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 and 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…

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