Ho Chi Minh

Imperialism directly affected the political map of the world as it is known today and fueled the flames of the nationalist movements that arose in imperialized countries. Imperialism is defined as the policy of extending a nation’s authority through acquiring territory or establishing political or economic dominance over a territory. During a period known as the Age of Imperialism (1870-1914),  European countries rushed to claim unexplored territories such as the Americas, Asia, and Africa to be used for their own benefit. Colonies supplied these European countries with raw materials as well as the power and glory of controlling land. The violent methods used to control foreign land and populations was justified by ideas such as Social Darwinism, the “White Man’s Burden” and the overall belief that Europeans were superior to other people in the world. By 1900, through “New Imperialism” (more direct rule), Europe controlled one-fifth of the world’s land mass and ruled around 150 million people (10% of population of the world) (www.tamaqua.k12.pa.us/AgeofImperialism). The French colonized countries and territories in Southeast Asia, creating “Indochina”, of which Vietnam was a part. With the harsh policies of imperialism, it was inevitable that someone would rise up against the colonial powers. Vietnam suffered under its colonizers until the emergence of Ho Chi Minh after World War Two, who catalyzed an upheaval in Vietnam. Between 1945 and 1975, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam went through several wars and political and social upheaval before finally becoming independent and unified in 1975 (Kiernan). Although debated by historians, Ho Chi Minh was the right person at the right time to lead an anti-colonialism revolt. Ho’s education in France which exposed him to the ideas of Leninism, Communism and political self-determination taught him to appeal to the Vietnamese peasants not as a leader, but as an equal, earning him the title “Uncle Ho.” In addition, Ho’s superior political ability helped him not only to fill a power vacuum, but also successfully manipulate Cold War politics involving Russia and China.France’s economic and political exploitation of Vietnam made it difficult for the Vietnamese to accept being ruled by a foreign power. Vietnam was founded by Hung Vuong, the first ruler of the Hung dynasty (2879 to 258 BC). The Han Empire of China conquered Vietnam in 111 BC and ruled it as part of their empire. Under the Han, Chinese culture became a part of Vietnamese life. In 938 C.E., Vietnam was finally liberated from China and became its own country, experiencing independence and self-rule for nine hundred years (www.academic.depauw.edu). However, in the Age of Colonialism, Vietnam could not defend itself against the superior weapons and technology of France and signed a peace treaty on June 1862, ceding their territory. The motives of the French consisted mainly of missionary propaganda, the need for new markets and profit, and the desire to carve out more colonies for their mother country (Buttinger). Vietnam’s resources were especially important to France. Rice and rubber were the main cash crops that were grown in large plantations and the amount of land used for cultivating rice quadrupled in the 20 years after Vietnam was colonized. By the 1930’s Indochina produced around 60,000 tons of rubber each year (5% of global). The French also took advantage of Vietnam’s coal, tin, and zinc deposits and profits went to the French capitalists, investors and officials. As colonizers, the French were indifferent to the Vietnamese people. They saw the Vietnamese as a source of cheap labor, and treated them poorly by forcing them to work long hours in terrible conditions for pitiful wages (Llewellyn). The French controlled all aspects of Vietnamese economic, social and political life. The French destroyed Vietnam’s economic system by creating a taxation system that taxed wages, poll taxes, stamp taxes, and the weighing and measuring of agricultural goods. Ultimately, this contributed to the extreme poverty peasants experienced. French officials also sold opium cheaply, taking advantage of its addictiveness to control the population and to keep Vietnam dependent on France. Politically, the French ruled through direct rule in provinces in the Melkong Delta, but indirect rule for Vietnam. The Vietnamese emperor still resided in his palace, but had little power. Instead, to prevent local resistance, the French used a “divide and rule” type of strategy by putting communities and groups against each other, breaking up any possibility of Vietnamese unity. The three provinces in the nations were all ruled separately by the French, and there was no notion of national identity (Llewellyn).Prior to Ho’s rise to power, there were several unsuccessful rebellions against the French during the period of colonization. Although Vietnam had been conquered, it was not resigned to its defeat. The Vietnamese people were alive with resentment and ready to exact revenge against the harsh treatment of the colonizers (Lacouture 11). There was a succession of failed revolts including Phan Dinh Phung’s Scholar Revolt, and Phan Boi Chau’s Trip to the East. Guerilla warfare against the French was led by Hoang Hoa Tham in Tonkin. Resistance to French culture was led by the Tonkin Organization for Patriotic Teaching which tried to preserve Vietnam’s culture despite the French (Lacouture 10-11). However, most of attempts at independence prior to Ho failed because the rebels did not involve the Vietnamese peasants, which made up around 80% of the population. Phan Dinh Phung and Phan Boi Chau only appealed to the scholars, believing that the peasants would follow suit. Years later, Ho would take this lesson to heart when he finally led a successful rebellion against the French (www.countrystudies.us/vietnam).Ho’s belief in the importance of the peasants role in revolution was heavily influenced by his childhood as a peasant and his political experience in France. Ho Chi Minh was born May 19, 1890 in the village of Kim Lien in the province of Nghe An. His childhood was full of poverty and despair, but his family was better off than the other peasants thanks to his father’s government job. Ho Chi Minh’s father was an ardent nationalist who refused to learn French and participated in anti-French societies that taught him to have pride in his country. From a young age, Ho was his father’s messenger for these underground organizations and he was heavily influenced by their nationalistic views. To be able to study in France, Ho trained as a kitchen boy and pastry cook’s helper (skills in European demand) which allowed him to find work on a French steamship (Whitman). Ho traveled around the world for thirty years, and gained insight into people and politics that young political leaders back in Vietnam did not have the opportunity to experience. (see map 1) Foreign travel was extremely important to Ho’s political development.  From his time in France and other European countries, he realized his own value and his capabilities. “. . .when he went ashore in Europe in a Western suit, whites, for the first time in his life, addressed him as ‘monsieur,’ instead of using the deprecating ‘tu,’. . . used in Indochina by Frenchmen when addressing natives, no matter how educated” (Whitman). In France, Ho’s political experiences were inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination (the right of all ethnic groups to have their own nations), which led him to realize that other nations could help Vietnam be liberated.  Ho drafts proposals for Vietnam’s independence which he unsuccessfully tried to present to Wilson during the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. The disappointment Ho experienced at the Versailles showed him that the world powers were blind to the aspirations of his people. (Brocheux 22). Ho helped establish the French Communist Party in 1920 and was exposed to the ideas of Leninism (a form of Marxism taught by Lenin that emphasized the importance of the proletariat) and Communism (a system where the people own the means of production rather than by individuals and can only be achieved violent proletariat revolution) (Lacouture). Ho believed that Leninism was a “compass for Vietnamese revolutionaries and people. . . the radiant sun illuminating our path to final victory, socialism and communism (www.marxists.org/ho-chi-minh). Ho Chi Minh’s experience and involvement in Leninism and Communism enabled him to understand the importance of the common people for a successful revolution. Ho Chi Minh quickly became a “man of the people” by providing his people with what they needed. He said, “what is the use of independence and what does freedom mean if our people are dying of hunger?” Desperately wanting to end the famine, he organized food drives, had goods imported from central Vietnam and requisitioned the foodstuffs that had been stockpiled before 9 March. And while he tried to keep the French from reconquering South Vietnam, he allowed them to deliver rice to feed his starving people (Brocheux 102) (see images 1&2). Ho Chi Minh began to gain popularity and followers as people saw how he wasn’t a purely political leader, but he also cared about his people. Ho’s concern for peasants also extended to his compatriots, both friends and enemies. When Ho’s government left Hanoi in December 1946, a large group of refugees accompanied them. Ho made it a national concern, making sure that all the refugees had enough food and shelter.  In February 1947, he asked Vu Dinh Huynh to restore the home of a comrade who was willing to house five hundred refugees (139). Ho also firmly believed that leaders should be among the common people and must lead by example in order to receive respect (144) One day, he was on the banks of a flooded river while a group of peasants huddled on one side, too scared to cross. Ho said to his companions, “Let us remove our clothes and cross; that will encourage our compatriots to do the same” (Brocheux 136). Ho’s willingness to lead by example motivated peasants to join his cause. Ho quickly became known as “Uncle Ho” to his people. In one of his speeches he addresses the children of Vietnam and says, “My dear children. . . You are rejoicing, and your Uncle Ho rejoices with you…because I love you very much” (Lacouture 205). The reference to Ho as an uncle to his people stemmed from the importance of family hierarchy and elders in Vietnamese culture.  “Uncle” was a title of paternal respect and adoration and suggested that Ho was as a member of the collective Vietnamese family.  “Uncle Ho” became a symbol of a united Vietnam and his speeches motivated peasants from both parts of Vietnam to fight against the French together. (CITE)Ho’s fight against the French took place at a time when a power vacuum had been created by the withdrawal of the French from their colonies and the defeat of the Japanese after World War Two. In June 1940, near the end of World War Two, Germany took control of France and the administration of France’s colonies were handed over to Vichy-France government, which was a combination of the two countries. In September 1940, Japan took over Indochina with almost no French resistance, ending around ninety years of domination and allowed the Vichy-France government to still be in control of day to day colonial affairs. In 1945, the Allied Powers destroyed Germany’s hold on Europe, and made preparations to defeat the Japanese. In March, paranoid that the Vichy would turn on them, overthrew the French. (Goscha) For the past couple of months, revolutionaries have been urging Ho to take action and to attack the Japanese, since France was out of the picture. But Ho knew that they were still at a disadvantage, and decided to wait until Japan was as weak in Vietnam as they were internally. A few months later, the United States bombed the Japanese, causing Japan to back out of the war. Consequently, the lack of a strong colonial power in Vietnam creates a power vacuum, making it the perfect time for Ho to take action and attack. Four days after the bombing, Ho called for a special conference, forming the National Liberation Committee of Vietnam which decided to defeat the Japanese before the Allies arrived as backup (Lacouture 101). Ho Chi Minh rallied up the country, calling for people to defend their country. “The decisive hour in the destiny of our people as struck” (Lacouture 102). Ho knew that it was either now or ever. The Viet Minh had been expanding and gaining supporters all throughout 1945; the weakened French and Japanese were no match for them. Ho’s troops were able to gain control of a ‘free zone’ in North Vietnam. Viet Minh forces came out of hiding and marched towards major towns and cities. The Japanese, disobeying the Allied terms of surrender, handed power to the Vietnamese instead of to the Westerners. The Viet Minh had control over government buildings and other facilities, taking weapons left by the Japanese. The August Revolution, named for the month it took place in, began. On August 19th Viet Minh forces led by Ho arrived at Hanoi, and occupied other major cities within a week through guerilla warfare (type of warfare fought by a small armies in fast, small attacks against larger force). On September 2nd 1945, around 400,000 Vietnamese gathered in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square to hear Ho’s declaration of independence. Ho’s moving speech included quotes from the Declaration of Independence from the United States including the famous statements, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” In Ho’s declaration, Ho also reminded his people that they are, “. . . animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.” The Declaration of Independence (www.libraries.state.ma.us/link.galegroup.com)Ho’s success at creating revolution was aided by his diplomatic skills that helped him navigate and manipulate both China and Russia during the Cold War. After Vietnamese forces defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, representatives of 8 countries met in Geneva for a treaty. Vietnam and France signed a treaty called the Geneva Agreements in July 1954. As part of the treaty, the French agreed to withdraw their troops from northern Vietnam and that Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel into North and South Vietnam.  (map #2 reference, South and North Vietnam split at 17th parallel with communist north and US supported south) They would be divided by for two years until elections would be held to choose a president and to reunite the country (www.history.com/geneva-conference-begins). By this point of time vietnamese and french ppl that died Although reluctant to split up his country, Ho seized the chance to put an end to violence, sacrificing the unification of the country he had fought so hard for. Ho was almost infatuated about the damage that the war had taken on his country. (Lacouture 151) Ho was always more of an arbiter of conflicts rather than an initiator of violence (Lacouture). He knew that Vietnam could not survive if they insisted on fending the French off from reconquering them, and instead settled on a compromise that would benefit his country more. Ho knew when to back down and when to attack. However, the northern side (where Ho resided) was a mainly agrarian society and was weak. Ho was forced to ask the Communist giants, the Soviet Union and China, for assistance. Ho appealed to China and Russia for economic and military assistance and maintained good relations with both countries, receiving an equal amount of aid, even though China and Russia themselves were not on good terms. (Lacouture) Ho’s superior diplomatic skills are prominent in his success at maintaining a balance between the two larger countries, using their own interests against them to promote Vietnamese independence. The Chinese provided logistical support and antiaircraft defense in the North, allowing the Vietnamese to use their own troops to fight in the South. From 1965 to 1969, 80,000 Chinese soldiers and 15,000 artillery soldiers came to Vietnam’s assistance, building a giant underground airfield at Yen Bay (Brocheux 176). The Soviet leaders did not want the Chinese to be the sole providers of aid to Vietnam, and supplied sophisticated weapons such as ground-to-air missiles. They also furnished combat aircraft and thousands of tons of transport supplies, munitions, and medicines, which were shipped from various countries (Brocheux 176). North Vietnam received over one billion dollars in economic and military aid from the Soviet Union by 1968 and nearly one billion from China in that same time (www.cia.gov/library/DOC_0000483828). The support and resources from Russia and China were extremely valuable and would not have been possible with Ho’s tactfulness, eventually helping North Vietnam win a war that was already against the Communist North. Ho Chi Minh was one of the most successful and influential anti-colonial leader of the twentieth century. He is still revered by his countrymen as the symbol of Vietnamese national unity and independence. (Whitman). Although Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, six years before Vietnam was truly liberated, Vietnam would not have been able to gain independence without Ho. Throughout his adult life, Ho waged a long and costly fight against the colonial forces of France. In various conflicts between the years of YEARS RESEARCH and against all odds, Ho’s army defeated the Japanese, the French, and finally the Americans (Lacouture). Honoring Ho’s unwavering dedication to the cause of independence, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 (Lacouture). Even today, Ho Chi Minh’s impact is significant. The Communist Party of Vietnam has kept Ho a figurehead of their party for forty years, and a cult of personality has raised him to a god-like status. Students in Vietnam still learn about the heroic actions of Ho and his philosophy also called “Ho Chi Minh Thought” is part of the school curriculum.  Ho is so revered/worshipped that any public criticism of him is banned and outlawed. Although Ho himself wanted to be cremated and his ashes to be scattered, after his death, the Party wanted his body to be preserved to kept the face of Vietnamese independence alive. Even years after, Ho Chi Minh is still very much “alive” in the culture and daily life in Vietnam.

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