Who Was Ho Chi Minh?

Although many know about the Vietnam War, fewer know about Ho Chi Minh, the widely traveled man who led North Vietnam and tried to reunite Vietnam under communism.

May 25, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who was ho chi minh


After World War II, the defeat of Japan returned Vietnam to French control. However, many Vietnamese were ready to fight for independence. In 1954, the French were defeated, and independent Vietnam was split in two: a communist-aligned North and a non-communist South. In North Vietnam, an English-speaking communist hero named Ho Chi Minh became the head of state. From the late 1950s until his death in 1969, Ho Chi Minh led a war to reunify Vietnam under communist rule. After the victory of North Vietnam over South Vietnam in 1975, the former capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Read on for a look at the man whose legacy eventually won a foreign policy victory over the United States.


Setting the Stage: Ho Chi Minh & Communism

french communism 1920s
French communists in December 1920. Source: Peoples Dispatch


Ho Chi Minh, born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, went to France–Vietnam’s colonial ruler–in 1912 as a young man. During World War I, he lived in both London and the United States while working aboard freight ships that traveled between Britain, the United States, and France. In the US, it is believed that Ho Chi Minh briefly lived in Boston while working as a cook. When World War I ended, Ho returned to France and became one of the founding members of the French Communist Party. For the next few years, he worked with other radical exiles from France’s Southeast Asian colonies before traveling to Moscow.


In Moscow, Ho Chi Minh met Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Soviet Union and the man who had sparked the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. For a few years, Ho worked in China on behalf of the Soviet Union before returning to Moscow. Next, he traveled to Hong Kong to start a communist party for Vietnamese dissidents in the British colonial city. In June 1931, he was arrested and imprisoned. The British governor of Hong Kong described Ho Chi Minh as one of the most “dangerous of Moscow’s agents in the Far East” upon Ho’s exile from the city in January 1933. After a return to the USSR, where he attended the Seventh Comintern (Communist International) Congress in 1935, Ho traveled to China in 1938 and served as a guerrilla warfare instructor.


Setting the Stage: French Indochina

french indochina colonialism
A map of French Indochina during the era of French colonialism. Source: Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina (2012).


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Vietnam’s status as a French colony deeply impacted Ho Chi Minh’s political growth. After World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson traveled to Paris to advocate for international cooperation and peace. One of Wilson’s Fourteen Points included freedom and independence for Poland and self-determination for all people. This inspired many people living in Europe’s colonies in Africa and Asia to advocate for their own independence. In 1919, Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Robert Lansing calling for reforms in French Indochina. This letter was later distributed among French socialists.


Ho Chi Minh’s deepening ties with communism between the end of World War I and the 1930s are often linked to his goal of independence of Vietnam. While in China in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ho began to advocate for the overthrow of the French in Vietnam, followed by land redistribution to the peasantry. In 1940, World War II brought about an opportunity: France was swiftly defeated after a surprise invasion by Nazi Germany. Japan, Germany’s Axis Power ally in the Pacific, effectively seized French Indochina after some tense negotiations with Vichy France. With France effectively eliminated as a world power, was the time ripe for its colonies to declare independence?


Ho Chi Minh Fights the Japanese

A map showing Japanese control of French Indochina (left) in December 1941 prior to its offensive in the South Pacific. Source: United States Army


In 1941, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh independence movement against the Japanese in Vietnam. Beginning in 1939, he adopted his now-famous name, which means “he who enlightens.” The following year, he returned to the northern border region of Vietnam, which was officially controlled by Vichy France but largely dominated by imperial Japan. Although Nazi Germany dissolved Vichy France in November 1942, its colonial administration remained. In March 1945, however, Japan abruptly took direct control of Vietnam and overthrew the French colonial leaders. The United States, at war with Japan, now had to work with the Vietnamese against the Japanese instead of solely relying on the French.


A leader to whom the US reached out was Ho Chi Minh, who had helped an American pilot escape Japanese territory and into Allied China in 1944. Minh assisted the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) with information on the weather and Japanese troop conditions while the OSS trained and equipped the Viet Minh to fight the Japanese. In August 1945, the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and ended the war before the Viet Minh saw combat. By the end of the month, the Viet Minh had filled the power vacuum in Vietnam. On September 2, 1945, the day that Japan formally surrendered and ended World War II, Ho Chi Minh publicly read Vietnam’s declaration of independence.


First Indochina War & Ho Chi Minh

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A photograph of Vietnamese paratroopers in 1950, during the First Indochina War. Source: University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee


France was not ready to give up its colonies, however, and the US and Britain handed formal control of Vietnam back to its World War I ally. Ho Chi Minh appealed to US President Harry S. Truman for recognition of Vietnamese independence in the aftermath of the creation of the United Nations. However, the 1946 letter was ignored, and the United States remained neutral during the growing First Indochina War between the Viet Minh and France. In 1950, Truman decided to support France in the war, fearing the spread of communism. The Korean War was ongoing, and the Second Red Scare was brewing at home.


While the US backed France, the Viet Minh was supported by “Red” China (as it was then known) and the Soviet Union. By 1953, the French were losing ground in the conflict and struggled to retain international support for their cause. In November 1953, a final showdown began between the Viet Minh and the French. The French stationed their best forces at Dien Bien Phu, perhaps hoping to lure the Viet Minh into a trap. However, instead of winning a decisive victory that would allow them to negotiate from a position of strength, the French were defeated after a four-month siege. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, the French left Vietnam.


Geneva Accords of 1954

geneva accords 1954
A newspaper headline explaining the results of the 1954 Geneva Accords. Source: PBS Learning Media


That summer, an international conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland to determine the post-war status of Vietnam. The Geneva Conference, which included the United States and the Soviet Union, was attended by Ho Chi Minh as leader of the Viet Minh. At the conference, Ho Chi Minh thanked the representatives from China and the USSR for their help during the First Indochina War to win Vietnam’s independence. On July 21, 1954, resolutions were reached regarding the territories of French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Similar to Korea after World War II, the country of Vietnam was divided in half, with the northern half being created for communists and the southern half being created for those opposed to communism.


Elections would be held in 1956 to reunify the country under one governing system. As leader of the Viet Minh, which had defeated the French colonizers, it was virtually guaranteed that Ho Chi Minh would win the 1956 election. South Vietnam, backed by the United States, refused to hold the July 1956 election as planned, arguing that the Geneva Accords were non-binding since neither South Vietnam nor the United States signed them. The leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to implement land reforms desired by the peasantry and was thus a distinct difference from Ho Chi Minh.


Ho Chi Minh as Leader of North Vietnam

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Ho Chi Minh (facing camera on the right) visiting with members of Britain’s Parliament in 1957 in Vietnam. Source: Communist Party of Vietnam


As leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh embarked on traditional communist measures like land reform and collectivization. Critics accused Minh’s government of harsh repression, similar to those committed by Joseph Stalin in the USSR during the 1930s. Unlike South Vietnam, North Vietnam enjoyed strong, unified, and cohesive leadership under Ho Chi Minh. And, while citizens who may not have shown sufficient communist loyalty were persecuted, Ho did not institute purges against his own government leaders. This helped maintain loyal support even during the hardships of the Vietnam War.


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North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh seen in autumn 1963. Source: PBS Learning Media


By the early 1960s, North Vietnam began to focus on industrialization rather than just agricultural and land reform. Ho Chi Minh, surrounded by a Politburo of fellow communist leaders, was a centrist (within the communist leadership) who was not considered particularly aggressive in any single policy area. He turned most day-to-day leadership of the state of North Vietnam over to the Politburo while remaining the official head of state. As a result, Ho was able to focus more on foreign policy and maintaining socialist state support for the continuing conflict against South Vietnam.


Relationships With Other Communist Leaders

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Fidel Castro (left) and Nikita Khrushchev (center) were two communist leaders with whom Ho Chi Minh networked in the early 1960s. Source: George Washington University (GWU)


Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnam relied heavily on aid from China and the Soviet Union, but his relationships with individual communist leaders could be filled with tension. Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union during the First Indochina War, was allegedly no fan of Ho. Relations became more complicated beginning in 1960 with the Sino-Soviet Split, with Ho Chi Minh attempting to retain good relations with both powers. Despite some annoyance from China over North Vietnam’s continued praise for the USSR, support continued, and criticism of Ho’s government was not allowed.


In 1964, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had replaced Stalin, was himself removed from power. This eased the political tensions faced by Ho Chi Minh, as Khrushchev’s relative liberalism compared to Stalin had influenced the Sino-Soviet Split. Ho’s administration quickly moved to improve relations with Moscow in order to garner more military aid for the ongoing Vietnam War. Simultaneously, North Vietnam retained good relations with China, especially for infrastructure development aid. Although the two never met, Ho Chi Minh enjoyed warm relations with Fidel Castro, the communist dictator of Cuba. Both North Vietnam and Cuba felt solidarity in challenging the United States, as well as being small socialist states reliant on the goodwill of the USSR.


Ho Chi Minh & The United States

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A photograph from 1945 showing anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh (standing, third from left) with an American OSS team. Source: Public Radio International


Many Americans may think of communist leaders as totally removed from American culture and full of scorn and disdain for all concepts revered in the United States. Ho Chi Minh, however, was a fan of many American values and historical successes, especially its successful war of independence against Great Britain. In both 1919 and 1946, Ho reached out to an American president for support of Vietnamese independence but was ignored. Some historians believe that, as a result, Ho turned to communist states for support but was not a devout communist otherwise.


In 1969, shortly before his death, Ho Chi Minh responded to a letter written to him by US President Richard Nixon and lamented the loss of life during the ongoing Vietnam War, including American lives. Ho was also aware of fickle American public support for the Vietnam War, which he referenced in a 1967 letter to US President Lyndon B. Johnson. As a one-time resident of both the United States and Britain, Ho Chi Minh could speak and write in English. However, unlike fellow English speaker Fidel Castro, Ho never visited the United States after becoming a political leader.


Death & Continuation of the Vietnam War

north vietnamese mig pilots
North Vietnam, with pilots of Soviet-supplied MiG-19 jet fighters shown above, continued the Vietnam War after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969. Source: United States Air Force


Ho Chi Minh’s health began to decline in the 1960s, especially in 1967. He died of an apparent heart attack on September 2, 1969, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Vietnam’s declaration of independence. Despite wishing to be cremated, Ho’s body was embalmed and placed on display in a mausoleum, similar to that of the original communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. The Vietnam War continued with minimal disruption after Ho’s death, which was likely due to the strong stability he had fostered in his administration.


The United States exited the Vietnam War in early 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords, accomplishing one of Ho Chi Minh’s major goals. Two years later, North Vietnam won the Vietnam War by capturing Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam. The fall of Saigon in April 1975 was a major blow to the West and one of the last expansions of communism. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the former leader of North Vietnam, who was credited with setting up his nation for victory in the long war.


Ho Chi Minh’s Legacy

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A statue of former North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon of South Vietnam. Source: Vietnam Symposium in International Business


As a historical figure, Ho Chi Minh has an interesting legacy. He is typically praised for his anti-colonial and anti-imperial views, as well as his unyielding goal of independence for Vietnam. Accurate information about the results of Ho’s domestic policies is often difficult to come by, as Ho’s legacy is staunchly protected by the Vietnamese government. Internationally, Ho Chi Minh was seen as less brutal than either Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union or Mao Zedong of China and more focused on improving the condition of his country than adhering to strict socialist ideology. Domestically, the leader was often referred to as “Uncle Ho” and seen as a wise, guiding figure.


Although many admit that Ho Chi Minh’s administration did commit terrible acts of repression and brutality during its land reforms, Ho himself is often seen in a more sympathetic light. He is also renowned for his tenacity in warfare and is remembered through his famous 1946 quote, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”


Indeed, North Vietnam and its guerrilla Viet Cong allies lost roughly ten times as many men killed as the United States during the Vietnam War. Many biographers report that Ho Chi Minh was well known for his humility, intelligence, and sense of humor…though he could also use brutality to ensure that his political goals won the day.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.