The Reluctant Adversary

“THE objectives favored by liberals have their merits,” Barack Obama notes in The Audacity of Hope. “But they hardly constitute a national security policy. It’s useful to remind ourselves, then, that Osama bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh, and that the threats facing the United States today are real, multiple and potentially devastating.” It is hard to imagine Americans of any political stripe confusing bin Laden with Ho – although, to be fair, Obama’s reference was presumably intended to emphasize the fact that Ho’s Vietnam posed no threat to US citizens.


It would not be unreasonable to assume that many liberals were well aware of this back in the days when it seemed the US military had nothing better to do than to devastate a tiny Asian country that had never sought to pick a fight with the world’s most powerful nation. During the mammoth anti-war marches which demonstrated that a substantial proportion of Americans recognized that their nation was fighting what one dissident described as “the wrong war, in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy”, many of the protesters waved the flag of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF); others carried placards bearing portraits of Ho Chi Minh.


Ho, who died 40 years ago today (Sept 2, 1969) – nearly six years before the last American choppers took flight from the city that today bears his name – was the president of North Vietnam at the time. It wasn’t easy, as the celebrated columnist Art Buchwald pointed out, to demonize someone whose visage was reminiscent of Santa Claus – although the admiration Ho inspired had more to do with his single-minded devotion to the cause of national liberation than with the genial and benign image he projected. Of course that did not prevent him from being vilified by the usual suspects, mainly – albeit by no means exclusively – of the conservative ilk, who simply cannot abide anyone who challenges the concept of America Ï‹ber alles. Many of them are unlikely to have been aware that Ho was not by any means predisposed to hostility towards the US.


If anything, he looked upon the US as a potential ally. As early as 1919, Ho, who was living in Paris at the time, vainly sought entry into the peace conference at Versailles with a view to presenting a case for self-government in Vietnam, convinced that he would be sympathetically heard at least by Woodrow Wilson, if not be Lloyd George or Georges Clemenceau – both of whom represented nations that still boasted vast empires. Vietnam, like the rest of Indochina, was firmly in the grasp of France.


Some two decades later, when the Vichy regime allowed Japanese forces to enter Vietnam without firing a shot, Ho and his comrades organized a fairly successful resistance, coordinating their actions with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Ho allowed himself to presume that – not least in view of the Atlantic Charter, which appeared to presage a post-colonial era at Franklin Roosevelt’s insistence – the US would be favorably disposed towards occupied nations yearning to breathe free.


In the days before Ho declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on September 2, 1945, at a ceremony where the casually clad leader had arrived in an ordinary jeep flanked by outriders on bicycles, he had sought to obtain a copy of the American Declaration of Independence from local US representatives. It proved to be a futile quest, so Ho quoted the document from memory: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” In the postwar years, Ho dispatched numerous missives to Harry Truman, requesting cooperation and assistance. The Cold Warrior never bothered to respond.


The US and Britain were both instrumental in facilitating the French reoccupation of Indochina (Allied forces in the region were led, incidentally, by Douglas Gracey, who not long afterwards became commander-in-chief of the Pakistan army). The specter of communism had by then begun to haunt Washington, which decided to devote most of its energies to preventing the spread of what it viewed as an insidious ideology, with scant regard for the rights – and lives – of millions of people. The US became the chief source of financial aid for the French occupation of southern Vietnam, and after the ignominious French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 it took over sponsorship of the puppet regime in what became known as South Vietnam and successfully warded off the threat of elections that would almost certainly have led to a united Vietnam under Ho’s leadership.


The American attitude continued to bother Ho until the end of his days. An obituary by Alden Whitman, published in The New York Times on September 4, 1969, cited a recent conversation between Ho and a pair of American journalists in which the Vietnamese leader reminded his interlocutors in fluent English that he had once lived in the US. “I think I know the American people and I can’t understand how they can support their involvement in this war,” he said. “Is the Statue of Liberty standing on her head?”


By then, to their credit, large numbers of Americans – although by no means a majority – were increasingly vocal in their denunciation of the conflict. And at least one of them eventually paid his respects at Ho’s mausoleum when, a quarter of a century after the American defeat, he became the first US president to visit Hanoi.


Ho led a fascinating life, which included a stint as a pastry chef in London, a meeting with Lenin, a role in founding the French Communist Party, and imprisonment in China and Hong Kong, but throughout it he never wavered from the conviction that Vietnam would one day be free. Against seemingly impossible odds, he was posthumously vindicated. The depth of his attachment to his land and its people was never in doubt, but Vietnam’s ultimate triumph came at a terrible cost. More than two million lives – a fraction of them American – could have been saved if only Uncle Sam had reciprocated Uncle Ho’s goodwill instead of spurning his overtures.


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