For those of us who fought in or against the brutal Vietnamese war, the emotions run deep. A whole generation of activists grew to political maturity during that time as the U.S. government proved itself unable to impose its imperialist will upon this long-suffering people.
By total coincidence I was in the middle of reading William J. Duiker’s significant new book, “Ho Chi Minh,” at the time that the Bob Kerry Vietnam massacre story broke. I found myself struck by Duiker’s in-depth biography. The book rings true, even after my suspicions were aroused by the positive review of it in the New York Times Book Review and Duiker’s past employment at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the height of the war in the 1960’s. Bob Kerry and others who were permanently affected by this war would benefit from reading it. It would help them understand clearly that they were tools of a United States government that was on the wrong side.
As presented by Duiker, Ho Chi Minh also has a lot to teach those of us of whatever age who are active in the peace and justice movement today.
One cannot but be impressed by Ho and his compatriots’ dedication to the cause of national independence and social justice despite tremendous difficulties. The realities of French colonialism under which he labored, from 1910 on, were very different than those most of us face in the United States today. But as Ho put it in a poem written while in prison in 1942, “Luckily, I’ve persevered and endured. Not taken a single step backward. Although it’s been physically difficult, My spirit remains unshaken.”
Ho Chi Minh was an ethical and moral model. His “list of behavioral norms was strongly reminiscent of traditional Confucian morality: be thrifty, be friendly but impartial, resolutely correct errors, be prudent, respect learning, study and observe, avoid arrogance and conceit, and be generous.” He taught courses on morality during his lifetime. An American, Dan Phelan, who interacted with him during the latter stages of World War II, used the word “gentle” to describe Ho’s most impressive quality. He went without food once every ten days during a period of famine in the fall of 1945, soon after the Vietnamese declaration of independence, as an example of the need for conservation.
When he learned of torture being used by some party cadres during a land reform campaign in 1954, he openly addressed it at a cadre conference:
“It is a savage method used by imperialists, capitalists and feudal elements to master the masses and the revolution. Why must we, who are in possession of a just program and just rationale, make use of such brutal methods?” He is reported to have wept several months later “as he alluded to the sufferings that occurred during the campaign.”
Ho Chi Minh was keenly aware of the necessity of building broad alliances to achieve social change, while always putting the needs of those most in need first. This was so much a strength that it was probably also a fault, an “opportunist error,” at times. For example, soon after the 1945 siezure of power by the Vietnamese following the end of World War II, in discussions with the first secretary of the United States embassy, “he hinted at the possibility of future military cooperation between the two countries-including U.S. use of Cam Ranh Bay, on the central coast of Vietnam, as a base.” At the time he hoped to enlist U.S. support of the Vietnamese efforts to get the French to accept Vietnam’s right to independence and leave.
Despite the violence and brutality of French colonialism, Ho wanted Vietnamese independence to come as peacefully and non-violently as possible. In the summer of 1946 he was part of a delegation that went to France to try to negotiate France’s voluntary withdrawal from Vietnam, before the outbreak of full-scale, anti-colonial war. Following the breakdown of the talks in mid-September, he stayed on after the other Vietnamese members left. Despite “sentiment in Indochina…running strongly against a compromise with the French,” several days later he signed what French military leader Jean Sainteny “described as a ‘pathetic’ piece of paper,” a “temporary arrangement between parties pending a final agreement.” Ho told Sainteny as they left the meeting, “I have just signed my death warrant.” Fortunately, this risk that Ho took turned out not to lead to that end.
Ho Chi Minh understood clearly the need for a multi-tactical, democratic, alliance-building approach if positive social change were to take place. Within Vietnam Ho worked hard to build a broadly-based coalition that “could appeal to all progressive and patriotic forces,”
which also “put it into position to lobby for recognition by the victorious Allies as the legitimate voices of Vietnamese nationalism.”
During a campaign to collectivize the economy of northern Vietnam in the late 1950s, he “urged his colleagues to avoid coercion and to use ‘democratic methods’… that persuasion rather than force be used…” In October, 1961, during an internal debate within the Vietnamese Workers Party, “Ho recommended a strategy based on guerrilla warfare, the mobilization of the support of the masses, and winning the battle of public opinion in the world arena.”
Duiker’s conclusion about Ho Chi Minh is that he was “half Lenin and half Gandhi.” What I felt after reading this book, and after having been deeply involved for years myself with the cause of Vietnamese independence, is that he was a human being who tried to utilize his skills and insights in the cause of human liberation at a particular time in history and a particular place in the world. He tried to do so in as humane and non-violent a way as possible, but he was willing to use whatever tactics, including the use of arms and violence, he and his compatriots collectively determined were necessary to achieve liberation. In the context of brutal and racist French colonialism, and with his commitment not just to national independence but to an end to class oppression and capitalist exploitation, to justice and human dignity for all, he felt this was a necessary approach.
Although our conditions are very different than those faced by this great man and his compatriots, there is much in the life of Ho Chi Minh for those of us in the United States to study and ponder.