Ho Chi Minh's Trail

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In February 1941, a Vietnamese revolutionary carrying papers identifying him as a Chinese journalist named Ho Chi Minh trudged past a small stone pillar in the jungles of southern China and entered Vietnam. For the first time in 30 years, the man calling himself Ho was back in his native land. He had left Saigon in 1911 aboard a ship working as a cook's assistant. His name then was Nguyen Tat Thanh. After visiting the great ports of the world-Boston, Port Said, Marseilles, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai-soaking up atmosphere and information, he studied and worked in Paris, London, Moscow and possibly even in New York City.

Under the pseudonym Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot), he began to fashion a reputation as an anticolonialist propagandizer. The articles he tapped out on the battered typewriter he carried everywhere thrilled his countrymen and enraged the French. In the 1920s he traveled throughout China and Southeast Asia, playing midwife to revolutionary groups and pressing for Vietnam's independence, his lifelong cause. After imprisonment in Hong Kong and a narrow escape from execution by the French, he settled in Moscow in the 1930s where he took charge of 144 Vietnamese students at the Stalin School. Finally, in 1945, after years abroad, Ho Chi Minh, ailing and looking old beyond his 54 years, stood on a makeshift platform in a Hanoi park and proclaimed the independence of Vietnam, as the country's new President.

At the time, few Vietnamese had heard of Ho Chi Minh and those who had found him something of a mystery. Scholars and historians have had a tough time since then making sense of this chameleon who changed names, locations and identities so capriciously. But in Ho Chi Minh: A Life (Allen & Unwin; 695 pages), a massive but thoroughly readable new biography, William J. Duiker does much to decipher the Ho enigma. Duiker, an American historian who once served as a foreign service officer in Vietnam, spent years rummaging through documents, from the newly opened archives in Moscow to reports by French police informers. He lays out the contradictions in ideology, the controversies over motives, the muddled plans for war and peace. Ho, Duiker makes abundantly clear, was one of the most adroit and charming revolutionaries of the 20th century.

Ho's great triumph, of course, was taking advantage of the chaos at the end of World War II to steer Vietnam toward independence. Ho's years of travel gave him the tools he needed to manipulate all the players: he bantered with the arrogant French, he flattered the naive Americans and he charmed the pushy Chinese with his references to their own classics. Since all Washington seemed to care about was whether Ho was a communist or a nationalist, he went around quoting the American Declaration of Independence and playing, as Duiker puts it, "the simple patriot." In the end, Ho's wiles were not completely successful: the Americans declined to support an independent Vietnam and tilted toward the French, who would not leave Indo-china without a bloody fight.

By the late 1950s the ailing Ho reduced his role to senior adviser. The difficult-and often brutal-policies on land reform and nationalization were being fashioned by younger men. Ho counseled compromise, consensus and the gradual road, but did not use his influence to counter the excesses of the increasingly narrow-minded communist state. In 1959, when Vietnam's Communist Party decided, in its famed Resolution 15, that armed struggle in the South was the only course to unification, Ho, 70, concurred. Ho was too feeble to actively direct the war effort, but he went to Moscow and Beijing to gather support from old friends and spearheaded the propaganda war with vitriolic speeches denouncing American imperialists. Ho died in 1969, before his dream of unification was realized.

His political heirs have carefully nurtured the myth of Uncle Ho, the gentle and wise mandarin who founded the nation. But, sadly, the men who followed Ho into power and guided Vietnam after unification in 1975 did not know the world as he did, nor did they have Ho's appreciation of the importance of building consensus. If Ho had been around to savor unification and guide the nation after the fall of Saigon, would Vietnam have been consigned to the fringes of modern Asia? There's no way of telling for sure, but Duiker's portrait makes us suspect that Ho, ever the pragmatic visionary, would have done better.