The private lives of few of the twentieth century’s leading political figures is as mysterious as that of Ho Chi Minh. The stick-thin ascetic continues to be regarded with awe in a country in which so few of its young people really know who he was or what he achieved. The older Vietnamese also have little real knowledge of Ho the man as opposed to Ho the great leader of the revolution against oppression.
The main contours of his life are known but many details remain vague. Those details – his real name, his marriage if any, his family relationships – are often considered in the western bourgeois sensibility. Yet in a Communist context, these are the kinds of attachments which may need to be broken in order for the revolution to succeed. Perhaps by embodying personal sacrifices in this way, Ho was demonstrating his own legitimacy as leader of the revolution.
Born into a family of some education and standing, the young Ho was continually struck by the depredations of French colonialism. While the French maintained that the Vietnamese were benefiting from French civilization and culture, on the basis that they were incapable of ruling themselves in a modern manner, Ho once asked ‘For what reason should we ever feel grateful to the French?’
In truth, the Vietnamese, who had struggled for freedom from Chinese domination throughout history, valued freedom far more than any specious arguments of how things were improved by foreign control of the country and its people, whether by Chinese, French or American.
As a young man, Ho had the chance to travel widely around the world, certainly travelling throughout Europe and parts of Africa and probably America as well. His English and French language skills were well-developed. Aware of the oppression of the working peoples he found in every country, Ho was ever more convinced of the need for revolution. He wrote about the oppression he witnessed and the need for change under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc – a name meaning Nguyen (a very common name lending anonymity) ‘The Patriot.’
He was brought to the attention of the authorities, inevitably, and for years was subject to surveillance and occasional interrogation and detention. In China, he was held for over a year in terrible conditions in which he seems to have suffered from some form of tuberculosis. It was reported that he had died and for years people believed that Nguyen Ai Quoc was no more. Ultimately, Ho reinvented himself as Ho Chi Minh- Ho the Enlightened – almost as if he were a humble Messiah, returning from death to redeem his possible.