The French begin to take control of Vietnam during the 1800s. 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 is 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 emerge early in the 20th Century but are actively suppressed by the French. More background.
Born 19 May 1890 in the village of Hoang Tru 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 then attends a prestigious high school in Hue. Ho leaves high school before graduation. He travels to Saigon to train as a kitchen hand and pastry cook's assistant in preparation for a planned trip to Europe.
In 1911 Ho leaves Vietnam. He will not return to his homeland for 30 years. Ho travels in Europe and the United States before settling in France. While in France he becomes active in the socialist movement and then the more radical communist movement inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. In December 1920 Ho helps found the French Communist Party when it splits from the Socialist Party.
In 1922 Ho travels to Moscow for the fourth congress of the Communist International (Comintern). He returns to Moscow in 1923 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 a revolutionary league. 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. He later 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 Vietnamese revolutionaries held 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 in areas of central Vietnam. Peasant demonstrators begin to demand social and economic 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 to death in absentia. 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 successfully argues that Ho is a political refugee and not subject to extradition.
1932 - Ho is released from prison. He flees Hong Kong then travels to Moscow, where he spends 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.
1940 - Early in the year, Ho returns to southern China and reestablishes contact with the ICP. Ho and his lieutenants 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).
Japanese troops invade Vietnam on 22 September. 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 guerrilla 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.
1945 - The power balance in Vietnam takes a dramatic turn on 9 March when the Japanese 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.
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) with Ho as president and minister of foreign affairs. Ho remains as president of the DRV until his death in 1969.
On 2 September 1945 hundreds of thousands of people gather in Hanoi to hear Ho read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. The declaration is based on the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
The independence celebration is short-lived.
In the north, Chinese Nationalist forces start to encroach. In the south, the French begin to reassert control. The French retake 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 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 again 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 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 occupied territory. By the end of 1950, the Viet Minh have taken complete control of the border region with China and re-established a northern liberated zone, from which they launch guerrilla offensives into northern 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. Ho is elected party chairman.
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. The conference is to be held in Geneva, 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 southern 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 United States and southern Vietnamese withhold approval. The country has been effectively partitioned into a communist North Vietnam (governed by the DRV) and a noncommunist South Vietnam (administered by a Vietnamese government in Saigon). The French are gone.
Around 400,000 have been killed during the First Indochina War, including about 75,000 from the French Union, about 200,000 Viet Minh and about 150,000 civilians. Nearly a million North Vietnamese, including much of economic class, have fled to South Vietnam to escape the communists.
On 24 October US President Dwight D. Eisenhower offers South Vietnam direct economic aid. US military advisers begin to arrive in February 1955.
1955 - 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 North Vietnam, the communists begin a campaign to reform land ownership and eliminate landlords from rural society. The campaign, which the Vietnam Workers' Party later admits included "a number of serious errors", results 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. They are among the first in what becomes a long list. From 1957 to 1972 the communists assassinate over 35,000 civilians.
The South Vietnamese Government 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 comes 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 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 organisations.
1961 - US President John F. Kennedy decides to increase support for the embattled government of South Vietnam, providing US$65 million worth of military equipment and US$136 million in economic aid. Over 3,000 US military personnel are stationed in South Vietnam by the end of the year. Within 12 months the number has increased to 11,200.
President Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, further escalates the US involvement.
1963 - On 8 May troops from the South Vietnamese Army fire into a crowd of Buddhists demonstrating in Saigon 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.
On 1 November the South Vietnamese Government is overthrown in a US-sanctioned military coup in which the ousted president and his chief adviser are assassinated. Further military and civilian coups follow, with power changing hands 10 times in 18 months as the government of the South becomes increasingly unstable.
1964 - The number of US military personnel in South Vietnam continues to grow, reaching 16,000 by July. By the end of 1965, the US forces number 180,000. The figure grows to 350,000 during 1966.
Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines also send combat troops. 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 South Vietnamese communist troops. They are supported by soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army moving down into the South along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
1965 - In February the US begins a series of air strikes known as Operation Rolling Thunder against military targets in the North.
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, the radio station, the South Vietnamese Army'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.
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 for president. 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 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.
The Christmas Bombing campaign takes place in December 1972. Over the course of 11 days, 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 is 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.
The toll of Vietnamese dead from the war is 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 spread of the conflict into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos, has resulted in the loss of another 700,000 lives and led 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 total 58,226 killed or missing in action. The death toll for the US allies includes 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 have been killed.
Vietnam is officially reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on 2 July 1976. Saigon is renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnam Workers' Party 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 the South Vietnamese "Boat People" perish on their voyage.
The US refuses to recognise the new republic, severs diplomatic relations with Vietnam and imposes a trade embargo.
The embargo lasts until 1994. Formal diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US are resumed in 1995.
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 South Vietnamese "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 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 he was handed. And he brought his people along - for 30 bloody years.
- Vietnam - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series
- Time 100: Leaders & Revolutionaries - Ho Chi Minh
- Ho Chi Minh Was Noted for Success in Blending Nationalism and Communism - New York Times Obituary
- Pentagon Papers