Last week, Barack Obama had a meeting with Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang. After the meeting, Obama had some remarks about the relationship between Ho Chi Minh and American history:
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 US 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.
All true. But conservatives are flipping out that the Kenyan Usurper supports Vietnamese communism, which they already knew anyway.
Several conservative media outlets blasted the president on similar terms. “Obama may have just been trying to flatter his guest who was obviously eager to show that Ho was not the monster history shows him to be,” Chris Stirewalt, digital politics editor for Fox News wrote. “But his connection between the American founders and Ho shows either a massive lack of historical knowledge on the part of the president or a remarkable degree of moral flexibility.” (The Drudge Report quickly picked up the Fox piece.) The headline at Breitbart.com read, “Obama Praises Communist Dictator & American Enemy Ho Chi Minh.” And so on and so forth.
Hilarious stuff. But Ho’s history with the United States goes back well before 1945, when Ho appealed to the U.S. for help against French colonialism at the close of World War II. In 1919, Ho Chi Minh was a 29-year old Vietnamese nationalist living in Paris. Like nationalists across the colonized world, Ho was inspired by the words of Woodrow Wilson around national self-determination. Ho already had a positive view of America’s revolutionary history and hoped he could enlist Wilson in the Vietnamese cause. He was not alone. Nationalists in Africa, China, and India also held onto Wilson’s words as a great promise. Of course what none of these people knew was that Wilson was a white supremacist and colonialist and that his vision of self-determination existed solely for European white people. Ho tried to meet with Wilson, but the president of course refused and gave America’s support to French colonialism in Asia. When Wilson failed to live up to the promise that Ho and others had projected upon him, they turned to the alternative of the Soviet Union. But in 1919, this was a decidedly second choice. Not only was the USSR weak, divided, and in the middle of a raging civil war, but the nationalists from colonized countries preferred U.S. help because of the vision of freedom and democracy it represented. Unfortunately, American rhetoric has never lived up to reality, especially when it comes to nations of brown people. The Haitians were inspired by the American Revolution and the U.S. isolated it after it kicked out the French. The nations of Latin America were inspired by the American Revolution and we know how the U.S. have treated those nations throughout the post-1821 years.
So in thinking about Ho’s relationship with the United States, it’s a story not only of his, perhaps idealized, vision of the United States, but of the failed opportunities of American foreign policy to reject colonialism after both World War I and World War II and create positive relationships with developing nations. I’m not saying this was a particularly realistic stance for the United States to take in 1919 (although it was in 1946), but in the history of mistakes with bad consequences, blowing off Ho Chi Minh has to be pretty high.