Ho Chi Minh: A Biography Review

Ho Chi Minh: A Biography
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Ho Chi Minh: A Biography ReviewA visit to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (pictured on the front cover of this book) is almost de rigueur for any visitor to Hanoi, my guide hinting that not to do so would be to show disrespect. So having queued for 40 minutes or so, mercifully protected from the mid-summer sun by shade tunnels, we were admitted into the presence of the great leader, dead for 38 years.
No mobile phones, cameras, even sunglasses, a couple of teenage Vietnamese girls were told off for whispering to each other, but for the most case it was a reverential shuffle around three sides of the glass casket containing Ho's carefully preserved remains and then back blinking into the sunshine to allow the thousands - and there were literally thousands - of Vietnamese and foreign tourists to take our places on this average Saturday in the national capital.
The place of Ho Chi Minh in the communist pantheon is complete, more successfully achieved than that of Lenin in Russia, Mao in China and probably Kim Il-sung in North Korea where worship is a state requirement, which makes writing a biography of the man all the more difficult.
Inevitably such an exalted personage is going to gather legends around him. People who never knew him are going to claim acquaintanceship, those who did will say they played a bigger part in his life than was actually the case; Ho's achievements will be magnified, his failures forgotten or squirreled away under layers of obfuscation. Pierre Brocheux has brought a lifetime of scholarly endeavour to the task of searching out the truth with only partial success.
He unravels the twists and turns of Ho's early life, his rise through the ranks of the fragmented opposition to French colonial rule and his seizing of the moment in the aftermath of the Japanese occupation before France could properly reclaim its Indochinese empire.
Yet at the high-point of Ho's career, with the French routed and his leadership confirmed, Brocheux seems to lose interest and the final period, when the Western World really came to know him in his struggle against the American-supported Republic of South Vietnam until his death in 1969, are skated over in a few final pages.
Maybe it is because the author sees that in his last years Ho was little more than a figurehead, refusing to live in the ornate mansion that had once housed the colonial governors and instead spending his time in a few simple buildings in the area where the mausoleum now stands, wheeled out to receive visiting foreign dignitaries and heading off to China for "medical treatment" every year at his birthday to avoid the celebrations surrounding the event.
The reason for Ho's sidelining by more militant elements of the North Vietnamese leadership and his apparent happy acceptance of the fact lies in his early life, where this biography is at its strongest. Ho, under a variety of names, had a cosmopolitan career, travelling to France at the age of 21, visiting the United States, spending lengthy periods in Britain (throughout most of World War I), the Soviet Union, and China and with experience of a raft of other countries including most of those in Europe, Thailand and Malaysia.
While his dedication to Marxism-Leninism is undoubted (he actually helped to found the French Communist Party) Ho was a nationalist first and foremost and there are hints in these pages that he would have been willing to compromise with non-communist forces if it meant Vietnam could gain its independence without bloodshed. He was in touch with the French until the very end and it was only the intransigence of the former colonial master that led him to reluctantly accept that war was inevitable.
Brocheux records an illuminating account by Ho's personal secretary, Vu Ky, of December 19, 1946 when news came that negotiations with the French had collapsed.
"[Ho] frowned, remained pensive, and took a few steps toward the table where the Call to National Resistance was lying, which he had to deliver to the Party's Executive Committee that afternoon; he blurted out quietly but distinctly and categorically: `All right, we will fight'."
Thereafter, Vietnam's fate was in the hands of its generals as the war against the French melded into the civil conflict with South Vietnam and the intervention of the United States, continuing until final victory in 1975 by which time Ho was long dead.
Did the West misjudge Ho? Was he a man they could have dealt with, a partner for peace rather than an opponent in a long drawn-out and ultimately futile war? The Chinese always considered him something of a rightest who had to be bullied into taking the necessary steps for a fully-fledged communist state, such as the more ruthless elements of land distribution. And in a revealing 1945 conversation with an American officer, he describes Marxism-Leninism simply as a "framework" for achieving independence.
Yet given the anti-communist hysteria of the time, leading to other crucial miscalculations such as the overturning of the democratically-elected Mossadegh Government in Iran in favour of the totalitarian Shah, there was really little hope that anyone would read these subtle signs, let alone seek to act on them. The real tragedy is that the lessons remain unlearnt today as the US and its allies flounder in another conflict from which they cannot extricate themselves and which seemingly has no end.
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