The conservative blogoshere is abuzz with President Barack Obama‘s claim that Vietnam’s communist leader Ho Chi Minh was an admirer of US Founding father Thomas Jefferson.
At the conclusion of the meeting, President Sang shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman. And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States. And President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress.
President Obama is partially correct, but the context of that “inspiration” reveals both a lot about Ho Chi Minh and about Barack Obama.
I quote from Susan Dunn’s Ho Chi Minh and Thomas Jefferson:
In September 1945, hundreds of thousands of people jammed the French-looking boulevards and streets of downtown Hanoi. They had traveled in oppressive heat from distant villages for the great day. Schools and offices were closed. Jubilant peasants wearing their black “pajamas” and straw hats, workers, mountain people, militia members carrying spears, Catholic priests in their black suits and Buddhist monks in their saffron robes all waited excitedly. Banners and flowers adorned the buildings; flags fluttered in the occasional warm breezes. All faces turned toward the platform erected in Ba Dinh Square, a large park near the French residential quarter.
A frail-looking wisp of a man advanced to the microphone. “All men are created equal,” he declared, as all of Hanoi listened. “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He paused and then elaborated. “This immortal statement,” he explained, “was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: all the peoples on earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”
That was not all. Just as Jefferson’s immortal vision of unalienable rights and freedoms was followed by a kind of legal brief that documented at length all the abuses committed by King George III and the English Parliament against their American subjects, Ho Chi Minh similarly outlined the grievances of the Vietnamese against France, their colonial master. As his listeners strained to hear him, he reminded them that France was still attempting to destroy Vietnamese unity by artificially dividing the nation into three separate political regions, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. France burdened the Vietnamese with unjust taxes; France expropriated the people’s land, rice fields, and forests; France ruled by decree and not by law; she built prisons instead of schools, and in Indochina’s darkest hour, France abandoned her to the Japanese.
Dunn interprets this speech by Ho Chi Minh as evidence of genuine admiration of the ideals of the American revolution. I think she gets it completely wrong.
Ho Chi Minh had been a communist operative for 20 years at that point. The Vietnamese communist guerrillas had just finished expelling the Japanese invaders – with American help. Uncle Ho was very close to the US Office of Strategic Services (which was heavily penetrated by American communists), the forerunner of the CIA.
The Vietnamese communist’s next step was to expel the French colonialists. They were keen to enlist American help in this battle, or at least not to provoke US opposition. In 1945, US foreign policy was still very soft on communism. It would only harden under Democrat president Harry Truman a couple of years later. Imagine what today’s Democrats would think of Truman – or JFK for that matter.
According to Susan Dunn:
Days earlier, Ho Chi Minh and his advisers had been laboring to recall as much of Jefferson’s language as they could. Ho had memorized the opening lines of the Declaration when he visited the United States as a menial laborer on a tramp steamer before World War I, but his memory had faded. He wondered if one of the American intelligence officers serving in Vietnam could help. During World War II, James Patti headed the Vietnam mission of the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the precursor of the CIA. During the summer and fall of 1945, Major Patti, along with Brigadier General Philip Gallagher and Captain Farris, observed Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh party. For Patti, Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, not a “starry-eyed revolutionary or a flaming radical.” “I felt he could be trusted as an ally against the Japanese,” Patti recalled. “I saw that his ultimate goal was to attain American support for the cause of a free Viet Nam.”
Ho explained to Patti that his draft of the Vietnamese declaration of independence needed polishing. Someone translated Ho’s words as Patti listened carefully. Patti immediately realized that the translator was reading very familiar words. After the translator read a few sentences, Patti turned to Ho in amazement and asked if he really intended to use this text as his declaration of independence. “I don’t know why it nettled me,” Patti mused. “Perhaps a feeling of proprietary right, or something equally inane.” Ho sat back in his chair, his palms together with fingertips touching his lips ever so lightly, as though meditating. “Should I not use it?” he asked. Patti was embarrassed. Why should Ho not use it? The translator started again: all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness. “Life must come before liberty:’ Patti remarked. Ho snapped to the point. “Why, of course, there is no liberty without life.” Ho pressed Patti for more, but that was all the American could remember.
Indochinese independence had become a “near-obsession” for President Roosevelt during 1943 and 1944, and Ho’s expectation that the United States would support his independence movement was entirely reasonable. Historians view Roosevelt’s ideals as unquestionably anti-colonial, though they note that he lacked a clear strategy for achieving these goals. To his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, Roosevelt spoke frankly about Indochina. “France has milked Indo-China for one hundred years,” Roosevelt wrote in a memo. “The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.” A month later at the Yalta Conference, where matters as consequential as the reconstitution and the future of Europe were decided, Roosevelt did not forget Indochina. He remarked to Stalin that “the Indochinese were people of small stature … and were not warlike. He added that France had done nothing to improve the natives since she had the colony.”
After Roosevelt’s death, America’s diplomatic policy changed sharply. Only a few months after Ho’s declaration of independence, the American State Department’s Far Eastern Bureau declared that the United States would respect French sovereignty in Indochina. Roosevelt’s anti-colonialism was displaced by the Cold War’s demands for an anti-Communist foreign policy. By 1946 all official American references to Ho in Washington were prefixed with the word “Communist.” Dean Acheson, the Acting Secretary of State, branded Ho Chi Minh an “agent of international communism.” Though the American OSS officers in Hanoi had liked and trusted Ho, even joining him in celebrating his Vietnamese “Fourth of July,” by the end of the decade Ho had been transformed into a Communist enemy.
Then, after a period of consolidation, this great admirer of Thomas Jefferson attacked sovereign South Vietnam, with covert Soviet and Chinese support, sparking the Vietnam War.
The communists played a similar game in China, deliberately portraying themselves (with the help of American sympathizers in the State Department) as non-communist “agrarian reformers.”
Fidel Castro played similar games in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
Hugo Chavez in Venezuela repeatedly denied he was a socialist – until he had consolidated sufficient power.
The Devil can cite Scriptures to suit his purpose. Communists have a long history of citing the US Constitution and invoking American patriotism to suit theirs.
Barack Obama does it regularly…