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Ho Chi Minh

Last modified 11 May 2014.

First published 21 January 2001. Reviewed 14 July 2008

AKA 'Uncle Ho'. Birth name Nguyen Sinh Cung. Ho Chi Minh translates to 'He Who Enlightens'.

Country: Vietnam.

Cause: Liberation of Vietnam from French colonial rule and unification of North and South Vietnam.

Background: The French begin to take control of Vietnam in the 1860s. The entire country is made a French protectorate in 1883. Under French colonial rule Vietnamese are prohibited from travelling outside their districts without identity papers. Freedom of expression and organisation are restricted. As land is progressively alienated by large landholders, the number of landless peasants grows. Neglect of the education system causes the literacy rate to fall. Vietnamese anticolonial movements being to coalesce early in the 20th Century but are actively suppressed by the French. More background.

Mini biography: Born 19 May 1890 in the village of Kim Lien in Annam, in central Vietnam. His father is a public servant attached to the imperial court. Ho is the youngest of three children. He receives his basic education from his father and the local village school.

Ho attends the prestigious National Academy school in Hue but leaves before graduation. He works for a short time as a teacher in a South Annam fishing town before travelling to Saigon, where he trains as a kitchen hand and pastry cook's assistant and takes a course in navigation.

1911 - He finds work as a kitchen hand on a French steamer travelling from Saigon to Marseilles.

1914 - Following the outbreak of the First World War in August Ho moves to London. He will spend about two years in the British capital, working as a kitchen hand at the Carlton Hotel and joining the Overseas Workers Association. During this period Ho also travels to and lives in the United States.

1919 - Ho returns to France, taking the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot). He stays in Paris until 1923, working in menial jobs while becoming active in the socialist movement.

During the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference Ho attempts to present US President Woodrow Wilson with a proposal to free Vietnam from colonialism, but is turned away. The proposal is never officially acknowledged.

1920 - Ho is a founding member of the French Communist Party when it splits from the Socialist Party in December. He works with other groups of radical expatriates and publishes an anticolonial journal, 'Le Paria' (The Pariah or The Outcast).

1922 - Ho travels to Moscow for the fourth congress of the Communist International (Comintern). He joins the Comintern's Southeast Asia Bureau and helps to organise the Krestintern, or Peasant International.

1923 - Ho returns to Moscow for training in Marxism and revolutionary techniques at the University of the Toilers of the East. He takes an active role in the fifth congress of the Comintern, criticising the French Communist Party for not opposing colonialism more vigorously. He also urges the Comintern to actively promote revolution in Asia.

1924 - Ho travels to Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China, a stronghold of the Chinese communists, to act as an interpreter for a Soviet mission sent to assist Chiang Kai-shek, a rising figure in the Chinese Nationalist Party and then protégé of the Soviets. While in the region Ho contacts Vietnamese exiles.

In 1925 Ho organises the exiles into the Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Menh Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth League). Going by the name Ly Thuy, he forms an inner group within the Revolutionary League, the Thanh Nien Cong San Doan (Communist Youth League - CYL).

The CYL concentrates on the production of an independence journal that is distributed clandestinely inside Vietnam. In 1926 Ho writes 'Duong Cach Menh' (The Revolutionary Path), which he uses as a training manual.

Selected members of the exile community are sent for military training with Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists. Others are instructed by Ho in the revolutionary techniques he had been taught in Moscow.

Ho also sets up the League of Oppressed Peoples of Asia. This soon develops into the South Seas Communist Party, the forerunner of future Indochinese communist groups.

1927 - The communists are expelled from Guangzhou in April following a coup by Chiang Kai-shek. Ho finds refuge in the Soviet Union.

In December the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD - Vietnamese Nationalist Party) is formed in Hanoi. In February 1930 the VNQDD attempts to stage a general uprising against the French. The attempt fails dismally and most of the VNQDD's top leaders are executed.

1928 - Ho travels to Brussels and Paris and then Siam (now Thailand), where he spends two years as a representative of the Comintern in Southeast Asia. His followers remain in South China.

1930 - Ho presides over the founding of a unified Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) at a conference of the Thanh Nein in Hong Kong on 3 February. A program of party objectives drafted by Ho is approved by the conference.

The objectives include the overthrow of "French imperialism, feudalism, and the reactionary Vietnamese capitalist class"; establishment of an independent Vietnam administered by a "worker-peasant and soldier government"; nationalisation of the economy; land reform; the introduction of an eight-hour work day; the abolition of public loans and unjust taxes; the bringing back of "all freedom to the masses"; universal education; and equality of the sexes.

Meanwhile, the worldwide economic depression sparked by the collapse of New York stock exchange in October 1929 begins to bite in Vietnam. Salaries fall by up to 50%, unemployment rises to about 33%, and strikes increase.

The ICP starts organising party cells, trade unions and peasant associations throughout the neighbouring provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in central Vietnam. Peasant demonstrators in the provinces begin to demand reform. When their demands are ignored riots break out. Peasants seize control of some districts and, with the aid of ICP organisers, form local village associations called "soviets".

In September 1930 the French respond, sending in Foreign Legion troops to suppress the rebellion. Up to 10,000 are killed. More than 1,000 suspected communists and rebels are arrested. Four hundred are given long prison sentences. Eighty, including some party leaders, are executed. Ho is condemned in absentia to death. He seeks refuge in Hong Kong and again operates as a representative of the Comintern in Southeast Asia.

By 1932 there are more than 10,000 political prisoners held in Vietnam's jails.

1931 - Ho is arrested in Hong Kong by the British police during a crackdown on political revolutionaries.

The French attempt to have him extradited but, in a case heard by the Privy Council in London, Ho's counsel, Sir Stafford Cripps, successfully argues that Ho is a political refugee and not subject to extradition.

1932 - Ho is released from in prison. He flees Hong Kong and travels to Moscow, where he will spend much of the next seven years studying and teaching at the Lenin Institute. He also attends the Institute for National and Colonial Questions.

1938 - Ho returns to China and serves as an adviser to the Red Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

1939 - In August, on the eve of the Second World War, Germany and the Soviet Union sign a nonaggression pact. The French Government immediately bans the French Communist Party. In Vietnam, all political parties, including the ICP, are outlawed and political activities are suppressed. The ICP responds by focusing its operations on rural areas, where the French hold less sway.

The Second World War breaks out on 1 September when Germany invades Poland. The fall of France to German forces comes soon after.

1940 - Early in the year, Ho returns to southern China and reestablishes contact with the ICP. Ho and his lieutenants Vo Nguyen Giap and Pham Van Dong see the defeat of the French by the Germans as an opportunity to free Vietnam from French rule. Ho begins to use the name Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens).

On 22 September Japanese troops invade Vietnam, heading south from territory they hold in China. The Vichy Government in France quickly negotiates a cease-fire that allows the French colonial administration to remain during the Japanese occupation.

1941 - In January Ho enters Vietnam for the first time in 30 years and organises the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (League for the Independence of Vietnam), or Viet Minh. A liberation zone is established near the border with China. From here the Viet Minh work to harness the discontent of urban nationalists and the rural poor into a unified movement for the liberation of Vietnam.

At the same time, the Viet Minh begin a guerilla war against Japanese forces occupying Vietnam.

The Viet Minh are initially armed by the Chinese nationalists. Funding and assistance is subsequently provided by the Chinese Communist Party. In 1965 the Soviet Union also begins to provide military aid.

1942 - In August, while in southern China to meet with Chinese Communist Party officials, Ho is arrested by the Chinese nationalist government and imprisoned for two years.

1944 - In September Ho is allowed to return to Vietnam. He vetoes an ICP plan for a general uprising but approves the establishment of armed propaganda units.

During the year, and continuing into 1945, famine spreads across Vietnam. Between 1.5 and two million die of starvation.

1945 - In January, with the Second World War drawing to a close, Ho travels to southern China to meet with US and Free French forces stationed there. However, his attempts to negotiate official recognition of the Vietnamese independence movement meet with little success.

The power balance in Vietnam takes a dramatic turn on 9 March when the Japanese disarm the French forces and seize full administrative control of the country. The 1883 treaty establishing Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) as a French protectorate is revoked and Vietnam is declared independent under Japanese tutelage. The ICP sees its opportunity and begins to plan for a general uprising.

Spreading gradually south from the existing liberated zone, an ICP-led United Front has by June established a provisional government, headed by Ho, over an area occupied by about one million people. Inside the liberated zone French-owned and communal land is redistributed to the poor. Universal suffrage is declared and democratic freedoms are introduced.

Meanwhile, the ICP steps up its activities in the country's south. 'Salvation Associations' attract thousands. In Saigon, membership of a communist youth organisation reaches 200,000, while the Vietnam Trade Union Federation numbers 100,000 members in 300 unions.

However, while the communists are able to secure most of the regional and rural areas in the North, provinces around Saigon remain out of their control. These areas are held by the Hao Hao, a Buddhist sect that favours regional autonomy for the South over integration in a communist-led national government.

On 6 August the US drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan. Nagasaki is bombed on 9 August. On 13 August the ICP issues its order for a general uprising. Ho is elected head of a National Liberation Committee created to serve as a provisional government. Two days later Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally, ending the Second World War.

On 17 August Ho appeals to the Vietnamese people to rise in revolution. The Viet Minh take control of Hanoi the following day. Saigon falls to the Viet Minh on 25 August.

On 28 August the Viet Minh announce the formation of the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV - North Vietnam) with Ho as president and minister of foreign affairs. Ho will remain as president of the DRV until his death in 1969.

Japan formally surrenders on 2 September 1945. The same day, half a million people gather in Hanoi to hear Ho read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, based on the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. However, the situation remains volatile.

In the north, Chinese nationalist forces start to encroach. In the south, the French begin to reassert control, taking Saigon in October. Within three months they have reoccupied all of southern Vietnam.

The communists also face political problems in the South, where Buddhist sects, including the Hao Hao, and well-organised, moderate parties provide strong competition. Any chance of an alliance with the Hao Hao is shattered in 1947 when its leader is executed by the Viet Minh.

Meanwhile, nationalist Vietnamese groups, including the VNQDD, begin to object to the ICP domination of the provisional government. Ho compromises, agreeing to a coalition with the nationalists and the holding of a general election in January 1946.

1946 - When the French threaten to extent their reoccupation to northern Vietnam, Ho is forced to compromise. The French agree to recognise the DRV as a free state and permit an election in southern Vietnam if they are allowed a small military presence in the north and if the DRV agrees to join a French Union.

However, the "small military presence" quickly swells to 15,000 troops and the French begin to stonewall during further negotiations held in Paris.

On 20 November, following clashes between French and Vietnamese soldiers, a French cruiser opens fire on the port of Haiphong, on the Red River Delta 90 km east of Hanoi. Almost 6,000 Vietnamese are killed.

On 19 December the French order Viet Minh forces in the Hanoi area to lay down their arms and relinquish their authority. The Viet Minh respond with a counterattack, beginning the First Indochina War. The French soon have control of Hanoi and most provincial capitals in northern and central Vietnam. In 1947 they retake much of the DRV and consolidate their position in the south.

1948 - The Viet Minh regroup, using their estimated 250,000 troops to force the French from some captured territory and to the negotiating table. The entire country is granted nominal independence as an "associated state" within the French Union but the underlying conflict remains.

1949 - On 1 July a French-sponsored Vietnamese Government is established in Saigon.

1950 - The US recognises the Associated State of Vietnam (ASV - South Vietnam) and sends a group of military advisers to train the South Vietnamese in the use of US weapons. China responds by recognising the DRV and agreeing to provide it with limited assistance. Official recognition of the DRV by the Soviet Union soon follows.

By the end of the year the Viet Minh have taken complete control of the border region with China and re-established a northern liberated zone, from which they launch offensives into the Red River Delta. As disenchantment with the situation grows in France, the Viet Minh wage a guerrilla campaign to wear down the resolve of the French forces inside Vietnam.

1951 - In February the ICP, which had been dissolved in 1945 to conceal the Viet Minh's communist background, is reestablished and renamed the Vietnam Workers' Party (VWP). Ho is elected party chairman.

At the same time, hard-line communists responsible for the party's activities in the South are replaced.

1953 - Most of the North Vietnamese countryside is now under Viet Minh control. In November the French launch a counteroffensive, capturing the strategic town of Dien Bien Phu, close to the border with Laos, in the northwest of the country. Ho indicates a willingness to consider a French peace plan.

1954 - A peace conference is scheduled for 8 May, to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, the European centre for the United Nations (UN). In order to maximise their leverage at the bargaining table, the Viet Minh decide to attempt to take a significant French military post just before the conference begins. The target is to be Dien Bien Phu. Over 100,000 Viet Minh troops and almost 100,000 transport workers descend on the area.

The siege of the town begins on 13 March. By 27 March the 15,000 French troops inside have been cut off from all support and supplies. The French surrender on 7 May, the day before the Geneva negotiations are set to begin. About 25,000 Vietnamese and more than 1,500 French troops have died during the siege.

The Geneva peace conference begins on 8 May as planned, continuing until 29 July when a compromise agreement is signed. Under the agreement, a provisional demarcation line is established at the 17th parallel. However, according to the agreement, the line "should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political territorial boundary."

All French and South Vietnamese forces are to move south of the demarcation line. All Viet Minh forces are to move to its north. France will quit the country completely. National elections to reunify the country under a single government are to be held in July 1956.

The agreement is endorsed by the DRV, France, Britain, China and the Soviet Union. The US and the ASV withhold approval. The country has been effectively partitioned into a communist North (governed by the DRV) and a noncommunist South (administered by the Vietnamese Government in Saigon). The French are gone.

Around 400,000 have been killed during the war, including about 75,000 from the French Union, 200,000 Viet Minh and 150,000 civilians. Nearly a million North Vietnamese, including much of economic class, have fled to the South to escape the communists.

On 24 October US President Dwight D. Eisenhower offers South Vietnam direct economic aid.

1955 - Direct US aid to South Vietnam begins in January. US military advisers begin to arrive the following month.

Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese Government launches a campaign against communist groups inside its territory. Tens of thousands are arrested. Thousands are killed. Buddhist sects in the South are also suppressed by the government.

In August the South Vietnamese Government announces that it will not participate in negotiations with the DRV over the national elections scheduled for the following year. On 26 October South Vietnam declares itself the Republic of Vietnam.

In the North, the communists begin a campaign to reform land ownership and eliminate landlords from rural society. The campaign, which the VWP later admits included "a number of serious errors", will result in the deaths of about 50,000 people.

The communists also become increasingly intolerant of criticism from the intellectuals and members of the bourgeoisie remaining in the North, eventually suppressing all dissent.

1957 - The communists begin to step up their activities in the South. Armed communist "self-defence" groups start to emerge. Several hundred government officials are assassinated, becoming among the first in a long list. From 1957 to 1972 the communists will assassinate over 35,000 civilians.

The government of the South responds by arresting tens of thousands of suspected communists. Over 2,000 suspected communists are killed. The South and its allies also use assassination to pursue their aims, killing over 20,000.

1959 - The country begins to slide into the Second Indochina War, or Vietnam War. (Among the North Vietnamese the conflict will come to be known as the 'American War'.)

Viet Minh troops that moved north following the Geneva agreement filter back into the South to help local communist guerrilla cells, known as the Viet Cong, establish liberated zones.

1960 - On 10 November the South Vietnamese Government accuses the North of directly aiding the Viet Cong. The following month, on 20 December, the opposition movement in the South, including the Viet Cong, is united into the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (National Liberation Front - NLF). Led by noncommunists, the NLF is a broad coalition of interest groups, including communists, moderate political parties and religious groups.

1961 - US President John F. Kennedy decides to increase support for the embattled government of South Vietnam, providing $US65 million worth of military equipment and $US136 million in economic aid. By December 3,200 US military personnel are stationed in Vietnam. Within 12 months the number has increased to 11,200.

The communists respond by unifying all communist armed units in the South into a single People's Liberation Armed Force (PLAF), numbering about 15,000. The NLF is also expanded to include 300,000 members. Land reform programs are begun in liberated areas. The Workers' Liberation Association of Vietnam is established in the cities.

President Kennedy will later reverse his decision and resolve instead to disentangle the US from Vietnam. However, he is assassinated before his new program can be implemented. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, will further escalate the US involvement.

1963 - In Saigon on 8 May troops from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) fire into a crowd of Buddhists demonstrating against the South Vietnamese Government, killing nine. The following month a Buddhist monk self-immolates in protest. By the end of the year he has been joined by six others. Student protest erupts at the Saigon University on 24 August.

On 1 November the government is overthrown in a US-sanctioned military coup in which the ousted president and his chief adviser are assassinated. The communists respond by calling for an escalation of the war.

1964 - The communist forces control about half the total land area and about half the population of the South. The PLAF now numbers about 115,000 troops and is supported by troops from the People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnam) moving down the recently completed 'Ho Chi Minh Trail'.

By July the number of US military personnel in Vietnam has reached 16,000. In August US President Johnson approves air strikes against North Vietnamese naval bases in retaliation for an alleged attack on two US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the north coast of Vietnam.

In October the Soviet Union promises to provide military support for North Vietnam. The aid will amount to several hundred million dollars and include surface-to-air missiles.

Meanwhile, the government of the South becomes increasingly destabilised by a series of military and civilian coups, with power changing hands 10 times in 18 months.

1965 - In February the US begins a series of air strikes known as 'Operation Rolling Thunder' against military targets in the North. The following month 3,500 US combat troops arrive in Vietnam. By the end of the year the US force numbers 180,000. The figure grows to 350,000 in the mid-1966.

Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines also send combat troops, and between 30,000 and 40,000 Canadians enlist with the US military to serve in Vietnam.

Posed against this international force are an estimated 220,000 PLAF troops.

1966 - The enormous influx of US troops and the heavy US bombing of the North places the communists on the defensive. Digging in for a protracted struggle, they turn to their tried and true tactic of waging a guerrilla war in the countryside while fostering underground resistance in the cities and among the common people.

1967 - US forces in Vietnam now number close to 500,000 and US bombing raids have extended to within 16 km of the northern border with China.

US President Johnson offers to stop the bombing and join North Vietnam in peace talks as soon he is assured that communist "infiltration into South Vietnam by land and by sea has stopped."

"If the United States Government really wants talks, it must first halt unconditionally the bombings and all other acts of war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam," Ho replies.

"The Vietnamese people will never give way to force, it will never accept conversation under the clear threat of bombs."

Ho reiterates the point in a meeting with two visitors from the US at the start of the year. "We will never agree to negotiate under the threat of bombing," he says.

"We have been fighting for our independence for more than 25 years. ...

"Of course we cherish peace, but we will never surrender our independence to purchase a peace with the United States or any party.

"You must know of our resolution. Not even your nuclear weapons would force us to surrender after so long and violent a struggle for the independence of our country."

Towards the end of the year the communists begin preparations for a general offensive in the countryside and cities of the South.

1968 - The 'Tet Offensive' begins on 31 January with simultaneous attacks by the communists on five major cities, 100 provincial and district capitals and many villages.

South Vietnamese and US forces are shaken when suicide squads penetrate the heart of Saigon, attacking the presidential palace, radio station, the ARVN's joint general staff compound, Tan Son Nhut airfield and the US embassy. In Hue in central Vietnam 2,000 to 3,000 officials, police and others are executed by the communists.

While the offensive is contained in a matter of days, the balance has swung. Mounting disaffection with the US involvement in the war, particularly from the peace movement in the West, and a mounting death toll will eventually force the US into a humiliating withdrawal.

On 31 March US President Johnson declares a halt to the bombing of most of North Vietnam and calls for peace talks. A request by the military for an additional 200,000 troops over the 525,000 already stationed in Vietnam is refused.

Meanwhile, the communists press their initiative, launching a series of attacks, including a three-month offensive against the US base at Khe Sanh.

Peace talks begin in Paris on 10 May. A breakthrough appears imminent at the end October when President Johnson announces a complete halt to US bombing of the North, but hope for an end to the war is dashed when the South insists on more favourable conditions.

It is later revealed that the South had been influenced by US presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, who had promised them a better deal if he won the upcoming election. It is also revealed that Nixon had been assisted by an insider to the peace talks - his future national security adviser and secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

1969 - Expanded peace negotiations between North and South Vietnam, the US and the NLF begin in Paris in January but are destined to remain unresolved for years.

In June the NLF forms the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam (PRG), which is immediately recognised by the DRV as the legitimate government of the South.

Ho dies of heart failure on 2 September in Hanoi, six years before the end of the war and the reunification of the country.

The toll of Vietnamese dead from war will be around three million, including over 1.5 million civilians, about one million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops and about 250,000 South Vietnamese military personnel.

The conflict will also spread into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, resulting in the loss of another 700,000 lives and leading to the rise of the genocidal dictator Pol Pot and the deaths of a further one to three million.

US deaths in the Vietnam War will total 58,226 killed or missing in action. The death toll for the US allies will include about 5,000 South Koreans, as many as 1,000 Filipinos, up to 1,000 Thais, 508 Australians and 38 New Zealanders. Between 55 and 100 Canadians serving with the US will be killed.

Postscript

The Vietnam peace talks draw on as the war becomes more and more unpopular in the West and more and more costly for the Vietnamese.

In 1970 the US resumes air attacks on North Vietnam. The communists attempt to maintain the pressure and again shake the South Vietnamese Government and the US when they launch the 'Easter Offensive' on 30 March 1972. The US responds by escalating the air raids.

An agreement on the terms for peace is reached between North Vietnam and the US in October 1972. However, when South Vietnam refuses to believe that the North is sincere, the peace negotiations falter.

Acting on advice from Henry Kissinger, who is now his national security adviser, President Nixon orders massive night-time bombing raids on Hanoi and Haiphong to demonstrate the resolve of the US and appease the doubters in the South.

During 11 days in December 1972 the 'Christmas Bombing' campaign sees 129 B52 bombers drop 40,000 tons of ordnance in what is said to be the largest raids of their type in history. The North Vietnamese return to the negotiating table and the bombing is stopped.

On 27 January 1973 all parties sign the 'Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam', the so-called 'Paris Accords'. The agreement is essentially the same as the one sabotaged by Nixon and Kissinger in 1968. It provides for a cease-fire and the full withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. By the end of March 1973 all the US combat troops have been withdrawn.

Once they are convinced the US withdrawal will be permanent, the communists again start to move south, easily sweeping aside the now demoralised and ineffective South Vietnamese troops. The communists take Saigon on 30 April 1975, bringing the war finally to an end.

Vietnam is officially reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on 2 July 1976. Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The VWP changes its name to the Vietnam Communist Party.

Policies aimed, in the words of Premier Pham Van Dong, "at eliminating the comprador capitalists as a class and doing away with all vestiges of feudal exploitation" are introduced in the South.

Communist "study sessions" are mandatory for all adults. Hundreds of thousands are sent to reeducation camps. Hundreds of thousands more are forced to relocate from urban areas to rural settlements. Those suspected of "counter-revolutionary" activities are sent to reform camps or forced labour camps. Around 65,000 South Vietnamese are executed. Over 100,000 die in the camps.

Between 500,000 and one million South Vietnamese flee their homeland by whatever means possible, usually by sea. Around 200,000 of these 'Boat People' perish on their voyage.

The US refuses to recognise the new republic, severs diplomatic relations with Vietnam and imposes are trade embargo.

1994 - The US lifts the trade embargo in February.

1995 - On 11 July US President Bill Clinton announces the formal resumption of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US. The same month Vietnam gains membership of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN).

2000 - President Clinton visits Vietnam. He is the first US president to visit the country since the end of the war.

2005 - Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai visits the US in June. He is the first Vietnamese communist leader to travel to the US since the end of the Vietnam war. He meets with US President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld on 21 June.

The US is now Vietnam's biggest trading partner, with trade worth US$6.4 billion being conducted during 2004, mostly in the form of Vietnamese exports to the US.

Following his meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister, President Bush announces that he will travel to Vietnam in 2006 to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit being held in Hanoi.

Comment: Ho Chi Minh is a controversial figure to include in the heroes section of this website. If I were one of the Vietnamese refugees who fled the communist takeover of the South in 1975 I might even be seriously offended. In fact, if I was one of those refugees I would be seriously offended. And that reaction would be entirely understandable.

Vietnam's long road to independence and unification came at a terrible human cost. Around 400,000 killed in the First Indochina War. About three million killed in the Second Indochina War. Tens of thousands of atrocities committed on both sides, including executions and assassinations.

Immediately after the war, and over six years after Ho's death, about 65,000 were executed by the communists. Over 100,000 died in camps. Around 200,000 of the Boat People died during their flight from the communist regime.

Overall, around four million Vietnamese perished as a direct result of the wars and their aftermath. The impact of the wars on neighbouring Cambodia and Laos resulted in the loss of at least one million other lives. That's a big tally - five million and rising.

Was this a price really worth paying? Wouldn't independence and unification have come in the long-run without the resort to violence, as it did to other states? Ultimately isn't Ho to blame because of his determination to secure his objectives no matter what?

Interesting questions, and fine in hindsight, but it really isn't as simple as that. If we are going to blame Ho we might as well blame the Cold War, or the French, US, South Vietnamese, Chinese and Soviet leaders who played a role in either initiating or prolonging the conflict.

We might as well ask "what if?"

What if US President Woodrow Wilson had accepted Ho's proposal to free Vietnam from colonialism in 1919?

What if the French hadn't tried to hang on to Vietnam after the Second World War?

What if the South had honoured the 1954 peace agreement and national elections to reunify the country under a single government had been held in July 1956?

What if the US had, just this once, shown a bit of foreign policy nous and kept out of Vietnam?

What if? What if? What if?

This much we do know.

Ho Chi Minh was no angel. He was a single-minded ideologue and ruthless in the pursuit of his goals. But he dealt with the cards that he was handed. And he brought his people along - for 30 bloody years.