Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the North Vietnamese when war with America broke out. Ho Chi Minh was born in 1890 into a relatively well-off family in relative terms to other families in Indo-China. His father, Nguyen Sinh Huy, was a teacher. However, Nguyen refused to learn French. The ruling French government required this. He lost any chance of teaching in schools run by the French in Vietnam and he was forced into travelling around Vietnam offering peasants his services. An educated man, Nguyen would write letters for the poor and provide the most basic of medical care. He did not receive much money from this work and it brought him into contact with the very poor of Vietnam’s society.
The poor in Vietnam lived a life in stark contrast to the French elite who governed Vietnam as part of the French Empire. Nguyen became a nationalist who questioned the right of the French to control Vietnam. He brought up his children to think the same. By the time he was a teenager, Ho Chi Minh shared his father’s views – that Vietnam had a right to govern itself free of colonial rule. Ho’s sister worked for the French army. This was not in direct disobedience to her father. She used her position to steal weapons that would be required in any future nationalist struggle against the French. She was caught and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite having strong nationalist views, Ho Chi Minh attended a French school. Both Ho and his father believed that knowledge of the French language, while an affront to their nationalistic principals, would serve a purpose when the struggle against the French began.
For a short time after his education had ended, Ho became a teacher. After this he became a sailor and travelled to many places in and around the Far East. He soon realised that other regions in the Far East were also under French colonial control. These areas also had one other thing in common – the abject poverty of many within the population.
In 1918 Ho lived in Paris. During the talks that led to the Treaty of Versailles, Ho tried to convince the American delegation to speak out for the cause of the Indo-Chinese people but he was not successful. While in Paris, Ho converted to communism after spending his time reading the works of Karl Marx. Ho became one of the founder members of the French Communist Party – founded in December 1920. In 1924, he visited Russia and while in Moscow he wrote to a friend that all communists were duty bound to return to their country of origin. They had to
“make contact with the masses to awaken, organise, unite and train them, and lead them to fight for freedom and independence.”
However, Ho could not return to Vietnam without risking arrest by the French authorities. Ho therefore decided to live in China, near to the Vietnam border. Here he helped to organise the ‘Vietnam Revolutionary League’ – a group made up of other exiled Vietnamese nationalists living in exile.
French authority in Vietnam was swept aside by the Japanese in World War Two. Ho Chi Minh used this as an opportunity to free Vietnam from French rule. Along with others, Ho created the Vietminh. The Vietminh were not prepared for Vietnam to be freed from French rule – only to see this replaced by brutal Japanese rule. The Vietminh took part in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the military side of the Vietminh. Supplied by the Soviet Union and, after Pearl Harbour, the Americans, the Vietminh learned a great deal about guerrilla warfare.
In September 1945, Ho Chi Minh announced the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. However, France wanted to re-establish control over Vietnam. France refused to recognise Ho’s republic and both sides quickly engaged in fighting in 1946. Despite the experiences learned during World War Two, the Vietminh found the fighting hard as the French were better equipped and the supplies that had come from both the USSR and USA had dried up. The Vietminh were helped when Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was victorious in China. Giap cold now train his soldiers in the safety of China before they crossed into Vietnam to engage the French. Wounded Vietminh soldiers could also be better treated in China.
Ho was the accepted leader of the Vietminh and when the French suggested terms to end the fighting, it was Ho who persuaded other leaders in the Vietminh that the French could not be trusted. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) led to France pulling out of Vietnam.
The victory was a huge boost for Ho and did a great deal to cement the reputation of Giap as a very effective military leader. At Geneva, it was decided to divide Vietnam at the 17th Parallel with the North governed by Ho Chi Minh and the South by Ngo Dinh Diem. Some members of the Vietminh did not accept that Vietnam should be divided and it was left to Ho to persuade then that the division was only a temporary one. He, like them, wanted a united Vietnam but in 1954 it was prudent, according to Ho, to go along with the division. Ho Chi Minh had few doubts that the people of Vietnam wanted a communist government – even the American President at the time, Eisenhower, believed that 80% of the Vietnamese population were behind Ho Chi Minh. Ho did declare, however, that he had authority over the whole state and he encouraged the Vietminh resistance movement in the south. From 1963, Ho ordered that the Vietminh should be supplied with arms by the north via the Ho Chi Minh trail. In 1965, Ho sent in regular North Vietnamese troops to help the Vietminh when the US sent her military in.
Ho’s authority in the north was never challenged. He maintained control of the north and the North Vietnamese remained loyal despite the American bombing campaign, which resulted in vast numbers of bombs being dropped on the North. It could be argued that the bombing made the people even more fiercely loyal to Ho. While North Vietnam was supplied by Mao Zedong’s China it did not follow that he was in awe of the Chinese leader. In fact, Ho was less than enamoured with some of Mao’s ideas.
Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. When Saigon fell in 1975, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honour.