By a coincidence, I read Alex-Thai Vo‘s article in the Journal of Vietnamese Studies a couple of days before my Great Books classes met to discuss the first half of The Prince. The article is titled Nguyễn Thị Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953, and I browsed over it when it came out last spring, only to “save” it for later because it is quite long. Funny, but last week I was merely looking at several JVS articles for examples of formatting and mechanics, not anything specifically in the content.  But I got hooked quickly and read the article in entirety.  It was one of those happy distractions and, possibly, fruitful later too.

Note: The article could be accessed from the author’s account.  In this post, I use common Western spellings of well-known names such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi but resort to Vietnamese spellings for the rest.  It’s convenient if inconsistent and inelegant.

I’ll start with a summary of Vo’s article, which at sixty-two pages is likely the longest single piece ever published by JVS in its ten-year existence.  (Alex told me it was 17,700 words without notes. With notes, the word count is over 25,500: equivalent to a quarter or even a third of a short monograph!)  For a start, it is a terrific piece of research from materials collected from Archives III in Hanoi and several provincial archives elsewhere in Vietnam, plus extensive use of the published multi-volume collection of Party Documents (Văn Kiện Đảng), now indispensable to historians of Vietnamese communism.  Were a novice to ask me for an article or a book chapter related to Ho Chi Minh, I should recommend this article only after a few moments of a pause for dramatic effect.  I’d recommend it not merely for the argument and content, but also for the depth of research.  Besides, it isn’t as long as it sounds because a non-specialist can comfortably skip the section on historiography, a meaty dozen of pages: a section essential only to specialists in twentieth-century Vietnamese history.

The heart of the article starts on p. 15, and it gradually weaves three threads into one:  the woman in the title, communist policy and practice regarding land reform in the early 1950s, and the involvement of Ho Chi Minh himself.  First is Nguyễn Thị Năm, who was forced by family circumstances to enter business and eventually became a successful merchant and landowner in northern Vietnam during the 1930s and 1940s.  She also became an early and fervent supporter of communist revolutionaries even before Ho Chi Minh declared independence and began the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) during the August Revolution in 1945.  She even encouraged her two sons to join the Viet Minh, which they did.

Nguyễn Thị Năm ~ pc wikipedia

The article then moves forward to the French War, during which the communists depended on the support of the peasantry as well as landowners and merchants like Mrs. Năm.  They were therefore very careful in approaching the issue of land ownership, especially as French forces had the upper hand militarily during the first phase of the war.  However, as the war became internationalized in 1950 and shifted to the second phase, policies and practices also changed to an aggressive trajectory.  Class struggle came to the forefront, and aggressive policies regarding the countryside were formulated in 1952.  An ambitious campaign of rural mobilization and land reform began in the spring of 1953 and went on until 1956.

There were at least two major factors at work along with this shift, both having to do with foreigners. First was the Chinese influence, as the People’s Republic now supplied the DRV with the bulk of military and economic aid to fight the French.  Having provided a blueprint in shaping Vietnamese land reform, the Chinese now participated closely in at least some important policy-making, including a major proposal from the head of the powerful Chinese Political Advisory Group (and, later, the Chinese ambassador to the DRV).  Second, Ho made a visit to Moscow to see Stalin and ask for his support.  Interestingly, the Chinese proposal and the Moscow visit occurred around the same time.

Nikita Kruschev, Mao Tse-Tung, and Ho Chi Minh
There are no photos of Ho and Stalin, so this one will have to do…  Beijing on Oct 30, 1959 ~ Nikita Kruschev, Mao Tse-Tung, and Ho Chi Minh at banquet in Beijing (Peking) marking 10th anniversary of People’s Republic of China. ~ Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Here comes a critical point, and a fine contribution to scholarship.  A previously dominant opinion has held that Stalin put pressure on the Vietnamese to demonstrate their internationalist solidarity.  Ho and his comrades therefore moved openly to class struggle to gain Soviet support.  On the basis of evidence, however, Vo thinks that the Vietnamese leadership already wanted radical land reform before the aforementioned Chinese proposal and Ho’s visit to Moscow.  “The success of the Chinese communist revolutionary,” writes Vo, “which had needed the mobilization of the masses and control of the rural areas, was an object of admiration and a model that the [Vietnamese] sought to emulate.”  Land reform was going to happen anyway, “whether Stalin pressured [Ho] or not.”  Vo adds that “upon his arrival to Moscow, [Ho] knew exactly which cards he held and understood that land reform was not a matter of ideology, but of pragmatism” (emphasis mine).

Moreover, the dynamics of the French War had shifted to the communists’ favor since 1950, but it was far from reaching a decisive conclusion in early 1953.  The communists needed all the manpower from the peasantry that they could get in order to move from guerilla warfare to a more conventional style. Vo Nguyen Giap had tried to confront French forces more conventionally in 1951, but his army suffered too many casualties and he had to go back to guerilla style in 1952.  Ho, Giap, and the leadership held out hope, however, for a more aggressive confrontation after 1952.  Rural mobilization and land reform were paramount now for this goal.  But they could be achieved at some costs, including sacrificing at least some of the wealthy landowners and merchants who had supported the revolution.  The willingness to turn against landowners and merchants like Nguyễn Thị Năm constituted the “pragmatism” in Vo’s analysis.

For my money, this point is important to ponder because Ho begins to sound a lot like the sort of ruler analyzed and advocated by Machiavelli. Not in all things, of course, and Ho’s cult of personality among Vietnamese, even as a partial result of massive propaganda, might provide a contrast to one of the central maxims from The Prince: that it is better for a ruler to be feared than to be loved by the ruled.  Moreover, the set-up of the communist politburo made Ho “first among equals” rather than the Machiavellian strong-man model, strictly speaking. Before we go any further, I wish to stress that there is limit to any conceptualization of Ho as Machiavellian.

A committee member speaks during the trial of a “bourgeois” landowner in North Vietnam, 1955. ~ Image by © The Dmitri Baltermants Collection/CORBIS

On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence to consider him Machiavellian, especially as the episode about Mrs. Năm unfolded.  After an analysis of the mobilization efforts from the cadres, the article narrates her trial in three pages; gives a fascinating ten-pager of an analysis of Ho’s involvement; and offers two pages of thoughtful conclusion.  The conclusion is gently worded yet horrifying in implications about the revolutionary role of Ho in the DRV.

Briefly, Vo uncovers a good deal of evidence that Ho was fully informed of and closely involved in the development of Năm’s trials.  There were in fact three trials of Mrs. Năm: in the middle of November 1952, the middle of the following month, and May 1953.  The last trial sealed her fate, and she and an associate were condemned to death while her sons were sentenced to imprisonment.  Two months later, she and four other Vietnamese were executed by firing squad.

In contrast to widespread perception, including among many historians, Vo argues convincingly that Ho was neither a reluctant participant of land reform nor a distant observer of the on-goings during the campaign. Among the evidence is an editorial piece signed by C.B., which was one of about sixty pennames that Ho used when writing articles for the Party’s Pravda-like mouthpiece.  Published shortly after Năm’s execution, this ed/op piece was called “Landlords are so atrocious” and fervently indicted the executed in particular and the landowning class as a whole.

A reprint of Ho’s article “Landlords Are So Atrocious” ~ pc

There is a lot more to the information and analysis, leading to Vo’s conclusion as followed.

Starting with Nguyễn Thị Năm, Hồ Chí Minh used her as an example to plunge Vietnam’s rural society into fear and conflict, ultimately forcing the peasants to submit to the political structure that he and the [Communist Party] planted during and after the land reform.  By instilling and fostering hatred among social classes, Hồ Chí Minh and the [Party] opened the gates for Party cadres as well as many people to engage in indiscriminate persecution, confiscation, cleansing, and needless violence.

Ok, so it isn’t gently worded as I thought, at least not in the paragraph above.  More low-key in tone is the next paragraph, the last one of the article.

Today… the [Communist Party] venerates him and gives him equal status as the saints and Buddha on many ancestral altars. His ethical values are taught to every Vietnamese student, beginning in kindergarten. Images and accounts of his asceticism, intelligence, humility, charm, and fervent devotion to the Vietnamese nations have all become significant components of Hồ Chí Minh the person.  Essentially, to many ill-informed Vietnamese, and to foreigners, he is the embodiment of everything that is beautiful and unique about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Yet the story of Nguyễn Thị Năm remains shamefully unknown, and her contribution to the revolution continues to be ignored. 

Cesare Borgia, partial inspiration for Machiavelli’s masterpiece ~ pc wikipedia

The acquisition and maintenance of political power is of course the central concern of Machiavelli’s classic.  (In one class, I joked to students that were Machiavelli alive today, he might have published a bestseller called How to Gain and Maintain Power for Dummies.)  But there is something more specific about the sort of acquisition that Machiavelli had in mind when writing his short guidebook. “The ‘ideal’ ruler [Machiavelli] conjures in The Prince,” writes Miles Unger in his recent biography of the Florentine, “is not made for times of peace but is a grim figure at home in troubled times.” The Vietnamese setting offered a nice case study for this prognosis, and the insight easily applied to Ho Chi Minh.  But there were many other Vietnamese revolutionaries too, communist or not.  What, then, might have made it stick on Ho above the rest?

One reason, I think, is Ho’s discerning ability not only in locating the residue of political power among Vietnamese, but also in knowing when to seek it and how to enlarge and maintain it.  I find Machiavelli’s dissection of power magnificent.  Where does political power reside?  How is it segregated and variegated?   Here is an instance: the ninth chapter of The Prince, which I made sure that my students spent some time in discussion.  In this chapter, Machiavelli makes a distinction between the “nobles” and the “common people.”  He believes that a ruler

who attains the principality with the help of the nobility maintains it with more difficulty than he who becomes prince with the help of the common people, for he finds himself a prince amidst many who feel themselves to be his equals, and because of this he can neither govern nor manage them as he wishes.

There is also a distinct difference when it comes to their desires: the common people “want not to be oppressed, while [the nobles] want to oppress.”  Put it another way, the common people have a “negative” desire, which is easier to satisfy. (Machiavelli recommends that their ruler should “keep them well disposed,” whatever it may mean.)   The desire of the elite, though, is more “positive” or “active” – they want power over others, after all – and therefore a lot more difficult to satisfy without losing one’s own control.

This is a crucial point, judging on the fact that Machiavelli keeps pounding upon it.

In addition, a prince can never make himself secure when the people are his enemy, because there are so many of them; he can make himself secure against the nobles, because they are so few.  The worst that a prince can expect from a hostile people is to be abandoned by them; but with a hostile nobility, not only does he have to fear being abandoned, but also that they will oppose him. 

Do something wrong as a ruler and the masses may withdraw their support.  It is bad enough. But it’d be worse with the nobles, who will withdraw their support and plot to overthrow you.  Machiavelli offers suggestions on how to keep the support of each group. But there is no question that he considers the common people more important than the members of the nobility.  He is remarkably modern on this point alone.

Quân Vương - Thuật Trị Nước - Niccolo Machiavelli
Vietnamese translation of The Prince. The subtitle means “the art of governing a country.” ~ pc

Of course, there wasn’t a nobility in the Vietnamese case because the period was characterized by revolution and decolonization, not rivalries among a host of kingdoms, principalities, and republics like fifteenth-century Italy.  But there were political rivals who posed the threat of active opposition, including the VNQDĐ and the Đại Viêt who engaged energetically in the competition for control over the future of Vietnam.  During and shortly after the August Revolution, they became a prime target for assassinations and liquidations conducted by Vo Nguyen Giap and other communists: sometimes randomly, sometimes structurally.  Of course, the nationalist rivals attacked the communists when they could, but for various reasons the communists held the upper hand in the end.

Revolutionary violence against political enemies was martial in method and eliminationist in intent during this early phase of the revolution.  On the other hand, the wealthy classes, a small minority to be sure, were welcomed as supporters of the revolution.  Ho and the Viet Minh had much to lose had they alienated the wealthy.  He depended on them, for examples, to help bribing the occupying Nationalist Chinese troops and lending legitimacy to the revolution.  The tides, however, turned in the early 1950s, making them dispensable and disposable. Revolutionary violence resurfaced – in truth, it never really went away – and was aimed at specific class enemies for the purpose of mobilizing the poor masses for the war effort, among others.

Note the ubiquity of Ho’s photo at these trials. The two banners with white background read, “Long live the Vietnamese Workers Party” and “Long live President Ho.” The Workers Party was the contemporary name of the Communist Party. The other banners had to do with class struggle. ~ pc

I think another Machiavellian characteristic of Ho Chi Minh was his skillful employment of selective ruthlessness.  This point is important, but it is also easy to be over-simplified. As John Roe has noted in his book on Machiavelli and Shakespeare, “at no point [Machiavelli] advocates the practice of evil as acceptable in itself – despite what his many detractors then and now have said; he concedes, rather, that evil sometimes has to be used.”  Roe also reminds us that the eighth chapter of The Prince “condemns rulers who behave with gratuitous cruelty.”  In particular Roe cites the Sicilian Agathocles, whom Machiavelli praises for overcoming great adversity but also rebukes that his cruelty and inhumanity and crimes, in the Florentine’s words, “prevent us from placing him among the really excellent men.”

From the historical evidence so far, and notwithstanding what extreme anticommunists might have said against him, Ho Chi Minh did not resemble Agathocles in severity.  Otherwise it would have been extremely difficult for the Communist Party to have propagandized about him to a relatively successful outcome as it has done since the 1940s.  But there is enough evidence even before Vo’s article to indicate that this uncle could be horrible at times, and strategically so.  Hence he could be said to be Machiavellian.

On the other hand, Ho might drift away from the Florentine’s script, at least in regard to the land reform.  To return to Chapter 9, the nobles

should be considered chiefly in two ways: either they conduct themselves in such a way that they commit themselves completely to your cause, or they do not. Those who commit themselves and are not rapacious should be honored and loved.

Unfortunately for Mrs. Năm, however, she was not honored and loved but put on trial and executed. She and others among the dead were a means to the end of rural mobilization that contributed to the eventual victory at Dien Bien Phu.  But perhaps one could say that by the 1950s, the previously wealthy supporters of the revolution were no longer among the “nobles” as they had been during the 1940s.  Machiavelli’s concept of Fortuna, after all, applies to all sorts of people, not only aspiring and actual rulers.

Le Duan (left) and Truong Chinh applauded Ho’s address during the 1960 Party Congress. By this time, Ho was very much an avuncular symbol while Duan had maneuvered him, Truong Chinh, and others to the top post in the politburo. ~ pc

The association between Ho and the Machiavellian label isn’t new.  In her biography about Ho’s “missing years,” Sophie Quinn-Judge notes that some people, presumably non-Vietnamese, came to consider “Ho’s lack of ideology rigidity” something of “a Machiavellian streak.”  Quinn-Judge herself thinks that the twin stereotypes of Ho – “Machiavellian apparatchik or nationalist saint” – have become “deadweights impeding the search for the historical figure.”  In this usage, “Machiavellian” is decidedly negative and undesirable in connotation.

I take Quinn-Judge’s point, but also think that the “either-or” proposition (used by others, not by her) follows a somewhat mistaken understanding of Machiavelli.  Better, I think, is what I’d consider the Vietnamese equivalent to the word “Machiavellian”: the common label of cáo già, meaning “an old fox.”  (It can be used as an adjective, meaning “like an old fox.)  Somewhat more neutral than “Machiavellian,” cáo già nonetheless conveys an operative that should be feared and possibly admired at the same time.  It suggests a combination of cunning, resourcefulness, willfulness, skillfulness, plus a few others, including, arguably, the willingness to engage in lies and ruthlessness if necessary. A cáo già may not be as terrible as a devil, but surely he is very far from being an angel.  I think the Vietnamese use of cáo già is a lot similar to the central concept virtù in The Prince.

In the end, Alex-Thai Vo’s article is an excellent addition to scholarship.  It also offers a balance to a certain dominating strand – general histories as well as biographies of Ho such as those from Pierre Brocheux and William Duiker – that perhaps over-determines the influence of Mao’s China.  Vo’s line of thinking is closer to Tuong Vu, who has argued for the radical turn of the Vietnamese communists in 1948.  It is very nice to see some integration of Vo’s and Vu’s research in Keith Taylor‘s recent general history of the Vietnamese.  (Taylor, by the way, is Vo’s doctoral advisor at Cornell.)

I close with an example of growing scholarship.  In Duiker’s biography, he offers a well-worded summary of Ho during the French War:  he was “invisible” to the outside world but “highly visible” in the liberated zones, “acting not only as a war strategist, but also as chief recruiter and cheerleader for the revolutionary cause.”  After Vo’s article, it should be added that when he wanted to be, Ho could be invisible too in the liberated zones.  Behind the selective invisibility, he could maneuver more successfully as judge (if not executioner) without risking the avuncular appearance to the Vietnamese masses.  More research is needed before a definitive judgment could be rendered.  At this time, however, it isn’t unreasonable to entertain the notion that in at least several respects, the revolutionary old fox Ho Chi Minh was quite Machiavellian.