Ho Chi Minh, A Life: Book review

William Duiker lays out an impressive body of research on the life of Ho Chi Minh, the political and personal forces that shaped him, and the role he played in shaping the future of an independent Vietnam and the unification of the North and the South, writes Adrian Bonsdorff

Undoubtedly, Ho Chi Minh was one of the most influential and important political figures of the 20th century.  He is among the foremost anti-colonial leaders, who dedicated their lives to the liberation of their people and countries from the oppressive forces of imperialism. His name has become synonymous with revolution, anti-colonialism and independence. The significance of Ho Chi Minh’s contributions cannot be understated. He directed the struggle and eventual defeat of three powerful empires, the French, the Japanese, and finally the US. Though Ho did not live to see the defeat of the US in Vietnam, and while credit for military strategy must also be given to other figures, like Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh set in motion the events that inspired millions of Vietnamese to rise together in order to achieve independence and socialism in Vietnam. The struggle culminated in the first strategic defeat of the US in the 20th century, when Vietnam was liberated and unified in 1975, illustrating that empires can be defeated and that liberation is possible.

However, for the majority of history, the details of his life were largely a mystery. He was remembered in borderline mythical ways, as the ‘father’ of Vietnam, a modest man of the people who was genuine and caring in nature, yet also a political genius who played the single most important role in eliminating French colonialism in Vietnam and establishing its independence. Not much was known of his movements, as he spent significant parts of his life in exile under various different aliases (up to 50 different names) due to his lifelong resistance to French colonial rule in what was then called Indochina. Despite the difficulty of locating and verifying credible sources about Ho Chi Minh’s life, William Duiker has managed to put together a splendid account of his activities, travels, motivations and philosophy in his book ‘Ho Chi Minh: A Life’. The greatness of this book lies with Duiker’s attention to detail and his careful parsing of archives from various countries, including Vietnam, France, Russia and China. While much has been written about the Vietnam War, this book focuses more closely on Ho Chi Minh’s life in the context of his pursuit of Vietnamese independence. As such, it also serves as a great analysis of the factors that lead to the US war on Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh, born Nguyen Sinh Cung, spent his youth in a small village called Kim Lien in the Nghe An province, a hotbed of rebellion and resistance to French occupation. He demonstrated exceptional skill in his study of Confucianism, where he studied under several different tutors, including his father, who had become the first student in the village since the 17th century to receive the prestigious ‘degree of doctorate’. Obtaining a degree bestowed great respect onto the recipient, as well as the entire village; it was also a great way to climb the ranks towards an official government position. However, Ho Chi Minh’s father warned his son not to “just follow the road to an official career…but try to understand the inner content of the Confucian classics in order to learn how to help your fellow human beings.” The remainder of the book illustrates the degree to which Ho took this advice to heart, rejecting careerism and opportunism throughout his life. It becomes clear that the study of Confucianism and its ideals of equality, social harmony and humanism inspired Ho’s desire to pursue the freedom and independence of his people; it also informs us as to why Marxism and the ideas of socialism appealed to him.

Instead of racing down the obvious path toward an official government position in the French-occupied Vietnam, Ho spent his youth taking part in rebellion and protest against the French. For this, he was placed under surveillance and dismissed from the National Academy, where he studied. This was as a preview for the rest of his life, where he was to be pursued and arrested several times.

As the conditions were not ripe for revolution and independence in Vietnam, Ho sought to travel the world to understand how others lived, including the French, with the goal of returning to Vietnam to help his people. After an initial trip to France, and stints in the United States and England, he settled in Paris around 1917. Duiker describes with clarity Ho’s political and theoretical awakening in Paris, where he became a devoted communist, writing about the prospects of communism in Vietnam. He became involved with the French Communist Party, where he advocated for the civil rights of the Vietnamese, as well as their eventual independence from French colonialism. At this time, the tension between communism and nationalism arose, and it was to remain a central issue throughout his life. Ho felt that the French communists paid insufficient attention to the colonial question, and that French workers still saw the Vietnamese as “inferior and negligible human being[s]”.

This tension played out not only in his mind, but also in his dealings with foreign powers. He worked with the French Communist Party as well as the Comintern in the Soviet Union and spoke of the virtues of Marxism and Leninism, yet in his dealings with the United States prior to the Vietnam War, he tried his best to alleviate any concerns by downplaying the centrality of communism to his prospective government. To the US, he presented as a nationalist, though the US remained sceptical of his intentions. To many others, he was a devoted communist. The book presents ample sources for the reader to make up their own minds as to the true ideological intentions of Ho Chi Minh.

Ho’s relationship with the United States was an interesting one. On the one hand, he found inspiration in their pursuit of liberty and saw it as an anti-colonial nation that managed to fight off the British; Duiker notes that he was willing to work with them to fight the Japanese occupation in Vietnam. On the other hand, he was acutely aware that they may not accept a revolutionary government in Vietnam, and that they may invade. Ho even quoted the US Declaration of Independence in his own declaration of Vietnamese independence in 1945.

Ho Chi Minh never strayed away from his image as an everyday man. He favoured the traditional clothing of Vietnamese farmers and workers, whether he was meeting with Vietnamese workers or foreign political leaders. He eschewed fame, preferring a life of simplicity. Upon taking office as president of North Vietnam, he stayed in a traditional stilt house in Hanoi rather than in the Presidential Palace.

Throughout Ho Chi Minh: A Life, William Duiker lays out an impressive body of research on the life of Ho Chi Minh, the political and personal forces that shaped him, and the role he played in shaping the future of an independent Vietnam and the unification of the North and the South. As his former mentor, Phan Chu Trinh, concluded, Ho Chi Minh chose “the lonely and difficult path of liberating his compatriots…and all must respect his stout heart.”

Ho Chi Minh: A Life, William Duiker, Hyperion (now Hachette), 2001

Adrian Bonsdorff is a Liberation volunteer

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