HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Cult of Personality

"To provide for the next 10 years, we nurture a field of seeds. To provide for the next 100, we nurture human resources" - Quote from Ho Chi Minh, displayed on the wall of the assembly hall at my school.

The title of this post doesn't refer to the excellent song of the same name by Living Colour, the only all-black hard rock band I can think of, but rather the "cult of personality" that has been built up around the legacy of Ho Chi Minh here in Vietnam. Born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890, Ho has taken on a god-like status here, thanks to what he accomplished before his death in 1969. The list certainly is impressive.

Nguyen lived in the U.S. from 1912 to 1913, before moving on to Europe. In post-Word War I France he turned to Communism and lobbied for an independent Vietnam at the Versailles conference. His plea was denied, and Nguyen moved to the Soviet Union, where he became further involved with the international Communist movement and eventually met Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, arguably the most influential communist political leaders in history. His longing for a free Vietnam brought him back to the country in 1941, when he took command of the Viet Minh independence movement and adopted the nom de guerre Ho Chi Minh, which basically means "bringer of light." The Viet Minh were opposed to the French colonial occupation, and Ho's astute leadership turned the organization into one of the most successful guerilla movements ever.

On September 2, 1945 Ho read the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam at a public square in Hanoi, putting him directly at odds with the French occupation regime. Years of warfare followed this declaration, culminating in the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu, near Vietnam's border with Laos, where the Viet Minh destroyed France's expeditionary army. This victory signaled the end of the occupation and boosted Ho's worldwide fame. The negotiations following the battle are known as the Geneva Accords, and they allowed non-communist forces to move to the south of Vietnam, while Ho was allowed to esablish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi, a single-party Communist state which he became president of. (Isn't it funny how the least democratic countries use that word? For example, the official name of North Korea is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Strange.)

I'm skipping a lot of details here but as the relationship between North and South Vietnam deteriorated and America became involved Ho's importance increased. Once the war began his leadership and historic legacy pushed his troops to carry on despite the massive losses they incurred from the Americans. It is obvious that Ho was a major problem for the American military, so much so that the guerilla supply route from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, which actually ran through Laos for most of its length, was called the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Thousands of American bombing runs failed to close the trail, as did an Air Force experiment that tried to use cloud seeding to lengthen the monsoon season over the path. In a way, the resiliency of the trail mirrored the man it shared a name with.

Ho's keen political senses were on full display just before his death - at a Communist Party meeting officials recognized that the war was not going well, but Ho knew that public oponion in the U.S. was turning, so he decided to launch the Tet Offensive, during which North Vietnamese forces struck U.S. positions throughout South Vietnam. The offensive was a military disaster that left tens of thousands of NVA and VC soldiers dead, but the shock of the fighting finally turned Americans completely against the war. Ho died before the war ended, but he must have known that his actions had laid the foundation for Communist victory.

Today the government-enforced admiration for Ho Chi Minh, or "Uncle Ho" as he is often called, is unmissable. His stoic visage stares out from billboards and streetsigns, and his bust can be found in many public buildings. His face adorns every single currency bill - surely Ho would find it ironic that his likeness is now used whenever you buy something in thoroughly non-communist modern Saigon. Which was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 in honor of the leader of Vietnam's independence movement. This would be the equivalent of changing the name of New York City to George Washington City.
It's hard to forget the man when he looks at you whenever you buy something.
Observing this well-manicured cult of personality is strange in two ways. First, as an American it feels a little odd to see the man whose leadership led to the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in our ill-fated war adored and honored everywhere. Nearly every town or city in Vietnam has either a statue dedicated to Ho or an entire museum displaying some aspect of his life. Secondly, I am not used to the fact that speaking against someone can get you into serious trouble. In the current uncivil political climate of the U.S. you can call President Obama a Socialist Communist Fascist closet-Muslim Hitler-reborn athiest racist that isn't even an American citizen and some people will believe you, despite the many paradoxes inherent in that cominbation of terms. You also will not get arrested or forced into house arrest thanks to the First Amendment, although hopefully someone would at least call you an idiot. If you were to publicly say that about Ho Chi Minh here I don't even want to know what would happen. This fact makes me appreciate certain aspects of life in the U.S., even if the state of domestic politics at the moment is enough to make one nauseous.

Ho Chi Minh's revered status in Vietnam makes him one of history's most honored men, at least within a given country - right up there with Mao in China and Castro in Cuba. There is good reason for this, since Vietnam would not be what it is today without him. Even though the Vietnamese governments of the past two decades have mostly abandoned Uncle Ho's economic policies, the fact remains that his leadership forced out armies of two of the most powerful countries in history. Even though his personal beliefs were antithetical to most Americans, his story remains endlessly fascinating, and a subject more people should read about, especially because I left out a lot of history in this post. Now, I need to go pick up my new debit card so I can get 500,000 Ho Chi Minh faces from the ATM.

4 comments:

  1. You should come with us to trivia, I feel like you would be really good at it. Hahaha.

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  2. Haha, well a lot of this was thanks to Wikipedia, but I'm always up for some trivia.

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  3. Thank you for posting an exciting and enjoyable to read blog on your experiences in Vietnam. May I suggest William J. Duiker's 2000 biography "Ho Chi Minh: A Life?" Your comment "[o]nce the war began his leadership and historic legacy pushed his troops to carry on despite the massive losses they incurred from the Americans," is very true about his legacy, but less so about his leadership. As I understand from Duiker's book, the NV Politburo ruled the country and directed war policy by 1960 with little regard for Ho Chi Minh's input.
    Please keep up the keen observations and fine writing!

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  4. Thanks for the recommendation, I will look into the book. Also, thanks for the bit about Ho's leadership. Glad you like the blog and thanks for the compliments!

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