Remembering Ho Chi Minh

Today (or perhaps tomorrow) marks the 48th anniversary of the death of Ho Chi Minh.

I have lived in Vietnam for nearly four years all together and I consider it to be my second home. When I first came to Vietnam in 2012, I was still very much a sheltered, America-centric centrist and I was frankly terrified of all of the Communist emblems which were on display. At that time, I was still programmed to see Communism as comparable to Nazism as one of the most evil movements in human history.

In addition to those big Communist emblems, there were also countless massive portraits of Ho Chi Minh. I wasn’t intimidated at all by the gently smiling face of Uncle Ho. In those days I only knew bits and pieces of his biography. I remembered learning in high school that before turning to the Soviets for aid against the French, he had attempted to get backing from President Truman, who snubbed him. I also knew that Ho actually fought alongside allied forces during World War II.

So in my mind at that time, Ho Chi Minh had turned to Communism as an expedient to liberate his people, which might have some truth to it. There are many quotes from Ho that downplay his fervor for Communism, such as: “It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me,” and “I only follow one party: the Vietnamese party.”

It seemed perfectly understandable to me to do whatever it takes to liberate your people and so, even with my run-of-the-mill, Commie-loathing American mindset, I had respect for Ho Chi Minh.

Since those days my understanding of not only leftism, but also the history and the people of Vietnam has been constantly evolving. Today I am far from an expert on Vietnamese society, culture, or history, but I do have a lot of on-the-ground experience and personal relationships with Vietnamese people in both the North and in the South.

Although I’m now a leftist, I do not subscribe to the Marxist-Leninist, authoritarian, stateist philosophy of the Communist Party of Vietnam — though I might actually have more fondness for the Party if they actually opposed the crony capitalism that has seeped into Vietnam since the Doi Moi reforms of the late 80s and early 90s. Since I first moved there in 2012, I have seen corporations like VinCom and Lotte buy up massive swathes of the cityscape and countryside alike, and I have seen Hanoi and Saigon entrench deeper and deeper into capitalism as the skyscrapers grow higher and higher. There’s no question that the economy in Vietnam has been exploding under Doi Moi, but the Vietnamese proletariat receives only a fraction of the benefit from this development while party members and their capitalist-imperialist associates are raking in vast fortunes.

In the past few years I have spoken to many Vietnamese Americans whose parents had to flee the Communists from South Vietnam, and I have friends in Saigon whose family members were imprisoned for having opposed the revolution.

I have also met face-to-face with some of the victims of authoritarianism in Vietnam. In 2013 I went to the home of Nguyen Dan Que to record an interview for the BBC. This was a man who was a true believer in Leftism, but who rejected authoritarianism. As a result, he has spent many years imprisoned by the Vietnamese Communist party for dissent.

All that said, most of the alleged suppression I have first-hand knowledge of occurred after the death of Ho Chi Minh. More than one Vietnamese friend has told me they wished Uncle Ho didn’t smoke cigarettes, so that he would have lived longer and could have had an active role in the processes of post-war healing and nation-building. I compare this sentiment to my own curiosity about how my homeland, the American South, might have developed differently if Abraham Lincoln, a wiser and more compassionate figure than many of his Unionist associates, hadn’t been assassinated after our own bloody and divisive Civil War.

As I sit here typing, I’m finding it very difficult to crystallize my view of Ho Chi Minh. Was he the infallible hero the Vietnamese Communist state portrays him as? He was certainly a hero to Vietnam, working tirelessly for many decades to liberate a people who were brutally oppressed by more powerful nations for over a thousand years.

I do believe he loved his country and his people. He risked his own life and worked tirelessly to seek out diplomatic and military solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems his nation faced. He stood up to the mightiest military power in the history of human civilization and inspired simple farmers to rise up against the war machines of much more powerful nations.

Was he a hero for the left? The Vietnamese Communist Party made many decisions under his watch which I find abhorrent, such as the extermination of Trotskyists in the 1940s. How much Ho himself had to do with these actions is up for debate, but he had to have been aware of it and he certainly could have stopped it from happening.

Struggle against imperialism is inherently violent and there is no doubt that Ho Chi Minh — like Che Guevera, Simon Bolivar, George Washington, and virtually every freedom fighter in history — has at least some innocent blood on his hands. There is also no doubt that Ho was able to unite his nation and liberate Vietnam from foreign colonialism.

So what kind of leftist was Ho? I personally suspect that he would have been opposed to many of the actions the Communist party has taken since his death, from the repression and reprisal against the South Vietnamese immediately after the war to party elitism during the hard economic times of the late 70s and 80s to the Doi Moi shift towards capitalist-imperialism that continues to this day. But that’s just a hunch. We will never really know what kind of leftist statesman Ho might have turned out to be. He died before the full resolution of the war and was never able to lead his people through a time of peace.

Surely, the state that has been built in the shadow of his death has tremendous flaws. It’s rife with corruption, overly repressive, and arguably not truly Leftist at all. Even the circumstances surrounding his death raise my hackles against the Vietnamese Communist Party.

They concealed the truth of his death for 48 or perhaps even 72 hours for propaganda purposes and now it’s believed by many that the actual date of his death was September 3rd. This kind of truth manipulation is one of my pet peeves about 20th century Marxist Leninist states. Why not trust the people with the truth? The very people whom we, as Leftists, are supposed to be championing? Furthermore, Ho Chi Minh was insistent that he receive a simple cremation upon his death, yet the Communists instead decided to preserve his body and create a Soviet-style mausoleum where future generations could visit his body. Based on his humility and the simple life he wanted to live, I am certain that’s not the fate he would have wanted for his mortal remains.

In short, I don’t view the current Communist Party of Vietnam in a very positive light. But in comparison to the very real suffering which the United States of America’s capitalist-imperialist system has inflicted on millions of people domestically and abroad, can we really be so judgmental as to consider our system superior by any measure?

Ultimately, Ho and his legacy are inherently evasive, impossible to ever truly grasp. So much exaggeration, concealment, deception and misinformation from every source and side surrounds Ho Chi Minh that it’s impossible to vindicate or condemn the man. What we do know is that he lead his people almost single-handedly to wrench the destiny of Vietnam from the grip of oppressive foreign powers, and that in itself is worthy of remembering.

Rest in peace, Uncle Ho.

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