Ho Chi Minh fashioned the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945 and wrote a declaration of independence that stated, "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." During a cruel land reform after Ho became president of North Vietnam, an estimated 50,000 North Vietnam citizens lost their lives, between 50,000 and 100,000 were imprisoned, and freedom of speech was restricted.
Ho Chi Minh, (Nguyen Ai Quoc or Nguyen Sinh Cung), which roughly means "he who enlightens," stood as the prevailing symbol of unification of North and South Vietnam. Engaging in a long conflict with France, followed by pre-World War II Japan, post-World War II France, and then with the United States, Ho Chi Minh would not see his lifelong dream of the reunification of North and South Vietnam under a single rule before his death in 1969.
Among the 20th century revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh waged the longest — and in terms of human lives sacrificed, the costliest — battle against European colonial power. The forces he led, fought and defeated the Japanese, the French, and finally the Americans in his fight for Vietnamese independence.
The affectionate name given to him by his countrymen, "Uncle Ho," suggests a kindly relative. Yet Ho Chi Minh was a lifelong revolutionary, who used any and all means to achieve his ends. Ho first led an insurrection against Japanese occupiers. In 1945, his commandos took Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. In one of the ironies of history, Ho Chi Minh paraphrased a future enemy`s benchmark of freedom — the U.S. Declaration of Independence — while addressing an enormous crowd following the success against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed: "All men are born equal. The Creator has given us inviolable rights: life, liberty, and happiness!"
The French began to take control of Vietnam in the 1860s. The entire country was made a French "protectorate" in 1883. Under French colonial rule, the Vietnamese were prohibited from traveling outside their districts without identity papers. Freedom of expression and organization were restricted. As land was progressively co-opted by large landholders, the number of landless peasants grew. Neglect of the education system caused the literacy rate to fall. Vietnamese anticolonial movements began to coalesce early in the 20th century, but were vigorously suppressed by the French.
Youth and early years
Ho was born May 19, 1890, in the village of Kim Lien in Annam province, central Vietnam. His father was a public servant attached to the imperial court. Ho attended the prestigious National Academy school in Hue, but left before graduation. He worked for a short time as a teacher before travelling to Saigon, where he attended a course in navigation. In 1911 he found work as a kitchen hand on a French steamer traveling from Saigon to Marseilles. Moving on to London in 1917 during World War I, then back to France in 1919, Ho took the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot).
He stayed in Paris until 1923, working in menial jobs while he became active in the socialist movement. During the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, Ho attempted to present U.S. president Woodrow Wilson with a proposal for Vietnam`s independence, but is turned away. The proposal was never officially acknowledged.
Leaving Paris in 1923, Ho traveled to Moscow for training at the headquarters of the Communist International (Comintern) and assumed an active role in its fifth congress, criticising the French Communist Party for not opposing colonialism more vigorously. He also urged the Comintern to actively promote revolution in Asia. In 1924 Ho traveled to Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China, a stronghold of the Chinese communists, where he trained Vietnamese exiles in revolutionary techniques. By 1925 he had organized the exiles into the Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth League). Going by the name Ly Thuy, he formed an inner group within the Revolutionary League, the Thanh Nien Cong San Doan, or Communist Youth League (CYL).
The CYL concentrated on the production of an independence journal that was distributed clandestinely inside Vietnam. In 1926 Ho wrote Duong Cach Menh (The Revolutionary Path), which he used as a training manual. In 1927 the communists were expelled from Guangzhou in April, following a coup by Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Ho found refuge in the Soviet Union. In 1928, he traveled to Brussels and Paris, then Siam (now Thailand), where he spent two years as a representative of the Comintern in Southeast Asia. His followers remained in South China.
Ho presided over the founding of a unified Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) at a conference of the Thanh Nein in Hong Kong on February 3, 1930. A program of party objectives drafted by Ho was approved by the conference. The objectives included the overthrow of the French, establishment of an independent Vietnam ruled by a people`s government, nationalization of the economy and cancellation of public debts, land reform, the introduction of an eight-hour work day, and universal education. Meanwhile, the weight of a worldwide economic depression began to be felt in Vietnam. Peasant demonstrators in the provinces began to demand reform. When their demands were ignored, riots broke out. Peasants seized control of some districts and, with the aid of ICP organisers, formed local village associations called "soviets."
In September 1930 the French reacted to the ICP`s rising popularity by sending in Foreign Legion troops. More than 1,000 suspected communists and rebels were arrested and 400 were given lengthy prison sentences. Eighty, including some party leaders, were executed. Ho was condemned in absentia to death. He sought refuge in Hong Kong and again operated as a representative of the Comintern in Southeast Asia. By 1932 there were more than 10,000 French political prisoners held in Vietnam`s jails.
Prison and communist study
Ho was arrested in Hong Kong by the British police during a crackdown on political revolutionaries in 1931. He remained in prison until 1932. Upon his release, he traveled to Moscow, where he spent much of the next seven years studying and teaching at the Lenin Institute. Ho returned to China in 1938 and served as an adviser to the Chinese communist armed forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
On the eve of the Second World War, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact. The French government in Vietnam immediately banned the French Communist Party, then outlawed all Vietnamese political parties, including the ICP, and cracked down on political activities. The ICP reacted by focusing its operations on rural areas, where the French held less sway. Early in 1940, Ho returned to southern China, where he reestablished contact with the ICP and began to plan. Ho and his lieutenants Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong saw the defeat of the French by the Germans as an opportunity to free Vietnam from the French regime.
Heading south from territory they occupied in China, Japanese troops invaded Vietnam on September 22, 1940. The French quickly negotiated a cease-fire that allowed their colonial administration to remain during Japanese rule. But peace was not to last. The defeat of the French by the Germans was an opportunity to finally free Vietnam from the French regime. Ho began to use the name Ho Chi Minh.
In January 1941, Ho entered Vietnam for the first time in 30 years and organized the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), or Viet Minh. A liberation zone was established near the border with China, from which the Viet Minh worked to muster the discontent of urban nationalists and the rural poor into a unified movement for the liberation of Vietnam. While in southern China (1942) to meet with Chinese Communist Party officials, Ho was arrested by the Chinese nationalist government and imprisoned for two years. In September 1944 Ho was allowed to return to Vietnam with a guerilla force of 18 men trained and armed by the Chinese. He vetoed an ICP plan for a general uprising, but approved a propaganda campaign.
Declaration of independence and national leadership
In 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh organization, declared Vietnam’s independence from Japan, in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946–54) was underway.
In December 1949 Ho Chi Minh sent envoys to Beijing, China, to request that the Chinese Communist Party provide military advisors, weapons that could equip three divisions, and financial aid of $10 million. At the time, the CCP did not completely satisfy Ho Chi Minh’s demands because it was still engaged in the war to unify China, and because it possessed limited financial resources. However, the CCP leadership did instruct its military units in southern China to provide as much assistance to the Viet Minh as possible. Mao Zedong paid serious attention to Ho Chi Minh’s struggle, and to his request for Chinese aid. Behind the scenes, China took up the struggle against the French. The Russians under Josef Stalin also supported Ho Chi Minh`s struggle for freedom and unification.
America steps in
In 1950, the U.S. recognized the Associated State of Vietnam (ASV - South Vietnam) and dispatched a group of military advisors to train the South Vietnamese in the use of U.S. weapons. China reacted by recognizing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV - North Vietnam) and agreeing to provide it with limited assistance. Official recognition of the DRV by the Soviet Union soon followed. In 1951 the ICP, which had been dissolved in 1945 to obscure its communist affiliation, was reestablished and renamed the Vietnam Workers` Party (VWP). Ho was elected party chairman.
The French captured the strategic village of Dien Bien Phu in 1953. Ho indicated a willingness to consider a French peace plan. To maximise their leverage at the bargaining table, the Viet Minh decided to to take Dien Bien Phu just before the conference began. More than 100,000 Viet Minh troops and nearly 100,000 transport workers descended on the area. The siege of the town entrapped 15,000 French troops, cut off from all support and supplies. The French surrendered on May 7, 1954, the day before the Geneva negotiations were set to begin. The Geneva peace conference began on May 8, as planned, and a compromise agreement was signed.
A Country divided
The agreement was endorsed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, Britain, China and the Soviet Union. The United States and the ASV withheld approval. The country was effectively divided at the 17th Parallel into a communist North and a noncommunist South. On October 24, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower offered direct economic aid to South Vietnam, which began in January 1955. In October, South Vietnam declared itself as the Republic of Vietnam. An election, to be held in 1956 to reunite the country under a democratically elected leader, was never held. South Vietnam, backed by the United States, refused to participate in the elections, fearful that Ho Chi Minh would win. War continued.
As president of North Vietnam, Ho led the armed struggle against the South — and its United States allies — to reunite the country. Although the U.S. opposed Ho Chi Minh because he was a communist, the leader once explained, "It was patriotism, not Communism, that inspired me." Ho`s loyal supporters (northern troops and southern guerillas) waged a protracted war against the United States, finally causing the superpower to withdraw from the peninsula.
Ho died of heart failure at age 79 on September 2, 1969, in Hanoi. Vietnamese reunification was finally achieved in 1975, just six years after his death. The victory came at a staggering price: An estimated three million North and South Vietnamese were killed in the struggle.
Following their victory, the communists put Ho`s embalmed body on display, but the act defied his final wishes. Ho Chi Minh, a practical man who looked to the peasants for his support, wanted his remains to be scattered over three Vietnamese hilltops. Explained an elderly Ho Chi Minh, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland."
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