Ho Chi Minh and Thomas Jefferson

By Susan Dunn

In September 1945, hundreds of thousands of people jammed the French-looking boulevards and streets of downtown Hanoi. They had traveled in oppressive heat from distant villages for the great day. Schools and offices were closed. Jubilant peasants wearing their black “pajamas” and straw hats, workers, mountain people, militia members carrying spears, Catholic priests in their black suits and Buddhist monks in their saffron robes all waited excitedly. Banners and flowers adorned the buildings; flags fluttered in the occasional warm breezes. All faces turned toward the platform erected in Ba Dinh Square, a large park near the French residential quarter.

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 the United 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.”

The American Declaration of Independence ends with a pledge taken by all its signers. “And, for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Ho Chi Minh’s version of the final pledge encompassed not just the signers but the whole Vietnamese people. “The entire people of Viet Nam,” Ho declared, “are determined to mobilize all their spiritual and physical strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.”

Days earlier, Ho Chi Minh and his advisers had been laboring to recall as much of Jefferson’s language as they could. Ho had memorized the opening lines of the Declaration when he visited the United States as a menial laborer on a tramp steamer before World War I, but his memory had faded. He wondered if one of the American intelligence officers serving in Vietnam could help. During World War II, James Patti headed the Vietnam mission of the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the precursor of the CIA. During the summer and fall of 1945, Major Patti, along with Brigadier General Philip Gallagher and Captain Farris, observed Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh party. For Patti, Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, not a “starry-eyed revolutionary or a flaming radical.” “I felt he could be trusted as an ally against the Japanese,” Patti recalled. “I saw that his ultimate goal was to attain American support for the cause of a free Viet Nam.”

Ho explained to Patti that his draft of the Vietnamese declaration of independence needed polishing. Someone translated Ho’s words as Patti listened carefully. Patti immediately realized that the translator was reading very familiar words. After the translator read a few sentences, Patti turned to Ho in amazement and asked if he really intended to use this text as his declaration of independence. “I don’t know why it nettled me,” Patti mused. “Perhaps a feeling of proprietary right, or something equally inane.” Ho sat back in his chair, his palms together with fingertips touching his lips ever so lightly, as though meditating. “Should I not use it?” he asked. Patti was embarrassed. Why should Ho not use it? The translator started again: all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness. “Life must come before liberty:’ Patti remarked. Ho snapped to the point. “Why, of course, there is no liberty without life.” Ho pressed Patti for more, but that was all the American could remember.

For educated revolutionary leaders in Asia, American history had much to teach. In the 1920s, Sun Vat Sen, the Chinese revolutionary and republican, had written extensively on American history in his Three Principles of the People. This founder of modern China had studied in depth the two “finest” periods in American history, the American Revolution and the Civil War. Sun admired the Americans’ revolt against their unequal treatment at the hands of the British, their willingness to endure eight years of war, and their creation of an independent state. The Civil War was another “shining” example of the struggle for equality. American history contained important lessons on revolution and democracy for the Chinese, although the Chinese, Sun noted, would eventually have to find their own formula for government.

Ho Chi Minh too turned to the United States for inspiration. Would he have borrowed Jefferson’s words for the joyous celebration of Vietnamese independence if he had not understood and identified with the Americans’ eighteenth-century anti-colonial revolt, if he had not admired their revolutionary spirit? Perhaps there was a practical side to Ho’s stratagem too. He might have felt that his use of Jefferson’s Declaration would impart some legitimacy to his struggle, that it would be a signal to the Americans that he respected them, that he wanted their friendship as well as their support for his own sister revolution.

Indochinese independence had become a “near-obsession” for President Roosevelt during 1943 and 1944, and Ho’s expectation that the United States would support his independence movement was entirely reasonable. Historians view Roosevelt’s ideals as unquestionably anti-colonial, though they note that he lacked a dear strategy for achieving these goals. To his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, Roosevelt spoke frankly about Indochina. “France has milked Indo-China for one hundred years,” Roosevelt wrote in a memo. “The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.” A month later at the Yalta Conference, where matters as consequential as the reconstitution and the future of Europe were decided, Roosevelt did not forget Indochina. He remarked to Stalin that “the Indochinese were people of small stature … and were not warlike. He added that France had done nothing to improve the natives since she had the colony.”

Roosevelt’s promise to grant independence to the Philippines buoyed Ho Chi Minh, for the American President had also urged the European colonial powers to grant independence to their own colonies. Ho hoped that his case for the independence of Vietnam would reach the attention of “the great president Roosevelt.”

The situation changed somewhat, however, after de Gaulle’s visit to America the summer of 1944. The French leader proposed the idea of a French federation in which Indochina would have representation. As for the Vietnamese, they wanted Vietnamese unity and independence, not Indochinese citizenship within a “French Union.” But Roosevelt wavered, finding it increasingly difficult to thwart the colonial claims of his close allies, England and the Free French.

After Roosevelt’s death, America’s diplomatic policy changed sharply. Only a few months after Ho’s declaration of independence, the American State Department’s Far Eastern Bureau declared that the United States would respect French sovereignty in Indochina. Roosevelt’s anti-colonialism was displaced by the Cold War’s demands for an anti-Communist foreign policy. By 1946 all official American references to Ho in Washington were prefixed with the word “Communist.” Dean Acheson, the Acting Secretary of State, branded Ho Chi Minh an “agent of international communism.” Though the American OSS officers in Hanoi had liked and trusted Ho, even joining him in celebrating his Vietnamese “Fourth of July,” by the end of the decade Ho had been transformed into a Communist enemy.


Excerpted from Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light by Susan Dunn. 

Copyright © 1999 by the author and reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc, an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

SUSAN DUNN is a professor of literature at Williams College and author of many books, including George Washington and The Three Roosevelts.