Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Did the U.S. ‘Lose’ Ho Chi Minh to Communism?


HONG KONG — The principal architect of Vietnam’s military victories over France and the United States turned 102 the other day, and the old general, Vo Nguyen Giap, while frail, is said to be holding his own.
He had a firm handshake and a ready smile when I interviewed him 10 years ago in Hanoi, and he talked easily about the “American War,” about his legendary battles at Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh, and about Ho Chi Minh.
It was hard for foreign journalists to get an audience with General Giap, but he agreed when I said I brought greetings from Maj. Allison Kent Thomas — the American major who had parachuted into General Giap’s jungle camp in 1945 to help train his fledgling Viet Minh guerrilla army. The major’s younger son and I were friends from university, and I had been allowed to read his father’s diaries and personal wartime letters.
All three men — Thomas, Giap and Ho — receive detailed and scholarly attention in a new account(published last week) of the beginnings of the Vietnam War, “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” by the Cornell University professor and historian Frederik Logevall.
“Both in Indochina — the French and the Americans — and now in Afghanistan, we were supporting governments that did not have broad popular support, that were riven by infighting, by intrigue, were corrupt in many respects. And it’s very, very difficult, Indochina teaches us, to succeed in that kind of environment.”
review by Lawrence D. Freedman in Foreign Affairs calls the book “magisterial.”
Mr. Logevall addresses the nagging historical question: Was Ho Chi Minh a resolute communist from his very beginnings, or was he a nationalist and freedom fighter who eventually moved toward socialism? The subtext to the question, of course, is whether the United States, with some more prescient diplomacy, might have struck an alliance with Ho and avoided the horrific quagmire of the Vietnam War.
Mr. Logevall, in a recentinterview with Jeff Glor of CBS, said that Ho “saw communism as the best path of development for his country, but it was alwayshis country.” Independence from Japanese invaders and French colonialists was his original intent, highest priority and enduring goal.
“Ho emerges as an unexpected hero in this balanced book, first seen trying to buttonhole Woodrow Wilson at the Paris peace conference of 1919,” says a new review in The Economist.
“But gradually he and his fellow North Vietnamese were viewed as agents of international communism, not admirable rebels against colonialism. Mr. Logevall bemoans the fact that Ho’s admiration for American political ideals and French culture did not lead to a life-sparing compromise.”
Ho was clearly admiring of the Americans in 1945, and he actively sought their help. As a sweetener, he had allowed some of the men under General Giap to rescue downed American pilots.
Major Thomas, then working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the C.I.A., was the leader of a unit called the Deer Team, which helped General Giap to organize his “army” of 200 peasant recruits at their Tan Trao redoubt in northern Vietnam.
The major (who was later promoted to lieutenant colonel) got hung up in a banyan tree while parachuting into the camp, but he was quickly freed and greeted with a banner that said “Welcome to Our American Friends.” The date was July 16, 1945 — the same day that the United States tested the first atomic bomb, in New Mexico. World War II was nearly over.
Major Thomas’s private journal says he arrived to find Ho very weak and suffering from chills and fever. (The major refers to him as “Mr. Hoo” in his earliest entries. So much for that bit of intel.) A medic with the American team treated Ho for dysentery and malaria, and he quickly improved.
General Giap’s account was different. He said a local herbalist, an ethnic Tay man, had dug up a root in the forest, burned it and sprinkled the ashes into a bowl of rice soup. After Ho ate the soup, General Giap said, “the miracle occurred” and “the president emerged from his coma.”
Major Thomas, who died in 2005 after a long career as an attorney in Lansing, Michigan, radioed his O.S.S. superiors based in Kunming, in southwestern China, that they needn’t worry about Ho’s political leanings.
“Forget the Communist Bogy,” he wrote. “Viet Minh League is not Communist. Stands for freedom and reforms from French harshness.”
Mr. Logevall’s appraisal, in his book, said Major Thomas got it “wrong, or at least incomplete.”
“If the Viet Minh stood for independence and against French repression, its core leadership that summer also remained staunchly Communist. But Ho in particular among top strategists wore the ideology lightly, so much so that even Soviet officials questioned his Communist credentials. In Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party, too, analysts wondered where the Viet Minh, should it win the right to rule a free Vietnam, would take the country.”
While offering the proviso that “history by analogy is a treacherous business,” Mr. Logevall also draws a political parallel between the Indochina wars of yesteryear and the current conflict in Afghanistan. From his interview with Mr. Glor:
“Both in Indochina — the French and the Americans — and now in Afghanistan, we were supporting governments that did not have broad popular support, that were riven by infighting, by intrigue, were corrupt in many respects. And it’s very, very difficult, Indochina teaches us, to succeed in that kind of environment.”
General Giap has sometimes been criticized for losing huge numbers of troops in any number of battles, including at Khe Sanh, even though the victories he directed were crucial to Vietnam’s eventual independence. Here is Mr. Logevall on the defeat of the French in 1954:
“The Battle of Dien Bien Phu was over. The Viet Minh had won. Vo Nguyen Giap had overturned history, had accomplished the unprecedented, had beaten the West at its own game. For the first time in the annals of colonial warfare, Asian troops had defeated a European army in fixed battle.”

    • Mike 71
    • Chicago Area
    One of the more insightful histories of this era, ranking with the New York Times Edition of the Pentagon Papers, was historian Gareth Porter's "Vietnam, A History in Documents." Porter also discloses the unanswered correspondence from Ho to Truman and speculates that had Roosevelt survived the war, he would have dealt with Vietnamese independence aspirations far differently, favoring dismantling Europe's remaining colonial empires. But Truman, and then Eisenhower, were most concerned from protecting France, Italy, Greece and Turkey from powerful Communist movements and restoring French prominence in a reconstructed Europe. That favoritism led to the U.S. funding up to 80% of the French war effort at the time of the defeat at Dien-Ben-Phu and then stupidly assuming the French burden, importing Ngo Dinh Diem from a monastery in New Jersey to lead the first of a chain of abusive puppet regimes.

    Another essential history, "Why Vietnam," was authored by the late Major Archimedes L.A. Patti, who was parachuted into Japanese occupied Vietnam by the O.S.S., the C.I.A.'s predecessor, to support Ho, General Giap and the Viet Minh in the recovery of downed U,S, airmen during World War II. Major Patti delved into the competing post war powers, from the British and the French, to the Nationalist Chinese and others, all of whom had an essential interest in the suppression of an independent nationalist Vietnam.
      • Someone Not Close to Ailes
      • Toronto, ON
      NYT Pick
      It is difficult to appreciate the view of Ho Chi Minh or of his Communist proclivities taken by US decision makers at the time if you subtract the context of the blossoming global Cold War. Heck, Stalin was a US ally right up until the moment he wasn't--the US angle on all things Communist was hardly static. But the geopolitical canvas changed radically between the end of WW2 in 1945 and the first official US recognition of a French-backed non-communist government in Vietnam in 1950. Had the European situation developed differently after Yalta, or had Kim Il Sung stayed put in 1949, the view from Washington of events unfolding in far away Vietnam may have taken a softer hue.

      It's not that some US policymakers didn't have a sophisticated view of the heterogeneous nature of the Vietminh side and it's key players--they did--nor were they delusional about the chances of their so-called 'nationalist' allies under the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Rather, they were quite clear on this. But it was the demands of the broader Communist threat to US global power that coloured US policy and their tolerance for Ho's Communist habit. As for Ho's nationalism, the US view of Third World regimes and their use of the term 'nationalist' was typically coterminus with whatever group was most pro-Western--those not fitting the suit were derided as either neutralist (perjorative) or down-right commies. The imperative was to hold the line--not to search out shades or orange in a sea of red.
        • Lure D. Lou
        • Boston
        Regarding military strategy. When the historian Bernard Fall asked General Giap where he had gotten his tactics from the Vietnamese General pulled out his well worn copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence (of Arabia). Apparently Mao was also influenced by the brilliant English tactician of guerilla warfar...what goes around comes around.

        The number one bit of advice from Lawrence: Never engage in a fight you aren't going to win!
          • Dave
          • Florida
          The indisputable fact that Ho was a genuine life-long communist does not preclude the possibility of the Vietnamese seeking a tactical alliance with the U.S. as a buffer against Chinese and Soviet domination, just like Mao and Nixon teamed up against the Soviet Union in the early 70s. That didn't make Mao any less of a communist nor Nixon any less of an imperialist. There were numerous inter-communist conflicts, as well as the realities of power politics, that led to tactical alliances between communist and non-communist countries, but it didn't make the communists who engaged in, or contemplated them, any less communist.
          The fact that the Soviets questioned Ho's communist credentials counts for nothing in regards to the question of whether Ho really was communist. The Soviets questioned the sincerity of anyone (Ho, Mao, Tito, Enver Hoxha, etc., etc.) who wasn't totally subservient to the Soviet party line and willing to sacrifice their people's interests to the needs of Soviet realpolitik.
            • Dave
            • Florida
            Ho was a communist for practically all his life, Ho joined the French Socialist Party in 1918 and wrote a national liberation manifesto that he tried to present to Wilson at the 1919 Paris peace conference. In 1920 he became one of the founding members of the French Communist Party (and hence the first Vietnamese communist) and he voted with the majority to affiliate the party to the Soviet-dominated Comintern or Communist International. He lived and studied in the Soviet Union during the early 20s and became a Comintern agent. In 1930 he founded the Comintern-affiliated Indochinese Communist Party. Ho spent his life working for both communism and Vietnamese national liberation, risking his life and freedom for both many times--for him nationalism and communist were intertwined.
              • Dave
              • Florida
              The idea that Ho wasn't really a communist because he was actually a nationalist is a very old horse that is repeatedly dragged out and beaten by revisionist historians who think they've made the big new discovery that Ho wasn't really Red. The idea that a communist can't be a nationalist is a blatant non-sequitur. In a colonized country such as Vietnam, there is no contradiction between communism and nationalism, because first the communist movement must work to free the nation from colonial domination before it can start building socialism and communism.
              Accordingly, Ho was both a lifelong communist and a Vietnamese nationalist who saw communism as the path to national liberation for the Vietnamese people, particularly after reading Lenin's work on the national question in 1920.
                • C. Coffey
                • Jupiter, Fl.
                Whether Ho Chi Minh would have been pacified by taking post WWII US policy into a different direction will always be the 'question'. The histories of emerging nations from imperial or colonial rule is rife with violent conflict. One theme is always constant: wealth and power distribution along with re- educational indoctrination to follow the rules that necessarily must be the new foundation for any society's operating system.

                We continue to savage ourselves with ideological 'economic system' labels. Once these set into concrete, religiosity and rigidity lead people go to war (cold or hot) over whose version of 'truth' is to be followed. One of the most common arguments against the Vietnam Conflict (undeclared war) was always the economic 'ism' labels thrown around like leaves in the wind to make some rationale for initiating and then continuing the killing.

                Having said that however the actual threats to human rights of life liberty, and all the "pursuits of happiness" and the entanglements of these ideologies did then and continue to play out here in the early 21st century.

                The US history of supporting any and every military dictatorship in the developing world back then caused immediate blowback, and various ticking time bombs were set. Most all of them have exploded in our face, just as did Vietnam and now in the Arab regimes.

                All this leads us back to present day America, in which the distribution of wealth and power are once again about to drastically unbalance.
                  • Timothy Baker
                  • Washington, DC
                  The article missed one major point. The involvement of the United States was based on the urging of the Roman Catholic Church to protect their interests in Viet Nam.
                    • Doug vanderHoof
                    • Chicago
                    The Truman administration missed a chance to make common cause with Ho. Probably, the foreign policy functionaries were more focused on not stepping on French toes than helping a nationalist movement in a remote corner of asia.
                    There's no guarantee that, had Truman replied to Ho's telegram, and had the French given up Indochina, that we wouldn't have been sucked into some kind of bloody fight to establish a march in Vietnam against the newly Red China.
                    International relations are always a massively-multi-variant equation with no set standards for even recognizing a solution, were there one.
                    By an even longer perspective, empires always have a problem hanging on to mountainous kingdoms out on the fringes. The Balkans, the Caucasus, Vietnam, Tibet, the Atlas Mountains, all object lessons.
                    As my friend John Yohalem says, "Those who do not learn history are condemned to think it's repeating itself."
                      • Allene Swienckowski
                      • Meriden, New Hampshire
                      The Vietnam-American war had many, many heroes on both sides. Sadly, we
                      fought on the wrong side then. The mindset of our leadership-in-charge then
                      was called the military-industrial complex, and today is more aptly called the 'neocons' . More sadly, this same mindset has created the broad scale 'war on terror' instead of the more accurate picture of 'the law enforcement hunt for the leadership of politically motivated disaffected people'.
                        • Uziel Nogueira
                        • Florianopolis - SC - Brasil
                        The main lesson from the Vietnam war was simple and straightforward. Once a superpower makes the UNWISE decision to wage war, any measure taken thereafter cannot undo the mistake. Obviously, the painful lesson from Vietnam was forgotten by the US political leadership after 2001.
                          • thomas bishop
                          • LA
                          “If the Viet Minh stood for independence and against French repression, its core leadership that summer also remained staunchly Communist. But Ho in particular among top strategists wore the ideology lightly, so much so that even Soviet officials questioned his Communist credentials. In Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party, too, analysts wondered where the Viet Minh, should it win the right to rule a free Vietnam, would take the country.”

                          the US really blundered in the 1950s and 1960s, lumping vietnam with china, n. korea and the soviet union under the banner of 'communism', which was never the same across countries and even across time within the same country. like any country, vietnam was never perfect, but at least it did not have a mao zedong, a kim il-sung, a josef stalin or a pol pot (also not a ferdinand marcos, a park jung hee nor a sukarno).

                          but hindsight is 20/20.
                            • Mike Munk
                            • Portland, Ore
                            US also supported the wrong side in Korea, when they banned the popular anti Japanese government that greeted them in 1945 and instead installed the bloody dictator Rhee. Rhee was finally overthrown by a student revolt in 1961--witnessed by me as a GI in the occupation army.
                              • Ted Rodosovich
                              • San Diego, CA
                              There is a considerable and fairly recent biography of Ho. Check with amazon.
                                • suzi
                                • Hanoi, Vietnam
                                In my opinion, we need to let this entire issue rest. The view in the United States of the Vietnam War is so completely narcissistic it does not do the world any good, nor does it help us as a nation. We can not look at Vietnam in the 20th century and see only a reflection of our role in the world, nor can we look at Afghanistan in the 21st century as merely a reflection of the United States' role in the world. While this self reflection in the guise of historical reflection seems to be an attempt to learn a lesson regarding this evolving role, I believe it is this very willingness to relate to countries only through the lens of our sense of self and power that is destructive.
                                  • ED
                                  • atlanta
                                  Ditto for Castro......................
                                    • vijay banga
                                    • new delhi
                                    Most definitely yes as US has a way with its ego and considers its opinion as the final verdict but it regrets and repents later at a very heavy cost while others suffer the agony for years.
                                      • John McGrath
                                      • Providence, RI
                                      I spoke many years ago during the anti-Viet Name war movement with a number of people who had been military analysts after WWII. They all recommended taking on Ho Chin Minh as an ally. Their analyses focused on Ho's distrust of both China and the USSR and his hope that the US would protect his country's independence from them and other imperial forces.

                                      Didn't Ho work fro a while in the Bronx? Perhaps that reinforced his Marxist views, since a large portion of the US Communist Party lived in the Bronx at that time. I remember some fellow Bronxites proudly showing me their CPUSA cards. Yes, they had cards.

                                    No comments:

                                    Post a Comment