The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 9

Though a prolific pamphleteer, Ho never kept diaries, wrote mem¬oirs or related his experiences to a biographer, as Mao Zedong did to the American journalist Edgar Snow. His life is therefore filled with mysteries, among them his motives for going to Europe rather than to Japan, then a beacon for Asian nationalists. Perhaps he foresaw then that to count on thejapanese against the French would be, as he warned later, to “drive the tiger out the front door while letting the wolf in through the back.” Or perhaps, as a comrade explained, he hoped to learn from the West how to fight against the West.
He spent nearly three years at sea, stopping at ports like Bombay, Oran and Le Havre, where he worked briefly as a gardener for his ship’s captain. In 1913, employed aboard another French vessel, he crossed the Atlantic, visiting Boston and San Francisco before settling in Brooklyn as an itinerant laborer. The skyscrapers of Manhattan dazzled him as emblems of Western industrial progress. He ventured into Harlem, and he was impressed by the fact that Chinese immi¬grants to the New World, with whom he chatted in Cantonese, could claim legal protection even though they were barred from American citizenship. When he proclaimed Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945, his speech would feature an excerpt from the American Dec¬laration of Independence.
After almost a year in the United States, he sailed to London, where he found a job in the kitchen of the elegant Carlton Hotel, whose renowned chef, Georges Auguste Escoffier, promoted him to assistant pastry cook. Now known as Nguyen Tat Thanh, he began to flirt with politics, meeting Irish nationalists, Fabian socialists and Chinese and Indian workers. He improved his English and eventually spoke it fluently, along with Russian and at least three Chinese dialects be¬sides French and Vietnamese.
But Paris beckoned. A hundred thousand Vietnamese had arrived in France during World War I as soldiers and laborers, and they were ripe for conversion. Ho adoped a militant new name, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot. He was to remain in Paris for six years, combining his conspiratorial activities with extraordinarily eclectic cultural pursuits. In 1954, as a young correspondent in Time maga¬zine’s Paris bureau, I was assigned to retrace Ho’s footsteps during the years he resided in the French capital. There were still, surprisingly, many French who remembered him—including my landlord, Robert- Jean Longuet, the son of Jean Longuet, a Socialist party politician of the 1920s and the great-grandson of Karl Marx. I began my research with Leo Poldes, an elegant and witty gentleman who had run the Club du Faubourg, a polite debating society.
At the club, whose weekly sessions he attended, Ho was entranced by lectures on fashionable occult topics like reincarnation and the metempsychosis of the soul, which suggested to some members that death preoccupied him. One evening in 1921, he disputed with Dr. Emile Coué, the eminent hypnotist, and scoffed at Coue’s theory that success and happiness lay in repeating the formula “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.” At the Club du Faubourg, too, Ho staged his play, The Bamboo Dragon, a merciless portrayal of an imaginary Asian king, patterned on the corrupt puppet Vietnamese emperor Khai Dinh. The play’s single performance was—as Leo Poldes pompously recalled to me thirty years later—“enlivened by Aristophanic verve and not lacking in scenic qualities.”
Ho Chi Minh even wrote an article for a movie magazine, Cinegraph, under the pseudonym Guy N’Qua. In May 1922, the French boxer Georges Carpentier trounced the English middleweight champion Ted Lewis in London, and Ho indignantly denounced Parisian sports- writers for truffling their dispatches with what today are referred to as Franglais terms like “le manager” and “le challenger. ” He urged Prime Minister Raymond Poincare to ban foreign words from the French press. Ho displayed the same French cultural chauvinism in an open letter to the Emperor Khai Dinh, the subject of his play, who was then touring France. Besides being the land of racetracks, operas and other sights shown to foreign dignitaries, Ho said floridly, France was the nation of Voltaire and Victor Hugo, who personified the “spirit of brotherhood and noble love of peace” that pervaded the French people.
But while Ho was converted by France’s mission civilisatrice, he was also being converted to the revolution. In Paris, the quintessential city of freedom and discretion, he could lead a double life.
One of his early leftist acquaintances was Jules Raveau, a veteran Marxist who had hobnobbed with Lenin before the Russian Revo¬lution. He would meet him in the dusty offices of La Vie Ouvriere, a labor journal located in a working-class neighborhood, and there Ra¬veau told stirring stories of Europe’s socialist struggles, such as battles at the barricades of Paris in 1848 or the martyrdom of the Communards in 1871. Ho also spent an occasional evening at a decrepit proletarian hostel run by Voltaire and Renan Radi, brothers who gave him Soviet books and tracts. Another comrade, Jacques Sternel, the editor of an obscure radical weekly, recalled an emotional Ho. “Once,” Sternel told me, “he was so overwhelmed by an article that I had written that he asked to kiss my cheek.”
In 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson arrived at Versailles for the conference that formally ended World War I, Ho drafted a state¬ment to hand him. Inspired by Wilson’s famous doctrine of self- determination, he wrote that “all subject peoples are filled with hope by the prospect that an era of right and justice is opening to them . . . in the struggle of civilization against barbarism.” His appeal to Wilson modestly requested constitutional government, democratic freedoms and other reforms for Vietnam—conspicuously omitting any reference to independence. Ho never saw Wilson, whose principles presumably applied only to Europe, but his gesture attracted the at¬tention of French Socialists like Jean Longuet and Leon Blum, later prime minister. Critics of colonialism, they invited Ho to join them, and, as “representative from Indochina,” he attended their congress held in December 1920 at Tours, a charming town in the Loire River valley. It was a decisive moment in his career.

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