Ho Chi Minh

He married nationalism to communism and perfected the deadly art of guerrilla warfare

  • (2 of 2)

    Soon Ho was roaming the earth as a covert agent for Moscow. Disguised as a Chinese journalist or a Buddhist monk, he would surface in Canton, Rangoon or Calcutta--then vanish to nurse his tuberculosis and other chronic diseases. As befit a professional conspirator, he employed a baffling assortment of aliases. Again and again, he was reported dead, only to pop up in a new place. In 1929 he assembled a few militants in Hong Kong and formed the Indochinese Communist Party. He portrayed himself as a celibate, a pose calculated to epitomize his moral fiber, but he had at least two wives or perhaps concubines. One was a Chinese woman; the other was Giap's sister-in-law, who was guillotined by the French.

    In 1940, Japan's legions swept into Indochina and French officials in Vietnam, loyal to the pro-German Vichy administration in France, collaborated with them. Nationalists in the region greeted the Japanese as liberators, but to Ho they were no better than the French. Slipping across the Chinese frontier into Vietnam--his first return home in three decades--he urged his disciples to fight both the Japanese and the French. There, in a remote camp, he founded the Viet Minh, an acronym for the Vietnam Independence League, from which he derived his nom de guerre, Ho Chi Minh--roughly "Bringer of Light."

    What he brought was a spirit of rebellion--against first the French and later the Americans. As Ho's war escalated in the mid-1960s, it became clear to Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam would imperil his presidency. In 1965, Johnson tried a diplomatic approach. Accustomed to dispensing patronage to recalcitrant Congressmen, he was confident that the tactic would work. "Old Ho can't turn me down," L.B.J. said. But Ho did. Any settlement, he realized, would mean accepting a permanent partition and forfeiting his dream to unify Vietnam under his flag.

    There was no flexibility in Ho's beliefs, no bending of his will. Even as the war increasingly destroyed the country, he remained committed to Vietnam's independence. And millions of Vietnamese fought and died to attain the same goal.

    Ho died on Sept. 2, 1969, at the age of 79, some six years before his battalions surged into Saigon. Aspiring to bask in the reflected glory of his posthumous triumph, his heirs put his embalmed body on display in a hideous granite mausoleum copied from Lenin's tomb in Moscow. They violated his final wishes. In his will he specified that his ashes be buried in urns on three hilltops in Vietnam, saying, "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland."

    Stanley Karnow, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines, is the author of Vietnam: A History

    The Warriors

    The point-and-click armies of century's end are almost unimaginably removed from the trench-bound soldiers who fought at the Marne in 1914. Below, generals who rewrote the rules of war:

    The century's most vaunted ground commander, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery blitzed past Rommel's undefeated desert army to victory at El Alamein, Egypt, in November 1942. His particular brilliance, best displayed on D-day, was the choreography of hundreds of thousands of men and machines with a methodical precision that was as elegant as it was deadly

    A champion of air power, General Curtis LeMay perfected strategic bombing during World War II. His most lethal inspiration: the 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 Japanese. He was, perhaps, too eager for the decisive battle. As head of the Strategic Air Command, LeMay favored a first strike against the Soviets. He later called for bombing North Vietnam "back into the Stone Ages."

    When General Vo Nguyen Giap assembled his army from North Vietnam's poorest villages, Westerners watched with contempt. But Giap's tactical genius turned the guerrillas into a sharp anti-imperialist weapon. His mastery of jungle tactics and battlefield psychology terrified and eventually defeated the French and Americans. Western scorn was replaced with horror and, as time passed, respect.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. Next Page