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Thirty years after his death, nobody remains more loathed on the streets of Orange County's Little Saigon than Ho Chi Minh, the frail-looking Vietnamese nationalist who led his country through three wars of independence-against Japan, France, and ultimately the United States. When Westminster businessman Truong Van Tran tried to hang a photograph of Ho Chi Minh on the wall of his electronics store, hundreds of Vietnamese, many of whom fled their homeland for Little Saigon, showed up to protest.
"Let him die," they chanted. "Let the communist die!"
Tran responded by claiming he wasn't a communist but had read books about Ho's life and grew to respect him. "He cared about his people," Tran told the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 12. "He took care of his people."
To most of Tran's Vietnamese-American neighbors, however, Ho symbolizes the authoritarian government that descended upon South Vietnam in April 1975, sparking one of the largest mass exoduses in modern history. Among the earliest refugees to flee the conflict were urban Catholics who had worked under France's colonial administration and the subsequent South Vietnamese government.
In later years, refugees fleeing Vietnam included both former inmates of communist "re-education" camps and people who were fleeing the economic hardships wrought by the war and America's subsequent trade embargo. What all-or at least most-of these people have in common is an undying hatred for Ho, who they believe was directly responsible for starting the nightmare that led to the deaths of countless of their relatives and loved ones. As the banners that still wave outside Tran's store declare, Ho was nothing more than a "mass murderer."
But the same could be said of any of the political leaders who participated in the Vietnam War. If Ho was a murderer of many brave South Vietnamese people, so were former South Vietnamese Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Cao Ky-along with former U.S. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. In a certain sense, all of these leaders were responsible for the deaths of more than a million Vietnamese during what amounted to two decades of unbelievably brutal conflict.
"Ho Chi Minh was the head of a government that was engaged in a continuing struggle to prevail," said Stephen Vlastos, a professor of East Asian history at the University of Iowa who taught courses on the Vietnam War at UC Irvine in the mid-1980s. "So were the various governments in South Vietnam. Both governments used violence against their enemies as part of their political strategy of survival. We tend to simplify history in terms of the personalities of various leaders. That doesn't make sense except as a tool of propaganda," he insisted.
Nonetheless, of all the personalities involved in the Vietnam War, it's difficult to imagine one more enigmatic and misunderstood than Ho. Just as the mere mention of his name still brings forth long-simmering hatred in such places as Little Saigon, Ho was despised in America even before the onset of the Vietnam War. As early as 1948, Time magazine dismissed him as "goat-bearded," a "Mongoloid Trotsky" and a "tubercular agitator who learned his trade in Moscow."
But as David Halberstam surmised in his 1971 biography of Ho, "It was that very contempt-which every peasant in Vietnam felt from every Westerner-that would make him so effective. This was Ho's great strength, the fact that he was a Vietnamese Everyman, and it was why he shunned monuments and marshal's uniforms and general's stars, for he had dealt with powerful Westerners his whole life, had surely been offered countless bribes by them, but he had chosen not to be like them, not to dress like them or live like them."
Vlastos agrees with that assessment. "There were many things about [Ho] that were broadly appealing to many Vietnamese quite apart from his politics," he says. "Unlike other communist leaders, he was extremely modest. He never developed a personality cult. He was the only major communist leader who was never interested in publishing a 'collected works' or presenting himself as an authority on all areas of knowledge. He was always focused on the immediate political objective of achieving a unified Vietnam free from foreign influence."
The quest for that objective, which Ho both personified and pursued throughout his adult life, began in 1865, when the French captured Saigon. They spent the next 25 years pacifying the countryside. The invading French surged inland, occupying modern-day Cambodia and Laos, and established the colony of French Indochina, which divided what we now know as Vietnam into three separate administrative areas-Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China-running respectively from north to south. French rule was harsh on the Vietnamese, especially on the rural peasants. Like colonial subjects elsewhere in Asia and Africa, they were pressed into gangs of forced laborers, and political dissidents were jailed or executed with hardly a blink by French officials who viewed them as subhuman "coolies."
Into this environment of racism and political and economic repression, in approximately 1890, Nguyen Tat Tanh was born, who later took the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen "the Patriot") and ultimately Ho Chi Minh, which means "One who enlightens." Ho's father, Nguyen Sinh Huy, a well-educated Vietnamese from Tonkin, was a fierce nationalist. Amid escalating French repression, Ho's sister was sentenced to life in prison, prompting Ho to flee his country. By the 1920s, he had traveled through much of Europe and the United States, paying his way by washing dishes and waiting tables. The dishwasher was also a diplomat, unsuccessfully lobbying European leaders at the Treaty of Versailles to lend support for the nascent cause of Vietnamese independence from France.