Date: Fri, 11 May 2001
Future Hope column, May 11, 2001
by Ted Glick
For those of us who fought in or against the brutal Vietnamese war, the
emotions run deep. A whole generation of activists grew to political
maturity during that time as the U.S. government proved itself unable to
impose its imperialist will upon this long-suffering people.
By total coincidence I was in the middle of reading William J. Duiker's
significant new book, "Ho Chi Minh," at the time that the Bob Kerry
Vietnam massacre story broke. I found myself struck by Duiker's in-depth
biography. The book rings true, even after my suspicions were aroused by
the positive review of it in the New York Times Book Review and Duiker's
past employment at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the height of the
war in the 1960's. Bob Kerry and others who were permanently affected by
this war would benefit from reading it. It would help them understand
clearly that they were tools of a United States government that was on
the wrong side.
As presented by Duiker, Ho Chi Minh also has a lot to teach those of us
of whatever age who are active in the peace and justice movement today.
One cannot but be impressed by Ho and his compatriots' dedication to the
cause of national independence and social justice despite tremendous
difficulties. The realities of French colonialism under which he
labored, from 1910 on, were very different than those most of us face in
the United States today. But as Ho put it in a poem written while in
prison in 1942, "Luckily, I've persevered and endured. Not taken a
single step backward. Although it's been physically difficult, My spirit
Ho Chi Minh was an ethical and moral model. His "list of behavioral
norms was strongly reminiscent of traditional Confucian morality: be
thrifty, be friendly but impartial, resolutely correct errors, be
prudent, respect learning, study and observe, avoid arrogance and
conceit, and be generous." He taught courses on morality during his
lifetime. An American, Dan Phelan, who interacted with him during the
latter stages of World War II, used the word "gentle" to describe Ho's
most impressive quality. He went without food once every ten days during
a period of famine in the fall of 1945, soon after the Vietnamese
declaration of independence, as an example of the need for conservation.
When he learned of torture being used by some party cadres during a land
reform campaign in 1954, he openly addressed it at a cadre conference:
"It is a savage method used by imperialists, capitalists and feudal
elements to master the masses and the revolution. Why must we, who are
in possession of a just program and just rationale, make use of such
brutal methods?" He is reported to have wept several months later "as he
alluded to the sufferings that occurred during the campaign."
Ho Chi Minh was keenly aware of the necessity of building broad
alliances to achieve social change, while always putting the needs of
those most in need first. This was so much a strength that it was
probably also a fault, an "opportunist error," at times. For example,
soon after the 1945 siezure of power by the Vietnamese following the end
of World War II, in discussions with the first secretary of the United
States embassy, "he hinted at the possibility of future military
cooperation between the two countries-including U.S. use of Cam Ranh
Bay, on the central coast of Vietnam, as a base." At the time he hoped
to enlist U.S. support of the Vietnamese efforts to get the French to
accept Vietnam's right to independence and leave.
Despite the violence and brutality of French colonialism, Ho wanted
Vietnamese independence to come as peacefully and non-violently as
possible. In the summer of 1946 he was part of a delegation that went to
France to try to negotiate France's voluntary withdrawal from Vietnam,
before the outbreak of full-scale, anti-colonial war. Following the
breakdown of the talks in mid-September, he stayed on after the other
Vietnamese members left. Despite "sentiment in Indochina...running
strongly against a compromise with the French," several days later he
signed what French military leader Jean Sainteny "described as a
'pathetic' piece of paper," a "temporary arrangement between parties
pending a final agreement." Ho told Sainteny as they left the meeting,
"I have just signed my death warrant." Fortunately, this risk that Ho
took turned out not to lead to that end.
Ho Chi Minh understood clearly the need for a multi-tactical,
democratic, alliance-building approach if positive social change were to
take place. Within Vietnam Ho worked hard to build a broadly-based
coalition that "could appeal to all progressive and patriotic forces,"
which also "put it into position to lobby for recognition by the
victorious Allies as the legitimate voices of Vietnamese nationalism."
During a campaign to collectivize the economy of northern Vietnam in the
late 1950s, he "urged his colleagues to avoid coercion and to use
'democratic methods'... that persuasion rather than force be used..." In
October, 1961, during an internal debate within the Vietnamese Workers
Party, "Ho recommended a strategy based on guerrilla warfare, the
mobilization of the support of the masses, and winning the battle of
public opinion in the world arena."
Duiker's conclusion about Ho Chi Minh is that he was "half Lenin and
half Gandhi." What I felt after reading this book, and after having been
deeply involved for years myself with the cause of Vietnamese
independence, is that he was a human being who tried to utilize his
skills and insights in the cause of human liberation at a particular
time in history and a particular place in the world. He tried to do so
in as humane and non-violent a way as possible, but he was willing to
use whatever tactics, including the use of arms and violence, he and his
compatriots collectively determined were necessary to achieve
liberation. In the context of brutal and racist French colonialism, and
with his commitment not just to national independence but to an end to
class oppression and capitalist exploitation, to justice and human
dignity for all, he felt this was a necessary approach.
Although our conditions are very different than those faced by this
great man and his compatriots, there is much in the life of Ho Chi Minh
for those of us in the United States to study and ponder.
Ted Glick is National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive
Politics Network (www.ippn.org) and author of "Future Hope: A Winning
Strategy for a Just Society." He can be reached at futurehopeTG@aol.com
or c/o P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.
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