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With that failure, Ho took his crusade to Moscow, where the October 1917 revolution was still fresh in the air and where for the first time, Ho's pleas for support found open ears. Thanks in no small part to his friendly reception in the Soviet Union, Ho remained throughout his life committed to socialist economic and political doctrine.
But if Ho was a communist, he was also first and foremost a nationalist-a duality that Western policymakers could never accept and therefore refused to understand. "The whole question of whether Ho was a communist or a nationalist is a false dichotomy," explained Vlastos. "That was the essence of the confusion within America's intervention. We were unwilling to see that a communist movement in Vietnam could be anything other than an extension of international communism.
"There was never any doubt that Ho was a communist," Vlastos added. "But prior to 1954 there was always some confusion as to the character of the movement he was leading-whether it was going to be a communist-led coalition or a single-party communist state."
This question grew increasingly important during World War II, when the French deserted Vietnam, leaving it open to invasion and occupation by the Japanese. Ho spent the war in the mountainous jungles of the north with his Vietminh guerrillas, who were given weapons and training by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Ho officially declared Vietnam's newfound independence in a Hanoi celebration that received an aerial salute by friendly U.S. warplanes. While the "Star-Spangled Banner" blared tinnily over loudspeakers, Ho read from the text of his declaration of independence, the language of which was identical to the founding document of his wartime ally.
These details would soon be forgotten. Later that year, the U.S. moved to lend diplomatic and military support to France's desire to re-colonize Vietnam. The reasons were largely Eurocentric: France's postwar government was a mess; the economy had yet to be propped up with U.S. aid; and the strongest French political organization was the communist party. Fearing that domestic turmoil would lead to a communist takeover of France-and Greece, Italy and Germany-President Harry Truman ordered U.S. warships to ferry French troops back to Vietnam; Ho and his guerrillas went back to their bases in the mountains and jungles outside Hanoi.
By 1954, the French effort to maintain their colony had all but collapsed. The U.S. considered aiding its ally, which had become bogged down at a remote outpost near the Laotian border known as Dienbienphu, by dropping a nuclear device on Vietnamese soil. Ultimately, the U.S. opted against this tactic. Within weeks, Ho's army overran the French base at Dienbienphu, and "French Indochina" entered the ashbin of history.
Victory was short-lived. U.S. diplomats -with the consent of the Soviet Union and particularly China-pressured Ho and his victorious Vietminh into accepting a division of Vietnam along a narrow strip of land known as the 17th Parallel; the country would now be two separate nations, North and South Vietnam. Facing the prospect of yet another war, Ho accepted the division, and thus was born in 1955 the Republic of South Vietnam.
Neither Ho nor Ngo Dinh Diem, a French-speaking Catholic who became South Vietnam's first president, had any illusions that the two countries would remain geographically divided for long. Both aspired to become the first leader of a united Vietnam. Each launched incursions into the other's territory in hopes of resolving the issue by force. In 1964, a year after Diem and his brother-in-law were murdered during one of South Vietnam's countless coup d'etats, one such skirmish in the waters off North Vietnam (later revealed to be a U.S. hoax) led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, America's decision to send U.S. troops into the conflict. America's military intervention lasted a decade, by which time well more than 1 million Vietnamese had perished. Most of them were unwilling participants conscripted by both sides and noncombatants slaughtered in the crossfire.
Some features of U.S. military strategy between 1965 and 1973 were mindboggling. One was the use of B-52 bombers to "carpet-bomb" both rural South Vietnam and industrial targets in the north. Another was the declaration of so-called "free-fire zones," areas believed to be communist strongholds and where anyone caught moving in the open was presumed an enemy and gunned down. Napalm, white phosphorous bombs and the infamous defoliant Agent Orange were dispensed throughout the war with horrifying results-the latter still producing birth defects among rural Vietnamese children.
Because of its reliance on technology, the U.S. was responsible for the lion's share of the carnage dished out in Vietnam. Nonetheless, it's a documented fact that many Vietnamese landlords perished or were forced into exile in 1950-54, the early years of Ho's socialist revolution, and many former French collaborators and other opponents were imprisoned or killed.
"Ho certainly made the Vietnamese landlord class enemies of the people," says Vlastos, "but he wasn't giving orders for people to go out and kill them. Most of the violence was carried out at a local level and was the result of long-standing social antagonisms."