“Uncle Ho” cult on the rise as Vietnam celebrates 70th anniversary

Ho Chi Minh is portrayed as an icon of gentleness and wisdom.

Ho Chi Minh is portrayed as an icon of gentleness and wisdom.

Vietnam this weeks celebrates the 70th anniversary of its declaration of independence with much emphasis on the role of its great revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh.

Speeches and parades are being held to mark the moment on September 2, 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in front of a large crowd in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square.

The focus of the commemorations on an idealised, even saintly, portrayal of “Uncle Ho” is no accident.

There are signs that the Communist Party of Vietnam is currently intensifying the cult that surrounds the former president, who has been presented to generations of school children as the holy man of the revolution and the father of modern Vietnam.

It recently announced plans to build some 15 elaborate and hugely expensive statues of Ho in provinces around the country.

It is a way, say observers, for ambitious local bosses to burnish their party credentials in a year that also marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to communist forces.

Generations of school children have been brought up to revere the former leader. Photo courtesy Vietnamnews.

Generations of school children have been brought up to revere the former leader

The Communist Party sees its former leader as a key asset – even in this less ideological age – as it seeks to shore up its legitimacy.

“The veneration of Ho is both ideology and political ritual,” says Dr Jonathan London, a Vietnam analyst at the City University of Hong Kong.

“The thing about ritual – and religion more generally –  is that one cannot engage in it and think rationally about it at the same time. People experience the ideology and the ritual very differently depending on where they are situated in Vietnamese social life,” he says.

Ho Chi Minh remains a controversial figure in Vietnam and abroad.

His ideological opponents and those who see themselves as victims of communist rule are not likely to acknowledge his achievements.

Ho was the central figure in the triumph of communism in the north of Vietnam and an inspiration for the later victory in the south as well – but only after the appalling sacrifices required for the war against the Saigon regime and its American backers.

Dissidents and government critics, meanwhile, will continue to mock and carp at the role of communist propaganda in creating the sanitised  official history of Ho that forms the basis of his posthumous cult of personality.

Ho Chi Minh already had the air of a wizened veteran at the time of his independence speech

Ho Chi Minh already had the air of a wizened veteran at the time of his independence speech

Independent historians, however, tend to concur that Ho Chi Minh was a major historical figure, a great Vietnamese patriot and a man who can take much credit for the liberation of his country from colonial rule.

The Vietnamese Communist Party has something of an advantage over the other surviving communist regimes in Asia which also seek legitimacy from a carefully manipulated historical narrative.

The parties in Vietnam, China and North Korea all take strength from their nationalist credentials – as agents of national liberation.
The Soviet satellites in eastern Europe had no such badge of honour and so were much more vulnerable to attack from nationalist critics.

For China though, the controversial legacy of Mao Zedong presents a problem for communist hagiographers.

Mao is officially venerated, but only up to a point. Many senior figures since Mao, including Deng Xiaoping and the current leader Xi Jinping, suffered personally as a result of his purges and radical policy shifts.

Mao’s legacy is too tarnished by the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and other upheavals for the Chinese Communist Party to bask too long in his reflected glory.

The propagandists in Pyongyang, on the other hand, have created a cult around Kim Il-sung that puts even Stalin and Mao in their prime in the shade.

They have had to manufacture much of the story, however, as Kim Il-sung is a relatively marginal figure compared to many of his revolutionary contemporaries.

Kim is hailed, in addition to his more supernatural exploits, as a champion of the independence struggle against Japan and the creator of a strong, prosperous and respected Korean state.

Ho, with General Giap on the left, had the foresight to seize the opportunity for power when Japan surrendered

Ho, with General Giap on the left, had the foresight to seize the opportunity for power when Japan surrendered in August 1945.

In reality he’s thought to have taken part in very little fighting against the Japanese, was installed by the Soviets as leader of North Korea, and is reviled in the rest of Korea and around the world as a tyrant  of monstrous proportions.

Ho Chi Minh may not be venerated overseas as a Gandhi or a Mandela, but he commands much respect as an extraordinarily successful revolutionary and as a true champion of the anti-colonial struggle.

He was in the thick of the fight against French colonial rule for nearly half a century before the final victory at Dien Bien Phu.

It was his vision and political abilities that helped create a unified revolutionary movement in a country notorious for factional feuding.

Crucially, it was Ho who saw a window of opportunity – with the Japanese surrender in August 1945 – to seize the initiative for his Viet Minh insurgents and to declare independence.

And it was he who held the revolutionary forces together and inspired them during the long war against the French and during the consolidation of power in Hanoi after 1954.

Ho’s personal role in the war against South Vietnam and the United States was clearly much less decisive. His influence had already faded by 1965 when the United States committed major deployments of combat troops and he died in 1969, six years before the fall of Saigon.

But he can take much of the credit, and responsibility, for the formation of a state that was strong enough, and sufficiently motivated, to secure victory against all the odds.

The mauseleum in Hanoi is the centrepiece of the cult that surrounds Ho Chi Minh

The mauseleum in Hanoi is the centrepiece of the cult that surrounds Ho Chi Minh

Critics will point to the brutalities of land reform in North Vietnam, the suppression of freedom, the countless sacrifices demanded of the population in the revolutionary wars and Ho’s close allegiance with the communist rulers of China and the Soviet Union.

The idealised portrayal of Ho Chin Minh presented by the communist propagandists also does him no favours – by inviting critics to pick holes in the official story and therefore sap credibility from his real achievements.

Ho is portrayed by the relatively drab and colourless leaders of today as an impossibly wise, chaste and kindly patriarch – an ascetic sage who gave up all personal desires for the sake of the revolution.

In reality, Ho is known to have taken at least one wife (during his time in China) and may have had other liaisons.
Salacious rumours of mistresses and dark dealings in leadership circles are also given credence by some Vietnamese who find the official portrayal of Ho’s immaculate life strains credibility.

Any assessment of the real Ho Chi Minh is hampered not only by Communist Party propaganda but also by the secrecy and sometimes conscious myth making of the man himself.

He took countless pseudonyms during his decades as a revolutionary, in addition to the three principal names that he used during his adult life. He was an extraordinarily elusive figure, as the French security services discovered,  constantly shuffling between London, Paris, Moscow, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, even New York, and other locations.

He was often on the run and was famed, long before he came to power, as an enigmatic figure shrouded in legend.

A newly built statue in Ho Chi Minh City to mark the 125th anniversary of the former leader's birth.

A newly built statue in Ho Chi Minh City to mark the 125th anniversary of the former leader’s birth.

In later years Ho came to see the value of his own image to aid the cause of revolution. He played up to the sense of mystery that surrounded him and perhaps enjoyed the role of the Confucian sage with the wispy beard and twinkling eyes.

But there are countless testimonies to his real character from the many people of various nationalities who met and worked with him during his years in exile.

The consensus was that he appeared frail and unassuming on first meeting – but was friendly, good humoured and convivial. Some testified to an undefinable charisma that was best reflected in his deep, dark and penetrating eyes.

Ho also possessed extraordinary reserves of resolve and determination – something that kept him focused on the cause of revolution through long decades of struggle and innumerable hardships.

There is a telling moment in an interview conducted by a French journalist with the ageing president in Hanoi in 1964.

After many good humoured and easy going exchanges in French, she asks him whether North Vietnam is in danger of becoming a satellite of China.

Ho’s reaction is immediate and almost electric in its sudden ferocity.

“Jamais,” he barks, as his head turns sharply to the interviewer and his eyes blaze with something that looks like fury.

Much historical enquiry has focused on whether Ho was principally a nationalist or a communist.

The answer, according to William Duiker, who spent 20 years researching a biography of the man, is that he was both.

Ho saw national sovereignty for Vietnam as the first goal of the struggle.

He was inspired by the works of Lenin to believe that a communist revolution was the best way to achieve the liberation of the masses from colonial rule and the capitalist exploitation that went with it.

He was, at least in theory, in accord with the view that nation states would eventually wither away and give way to an international communist utopia.
In reality that option never came up and Ho was always much more interested in practicalities than theory.

Ho certainly showed few signs of the megalomania that infected so many of his contemporaries in the revolutionary movement and beyond.

He elected to live in a modest house in the grounds of the presidential palace and requested that his body be cremated and his ashes distributed in the north, south and centre of Vietnam.

He would probably be horrified by the Stalinesque mausoleum in Hanoi that houses his embalmed remains – a temple of worship designed to bolster the continued rule of his successors.

It’s Ho’s misfortune that his legacy is now in the hands of  apparatchiks and party hacks who care little for historical accuracy.

The idealised Ho Chi Minh will live on in Vietnam, in white marble, looking down with mock Confucian wisdom on a fast changing nation.

The Vietnamese government is hardly alone in manipulating history for political ends.

But unlike some of his peers Ho Chi Minh does not have to rely on lies and deceptions for his standing.

He is a true revolutionary icon whose reputation at home could withstand a good deal more historical scrutiny than is permitted by the current authoritarian state.