Nguyen was born to an impoverished mandarin family in Kim Lien village, Nam Dan district, Nghe An province. In 1906, Nguyen Tat Thanh attended Dong Ba elementary school, outside the walls of the imperial capital of Hue, and in 1907, passed the exam for Lycée Quoc Hoc, a national academy established by the French government. Dismissal from the school marked his first known political activity. In 1908, peasants protesting against taxes, mandatory unpaid labor, and corruption marched into Hue. Thanh volunteered to serve as interpreter in a meeting with a résident supérieur named Levecque. After troops opened fire, killing several participants, police came to demand that the "troublemaker be dismissed from school."
In 1911, he left the country as a cook's assistant on the ship Amiral Latouche-Tréville, beginning at least two years of traveling to Singapore, Columbo, Port Said, Marseilles, and Le Havre, and working as a gardener at Sainte-Addresse near Le Havre in between voyages. After sailing to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, India, Indochina, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sudan, Dahomey, Madagascar, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, he claimed to have lived in New York City for several months. Working alternately as a laborer and a domestic servant, he found time to attend meetings of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Trust, and may have also worked as a cook's helper or pastry chef at the Parker House Hotel in Boston.
In 1913, Thanh arrived in Great Britain, where he was hired first for snow removal, then as a boiler operator; he eventually worked in the kitchens of the Drayton Court Hotel and possibly the Carlton Hotel. He learned English during this time, studied the Irish rising of 1916, and joined the Lao Dang Hoi Nagai, an association of Asian overseas workers. Around December 1917, he probably returned to France. A 1919 French police request to the colonial administration in Hanoi urgently seeks information about an agitator known as Nguyen Ai Quoc who had "long been in France."
As Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), he emerged in 1919 distributing an eight-point petition—a counterpart to President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points—entitled "Demands of the Annamite People." In 1920, Nguyen Ai Quoc became a founding member of the French Communist Party (FCP). Publication of V.I. Lenin's Theses on the National and Colonial Question, which emphatically called for support of colonial independence movements, won Nguyen Ai Quoc to the Communist International (Comintern). The question for him was simple: "Which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries?" In 1921, he served on the executive committee of the newly formed Intercolonial Union, and edited its newspaper, Le Paria. In Russia by 1923, he was elected to the presidium of the Peasant International. Ruth Fischer, a German representative to the Comintern, said that "among these seasoned revolutionaries and rigid intellectuals, he struck a delightful note of goodness and simplicity." Noting that Nguyen was "cleverer than he let on" she described him as "more inclined towards action than doctrinal debate." .
He arrived in Canton, China on November 11, 1924, taking another pseudonym, Ly Thuy, which the French Sûreté were informed of by early 1925. His primary work was building an organization called Thanh Nien, which brought people from Vietnam for training and recruited from Vietnamese already in China. When Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek turned on his communist allies, Nguyen traveled to Moscow, where in September he proposed to continue his work from Thailand. Proceeding to France in November, he made his way to Bangkok, where he organized among a large Vietnamese exile community, and was for a time disguised as a Buddhist priest.
Nguyen was assigned to bring three factions together to form the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930, although he had warned from abroad that this was premature. When party cells agitated for demonstrations against French authorities, he again urged caution, but protests began in Nghe An. After 6,000 demonstrators were suppressed by planes with machine guns, killing 120, French authorities sentenced Nguyen Ai Quoc to death in abstentia. Meantime, the name Indochinese Communist Party was adopted, in line with Comintern policy.
Nguyen was arrested by British police in Hong Kong on June 6, 1931, leading to a French request for his extradition. Frank Loseby (a lawyer arranged by International Red Aid) and Stafford Cripps (a future chancellor of the exchequer) worked against extradition. Loseby smuggled Nguyen out of a prison hospital in 1932, but his death in prison of tuberculosis was so clearly recorded that for the next ten years the French Sûreté discounted reports that Nguyen Ai Quoc was active in Vietnam.
In 1938, Nguyen trained Chiang Kai-shek's troops in guerrilla warfare to fight the Japanese Army invading China. Chiang had reluctantly allied with the Chinese Communists, as his own armies suffered defeat by Japan. Until 1940, Nguyen continued to work in China, together with Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen Giap. Looking to the potential of the developing World War II to give a free hand to independence movements in Asia, they established the first "liberated zone" at Pac Bo in the Cao Bang area in the winter of 1940.
A new party was established at the Eighth Plenum of the Indochinese Communist Party in May 1941, in a cave near Pac Bo. It took the name of Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh, League for Vietnamese Independence, generally known as the Viet Minh. Recalling how the Tran dynasty had defeated a Mongol invasion of Vietnam, Nguyen demanded a broad united front to overthrow French and Japanese rule. Shedding his Comintern name, Nguyen Ai Quoc became Ho Chi Minh. In 1942, he slipped into China to seek agreement with Chiang Kai-shek, who had him imprisoned for thirteen months. During this time Ho wrote a set of highly regarded prison notebooks, in the form of poems.
Ho Chi Minh emerged as a public figure for the first time on September 2, 1945, announcing the independence of Vietnam to a rally of 500,000 in Hanoi, in language taken from the Declaration of Independence of the United States and the French declaration of the Rights of Man. When negotiations with returning French colonial authorities broke down in December 1946, Ho led the Viet Minh in eight years of war, culminating in the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the Geneva peace conference that ended one war and laid the foundations for a second war with the United States.
The role of "Uncle Ho" in the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was in some ways largely ceremonial. He retained a collegial style of leadership, presiding at meetings of the DRV Council of Ministers, as well as the party central committee and political bureau. The powerful role of general secretary of the Vietnam Workers Party was held by Truong Chinh, until he was dismissed in 1956 for excesses in the land reform movement. Ho, who had warned against mistakes in the program for months, reluctantly accepted the post of general secretary until 1957, when Le Duan was chosen.
His health declining, Ho continued to live in a stilt house on the grounds of the presidential palace. He participated in, but did not direct, decisions on renewing the campaign for reunification with the southern zone, which began with southern-born Viet Minh cadres leading resistance to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. On September 2, 1969, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his announcement of Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh died. Announcement of his death was delayed a day so as not to dampen observance of the national holiday. The last of the wars he inspired, pursuing the teaching "Nothing is more important than independence and freedom," was to continue for another six years, before Time magazine ran his picture on its cover one last time, with a caption reading simply "The Victor." Charles Rosenberg
Bùi, Tín. Following Ho Chi Minh: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Colonel. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1995.; Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion, 2000.; Halberstam, David. Ho. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.; Lacouture, Jean. Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. Translated by Peter Wiles. Translation edited by Jane Clark. New York: Vintage, 1968.; Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, 1919–1941. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.; Sainteny, Jean. Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnam: A Personal Memoir. Translated by Herman Briffault. Chicago: Cowles, 1972.