Ho Chi Minh: Rattled Genius or Dictatorial Lunatic?

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Ho Chi Minh

He married nationalism to communism and perfected the deadly art of guerrilla warfare


n emaciated, goateed figure in a threadbare bush jacket and frayed rubber sandals, Ho Chi Minh cultivated the image of a humble, benign "Uncle Ho." But he was a seasoned revolutionary and passionate nationalist obsessed by a single goal: independence for his country. Sharing his fervor, his tattered guerrillas vaulted daunting obstacles to crush France's desperate attempt to retrieve its empire in Indochina; later, built into a largely conventional army, they frustrated the massive U.S. effort to prevent Ho's communist followers from controlling Vietnam. For Americans, it was the longest war--and the first defeat--in their history, and it drastically changed the way they perceived their role in the world.

To Western eyes, it seemed inconceivable that Ho would make the tremendous sacrifices he did. But in 1946, as war with the French loomed, he cautioned them, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, yet even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."

The French, convinced of their superiority, ignored his warning and suffered grievously as a result. Senior American officers similarly nurtured the illusion that their sophisticated weapons would inevitably break enemy morale. But, as Ho's brilliant commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, told me in Hanoi in 1990, his principal concern had been victory. When I asked him how long he would have resisted the U.S. onslaught, he thundered, "Twenty years, maybe 100 years--as long as it took to win, regardless of cost." The human toll was horrendous. An estimated 3 million North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died.

The youngest of three children, Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890 in a village in central Vietnam. The...