Television coverage of the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia has included a lesson on whitewashing communism. However, Vladimir Putin is only one of a long list of politicians guilty of brushing over the horror of revolutionary socialism. Even President Barack Obama may need to read history more carefully. Last July, Obama stated that he and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang “discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson.” But how accurate is the notion of Ho Chi Minh as some type of Jeffersonian leader?
Séphance Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 1999) argues that communist regimes were “criminal enterprises in their very essence” carrying out the planned killing of at least 85 million people in the twentieth century. The argument goes that communism was not a benign system that took a mythical “wrong turn” under the direction of any particularly brutal leader. Rather, its goal from start to finish was to crush all “class enemies.” In Triumph Forsaken, The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (2007), historian Mark Moyar challenges a romanticized view of Ho Chi Minh.
It was September 2, 1945 and a crowd of over 200,000 Vietnamese gathered in a large square in Hanoi to hear the self-proclaimed leader of Vietnam. Wearing a pith helmet and a borrowed khaki suit, Ho prepared to present his speech. When two American P-38 Lightning fighters flew overhead, there was the “false impression that the United States government was endorsing Ho Chi Minh.”
On that day Ho did quote from the American Declaration of Independence, but he also read from the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The latter document “had inspired a more radical set of men.” Silent about his political ideology, Ho proceeded to indict French colonial leaders for their violation of these American and French principles.
A Marxist-Leninist who was in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and who had survived the Stalin purges apparently only by virtue of support from the right people, Ho was a survivor with an indefatigable resolve to see victory with a revolutionary system that bred antagonism and violence. Moyar argues that Ho, strongly influenced by Lenin’s writings which argued for “the subordination of the interests of the proletarian struggle in one nation to the interests of that struggle on an international scale,” put communism ahead of nationalism.
Leftist historians argue otherwise. They claim Ho was a man of the people directing his energy to the goal of nationalism; the tragedy of the Vietnam War unfolded because the United States foolishly supported France rather than Ho. Moyar exposes the flaw in such thinking. Ho was not a Jeffersonian leader with noble goals. “Ho Chi Minh succeeded not by gaining the friendship of other opposition leaders, but by eliminating them.” In other words, he murdered his rivals. Belying the benevolent uncle image were Ho’s words, “All those who do not follow the line which I have laid will be broken.”
Ho also had great admiration for Chinese communist leaders and followed “Chinese advice as if he had been given orders.” From the playbook of Soviet and Chinese leadership, Ho embraced press censorship, reeducation methods, and land reform programs that resulted in the death of countless Vietnamese people. Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem said Ho Chi Minh was “as pure as Lucifer.”
Ho Chi Minh delivered democratic rhetoric, but his actions told another story.