Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam War

Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam War

Essential Question:  Is it more accurate to describe Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist or a communist?

Common Core Standards: RH1, RH2, WHST1, WHST2


From Matthew Masur, “Nationalism, Communism, and the Vietnam War,” in Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War, ed. John Tully, Brad Austin, and Matthew Masur (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).

Two narratives or frameworks tend to dominate historical teaching of the Vietnam War. In the "nationalist" narrative, the struggle in Vietnam pitted local nationalists against traditional French colonialism and its successor, American neo-imperialism. In the "Cold War" narrative, the United States, guided by the dictates of containment, gradually and incrementally intervened in Vietnam to stem the spread of communism. The nationalist and Cold War narratives are not mutually exclusive. In fact a full understanding of the wars in Vietnam requires teachers and students to understand how nationalism and communism became linked in Vietnam and how the United States reacted to this phenomenon.

The implied dichotomy between nationalism and communism parallels a common discussion about the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, the most famous figure in modern Vietnamese history. For much of Ho's life, and in much of the historiography about the Vietnam War, observers have wondered whether Ho Chi Minh was primarily a nationalist or a communist. This question plagued American officials as they contemplated the appropriate policy toward Vietnam in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. What students may not know is that Ho Chi Minh's communist allies were similarly uncertain about his true motivations and guiding principles. Moreover, supporters and critics of the war, both while it was being fought and in the decades since, often used Ho's political ideology to support their arguments. Thus, teachers can use the rise of Ho Chi Minh and America's response to his popularity to show that nationalism and communism, decolonization and the Cold War, were all part of the Vietnam War.


Students will examine primary sources to find evidence that indicates the extent to which communism and nationalism motivated Ho Chi Minh.


Is LL Cool J a musical artist or an actor? Is Ice T a musical artist or an actor? Are you a friend or a student? Am I a teacher or a taxpayer?

Does it make a difference? Can someone be two things at the same time?

Learning Activities:

Students will be taking straw polls after each source on whether Ho is more of a communist or more of a nationalist. These polls can be done by raising hands or moving to one side of the room.

After introducing each source, the teacher should guide the class through the following questions:

How does this indicate that nationalism was important to Ho?

How does this indicate that communism was important to Ho?

Teachers can have students complete a T-chart for each document, either individually or in small groups.

Source #1: The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence (1945)

Context: From Matthew Masur, “Nationalism, Communism, and the Vietnam War,” in Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War, ed. John Tully, Brad Austin, and Matthew Masur (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).

Students can look at Ho's August 1945 Declaration of Independence in a similar fashion. His decision to quote the American Declaration of Independence is understandable in light of Viet Minh cooperation with the Allies during World War II. Students can also discuss whether this is evidence of Ho's weak commitment to communism or if it was simply a calculated effort to flatter American officials. Teachers can also ask students to discuss the effectiveness of this address. How does Ho Chi Minh make the case for Vietnamese independence? Is his argument persuasive? Why or why not?


"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This immortal statement 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 the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

. . . Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow­citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty.

They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center, and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity and prevent our people from being united.

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood.

. . . From the autumn of 1940, our country had in fact ceased to be a French colony and had become a Japanese possession.

After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French.

. . . For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France; we repeal all the international obligation that France has so far subscribed to on behalf of Vietnam and we abolish all the special rights the French have unlawfully acquired in our Fatherland.

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

We are convinced that the Allied nations, which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eight years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent.

For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, solemnly declare to the world that Vietnam has the right to be a free and independent country-and in fact is so already. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.


Source #2: Report of a U.S. General in Hanoi, 1946.

General Gallagher had spent six months in Vietnam. The “Cao Dai group” refers to a sect working with the Viet Minh.

“Memorandum of Conversation,” Richard L. Sharp, Division of Southeast Asian Affairs, 30 January 1946, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, The Far East, p. 19.

Source #3: Ho Chi Minh, “The Path Which Led Me to Leninism” (1960)

Context: From Matthew Masur, “Nationalism, Communism, and the Vietnam War,” in Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War, ed. John Tully, Brad Austin, and Matthew Masur (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming).

In "The Path Which Led Me to Leninism," Ho Chi Minh describes the excitement of reading Lenin's writings on colonialism in 1920. This document gives students a lot to consider. They might start by thinking about the historical context that Ho is describing (although the recollection comes from 1960, he is referring to his experiences in 1920). Students may recognize that both World War I and the Russian Revolution exerted a deep influence on Ho's thinking. The war had created global instability and prompted a wave of anticolonial activity. The Russian Revolution suggested that Marxism could provide a political and economic alternative to the status quo.

Teachers using this source should consult Sophie Quinn-Judge's biography of Ho Chi Minh for a more detailed account of his early views. In it Quinn-Judge describes Ho's involvement with other communists during his stay in Paris in the early 1920s. The book also includes some of Ho's early writings, which capture his attitudes at the time rather than four decades after the fact. In one piece Ho attacks "the hydra of western capitalism" for "stretching its horrible tentacles towards all corners of the globe." He accuses the French of hypocritically talking about a "civilizing mission" while bringing "misery, ruin, and death" to their colonies. He criticizes the French Socialist Party for silence in the face of these policies and applauds the Communist International for taking up the colonial question. Ho's language provides an early example of his belief that colonialism and communism were inseparable.

Teachers can also ask students why Ho Chi Minh was attracted to Leninism. Some students might emphasize his nationalistic motives. As Ho explains, he embraced Leninism because it offered a "path to liberation" for the Vietnamese people. But other students might pick up on another passage: when Ho describes Leninism as "the radiant sun illuminating our path to final victory, to socialism and communism," What are we to make of these comments? Are they contradictory?



After World War I, I made my living in Paris, now as a retoucher at a photographer’s, now as painter of “Chinese antiquities” (made in France!). I would distribute leaflets denouncing the crimes committed by the French colonialists in Viet Nam.

At that time, I supported the October Revolution only instinctively, not yet grasping all its historic importance. I loved and admired Lenin because he was a great patriot who liberated his compatriots; until then, I had read none of his books.

The reason for my joining the French Socialist Party was that these “ladies and gentlemen” - as I called my comrades at that moment - has shown their sympathy towards me, towards the struggle of the oppressed peoples. But I understood neither what was a party, a trade-union, nor what was socialism nor communism.

. . .What I wanted most to know - and this precisely was not debated in the meetings - was: which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries?

I raised this question - the most important in my opinion - in a meeting. Some comrades answered: It is the Third, not the Second International. And a comrade gave me Lenin’s “Thesis on the national and colonial questions” . . . to read.

There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled into me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted out aloud as if addressing large crowds: “Dear martyrs compatriots! This is what we need, this is the path to our liberation!”

After then, I had entire confidence in Lenin. . . .

. . . At first, patriotism, not yet communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Step by step, along the struggle, by studying Marxism-Leninism parallel with participation in practical activities, I gradually came upon the fact that only socialism and communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery.


Exit slip –

“The most convincing piece of evidence that Communism was more important to Ho was ________________.”

“The most convincing piece of evidence that nationalism was more important to Ho was ________________.”

Additional Primary Sources:



Further Reading:

Frederick Logevall, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Pierre Brocheaux, Ho Chi Minh: A Biography