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Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) - originally Nguyen Sinh Cung; pseudomyms: Van Ba, Nguyen Tat Thanh, Nguyen Ai Quoc, Linh, Ly Thuy, Wang, Duong, Nguyen Lai, Nam Son, Tau Chin


Vietnamese statesman, Communist leader, and Confucian humanist, who led the country's struggle for independence in the 1940s and was a major figure in the war between North and South Vietnam in the 1960s. Ho Chi Minh devoted his life to the revolution and cause of communism. Like Mao Zedong, he emphasized the revolutionary potential of the peasantry, but unlike the Chinese leader, Ho was know for his Gandhian modesty and aestheticism in his private life. Among Ho's most famous literary works is his Prison Diary.

Innocent, I have now endured a
whole year in prison.
Using my tears for ink, I turn
my thoughts into verses.

(from 'Autumn Night', in Prison Diary, translated by Aileen Palmer)

Ho Chi Minh was born on Nguyen Sinh Cung in the village of Kimlien, Annam – later he was given the name Nguyen Tat Thanh, "he who will succeed." Ho came from a poor scholar-gentry family. His father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a teacher and civil servant, who was dismissed from his office for refusing to serve at court. Hoang Thi Loan, Ho's mother, died when Ho was eleven. After attending schools in Vinh and Quoc Hoc College in Hué, Ho left his studies and taught at a private school in Phan Thiet, a fishing village in South Annam. Ho's wandering years began in 1911, when he decided to leave French Indo-China (Vietnam). He traveled to Saigon and found employment on a French passenger liner Amiral Latouche-Tréville as a kitchen help. He then worked in London (1915-17) and Paris (1917-23) in odd jobs, among others as a pastry cook at the Carlton Hotel in London. He also spent some time in the United States.

Ho's pamphlet, La Race Noire, which was published in Moscow in 1924, was partly based on his experiences during his trips in 1914-1916. It is believed, that he lived in Harlem for a while, and visited Boston, and East and Gulf Coast ports. The American actress Mae West has told in an interview, that she met "Ho... Ho... Ho something" at the Carlton. "There was this waiter, cook, I don't know what he was. I know he had the slinkies eyes though. We meet in the corridor. We – well..."

In his years at sea, Ho read such writers as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Marx, and Zola. He greeted with enthusiasm the Russian Revolution and after World War I he joined the French Socialist Party. Lenin's Theses on the National and Colonial Questions impressed him deeply and in 1920 he participated in the Committee of the Third International. He also was one of the founders of the French Communist Party and published writings on colonial issues in the Marxist periodical Le Paria (The Outcast), and contributed articles to the newspaper L'Humanité. Like Lenin, he believed that nationalism was a trap that lured colonized peopled away from class struggle. "If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you waging?" Ho Chi Minh asked.

By August 1922 the French government ordered the French secret police to follow Ho's movements. As a response said an open letter to Albert-Pierre Sarraut, minister for the colonies: "If Your Excellency insists on knowing what we do every day, nothing is easier: We shall publish every morning a bulletin of our movements, and Your Excellency will have but the trouble of reading."

Ho journeyed in 1923 to the U.S.S.R. to study Marxism and revolutionary techniques. In Moscow Ho became a member of the Comintern's Southeast Asia Bureau. In 1924 he moved as an agent of the Comintern to Canton, China, where he helped to organize the revolutionary forces and lectured on politics and ideology. These lectures were published in a book form under the title The Revolutionary Path (1927). According to some sources, Ho allegedly married Tang Tuyet Minh in China in 1926 under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot).

After Chiang Kai-shek turned on his Communist allies, Ho fled to Moscow by the way of Gobi. In the late 1920 Ho's political activities took him to Europe, and in 1928 he spent some time in Siam (Thailand) disguised as a Buddhist monk. In 1930 he was again in China and established in Hong Kong the Communist Party of Vietnam. He was arrested in 1931 by the British police, and after he was released in 1933, he escaped back to the Soviet Union in the disguise of a Chinese merchant. The French had already sentenced him to death in absentia in 1930.

Before returning to Vietnam, Ho worked with Chinese communists. At the age of fifty, he crossed the Vietnam-China border, but his stay in his native country did not last long. During the early 1940s Ho adopted the pseudonym Ho Chi Minh – meaning roughly "he who enlightens." He was arrested in China in 1942 and jailed for over a year. From this period dates his Prison Diary, which consists of politically and ideologically orthodox poems. "Physically I'm suffering / But my spirit will never flinch" he said in one of the poems. In prison Ho lost his teeth and his hair turned grayer.

When the Japanese 'occupation' ended in 1945, the Viet Minh independence movement took over Hanoi. Ho proclaimed the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the declaration of independence, which was partly based on his recollections of the American Declaration of Independence. It started with the words, "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." In 1946 he was appointed President. During the following years Ho led the anti-French resistance – the Viet Minh was dominant in the countryside, and the French controlled the large cities.

The turning point of the war come in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, where the stronghold built by the French troops was crushed – a triumph of guerilla strategy and patience. "It is a glorious victory of our people, and also of the oppressed people in the world," Ho later said. The French Government signed an armistice, and subsequent negotiations divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel. In Hanoi President Ho Chi Minh refused to settle in the governor general's residence, and for some time he lived in the electrician's cottage and then in a modest house on stilts. The title he preferred in his old age was Uncle Ho. Usually Ho Chi Minh dressed in high-necked white garment, called a cu-nao, and wore open-toed rubber sandals. He was a chain-smoker, especially he loved American-made Salems.

The North adopted the socialist system, and following Maoist policies a brutal land reform was carried out. Although Ho was opposed to the worst excesses, an estimated 50,000 people died and about 50,000-100,000 were imprisoned (from Le livre noir du communisme, by Stéphane Courtois et. al, 1997). Freedom of speech was restricted. From 1959 arms and guerrillas moved down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south. Eventually The Trail comprised twelve thousand miles of roads and paths. The United States, supporting Ngo Dinh Diem and the Saigon regime in the South, was gradually drawn into the war against the People's Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), of which the Americans used the term Viet Cong, an abbreviation of Viet-nam Cong-san (or Vietnamese Communists). Hanoi was repeatedly bombed by American planes. In the 1960s, the conflict created a world wide protest movement and the rhythmic chant 'Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh' became an essential part of the peace marches.

Ho resigned from his position as the party's secretary-general in 1959. Due to his poor health, his role was largely ceremonial, as the symbol of Vietnamese communism. The active conduct of the war was done by the collective leadership he had established. "Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?" Ho Chi Minh asked once from his American visitor. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote a letter to Ho, in the hope that the conflict in Vietnam can be brought to an end. Ho answered: "The Vietnamese people will never give way to force, it will never accept conversation under the clear threat of bombs."

Ho Chi Minh died of heart failure on September 3, 1969, in Hanoi. In his testament Ho wrote: "All my life, I have served the Homeland, the revolution and the people with all my heart and strength. If I should now depart from this world, I would have nothing to regret, except not being able to serve longer and more. When I am gone, a grand funeral should be avoided in order not to waste the people's time and money." The war ended in 1975, Vietnam's reunification was officially proclaimed next year, and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

President Ho Chi Minh's massive Mausoleum in Hanoi, where his embalmed corpse rests, was completed in 1975. The embalming was done by the Soviet Dr Sergei Debrov; it took a full year to complete the process. Mao's body was embalmed without Soviet help. When the Soviet Union collapsed, old Comintern files in Moscow were opened, but thus far historians have not found much inflammable material on Ho. William J. Duiker claims in his biography on Ho Chi Minh, that Ho married twice, and in Hanoi he fathered a child.

For further reading: Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years by Sophie Quinn-Judge (2002); Rhetoric of Revolt: Ho Chi Minh's Discourse for Revolution by Peter Anthony Decaro (2002); Ho Chi Minh by William J. Duiker (2000); Ho Chi Minh by Reinhold Neumann-Hoditz (1989); Ho by David Halberstam (1986); Ho Chi Minh by Dana Ohlmeyer Lloyd (1986); Ho Chi Minh by Charles Fenn (1973); Ho Chi Minh: Legend of Hanoi by Jules Archer (1971); Vision Accomplished? The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh by N. Khac Huyen (1971); Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography by Jean Lacouture (1968)

Selected works:

  • La Race Noire, 1924 [The Black Race]
  • Procès de la colonisation française, 1925
  • Đường cách mệnh, 1927
  • Sửa đổi lối làm việc, 1954
  • Tám năm kháng chiến thắng lợi, 1954
  • Đồng bào miền Nam là dân nước Việt-Nam, 1955
  • Những lời kêu gọi của Hồ Chủ Tịch, 1958-
  • Lên Án Chủ Nghĩa Thực Dân, 1959
  • Selected Works, 1960-62 (4 vols., Hanoi: Foreign Languages Pub. House)
  • Phát huy tinh thần cầu học cầu tiến bộ, 1960
  • Nhật ký trong tù, 1960
    - Prison Diary (translated by Aileen Palmer, 1962) / Reflections from Captivity (edited by David G. Marr; translated by Christopher Jenkins, Tran Khanh Tuyet, and Huynh Sanh-Thong, 1978)
  • On Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-1966, 1967 (edited by Bernard Fall)
  • Di chúc của Chủ tịch Hồ Chí Minh, 1969, 1989 (edited by Nguyen Van Linh)
    - President Ho Chi Minh's Testament. Appeal and Last Tribute of the Central Committee of the Viet Nam Workers’ Party (tr. 1969)
  • Selected Articles and Speeches, 1920-1967, 1969 (edited, with an introduction, by Jack Woddis)
  • On Lenin and Leninism: Selected Speeches and Articles, 1971
  • Dân tộc Việt-Nam ta là một dân tộc anh hùng, 1974
  • Về Lê-nin và chủ nghĩa Lê-nin, 1977
  • Selected Writings, 1920-1969, 1977
  • Patriotism and Proletarian Internationalism, 1979
  • Hồ Chí Minh toàn tập, 1980-1989 (10 vols.; 2d ed., 12 vols., 1995-96)
  • Ho Chi Minh: Selected Writings, 1981
  • Hồ Chí Minh thi họa, 1945-1954, 1990
  • Về nhà nước và pháp luật Việt Nam, 1990
  • Ho Chi Minh: Selected Writings, 1994 (3 vols.)
  • Tuyển tập văn học, 1995 (3 vols.)
  • Về công tác giáo dục lý luận chính trị, 2006
  • Down With Colonialism!, 2007 ( introduction by Walden Bello)
  • Về vấn đề nhà nước và pháp luật, 2010

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