On April 30, 1975, the People’s Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong forces succeeded in the occupation of the city of Saigon in the wake of withdrawal by United States Armed Forces. America’s departure marked the end of the Vietnam War and provided the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam with the opporunity to unify North and South Vietnam. The final act of unification would have been welcomed by the first Prime Minister of North Vietnam Nyguen Ai Quoc who was known to the world as Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969). Older Vietanemse sometimes refer to him as “Uncle Ho”, a benevolent figure who’s life as devoted to completely independence in Indochina from French and Chinese rule. Ho Chih Minh has always come across as a slightly mysterious figure and some parts of his life are still unknown. However, author William Duiker provides an informative and thought-provoking biography that explains Ho’s life and the true tragedy of the Vietnam War.
In 1976, Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chih Minh City in honor of Uncle Ho. It was a fitting tribute to the man who truly believed in one Vietnam and made it his purpose to see it come to pass. But just who was the real Ho Chih Minh? One adjective is surely not enough to describe this mysterious figures whom we learn about deeply in this biography. The author has exhaustive researched the book and his recreation of the key events in Ho’s life during his evolution into a world leader provide the picture needed for readers to understand the thoughts behind his decisions and actions.
Familiarity with the Vietnamese language and/or Vietnamese history is not required but possession of either or one of them may result in the book becoming a more enjoyable read. I found the story easy to follow and from the start, Ho’s intrigue is irresistable. Some readers might be thrown off by the number of Vietnamese names in particular the name Nguyen which appears frequently in the first half of the book. There are other names as well, including several used by Ho Chih Minh. And the name by which he was internationally known has its own back story that the author makes sure to cover.
As I read through the book, I began to see that the key to understanding Ho Chih Minh undoubtedly begins in the 1920s and 1930s when France kept Indochina under strict rule. The young revolutionary then known as Nyugen Ai Quoc, had determined from a young age that Vietnamese Independence was the only thing that matter. After surrender in World War II, the Japanese military was forced to significant troops from previously occupied territory across Asia. The power vacuum created by Japanese withdrawal provided the opening needed for the August Revolution which changed history for good and set the stage for many battles to come.
Ho’s actions following the war and Washington’s responses or lack thereof are some of the most sobering moments in the book and instantly caused me to think of my uncle who served in the Vietnam War. Anyone who has long sought to understand why the United States became involved in Vietnam will find this book enjoyable. At times I was speechless as I read and at one point back to understand how a war could have been prevented nearly 20 years before happening. This part of the book is simply mind-blowing. The battles within the U.S. State Department are just surreal and tragically, warnings given by those who foresaw a deadly war coming in the future, were largely ignored. I do wonder what would have changed had North Vietnam and Washington been able to find common ground in the wake of World War II. From the very start, Washington never seemed to fully grasp what it meant to be Vietnamese for Ho and other party members determined to resist the French and other nations committed to colonial rule in Southeast Asia.
There are some parts of Ho’s life that show up on rare occasion in the story. In fact readers will notice the lack of several things typically found in a biography. However, Duiker does points out that Ho Chih Minh was a man of many secrets and some records have probably been lost for good. Perhaps that is by design or just unfortunate evens. The lack of romance in Ho’s life, particularlly after the August Revolution is certainly one of the more puzzling aspects of the story. And even for the women that do enter his life, their time is brief for Ho has his mind set on Vietnamese independence at all costs.
The Vietnam War rightfully enters the story towards the end of the book. However, Duiker does not go off course and devote too much time to it. I believe that was a good approach because by extensively discussing the war, it would have distracted from Ho’s personal story. Further, Ho died in 1969, several years before the fighting ended. And in his later years, his duties had been adjusted by party members who were responsible for the American threat and the development of a new Vietnam. Regardless, I believe that it is safe to say that there can be no discussion of modern day Vietnam with taking a long look at the life of Uncle Ho that stretched across several continents, included several spoken languages, arrests, questions of paternity and a battle against colonialism. The Vietnamese movement for independence remains one of the most important struggles in world history and in the process, Ho Chih Minh went from radical student to a leader on the world stage.