Jan. 20 (Monday)

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 Nguyen Sinh Cung
Ho Chi Minh about 1946
Full Name: Nguyen Sinh Cung
Born: May. 19, 1890 in Hoang Tru, Vietnam, Vietnam
Died: Sep. 2, 1969 in Hanoi, Vietnam

Thousands of soldiers known as Viet Cong waged a heroic war against French, then American military forces for two decades (1955-75), eventually defeating both countries. Yet the only name familiar to many Americans is Ho Chi Minh (his original name was Nguyen Sinh Cung), founder of the Indochina Communist Party (1930) and its successor, the Viet-Minh (1941), and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) from 1945-69. Encyclopedia Britannica sums up his accomplishments nicely: “As the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement for nearly three decades, Ho was one of the prime movers of the post-World War II anti-colonial movement in Asia and one of the most influential communist leaders of the 20th century.”

The son of a poor country scholar, Ho Chi Minh had a wretched childhood in the village of Kim Lien in colonial Vietnam. As an adult, he found work as a seaman, which enabled him to travel around the world. While living in France, Ho Chi Minh became a socialist, first flirting with power when he drafted a petition demanding that France grant its colonial subjects in Indochina equal rights. The petition was given to the great powers at the Versailles Peace Conference that ended World War I in 1919. Though he was ignored by the Western powers, he became a hero to many politically conscious Vietnamese. The following year he was inspired by the success of the communist revolution in Russia and Vladimir Lenin’s anti-imperialist doctrine.

Ironically, the Vietnamese freedom fighters were aided by World War II, which saw two of their main adversaries crushed — France and Japan (which overran Indochina during the war). In fact, they allied with the U.S. against Japan. But the end of World War II saw the return of French military forces. The Viet Cong beat France, but Vietnam was divided into two countries, with the U.S. supporting South Vietnam. In order to reunify their country, Ho Chi Minh’s forces had to fight against the most powerful war machine ever assembled, battling a frightening array of conventional weapons and biochemical weapons, notably Agent Orange.

Ho Chi Minh officially stepped down from power in 1965 due to health problems, though he remained a highly visible figurehead and inspiration for those Vietnamese fighting for his cause — a united, communist Vietnam. His death in 1969 damaged chances for an early settlement, but the Viet Cong never gave up. After the war, Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.