The enigma of Ho Chi Minh continues to both fascinate and mystify. In Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution: In the Words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives (McFarland, 395 pp., $45, paper; $24.99, Kindle) the British security and defense analyst Virginia Morris uses first-hand accounts of Vietnamese officials to try to understand how Ho could defeat two vastly superior armies and unify a country. Morris says her work is “distinctive” because it is “told from the point of view of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.”
She argues that what made Ho’s “blueprint” unique was not the insurgent strategies and tactics that have been used for centuries, but how he “combined [them] and then used the population that made his unified system new.” Through an exhaustive use of interviews, Morris thoughtfully examines Ho’s use of female couriers, his implementation of both regular and irregular armies; and his deft approach to communications and logistics, mass propaganda campaigns, and domestic and international diplomacy. Ho’s nationalist vision of an independent and unified Vietnam, Morris shows, never wavered.
Almost all serious works on Ho Chi Minh center on one question: Was he, as the historian Sophie Quinn-Judge described him, the “Nationalist Saint” of Vietnam, or was he the “Machiavellian Apparatchik” of the Chinese and Soviets?
Morris’ work places Ho squarely in the first camp. Her enthusiasm for the subjects in her book is palpable, but this sympathetic portrayal impugns an objective treatment of the material as Morris either belittles or ignores the violence and terror of the communist system. There is no mention of the more than one million Vietnamese who fled North Vietnam in 1954, the thought reform campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s that persecuted so-called “class enemies,” and the North Vietnamese tactic of placing civilians in harm’s way to use casualties for propaganda purposes.
In sections on the communist infiltration into the South Vietnamese government and other organizations, when direct propaganda or blackmail proves ineffective, Morris casually mentions that targets were “eventually killed.” The land reforms that led to the deaths of thousands were Ho’s “concession” to the Chinese and the Soviets, she writes, for their financial and military support. These tactics, though abhorrent, were effective, but are not part of the “blueprint.”
The implication of the title is that Ho Chi Minh’s blueprint is transferrable, but Morris does not make this case. Though it is implicit in her work, she misses the key element of all successful revolutions: the cult of personality in leaders as disparate as Mao, Nehru, Lenin, Castro, and Tito.
The book would have been strengthened with an examination into the myth making of “Uncle Ho.” One question not answered: When he was internally criticized in the early 1960s and ultimately forced out of the leadership by Le Duan, why was Ho willing to become a ceremonial figurehead?
Morris asserts that few people understand the strategies behind Ho’s blueprint, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. In her epilogue, she lists the banal, self-help tactics that Ho employed:
“Have a clear objective and robust strategy on how to achieve it. Create a strong brand. Use the people and utilize their traits, strengths and weaknesses… Be diplomatic. Form alliances.” In trying to prove that the blueprint was unique, Morris may be missing that it was Ho Chi Minh who was inimitable.
The book’s strength is its use of primary-source interviews. Here, Morris’ efforts are exemplary. Although the sources are generally put in context, more analysis and narrative would have elevated the prose. Quotes from the sources generally run over a page, which weakens the narrative integrity.
The use of maps and diagrams is mostly effective, but some are presented in a level of detail that renders them challenging to follow.
Despite these shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution is a welcome and important work on the conundrum of Ho Chi Minh.
–Daniel R. Hart