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.
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."
Later in the war, however, Ho's forces in the south, the National Liberation Front (NLF), or Viet Cong, carried out a sustained campaign of public executions of corrupt or noncompliant local authorities in the South Vietnamese countryside. Most notably, during the 1968 Tet offensive, North Vietnamese and NLF units massacred several thousand "class traitors" in Hue, the historic capital of the Annamese dynasty.
In 1969, the U.S. military and CIA responded to the Tet offensive by launching Operation Phoenix, a campaign of terrorism, torture and execution that left tens of thousands of Vietnamese dead. Targets of Operation Phoenix included suspected NLF agents and their supporters in South Vietnam-along with anyone unlucky enough to end up on the wrong list.
By that time, Ho had reached the twilight of his life. He died in April 1969, a full six years before the realization of his lifetime goal of a united, socialist Vietnam free of Western control.
For as long as the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, Ho was depicted as little more than a tool of Moscow and Beijing. The myth of China-Vietnam axis is belied by history: China had occupied Vietnam for a millennium before the arrival of the French; just four years after North Vietnam's 1975 victory, China invaded Vietnam again. Armored columns of the Red Army rolled through the same rugged mountain passes where Ho's Vietminh guerrillas had evaded French and Japanese troops decades earlier. After a few weeks of grueling combat, Vietnam routed the invaders, ending the last attempt by an outside power to threaten Vietnam's independence.
There's added irony in the claim that Ho was a front man for foreign governments in Moscow and Beijing. While it's true that Ho's forces received military assistance from the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries; Soviet rail shipments to North Vietnam were routinely picked clean by quick-fingered Chinese military officials.
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Furthermore, although North Vietnam clearly depended on military support from the Soviet Union for its survival, South Vietnam relied upon the physical presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops-along with the use of more bombs than were dropped by all sides during World War II-for its national security.
"South Vietnam was always dependent on the West, particularly the U.S.," says Vlastos. "It was always a client state in that sense. The leaders of the government from Diem on down the line always aspired to independence. But they were never able to achieve it. The rapidity of the collapse of South Vietnam once America pulled out of the war caught everyone by surprise, including the North Vietnamese."
Indeed, when North Vietnam launched its final offensive against the south in 1974, Ho Chi Minh's lifelong colleague and friend General Vo Nguyen Giap planned for a two-year campaign. Instead, the fighting lasted a mere six months. The swiftness of South Vietnam's demise was perhaps best illustrated by the famous image of the last U.S. helicopter hovering over the abandoned American embassy just moments before a North Vietnamese tank burst through the building's front gate.
For some people-especially those who now call Little Saigon home-the fighting still hasn't ended. Sometimes the evidence is less obvious than the recent appearance of hundreds of anti-Ho protesters in Little Saigon. A copy of the Halberstam biography Ho, which was obtained from the UC Irvine library and cited in this story, bore the following pithy epitaph on its title page: "Fuck you, Ho!"