Ho Chi Minh
Among the 20th century revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh waged the longest — and in terms of human lives sacrificed, the costliest — battle against colonial power. The forces he led fought and defeated the Japanese, the French and finally the Americans in his fight for Vietnamese independence.
Ho was born Nguyen Sinh Cung, the third of three children. As a young man, he traveled around the world working on a French ocean liner. Before and during World War I, he lived in the United States and London, then moved to France. While there, he became a fervent believer in the socialist movement. In the following years, his commitment to an independent, Communist Vietnam took him to the Soviet Union and China.
The affectionate name given to him by his countrymen, "Uncle Ho," gives rise to an image as a kindly, humble man. Yet Ho was a life-long revolutionary, who used any and all means to achieve his ends. Ho first led an insurrection against Japanese occupiers. In 1945, Ho's commandos took Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. In one of the ironies of history, Ho Chi Minh paraphrased a future enemy's benchmark of freedom — the U.S. Declaration of Independence -- while addressing an enormous crowd after the success against the Japanese. Ho proclaimed: "All men are born equal. The Creator has given us inviolable rights: life, liberty, and happiness!"
The nation's freedom was short-lived, however, as the French tried to reassert their colonial rule over Vietnam after World War II. Ho again led revolutionary forces against outside control, fighting an eight-year war that led to the division of Vietnam into two countries, North and South Vietnam. An election that was meant to be held in 1956 to reunite the country under a democratically elected leader was never held. South Vietnam, backed by the United States, refused to participate in the elections, fearful Ho would win.
Under these adverse conditions, Ho's regime in the North became rigidly totalitarian. Agricultural reforms in 1955-56 were brutal and repression became the norm. War continued. After the defeated French exited, the United States escalated its involvement, supporting a series of weak governments in South Vietnam.
As president of North Vietnam, Ho led the armed struggle against the South -- and its United States allies -- to reunite the country. Although the U.S. opposed Ho because he was a Communist, the leader once explained, "It was patriotism, not Communism, that inspired me." His loyal supporters waged a guerrilla war against the United States, finally causing the super power to withdraw from the peninsula.
Vietnamese independence was finally achieved, just six years after Ho's death in 1969 at age 79. The victory came at a staggering price: an estimated three million North and South Vietnamese were killed in the struggle. After their victory, the Communists put Ho's embalmed body on display, yet the act defied his final wishes. Ho, a practical man who looked to the peasants for his support, wanted his remains to be scattered over three Vietnamese hilltops. Explained an elderly Ho: "Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland."