Vietnam – The Ghost of Ho Chi Minh

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“…we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence…. our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.”  So closed Ho Chi Minh’s letter to U.S. President Harry S. Truman upon the conclusion of WWII.  It was not his first respectful correspondence with a US president.

Ho Chi Minh, detail from front of 1988 banknote, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh’s father traveled throughout the countryside as a teacher in the late 1800s when his homeland, Vietnam, was a colony of France.  He saw the poor and the very poor, and the contrasting comfortable lives of the French elite infuriated him.  He began to question the right of France to rule Vietnam and became a passionate nationalist.  By the time his son, Ho, born in 1890, was a teenager, he too was adopting his father’s view that Vietnam had a right to independently govern itself.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, much of the colonial world was enamored with the marvelous rise of the United States.  For much of the 19th century, the United States had been isolationist in its foreign policy and protectionist in its economic policy.  Anti-colonialists easily associated Europe with imperialism, without education in the writings of Lenin and others of the time.  As stated by Raymond Aron, French philosopher, political scientist, and journalist, the daily experience of colonies consisted of “the exploitation of raw materials without any attempt to create local industry; the destruction of native crafts and the stunted growth of industrial development that resulted from the influx of European goods; high interest rates on loans; ownership of major businesses by foreign capitalists’.  But America was different. Here was a nation that had been a colony like themselves but had gained independence.  Here was a nation that was enjoying fantastic growth among the world of nations!  Here was a nation that was anti-imperial, the opposite of the colonializing countries of Europe!  Why cannot this be the same for us?

Ho became educated and well-traveled, visiting The United States and Europe and socializing with other anti-colonials.  All the while he nurtured his desire for an independent Vietnam.

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Woodrow Wilson, an academic who had served but 2 years in politics, as Governor of New York, was elected President of the United States in 1912.  World War I commenced in Europe in 1914 while he was in office, and he pursued a strict policy of neutrality while nevertheless preparing America for the possibility of war, instituting the draft, and building up the US war making machinery.  His 2nd presidential campaign in 1916, on the slogan “He kept us out of war”, was successful by a slim majority.  The first year of his second term as President, he brought the United States into the war with the slogan “to make the world safe for democracy”.

Wilson closed his address to Congress seeking the declaration of war, “Our object…is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power….We are glad…to fight…for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the right of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy….We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”

So reluctant was America for war, so unentangled was America in the politics of Europe and its colonizing history, so remarkable was America’s rise to prominence after its own colonial past, America became the beacon to all the world of colonies as to what could be.  Wilson increased and refined his rhetorical annunciations, towards the rights of self-determination for all peoples, during, and through the end of the war.  And by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, for which he proposed “A League of Nations”, passions were inflamed for independence worldwide.  Woodrow Wilson had become the rock star of the era, an icon to independence minded peoples worldwide.

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Ho Chi Minh was in Paris at the time of the Peace accords.  Colonials everywhere were aflame with passion for liberation from the colonizers.  On behalf of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh crafted an appeal for support for independence, to president Wilson.  The story is told that he rented a new suit and prepared assiduously for an audience with recitations from the American declaration of independence.  In what has been termed by historians as a lost “Wilsonian Moment”, Ho Chi Minh was ignored, and so was his country.  His frail appearance and demeanor may have led many to mis-appreciate and underestimate him.

And so were many other petitioners ignored in that conference, which mainly addressed Europe’s problems.  A disillusioned Ho Chi Minh, as well as others, began to seek out relationships with advocates of Leninism.  It is thought by many that such overtures were less out of genuine interest in communism, than in seeking the support of other powerful nations for their own independence movements.  Ho Chi Minh fell in with the communists in France, not because of an attraction to communism, but because of a passion for patriotism. He knew he needed help for his country and he was determined to get it.

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Decades later, upon the close of WWII, Ho Chi Minh wrote Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence.  It included many of the ideals in America’s own declaration, one and three-quarter’s centuries before.  Five months after that war, Ho wrote to President Truman the words at the beginning of this post, while France was scrambling to reassert their colonial domination over Vietnam.

Ho’s entreaty was, once again, ignored by a US president.  France began to fight the Vietnamese in earnest to reassert their control over that little land on the other side of the globe.  The Vietnamese Army fought the French.  Mostly armed with machetes and muskets against France’s WW2 armaments, smoking out French positions with straw bundled with chili pepper, and using suicide weapons against French artillery, they waged war their for independence.

Ho Chi Minh, detail from front of 1988 banknote, Vietnam

After fighting the French for several years, Ho decided to negotiate a truce. According to journalist Bernard Fall, the meeting with French negotiators took place at a mud hut with a thatched roof.  No doubt, Ho Chi Minh conducted the meeting in perfect French.  As reported in Wikipedia here, “Inside they found a long table with chairs and were surprised to discover in one corner of the room a silver ice bucket containing ice and a bottle of good Champagne which should have indicated that Ho expected the negotiations to succeed. One demand by the French was the return to French custody of a number of Japanese military officers (who had been helping the Vietnamese armed forces by training them in the use of weapons of Japanese origin), in order for them to stand trial for war crimes committed during World War II. Ho replied that the Japanese officers were allies and friends whom he could not betray. Then he walked out, to seven more years of war.”

A few years later, the US took over the war against Vietnam.  Following the Joe McCarthy era, but still propelled by fear of communism, and supported a tidy “domino theory”, the US sent hundreds of thousands of troops into that war, losing more than fifty thousand dead, before retreating in defeat in the 1970s.

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Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.  As the North Vietnamese marched south in 1975, uniting Vietnam, the spirit of Ho Chi Minh marched with them.  He was free from the shackles of this mortal body, and his people were free from the shackles of colonialism.

 

Front, 1988, 500 dong, Vietnam, featuring Ho Chi Minh
Back, 1988, 500 dong, featuring scenes from Port Haiphong.

This 1988 banknote features Ho Chi Minh.  Indeed all Vietnamese banknotes, through at least the 2003 issue, feature Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnamese independence.

 

 

 

The text of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence can be read here, and will be seen to closely follow that by America 150 years earlier. Read September 2, 1945 in the square in Hanoi, it announced to the world Vietnam’s independence.

The February 16, 1946 letter to president Truman can be read here and the follow up urgent telegram to Harry Truman on February 28 1946 can be seen here.

 

For more stories from Mainland Southeast Asia, click here.

For tags from stories, see bottom of this page.

 

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