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books Half Lenin, Half Gandhi

May 19 is the birthday of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary that led the Vietnamese people through victorious war and revolution from the 1920s to his death in 1969. This 20-year old review is of the best biography of Ho available in English.


Ho Chi Minh
A Life
William J Duiker    
ISBN-13: 9780786863877

Confucian humanist and Communist revolutionary, the architect of Vietnamese independence and of the successful struggle against the French, the United States and the Saigon government, Ho Chi Minh was one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century. Yet even after his death in 1969 -- and for all the years the American troops fought in Vietnam -- he remained a shadowy figure, his life and career shrouded in myth and in the myriad guises he assumed during his many years in exile and in the maquis of Vietnam. As the French journalist Jean Lacouture wrote in his 1967 biography, ''Everything known about Ho's life prior to 1941 is fragmentary, controversial and approximate.'' Thanks to William J. Duiker's magnificent new biography, this is no longer the case.

A retired professor of history who served as a United States foreign service officer in Saigon in the mid-1960's, Duiker spent over 20 years gleaning new information from interviews and from archives in Vietnam, China, Russia and the United States. Other Western historians have come closer to Ho as a person and to the cultural context of his revolution, but Duiker has managed not only to fill in the missing pieces of Ho's life but to provide the best account of Ho as a diplomat and a strategist.

The Vietnam War -- as we call it -- was a watershed in 20th-century American history, and we assume it was one in the history of Vietnam. But as Duiker's biography reminds us, the major problem for the Vietnamese, as for many others on this planet, was how to respond to the colonial power and the destruction of traditional society. Ho Chi Minh dedicated his life to this task.

Ho's childhood lay in a world lost in time. Born in 1890, just five years after the French consolidated their control over all of Vietnam, Ho -- whose given name was Nguyen Tat Thanh -- grew up in Nghe An province, on the narrow and mountainous coast of north-central Vietnam. One of the most beautiful regions of the country, it was also one of the poorest and most rebellious. Ho's father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a scholar from a peasant family who managed to work his way up through the imperial examination system. Under his tutelage, Ho studied the classical Chinese texts that taught governance as the Dao of Confucius. According to Duiker, Sac was well acquainted with the scholars Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh, the most important Vietnamese nationalists in the first two decades of the century. Like many of the patriotic scholar-gentry, Sac refused to serve at court during a time of national humiliation, and by 1905 it had become clear to him that the imperial system, preserved by the French, was inadequate to cope with the new realities. That year he sent Ho off to a Franco-Vietnamese school with the admonition of the 15th-century scholar Nguyen Trai that one must understand the enemy in order to defeat him.

When Ho entered the prestigious National Academy in Hue in 1907, he was already a rebel. The following year he was thrown out of school for lending support to peasants demonstrating against high agricultural taxes and corvee labor. Pursued by the police, he traveled south, taking jobs where he could. In 1911 he signed on as an assistant cook on a steamer bound for France, under the name of Ba -- the first of his 50 or more aliases. ''I wanted to become acquainted with French civilization to see what meaning lay in those words,'' he later told a Soviet journalist.

Ho's travels took him to ports in Asia and Africa, to New York and London. He stayed for some time in New York, working as a laborer and going to meetings of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Trust in Harlem. In London he landed a job as a pastry cook under Auguste Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel. Toward the end of World War I he settled in Paris, the heart of the French empire. While earning his living as a photo retoucher, he formed an association of Vietnamese émigrés and denounced France's treatment of its colonies at gatherings of the French Socialist Party. In 1919 he presented a petition to the Allied governments at the Versailles conference, asking them to apply President Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination to Vietnam. Only the French police paid attention to the petition and its author, ''Nguyen Ai Quoc'' (''Nguyen the Patriot''). They followed Ho everywhere, though ''Nguyen the Patriot'' was a penniless scribe, a frail young man in ill-fitting suits who cut a Chaplinesque figure.

Ho came to Marxism in the summer of 1920, via Lenin's ''Theses on the National and Colonial Questions.'' He had read Marxist works before, but, as Duiker explains, Lenin's arguments about the connection between capitalism and imperialism and about the importance of nationalist movements in Asia and Africa to world revolution struck him forcefully, setting him ''on a course that transformed him from a simple patriot with socialist leanings into a Marxist revolutionary.'' When the French Socialist Party split over the issue of joining Lenin's Third International at its 1921 congress, he became a founding member of the French Communist Party. Still writing as Nguyen the Patriot, he argued not only that Communism could be applied to Asia but that it was in keeping with Asian traditions based on ideas of community and social equality.

For three years Ho pressed the new party for action on the colonial question, but the French Communists proved to be ''Eurocentric,'' as Duiker delicately puts it, so in 1924 he went to Moscow at the invitation of the Comintern. The Soviet leadership was, however, preoccupied by its own internal struggles, and it took Ho almost a year to persuade officials to send him to southern China, where an uneasy alliance between the Chinese Nationalists and the Communists would permit him to begin organizing the Vietnamese.

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Ho Chi Minh spent the next 15 years working for revolution in Vietnam as an agent of the Comintern. According to Duiker's original and highly detailed account of this period, Ho's emphasis on nationalism and his patient, pragmatic approach to organizing often put him at odds with Moscow. Yet he singlemindedly pursued his own agenda, waiting out periods of adversity and seizing opportunities as they arose. In Canton, Ho published a journal, created the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League and set up a training institute that attracted students from all over Vietnam. Along with Marxism-Leninism he taught his own brand of revolutionary ethics: thrift, prudence, respect for learning, modesty and generosity -- virtues that, as Duiker notes, had far more to do with Confucian morality than with Leninism. To his students Ho seemed to embody these qualities, and the teaching of his precepts later became a distinguishing feature of the Vietnamese revolution.

In 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek began to crack down on the Chinese left, the institute was disbanded and Ho, pursued by the police, fled to Hong Kong and from there to Moscow. He was sent by the Comintern to France and then, at his request, to Thailand, where he spent two years organizing Vietnamese expatriates. In 1930 he returned to China and worked as he could while hiding out from the Chinese police and the French Sûreté. Arrested in Hong Kong by the British, he spent a year in jail, and had once more to escape to Moscow. But there was little help to be found there. In the midst of Stalin's purges the Comintern repudiated Lenin's theses, insisted that the Asian Communist parties pursue the wholly unrealistic goal of a international proletarian revolution and ordered the Vietnamese to form an ''Indochinese'' Communist Party -- though the word signified nothing more nor less than the French colonial project in the region. Ho was personally criticized, investigated and sidelined.

In 1938 Ho's fortunes changed. With the rise of Nazi Germany the Soviets changed their line on nationalism and called for an alliance of ''progressive forces'' to oppose fascism. At the same time, Chiang Kai-shek created a united front with the Communist Party to resist Japanese aggression. His strategy vindicated, Ho returned to head the Vietnamese movement, and with the Japanese invasion of Indochina, he created a nationalist front of workers and peasants for the independence of Vietnam, the Vietminh. In 1941 he re-entered the country he had not seen in 30 years to set up a guerrilla base in the mountains.

In August 1945, three months after the Japanese deposed the Vichy French administration and just two days after the Japanese surrender to the Allies, the Vietminh moved into Hanoi, and amid cheering crowds Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam an independent country. But that was just the beginning.

Ho Chi Minh did not want war with the French. He did everything he could to prevent it. He courted United States support through the O.S.S. officers he had cultivated during the war -- going so far as to offer the United States a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. He created a coalition government, reined in the hotheads and agreed to accept a French military presence and membership in the French Union so long as the French agreed to the eventual goal of Vietnamese independence. But after the French humiliations in World War II even the French Socialists could not accept the idea of giving up the colonies. So at the beginning of 1947 Ho went back to the maquis. He had told his friend Jean Sainteny, ''You will kill ten of my men while we will kill one of yours, but you will be the ones to end up exhausted.'' And so it was.

During the French war, as during World War II, Ho and his companions lived in caves or thatched shelters in the mountains, moving frequently to avoid French patrols, often hungry, often suffering from malaria or dysentery. In 1954 the Vietminh won a decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu, but still the war dragged on. Mao Zedong had begun to provide the poorly equipped Vietminh with training and war matériel, and the United States had begun to finance the French war effort. The great powers were now heavily involved in Vietnam, and in 1954 they met in Geneva to negotiate a settlement.

Under pressure from Beijing and Moscow, the Vietminh agreed to a cease-fire and to the division of the country into two regroupment zones at the 17th parallel. By the terms of the accord an election was to be held in two years to unify the country. However, Beijing and Moscow did not guarantee the election, the United States did not sign the agreement and, soon after the conference ended, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States would begin to foster a non-Communist state in the South. In the view of Vietnam's revolutionaries, the Geneva Conference was the first step on the road to the second Indochina war.

In Hanoi, Ho lived almost as simply as he had in the maquis. Refusing to install himself in the governor general's residence, he inhabited the gardener's cottage and then a house on stilts beside a pond. He was President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but the title he preferred was Uncle Ho. Often he could be seen in his worn khaki uniform and sandals talking with peasants or groups of delighted children. To many foreign observers there seemed to be more than a touch of artifice in his self-presentation. After all, he was a sophisticate who charmed his interlocutors in many languages and a man not immune to praise or the love of women. (While in China he had, Duiker tells us, been married twice, and in Hanoi he fathered a child.) Duiker does not explain Ho's play-acting, but then there is much about Confucianism that eludes him. In the Confucian tradition, the emperor must provide a model of correct behavior. By rejecting imperial extravagance, Ho was demonstrating the Dao of his revolution to his countrymen, its break with the past.

In the late 1950's and early 60's Ho spent much of his time abroad engaged in the delicate negotiations required to bring the Soviet Union as well as China to the aid of his government as the Sino-Soviet split deepened. But his role was increasingly a ceremonial one. Le Duan, a southerner who had spent many years in French prisons, had seized the reins of power and proceeded to marginalize Ho and his long-term companions -- among them Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. Duiker suggests that Ho's decline in authority began during the brutal land reform campaign of 1955-56, at a time of rising Chinese influence over the revolution. According to Duiker, Ho was not directly involved in the campaign, but ''his prestige as an all-knowing and all-caring leader had been severely damaged.''

During the early 1960's Ho warned his colleagues against launching a premature uprising in South Vietnam and against overemphasizing the military struggle. He wanted to avoid bringing the United States into the war, and until the Johnson administration began bombing the North, he remained hopeful that Washington would withdraw its support for the regime in Saigon. But it was not to be. When American troops began to arrive in Vietnam in 1965, Ho was a 75-year-old man and no longer in charge of his government.

''Ho Chi Minh was half Lenin and half Gandhi,'' Duiker writes. Ho always sought to achieve his objectives without resort to military force and, unlike some of his colleagues, he had a cleareyed view of international and domestic realities, a flexible, pragmatic approach and the patience and subtlety to seek diplomatic solutions. Unfortunately, as Duiker might have added, neither the French nor the American leadership had the sense to respond in kind.

Frances FitzGerald is the author of ''Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam'' (Little, Brown and Company, 1972). The book won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award.