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Ho Chi Minh and Thomas Jefferson

July 27th, 2013

The right-wing media, led by Murdoch’s Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, are joyously outraged at Obama again. Their beef? From Fox:

It may come as some unwelcome news to the families of the nearly 60,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.

That was the impression President Obama gave on Thursday when he spoke to the press after his meeting with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang. Sang brought Obama a copy of a letter sent to President Harry Truman from Ho Chi Minh in which the communist dictator spoke hopefully of cooperation with the United States.

Obama, striking a wistful tone, observed that it may have taken 67 years, but the United States and Vietnam were finally enjoying the relationship that Ho once wrote of. After all, Obama said, Ho had been “inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson.”

The WSJ piles on:

One can imagine the wily Ho Chi Minh laughing from his grave. Once upon a time, antiwar activists in America called him “the George Washington of Vietnam.” Now the U.S. president is taking a similar line.

Holy Crap! Obama essentially praised Ho Chi Minh as a font of freedom, compared him to our founding fathers, and completely disrespected every American veteran of the Vietnam War! Obama apparently thinks Ho Chi Minh was some sort of venerable hero! Ultimately, he said that Ho Chi Minh was just as great and just as dedicated to Democracy and peace and individual liberty as Jefferson!

Right? Because that’s what these news reports make it sound like. We don’t have to actually see the whole quote in context, or anything, do we?

At the conclusion of the meeting, President Sang shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman. And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States. And President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress.

Hm. So, Obama is not actually praising the former leader of Vietnam. He’s being diplomatic with a new ally who we used to be at war with. He’s just saying that Ho Chi Minh was inspired by Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, and wanted cooperation with the U.S.

So, was he? A historian relates a public speech by Ho Chi Minh in 1945:

A frail-looking wisp of a man advanced to the microphone. “All men are created equal,” he declared, as all of Hanoi listened. “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He paused and then elaborated. “This immortal statement,” he explained, “was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: all the peoples on earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”

That was not all. Just as Jefferson’s immortal vision of unalienable rights and freedoms was followed by a kind of legal brief that documented at length all the abuses committed by King George III and the English Parliament against their American subjects, Ho Chi Minh similarly outlined the grievances of the Vietnamese against France, their colonial master. As his listeners strained to hear him, he reminded them that France was still attempting to destroy Vietnamese unity by artificially dividing the nation into three separate political regions, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. France burdened the Vietnamese with unjust taxes; France expropriated the people’s land, rice fields, and forests; France ruled by decree and not by law; she built prisons instead of schools, and in Indochina’s darkest hour, France abandoned her to the Japanese.

Jefferson, toward the end of his great document, had proclaimed that the Americans were simultaneously dissolving all political ties with Great Britain and declaring their independence. “We … the representatives of theUnited States of America. . . do . . . solemnly publish and declare,” he wrote, “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Ho Chi Minh struggled to recall Jefferson’s exact words. “We, the members of the provisional government of the democratic republic of Vietnam proclaim solemnly to the entire world: Viet Nam has the right to be free and independent, and, in fact, has become a free and independent country.”

FDR, as it turns out, had advocated the independence of colonies, pledging the release of the Philippines to its people after the end of the war. Ho Chi Minh saw this as a hopeful sign, and indeed appealed to America for support. However, France was not so inclined, and Truman, in the new anti-Communist post-war atmosphere, sided with his ally and against the specter of another Communist regime.

So, actually, what Obama said was 100% accurate, and you can’t exactly blame him for trying to find common ground with a current ally. I mean, he’s trying to create ties with Vietnam, should he really say, “President Sang shared this letter with me, which suggested that Ho Chi Minh was inspired by Jefferson. But that’s an insult—the man was a brutal dictator who tortured people”?

Yeah, that would go over well.

That, however, is the tone of conservatives now, who are eagerly infuriated by Obama’s statement. Texas congressman Sam Johnson (R), for instance, is pissed:

“Sadly, when it comes to individual liberty, the President doesn’t have a clue,” he said in a statement issued by his office Friday afternoon. “What an insult to the POWs brutally tortured at the merciless hands — and rifle butts — of our captors. This is a slap in the face to those who served — and especially those who paid the ultimate price for freedom during that dark time in history. Let me tell you, there was nothing ‘free’ about my seven years in captivity in Hanoi — more than half of that time in solitary confinement. As a fellow POW etched on a prison cell wall, ‘Freedom has a taste to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.’ ”

Yes, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Communists led by Ho kept enemy combatants prisoner—I mean, who does that? America would never hold people prisoner. Except, like Vietnam, enemy soldiers. And, now, people accused without evidence of being “enemy combatants.” And more than 100,000 U.S. citizens during WWII who did nothing except share an ancestry with an enemy state. And, arguably, a sizable percentage of America’s African-American population, under laws biased towards their imprisonment, under a system where private institutions profit the longer they stay behind bars.

But, hey, let’s be fair: Ho tortured his prisoners. The United States of America would never… ummm… oh crap. The same conservatives now outraged at Obama were, in fact, the ones who, for the first time in our history, instituted torture as an official policy of the state. These same people defended and protected that policy.

Well, at least we can be outraged at the fact that a man like Thomas Jefferson was being invoked by someone who was so anti-freedom … except that, despite being Communist, Ho Chi Minh was trying to gain free self-rule for his country. And Jefferson was not exactly pristine to begin with—he was a slave owner, after all.

So, history is not quite so clear-cut. Obama’s statement was true. The history is muddled. And those now celebrating a new reason to denounce the president, no matter how flimsy, are abusing the truth in the name of partisan politics.

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  1. Tim
    July 29th, 2013 at 03:12 | #1

    I think the parallels between the Vietnamese war for independence and the American war for independence are tight, and that way on purpose.

    The success of the Americans created a pattern worth following, and the Vietnamese did just that.

    (1) Elites: The Americans were lead by an elite of upper class and upper middle class people who had a stake in the outcome of the war.

    (2) Ideology:
    But wars are a game of numbers. To enlist the people to get behind them, they attached their war to the generous ideology of liberty. In the dark days of 1775, 1776, and 1777 it was easy for a vulnerable elite in revote from their king to make cheap promises and declare all people are equal, have rights: life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (which to the elites was property).

    3) Enlist support from powerful states.
    By the treaty of Paris which ended the war of American Independence, every self respecting nation in Europe was in alliance with the Americans: France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The cost of fighting the war was thus escalating. The English cut their losses in North America after Yorktown, and then concentrated on its more valuable holdings in the Caribbean – where they were much more successful.

    The Vietnamese, more or less, had all three of these elements. They substituted communism for liberalism. There is a reason for that. Confucianism had empowered a land holding aristocracy for two thousand years throughout the far east – which prevented progress. The communist ideology supported economic emancipation of the peasantry.

    Ironically, in the post World War II era, land reform took place in all the Confucian countries that were under American protection: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

    The aristocracy were given cash in exchange for the land. The peasantry became, for a short while, more like Jeffersonian vision of land holding farmers. They had to pay something for their land holding, but, immediately, they got to keep more of the rents of their labor. This was supplemented by high tariffs on agriculture. Thus, the farmers received more money, in cash, for their produce.

    This increased purchasing power and demand in the local economies. The aristocracy then invested in factories to meet that demand. Again, initially, aided by collection of tariff and non-tariff barriers (in the case of Japan, the state department intervened – asking General Motors and Ford not to re-open their auto factories that had been there before the war, and allow a domestic auto industry to emerge).

    Everything Ho was fighting for, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea got – in part because New Deal lawyers and administrators had great influence on the policies crafted in these countries and Americans wanted to cut farmers a better deal so that they wouldnt be seduced by Communism.

    The big problem then, is the Republican Party. By 1952 they’d been out of the White House for 20 years. To get back in they attacked Democrats for being soft on communism, and for losing China. Republicans were successful in making communism look as lethal as fascism – even worse for its atheism, and then casting Democrats as being communist light.

    This forced the U.S. to re-actively oppose Communist everywhere, and Democrats, to avoid being tagged as soft on Communism were prone to demonstrate vigor in this regard. Johnson, who was busy giving us “the great society” and civil rights, also then, amped up the war in Vietnam. Pity.

    The stupidity of American foreign policy is mocked by Graham Green in his book “The Quiet American” – where, as early as 1952, when the plot for the book came to him, he predicted the next 20 years of history in Vietnam.

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