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TIME 100: AUGUST 23-30, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 7/8

Ho Chi Minh
Born May 19, 1890 in Nghe An province
1930 Founds the Communist Party of Vietnam
1941 Starts Viet Minh independence movement
1954 Viet Minh defeat French at Dien Bien Phu; country divided after Geneva Accords, with Ho as President of the North
1956 War with South begins; U.S. sends troops in 1965 to fight Viet Cong insurgents
1969 Dies Sept. 2 in Hanoi, six years before North wins the war
Illustration for TIME by Janet Woolley
Vietnam's independence leader was a hero to his countrymen, a wise uncle to friends and a monster to enemies
By BUI TIN

Ho Chi Minh was a friend of my father's. They lived side-by-side in the jungle during the resistance struggle. Over the years, they exchanged poems. I recall vividly the poem Ho dedicated to my father in 1948:

m o r e
A Century Of Insurgents
They fought their own governments for causes ranging from communism to freedom

The mountain birds sing at my windows

The spring flowers flutter down on my inkwell

The panting horses bring news of victories

And my thoughts go to you with this poem


Isn't it touching that Ho should write this in the jungle in the midst of the resistance? And when my father died in April 1955, it was Ho who came to console my family. He arranged the funeral and granted my father's wish that he be buried not in the official cemetery, as befitting a former president of the National Assembly, but in our village. That's the way Uncle Ho was.

Communist propaganda elevates Ho to the status of sage, national hero, saint. He has become the Strategist, the Theoretician, the Thinker, the Statesman, the Man of Culture, the Diplomat, the Poet, the Philosopher. All these names are accompanied with adjectives like "legendary" and "unparalleled." He has become Ho the Luminary, Ho the Visionary. Peasants in the South build shrines to him. In the North old women bow before his altar, asking miracles for their suffering children.

Others--boat people, anti-communist fanatics, those who suffered in the re-education camps--see him in a negative light. They label him the enemy of the nation, the traitor who sold out Vietnam, the source of all misery.

What is the truth? It is difficult to know because Ho's life is shrouded in shadows and ambiguities. Even the date of his birth has been obscured by the authorities, who believe this uncertainty will somehow add to his mystique. The official date is May 19, 1890, but archives in Paris and Moscow show six different dates from 1890 to 1904.

Similarly, Ho's official biography says that he left Saigon in 1911 on a French boat in order to rescue the revolutionary cause, which had stalled. But recent scholarship indicates that his motivations may have been quite different. We now discover that Ho's father, a mandarin in Binh Dinh province, had been cashiered by the French after beating a peasant to death while drunk. Shamed, he fled to the South to eke out a miserable living practicing traditional medicine. Ho was so shocked by this that he left school early to petition, in vain, to have his father reinstated. Ultimately Ho went abroad, where he worked as a cook, a street cleaner, a photographer. And only in Europe, in 1918, did he begin his political education, when he was welcomed into French socialist circles.

There is more ambiguity--more shadows and fog--in the official biographies regarding the period from 1934 to 1938. Recently opened archives in Moscow show that Ho was subjected to Stalinist discipline there. He was required to undergo re-education for failing to display the proper class spirit and identify with the international proletariat.

Ho himself aided in the creation of his myth. A booklet written in 1948 under the name of Tran Dan Tien describes President Ho as a modest man of the people who was nonetheless the father of the nation and a hero greater than Le Loi and other luminaries of Vietnamese history. When in 1990 I pointed out that Tran Dan Tien was a pseudonym used by Ho and thus Ho was praising himself, I was called a traitor and berated for attempting to tarnish the image of Uncle Ho.

Perhaps the most serious charge facing Ho is that he was responsible for starting a brutal and fratricidal war. The truth is that he did all he could to avoid war. The responsibility for the war falls to the French and to Charles de Gaulle, who wanted to re-establish the French Empire after World War II. Even the French communists rallied to support this policy. And what about the Americans? Truman abandoned Roosevelt's anti-colonial policy and supported French imperial aspirations. And who undermined the 1954 Geneva Accords and prevented the general elections in 1956? U.S. officials, who also ignored letters from Ho pleading for support.

The policies of the Western democracies pushed Ho and his people into the open arms of the Soviet Union and China. He took their tanks, ships, airplanes and missiles, but he refused to allow foreign combat troops on Vietnamese soil. And he declined Russian and Chinese advice on how to conduct the war. The Russians did not want him to fight for the liberation of South Vietnam because they feared an escalation of the war with the U.S. might lead to international catastrophe. And the Chinese favored a long, patient guerrilla war. But Ho and his crowd decided to follow their independent course on the war and thus bear some responsibility for it.

Ho made other mistakes. It was he who wholeheartedly adopted a Stalinist political and economic model for Vietnam. Thus, there was the development of heavy industry, hasty collectivization, the elimination of the bourgeoisie, the starting of concentration camps and the mistreatment of intellectuals. All those policies led to disaster. Ho later took responsibility for them.

Had Ho lived to see the fall of Saigon and the liberation of the South, would things have worked out differently? Would the re-education camps have been avoided? Or the exodus of the boat people? Or the occupation of Cambodia and the war with China? Would Vietnam have suffered economic isolation during the 1980s? I think Ho would have avoided these disasters. He always cautioned people not to lose their heads after a victory. Had there been proper leadership, victory could have been managed more smoothly and the country more readily accepted into the international community.

In Hanoi these days the leadership is using Ho's name to justify its policies, as if he were still alive. What would Ho have thought of doi moi, Hanoi's half-baked economic reform plan? Would he have seen it as a forced marriage between socialism without soul and capitalism without backbone? Perhaps. The government should not use Uncle Ho, cold in his tomb, as a defense against the opposition forming around such people as the mathematician Phan Dinh Dieu or the physicist Nguyen Thanh Giang.

In times like these I have a great desire to approach Ho--our luminous Uncle Ho--to ask him to clarify his famous slogan: "Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom." Does this mean the collective freedom of the kind being fostered by the regime's intellectuals at the Marx-Lenin Institute in Hanoi and not individual and civic freedoms? If so, the heroic people of Vietnam are two centuries behind the times. Poor Vietnam! Poor old Uncle Ho!

Translated by Phuong Nga and Barry Hillenbrand. Bui Tin, a refugee living in France, is a former North Vietnamese colonel and deputy chief editor of Nhan Dan, the Communist Party newspaper





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