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Ho Chi Minh
1890 - 1969


He married nationalism to communism and perfected the deadly art of guerrilla warfare
By STANLEY KARNOW for Time Magazine

An emaciated, goateed figure in a threadbare bush jacket and frayed rubber sandals, Ho Chi Minh cultivated the image of a humble, benign "Uncle Ho." But he was a seasoned revolutionary and passionate nationalist obsessed by a single goal: independence for his country. Sharing his fervor, his tattered guerrillas vaulted daunting obstacles to crush France's desperate attempt to retrieve its empire in Indochina; later, built into a largely conventional army, they frustrated the massive U.S. effort to prevent Ho's communist followers from controlling Vietnam. For Americans, it was the longest war — and the first defeat — in their history, and it drastically changed the way they perceived their role in the world.

To Western eyes, it seemed inconceivable that Ho would make the tremendous sacrifices he did. But in 1946, as war with the French loomed, he cautioned them, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." The French, convinced of their superiority, ignored his warning and suffered grievously as a result. Senior American officers similarly nurtured the illusion that their sophisticated weapons would inevitably break enemy morale. But, as Ho's brilliant commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, told me in Hanoi in 1990, his principal concern had been victory. When I asked him how long he would have resisted the U.S. onslaught, he thundered, "Twenty years, maybe 100 years — as long as it took to win, regardless of cost." The human toll was horrendous. An estimated 3 million North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died.

The youngest of three children, Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. The area was indirectly ruled by the French through a puppet emperor. Its impoverished peasants, traditional dissidents, opposed France's presence; and Ho's father, a functionary at the imperial court, manifested his sympathy for them by quitting his position and becoming an itinerant teacher. Inheriting his father's rebellious bent, Ho participated in a series of tax revolts, acquiring a reputation as a troublemaker. But he was familiar with the lofty French principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité and yearned to see them in practice in France. In 1911 he sailed for Marseilles as a galley boy aboard a passenger liner. His record of dissent had already earned him a file in the French police dossiers. It was scarcely flattering: "Appearance awkward ... mouth half-open."

In Paris, Ho worked as a photo retoucher. The city's fancy restaurants were beyond his means, but he indulged in one luxury — American cigarettes, preferably Camels or Lucky Strikes. Occasionally he would drop into a music hall to listen to Maurice Chevalier, whose charming songs he would never forget.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson arrived in France to sign the treaty ending World War I, and Ho, supposing that the President's doctrine of self-determination applied to Asia, donned a cutaway coat and tried to present Wilson with a lengthy list of French abuses in Vietnam. Rebuffed, Ho joined the newly created French Communist Party. "It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me," he later explained.

Soon Ho was roaming the earth as a covert agent for Moscow. Disguised as a Chinese journalist or a Buddhist monk, he would surface in Canton, Rangoon or Calcutta — then vanish to nurse his tuberculosis and other chronic diseases. As befit a professional conspirator, he employed a baffling assortment of aliases. Again and again, he was reported dead, only to pop up in a new place. In 1929 he assembled a few militants in Hong Kong and formed the Indochinese Communist Party. He portrayed himself as a celibate, a pose calculated to epitomize his moral fiber, but he had at least two wives or perhaps concubines. One was a Chinese woman; the other was Giap's sister-in-law, who was guillotined by the French.

In 1940, Japan's legions swept into Indochina and French officials in Vietnam, loyal to the pro-German Vichy administration in France, collaborated with them. Nationalists in the region greeted the Japanese as liberators, but to Ho they were no better than the French. Slipping across the Chinese frontier into Vietnam — his first return home in three decades — he urged his disciples to fight both the Japanese and the French. There, in a remote camp, he founded the Viet Minh, an acronym for the Vietnam Independence League, from which he derived his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh — roughly "Bringer of Light."

What he brought was a spirit of rebellion — against first the French and later the Americans. As Ho's war escalated in the mid-1960s, it became clear to Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam would imperil his presidency. In 1965, Johnson tried a diplomatic approach. Accustomed to dispensing patronage to recalcitrant Congressmen, he was confident that the tactic would work. "Old Ho can't turn me down," L.B.J. said. But Ho did. Any settlement, he realized, would mean accepting a permanent partition and forfeiting his dream to unify Vietnam under his flag.

There was no flexibility in Ho's beliefs, no bending of his will. Even as the war increasingly destroyed the country, he remained committed to Vietnam's independence. And millions of Vietnamese fought and died to attain the same goal.

Ho died on Sept. 2, 1969, at the age of 79, some six years before his battalions surged into Saigon. Aspiring to bask in the reflected glory of his posthumous triumph, his heirs put his embalmed body on display in a hideous granite mausoleum copied from Lenin's tomb in Moscow. They violated his final wishes. In his will he specified that his ashes be buried in urns on three hilltops in Vietnam, saying, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland."


Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) was the most famous Vietnamese revolutionary and statesman of his time. He was one of the shrewdest, most callous, dedicated, and self-abnegating leaders, a man apart in the international Communist movement.

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, the little Asian country that held two leading Western powers - France and the United States - at bay after the end of World War II, was founded and proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh in 1945. In spite of his shrewdness, the frail, little Ho looked like an old peasant with a gaunt face, an expression of simplicity and gentleness, and nothing surprising except his amazingly lively eyes. His familiar garb consisted of a linen work suit and rubber sandals made of discarded tires.

Ho was born Nguyen That Thanh on May 19, 1890, in the village of Kim Lien, province of Nghe An, central Vietnam, into a family of scholar-revolutionaries, who had been successively dismissed from government service for anti-French activities. At the age of 9 Ho and his mother, who had been charged with stealing French weapons for the rebels, fled to Hue, the imperial city. His father, constantly persecuted by the French police, had left for Saigon. After a year in Hue, his mother died. Young Ho returned to Kim Lien to finish his schooling. At 17, upon receiving a minor degree, Ho journeyed to the South, where he spent a brief spell as an elementary school teacher.

At the news of the first Chinese revolution, which broke out in Wuchang, the fiercely patriotic Ho left for Saigon to discuss the situation with his father. It was then decided that Ho should go to Europe to study Western science and survey the conditions in France before embarking upon a revolutionary career. Unable to finance such a trip, Ho nevertheless managed to obtain a job as a messboy on a French liner.

Years in Europe

By the end of 1911 Ho began his seaman's life, which took him to the major ports of Africa, Europe, and America. As World War I broke out, Ho bade farewell to the sea and landed in London, where he lived until 1917, taking on odd jobs to support himself. It was here that Ho cultivated contact with the Overseas Workers' Association, an anticolonialist and anti-imperialist organization of Chinese and Indian seamen.

In 1917 Ho departed for France. He settled in Paris, working successively as a cook, a gardener, and a photo retoucher. Ho spent half his time reading, writing, trying to gain French sympathy for Vietnam, and organizing the thousands of Vietnamese, who were either serving in the French army or working in factories. He also joined the French Socialist party and attended various political clubs.

Distressed by the Western powers' indifference toward the colonies both during and after the Versailles Conference in spite of the Fourteen Points of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, Ho, whose only interest up to that time had been Vietnam's independence, began to drift toward Soviet Russia, the champion of the oppressed peoples. At its Tours Congress in 1920, the French Socialist party split on the colonial issue: one wing remaining indifferent to the problems of the colonies and another advocating their immediate emancipation in accordance with Lenin's program. Ho sided with the latter faction, which seceded from the parent organization and formed the French Communist party.

In 1921 Ho organized the Intercolonial Union, a group of exiles from the French colonies which was dedicated to the propagation of communism, and published two papers, one in French, Le Paria, and one in Vietnamese, the Soul of Vietnam, which carried emotional articles denouncing the abuses of colonialism. His most important work, French Colonialization on Trial, was also written during this period.

In November-December 1922 Ho attended the Fourth Comintern Congress in Moscow. In October 1923 he was elected to the 10-man Executive Committee of the Peasants' International Congress. Late in 1923 Ho went to Moscow, where he absorbed the teachings of Marx and Lenin. Two years later he arrived in Canton as adviser to Soviet agent Mikhail Borodin, who was then adviser to the Chinese Nationalists.

Early Organizing Efforts

Passing for a nationalist, Ho brought the Vietnamese émigrés in Canton into a revolutionary society called Youth and organized Marxist training courses for his young fellow countrymen. The Youth members were the nucleus of what was to be the Indochinese Communist party. Those who refused to obey Ho's orders were severely punished; Ho would forward their names to the French police force, which was always eager to put them behind bars. Ho also set up the League of Oppressed Peoples of Asia, which was to become the South Seas Communist party.

In April 1927, as the Chinese Nationalists broke with their Soviet advisers, Ho had to flee to Moscow. Subsequently, he received a brief assignment to the Anti-Imperialist League in Berlin. In 1928, after attending the Congress against Imperialism in Brussels, Ho journeyed to Switzerland and Italy, then turned up in Siam to organize the Vietnamese settlers and direct the Communist activities in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Early in 1930 Ho went to Hong Kong, where on February 3 he founded the Indochinese Communist party.

A year later Ho was arrested by the Hong Kong authorities and found guilty of subversion. Thanks to a successful appeal financed by the Red Relief Association, Ho regained his freedom. He immediately left for Singapore, where he was again arrested and returned to Hong Kong. Ho obtained his release by agreeing to work for the British Intelligence Service. Back in Moscow in 1932, Ho underwent further indoctrination at the Lenin School, which trained high-ranking cadres for the Soviet Communist party. In 1936 Ho returned to China to take control of the Indochinese Communist party.

Return Home

In February 1941 Ho finally crossed the border into Vietnam and settled down in a secure hideout in a remote frontier jungle. With a view to bringing all resistance elements under his control, winning power, then eliminating all competitors and creating a Communist state, Ho founded an independence league called the Viet Minh, whose alleged program was to coordinate all nationalist activities in the struggle for independence. (At this time Ho adopted the name Ho Chih Minh - "Enlightened One.") While the Viet Minh included many nationalists, most of its leaders were seasoned Communists.

In August 1942 Ho went back to China to ask for Chinese military assistance in return for intelligence about the Japanese forces in Indochina. The Chinese Nationalists, who had broken with the Communists and been disturbed by the Viet Minh activities in both Vietnam and China, however, arrested and imprisoned Ho on the charge that he was a French spy. After 13 months in jail Ho offered to put his organization at the Chinese service in return for his freedom. The Chinese, who were in desperate need of intelligence reports on the Japanese, accepted the offer. Upon his release Ho was admitted to the Dong Minh Hoi, an organization of Vietnamese nationalists in China which the Chinese had set up with the hope of controlling the independence movement. Ho repeatedly offered to collaborate with the United States intelligence mission in China, hoping to be rewarded with American assistance.

The Statesman

As the war approached its end, Ho made preparations for a general armed uprising. Following Japan's surrender, the Viet Minh took over the country, ruthlessly eliminating their nationalist opponents. On Sept. 2, 1945, Ho proclaimed Vietnam's independence. In vain he sought Allied recognition. Faced with a French resolve to reoccupy Indochina and determined to stay in power at any cost, Ho acquiesced in France's demands in return for French recognition of his regime. The French, however, disregarded all their agreements with Ho. War broke out in December 1946.

Many nationalists, while aware of the Communist nature of Ho's government, nevertheless supported it against France. The war ended in July 1954 with a humiliating French defeat. An agreement, signed in Geneva in July 1954, partitioned Vietnam along the 17th parallel and provided for a general election to be held within 2 years to reunify the country. Because of mutual distrust, absence of neutral machinery to guarantee freedom of choice, and opposition of South Vietnam and the United States, the scheduled election never took place.

Ho, who had hoped that a larger population under his control, a Communist-supervised election in the North, and a more or less free election in the South would produce an outcome favorable to his regime, became greatly frustrated. He ordered guerrilla activities to be resumed in the South. Regular troops from the North infiltrated the South in increasing numbers. The United States, correspondingly, increased military assistance, sent combat troops into South Vietnam, and began a systematic bombing of North Vietnam.

Ho refused to negotiate a settlement, hoping that American public opinion, as French public opinion had done in 1954, would force the United States government to sue for peace. Apprehensive that his lifework might be destroyed and anxious to spare North Vietnam from further devastating air attacks, Ho finally agreed to send his representatives to peace talks in Paris. As the antiwar feeling mounted in the United States and other countries, Ho stalled, intent on obtaining from the conference table what he had failed to get on the battlefield. While the talks were dragging on, Ho died on Sept. 3, 1969, without realizing his dream of bringing all Vietnam under communism.











This web page was last updated on: 11 December, 2008