Thursday, September 3, 2009

Vietnam's National Independence Day

It is one of history's ironies that Hồ Chí Minh died on the exact anniversary of the day when, 29 years earlier, he had declared Vietnam's independence from France. September 2, Vietnam's Independence Day, therefore rings as a dual tribute: to the end of colonial rule, and to the spiritual father of the modern Vietnamese nation, known throughout the country as Uncle Hồ.

Like national holidays everywhere, Vietnam's Independence Day seems to be appreciated more for the break it provides from work, than for its historical significance. The one notable sign of patriotism is the sudden appearance of flags everywhere. Hanoi's streets, especially its alleys, explode with a sudden bloom of red and yellow banners, and oversized posters of Hồ speaking into a microphone suddenly materialize on walls that a day earlier had been bare.
That Hồ Chí Minh was a patriot is beyond doubt. Over the course of his life he suffered prison, exile, war, and numerous privations in his struggle for Vietnamese freedom. Indeed, it was Hồ's passionate nationalism that allowed him to embrace contradictory ideologies. His 1945 independence speech from Hanoi's Ba Đình Square was a model statement of liberal democratic virtues. Quoting the independence declarations of both the U.S. and France, Hồ framed the case for Vietnamese freedom within the context of "inalienable" individual rights. And yet the communist ideology he extolled made it inevitable that under his preferred system of government, the collectivity would rule over the individual.

Few would argue that Vietnam has been more successful at furthering the cause of independence than of freedom. The reason lies partly in the dichotomy represented by Hồ's conflicting creeds. But it is difficult to overlook the role of Western powers, particularly the United States, in shaping Vietnam's post WWII history. In his independence speech, Hồ asked the international community, on the basis of "acknowledged...principles of self-determination and equality," to recognize Vietnam's independence. The international community refused, and Vietnam was launched into a further nine-year struggle to rid itself of France which, backed by the West, sought to reclaim its colonial possession.
It was during this struggle that Vietnam's ties with the Soviet Union and China grew stronger, as the world divided into the state of mutual antagonism known as the Cold War. And it was during this period, under continuing pressure from the U.S. and other Western countries, that the Vietnamese Communist Party undertook a series of radical land reforms and Stalinist purges of Party members. Whether Vietnam, in the period after WWII, would have gone this route will forever remain open to question (Hồ had earlier expressed discomfort with both Maoist and Soviet models of socialism).

One of the unintended effects of American Cold War policy, I believe, was to radicalize the very countries it sought to isolate. Here, my experience as a Cuban-American certainly colors my views. Both Hồ Chí Minh and Fidel Castro, in the early days of their countries' independence, sought to normalize relations with the U.S. Both swerved sharply leftward after being spurned. I often wonder about the alternative universe I might have been raised in, had my parents not fled the growing repressiveness of their homeland – at about the same time that Vietnam's war with the U.S. was looming.

All this comes to mind on a day of celebration in Vietnam's capital city. In the evening, motorbikes clog the streets around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, outdoor stages showcase traditional music and dance, and it becomes impossible to find a seat in any of the ice cream shops. As I look at the young faces all around me, it is hard to imagine that many of them are thinking about history. Meanwhile, the serene face of Uncle Hồ smiles above the throng.


  1. I once heard he died the day before or day after "Independence Day" but the date was tweaked to be conveniently auspicious or synchronous.

    It may not be true, but it sounds plausible too...

  2. If Ho Chi Minh woke up from the dead today and saw Hanoi or Saigon, he'd think that the war had been won by the Americans...

    I don't think there's a whole lot of love for him in the South, though.

  3. My girlfriend, now 30, adores "Uncle" Ho. She was raised in Tien Giang Province and didn't have very much school as a child so missed all of that indoctrination.
    When we visited Hanoi our only "must go" destination was the mausoleum to see his cadaver.
    Older folks might easily have a completely different perspective, understandably.

  4. "It is one of history's ironies that Hồ Chí Minh died on the exact anniversary of the day"

    You should only take what the commie said with less than a grain of salt when it comes to promote an idealized, super hero like HCM, Lenin, Mao, etc.

  5. "... with less than a grain of salt..." - You mean with a ton of salt!

  6. Great post.

    I think it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that the US somehow is responsible for "radicalizing" regimes that were already authoritarian and repressive anyway. On the other hand, I do buy the idea that the absence of US influence in the postwar years allowed VN to drift into the red zone. Things may have unfolded differently if the US had not supported France's dubious claim to legitimacy in Indochina. But the US needed French help countering the Soviets in Europe, though, and that was part of the price. Realpolitik is a harsh mistress...

  7. Thanks for the response, Chris.

    I'm well aware that the Soviets and Chinese both had very real ambitions during the Cold War, but I think I'm going to stick to my "radicalizing" comment.

    What guides my thinking is the sense that nationalist leaders like Fidel and Uncle Ho were rightfully suspicious of aligning themselves with either side in the Cold War. I maintain that it was pressure from the west, led by the US, that forced them solidly into the communist bloc.

    What I'm inclined to possibly agree with you on is the idea that these regimes may have turned out to be authoritarian and repressive anyway. I don't think anyone can know the answer to these things. In the case of Cuba at least, external pressure certainly gave Fidel a convenient excuse for radicalizing (there's that word again) his internal program.

    Radicalizing should not be confused with "causing," however. The idea that the US somehow "caused" these governments to become authoritarian would, indeed, be a stretch.

    Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts, and thanks again!

  8. When the U.S. needed the help of Vietnam they made promises they had no intention of keeping .
    We (the U.S.) always prefer to double cross
    those who we rely on to do the heavy lifting.
    Self determination is a fundamental right .Ho Chi Minh Harrased the Japanese and helped the war effort.
    When you look at U.S. history this pattern of behavior is repeatedly used to justify a military industrial behometh that strips money from the national treasury and subjugates people to The U.S. will.
    Two famous American generals Dwight Eisenhower (President and Allied Commander )
    and Marine Corp General Smedley Butler(Author
    of War As A Racket)warned of the Fashistic desighns of a never ending conflict designed to establish and retain dominance of Soveriegn
    Make no mistake , I write this from a perspective of a Marine , raised by dual service parents and extended families also .
    Grandpa fought the Nazis and My great great uncle was gassed in Argonne and suffered the rest of his life.
    When called to service a soldier has no free will and has to choose between moral
    principle and Orders from superior officers.
    This is the Reason that atrocities occur because ones natural moral reasoning is diminished and humans basest nature ( the lymbic)is operative.
    When the citizens of a nation,like the U.S. are propagandized to debase fellow humans ,to view them as Other,It is easy to trick them into Wars of aggression .
    Now for no other reason than Realpolitik
    we are stationed on seven hundred bases around the globe ,And fighting undeclared wars in numerous wars.
    When An Immoral Government Has such an awesome Almost God like power and subjects
    people ,The right to those being subjected is to resist.That was Ho Chi Minhs Raison De etre
    Never mistake U.S. foreign policy as benevolent.It is a corporate policy and advances a Fascist Corporate state.

  9. The irony is that after Vietnam gained "independece", they heavily relied on the Soviets and Chinese aid. They just became servants to a different master.