THE MAKING OF VIETNAM

IN LATE AUGUST 1945, with Japan defeated in World War II and its occupation of Vietnam ended, Ho Chi Minh, disease-ridden and fifty-five years old, was carried on a stretcher from his jungle hideout to a house at 48 Hang Ngang in Hanoi. The son of an itinerant teacher u who had worked as an official for the imperial court in Hue, Ho was un-known to most Vietnamese. He had left Vietnam in 1911 as an assistant cook on a French passenger ship and spent thirty years abroad: first on the high seas, then in Paris, Russia, China, and Hong Kong. He went to America, working briefly as a pastry chef at the Parker House Hotel in Boston and making a brief tour of the U.S. South where, he said, he wit¬nessed the Ku Klux Klan lynching blacks. His name when he left Saigon on the AdmiralLatouche-Treville liner was Nguyen Tat Thanh. Later he would adopt the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot) and, in the 1940s, Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens).
Asia and Africa had already been divvied up among the colonial pow¬ers of Europe, and there is little doubt that young Ho steamed out of Saigon filled with nationalism and a burning hatred of the system that had turned Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—into a labor camp for France’s economic and expansionistic aspirations. Before his de-parture from Vietnam, Ho had been a teacher in Phan Thiet. He wore white pajamas and wooden sandals to classes and filled his lectures with Vietnamese history and recited poetry. One of the poems he was fond of quoting included the stanza:
Oh, Heaven! Can’t you see our suffering?
The nation is in chains, languishing in grief,
Foreigners have doomed it to hunger,
They’ve robbed it of everything it had.
Popular legend in Vietnam today has cloaked Ho in so much mythol¬ogy it is difficult to know where fact ends and fable begins. In 1994, the publisher of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper lost her job for printing that Ho might have once had a wife. (He was indeed briefly married as a young man to the daughter of a wealthy Chinese merchant; he was romantically involved with several other women.) According to the Party, Ho’s only marriage was to the revolution. The official line on Ho, based on his scat¬tered reminiscences and the Party’s propaganda, contends among other things that he left Vietnam on a mission to save his country from colo¬nialism. But Ho’s personal history has been airbrushed over time to en¬hance his image, and one of Ho’s biographers, William J. Duiker, cau¬tions: “Given his notorious proclivity to dramatize events in his life for heuristic purposes, it is advisable to treat such remarks [as his reason for going abroad] with some skepticism.”
During his brief visit to the United States Ho expressed admiration for the energy and industriousness of the American people but distaste for capitalism, which he found exploitative. In Paris in 1919, inspired by Pres¬ident Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination to “make the world safe for democracy,” Ho sent Wilson a petition asking for support in establishing a constitutional government and democratic freedoms in Vietnam, but making no reference to independence. “All subject people,” Ho wrote, “are filled with hope by the prospect that an era of right and justice is opening to them … in the struggle of civilization against bar¬barism.” What Ho didn’t understand was that Wilson was talking about democracy for Europe and North America, not the rest of the world. His petition went unanswered.
Ho once recalled his reaction to reading a copy of Lenin’s “Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions” that a friend had given him in Paris: “There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled in me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds, ‘Dear martyrs, com¬patriots! This is what we need! This is the path to our liberation!”’
In the end Ho found support in the one place that would offer hope and refuge to Asia and Africa’s anticolonial revolutionaries for the next fifty years—the Communist Party. Four years later, in 1924, he left Paris for Moscow to become a full-time communist agent. He spent the next seventeen years in the Soviet Union, China, Hong Kong, and Thailand, organizing the Indochinese Communist Party, recruiting organizers and strategists, and stitching together the fabric of his revolution. In 1941, he returned covertly to Vietnam, setting up a headquarters in mountain caves near the Chinese border.
In the Hanoi house where he had been brought on a stretcher, after four years in Chinese prisons and in the malaria-infested jungles with the Viet Minh fighting French colonialists and Japanese occupiers, Ho sat at an ironwood table, chain-smoking 555-brand cigarettes and tapping out a statement on his portable typewriter. A week later, on September 2,1945, he put on a khaki tunic and rubber sandals and made his way to Ba Dinh Square to declare Vietnam’s independence. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, from mandarins to peasants, milled about. Ho stepped onto a wooden platform and, speaking into a microphone, began with words that any American would recognize but that surely must have mystified his au¬dience: “We hold the truth that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live to be happy and free.”

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