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Special Section: They Made a Revolution

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I think the Americans greatly underestimate the character of the Vietnamese people. We have always shown great determination when faced with a foreign invader. —Ho Chi Minh to Bernard Fall, Hanoi, 1962

THE lights went out in Viet Nam on a quiet evening in December 1946. Ho Chi Minh, bitterly realizing that his months of negotiation for independence from the French had failed, ordered that the electrical plants all over the country be mined; at 8 o’clock that night nearly all of them blew up simultaneously. That same evening, Viet Minh troops attacked French garrisons North and South. The war for independence was under way, and the precision of its inception was to be echoed for the next 26 years.

Determination, organization, passion: all were key elements of Ho’s extraordinarily complicated personality, as they were of the close little band of men he chose to help lead his crusade. Le Duan, Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong—all sworn to create a Viet Nam free of foreign control, all dedicated Communists. But they were Communists of a distinctly nationalist breed. Influenced though they were by the writings of Marx and Lenin, all seemed to know that neither Peking nor Moscow could win their war for them.

These revolutionaries shared roughly similar origins: mostly from middle-class families, well educated, born before World War I. Their fathers were teachers or government officials (save for Le Duan), and in their formative years they learned at least distaste, more often hatred for the French colonial rulers. All spent months and years in prison and exile for their beliefs. Ho himself, when he returned to Viet Nam in February 1941, had been away from his native land for 30 years, and the name Ho Chi Minh was only the last in a bewildering list of pseudonyms. Born Nguyen That Thanh (which means He Who Will Be Victorious), he became Nguyen Ai Quoc (He Who Loves His Country) during his poverty-ridden years in Paris. Later, during his travels between China and Moscow, where he studied at the revolutionary University of the Toilers of the East, he was known for a while as Nguyen O Phap (He Who Hates the French).

It was his Paris experience, in fact, that turned Ho against France. His brief, futile efforts on behalf of Vietnamese independence at the Versailles Peace Conference led him past socialism, which promised much for Asians but actually did nothing, to Communism. In December 1920, attracted by the professed ideals of the Russian Revolution, he became a founding member of the French Communist Party.

For two decades, Ho traveled through Asia, never daring to set foot in his native Viet Nam, gradually spending more and more time in South China, where other Vietnamese exiles gathered round him. In February 1930, after a series of meetings in and near Hong Kong, Ho was able to reconcile the wildly divergent ideas of his fellow exiles and form the Indochinese Communist Party. With him during the China years were Le Duan, Giap and Pham, all brilliant and promising young men.

Closest to Ho, and perhaps the brightest of all his associates, was Pham Van Dong, now Premier of North Viet Nam. Son of a high-ranking mandarin, Pham was educated in Hué and Hanoi, joined Ho in Canton in 1925. The next year he was sent back to Viet Nam to organize party cells. Arrested by the French in 1930, Pham spent six years at hard labor in a penal colony, then fled to China to rejoin his leader. When Ho was jailed by the Nationalist Chinese from 1942 to 1943, Pham took over the leadership of the independence movement, and after Ho’s release he eventually settled into the job he still holds: the party’s top administrator.

Equally well organized and considerably more fiery is General Giap, who joined Ho in China in 1940. A year later he was ordered to establish the Viet Minh army. From a raggle-taggle beginning came the forces that overwhelmed the French at Dien Bien Phu and fought American troops to a standstill. Giap’s classic work on guerrilla warfare (People’s War, People’s Army) is essentially a Vietnamese variation on the military doctrines of Mao Tse-tung, stressing, as does Mao, the vital importance of broad popular support. Asked in 1964 about the situation in South Viet Nam, Giap replied: “We are in no hurry. The longer we wait, the greater will be the Americans’ defeat.”

In general charge of the political campaign in the South is Communist Party Secretary Le Duan. Considerably less known in the West than his comrades, he prefers the role of éminence grise; he is the only one of North Viet Nam’s revolutionary leaders who is of lower-class stock. Le Duan took responsibility for the campaign against the South in 1956 and helped create the National Liberation Front in 1960. An independent-minded hardliner, Le Duan resisted pressures to run the war along either Soviet or Chinese lines, proclaiming instead the “creative nature” of the Vietnamese revolution. Western analysts consider him the first among equals in the Hanoi leadership—the de facto successor to Ho Chi Minh.

Goals. It is to Ho, however, that credit for North Viet Nam’s determination must first go. Alone among Communist leaders, Ho had to face—and turn back—two major Western powers, and his fight went on far longer than that of any other. Though he died three years before the glimmers of a final settlement began to appear, there is evidence that he accurately gauged its arrival. In a 1962 talk with Bernard Fall in Hanoi, Ho said: “The Americans are much stronger than the French, though they know us less well. So it may perhaps take ten years to do it, but our heroic compatriots will defeat them in the end.” Ten years later, the war is ending. Defeat, however, is too strong a word: while the U.S. has not achieved its original goals, neither have the Communists. The remarkable fact remains that the four revolutionaries accomplished as much as they did.

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