Why Newhaven should go ahead and put up a statue of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was not a monster like Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. It’s quite reasonable for Newhaven council to accept the Vietnamese Embassy’s gift.

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

I generally do not follow the local politics of East Sussex and people generally do not feel the need to educate me about it. Nonetheless, a number of people have sent me links to stories about a particular decision made by Newhaven Town Council. So here, for what it’s worth is my take on it.

The Vietnamese Embassy in London has offered to have an eight foot statue of Ho Chi Minh built and erected in the port town of Newhaven (population: 12,250). For a time, Ho was a pastry chef working aboard the ferry that ran between Dieppe and Newhaven. The embassy wants this to be recognised and to that end has already supplied a plaque, which this statue is supposed to supplement.

This has drawn criticism from the local Conservative MP, Maria Caulfield, who said that:

“A statue when the town is in such need of regeneration is not the best use of money wherever it’s coming from… The other issue is, is Ho Chi Minh a man we should be commemorating?”

She described described Ho as:

a deceased communist dictator who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

None of which is terribly convincing. The statue is not a poor use of money set aside for regenerating Newhaven but a reasonable way of spending the money allocated to the Vietnamese Embassy for promoting Vietnam-UK relations.*

Nor is it correct to characterise Ho as a monster. That’s an unusual stance for me to be taking: I find it odd how far it remains politically correct to play with communist iconography, especially given our (justified) intolerance of fascist symbols. People wear t-shirts with, for example, hammer and sickles or Che Guevara on it without giving it much thought. The Cuban regime is praised for its healthcare in a manner reminiscent of the way Mussolini used to be praised for making the trains run on time. And a shockingly large number of westerners are unaware of the enormity of the crimes committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

However, I don’t feel that Ho belongs in that rogues gallery. Which is not to say I would count myself as a fan. He picked the wrong side in the Cold War, advocated an economic model that has proven itself to retard growth and inaugurated a political system that to this day fails to provide democracy, human rights or the rule of law.

But that he’s a far more humane figure than say Mao. In a biography of Ho, the French historian Pierre Brocheux describes a meeting between the two men during which:

Mao applauded the brutality of counterrevolutionaries inasmuch as the Chinese revolution had benefited from the massacres carried out by Chiang Kai-Shek. Ho reacted by saying that killing was not moral and so justifying it was equally immoral. Mao responded, “He kills, I kill, it’s not a matter of morality.”

At which point Mao’s protégé Liu Shaqoi apparently began lecturing the Vietnamese leader on why morality itself was an “anti-Marxist” concept.

Despite having this desire to avoid bloodshed, it is true that bloodshed certainly occurred during Ho’s time as leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to hold him personally responsible for it or worse still to imply that he was its architect.

I am assuming that Caulfield’s claim that he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths refers to the land reform campaign that took place in the aftermath of the French defeat. They were certainly violent – though whether there were hundreds of thousands is debatable – but whereas Mao would probably have intensified them, Ho attempted to rein them in. On February 8th, he issued a decree likening the brutality of the methods used to root out landlords to those deployed by the French and Japanese during their occupations of Vietnam. It’s hard not to conclude he should have done more, earlier to prevent this violence but that’s a different kind of culpability from the one Caulfield seems to be implying.

This point applies with even more force to the later stages of his presidency. It has generally been assumed that he continued to direct policy until his death in 1969. A rather different view has rapidly gained credence thanks to the work of Dr Lien-Hang T. Nguyen. In a sharp break from previous American-centric histories of the war, she used archives in Vietnam to show how decisions were made in Hanoi. Among other things, she discovered that those decisions were emphatically not being taken by Ho. Instead, over the course of the 1960s his eventual successor Le Duan had seized control of the party apparatus and confined Ho to the role of figurehead. She has written that:

The quiet, stern Mr. Duan shunned the spotlight but he possessed the iron will, focus and administrative skill necessary to dominate the Communist Party.

[He] constructed a sturdy militarist empire that still looms over Hanoi today. [His] hawkish policies led North Vietnam to war against Saigon and then Washington, and ensured that a negotiated peace would never take the place of total victory.

Mr. Duan ruled the party with an iron fist and saw Ho and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, renowned for defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, as the greatest threats to his authority. He sidelined Ho, General Giap and their supporters when making nearly all key decisions.

In 1963-4, Mr. Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aging leader opposed the controversial decision to escalate the war and seek all-out victory before American forces could intervene. And in 1967-8, there was a large-scale purge in Hanoi when Ho, General Giap and their allies opposed Mr. Duan’s plans for the Tet Offensive. Although the southern war initially rallied North Vietnamese to support the party, it soon became a quagmire. Mr. Duan and Mr. Tho reacted by creating a garrison state that labeled any resistance to their war policies as treason. By increasing the powers of internal security forces and ideological police and subjugating the southern insurgency to Hanoi, they were able to wage total war at their discretion until 1975.

So can Ho can largely be acquitted of responsibility for the most brutal aspects of communist rule.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the he was not operating in an environment that was exactly favourable to benign and gentle government. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was not obviously more oppressive than the American backed government in Saigon or the neutral monarchy of Norodom Sihanouk that ruled neighbouring Cambodia.

And Newhaven Council should not forget some the commendable aspects of life:

  1. He led the movement that ended nearly a century of pernicious French Colonialism.
  2. He was a British ally in the fight against Japanese militarism.
  3. His abhorrence of violence appears to have gone beyond the theoretical and to have guided his decision making. We’ve already seen that he had misgivings about the bloodshed that would result from an all out war with the Americans and he repeatedly risked his popularity and position to try to achieve independence without going to war with the French. That he failed says more about French intransigence than it does about him.

So if anyone from Newhaven is reading, my advice would be to go ahead and put up the statue. Ho is certainly not beyond reproach but he’s not the villain your MP thinks he is. He is definitely an important and interesting figure, and his link with your town is part of its history. There’s nothing in his record that requires you to snub a nation of ninety million people.

*Though I might suggest that using the money to put in a place a system that allows people to pay for their visas by card as well as cash do more to achieve that objective!