Hồ Chí Minh, 1921

AMONG the present generation of Communist leaders, so decimated by the Stalinist purge, Ho Chi Minh is one of the rare survivors of the Leninist International which he joined as an ardent nationalistic revolutionary. In our time, many Communist leaders are progressing in the other direction, going from doctrinaire Communism to their kind of National-Communism, a process of which, for the time being, Tito is still the most striking example. I met Ho Chi Minh, then called Nguyen Ai-Quoc, quite often in Moscow in the early twenties. He became popular quickly in Comintern circles with his pleasant, almost timid manners. But it was Ho Chi Minh's nationalism which impressed us European Communists born and bred in a rather gray kind of abstract internationalism.

Ho Chi Minh was born on July 15, 1892 (there is still some discussion about the exact date of his birth), in the village of Kimlien in Annam. His father, Nguyen-Sinh-Huy, was a poor gentleman well-versed in the four books of Confucius, a studious, pious man, but an implacable enemy of French colonial rule and an active participant in the Resistance of Annam, a country riddled with secret societies all plotting, preparing and attempting an uprising against the French. Nguyen-Sinh-Huy named his third child, a son, born in these years of distress, Nguyen Ta't-Thanh. Nguyen, the family name, means "one who lives in the plains" or simply, a peasant; the given name, Ta't-Thanh, can be translated as "a man who will be victorious."

Young Ho received the best education available at that time and in that place, but he left his native Annam and its schools early; his impressive personal culture was enriched later by self-education. In leaving Annam, he was driven by an obsession current among Asian revolutionaries of this period: to seek help abroad among the young anti-colonial nations against the old colonial Powers. M. N. Roy, for instance, a founder member of the Indian Communist Party who later turned against the Stalinist régime, tells us in his autobiography how he left his native Calcutta during the First World War in the hope of getting arms for the Indian revolution from Germany. Roy never got the arms, but he wandered about, to land finally at the headquarters of the Communist International in Moscow. Likewise Ho Chi Minh wandered about without finding the help he sought, finally landing in Paris. There he was reduced to earning his living by menial jobs: gardener's helper, laundry man, cook and even as a cook's boy. Most Indo-Chinese were members of secret societies in the home country; Ho of course entered such an organization and may have then chosen his alias, Nguyen Ai-Quoc, which can be translated as Nguyen the Patriot, a name later to become so popular in Comintern circles.

Ho Chi Minh studied French literature, philosophy, and of course Socialist theories; he was attracted by the Syndicalist group around Pierre Monatte, Merrheim and Bourderon, the left radicals with whom Lenin first came in contact from Switzerland. About that time, Ho entered the French Socialist Party, and became acquainted with Alfred Rosmer, Boris Souvarine, Jean Loriot; Jean Longuet, Karl Marx's grandson, invited him to write articles for the Socialist daily, Le Populaire. There are still many Socialists in Paris who remember Ho Chi Minh as a short man of slight build with an ascetic face illuminated by tender and intelligent eyes. One still knows the address of the place where he tried to earn a living with a photo studio, the Socialist clubs he joined, the book shops to which he went to sell the theses of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, freshly arrived from Moscow. Thus in 1920 when he joined the Third Communist International at the Socialist Congress of Tours he had already won some experience in the European Socialist movement. In these years he became a close collaborator with some international Communist youth leaders, the Serbian Vuyo Vuyovich, the German Schüller and the Russian Shatzkin (all of whom were liquidated in the thirties).

The newly-founded Communist International was torn apart by the conflict between its local branches and the Moscow Executive Committee which was attempting to control the entire European Communist movement from one desk in the chairman's building in the Kremlin. One group after another rebelled against Moscow's numerous interventions in their parties' affairs; Ho Chi Minh watched these oppositions from the wings, often sympathizing with the anti-Moscow Communists but never joining in these factional feuds. His main interest was then, as it is today, the fight for the independence of his own country.

Ho Chi Minh went to Moscow for the first time in 1922 to attend the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International and became one of the most energetic organizers of its Southeast Asia bureau. In this capacity he had to cöordinate his efforts with those of the French Communist Party of which Indo-Chinese, Algerian and other anti-colonial groups were still subdivisions.

In 1925, Ho published together with the Algerian Communist, Messali Hadj, an anti-colonial magazine entitled Le Paria. This was the publication of the united anti-French resistance of Algeria, Morocco and Indo-China. An Indo-Chinese team organized and led by Ho Chi Minh contributed a collectively written article and signed it with a pen name: Nguyen O-Pháp. Jacques Doriot, the French Communist in charge of underground work in the colonies at that time, inquired what this pen name meant and learned to his surprise that it meant "the peasant who hates France." At Doriot's request articles were henceforth signed "Nguyen Ai-Quoc," a less aggressive expression of Indo-Chinese nationalism.

Michael Borodin, the Soviet advisor to the Kuomintang, took the promising Indo-Chinese revolutionary with him to China. Thus Ho Chi Minh had occasion to observe from the highest level the collaboration between the Stalinist Politburo and Chiang Kai-shek, as well as how and why this collaboration fell apart and changed into bitter enmity between the Chinese and the Russian dictators. He returned from Canton to Moscow with a considerably enlarged insight into the complex problems of Asian national revolution; he became the favorite advisor of the Comintern leaders, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky, who recognized his exceptional talents. However, like most other Asian Communists, he did not participate in the party fight which ruptured the Russian Communist hierarchy in the twenties and thus he could make the transition from Zinoviev and Bukharin to Stalin without great difficulty.

During the first spectacular advances of Chinese Communism, Moscow became the rallying point of many Asian revolutionaries; they came for help, for money, for passports, for military training and political schooling. Ho quietly and efficiently organized the schooling and training of his own Indo-Chinese cadres, and among his present collaborators there are still some who worked together with him then at Sun Yat-sen University.

Ho Chi Minh advanced rapidly in the Southeast Asian bureau of the Communist International. However, after the Communist débâcle in Canton in 1927, the nascent Asian Communist Parties entered their most critical period; thus it was only in 1930 that Ho was able to fuse various Communist groups into an Indo-Chinese Communist Party. It was formed by many local branches of various anti-colonial associations (Thanh-Nien, Association of the Young Annamites, for example) and from prisoner groups detained in various camps of which Poulo-Condore on Condor Island, situated some 300 miles off Saigon, is the best known. Many secret societies, considering their methods of fighting the French as outworn, changed their names and entered the Party sometimes to a man. Ho could operate in a wider range than before, from Moscow, Paris or Berlin, but also frequently nearer home, from Bangkok or Rangoon, from Singapore or the Chinese border. The new Party, the Dong-Duong-Cong-San-Dang, was now recognized as definitely separated from the French Party, an autonomous branch of the Communist International.

It is perhaps necessary to repeat that the Japanese invasion of Manchuria must be considered one of the turning points in the history of Asian Communism. After 1931, when American foreign policy sought to restrain Japanese aggression, Asian Communists welcomed the growing tension between Washington and Tokyo as opportune for the pursuit of their own policies. That war between the United States and Japan was inevitable had been one of the major theses of the Comintern. The Manchurian incident seemed to vindicate the Comintern's prognostication and Asian Communists endeavored to adapt their strategy with an eye to the forthcoming conflict. For the time being, the United States became the desired ally of many Asian Communist Parties because they hoped to be able to combine their own struggle against the old colonial rule with America's fight against Japan's new colonialism. Evidently the international situation became even more propitious for such Communist policy in Asia when, after Hitler's arrival in power, the United States and the Soviet Union began to converge their policies against Nazi Germany in Europe.

While mentioning this major factor in the growth of Asian Communism, I must, however, note some important differences. Undoubtedly, the Chinese Communists got a decisive stimulus from the American-Japanese conflict. In India the situation was somewhat different because there Britain, not Germany or Japan, was the main enemy. In Indo-China matters became quite confused because Japan threatened China and hence Indo-China; there was therefore a similarity of interest between Ho Chi Minh and Roosevelt (though Roosevelt probably did not even know of his existence). On the other end of the Communist axis, however, the new coöperation between Moscow and Paris suddenly transformed Indo-China's hereditary enemy, France, into an anti-Fascist friend and ally. Thus while Mao's party could skillfully manœuvre between the conflicting forces in the Pacific and weather the dangerous blows dealt it by Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh's party was marking time, and its progress, despite local successes, could in no way be compared to that of the Chinese Communists. Evidently Stalin was more interested in coöperation with the Paris Government against Nazi Germany than with the liberation of Indo-China from French colonial domination.

Ho had a hard time bringing his organization safely through that French phase of the Comintern and the Trotskyites made inroads in his Party.[i] Many leading Communists who disagreed with Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution and distrusted his activities in exile nevertheless trembled with disgust and fear when Stalin persecuted anyone who at one time or other had been in contact with Trotsky or Bukharin as being guilty by association. To break away from the Stalin Politburo, as Trotsky, in exile, demanded, was of course impracticable because the Communist leaders could not renounce the material support which only Moscow could give them nor could they keep their ranks together without the myth of monolithic Communism. But Trotsky's criticism of the Stalin régime found attentive ears in many officially loyal Communist quarters.

The hour of opportunity struck for Ho only after Pearl Harbor. In the fall of 1941 Vichy had concluded a pact of mutual tolerance with Tokyo which granted the Japanese army free movement through certain Indo-Chinese ports and roads and permitted, in exchange, the local French administration to function. Ho could now develop fully his talents for conspiracy and diplomacy: he got in contact with Chiang Kai-shek in Chungking, with the British intelligence and the O.S.S. operating in the Pacific area. Ho Chi Minh got very little, if any, material assistance either from the Chinese, the British or the Americans, but he gained political prestige among his co-nationals by becoming, in a way, the ally of the Allies. He adapted his organization to the new setting: the Communist Party faded into the background and in its place arose a Popular Front which succeeded in drawing in many nationalistic groups springing up throughout Indo-China. In 1942, the League of Revolutionary Organizations of Vietnam was founded: Viet-Nam-Doc-Lap-Dong-Minh-Hoi, or Viet Minh for short.

During the four years of Japanese occupation Indo-China lived in a twilight most favorable for Ho Chi Minh's political acumen. The Japanese were interested in Indo-China mainly as a gate to China; they did not persecute too energetically the anti-French Indo-Chinese groups, Communists included. The French administration, functioning under Japanese jurisdiction, became of course quite insecure in its handling of Indo-Chinese nationalists and Communists. Ho could plant his men in the French as well as the Japanese camp and the Viet Minh agents moved quite freely throughout the country, being the only group in which the native population had confidence. This peculiar balance of conflicting forces was suddenly broken when the Japanese command, probably somewhat out of touch with Tokyo, decided (in March 1945) to seize Hanoi and liquidate the local French administration. Many French changed sides at this time and those who had collaborated with the Japanese for years went into the Maquis, partly to save themselves from Japanese persecution and partly to have a good record for the new De Gaulle government in Paris. Thus for a short time, until August 1945, Ho Chi Minh and the French fought together in an anti-Japanese Resistance.

In these last months of the war, however, Japanese persecution in Indo-China was brutal and many nationalist leaders were forced to take refuge on Chinese territory. The Japanese command proclaimed Bao Dai chief of an independent Indo-Chinese state and he in turn declared the treaty with France null and void; the political situation was so confused that Paris feared Indo-China might declare itself independent under Bao Dai even after the forthcoming defeat of the Japanese. On the other hand, Chiang Kai-shek did not want to lose the opportunity which that coming defeat of Japan seemed to offer; he hoped to draw north Indo-China into his future zones of influence. Under Chiang Kai-shek's protection a United Congress of Indo-Chinese took place in Kunming; Ho was among the delegates and he won the day because his men were about the only ones who could still operate underground in Japanese-occupied territory. A small strip on the Sino-Indo-Chinese border was cleared of Japanese troops and in this enclave Ho Chi Minh set up the nucleus of his future Communist state.

In this troubled and delicate situation De Gaulle appointed (April 1945) Jean Sainteny[ii] as Commander of a French politicomilitary mission with the task of watching over French interests against Chinese aspirations. It is perhaps useful to recall today how Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a small underground Communist state, and Sainteny, commander of a weak French military mission, joined hands against Chiang Kai-shek. In order to facilitate Sainteny's task and to obscure his Communist past, Ho changed his name again and called himself from this time on Ho Chi Minh, "the man who attains perfect enlightenment."[iii]

The following months seemed to confirm Sainteny's fears that France might be eliminated altogether from Indo-China. At the Potsdam Conference the Allies decided, for military reasons, to divide Indo-China into two theaters of operation along the 16th parallel. In Paris, however, these military demarcation lines must have looked like the first step towards the annexation of north Indo-China by Chiang Kai-shek, perhaps with Bao Dai shifting his loyalty from Japan to China. And indeed, five days after Japan's capitulation (August 20) Bao Dai sent a melodramatic message to De Gaulle demanding complete independence for Indo-China. A few days later, however, due to joint Communist and French pressure, Bao Dai was forced to abdicate, the Red flag was hoisted over the imperial palace and Ho Chi Minh was declared president of the Republic of Vietnam.

On March 6, 1946, the French recognized the democratic Republic of Vietnam by a convention in which Indo-China was considered a free state with its own government, parliament and army, but at the same time, an indissoluble part of the Indo-Chinese Federation to be created and of the French Union. In exchange, Ho declared he wanted the French army to reënter Indo-China to relieve the Chinese troops which had entered Indo-China in pursuit of the Japanese army.

Ho Chi Minh, recognized by the French Government, became for a time the legal head of the Republic of Vietnam, but he ruled a country thoroughly disorganized and confused, a checkerboard of withdrawing Japanese and advancing Chinese troops, of regrouping French Expeditionary Corps, British and American military missions and a medley of Indo-Chinese loose political associations. In such a chaotic situation, Ho was unable to prevent many local rebellions against the returning French administration. Moreover, a sizeable group in Ho's party was seriously discontent with his compromise with the "Parisians" notwithstanding the fact that Thorez at that time was a member of De Gaulle's Cabinet. The nationalist extremists wanted a definite secession from France, the organization of a peasants' army on the Chinese Communist pattern and the establishment of Soviets throughout the peninsula. Again Ho acted as moderator among the conflicting factions. But he found himself caught in the middle at the Conference of Fontainebleau (July 1946) when his policy was challenged by French nationalist extremists as well as by his own ultra-leftists. French extremists played with the idea of setting up a separate state of Cochin China; to the majority of the Viet Minh delegation this was of course nothing but the beginning of a plan of partition. The Conference, instead of working out a viable compromise between the Viet Minh and French governments, became the first phase of the Eight Years War in Indo-China.

The collapse of the Fontainebleau Conference seemed to justify the viewpoint of the extremists in Ho Chi Minh's party that the French military wanted to reoccupy Indo-China and bring it back into the former colonial status. At this time India, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines won their independence. In Indo-China, however, the French Expeditionary Corps continued to behave according to its tradition that Indo-China was to be governed from Paris. The numerous declarations that Indo-China would be granted complete independence became a tragicomical ritual.

Ho Chi Minh had suffered a terrible blow: from being the recognized chief of a state, he became again the underground leader of a large but dispersed guerrilla army which was driven from the industrial strongpoints into the jungle. General Vo Nguyen Giap, a man who combined brilliant military talents with long experience in party politics, came to the fore; he was surrounded by a team of able and dedicated young men who were convinced that Vietnam could win its freedom only by proclaiming total mobilization of the Indo-Chinese after the pattern of the Chinese revolution. Ho could not but accept that policy, although he might have known better than anyone in his entourage that "total mobilization" and "democracy" are incompatible forms of social organization.

The Viet Minh's policy of total mobilization met with considerable success in many parts of Indo-China. Many nationalists who had wavered during the intermediate years now chose the Viet Minh as the only effective representation of the national movement for independence. The Viet Minh organized a network of branches and sub-branches cutting horizontally and vertically through the Indo-Chinese body politic, on lines of the party, the popular front and the military. A good deal of voluntary coöperation on the part of the native population was found by the Viet Minh, but there was also considerable coercion in case of opposition.

It may be safely assumed that until 1950 Ho's guerrilla army got little if any help either from Moscow or Peking; his partisans were poorly fed and housed and ill-provided with medical and other facilities and, of course, in the early period, badly armed. The discontent of the Indo-Chinese Communists at being thus abandoned was quite well known inside international Communist circles. Thus when Jugoslavia broke away from Moscow the Belgrade rebels hoped for a moment that the Indo-Chinese Communists would join them in their move and proclaim their independence from the Cominform. Ho kept his men in line.

The Viet Minh carried out the policy of total mobilization with such force and penetrated so deeply into French-controlled territory that Indo-China has become one of the most interesting samples of how an underground state can supersede the legal administration of its enemy. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh tried time and again to make new contact with Paris to end the civil war with a negotiated peace.

The French Government could not make up its mind whether to negotiate with Ho or whether to grant Bao Dai full independence. It wavered between various plans for military offensives which did not succeed. It accepted substantial financial assistance from the United States without permitting the United Nations to intervene. The Geneva Conference was the result of these grave mistakes. There, however, the French got a much better deal than they could expect in view of their seriously compromised military situation. It is by no means a secret that the Viet Minh delegation in Geneva was bitterly disappointed with the final armistice settlement. In their estimate Chou En-lai made too great concessions to France because he himself was under pressure from Nehru, who feared that the Indo-Chinese civil war could degenerate into an extended war in Southeast Asia. To most of the Viet Minh delegates the threat of internationalizing the war was bluff. These Viet Minh extremists are not likely to forget that General Giap was deprived of the fruits of victory and could not make his triumphal entry into Saigon similar to that of Mao into Peking. They fear that the partition of the Indo-Chinese states may become permanent and they also fear the difficulties increased by that partition in their part of Indo-China. The northern provinces have of course suffered considerably more from the war than the south. In the atmosphere of uncertainty about the future Indo-Chinese states, projects of industrialization necessarily must remain vague or the Communists must be resigned to building a much smaller Vietnam state than they had hoped to get under their control. Furthermore, the Viet Minh do not expect substantial assistance from Peking because for the time being China is too involved in her own economic difficulties; on the other hand, Moscow's interest in Indo-China is only marginal, in contrast to its interests in North Korea, a country situated on a crucial strategical point. The Viet Minh of course hope that a strong drive towards national unity will override the fears of Communism among many of their co-nationals; however, they realize that the West might be able to raise the living standard in south Indo-China quickly and efficiently and that if so economic interests may prove to be stronger than sentiments of national solidarity.

Again Ho has a formidable task before him. He has called repeatedly for the loyal implementation of the Geneva accords; these appeals are destined as much for his own followers as for his Western counterparts. In the end, Ho's moderation will win the day as it has so often won out against the opposition of his extremists, because the Democratic Republic of Vietnam is not strong enough to change the policy in Peking or Moscow.

However, Ho Chi Minh's submission to the strategy of the Moscow-Peking axis which needed that compromise with France may not be the end of his own political story. Ho is of course a veteran Communist; he will of course head a party state striving for the maximum industrialization and finally for collectivization of agriculture. One can even describe Ho as the model of the disciplined Communist; he has proved time and again his profound loyalty to Communism. However, his subordination to Moscow's authority stemmed as much from a sober evaluation of his political alternatives (which in the past was practically none) as from his Marxist convictions. After Geneva, his status is considerably elevated; he will now take his seat in the highest councils of the Communist hierarchy, regardless of where the frontiers of the Indo-Chinese state are definitely established. Will he be nothing more than an echo to Chou En-lai or Molotov? In the answer to this question lies much of the answer to the future of Southeast Asia.

In attempting to assess Ho Chi Minh's future political orientation one should avoid by all means the comfortable cliché of calling him a potential Asian Tito. Tito's was a case in itself, a product of Zhdanov's and Beria's kind of cold warfare. This team drove Tito into the Western camp, but Malenkov is not likely to repeat the errors of his predecessors. Moreover, Tito is the head of a Balkan state, situated at the crossroads of the two worlds, aspiring to affiliate itself with the West. Ho Chi Minh will not secede from the Moscow-Peking empire to become a camp follower of the Western World. His political reorientation may lie in quite another direction--in carefully planned, slow moves to align the Democratic Republic of Vietnam rather towards the group of non-committed Asian states, towards India, Indonesia, Burma and Ceylon. Furthermore, it is by no means a simple propaganda trick that Ho has continually repeated his proposal to make Vietnam part of the French Union, in the image of the British Commonwealth. He is not anti-French in the style of many Arab nationalists whose own culture and traditions are alien to France. To enter the French Union may give Vietnam a measure of independence from Moscow and Peking which Ho, a man with so much experience with changing political fronts, has certainly not overlooked.

Among the people of Indo-China there has always been a strong anti-Chinese current. Like many other border peoples the Indo-Chinese fear being assimilated by a powerful neighbor. To conserve their national integrity, Marxists or no Marxists, the Indo-Chinese have to set themselves apart. And among the many brands of Asian nationalism, the Indo-Chinese kind is certainly one of the most vigorous.

At the Geneva Conference and after, Chou En-lai has proclaimed the doctrine of Asianism. The logical implementation of such a doctrine would be the United States of Asia. Such a grandiose power combination, however, is not likely to be realized in our generation or even in our century. However, the Chinese Communist régime seems to steer in this direction. On that road there are some formidable blocks for which the West can hardly be blamed. Asia is divided into too many authentic sub-continents to be easily coördinated. India is one of the most important counterweights to the growing power of Communist China and so, in any case, will be Japan. The smaller Southeast Asian nations will have to seek their appropriate status in between. Ho Chi Minh has the stature, the political experience and perhaps the wisdom to become the inspirer of such a movement of independents in Southeast Asia.

[i] It is, by the way, interesting to record that the Communist parties of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria were in similar difficulties after 1934, but there the pro-French attitude of the Communist International resulted mainly in strengthening the non-Communist nationalist organizations.

[ii] Cf., "Histoire d'une Paix Manquée; Indochine 1945-1947," by Jean Sainteny. Paris: Amiot-Dumont, 1953. (Sainteny, by the way, is an alias adopted as a cover and later assumed as a definite name.) On August 8, 1954, Jean Sainteny was appointed general delegate of the French Republic to North Vietnam.

[iii] "Ho" means "barbarian" in Chinese. Many Indo-Chinese took that name as a symbol of their resistance against Chinese imperialism.

  • RUTH FISCHER, former member of the German Communist Party and member of the Comintern Presidium, 1924-26; member of the German Reichstag, 1924-28; author of "Stalin and German Communism"
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