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Learning from Ho Chi Minh
December 15, 2013
by William P. Meyers

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Like most of my fellow Americans, I associate Ho Chi Minh with the Vietnam War. Having recently completed William J. Duiker's rather detailed biography of Ho [Ho Chi Minh, A Life], I found much that is worthy of study by Americans, indeed by anyone in the world who thinks politics should be about positive change.

Ho was the son of a peasant-scholar. The closest American equivalent to his father would be someone with a tiny farm that produced food but not money, and a teaching (or tutoring job) that provided middle-class status without the money that accompanies it in the U.S. Because his father continued to pursue his studies (in the only topic considered worthy in 19th century Vietnam, Confucian philosophy), he migrated to the city of Hue and Ho was exposed to the reality of French control of his country. It was a grim picture. After failing to convert the Vietnamese with Roman Catholic priests and commerce, the French had come in with guns blazing. They taught a few people their piggish language and culture, but were mainly there to extract wealth, no matter how many Vietnamese died in the process.

If did not matter who was in charge of the government of France over the decades: conservatives, moderates, liberals, progressives, fascists (Petain and the Vichy regime) and even Socialists all insisted that once conquered, the Vietnamese had to remain in the French empire.

Ho Chi Minh, of course, was not the only one to revolt against French rule. The story of his becoming the leader of his country has some resemblance to that of George Washington in the U.S., but Ho started with less, worked much harder and longer, and accomplished more.

While in theory Ho could be said to be a Marxist, a Leninist, even a Stalinist and a Maoist, he compares well to those men of totalitarian bent. While the Vietnamese did fight the French and eventually the Americans, Ho was by nature a peaceful guy. He negotiated continuously with his friends and enemies alike. Constantly gave both the French and the Americans (and domestic opposition parties) an easy out: withdraw peacefully, and let us govern ourselves, was his only message.

Duiker sums up how Ho operated: "be thrifty, be friendly but impartial, resolutely correct errors, be prudent, respect learning, study and observe, avoid arrogance and conceit, and be generous."

To be thrifty means resources are available for the good of others, or for a good cause. Ho lived in what only could be called poverty for his entire life. Unlike Washington, who was rich and owned slaves, and Mao and Stalin, who lived luxuriously after obtaining power, Ho really just did not feel a leader should live better than the people he served.

To be friendly but impartial is a difficult dance, in my experience. Friends want you to give them breaks you would not give to non-friends. But impartiality is important for many reasons, including that it keeps you from being deluded by your friends. People who hold your impartiality against you are corrupt. They are the problem, not the impartiality.

To resolutely correct errors is a bit more than learning from your mistakes. A lot of people don't even notice when they are making mistakes. In the corporate world the quality control principles used at Toyota, which have spread to many other manufacturers, are a system for resolutely correcting errors. In politics people tend to stick to positions no matter how counterproductive they are in reality. That is how you get organizations like the Democratic Party and Republican Party, and for that matter the dysfunctional communist parties of the 20th century.

Hopefully the benefits of prudence and respecting learning don't need to be explained, though they are often absent or minimally present in American life.

"Study and observe." How often have you seen someone fly off the handle because they misunderstand a situation? How many disasters have occurred because people oversimplify something complex, or don't bother to understand the materials they are working with at all? In particular, Americans don't know their own history, much less world history, and not knowing history, cannot see what will result from various actions or inaction.

"Avoid arrogance and conceit." Not only are these characteristics off-putting, but they prevent you from learning from others. I would note, however, that pretending to be ignorant in order to avoid being accused of arrogance is also a no-win situation for everyone.

Finally, be generous. Generosity can take many forms. I don't think Ho had a lot of money to give away at any point in his life. He was generous, however (considering the circumstances) with people who disagreed with him politically. In retrospect his whole life might have seemed like an endless meeting in which he tried to persuade people to do the right thing. He tried to persuade the French and Americans to give the Vietnamese their freedom. But he also spent countless hours trying (and to some extent succeeding) to get his younger, more ideological communist comrades to not think their job was to boss peasants (or intellectuals, or even business people or other party members) around.

Duiker's book fleshes out how Ho Chi Minh tried to put these guidelines into action. It also sheds a lot of light on the psychology and workings of imperialism, which is still a problem in the world today. Leninist-style communism may no longer be the best way to fight (or peacefully oppose) imperialism, but the lessons from Ho's life are now our common human heritage.

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