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Who Was Ho Chi Minh?

HO CHI MINH By William J. Duiker; Hyperion: 700pp., $35

October 08, 2000|CAROL BRIGHTMAN | Carol Brightman is the author of "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World." She was the founder and editor of Viet-Report and in recent years has returned to Vietnam several times to gather oral histories on the two Indochina wars

There is an epic sweep to the life of Ho Chi Minh, who was possessed of an idea for which the world refused to make room. This was not just the dream of an independent Vietnam, liberated from the bondage of empire, but Ho's vision of the revolution that would bring it about. As it happened, it was a revolution that was sometimes insufficiently Leninist to suit his own Party chiefs, not to mention Stalin and later Mao, and was originally fired in no small way by the ideals of his enemies. Liberty, equality and fraternity--also the American Revolution's celebration of righteous resistance and the pursuit of happiness--fairly crackled with purpose when they were attached to the 30-year struggle he led.

"No national leader has stood so stubbornly or so long before the enemy's guns," wrote Time magazine when Ho died in 1969. Similarly no nation's leadership resisted taking the measure of its enemy longer than did Washington. This resistance deepened the ignominy of America's defeat, but it was impermissible, at least on the battlefield, to see in the Vietnamese revolution anything other than a conspiratorial, technically adroit, terrorist uprising, which could (or couldn't) be defeated in South Vietnam with superior technique, showy doctrines of reform and the relentless deployment of overwhelming military force. To view it otherwise--to see the guerrilla as someone with a commitment to justice who had the support of his or her people and was willing to make sacrifices for the sake of a cause or ideology--was to cede the moral ground that traditionally fueled America's wars, something Ho well understood.

William Duiker's book, the first full-scale biography outside Vietnam, is a welcome intrusion on the silence that has surrounded Ho Chi Minh, especially in the United States. Duiker, a retired professor of East Asian studies at Penn State and the author of several books on modern China and Vietnam, has written an impressive diplomatic history of Ho's life.

Duiker relies heavily on intelligence sources, mainly French, British, Chinese and Comintern spymasters, better informed, one hopes, than the FBI or CIA. From these sources "Ho Chi Minh" draws its profusion of detail. The figure who emerges: the young Comintern agent, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), Ho's nom de guerre for 25 years, darting across continents, building alliances, neutralizing enemies and slowly organizing the party that will help fulfill his dream, is the man of a hundred aliases seen through the eyes of a thousand policemen.


Ho's vision of an independent Vietnam was first set forth in 1919 at Versailles, when he appealed to Allied leaders to apply Woodrow Wilson's call for self-determination to French Indochina. He was 28, a politically aroused son of central Vietnam's scholar-gentry class, with no future at home but jail. Born Nguyen Tat Thanh in 1890, he shipped out of Saigon as a cabin boy on a French liner in 1911. After four years at sea, with stops in Boston and New York, he settled in Paris, where he worked as a photographer's retoucher and (in Ho's words) "a painter of 'Chinese antiquities' (made in France!)." There he began to probe public opinion about the crimes committed by French colonialists in Vietnam. He joined the French Socialist Party in which he found some sympathy for the cause, and became a founding member of the French Communist Party.

Versailles was the scene of the first of Ho's many efforts to convince Western democracies to honor the freedoms they espoused. But in the West, the "sacred right of all peoples to decide their own destiny" (Ho, speaking in 1919) did not extend to the subject peoples, not then and not at the end of World War II, when similar promises were made by Franklin Roosevelt.

Missing from Duiker's account, however, is a sense of place, starting with post-World War I Montmartre, where everyone was debating everything, not just Ho's new comrades in the French Socialist Party, who were debating the merits of the Second, Second-and-a-half and Third International (Lenin's), but young artists and writers from around the world who argued in the cafes, including the one at the end of Rue Monsieur le Prince, where Ho lived and where, nearly 50 years later, young Vietnamese emigre revolutionaries lived too.

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