By mid-1968, Ho Chi Minh had become a household name in not only North and South Vietnam, but also in the United States, Europe, and Asia. The elderly, and at that time ailing, Communist revolutionary had risen to international prominence because of his leadership over the Vietnamese revolution – an anti-colonial mass rebellion that had achieved impressive military and political gains against Imperial Japan, France, and the United States.
In mid-August 1945, Ho and his revolutionary comrades seized power in Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina from the recently defeated Japanese Imperial Army. In 1946, when French colonial administrators and the government of Charles De Gaulle refused to legitimize Vietnamese Communist authority in northern Vietnam, war erupted between Ho’s Vietminh and the French colonial army. After a brutal eight-year struggle, fought mostly in the wilds of Tonkin, the Vietminh emerged triumphant. At the conclusion of the First Indochina War, Ho established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam north of the 17th parallel. South of that demarcation line, the United States formed the Republic of Vietnam or South Vietnam.
In 1959, Ho Chi Minh authorized an insurgent war in South Vietnam – it’s purpose – to topple the U.S.-backed government of Ngo Dinh Diem and establish a coalition government in Saigon dominated by Communist elements.
Unwilling to allow a Communist victory in South Vietnam, and worried that a Vietcong success there would thoroughly discredit the U.S.’s global containment policy, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations escalated U.S. military involvement across Indochina. By late 1967, the U.S. had nearly 500,000 troops in South Vietnam. But that massive American military presence could not defeat the Vietcong insurgency, nor could the Vietcong force the Americans to withdraw from their country. As the war bogged down, Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese Politburo authorized a bold offensive to end the military stalemate and win the war.
On January 30-31, 1968, the Vietcong launched a series of spectacular attacks against U.S. and South Vietnamese military and political targets, including the U.S. embassy in Saigon, the Joint General Staff Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut airbase, and the Saigon Radio Station.
The Vietcong’s Tet Offensive represented a stunning display of Communist military prowess and popular appeal. Although the American news media focused its attention during Tet on the dramatic Vietcong attacks in Saigon and Hue, the real story of Tet occurred in rural South Vietnam. Thousands of hamlets, and millions of peasants, went over to the insurgents between late January and March 1968.
In the United States, the Tet Offensive destroyed the last, tattered remnants of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s political credibility. In February 1968, when the true scale of the military disaster that had befallen the Allies in South Vietnam became apparent to the American public, LBJ’s political career came crashing down. Recognizing that he would be hard-pressed to win re-election in November, Johnson decided not to run for a another term.
Tet also revealed General William C. Westmoreland’s war strategy to be fatally flawed in conception and implementation. In the wake of the offensive, knowledgeable Western military and political analysts concluded that Ho’s revolutionary forces would emerge victorious in the South – it was only a matter of time. The chain-smoking, gray-bearded Ho Chi Minh, and his low-tech guerrillas, had defeated the world’s greatest military and economic power. Tet marked the highpoint of Ho’s long, illustrious career as a professional revolutionary.
Ho Chi Minh did not fit the stereotypical American view of a Communist leader. Throughout the Cold War, American television and print media portrayed Communist leaders in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia as drab automatons. They were men who were ideologically rigid, violent, emotionally detached, and disdainful of Western traditions. Ho’s appearance, personality, and personal tastes contrasted with this standard view. He possessed soft, active eyes; a thin, frail frame; a gentle demeanor; conversational deftness; an appreciation for French culture; and a love of American cigarettes. One American assigned to Vietnam in the 1960s thought Ho looked like an Asian Santa Claus.
Ho may have looked a little like Santa Claus, but behind his frail physical appearance and likable personality traits lay an uncompromising conviction, which frequently manifested itself in murderous ruthlessness.
Among sympathetic leftists in the West in the 1960s, and especially the American anti-war movement, Ho Chi Minh became a sort of Asian sage. He was supposedly an intellectual who preferred literature and contemplation over political machinations. He was a guerrilla leader who abhorred war, a Soviet-trained Communist who favored Western-style democracy, and a Stalinist who rejected Stalin.
Ho certainly was no Stalin. He never conducted a widespread purge of opponents in North Vietnam on the scale of the Great Purge carried out by Stalin in the Soviet Union in the 1930s; nor did Ho purposefully starve to death millions of his countrymen, as did Stalin in the Ukraine in the 1930s. Moreover, Ho never built a Vietnamese version of Stalin’s Gulag or Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison. Ho was very different from Stalin’s successors too. He was nothing like Khrushchev – who behaved like a bombastic fool on the world stage. He was also unlike Mao Zedong, who diligently constructed his own Cult of Personality and then unleashed the deadly Cultural Revolution to reconsolidate his hold on power.
In the West, Ho was viewed as a good Communist because so many other Communist leaders looked so bad. He gained favor with the American Left for another important reason. The framing of Ho Chi Minh as a peace-loving, democratic-leaning Communist justified the Left’s opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
But the American Left never needed Ho. There existed other, more convincing reasons to oppose the war – and the person of Ho was the least of those reasons.
Although frequently portrayed as a Vietnamese Gandhi, Ho believed firmly in the use of violence to achieve political ends. For instance, in the 1930s he may have leaked information on his political opponents to the French secret police in order to ensure their capture, imprisonment, and execution. Throughout his political career, Ho repeatedly authorized the assassination of political rivals. He had Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother murdered. And when Diem refused to cooperate with the Vietminh in the 1940s, Ho ordered his assassination too. Diem escaped his executioners only to become a vehement enemy of Ho and his revolution.
After the French withdrew from Tonkin and portions of Annam in 1954 and 1955, Ho and his colleagues established a totalitarian state north of the 17th parallel. His government repressed all forms of dissent. In 1956, the Lao Dong Party violently repressed a rebellion of disgruntled farmers in Ho’s home province of Nghe An. At the same time, the Party executed thousands of people in an attempt to rid North Vietnam of Western bourgeois influences. Ho later admitted that the crackdown of 1955-56 went too far, sweeping into its deadly claws a large number of innocents. His public apology appeased his supporters in the West, but it was too little and too late for the Vietnamese living north of the 17th parallel. By the late 1950s, Ho and his colleagues on the Politburo had succeeded in squashing all opposition to the Communist regime.
In the 1960s, Ho continued to reveal his Communist fanaticism by supporting the forced reunification of North and South Vietnam. He knew that reunification might come at the cost of the total destruction of the DRV in an American bombing campaign. And yet, he was willing to take that risk. Throughout the decade of the 1960s, Ho sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers into South Vietnam to overthrow the Saigon government, recognizing that the majority of those men would never return home.
Ho Chi Minh showed his internationalist Communist credentials by backing the Communist revolutions in Laos and Cambodia. The Pathet Lao and the genocidal Khmer Rouge received aid and advice from North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces.
It has been over 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the Communists to power in South Vietnam. Surprisingly, the perception of Ho Chi Minh first popularized in the 1960s – and promoted since then by the American Left – that he was a nationalist, a man of peace, and an independent Communist along the lines of Yugoslavia’s Tito – continues to hold sway in the West.
The definitive biography of Ho, written by William Duiker and published in 2000, contends that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist, concerned primarily with liberating and unifying his country. Duiker’s book downplays Ho Chi Minh’s involvement in the Comintern, his early training as a revolutionary in Moscow, his ties to Beijing, his commitment to totalitarianism, and his avowed Stalinism. The Comintern, it should be remembered, sought to promote the worldwide Communist revolution. Its intended purpose was to bring about the collapse of Western-oriented nations. Ho’s membership in the Comintern, as well as statements made by him up until his death in September 1969, indicate that Ho Chi Minh, contrary to the long-hold Leftist historical consensus, hoped one day to use Vietnam as a springboard to spread Communism throughout Southeast Asia. He considered it the duty of a dedicated Communist like himself to assist in the “liberation” of other oppressed peoples.
Duiker’s treatise, which is a very good read and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the Vietnam War and its central character, also minimizes the ideological fervor that infused Vietnamese Communism. The Communist revolutionaries within the Lao Dong Party, including Ho, Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, Nguyen Thanh, and Nguyen Giap, held a fierce hatred for the world’s dominant capitalist nation – the United States. They saw the war in South Vietnam as a means of displaying the superiority of Communism over Western-style democracies, as well as an opportunity to humiliate the United States. These men understood that an American defeat in Vietnam would weaken, and possibly incapacitate, the U.S. in the global Cold War struggle. Discontent and division within the U.S. stemming from the unpopular war would curtail America’s interventionist propensities, thus aiding the spread of Communism across the globe.
The fanaticism of the Lao Dong explains two things: its decision to sacrifice its soldiers in the meat grinder that became South Vietnam and its unwillingness to consider a U.S. imposed division of Vietnam.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, the Lao Dong Party has taken the favorable interpretations of Ho Chi Minh and his political revolution and expanded on them. The Party has carefully constructed a Cult of Personality around the long-dead leader. It’s not surprising why the Party wants to promote an image of Ho as the benevolent patriarch. Uncle Ho provides the Party with legitimacy.
The representations of the Cult of Personality are everywhere across contemporary Vietnam, but especially in what had once been South Vietnam. A traveler in Vietnam cannot go even a few hours without seeing Ho somewhere in some form. His face graces every denomination of Vietnamese paper currency. On the 500 Dong note, Ho cracks a coy smile. This may be the Party’s little joke – a 500 Dong note cannot buy you anything in modern Vietnam – it’s essentially worthless. Ho’s face is also visible on large roadside billboards from Camau to the Cao Bac, often smiling or appearing contemplative. His face is frequently on television, usually as the backdrop to some important Party meeting. And his framed picture hangs in government buildings, in conference rooms, in banks, and in bedrooms. Every day, Ho looks down on the Vietnamese with his kind, sparkling eyes. In Vietnam, Ho is always watching you. He may not be Big Brother, but he is certainly the intrusive Uncle.
In a Saigon art museum, a painting depicts Uncle Ho deep in the Vietnamese jungle, sitting on a streamside rock, quietly fishing, surrounded by the beauty of Tonkin’s mountainous landscape. The artwork implies that Ho was a contemplative man who enjoyed nature and the quiet life. Never mind that Ho once said that the Vietnamese might have to witness the total destruction of the highlands environment before Vietnam achieved independence from foreign domination. Knowing that Ho was willing to let the highlands burn to the ground to achieve his ends makes it hard to feel any warm fuzzies when viewing the painting of him whimsically fishing along a mountain stream.
In Saigon, I once glimpsed a billboard of Ho in his famous military-style shirt looking over a column of Vietnamese soldiers as they marched off to some unknown location, almost certainly to Nam Bo and the southern front. Ho’s facial expression is one of approval and concern. It’s as if he is blessing the troops as they depart on their southern crusade. The Party, through this image, is depicting Ho as someone who sanctioned the sending of men to the South, but rather than having done it out of an unbending, inhumane fanaticism, the Party wants to convey the message that Ho empathized with the fears and sufferings of his soldiers. Uncle Ho was not a ruthless, cold-hearted Communist ideologue. Rather, he shared the emotional hardships of war with his people.
Ho Chi Minh has ascended to such heights in Vietnamese culture that he is now truly unassailable. He is Communist Vietnam’s Jesus Christ. He wore sandals, he had a beard, he supposedly had an easy-going, laid-back manner, he remained celibate, (or at least his sexual partners were never made public), he loved children, he lived a simple, non-materialistic lifestyle, and he performed miracles (he defeated the French and the United States).
The Communists, being atheists, cannot claim that he will return to earth someday, although they may make such an assertion in the future when science advances to the point where the dead can be brought back to life. If that day ever comes, Ho’s corpse is ready for resurrection in the refrigerated Stalinesque mausoleum in Hanoi. Ho has risen to the holy heights of Communist hero worship, he is untouchable. By association, the Party has tried to make itself beyond reproach.
After decades of relentless promotion by the Party, the Cult of Personality today plays a central role in the relationship between the Party and the people. The Cult has emerged as a key tool to quell domestic criticism of the Party’s rule. There are a host of reasons the cult is stronger now than ever before.
First, Communist ideology in Vietnam is dead. Communism is morally and ideologically bankrupt in Vietnam, as it is in Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, and China. The Party’s embrace of Ho is a reflection of this ideological bankruptcy.
The Party harkens back, through Ho worship, to the past because after 60 years of Communism in the North and 40 years of Communism in the South, Marxist-Leninism has proven itself a failure. If the Vietnamese public actually digests the reality of Communism’s failure in Vietnam, then the Party’s continued hold on the reins of government is in serious trouble. By making the lovable and wise Ho the poster child of Vietnamese Communism, the Party hopes to avoid its eventual ouster from power. In other words, if you oust the Party, you oust Ho – and as of yet, no one wants to depose Ho.
Second, in the 1960s and 1970s, Communism was relevant in Vietnam. The Party employed Marxist-Leninism to mobilize the population in North and South Vietnam to defeat the United States and reunite the country. Today, the Cult of Personality constantly reminds the public of the Party’s triumph over American imperialism. The war was the Party’s greatest achievement and it was Ho who led the Vietnamese to victory. In reminding the people of its accomplishments in the 1960s and 1970s, the Party seeks to reclaim legitimacy and relevance in the 21st Century.
The Party’s Cult is no different than the Republican Party’s deification of Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s, the GOP mattered, its trickle-down economic philosophy and its Spenglerian theory of presidential leadership had not yet been discredited by Bush Jr.’s disastrous war in Iraq, the financial collapse of 2008, and the unethical personal behavior of Trump. The GOP’s Cult of Reagan is an attempt to get the American people to remember an era when Republican ideology still commanded respect and obedience. Cults become necessary when an ideology, and the institutions founded on that ideology, have lost their hold over the hopes and aspirations of the masses.
Third, the Cult of Personality surrounding Ho Chi Minh serves to quash widespread public doubt within Vietnam about Ho’s decision to fight the United States. The Communist adoption of market reforms and their rapprochement with the U.S. in the 1990s raised serious misgivings among Party members and the public at-large over the necessity of the war with the United States and the sacrifices made to win it. Specifically, why did the Party pursue the war in the South and send so many to die if in the end it adopted the economic system it had fought to defeat? In order to dispel the public’s doubts, the Party, through eye-catching imagery, repeatedly proclaims that Ho and the Party cared about the soldiers sent South to die. Furthermore, the many billboards that show Ho with children are the Party’s attempt to persuade a disbelieving public that Ho Chi Minh had an abiding concern for Vietnam’s future generations. Uncle Ho wasn’t the uncompromising ideologue whose decisions contributed to the death of millions and the traumatization of generations of Vietnamese.
If a majority of Vietnamese ever come to the conclusion that Ho made a grievous mistake by going to war against the United States, the Party is done.
Fourth, the Vietnamese people are notoriously self-interested. After decades of war and economic hardship, they have developed an almost pathological selfishness. When they are not shamelessly promoting themselves, they are shamelessly advancing the interests of their families. It was this lack of social consciousness that fostered the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. The Communists have worked diligently since the adoption of market reforms (and the economic self-interestedness that goes along with capitalism) to instill a sense of nationalism and social responsibility within the populace. Party leaders know that the public’s self-interestedness, if allowed to go unchecked, could bring about the collapse of Vietnam’s social and political order, and with it Communist rule. The Cult of Ho has been utilized as a means of fostering the public’s social consciousness. Through Communist propaganda, Ho is portrayed as socially-aware, sensitive to the needs of the downtrodden, and extremely nationalistic. Ho always put country first.
There’s another reason the Party continually harps on about social responsibility: doing so masks the corruption of its own members and diverts the public’s attention away from government economic policies that have undermined Vietnam’s sovereignty, environment, and social cohesion.
If the Vietnamese public ever concludes that the war against the U.S. was a big mistake, and that the Hanoi regime’s economic policies in the 1970s and 1980s seriously impeded the country’s development, and that economic policies since the early 1990s have seriously undermined social stability and environmental sustainability, then the Lao Dong Party may face a historic crisis of legitimacy. During such a crisis, the Vietnamese people may ask themselves a simple question: if the Party got the past so wrong, why should we trust it to get the future right? Not surprisingly, the Party has an answer to that all-important question – it’s in the person of Ho Chi Minh.
In Saigon, there is billboard poster of Ho in the midst of a group of Vietnamese workers. In the image, everyone, including Ho, is looking ahead. In the background is a depiction of rising buildings. Urbanization is underway. Progress is taking place. The message being conveyed is obvious: Ho (and the Party) are going to help lead the people toward prosperity. Everyone just needs to believe it. Forget about the Party’s rampant corruption, its ineptness, its repression, its disastrous past decisions, and just remember this: Uncle Ho Loves You.