I was selected for a two week institute entitled, Contested Territory, in which we took a deep dive into the multiple understandings and misunderstanding surrounding the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese refer to it: The American War). I had a basic understanding of this war in that it was a product of the Cold War. I was taught that the Vietnam War was an avoidable mistake and that it should be a precautionary tale of how not to make that mistake again.

In a lecture given by Pierre Asselin, Professor of History at San Diego State University, I was struck by how my understanding of the Vietnam War, in which the superpowers of the cold war had used Ho Chi Minh and the landscape of Vietnam in a proxy war, was grossly oversimplifying.

In fact, Asselin argued that it was Ho Chi Minh who used Russia, the US and even China to accomplish his real goals: to expel the French, to become an independent nation, to increase civil rights in Vietnam and to produce a strong national, working class led government.

It is Ho Chi Minh who allows the US to train his Viet Minh army to fight the Japanese and then go on to use the same training to fight the French and eventually align with China to fight the US. The communist/nationalist party of Vietnam continually plays both sides of the cold war tensions between the Soviet Union and the US to get aid from both sides and to establish independence. Ho Chi Minh went so far as to model the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence on the US Declaration of Independence at the same time it was meeting with the USSR to align with the world communist struggle and model his government on its principles.

Once Truman declares a policy of containment in regards to communism the Vietnam War is inevitable. No President could survive the political fall out of allowing communism to spread in South East Asia or anywhere else. As a result, small countries become extremely important on the world stage as the US and the USSR engage in a game of RISK. But that game makes the super powers vulnerable. Small countries can now play the US and the USSR against each other to impose power over them. It becomes clear to Ho Chi Minh and others that Vietnam can now threaten to adopt communism unless they gain US support which they can then use to negotiate favor from the USSR. David and Goliath was never about the slingshot; it’s about David manipulating the giant to let down its guard just enough so that he can deliver the kill shot. The United States lost the Vietnam War when it based its foreign policy on ideology. Ho Chi Minh was not a puppet of the cold war, he was an architect.

“You will kill 10 of our men, and we will kill 1 of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.”
-Ho Chi Minh

Excerpt from TheDeclaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

“For the people of Vietnam, who were just beginning to recover from five years of ruthless economic exploitation by the Japanese, the end of World War II promised to bring eighty years of French control to a close. As the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi), better known as the Viet Minh, Vietnamese nationalists had fought against the Japanese invaders as well as the defeated French colonial authorities. With the support of rich and poor peasants, workers, businessmen, landlords, students, and intellectuals, the Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh) had expanded throughout northern Vietnam where it established new local governments, redistributed some lands, and opened granaries to alleviate the famine. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. The first lines of his speech repeated verbatim the famous second paragraph of America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence.

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement 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 the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.”

– Terry Ashkinos (Eighth Grade Humanities Teacher, CA)