William J. Duiker, retired from the history department at Penn State, was a foreign service officer at the American Embassy in Saigon in the mid-1960’s and is the leading authority on the life of Ho Chi Minh. This biography, supported by eighty-eight pages of dense notes, follows his nine previous books on Vietnam and should be the standard work on Ho Chi Minh for a long while.
With the British entrenched in India and Burma in the nineteenth century, France bullied the young Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc into ceding in 1862 the three southern provinces that became known as Cochin China, and in 1885 it took over the northern province of Tonkin and the central region of Annam. By the century’s end, Vietnam was in effect a French possession.
The village of Kim Lien is located in the middle of the central Vietnamese province of Nghe An, whose inhabitants were known as “the buffalos of Nghe An” for their traditional rebelliousness against the French. One of the most respected and scholarly of Kim Lien’s villagers was Nguyen Sinh Sac, who in 1883 married Hoang Thi Loan, soon the mother of first a daughter, then a son, and on May 19, 1890, a second son, Nguyen Sinh Cung. When Cung was eleven, his so-called “milk name” was dropped and he became Nguyen Tat Thanh, or “or he who will succeed.”
Thanh was a bright young man and in 1907 entered the Franco-Vietnamese National Academy in Hué, from which he was soon dismissed because of his protest activities. By 1910 he was teaching the writings of the French philosophes at a school in the coastal town of Phan Thiet, which he soon left for Saigon, where in 1911, under the name of Ba, he signed up as an assistant cook on a ship and apparently spent most of two years at sea. During his maritime period, Thanh visited many countries in Africa, where he was shocked by the horrors of colonialism. Thanh’s activities for the next decade are obscure. After a few months in the United States, he probably lived in England during World War I, turning up perhaps as early as 1917 in Paris, where he assumed the name Nguyen Ai Quoc.
Duiker identifies the Second Comintern Congress in Paris in 1920 as the pivotal event that turned Nguyen Ai Quoc into a Marxist revolutionary, for it was on that occasion that he heard a presentation of Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions.” Lenin argued that Communist parties in the West should align themselves with nationalist movements against colonial regimes, and from then on the pragmatic revolutionary was ready to seek help anywhere in achieving Vietnam’s freedom. Thanks to the impression he made on Communist organizers in Paris, Quoc was invited in 1924 to work for the Comintern in Moscow, where he met figures such as Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, Zhou Enlai, and Chiang Kai-Shek and began two decades of frequent moves that would make him an exasperating shadow to security services in China and Vietnam. In November, 1924, Quoc left Moscow for Canton, where he soon formed the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League devoted to nationalism and social revolution. Indoctrination in Marxist-Leninist ideas was accomplished in the Special Political Institute for the Vietnamese Revolution, which by 1929 had dispatched seventeen hundred disciples throughout Vietnam.
The league was superseded by a formal Communist Party in 1930, the year that Quoc began serving as the Comintern’s southern bureau representative in Hong Kong. In June, 1931, British police arrested Quoc in his flat in Kowloon as part of a sweep to capture Communists throughout eastern Asia. When released on December 22, Quoc traveled immediately to Singapore, was held again for two weeks, and finally by various ruses got to Shanghai, from where he took a ship to Vladivostok and eventually arrived by train in Moscow in the spring of 1934.
Quoc’s next four years in Moscow are mostly a mystery, as he seemed to be suspended in a purgatory of inactivity. These were the years of the show trials, and he was probably in some danger himself. Moreover, party policy was becoming more lenient toward bourgeois nationalists and many issues were unsettled at the top. In late 1938, however, Quoc was permitted to return to China, where Duiker thinks he was probably ordered to report on the upheaval following the Long March in 1934 but certainly saw his main goal as furthering the revolution in Vietnam.
The nonaggression pact between Moscow and Berlin, accompanied by the Japanese advance into Indochina, created a fluid situation that Quoc and his confederates were quick to exploit. Keeping his distance from the reactionary Chiang Kai-Shek, Quoc organized the Vietminh Front, which was guided by the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) but concealed the ICP’s role to quiet anti-Communist factions. With the party’s operations in Indochina smashed by the French, its leaders decided to regroup with external headquarters in Jingxi, just over the border from Vietnam. In January, 1941, Quoc led half the group across the border on a forty-mile trek through mountains and jungle to a cave half a mile from China near the village of Pac Bo. Despite the harsh living conditions, the band of dedicated revolutionaries later described the period as memorable, a time rich in the satisfaction of working together toward an ideal.
At the eighth plenum of the ICP, convened at Pac Bo in May, 1941, Quoc established a program...
(The entire section is 2203 words.)