The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 11

Inside Vietnam in the late 1920s, the revolutionary climate was bleak, as some impatient and impulsive nationalists provoked fierce French repression. In 1929, an agent of one of the most aggressive groups, the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, or VNQDD, created by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists, assassinated Bazin, the hated recruiter of cheap labor, as he was leaving his mistress’s house in Hanoi. The French police arrested scores of VNQDD activists and sympathizers. The movement suffered even more the next year, when its militants incited Vietnamese colonial soldiers to mutiny against their French officers at Yenbay, a garrison town in Tonkin. After killing their superiors, the rebels held out for a night, but fresh French forces arrived, and the retribution was savage. The insurgent troops were executed then and there, and a dozen VNQDD leaders lost their heads on the guillotine. Meanwhile, foreshadowing Vietnam wars to come, French aircraft bombed villages suspected of hiding partisans, and the Foreign Legion gunned down their inhabitants, often indiscriminately. Rural revolts in several other places prompted Edouard Daladier, a future prime minister, to warn the French parliament: “For the first time in a generation armed and unarmed peasants have arisen in Viet¬nam to press their demands on the French administration.”
The disorder was aggravated by the economic depression of the 1930s. World rice and rubber prices plummeted and production was cut. Unemployed workers staged strikes, and hungry peasants in many areas seized estates and took over village councils. In Ho’s native Nghe An province, they even set up a “soviet.” Ho Chi Minh realized that the moment had come to form a cohesive Communist party out of the three rival Communist factions. He went from Bangkok to Hong Kong. There, in June 1929, he assembled different factional leaders at a local football stadium during a match to avoid detection by the British colonial police and persuaded them to close ranks. They labeled the new movement the Indochinese Communist party, its name re¬flecting the ambition of the dynamic Vietnamese to extend their reach over Cambodia and Laos. Its program called for Vietnamese inde¬pendence and a proletarian government—a far cry from Ho’s moderate requests in 1919 of Woodrow Wilson.
At that stage, Ho went through another one of the adventures that make his life seem like the subject of a movie thriller. The Hoag Kong police, on a periodic sweep of political troublemakers, arrested him. But a local British lawyer, Frank Loseby, obtained his release on a writ of habeas corpus, a decision upheld by Sir Stafford Cripps, then solicitor general of the Labour government in London. A British doc¬tor had diagnosed Ho as tubercular and now generously sent him to a sanatorium in Britain. The persistent Hong Kong police, however, charged him with illegal departure and had him extradited from Sin¬gapore, where his ship had stopped, to Hong Kong, where they put him in a prison infirmary. This time he escaped to China, having persuaded a hospital employee to report him dead. His obituary ap¬peared in the Soviet press and elsewhere, and the French authorities closed his file with the notation: “Died in a Hong Kong jail. ”
Other Communists inside Vietnam were less fortunate. Pham Van Dong and Le Duc Tho, for example, spent years on the prison island of Poulo Condore. Held in underground cells, they suffered from heat, humidity and disease. Yet they kept up their morale by teaching each other languages, literature and science, and, in a peculiar tribute to their French jailers, they produced a Moliere comedy in handmade costumes and wigs confected from mop heads.
In 1932, responding to pressure from liberal opinion in France, the colonial administration loosened the reins on Bao Dai, the eighteen- year-old emperor, who hoped to promote reforms. But Bao Dai, though intelligent, lacked the courage to articulate his ideas. Soon he lost his enthusiasm and went back to hunting, gambling and wench¬ing, which delighted the French. He also lost an able and honest courtier, Ngo Dinh Diem, whose nationalist determination could not abide Bao Dai’s weakness and profligacy.
Ho, the wanderer, meanwhile continued to wander through the 1930s, leaving a trail of legends behind him. One year he would be in Moscow, then China, then in the Soviet Union again—a traveler for weeks aboard cramped freighters that stopped at Asian, African and Mediterranean ports; or jammed into a squalid compartmerit of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the temperatures either freezing or torrid, the food inedible, and the air polluted by the alcoholic breath of drun¬ken Russians. On one occasion, he trekked for five days across the mountains of central China to the Chinese Communist stronghold in the caves of Yenan. He was no longer the young seaman of the Amiral Latouche Treville, but a man approaching fifty, tubercular and un¬doubtedly plagued as well by amebic dysentery and recurrent malaria. A French Communist agent who worked with him then afterward recalled: “He was taut and quivering, with only one thought in his head, his country, Vietnam.”
Ho cultivated a reputation for ascetic celibacy during those years, but reality may have been different. One old comrade has claimed that the Russians furnished him with a “wife” in Moscow. A Com¬munist official in Hanoi told me in 1981 that Ho had loved a Chinese woman, a doctor, who died before they could marry. And yet another story has it that General Lung Yun, the warlord of Yunnan province, who frequently lodged Ho on his estate in Kunming, arranged a liaison for him with a Chinese woman. Whatever the truth, Ho cultivated the image of himself as Uncle Ho, his passions devoted solely to his national family.
In 1940, a tidal wave swept over Southeast Asia. The Japanese, pouring down from China, their offensive timed to Germany’s con¬quest of France, crushed the French administration in Vietnam. They pushed on, driving the British from Malaya, the Dutch from Indo¬nesia, the United States from the Philippines. An Asian nation had destroyed European colonialism.
Native nationalists throughout Southeast Asia rallied to Japan, but Ho feared the Japanese wolf as much as he opposed the French tiger. He aligned himself instead with the Allies, expecting them to defeat Japan, oust the discredited French from Vietnam and reward his coun¬try with independence. The strategy strained his allegiance to the Soviet Union, which had signed a self-serving pact with Germany and forbade Communists everywhere to resist the Axis powers. But Ho’s sole concern was Vietnam.
In early 1941, disguised as a Chinese journalist, he went by foot and sampan into southern China, then slipped across the border back into Vietnam—his first return in thirty years. A comrade had found a cave near Pac Bo, a village nestled amid the strange northern land¬scape of limestone hills. There Ho met confederates like Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap. They called him Uncle, their attitude reverent yet familiar. In the Confucian spirit, he was the respected elder.
The time had come, Ho told them, to form a broad front of “patriots of all ages and all types, peasants, workers, merchants and soldiers,” to fight both the Japanese and the French then collaborating with Japan, just as the Vichy regime in France obeyed Germany’s dictates. The new organization, led by Communists, appealed to Vietnamese na¬tionalist sentiment. They called it the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, the Vietnam Independence League—soon to be simply the Vietminh. Ho borrowed from the movement his official pseudonym, Ho Chi Minh—roughly, Bringer of Light. But decades of dark violence lay ahead.

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