How we study Hồ Chí Minh

Hồ Chí Minh is a seminal figure in the history of anti-colonialism.

By 1920 he had become a leader of a small group of French colonial subjects based in Paris as well as the editor of their newspaper, Le Paria.

His life’s early trajectory parallels that of other anticolonialists of the post-World War I generation, men who were disappointed that the peace settlement of 1919 did not mention their fates or offer any promises of Wilsonian self-determination.

It was during this moment of disillusionment with the West that Hồ’s gaze moved to Moscow and the promises of the Communist International.

Like the Indians, who had thought that their loyalty to the mother country would be rewarded at the moment of victory, like the Koreans and Chinese, who had hoped for concessions from the Paris Peace Conference, Hồ and his compatriots believed that the time for new strategies had come.


Hồ Chí Minh is a seminal figure in the history of anti-colonialism

He was attracted by the idea that the Russian revolutionaries would convince the Western working class to fight for the rights of their colonial subjects.

Once Hồ arrived in Moscow in the summer of 1924, his life was subsumed by the controversies, rumors, and secrets of the communist movement.

This creates a major obstacle for historians writing about Hồ Chí Minh today.

From the Western vantage point of the 1960s, after Hồ’s trip to Moscow, his choices were assumed to have been clear and predictable; we also assumed that the policies of the Communist International were always clearly defined.

We forget that Sun Yatsen had opted for cooperation with the Soviet communists in 1923 and that Hồ’s decision to travel to Moscow in 1924 can be viewed as the extension of the Vietnamese nationalists’ search for allies in Japan, China, the U.S. and France.

Hồ’s great tragedy is that he never found a way to escape from this dependent relationship.

Once Hồ Chí Minh revealed himself as the President of an independent Democratic Republic of Việt Namin 1945, he became fair game for an array of writers, analysts, and propagandists who desired to explain him to the world or to shape his image.

Although he briefly tried to retain control of his own biography, this was not an option for a leader who was less than all-powerful.

By the 1950s, the communist party propaganda department seems to have taken charge of his portrayal as the wise, all-seeing leader, a depiction that erased most of the political debate and struggle that his party endured from 1945 to the 1960s.

Hồ Chí Minh became trapped in what I call a “double myth”—both left and right came to view him as a paramount leader in the style of Mao or Stalin.

He was either a saint-like leader devoted to the independence of Việt Nam, or a totalitarian communist, presenting the face of the fatherly nationalist to the outside world while leading the DRV through purges, a disastrous land reform, and the destruction of intellectual freedom.

Although since the collapse of Soviet communism, a few serious and nuanced biographies of Hồ Chí Minh have appeared, there is still, in my observation, a general reluctance to let go of the earlier Cold War tropes.

It seems to me that some writers still believe that the fastest way to weaken the current Vietnamese government is to undermine the reputation of Hồ Chí Minh.

But this is an old game—it is also one that is unlikely to have any effect on the current leadership, which relies on a growing economy fuelled by foreign investment and a well-calibrated system of carrots and sticks to keep the populace in line.

Politically, the government has few links to Hồ Chí Minh, in spite of their efforts since 1991 to erect “Hồ Chí Minh Thought” as a national ideology.

For Vietnamese writers of left and right, serious scholarship on Hồ Chí Minh seems almost impossible.

Anecdotes replace a real analysis of his views and contributions to policy after 1945.

There are, for example, several versions of his attitude to the execution of Nguyễn Thị Nam, a landlord and member of the Việt Minh women’s union; yet there is so much more available material—from  newspapers, East European and Chinese sources, not to mention the most recent edition of party documents—that needs to be analyzed .

Has anyone really engaged with the work on Land Reform of Trần Phương or Edwin Moise, which opens up many questions about those years?

Who or what was responsible for the purge that reached its peak in early 1956, when as Moise writes, “old organizations” in the villages, including the Lao Động party and the Việt Minh, were disbanded when their members were imprisoned? [1]

One thing we hardly ever see in Western or Vietnamese émigré writing about Hồ Chí Minh is the criticism leveled at him by his own peers, specifically, other Vietnamese communist leaders.

Yet this is one window onto the views of Hồ Chí Minh that has to be opened up by serious biographers.

The fact that we have gained some glimpses of this criticism through access to formerly closed communist archives should not make it any less worthy of consideration.

The criticism of younger, more radical communists who took the leading roles in the movement he established is quite consistent.

From late 1930, Hồ was criticized for being too nationalist, too petty bourgeois, and for not understanding the role of class struggle in the revolution.

In April 1931, for example, Trần Phú wrote to the Comintern Far Eastern Bureau in Shanghai to complain that the February 1930 unification conference organized by Hồ Chí Minh, which formed the Vietnamese Communist Party, had been imbued with the ideas of “the old revolutionary organizations” and had accepted small and medium landlords as participants in the revolution.

“The work of this ‘unification conference’ carried the clear imprint of the period of collaboration between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party, in particular the rightist policy of the CCP between 1925 and 1927,” he wrote. [2]

Hà Huy Tập’s report on the March 1935 Macao Party Congress made it crystal clear that Hồ Chí Minh’s influence on the Indochinese communist movement was by then being rejected.

“In Siam and in Indochina the communist organizations are carrying out an open struggle against the remnants of the national-revolutionary ideology, mixed with reformism and idealism, of the Thanh Niên association of Comrade Nguyễn Ái Quốc,” Tập explained. [3]

In the late 1940s and again in 1962-3, once again we have documentary evidence of accusations that Hồ Chí Minh was viewed by his own party as too willing to compromise with the West.

In 1947, for instance, then party leader Trường Chinh wrote that the August Revolution had been marred by too lenient an attitude toward the enemies of the revolution.

For 1963, we have evidence from the East German diplomatic archives that Hồ Chí Minh was being accused of two mistakes:

In 1945, he had compromised with the French by allowing them to return to Việt Nam;

In 1954, he had compromised again, agreeing to the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. [4]

The Vietnamese party at this time was embarking on an “Anti-revisionist” campaign to oppose the idea that national independence could be achieved by peaceful means.

This created a temporary chill in relations with the USSR and the Eastern European countries, where following the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a strong desire to improve relations with the United States.

On Christmas Day 1963, Hồ Chí Minh told the Soviet ambassador in Hà Nội that he was stepping down from his day-to-day responsibilities.

But rather than examining Hà Nội’s policies as the decisions of a divided and disputatious party organization, numerous writers on the history of the DRV tend to take any evidence of extremist and repressive policies as the work of Hồ Chí Minh.

In the case of the later stages of the Land Reform and the Party Rectification movement, this tendency has become increasingly evident in the past few years, to judge by an upsurge of émigré commentary.

In this year 2011, 36 years after the end of the Vietnam War, it would be a very healthy thing for the worldwide Vietnamese community to start thinking about history in a different way—as  a search for clarity that does not necessarily begin with a search for heroes and villains.


Source: GlobalVietDiaspora

(*) Sophie Quinn-Judge is Associate Director for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society at Temple University 

[1] Edwin E. Moise, Land Reform in China and North Vietnam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983, pp. 230-1.

[2] Sophie Quinn-Judge,  Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, p. 185.

[3] Ibid, p. 205.

[4] Martin Grossheim, ‘Revisionism in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam: New Evidence from the East German Archives,’ Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 4 November 2005, pp. 454-5.


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