Ho Chi Minh, who was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung and changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, meaning “He Who Enlightens,” was born in the Vietnamese (then called Indo-China) village of Hoàng Trù. He died in 1969 from heart failure in Hanoi.
Minh was raised and educated by his father, who was a Confucian scholar. And, in a sense, he was always a Confucian. However, Minh is widely cited as an atheist, often to point out that atheists, as well as religious zealots, participate in mass killing. But Minh took Marxism quite seriously (which we’ll get into later) and did adopt that socio-economic ideology’s penchant for atheism. Moreover, Confucianism is, by some interpretations, inherently atheistic–at least it doesn’t come with a deity or deities built in. So it wasn’t too much of a stretch for Minh, and to this day Vietnam is one of the most secular nations in the world.
Despite all of this, Ho Chi Minh made an effort to be religiously tolerant. When he took power, Catholics left over from imperial France made up a large minority of the Vietnamese population. Being diplomatic, Minh passed a government decree protecting religious freedom and recognizing The Vatican’s authority within the bounds of their church in Vietnam.
Now, in some Vietnamese circles, Minh has an almost divine legacy. He is “worshipped” in a nationalistic sense, given an elevated position in Vietnamese history. But for Minh himself, religion was sort of a side issue–a part of society that couldn’t be overlooked, but not something he seemed personally concerned with.
Evil dictator? Depends on who you ask
Minh was fortunate, having come from a somewhat affluent family, to study in France. While there, he studied Marx and decided it sounded like a pretty good idea. As a founder of the French Communist Party in 1920, Minh was always a rabid Vietnamese nationalist and resented western imperial powers exerting their influence in his country. He said:
It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me.
During post-World War I talks, as the leaders of the West convened at Versailles to divide up the world, Minh hoped to convince them to give Vietnam back to the Vietnamese–but to no avail. ((Ho Chi Minh. History Learning Site.)) He spent the better part of the next decade evangelizing for communism throughout Eurasia, working with Russians in the USSR and forming a communist party in China called the Indo-Chinese Communist Party. ((Ho Chi Minh. Hyperhistory.))
It was only a matter of time before he organized against the imperialist powers in Vietnam, first the French–who he defeated–then the Americans–who, at the cost of millions of lives, he defeated. For Minh, it was pride in Vietnam (and guerrilla warfare tactics) that accounted for his success. He said:
When our people are united as one, our nation is independent and free. Likewise, when our people are not united, our nation is invaded by foreign enemies.
The French fought him to defend their shrinking empire. The Americans fought him to try and prove a political/ideological point–that good 'ol fashioned American capitalism was greater than communism. The Vietnamese just wanted their country back. They saw Minh as the man to get the job done.