tyrannical practices, the landlords were tried in a kangaroo court and could be executed immediately if found guilty. Thousands were killed during this reign of terror. Though he did not publicly condemn these actions, Ho did attempt to temper his more bloodthirsty colleagues behind the scenes, encouraging them to use indoctrination rather than guns.
So why, if Ho Chi Minh was so averse to violence, did he condone so much of it from his own government? Some of his apologists have pointed out that he was simply not as powerful as, say, Stalin or Mao were within their respective countries and therefore could not have stopped the widespread violence brought on by the Vietminh regime even if he had wanted to.
But the most likely explanation is that Ho believed establishing the future socialist state was worth the moral cost of exterminating thousands of innocent people, regretful as it might be. In his biography, William J. Duiker characterized Ho’s mindset this way:
Perhaps the most that can be said is that Ho Chi Minh had become a prisoner of his own creation, a fly in amber, unable in his state of declining influence to escape the inexorable logic of a system that sacrificed the fate of individuals to the "higher morality" of the master plan.
In other words, despite his best intentions, Ho could never have prevented the violence socialism inevitably brings. The decision to pursue socialism is always to make the decision to kill.