Ho Chi Minh: North Vietnam Leader
Published Online: July 25, 2006
Although the most visible symbol of America's chief enemy in the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh was still a difficult figure to hate. A frail and benign-looking old man in peasant garb or Mao jacket, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam seemed perfectly described as 'Uncle Ho,' an epithet bestowed upon him by friend and enemy alike. Indeed, he often seemed more symbol than substance–a mere face on a poster, an intangible foe unreachable by modern means of warfare, an almost mythical personification of the Communist enemy. But Ho Chi Minh was the very real driving force without which the unified Vietnamese state would never have been achieved. For more than 50 years, most of which he spent away from Southeast Asia, Ho worked single-mindedly to realize the end of French colonialism and the erection of a Vietnamese national state. That determination, rather than genius, was his hallmark as a leader. If the Vietnamese revolution produced a real genius, then it was certainly Vo Nguyen Giap, a military leader who would have stood out in any army. Ho Chi Minh, however, was the essential man whose drive and determination focused the efforts of others and whose leadership excited the admiration and support of Vietnamese on both sides of the 17th parallel. Details of Ho Chi Minh's life are vague, curiously so for such a prominent national leader. Every biography differs in some fundamental detail, offering the reader no certainty about the man. Ho Chi Minh himself is responsible for much of this, for he consciously distanced himself from his own past and his own origins, choosing to identify with the revolutionary ideal rather than the old mandarin traditions. In his personal break with family and tradition, Ho set the example for the new nation he wished to create, a Vietnamese state unencumbered by the weight of a heritage that accepted foreign rule. Because he gave no particular importance to details of his life, Ho Chi Minh's date of birth and true name are in question. Most of what we know about the man can only be considered informed supposition. He was probably born Nguyen Van Thanh, the youngest son of three children of Nguyen Tat Sac, in Kim Lien Village of Nghe An Province in Central Vietnam, on May 19, 1890. He attended the French lycée in Vinh between 1895 and 1905 when (depending upon the source) he was dismissed either for reasons of politics or poor grades. Between 1906 and 1910, he was a student in the noted Lycée Quoc Hoc in Hue, a school distinguished for its nationalist sentiments and one that produced other prominent figures in modern Vietnamese history — among them Ngo Dinh Diem, Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong. In 1910, again for reasons uncertain, he left the school without a degree and briefly taught in Phan-Thiet, a little town where, coincidentally, Ngo Dinh Diem also lived as provincial administrator some 20 years later. In 1911, Ho completed courses in a school for bakers in Saigon, and in 1912 took the name of Ba and accepted a job as a messboy on a French liner on the Saigon-Marseilles run. Bernard Fall, one of the earliest and most acute students of the Vietnamese revolution, regards this as the single critical decision of his life. When he turned to the West, Ho Chi Minh rejected the traditional conservative Vietnamese nationalist course of militarism and a mandarin society, and instead chose the course of republicanism, democracy and popular sovereignty. Meeting other Vietnamese nationalists in Paris, Ho found he could not accept their course of peaceful cooperation with the French, and sought another solution. After living in France for a time, Ho is said to have moved to London, where he was a cook's helper under Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel. During World War I, some sources insist, he moved to the United States, where he lived in Harlem. If true, this experience gave him background material for his Pamphlet La Race Noire...
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