Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Uncle Ho

Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh both secured freedom from foreign domination and introduced communism in their countries. But the similarities end there. By the time Mao died in 1976, the Chinese people were tired of him and held him accountable for the damaging excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Tellingly, most Chinese were far more grief stricken when Zhou Enlai, the pragmatic and sensible foreign minister died the same year. The Chinese Communist Party reflected public opinion, but passing legislation that declared that “Mao was 70% good and 30% bad”. It was a bureaucratic way of admitting that the Great Leader was discredited.

Ho Chi Minh, on the other hand, has not been cast into the dustbin of history. Even as Vietnam dismantles the command economy and moves forward with deep free market reforms, the great communist leader is as revered as ever.

Today we heard an important lecture by Duong Trung Quoc, a member of the Vietnamese National Assembly and the General Secretary of the Association of Vietnamese Historians, a government-linked group of intellectuals who determine how Vietnam’s past is to be viewed. Quoc recounted how Ho vigorously sought an alliance with the United States, which he saw as a powerful counterforce to colonialism. Ho lived in the United States between 1913 and 1915 and grew to admire the American Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln, and other symbols of freedom. In 1944 and 1945, he went out of his way to rescue downed American pilots and in return the Americans supplied him with a modest amount of aid and advisors. American began its relations with Free Vietnam as an ally, claimed Quoc.

Now things have come full circle. After half a century of war and American embargo, Vietnamese-American relations are better than they’ve ever been. Bilateral trade has grown from around $1bn in 2000 to over $10bn this year. This week President Nguyen Minh Triet visited Washington at the invitation of President Bush, the first time a Vietnamese president has come to America.

Vietnam’s alliance with America is very popular with the Vietnamese, whom a Hanoi-based American immunizationist told me, “are in a terrible, almost frenzied hurry to modernize their country.” The alliance with a former enemy is even more favored because the events of 1944 and 1945 suggest that Ho, the revered national founder, would have been delighted to form an alliance with the United States. Now that the alliance with America is en mode, groups like the Association of Vietnamese Historians are revisiting Ho’s interest in America to justify the new course that Vietnam is pursuing.

Ho’s courtship of America at the end of WWII is also being broadcast to Americans in an effort to reduce the stigma Vietnam’s communist and war torn past. Quoc distributed glossy copies of the Vietnam Economic Times, a special supplement printed in honor of Triet’s trip to Washington. The publication, which was produced to woo foreign investment, features a prominent article listing evidence for Ho’s desire for an alliance for America.

But in my opinion, the whole thing doesn’t quite seem to fit. Surely it’s academically dishonest to use the memory of a famous communist to promote Vietnamese-American commerce, the majority of which is dependent on the cheap manufacture of bourgeois consumer goods by the Vietnamese proletariat.

In my opinion, the level of respect that Ho showed toward the United States is significant, but it should be viewed in the context of the times. In 1945, Ho recognized that he would need a powerful sponsor to achieve a peaceful post-war break from French rule. While the Soviets were sympathetic to the cause, there were already deep tensions between Stalinism and the revolutionary movements in Indochina. The United States, on the other hand was an ascendant power in the Pacific and in 1945 the emerging Cold War fault lines had not yet ruled out American support for communists movements. In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt created the Atlantic Charter in 1941, which declared that all peoples had the right to self-determination. Furthermore, the O.S.S. officers in southern China who met Ho were largely convinced that his movement was innocuous and advised Washington to support the Viet Minh. Ho pursued a strategic partnership because it seemed possible at the time and it would have greatly advanced the Vietnamese independence movement.

Anyone who studies Vietnamese history will constantly come across the big question—was Ho Chi Minh a communist or a nationalist? Undoubtedly, he was both. Although until late in his life he chose to show a nationalist face to the world and his own people, his belief in communist principles cannot be questioned. He was a founding member of the French Communist Party and received several years of advanced Marxist instruction in the Soviet Union. Ho earnestly believed in the eventual triumph of socialism, although he stood apart from many of his colleagues in how he intended to reach it. He recognized that the unpopular land reform of 1956 was too bloody and arbitrary and publicly apologized for it even though he did not have a direct hand in it. Against the wishes of many party members, he sided with those who wanted to achieve reunification before embarking on the transition to socialism. Through most of his career, he was the voice of reason, slowing down socialist reforms when he though the country was not ready for socialism.

But he still believed that Vietnam would one day evolve into a socialist society. Yet Quoc’s lecture on Ho’s life was strikingly absent of this simple, but very vital reality. So at the end I asked him what Ho thought of collectivization, the reduction of private property, the command economy, and all the features of socialist economics. Quoc dodged the question by noting that Ho often said that Vietnam needed to become rich before socialism could take hold.

That may be true, but the economic policies that grew out of the communist state kept Vietnam poor. They were not nearly as disastrous as China’s Great Leap Forward, but the command economy thoroughly failed to produce the enormous wealth produced in neighboring Asian Tigers. To Ho Chi Minh’s credit, he was not in power when the socialist economy was built. But the younger generation which introduced the ruinous policies did so in Ho’s name, inspired by his teachings.

Thirty years ago, the Association of Vietnamese Historians might have painted Ho as a leader in favor of class struggle and collectivization. Now that the folly of those policies is freely acknowledged by all in Vietnam, his memory is used to legitimize an alliance with America so that Vietnam can grow rich.

Ho Chi Minh is the great Vietnamese figure and is as much admired as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln combined. It’s not surprising that the public sees such a deified figure as infallible and the harbinger of all subsequent stages of development. But historians should be more objective in their evaluation of past leaders. Evoking Ho’s life to justify a new alliance with the United States is not history—it’s politics. And there are already enough political reasons for our two countries to unite.


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