Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen Sinh Cung; May 19, 1890-September 2, 1969) was a revolutionary who commanded the communist North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. Ho Chi Minh also served as the prime minister and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He is still admired in Vietnam today; Saigon, the city's capital, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in his honor.
Fast Facts: Ho Chi Minh
- Known For: Ho Chi Minh was a revolutionary who led the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
- Also Known As: Nguyen Sinh Cung, Nguyen Tat Thanh, Bac Ho
- Born: May 19, 1890 in Kim Lien, French Indochina
- Died: September 2, 1969 in Hanoi, North Vietnam
- Spouse: Zeng Xueming (m. 1926-1969)
Ho Chi Minh was born in Hoang Tru Village, French Indochina (now Vietnam) on May 19, 1890. His birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cung; he went by many pseudonyms throughout his life, including "Ho Chi Minh," or "Bringer of Light." Indeed, he may have used more than 50 different names during his lifetime.
When the boy was little, his father Nguyen Sinh Sac prepared to take the Confucian civil service exams in order to become a local government official. Meanwhile, Ho Chi Minh's mother Loan raised her two sons and daughter and was in charge of producing the rice crop. In her spare time, Loan regaled the children with stories from traditional Vietnamese literature and folk tales.
Although Nguyen Sinh Sac did not pass the exam on his first attempt, he did relatively well. As a result, he became a tutor for village children, and the curious, smart little Cung absorbed many of the older kids' lessons. When the child was 4, his father passed the exam and received a grant of land, which improved the family's financial situation.
The following year, the family moved to Hue; 5-year-old Cung had to walk through the mountains with his family for a month. As he grew older, the child had the opportunity to go to school in Hue and learn the Confucian classics and the Chinese language. When the future Ho Chi Minh was 10, his father renamed him Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning "Nguyen the Accomplished."
Life in the United States and England
In 1911, Nguyen Tat Thanh took a job as a cook's helper aboard a ship. His exact movements over the next several years are unclear, but he seems to have seen many port cities in Asia, Africa, and France. His observations gave him a poor opinion of French colonials.
At some point, Nguyen stopped in the United States for a few years. He apparently worked as a baker's assistant at the Omni Parker House in Boston and also spent time in New York City. In the United States, the young Vietnamese man observed that Asian immigrants had a chance to make a better life in a much freer atmosphere than those living under colonial rule in Asia.
Introduction to Communism
As World War I drew to a close in 1918, leaders of the European powers decided to meet and hash out an armistice in Paris. The 1919 Paris Peace Conference attracted uninvited guests as well-subjects of the colonial powers who called for self-determination in Asia and Africa. Among them was a previously unknown Vietnamese man who had entered France without leaving any record at immigration and signed his letters Nguyen Ai Quoc-"Nguyen who loves his country." He repeatedly attempted to present a petition calling for independence in Indochina to the French representatives and their allies but was rebuffed.
Although the political powers of the day in the western world were uninterested in giving the colonies in Asia and Africa their independence, communist and socialist parties in Western countries more sympathetic to their demands. After all, Karl Marx had identified imperialism as the last stage of capitalism. Nguyen the Patriot, who would become Ho Chi Minh, found common cause with the French Communist Party and began to read about Marxism.
Training in the Soviet Union and China
After his introduction to communism in Paris, Ho Chi Minh went to Moscow in 1923 and began to work for the Comintern (the Third Communist International). Despite suffering frostbite to his fingers and nose, Ho Chi Minh quickly learned the basics of organizing a revolution, while carefully steering clear of the developing dispute between Trotsky and Stalin. He was much more interested in practicalities than in the competing communist theories of the day.
In November 1924, Ho Chi Minh made his way to Canton, China (now Guangzhou). For almost two and a half years he lived in China, training about 100 Indochinese operatives and gathering funds for a strike against French colonial control of Southeast Asia. He also helped organize the peasants of Guangdong Province, teaching them the basic principles of communism.
In April 1927, however, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek began a bloody purge of communists. His Kuomintang (KMT) massacred 12,000 real or suspected communists in Shanghai and would go on to kill an estimated 300,000 across the nation over the following year. While Chinese communists fled to the countryside, Ho Chi Minh and other Comintern agents left China entirely.
On the Move
Ho Chi Minh had gone overseas 13 years earlier as a naive and idealistic young man. He now wished to return and lead his people to independence, but the French were well aware of his activities and would not willingly allow him back into Indochina. Under the name Ly Thuy, he went to the British colony of Hong Kong, but the authorities suspected that his visa was forged and gave him 24 hours to leave. He then made his way to Moscow, where he appealed to the Comintern for funding to launch a movement in Indochina. He planned to base himself in neighboring Siam (Thailand). While Moscow debated, Ho Chi Minh went to a Black Sea resort town to recover from an illness-probably tuberculosis.
Declaration of Independence
Finally, in 1941, the revolutionary who called himself Ho Chi Minh-"Bringer of Light"-returned to his home country of Vietnam. The outbreak of World War II and the Nazi invasion of France created a powerful distraction, allowing Ho Chi Minh to evade French security and reenter Indochina. The Nazis' allies, the Empire of Japan, seized control of northern Vietnam in September 1940 to prevent the Vietnamese from supplying goods to the Chinese resistance.
Ho Chi Minh led his guerrilla movement, known as the Viet Minh, in opposition to the Japanese occupation. The United States, which would formally align itself with the Soviet Union once it entered the war in December 1941, provided support for the Viet Minh in their struggle against Japan through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA.
When the Japanese left Indochina in 1945 following their defeat in World War II, they handed over control of the country not to France-which wanted to reassert its right to its Southeast Asian colonies-but to Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh and the Indochinese Communist Party. Japan's puppet emperor in Vietnam, Bao Dai, was set aside under pressure from Japan and the Vietnamese communists.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with himself as president. As specified by the Potsdam Conference, however, northern Vietnam was under the stewardship of Nationalist Chinese forces, while the south was under the control of the British. In theory, the Allied forces were there simply to disarm and repatriate remaining Japanese troops. However, when France-their fellow Allied Power-demanded Indochina back, the British acquiesced. In the spring of 1946, the French returned to Indochina. Ho Chi Minh refused to relinquish his presidency and was forced back into the role of guerrilla leader.
First Indochina War
Ho Chi Minh's first priority was to expel the Chinese Nationalists from northern Vietnam, and in February 1946 Chiang Kai-shek withdrew his troops. Although Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communists had been united with the French in their desire to get rid of the Chinese, relations between the parties broke down rapidly. In November 1946, the French fleet opened fire on the port city of Haiphong in a dispute over customs duties, killing more than 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. On December 19, Ho Chi Minh declared war on France.
For almost eight years, Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh fought against the French colonial forces. They received support from the Soviets and from the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong after the Chinese Communists' victory over the Nationalists in 1949. The Viet Minh used hit-and-run tactics and their superior knowledge of the terrain to keep the French at a disadvantage. Ho Chi Minh's guerrilla army scored its final victory at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a masterpiece of anti-colonial warfare that inspired the Algerians to rise against France later that same year.
In the end, France and its local allies lost about 90,000 troops, while the Viet Minh suffered almost 500,000 fatalities. Between 200,000 and 300,000 Vietnamese civilians were also killed. France pulled out of Indochina completely. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, Ho Chi Minh became the leader of northern Vietnam, while U.S.-backed capitalist leader Ngo Dinh Diem took power in the south.
At this time, the United States subscribed to "domino theory," the idea that the fall of one country in a region to communism would cause the neighboring states to topple like dominoes as well. In order to prevent Vietnam from following in the steps of China, the United States decided to support Ngo Dinh Diem's cancellation of the 1956 nationwide elections, which would very likely have unified Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh responded by activating the Viet Minh cadres in South Vietnam, who began to wage small-scale attacks on the Southern government. Gradually, U.S. involvement increased, until the country and other U.N. members were involved in all-out combat against Ho Chi Minh's soldiers. In 1959, Ho Chi Minh appointed Le Duan the political leader of North Vietnam, while he focused on rallying support from the Politburo and other communist powers. Ho Chi Minh remained the power behind the president, however.
Although Ho Chi Minh had promised the people of Vietnam a quick victory over the Southern government and its foreign allies, the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War, dragged on. In 1968, he approved the Tet Offensive, which was meant to break the stalemate. Although it proved a military fiasco for the North and the allied Viet Cong, it was a propaganda coup for Ho Chi Minh and the communists. With U.S. public opinion turning against the war, Ho Chi Minh realized that he only had to hold out until the Americans got tired of fighting and withdrew.
Ho Chi Minh would not live to see the end of the war. On September 2, 1969, the 79-year-old leader of North Vietnam died in Hanoi of heart failure, and he did not get to see his prediction about American war fatigue play out.
Ho Chi Minh's influence on North Vietnam was so great that when the Southern capital of Saigon fell in April 1975, many of the North Vietnamese soldiers carried posters of him into the city. Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. Ho Chi Minh is still revered in Vietnam today; his image appears on the nation's currency and in classrooms and public buildings.
- Brocheux, Pierre. "Ho Chi Minh: A Biography," trans. Claire Duiker. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Duiker, William J. "Ho Chi Minh." Hyperion, 2001.
- Gettleman, Marvin E., Jane Franklin, et al. "Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War." Grove Press, 1995.