Ho Chi Minh has remained a shadowy individual for a long time. Vietnamese official chronicles tend to eulogize him as a statesman totally devoted to the reunification and independence of his country. These accounts offer few details about Ho Chi Minh’s private emotions and life and are intended to preserve Ho’s official image as “Uncle Ho,” a selfless national leader completely dedicated to the interests and well-being of his compatriots. Ho Chi Minh’s detractors, however, tend to condemn him as a brutal, cold-blooded dictator intent on imposing a Stalinist gulag on Vietnam. Pierre Brocheux’s biography, first published in French in 2003, is scholarly and judicious and is a much-needed antidote to the prejudiced and stereotyped views of Ho Chi Minh. Brocheux has made good use of the Vietnamese and Chinese documents available up to 2003 to craft a balanced, convincing portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
Echoing the judgment of William Duiker (an earlier biographer of Ho Chi Minh), who called Ho “half Lenin and half Gandhi,” Brocheux also compares Ho Chi [End Page 139] Minh to Gandhi, praising both men for possessing “the same calm audacity” (p. 178) to demand independence from colonial powers. What motivated Ho Chi Minh? On this critical question, Brocheux’s answer is insightful. He attributes Ho’s activities to two intellectual wellsprings: Confucian humanism and Marxist-Leninist Communism. According to Brocheux, “Ho was also steeped in the perennial Sino-Vietnamese philosophy that blended Confucianism . . . with Buddhism and Taoism. In sum, Ho retained his original education and then closely linked it with Leninist theory, which essentially defines the strategy and tactics of revolution and the taking of political power” (pp. 185–186).
Brocheux’s analysis of the impact of the Sino-Soviet split on the leadership of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party (VWP) is fascinating. He demonstrates that the Sino-Soviet dispute triggered intense debate within the VWP Politburo about the correct position to assume and that Ho Chi Minh preferred to maintain an equal balance between China and the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s, according to Brocheux, Ho Chi Minh and his confidence man, Vo Nguyen Giap, were actually relegated to the sidelines by the leading trio of Le Duan, Le Duc Tho, and Nguyen Chi Thanh, who controlled the Politburo. Citing Chinese sources, Brocheux describes the Chinese reaction to Ho Chi Minh’s mediation effort in the Sino-Soviet rift: Liu Shaoqi criticized Ho as a “rightist.”
The lack of further documents renders some of Brocheux’s treatments fragmentary and incomplete. For instance, he mentions that Ho Chi Minh’s last trip to the Soviet Union was in 1961, but he does not explain the purposes and results of the visit.
Since the original publication of Brocheux’s volume in 2003, fresh documents have emerged from the archives of the former Communist governments in Eastern Europe. These materials shed new light on the dilemma that the VWP confronted when the Sino-Soviet quarrel escalated and on the marginalization of Ho Chi Minh within the VWP ruling circle. On the issue of Ho Chi Minh’s last trip to the Soviet Union in 1961, which Brocheux mentions but fails to elaborate, new East European documents provide clues. According to recently declassified Albanian documents (as translated and published in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin), Ho Chi Minh traveled to Moscow in the summer of 1961 to mediate the Soviet-Albanian dispute. The Chinese opposed Ho’s efforts, blaming him for not standing firm against Soviet revisionism. Ho’s 1961 Moscow journey was a continuation of his attempt to restore unity within the international Communist camp, a project that he launched in the summer of 1960 when he visited both China and the Soviet Union in an attempt to patch up the differences between the two Communist giants. The Albanian documents indicate that the Chinese were fully aware of the split within the VWP leadership on the issue of anti-revisionism and that they informed the Albanians that Ho Chi Minh’s views did not represent the opinion of...