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Man in the Middle

Ho Chi Minh

by Jean Lacouture
Random House, 303 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The End of a War

by Jean Lacouture, by Philippe Devillers
Praeger, 320 pp., $8.95

During the late nineteenth century, China and Vietnam were suddenly and, it seemed, inexplicably thrust into a world dominated by foreigners of inescapable military and technological superiority. The loss of their sense of identity and personal dignity goaded many Asian patriots to search their own past and the Western tradition, selecting from each the elements that might enable them to deal with the West. By the 1920s the need for a new perspective that would help not only to redeem the tormenting loss of the national heritage but to mount a counteroffensive against imperialism led some Asians to the discovery of Marxism-Leninism. For such men, nationalism and communism were complementary rather than mutually exclusive; commitment to the nationalist cause could lead them to accept communism as the most effective means of liberating the homeland from Western domination and “feudal” restrictions.

Marxism and Leninism like many other currents of thought changed in meaning when diverted to the East. Asian minds measured orthodox Western assumptions and strategies against local reality. As a result of exposure to those elements of Western thought which reached Asia via the personal experiences of Vietnamese or Chinese leaders, there emerged the anti-imperialist groups which were to contend with each other and with the Europeans after World War II.

Jean Lacouture’s bold and sensitive biography of Ho Chi Minh shows a consistent appreciation of this process and its implications. While other French writers have written competently about Ho, Lacouture’s account is the first full biography to appear in a Western language. Lacouture is not only familiar with the literature of Asian nationalism but as a journalist and former member of the staff of General Le Clerc has drawn on his personal observations of the Vietnamese leaders. He is fully acquainted with the intricacies and hypocrisies of French colonialism and diplomacy, as well as with the particular Vietnamese history and geography which shaped Ho Chi Minh.

Ho Chi Minh grew up in a household dominated by his father, a brilliant mandarin and vehement nationalist. The latter was a man whose anti-French militance had lost him all chance of employment by the colonial administration. The father revered and had mastered Chinese ideographs; he gave his son training in classical Confucian concepts and encouraged both a strong sense of Vietnamese identity and a hostility to French rule. These elements remained as influences on Ho’s thinking although the balance among them often shifted.

Lacouture shows that the classical influence on Ho’s character re-emerged in his poems written in 1942. These were composed in a Chinese prison and written in Chinese in the style of the great T’ang dynasty poets. One might add that this background of classical education appears almost as strongly in Ho’s political writings in Vietnamese. In his use of Sino-Vietnamese compounds, quotations from the Vietnamese histories, epics and national folklore, Ho’s writings differ strikingly from the straightforward communist shorthand of his colleagues, Truong Chinh and Le Duan.

Ho’s writings are part of the evidence supporting Lacouture’s belief that Ho’s sense of the Vietnamese experience is crucial, that he has shaped his Marxism to fit his own and his country’s political and cultural resources. Ho is as tied to nationalism as he is committed to communism, Lacouture believes, and he cites, in support of his claim, the persistence with which Ho, during his active career in the Comintern, returned, time and again, to Vietnamese problems and to issues of colonial rule rather than to questions of international revolution. Lacouture describes Ho as having remained aloof during the conflicts and purges which marked the Comintern’s history, preferring to focus his attention on national matters which he thought more significant.

One can refine still further the concept of “nationalism” which Lacouture uses in his book by isolating the conscious identification, for personal or pragmatic reasons, with a given set of historical experiences and attitudes. This is what Paul Mus,1 one of the most experienced and perceptive observers of the Vietnamese, calls “particularism,” a term which carries a more cultural than political connotation, referring to an individual’s sense of his changing identity rather than to the population’s discovery of its nationhood. In the development from traditional to colonial and then revolutionary society, what is of value in the old is retained in patterns of speech and in the use of symbols. What is attractive in the new integrates itself into and often comes to dominate both the individual psyche and the national mood. Ho’s life illustrates this process and his words and actions demonstrate a sophisticated awareness of how this pattern can be put to use.

Mus finds significant a seemingly small event mentioned by Lacouture. When he settled himself and the core of the Viet Minh in Pac Bo, Ho

…discovered a large cave set in the mountainside, with a stream running close by; here he lived for over a year, among the stalactites, the tropical creeper, the thickets, the piles of fallen rock. He named the mountain Karl Marx, the stream Lenin.

Like the first council called by the Buddha, the first meeting of the Viet Minh occurred in a small cave, a type of site which the Vietnamese consider holy, on a mountain which had been given an appropriate new name. In Mus’s view, naming the cave and stream was an evocative use of Vietnamese myth and symbol, creating a link which could make apparent to Vietnamese the potential significance of men and doctrines as yet unknown to most of the population. Sensing the importance of attaching symbolic names to places, Ho renamed towns and base camps, discarding geographical description in favor of political inspiration. Those who mattered were already familiar with this political symbolism, and Ho’s action was therefore a code, a form of cryptic reference.

Ho’s consistent use of this type of cultural shorthand may be seen as deliberate manipulation of the reflexes of his countrymen, based on sure knowledge of his country in spite of his thirty-year absence. Lacouture tends toward this view. In describing Ho’s work with the Vietnamese community in northeast Siam, a group which worshipped the spirit of the thirteenth-century hero, General Tran Hung Dao, Lacouture says.

So Old Chin (alias Ho) composed a song of praise to the “guardian spirit of the mountains and waters of Vietnam”—the requirements of the nationalist phase were leading him on to strange ground.

The ground was not so unfamiliar, although one can argue that this was a case of political opportunism. As Lacouture makes clear, Ho’s character both blends and accepts conflicting elements. Lacouture believes that in 1946

It was no mere mood of resignation which impelled Ho to seek agreement with France, no mere computer-like assessment in terms of “objective realities”; he was driven by a longing to reunite the two disjointed halves of his own life and training, a schism which was reflected in the destiny of his people. And he must have been conscious—why deny it?—of a sense of fellowship as well.

This ambivalent blend of the domestic and foreign, and the antagonism between them, were not new to Vietnam. The Vietnamese state grew to maturity in China’s shadow. But for reasons of indifference, as well as in recognition of the surprising Vietnamese ability to expel intruders, China rarely intervened. After each armed rejection of direct Chinese rule, Chinese cultural and political patterns would spread in Vietnam. And this meant an adaptation of the Chinese model to the smaller size and different demands of a separate Vietnamese kingdom. Because of their familiarity with Chinese culture and linguistic forms the Vietnamese could turn their newly acquired techniques against their teacher, and thus prevent a detested direct Chinese presence. In the twentieth century, a similar awareness of French patterns of thought and administrative behavior enabled the Vietnamese to expel the foreign ruler. In so doing they modified Chinese concepts of military action and social revolution to fit Vietnamese conditions.

Lacouture is highly suggestive about the differences between Mao and Ho. While the impulses which led them to Marxism-Leninism were much the same, the patterns of national communism which they have evolved reflect the real differences in historical setting and personal experience. Throughout its history, and particularly after 1945, Vietnam had to grapple with a combination of threats from the outside. Mao could dream and plan for the day when a reemergent China would resume her rightful role as an entire universe, a power so superior in ideals and force that there would be no need for compromise with opponents at home or abroad. Ho could never think in such cosmic terms, for China would always be on Vietnam’s border.

Mao’s ideology and personal relationships were formed in a Chinese setting. In contrast, Ho came to Marxism through French socialism, which he encountered in Paris. His view of the world was molded by his experiences in Moscow and in East and Southeast Asia. Lacouture stresses the diversity of Ho’s experience:

Ho Chi Minh, who was so strongly influenced by the French Revolution, has been a militant socialist since the Russian Revolution. He has been a member of the French Communist Party, the Russian Communist Party, and probably of the Chinese Communist Party; he was the founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, then of the Viet Minh, then of the Lao Dong. He at one time shared the misery of the proletariat of Africa and America. He has known with iron shackles on his feet the prisons of Yunnan.

Lacouture senses possible antagonism between the two men. In view of his analysis and that in Robert Lifton’s Revolutionary Immortality: Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, one might see Ho as representing what Mao mistrusts most: a practical and flexible revolutionary whose exposure to heterodox international currents has tempered his devotion to doctrinal purity, and weakened his intransigence.

It is certainly true that the complex Vietnamese situation in 1945-46 shaped Ho’s approach to his allies and enemies. Lacouture summarizes the situation after the Democratic Republic of Vietnam proclaimed its independence in September 1945.

Let us now consider the pieces on the chessboard: first, still nervously feeling its way, a Nationalist-Communist government in Hanoi—bold measures had brought it to power, but weak resources and a lack of trained men made it a target for the militant hostility of rival organizations; second, a French force advancing on Tonkin and preceded by a political delegation representing a regime which had fought against fascism and which contained several members who had long been friendly with Ho; third, a pillaging Chinese horde let loose on Tonkin by a government which, as everyone knew, was doomed to collapse before long, but this horde had an appetite and a lack of discipline which threatened to bring anarchy and ruin to northern Indochina.

While both the defeated Japanese and the visiting American OSS team were sympathetic, neither long retained its central significance in the game. During the fall of 1945, He was forced to witness the elimination of his government in Saigon and the re-establishment of French control throughout the South. The southern wing of the Viet Minh never fully regained its strength (in 1954 it was again abandoned in favor of preserving Viet Minh control in the North). In the winter of 1946, Ho defined his major enemy as the Chinese. In accordance with Allied agreements, 185,000 Kuomintang troops had come to accept the Japanese surrender above the 16th parallel. Ho urgently sought their rapid withdrawal for the rapacity of the occupying army was becoming intolerable during Vietnam’s worst year of famine.

In tracing how Ho handled the crisis then, Lacouture puts much weight on Ho’s synthesis of pragmatism, nationalism, and communism. Knowing Viet Minh weakness, Ho did not fall prey to what has been described as the “military romanticism” of Mao Tse-tung. While the Chinese Communists believed that war can serve to purify and exemplify the revolutionary will in action, the Viet Minh under Ho’s leadership were willing to accept compromises that in some cases temporarily disabled the movement.

In 1946, Ho needed the French in order to negotiate with the Chinese an agreement to withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for terminating French concessions in China. At the same time, he had to begin his own conversations with the French in order to obtain recognition of his new state while French military forces were weak and Chinese troops could give him political backing. For these reasons he conceded that an independent Vietnam would be undesirable if it were outside the proposed French Union. To prevent the outbreak of war, he signed on March 6 an agreement allowing the French to land 15,000 troops in the North without opposition. These troops were to be withdrawn at a rate of 3,000 each year so that, by 1952, only Vietnamese soldiers would be quartered in Tonkin.

He also submitted to a crucial compromise on the question of immediate reunification of the three French-created segments of his country. By June 1946 the French had broken all pledges they had made in March relating to the issue of Cochinchina’s ties to the other two parts of Vietnam. Furthermore, after the failure of the Fontainebleau conference in September 1946, Ho initialled a modus vivendi which forbade the nationalization of French land and enterprises, restored all lands to their colonial owners, and severely circumscribed the social revolution which the Viet Minh had planned but which they were carrying out at this time only in a limited way. The modus vivendi also provided for the preferential hiring of French technicians and experts, with nationals of other nations to be used only when French personnel were not available. Mixed commissions with representatives of France and of the five Indochinese states would study currency, customs, and communications arrangements for the Indochinese Federation within the French Union. A Franco-Vietnamese committee would prepare for Vietnamese representation abroad.

Lacouture depicts Ho as essentially a politician, seeking to move the conflict between France and Vietnam toward an advantageous settlement. He does not see him as a hero courting death in quest of the impossible. Ho was strongly aware of his pioneering role in freeing the French colonies of Africa and Asia from metropolitan rule. His display of personal warmth toward the French representatives whom he met during the Viet Minh struggle was undoubtedly in part consummate acting, a further instance of the cunning which Lacouture attributes to Ho as man and as a leader.

Nevertheless, the agreements to which he signed his name show that his personal reluctance to commence open warfare was sincere. As he left the hotel, in September 1946, to add his signature to the Fontainebleau accords, he murmured to his escort, “I am going to sign my death warrant.” He returned home to force his comrades on the Left to accept the disappointing pact. They did so, largely because of the force of his personality and their mutual appreciation of his analysis: “Better to sniff the French dung for a while than eat China’s all our lives”—a comment Lacouture quotes from Mus. It might be noted here that Ho faced similar difficulties in getting his comrades in the Viet Minh, particularly those of Southern birth and experience, to accept the Geneva accords of 1954.

The differences between the Vietnamese and Chinese revolutions became clear as the climax approached in each country. The Chinese communist forces expanded in the countryside, surrounded and by-passed the cities. By 1949 they had succeeded in seizing all of China from the ineffectual Nationalist forces, whose support from America could not offset their military and political incompetence.

On the other hand, at the end of World War II, the Viet Minh, still a coalition and operating in the absence of the Indochinese Communist Party which had been dissolved (a practice later followed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution in even greater defiance of orthodox theory), had begun their fight in the montagnard areas, had taken Hanoi and held it for eight months, and had declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. They were then forced to return to the hills for the long war against the French in the countryside and the French-held cities, still unable to secure all of Vietnam. They were aware that the Americans had assumed the burden of paying for the French effort and that they might be planning to bolster the anti-communist crusade further by supplying air support or forces on the ground. Before and during the Geneva conference of 1954, they were subject also to Chinese and Russian pressure to reach a compromise settlement. This pressure eventually forced the Viet Minh to turn over territory which they controlled and to concede political battles which they could easily have won.

Lacouture’s analysis of Ho Chi Minh’s moves and reactions is extremely persuasive, and is even more valuable when read in conjunction with The End of a War, written with Philippe Devillers. This is a systematic and well-reasoned account of the policies and personalities involved in the conference at Geneva. The authors argue that when the conference opened, the French were caught unprepared, having neither formulated their minimum demands nor established areas of agreement with the other participants. To Americans, the authors’ description of the conference should sound familiar.

Indeed the veil of secrecy which very properly covered the French Government’s “plan” seemed to conceal no more than a collection of pious hopes, illusions and conflicting daydreams.

Premier Bidault had initially preferred to postpone contacts with the Viet Minh and made no attempt at Geneva to engage in face to face dealings with his major opponent. He was caught between the demands of the Bao Dai group, the pessimism and hostility of the Americans, and his own reluctance to move toward a political settlement which would have to include the idea of at least temporary partition of Vietnam and certainly complete recognition of its independence.

This book describes the slow unfolding of intricate and often insoluble issues against the background of tense military conflict. It also shows the ominous although unpublicized role which the US delegation and the American government in Washington played in influencing, limiting, and circumventing French concessions and pledges. The authors are appalled by the mindless anti-communism and lack of sophistication of American politicians and diplomats. What was mentioned in 1960 (when this book first appeared in France) as weakness in American logic and perception was speculation then, but has been amply confirmed since. Chapter 12, by Devillers, painstakingly recounts the progression of events during Dien Bien Phu and shows how narrowly America escaped from John Foster Dulles’s determination to intervene with American air power.

At the close of the conference America’s vacillating policy at last coalesced; we began to advocate a separate southern state, illegal under the Geneva armistice but vital to Dulles’s dream of an armed base from which an anti-communist counterattack could be launched. In a new final section, written for the English-language edition, Devillers confirms from American sources what Lacouture, in his biography of Ho Chi Minh, had deduced from French and Vietnamese accounts. Immediately after the conference adjourned, both the French and the Viet Minh were anxious to maintain cordial relations and to see the just-signed accords put into effect. However, responding to mounting US pressure as well as to his own misgivings about the nature of a reunited Vietnam, Mendès-France nullified even minimal contacts with Hanoi. The French reluctantly joined the Americans in supporting Ngo Dinh Diem, the price the US demanded for its contribution to the “Atlantic Alliance.” The new guardians of Vietnam were determined that the elections scheduled for 1956 not be held. Yet neither France nor the US faced the implications of these actions.

While The End of a War shows clearly the differences between the French and American Indochina wars, the authors make a strong case, implicitly and explicitly, for the similarities between them. The authors state that:

To the Pentagon, Indochina’s history began in 1953-54. Everything before that could be explained by deftly combining the perennial principle of anti-colonialism with the French version of recent events. Thereafter the escalation could proceed with relentless logic.

Regrettably one could say much the same about American scholars whose choice of topics to be researched or ignored followed the political thinking of the State Department and the financial support of the Pentagon.

Prior to 1954, few American scholars paid attention to the French colonial experience or to the conflict which was ending it. After Geneva, American scholars, with the exception of the late Bernard Fall, followed political orthodoxy and assumed the regime in northern Vietnam to be a Chinese satellite, unworthy of sustained examination. As for southern Vietnam, the ever-increasing flow of journalists, “advisers,” and academic mercenaries produced only superficial monographs, which revealed little beyond the authors’ pride in their “research,” faith in Diem, and total ignorance of anything that had happened outside their projects and before their arrival at the airport.

Within the State Department, McCarthyism had done its work in convincing the survivors in the Asia section that diplomats on all levels who examined facts would be held responsible if their pessimistic reports proved accurate. Ambassadors in Saigon discouraged “negative” reportage. In a recent speech in Boston during a panel organized by Richard Kagan, National Coordinator of the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars, and held under the auspices of the Association for Asian studies during their annual meeting, O. Edmund Clubb described the consequences of a policy created by self-delusion and timidity: official observers supplied Washington with distorted information justifying continuing American support of discredited regimes, a process that still continues.2

With these two knowledgeable and skillfully documented books, the picture of the French war in Indochina is gradually becoming fuller. There are still gaps in our knowledge, however, which these authors could not be expected to fill. These are due to the unavailability of materials dealing with the internal political history of nationalist groups and the personal history of those who survived with Ho and Diem and Bao Dai, as well as of those who died unnoticed.

  1. 1

    whose death in France was announced after this review was written.

  2. 2

    The speeches by panelists O. Edmund Clubb, Noam Chomsky, Ross Koen, and Richard Kagan are reprinted in the June 1969 issue of the CCAS Newsletter and may be obtained for $.50 from James Sanford, Room 304, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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