Millions of words have been written about Ho Chi Minh. He has been called the George Washington of Vietnam,1 a devoted nationalist who loved his country,2 a brilliant leader who fought for independence with a ragtag army of sandal-clad peasants and defeated the greatest power in the world.3
It all sounds very romantic, but it is also completely false. Ho Chi Minh was a dedicated communist,4 a member of the inner circle of the Soviet Comintern and a protégé of Dmitry Manuilsky, the right hand man of both Lenin and Stalin.5 His supposedly ragtag army of peasants was trained by the Mao’s Red Chinese Army6 and armed with modern weapons by the Red Chinese and Russians.7
After all this time, why do we still argue about the Vietnam War? About who Ho Chi Minh was? As William Duiker wrote,8 “The question of Ho Chi Minh’s character and inner motivations lies at the heart of the debate in the United States over the morality of the conflict in Vietnam.”
As a young man, Nguyen Tat Thanh was a Vietnamese patriot from a patriotic family agitating for independence for their country. His father refused positions with the government because he disagreed with their policies. His brother and sister were both imprisoned by the French for supporting Phan Boi Chau’s revolutionary movement.9
Thanh seems to have been a follower of the non-violent Phan Chau Trinh.10 In 1911 he left Vietnam searching for a way to help his countrymen gain their independence. For a while he lived and worked in France with Phan Chau Trinh. Eventually they parted, as Ho became an increasingly more militant communist.
When he returned to Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh 30 years later, the patriot was no more. In his place was a brutal murderer dedicated to spreading communism throughout Asia. Before he and his followers were done, millions of people were dead in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.11
As the man responsible for the spread of communism in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Ho Chi Minh is directly and indirectly responsible for the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians,12 2 million Vietnamese and possibly 230,000 in Laos.13 These are not war dead, but people murdered, starved to death and “reeducated” to death. In 1995 Vietnam revealed that they lost 1.1 million military dead14 during the war. As a percentage of their populations, Ho is responsible for as many deaths in Indochina as Mao Tse-tung was in China.
To grasp the enormity of the slaughter, one would have to execute more than 26 million Americans to equal the percentage of the populations slaughtered by Ho and his henchmen. Documenting these deaths is outside the scope of this article. I encourage readers to survey the literature themselves for the evidence.
Who was Ho Chi Minh? Ho Chi Minh was a chameleon. He was a master at appearing to be whatever his interlocutor of the moment was expecting or hoping for (or not expecting at all). On the inside, where it counted, he never changed after his conversion to communism. He was a devoted communist whose only goal was the worldwide victory of communism, especially in Indochina,15 no matter how many people he had to kill to achieve it.
Much of Ho Chi Minh’s life was an enigma until recently.16 His birthdate was unknown for many years after his death. It was variously claimed to be 1890,17 1891,18 1892,19 189420 and 1895.21 His birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cong.22 He was named Nguyen Tat Thanh,23 following Vietnamese tradition, when he achieved adolescence. He was the son of Nguyen Sinh Sac (Huy).24 He was born in a small village named Kim Lien in the district of Nam Dan, part of the province of Nghe-An, in southern North Vietnam, about half way between Hanoi and Hue.
Concerning the confusion surrounding the details of Ho’s life, Robert Turner wrote, in a footnote in Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development:25
There is considerable confusion as to the date and place of Ho’s birth and even to his given names. Two versions of the “official” biography prepared by the Committee for the Study of the History of the Viet Nam Workers Party in 1970 gave conflicting information on his native village. A Vietnamese-language version in Nanh Dan (Hanoi), 17 May 1970, asserted that Ho was born in Kim Lien village “the native village of his maternal grandfather.” An English-language version which otherwise appears to be identical stated that Ho was born in Hoang Tru, the village native to his mother. DRV, Our President Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House. 1970), p. 59. A biography by Truong Chinh identified Kim Lien as a hamlet in Nam Lien village. President Ho Chi Minh, Beloved Leader of the Vietnamese People (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1966). p. 9. David Halberstam asserts that “Ho came from the province of Nghe Thinh [sic] ….. Ho (New York: Random House. 1971). p. 17. Nghe Tinh is a region rather than a province: it consists of the provinces Nghe An and Ha Tinh and is well known for having produced many of Vietnam’s revolutionary figures.
Several writers assert that Ho’s first name was actually Nguyen Sinh Cung (or Coong) and that he was ten years old before he became Nguyen Tat Thanh. See Jean Lacouture. Ho Chi Minh: A Politcal Biography (New York: Random House. 19(8). p. 13: Marr. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, p. 153: and N. Khach Huyen. Vision Accompllished? The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh (New York: Collier Books. 1971). pp. 4-5.
Even the year of Ho’s birth is the subject of some dispute. Both Ellen Hammer and Bernard Fall state that Ho Chi Minh was born in 1892. Ellen Hammer. The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1966, p. 75; Bernard B. Fall. The Viet-Minh Regime, Government and Administration in the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam. rev. and enl. ed. (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations. 1956). p. 21, n. 2. In a later book Fall acknowledged that most Communist sources give 1890 as the year of Ho’s birth. The Two Viet-Nams. p. 83.
Ho used several pseudonyms throughout his life (possibly as many as 75),26 at least two of which he appropriated from true Vietnamese patriots, Nguyen Ai Quoc27 and Ho Chi Minh. Researchers have identified 9 names that he used from official communist documents alone.
Ho has variously been known as Nguyen Sinh Cong, Nguyen Tat Thanh28 (often mistakenly identified as his birth name), Ahn Ba29 (used when he was a kitchen boy aboard ship), Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot, which he “stole” from Phan Van Truong30 31), Tran Van Tien,32 T. Lan,33 Lee Swei,34 Lin,35 Sung Man-cho and T. V. Wong,36 Ly Thuy and Vuong Son Nhi37 and finally Ho Chi Minh (which he “stole” from the Vietnamese patriot, Ho Hoc Lam38). (Throughout this document I will use the name Ho, since it is the name most closely associated with him, except where other names make sense in the context.)
His words were often as fictitious as his names. He lied about his place of birth.39 He lied about his date of birth.40 He lied about where he lived41 and what he did42 throughout his life. He lied about who he was and what he believed. He lied to create mystery, to hide the truth, to confuse authorities and most of all to further the cause of communism.
His life was so filled with deceit and deception that even now, more than 40 years after his death, historians can’t agree who he really was or about some of the details of his life.
As a child, Ho attended the Lycee Quoc Hoc in Hue (but never graduated). Ngo Dinh Diem’s father, Ngo Dinh Kha, founded the school, and Ngo Dinh Diem (later to become his enemy), Pham Van Dong (later to become his premier) and Vo Nguyen Giap (later to become his military leader) also attended the school.
His father was friends with Pham Boi Chau and earned his pho bang degree the same year as Phan Chu Trinh. They were the two most prominent patriots of his time, and young Ho was exposed to both of them through his father.
The mood in Vietnam at the time was one of rising anger, a growing desire to shed the yoke of French mastery and forge a new destiny. Ho, as a young student, was an active part of it, participating in protests and working to stir up the people to oppose the French. The French colonial police took notice and kept an eye on the young activist student.
In 1911, pursuing his desire to see the world and to escape the watchful eyes of the French colonial police, Ho boarded a French merchant ship,43 using the name Ba,44 and worked as a kitchen boy aboard the ship. Some accounts claim he lived in London for a while, and even in America, but there is little solid evidence to corroborate residence in either place.45 (The British authorities, at the request of the French searched fruitlessly for Nguyen Tat Thanh in London for several years.)
What he did for the six years from 1911 to 1917 is not known with any certainty. It’s entirely possible that he was working aboard vessels of Compagnie des Chargeurs Re’unis the entire time, visiting ports all over the world. That would explain his familiarity with the United States and Britain as well as post cards stamped in those cities. Both were ports of call, and the young Thanh was eager to disembark and explore the local cultures of each port where they docked.
In 1917, he settled in France and began attending socialist meetings. He was an avid learner and soaked up everything he could about socialism and activism. He was also a frequent visitor to the Sorbonne as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale where he is said to have been a “voracious reader”.46
He first showed up in police files in France in 1919, after he had moved in with Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Van Truong and took a job with Trinh retouching photographs.47 Their apartment was the center of activity for a small group of dedicated Vietnamese nationalists known as the Five Dragons48 who met frequently, had animated discussions about Vietnam and published articles advocating for Vietnamese independence. One of the frequent attendees was also a police informant.
During the Treaty of Versailles conference, Trinh, Truong and Ho worked on a document to present to the conferees advocating for independence for Indochina. Since the Surete´ was watching them closely, they published the document using a pseudonym, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot). The document was conceived by Ho and written by Truong.
The name Nguyen Ai Quoc had appeared before in articles published in France,49 before Ho is known to have written anything and well before he was capable of writing in French. The author was most likely Phan Van Truong50 according to French police notes51 since he was a lawyer and spoke and wrote French fluently. Ho admitted in his biography that he couldn’t write French and depended upon Truong to write the Versailles document for him.52
After Versailles, rumors flew for three months about who Nguyen Ai Quoc might be. The French investigated, trying to determine who the writer was. In September, Ho “admitted” he was Quoc during a newspaper interview, stealing the pseudonym so he could appropriate to himself all the previous work done under that name.53 Thus he gained the credentials of a true Vietnamese nationalist that still fools people today.
Ho continued attending political meetings and learning about communism. His change from a concerned nationalist to a committed communist appeared to happen rapidly. In less than a year, he changed from begging for help for his Asian brothers54 to promoting Asia as the fulcrum for a worldwide communist revolution.
He wrote55 “…on the day when millions of oppressed Asians wake up, they will form a colossal force capable of overthrowing imperialism, and they will aid their brothers of the West in the task of total emancipation from capitalist exploitation. Asia would play an active role in carrying out the world revolution.”
One year later he was on his way to Moscow, all expenses paid by the Comintern, to attend the Fourth Congress of the Comintern and enroll in intensive training.56 He had become a committed communist, preparing to bring revolution to Indochina and misery and death to many of his fellow countrymen.
In 1924, fully trained and eager to begin his revolution, Ho traveled to Hong Kong as an agent of the Comintern. He was now a Comintern insider, dedicated to the worldwide overthrow of capitalism and prepared to do whatever the Comintern asked of him.
He met with Phan Boi Chau in Hong Kong and began working with him to build a revolutionary movement (later named Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi [Young Revolutionary Comrades Association]).57
Phan Boi Chau was a popular nationalist who had a large following (the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Ho) and extensive international contacts.58 He had united Vietnamese nationalists of all religions in the early twentieth century, arguing that the traditional anti-Catholicism was counterproductive and that all nationalists should unite in a common cause – to expel the French.59
Chau represented a serious threat to Ho’s dreams of a communist Indochina as well as a rich resource of followers that Ho might tap once Chau was out of the way. Less than a year after meeting him, Ho facilitated Phan Boi Chau’s arrest by the French60 in exchange for money so that he could fill the vacuum left when Chau was arrested.61 (Although there is some controversy regarding who actually betrayed Chau, there is little question that Ho was involved.)62
He didn’t hesitate to exploit the resource as soon as Chau was arrested. Those Phan Boi Chau followers who accepted communism were welcomed into Ho’s movement. Those that did not were betrayed to the French by Ho’s henchman, Nguyen Cong Vien, for money. Thus Phan Boi Chau’s movement was both destroyed and subsumed through deceit and treachery.63
Consistent with his previous behavior, he stole the name Ho Chi Minh from Ho Hoc Lam, whom he met in China in 1924 when meeting with Phan Boi Chau.64 The name would inure to him the benefits of the real Ho Chi Minh’s legacy. For the many Vietnamese revolutionaries who came from the Nghe Tinh region, the name would evoke patriotism and nationalism. His plan was taking shape. He would use the name Ho when the time was right.
There was a much darker side to Ho than his deceit and treachery however.
In 1930 and 1931, his Indochinese Communist Party conducted an assassination program against competitors, landowners and officials, that was so sweeping it prompted a rebuke from the Comintern.65 It was a harbinger of things to come. Before he died, the bodies would pile up in a steady stream as he eliminated anyone who appeared to be a threat or simply didn’t agree with him completely.
Through the 1930’s and 40’s, as the ICP worked to gain complete control of Vietnam, thousands of patriotic Vietnamese fell to the sword, were turned over to the French for money or fled to Japan and China to escape the terror. When it suited Ho’s purpose, some would serve in his government; when it no longer did, they would die or flee the country.
Once he obtained power in North Vietnam, he began systematically eliminating his competition. He formed alliances with nationalist groups and then proceeded to eliminate their leaders all the while touting his nationalist credentials.
Moderate reformers like Bui Quang Chieu were assassinated as a matter of course,66 to “purify” the Vietnamese people so communism could succeed. Even personal friends, like Ta Thu Thau, were murdered in his zeal to eliminate all but the most fervent of followers67 and destroy anyone who might challenge his leadership. Those who were fortunate either escaped to other countries or to South Vietnam, where their luck would run out two decades later. The rest died.
Ho, when asked about the murder of Ta Thu Thau by a reporter, answered matter-of-factly, “Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.”68
The last to go were the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, a nationalist organization that had risen up against the French in 1930 in Yen-Bai. (This was the same year Ho created the Indochina Communist Party in Hong Kong and 11 years before he returned to Vietnam after a 30-year absence.) Ho eliminated them through military action against the areas they controlled as well as arrests of the leadership and confiscation of their assets.69 By the end of 1946 there was no one left to contest Ho for leadership of North Vietnam.
The peasants soon discovered his true nature as well in the brutal land reforms. Ostensibly they were designed to benefit the peasants. In reality, they pitted the peasants against the middle class and wealthy and even against each other and resulted in at least 50,000 murders and 450,000 “other” deaths70.
The land reform was so brutal that the peasants revolted. To maintain order Ho called in an entire division and slaughtered Vietnamese indiscriminately until the revolt was put down.71
It’s no wonder then that many American leaders predicted a bloodbath should the communists take over South Vietnam.72 Nor is it surprising that apologists for the communists insisted that the predictions were wrong.73 74
A bloodbath was exactly what they got. Research revealed between 84,000 and 240,000 political executions75 in South Vietnam after the communists took over. Given the ratio of executions to deaths in North Vietnam’s land reform, it’s not unreasonable to postulate a minimum of 840,000 deaths and a maximum of 2.4 million deaths76 in the South.
Ho’s lack of conscience and end justifies the means philosophy was manifested in the international agreements that he made as well. He never honored agreements that he signed considering them simply a temporary appeasement of his enemies while he strengthened his position.
He signed agreements with the French in 1946 and just eight months later he attacked them. He signed peace agreements in Geneva in 1954 and 1962, both of which he abrogated before the ink was dry. (Of course his government followed in his footsteps and abrogated the peace treaty they signed with the US in 1973.)
He infiltrated (and later invaded) South Vietnam in violation of the Geneva Accords in order to destroy the ability of the South Vietnamese government to build confidence and safety among its citizens. He maintained the fiction that the NLF was an independent organization in order to “negotiate” with the U.S. and South Vietnam from a stronger position. (Of course he never had any intention of abiding by any accords that were signed.)
He quoted the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to trick many Americans and the international community into thinking he believed in republican politics. He did the same to Vietnamese nationalists, lulling them into the false sense of security that was shattered as soon as he could exercise his extreme brutality against his “enemies”.
Referring to the betrayal of Phan Boi Chau, the British scholar P.J. Honey wrote77:
Some of Ho’s followers subsequently reported that he had given them the following reasons for his act of treachery:
(1) Chau was too old to be of any further use to the revolution.
(2) The upsurge of patriotism that would inevitably follow Chau’s trial and condemnation, would create a favorable revolutionary climate in Vietnam.
(3) The reward money would help to finance the training of new recruits
The first of these reasons is an obvious attempt to minimize Ho’s guilt, but the second and third reasons provide a revealing insight into the callous pragmatism that was to become the hallmark of Ho’s later political activities. The ruthlessness, the total disregard for human life and suffering, were always present in Ho’s actions, though he frequently disguised these characteristics behind gentle words and a benign exterior.
Hammond Rolph sums up the contradictions of Ho in one sentence.78
“To the Vietnamese people he has presented himself as a figure of avuncular benignity, while his political life has been a model of ruthless and militant dedication to the fulfillment of the national and social goals he has set for the Vietnamese Revolution.”
One of Ho’s favorite slogans can still be seen on billboards all over Vietnam today. “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”79 Yet in Ho’s lifetime, he had the power to provide that independence and freedom to the people of North Vietnam and never did.
The people of South Vietnam had independence and freedom within the context of an ongoing war. All the arguments about the corruption, the autocratic nature of the South Vietnamese government or suppression of some press outlets can’t obscure the fact that they had freedom of the press, open elections, opposition parties and open strident political criticism so long as it didn’t promote the Communist version of the truth. North Vietnam had none of that. When the North defeated the South, Ho’s mantra of independence and freedom, a reality in South Vietnam, was swept away in a brutal repression of all opposition to Communist rule.
The key to understanding Ho is presentation versus behavior. A man can appear to be many things, but his actions define who he is. Ho’s actions define him as a dedicated communist who never swerved from his goal. Every move he made, every word he spoke was calculated to further that goal. Millions died because of it.
In the pantheon of dictators who slaughtered millions of their own people, Ho stands proudly beside Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler. His record speaks for itself.
A pdf copy of this paper is available for download here.