Thursday, September 29, 2011

Review: Ho Chi Minh A Life by William J. Duiker

Ho Chi Minh is one of those historical figures that will always have a cloud of mystery surrounding their lives. Ive read a lot about Ho Chi Minh from multiple sources and with all of them put together I didn't know half of what I learned from reading this book.

I read a few reviews of this book before reading it and one person was upset that the author didn't go into enough details about the Vietnam war. I think he went into enough detail of Uncle Ho's life during the Vietnamese war with out focusing too much on war details and it balanced out quite nice.

Ive always seen Uncle Ho as a mixture between a Vietnamese nationalist and communist. After reading this book I believe he was truly both. Though at times through out the book it seems as though Ho Chi Minh was having second thoughts about communism. This was mainly because the Vietminh during WW2 were largely ignored by the USSR. In fact through out the book the author points out how the USSR failed to help the Vietnamese struggle. Uncle Ho said himself that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had received more assistance from the US than that from the USSR through the course of the war(page 342).

This was all despite the fact that Ho Chi Minh had served as a Comintern for several years. This lead to a very confusing atmosphere within the Vietnamese independence movement. At the National People's Congress of the Vietminh front on August 16th 1945 in Tan Trao the meeting took place under portraits of Lenin, Chairman Mao and General Claire Chennault (a US general)(page 305).

I was hoping that upon reading this book that I would know more about the uprising against the French in Vietnam. This book goes into great detail about Ho Chi Minh's life before and during the french resistance. Uncle Ho spent most of the planning years in south China, collecting assistance and gathering their forces. I was surprised to read that the wife of Sun Yat-sen (the ex-leader of the KMT) actually was very close to the CPC and even helped Uncle Ho while he was in China (page 210).

Another thing that stuck out in this book was Uncle Ho's dislike for Trotskyist. Uncle Ho saw Trots as "Utopian" and "unrealistic" He said to his Indochinese communist party comrades "The Trotskyist have betrayed their reactionary essence everywhere, and in Vietnam as well. our party must dissociate itself from them most resolutely. There must be no compromises."(page 226).

He had even sent a letter from China to the Central Committee of the ICP in 1938 and in point four of this letter Uncle Ho wrote: "We can not make any alliance with or any concession to the Trotskyite group. We must do everything possible to lay bare their faces as the running dogs of the fascist and annihilate them politically"(page 235)

Some Trotskyist were even arrested and executed by the ICP(page 320).

Something I took away from this book was the great amount of help that the DRV received from the CCP and how hard Mao and other leaders from China worked to help the Vietminh and later the Vietcong defeat their oppressors. Especially seeing as how for almost a decade the USSR ignored the Vietnamese people (periodically page 416-419).

China even made great sacrifices at their own cost to help the DRV, granting the DRV diplomatic recognition knowing that its relations with France and western nations in general would suffer because of it (page 420). Though eventually Stalin agreed to send assistance to Vietnam after WW2 "Because of limits of natural conditions, it will be mainly China that helps you. What China lacks we will provide."-Stalin. To which Mao assures Ho Chi Minh "Whatever China has and Vietnam needs, we will provide"-Mao. On the train ride home Mao told Uncle Ho that "Getting something from Stalin is like taking meat from the mouth of a tiger." (page422).

During the Vietnam war between the US and the Vietcong forces, many farmers had to lay down their farm equipment to go and fight in the war. This lead to a shortage of food in the DRV. But again the Chinese Communist came to the aid of the DRV and the Vietcong, saving many from starvation during the war by sending generous amounts of rice to the DRV (page 553).

It was because of the endless help of the CPC that the DRV chose the Chinese model of socialism (page 428) over that of the USSR in its earlier years before the CPC moved away from its Maoist and more democratic model and became hostile towards Vietnam.

One theme through out the book, that you can tell the author really wanted an answer to in his research was if Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or a communist. I think the author was correct when towards the end of the book when he claims that Ho Chi Minh was some one who wanted national independence for Vietnam. He is also correct I believe in saying that Ho Chi Minh was both a nationalist and a communist. Even if he was a nationalist before a communist one can not discount his many denunciations of world capitalist and imperialism in general. One also has to believe that a non-communist would have never implemented the extreme land reform that the DRV did with such a great success. The land reform program helped to radicalize the peasantry and motivate them to fight against the landlord and rich peasant classes(page 488).

Over all the book was easy to read and the series of events was easy to follow and made sense when reading it, I never felt confused as to what year it was or what country Uncle Ho was in. I was happy how in-dept the book went into about his Comintern years with such great detail.

When reading this book I could really tell that the author was passionate about this writing. I also could tell that he worked very hard on gathering facts from many different sources to write this book. There were point in the book where I could simply never put it down. I lost quite a few hours of sleep to this book and I'm glad I did.

If I had to rate this book from 1 to 10 I'd give it a 8.9, and I don't give easy ratings to anything. This is one of the best biography books Ive ever read. Second only to "Che: A Revolutionary Life". And that says a lot, thank you for writing this book Mr. Duiker it is a great achievement.

(all page numbers taken from paperback version)

Review written by: Dustin Slagle

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