The single most influential figure in the Vietnamese nationalist movement, Ho Chi Minh was one of those rare figures in history who appear to transcend the movement which spawned them, and who come to personify a set of ideas and goals.
The youngest of three children, Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung on 19 May 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. Ho spent his formative political years in exile. Between 1911-41, he travelled through Europe, USA, China and the Soviet Union. Even though he was criticised by communists for being a nationalist, he helped found the French Communist Party, and spent time studying in Moscow.
In 1887, Vietnam had become part of the French Empire, along with Laos and Cambodia. Together, the French referred to this region as Indochina. During the Second World War, the country was occupied by the Japanese, who allowed the French to maintain control of their colony, thus inflicting what Ho later described as a double yoke of imperialism.
Ho returned to Vietnam in 1941, and helped establish the VietMinh, the Vietnamese communist party. As the effective leader of the revolt against the Japanese invaders, Ho declared Vietnamese independence in Saigon. Although this ceremony was witnessed by several agents of US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) sent to coordinate opposition to the Japanese, the French were quick to reclaim their former grip on their colonies in Indochina. Within a month of Ho’s proclamation, the French had initiated a military campaign against the VietMinh, with the primary intention of re-establishing their influence in the country.
At the end of the global war, Ho declared the creation of an independent Vietnamese state with himself as both president and prime minister. But an independent Vietnam was not something which the French, with British and US support, would not tolerate. The trigger for the war came in late November 1946 when the French commander in Indochina, General Etienne Valluy, authorised the bombardment of the Vietnamese settlement in Haiphong in north Vietnam in retaliation for the death of three French soldiers, resulting in approximately 6,000 Vietnamese fatalities. On 19 December, French forces in Hanoi demanded that the occupants of the city surrender their weapons. General Giap, Minister of the Interior in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), refused and declared the start of a war of resistance against the French colonialists.
In response to the overwhelming advantage held by the French in terms of weaponry and manpower, the VietMinh fled to the countryside. However, their determination and willingness to absorb huge casualties shocked the French forces, who expected an easy victory. Ho’s adoption of a guerrilla ‘hit and run’ strategy proved effective in the early stages of the war in denying the countryside to the French, which in turn provided a greater opportunity for Ho to wage a political war targeted at the Vietnamese peasantry.
After the French defeat at Dienbienphu in 1954, in which they suffered 1 500 killed, and 10 000 taken prisoner, Vietnam was temporarily divided at the 17th parallel. The Vietminh were given control of North Vietnam, whilst a capitalist, anti-communist state was created in the south. Propping up the south, US involvement grew steadily during 1954-65, to the point where she assumed responsibility for the war against the communist insurgents.
Thwarted in his attempt to create a united Vietnam at Geneva in 1954 and two years later by the failure of Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-backed first president of South Vietnam, to agree to unification elections, Ho was forced to consolidate his grip on power in the North whilst waiting for Diem to be overthrown. The gradual escalation of US involvement threatened to place an insurmountable obstacle in his path, but he correctly predicted that the lack of political will in the US for a long, bloody war would ultimately leave the way open for the conquest of the South.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ill health forced Ho to step down as prime minister in 1955 and he remained his figurehead position as president. Feted as the father of the DRV and influential in the founding of the People’s Army of Vietnam, Ho also played a key role in maintaining morale in the North during US bombing campaigns and sanctioned the costly Tet Offensive against the South in 1968. His death from heart failure on 2 September 1969, aged 79, led to the creation of a posthumous cult of personality, with his body embalmed in a mausoleum and Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City after its capture in 1975.
For more about the Vietnam War, see Vietnam War: History In An Hour