1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Ho Chi Minh is one of those figures who lend support to the "great man" theory of history. "Not only was Ho the founder of his party and later the president of the country, but he was its chief strategist and its most inspiring symbol. * * * Ho Chi Minh was half Lenin and half Gandhi." He is a man of myth and legend, and therefore a good subject for a responsible biography that demystifies him.
Only in part, however, is HO CHI MINH: A LIFE a biography of Ho Chi Minh -- a/k/a, among others, Nguyen Sinh Cong, Nguyen Tat Thanh, and Nguyen Ai Quoc. The book also is a history of Vietnam over HCM's lifetime (1890-1969). Furthermore, it includes extensive accounts of the internal politics and machinations of various Communist parties (Vietnamese, Indochinese, French, Chinese, and Comintern) -- the necessity of which I question, at least in such mind-numbing detail. As glad as I am that I read this full-blown biography-plus, I would have preferred a shorter biography of Ho Chi Minh aimed simply at providing the generalist reader with a responsible picture of the man. And while it goes quite a ways towards demystifying HCM, I'm not sure it succeeds altogether. Perhaps that's not possible.
The overriding question concerning HCM is whether he was a Vietnamese patriot and nationalist or, instead, a communist/socialist revolutionary. Duiker's HCM is not exclusively either. According to Duiker, HCM certainly was a patriot and nationalist. Beyond that, he was implacably opposed to imperialism and colonialism, not just in Indochina but around the world. That mindset predisposed him against capitalism, as practiced worldwide, and, derivatively, against democracy and republican government. The alternative was socialism/communism, and he provided much evidence of subscribing to the teachings of Lenin. It does not appear, however, that HCM was a "true believer" (or, a fellow traveler).
Even Stalin and Mao at times were skeptical of HCM's bona fides as a Communist. There is an anecdote -- "probably, but not certainly, apocryphal" -- that when HCM went to Moscow to meet with Stalin in 1952, the latter pointed to two chairs in the meeting room and said, "Comrade Ho Chi Minh, there are two chairs here, one for nationalists and one for internationalists. On which do you wish to sit?", and HCM replied, "Comrade Stalin, I would like to sit on both chairs".
That points to what probably was HCM's principal trait as a man of politics: he was a pragmatist. The book contains many tales exemplifying that "Ho Chi Minh was a believer in the art of the possible, of adjusting his ideals to the conditions of the moment."
One point (of many) that was forcefully brought home to me concerns the almost one-hundred-year-long French rule of Vietnam. My high-school world history course emphasized the French "mission to civilize", and since then I have encountered numerous instances in which Frenchmen subscribed to that rationale for the French colonial empire. This book contains much that exposes that grandiose illusion. For example, by the early twentieth century the French had established monopolies on the sale of salt, opium, and alcohol in Vietnam. The salt sold to the peasants brought a 1,000 per cent profit. Around 1915, the Governor-General of Indochina, Albert Sarraut (who later became Prime Minister of France) complained that some Vietnamese villages were free of spirits and opium, and urged French provincial residents to arrange for the construction of alcohol and opium houses throughout Vietnam, so "that we shall obtain the best results, in the best interests of the Treasury".
As for a different sort of perfidy, there is the tale of what the Vietnamese did concerning HCM's wish to be cremated, as expressed in his last testament. Instead, Party leaders embalmed him and then built an elaborate mausoleum (reminiscent of the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square), and when they published HCM's last testament, they deleted those sections that dealt with the disposal of his body.
In a sense William J. Duiker spent nearly his entire career on this book. As he relates in the Preface, he first became fascinated with HCM in the mid-60s while serving as a young foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. He ended up pursuing an academic career, over the course of which he wrote around a dozen books on Vietnam and China. He finally was persuaded that enough information concerning HCM had been released to make a biography possible, and he spent the 1990s researching and writing this book. There are ninety pages of detailed and extensive endnotes, as well as what seems to be a very good index. There also are two sections of photographs. Duiker's HO CHI MINH is reputed to be the best biography of its subject, and after reading it I have no reason to doubt that. Still, the book reflects that it is the work of an historian venturing into the realm of biography.
By the way, I had bought a paperback edition of the book shortly after it was published. When I recently unshelved it to read, it quickly fell apart. I then ordered a new copy of the book in hardcover, but after three hours or so the cover of it detached from the rest of the binding. Thankfully, the 700-plus pages stayed together in one piece. Still, at a price north of $40.00, one should get a sturdier product.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2014
As a Vietnam War baby this book jumped out of the store window at Kent State University, of all places. The 68 and 72 elections turned on the decisions made in Vietnam. Slogans crying unjust war rang through the streets. This book’s makes no attempt to weigh that question. It is s granular biography of Ho Chi Minh, the first Leader of what is now Socialist Republic of Vietnam. As a reader I had to keep my views and bias in check in order to appreciate the message of Ho Chi Minh, conveyed through the author William Duiker. Duiker took a recursive lawyers brief style in painting a portrait of a man whose place in history is in my mind understated. The author uses chronology as his ally in evolving the biography of a man into a snapshot biography at high level of the Vietnam War. In the end the author’s position remains unbiased however there reader cannot come away without a verdict.
In a spider web of intrigue and against a back drop of Ho Chi Minh’s unwavering stated goal for independence from France, it is clear that the eventual alliance with China and the USSR was primarily strategic and not necessarily out of Communist Principal. Read on.
Ho Chi Minh was born into an agrarian setting to a scholar family that was steeped in Confucian ways and means at a time when French colonization that began in 1858 was in full force. It was the intellectual scholars of Vietnam that led the way to revolution with the French. Along the way The Vietnamese embraced the need to evolve from Confucianism to western ways. It was thought and taught, that in order to rise above them you have to learn them, the French. There were two venues for the evolution away from traditional Confucianism; a parallel course with the Japanese who were 50 years ahead of Vietnam. And then there were opportunities to learn directly from the French. Those Vietnamese returning from Paris, reported that the French liberties were much more civilized then that exhibited in colonial Vietnam. The doctrine of French liberty was to be lauded and modeled. The doctrine of French colonization was to be opposed. Nguyen Tat Tan operating under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc traveled abroad, aboard as a cook aboard a steamship, to learn the ways of the West. It is said by the Vietnamese that it was his intent to bring back a revolutionary solution.
Ngyuen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) in 1919, was famously rejected by the leaders of the World Powers, pointedly Woodrow Wilson. This alone did not send Monsieur Ngyuen to Lenin in Russia in 1920. However it was a more natural fit for these reasons: Confucianism conforms more closely to Marx’s socialism than capitalism. This in conjunction with the brand of capitalism that Asians saw was colonial capitalism otherwise stated as imperialism, where in his case the French were very oppressive to the Vietnamese people. In a sense of timing, Lenin had just published the Third International, doctrine of the socialist movement which advocated violent revolution. Ho Chi Minh was steeped in the Bolshevik revolution. To Asians capitalism was solidly linked to world imperialism. Ironically when Ho Chi Minh traveling under the pseudo named Ngyuen Ai Quoc went to Paris he discovered that French socialism was France oriented only. It paid little credence to the struggles of colonial oppression. In the USSR, Lenin had different aspirations. In 1924 as a result of Ngyuen Ai Cuoc’s participation in many socialist meetings in Paris, he was invited to Moscow by Dmitri Manuilsky a senior official of the Comintern of the USSR. After the meeting Ho, a man bent on liberation not only from France but from out dated Confucianism writes the following:
There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by
dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of
it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear sightedness, and confidence it
instilled in me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my
room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds” Dear martyrs,
compatriots! This is the path to our liberation.
Bibliography note: Need to retrieve the Eight Articles of Petition:
In the beginning, USSR’s communist world agenda took on a different flavor than the ‘spread of communism’ agenda that was held up to the American people in the 1960s. In the 1920’s Lenin’s view was to replace the oppressive colonial capitalist with communistic ideals. I will put forth that in the intervening forty years, the rhetoric of the leaders and situation changed. I suspect this biography now becomes not only a history of one man, but a portal to a monumental event on a world stage in the 20th century.
In the years from 1920 through the late 1930’s, Ho Chi Minh seemed to have drifted from one city to the next in the countries of China, USSR, and France. He was always on the run from French colonialists rendering himself off the French wanted list by 1930. With most of his new cities he took on a new pseudo name. He took on two apparent wives, but the authenticness of marriage is in doubt. Reading this portion becomes difficult as though the reader must have the patience of a lawyer in order to glean anything of substance. It seems that, still under the primary mane of Ngyuen Ai Quoc, he struggled to keep a consistent philosophy and policy of the party line. The party names changed with shifting philosophy and policy. What the section doe s do is make Ho Chi Minh human.
Ngyuen Ai Qouc’s philosophy primarily set off to follow Lenin’s two step philosphy: nationalism of the masses then internationalism of communistic principle. Quoc’s gave ‘lip service’ to the communistic principle as an end but saw it as a means to independence from colonial France. That means mean meant careful organization of party policy of revolution in building a critical mass as a prerequisite to any sort of violence. Quoc experienced a lot of party conflict that made progress seem morbid in many phases. To exacerbate Quac’s efforts, USSR policy was also experiencing conflict in the post Lenin period with Stalin forcing a need for violent nationalism first. Quoc was blessed with nationalism but also cursed with any policy of violence. The random and scattered violent uprisings in the 20’s and 30’s were swiftly dealt with by the French, leaving many setbacks to Ho Chi Minh’s vision of revolution that would bring about an independent Vietnam. The Japanese invasion of China and WWII would set the stage for a break through.
If one were to look for a date of the start of the Vietnam War; keyword cigarroomofbooks to see the conclusions
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2014
I would love to give this book five stars. It likely earns 4.5, but the early chapters proved a heavy slog, and could have been drastically shortened. Ho Chi Minh was one of the century's great figures. He got into some trouble with the French authorities as a young man and had to escape. It would have been nice if we could have followed his adventures more closely on ships and in America, but likely owing to scant information, we have to read about his attendance at numerous Socialist and Marxist and Bolshevik conferences. We are treated to tedious detail about the slight modifications of Ho's ideology over the years. The time spent in China is also stolidly retold. There is very little of interest in the first half of the book. Then after WWII, the tale picks up, and we get a different book. Ho's Viet Minh perform a brilliant bloodless coup and take over Tonkin at the end of the war. He makes his appeals internationally, but in the end, his country is reoccupied; first by a Chinese "squatter army" (quoting Archimedes Patti) and later the French return. Imagine Ho's disappointment after decades in exile and returning to take over the North only to concede it to these armies. America had to back war-humiliated France, and supported their return. Then we enter long negotiations, with Ho insisting upon the promise of eventual independence in the treaty, but this was denied by the French. The Viet Minh wage a campaign against the old colonial power, and win a decisive victory at Dien Bien Phu. And we get to Geneva. The country is to be partitioned with the promise of future elections to unify the regions. Ho shows remarkable patience and international saavy. He faces a Soviet and Chinese allies both reluctant to take a strong stance at Geneva. Khruschev is busy denouncing Stalin's excesses, and Mao is focused on domestic reform. The US takes a wait and see approach and things could have been different as Cochinchina (S. Vietnam) dissolves under a lack of leadership. But here enters Ngo Dinh Diem, who for all his faults proved a powerful nationalist. He wipes out all opposition, most notably the Cao Da and Hoa Hao religious sects, and suddenly America has a strongman to back. The Vietnam war emerges with American support of the south, and we all know the rest of the story. Duiker does a wonderful job of telling the story post WWII. It comes as a surprise that Ho disengages from the details of leadership, and leaves it in the hands of Pham Van Dong and Le Duan. Ho maintained an eminence grise status, and though he preferred a collegial approach to ruling, was not immune to promoting or safeguarding a cult of personality regarding himself. He was "uncle" Ho. We finish this important biography realizing the greatness of the figure. He was blamed for the brutalities and mistakes of the landlord trials, where land was confiscated and landlords executed by angry peasant mobs. But it is necessary to understand the influence of the Chinese in these trials. Mao was in the midst of his brutal domestic experiments, and Maoist ideology went far in the Vietnamese leadership. Ho was rather distant from the details, but later admitted mistakes were made. On a personal note, I visited Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi back in the mid 80s. He was embalmed by the Soviets who had presented Lenin to a similar physical posterity. I also recall visiting Ho's simple house on stilts in the garden of the governor's house. This is an important book about a great figure.