peteg's blog

William J. Duiker: Ho Chi Minh

/noise/books | Link

This was recommended to me by the anthropologist from ANU who ran our post-AYAD debriefing sessions. It has taken me a long time to get to as someone loaned it from the UNSW Library for ages, and I wasn't prepared to buy it as I was pretty sure I wouldn't be reading it twice. I had a pile of things I was hoping such a text would cover:

  • What did Hồ Chí Minh have in mind for the post-war Vietnamese society?
  • What was the historical basis for the drive for the Hà Nội regime to reunify with the south?
  • In what esteem did he hold his successors Lê Duẩn and Trường Chinh?
  • Why did his (relatively) liberal, conciliatory outlook not prevail?
  • How is he viewed now?
  • etc.

Trying to give an account of Hồ Chí Minh's life, especially in English for a non-Vietnamese audience, is a Herculean task, not the least because Hồ was an obscurantist and the Russian Soviet and Vietnamese Communist archives remain closed to Westerners (as far as I know). Duiker's strategy for filling in the many gaps is to fall back to giving a biography of the Vietnamese Communist movement, and therefore at times the arcane arguments within the ICP loom larger than the man. Moreover his final decade, when America became so bluntly entangled, is covered too cursorily.

So we have many famous names being mentioned without their stories being told: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Lê Duẩn, Lê Hồng Phong, Hồ Tùng Mậu, ...; it is like walking the streets of modern-day Hồ Chí Minh City without a guide, or with a young person. This gets a bit frustrating as it is unclear just what their contributions were, and why they were deemed worthy of such dedications.

Duiker does a good job discussing the critical period from around 1943 to 1957, when Hồ and comrades emerged from southern China to organise the resistance to the Japanese and seize power from a divided France. It remains unclear to me just why the disastrous land reforms were enacted, but Hồ's fingerprints were all over the resolution of that issue, the shifting emphasis from establishing socialism in the North to the reunification with the south, and the artful navigation of the Sino-Soviet split. I tend to think that this is the only period where Hồ had a chance to act on his peacetime aspirations for the Vietnamese people, though it is difficult to fathom much as the situation was so incredibly compromised for all players. (The French and Chinese were recovering from invasions and internal disunity, and the people of north Vietnam had been the subjects of a massive famine, substantially due to the WWII-Japanese occupation and scorched-earth retreat.)

Possibly the best part is the final chapter, From Man to Myth, an all-too-short account of Hồ's legacy and relation to contemporary Vietnam. Duiker's conclusion, that he is largely irrelevant to the youth and had little lasting influence on the government, rings true enough. Still, I wish he had explained the cultural context better, exploring the idea of Hồ as the most recent liberator of the Vietnamese nation from foreign interference, a line that includes such unimpeachable figures as the Trưng sisters and Trần Hưng Đạo. Whatever one's view of Communism and the current regime, surely this is worth something? Duiker's apt description of Hồ as "part Gandhi, part Lenin" deserved to be unfolded.

As his target audience is America, probably academics and possibly some of the disapora, Duiker must contend with a substantially monochrome view of communism. Hồ, communist of nationalist? Revolutionary or patriot? Such dichotomies are a tad useless unless we attach a bazillion adjectives and a thesis or two. Still it is clear that Hồ was certainly a cultural revolutionary — one of his central goals was to kill off the corrupted feudal mandarin system that the French had coopted. It is less clear, at least from this text, whether the system had always been corrupt or had become so under colonial pressures; Duiker contends that it depended on a strong Emperor for moral rectitude, and for all I learnt here they may have always been on the lam. He also leads us to believe that Hồ was not much of a communist theoretician, for all his training and arrangements with the Comintern; apparently establishing the socialist state was on the never never, subordinate to reunification. This is essentially the position Lê Duẩn adopted in the 1950s at the expense of the more orthodox socialist Trường Chinh who wanted paradise to be established in the north before more blood and treasure was spent on rescuing the south from the foreigners.

This is the biggest problem with this text, that Hồ is just plain weird from a Western point of view, and can only be demystified by extensive explanations of Vietnamese culture and history, which Duiker clearly can't do in reasonable space. The coarseness of many of the discussions is explained away by providing an extensive bibliography, but I was hoping for more lapses into Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo, given how much the whole enterprise depends on anecdotes and barrow-pushers; of course one cannot expect much objectivity from the dispossessed, and it is somewhat of a sham to pretend otherwise.

Structurally the book faces the basic problem that Hồ had two lives, firstly as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, shadowy Cominternist, and his more famous post-1945 self, who took an age to admit to being said agent and hence to being a Communist. This is handled about as well as it can be.

As a work of history there are some clangers obvious even to an amateur like me: to claim that the war in Vietnam provided any new insights into the limits to the US's ability to contain Communism is garbage, for the Chinese had already done this in Korea by 1954 (well before the US had troops on the ground in Vietnam), assuming the massive post-WWII expansion of the Soviet Union hadn't already rung those alarm bells. I don't think it makes sense to argue about the motivations of the US in a biography of Hồ Chí Minh, except as it influenced his aspirations and plans. This patchy treatment of history external to north Vietnam is a bit irritating, as we go from talking about Bảo Đại to Ngô Đình Diệm without a referendum or even a nod to the thinking of Eisenhower, Kennedy, etc. on that front.

Also I found it confusing that Duiker asserts that Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa ("Southern Uprising", the road to the airport) is a pet project of Lê Duẩn due to him being born in the south (p501), whereas we are told barely ten pages earlier (p492) that he was born in Quảng Trị, north of Huế — which is about as north as one can get while still being south, assuming we are taking the foreigner's 17th parallel as the demarcation. Perhaps Duiker meant that he is from south of Hồ's Kim Lien in Nghệ An Province.

Duiker restrains himself on the salacious stuff. He asserts that Hồ married a Chinese woman before WWII, and fathered a son with "Miss Xuan" in the mid-1950s. Of course what we really want to know is if he fathered Nông Đức Mạnh.

This is purportedly the most authoriative biography of Hồ Chí Minh in English, and it probably is. Unfortunately it is too boring, with lots of historical detail but not much perspective, even though Duiker's prose is up to the task of telling an interesting story. It is like the streets of Saigon, where all the names have lost their referents. Ultimately many of the characterisations are as bland as the bitumen of the streets themselves, and this is most frustrating; while Hồ spoke many languages and came to understand many Western cultures his story remains opaque on foreigners' terms.

Incidentally Duiker cites Duong van Mai Elliott's account of four generations of her family. I guess I can't be too surprised that someone beat Andrew X. Pham to this narrative structure.