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Ho Chi Minh played a pivotal role in the global processes of anticolonialism and decolonization that accompanied World Wars I and II. His leadership has become an enduring symbol of third world resistance to the West during the twentieth century.
Ho Chi Minh was born in on May 19, 1890, in central Vietnam. Biographers have estimated that he used over fifty aliases during his career. He was educated in the Confucian classics, instructed in three languages (Chinese, French, and romanized Vietnamese), exposed to a modern multidisciplinary curriculum, and steeped in Vietnamese history. In 1908 he was expelled from the National Academy for his involvement in a peasant demonstration.
In 1911 Ho Chi Minh resolved to leave Vietnam to experience life in France. He secured employment with a steamship company and traveled widely to ports in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the United States. He claimed to have lived in New York in 1912. In 1913 he moved to London, where he studied English, and in 1917 he returned to France.
In 1919 Ho Chi Minh gained notoriety when he presented to the major powers gathered at the Versailles peace conference a petition arguing that Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points should be applied to the colonial peoples in Indochina. This document was signed “Nguyen Ai Quoc,” a pseudonym he used for the next quarter century. In 1920 Ho Chi Minh joined a breakaway faction of the French Socialist Party that joined the Communist Third International.
In 1923 Ho Chi Minh moved to Moscow and began a career as an agent of the Communist Third International (or Comintern). He was assigned to China in 1924. In February 1930 he presided over the founding conference of the Vietnam Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh’s revolutionary career was interrupted by his arrest and detention by British authorities in Hong Kong (1931–1933). He resumed work with the Comintern in Moscow after his release, and in 1938 he was posted back to China.
In February 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after an absence of three decades. In May of that year he founded the anti-Japanese Viet Minh Front. He was detained by Nationalist authorities in southern China the following year and released in 1943. While in China, he made his first contacts with U.S. officials. He professed admiration for President Franklin Roosevelt’s anticolonial sentiments. In 1944 Ho Chi Minh reached an agreement with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in China. He agreed to supply intelligence and assist in the rescue of downed pilots in exchange for OSS assistance to and training of Viet Minh troops.
In August 1945 the Viet Minh seized power, and on September 2 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent, citing the opening words from the American Declaration of Independence. He used his OSS contacts to convey messages to President Harry Truman requesting support. In 1946 Ho Chi Minh twice offered the United States access to Cam Ranh Bay.
Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese people in a successful eight-year war to expel the French (1946–1954). From 1954 until his death on September 2, 1969, he held the twin positions of head of state and chairman of the party in North Vietnam. In reality power over domestic affairs was held by the party general secretary and senior members of the politburo. Increasingly he focused his energies on foreign affairs and national reunification.
Ho Chi Minh was both a Communist and a nationalist. His brand of communism was more pragmatic than doctrinaire, while his patriotism was uncompromising. In Ho Chi Minh’s words, “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
- Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. New York: Hyperion.
- Quinn-Judge, Sophie. 2002. Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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