Ho Chi Minh

(1890–1969) Vietnamese communist leader

Ho Chi Minh’s original name was Nguyen Ai Quoc. He fought against French rule over his country and afterward struggled against the United States in the Vietnam War. Combining his ideology of communism with love of his country, Ho left an indelible mark in history.

He was born in the village of Kim Lien in Annam on May 19, 1890, and received education from his father, Nguyen Sinh Huy, as well as in the local school. He attended the National Academy school in Hue and then worked as a teacher in south Annam. After taking a course in navigation, Ho traveled to the West to find means for liberating Vietnam from French rule. He was appalled at the oppressive rule of the colonial masters and had a burning desire to free his country.

Ho went to Marseilles in 1911 and after three years traveled to London, where he worked in the kitchen of the Carlton Hotel. He was a member of the Overseas Workers Association. Ho was in the United States for some time and then went to Paris and drifted toward socialism and Marxism and became one of the founding members of the French Communist Party after its split with the Socialist Party in 1920. He called for Vietnamese independence, convinced that the road to it was through the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism.

Ho edited a journal, Le Pariah (The outcast), where he published articles on anticolonialism under the alias Nguyen Ai Quoc. He used many names before he took up the name of Ho Chi Minh in 1940. In 1922 he attended the fourth congress of the Comintern in Moscow, joined its Southeast Asia bureau, and took a leading part in the work of Krestintern (Peasant International). Playing a prominent role in the fifth congress as well, Ho advocated anticolonial revolution in Asia.

He was not happy with the French Communist Party, which only made halfhearted attempts to oppose colonialism. Ho began to contact the Vietnamese exiles in Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China.

After traveling to Brussels, Paris, and Bangkok, Ho went to Hong Kong and set up the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) on February 3, 1930. Its agenda was to end French rule in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam; nationalize the economy; and institute land reforms. In neighboring Laos and Cambodia, communist parties such as the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge were set up. Until its formal disbanding in February 1951, the ICP under Ho took the lead in Vietnam’s struggle against French rule, where it organized party cells, trade unions, and peasants.

Ho was in Moscow when World War II in Europe broke out on September 1, 1939. The war provided an opportunity to free Vietnam after the German victory over France that allowed Japan, Germany’s ally, to occupy Vietnam. In January 1941 Ho returned to Vietnam after 30 years in exile. He established the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), or Vietminh. In the northern portion of Vietnam, liberated zones were set up near the Chinese border.

Ho was arrested by the Chinese government and returned in 1944 to Vietnam after spending two years in jail. In August 1945 Ho called for a revolution, and the Vietminh took control of Hanoi on August 17. When Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945, Ho immediately declared independence and formed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, or North Vietnam). He remained president of North Vietnam until his death in 1969.

A communist state, North Vietnam would be embroiled in cold war politics, war with France, and the struggle for unification of both the Vietnams after the French defeat. Ho relentlessly followed his objective to establish a unified communist Vietnam. After the breakdown of an agreement Ho had signed in Paris, the First Indochina War began. The Vietminh resorted to guerrilla warfare and by 1950 were in complete control of the northern portion of Vietnam. The United States, following a containment strategy in the cold war, gave military help to the French. The French-sponsored South Vietnam had been established in July 1949, which the United States recognized in 1950. The Soviet Union and China recognized the DRV.

The collapse of French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, ended French colonial rule in Indochina, and Vietnam was divided in two at the 17th parallel. Ho’s dream of a unified Vietnam had not been realized, and he would fight against the United States in the Vietnam War. Although much of his country was devastated, Ho never wavered from the path toward his goal. Both Vietnams were unified in 1975, six years after Ho Chi Minh’s death.

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