Hours after Japan’s surrender in World War II, Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh declares the independence of Vietnam from France. The proclamation paraphrased the U.S. Declaration of Independence in declaring, “All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness!” and was cheered by an enormous crowd gathered in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. It would be 30 years, however, before Ho’s dream of a united, communist Vietnam became reality.
Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh left Vietnam as a cook on a French steamer in 1911. After several years as a seaman, he lived in London and then moved to France, where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920. He later traveled to the Soviet Union, where he studied revolutionary tactics and took an active role in the Communist International. In 1924, he went to China, where he set about organizing exiled Vietnamese communists. Expelled by China in 1927, he traveled extensively before returning to Vietnam in 1941.
There, he organized a Vietnamese guerrilla organization—the Viet Minh—to fight for Vietnamese independence. Japan occupied French Indochina in 1940 and collaborated with French officials loyal to France’s Vichy regime. Ho, meanwhile, made contact with the Allies and aided operations against the Japanese in South China. In early 1945, Japan ousted the French administration in Vietnam and executed numerous French officials.
When Japan formally surrendered to the Allies on September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh felt emboldened enough to proclaim the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. French forces seized southern Vietnam and opened talks with the Vietnamese communists. These talks collapsed in 1946, and French warships bombarded the northern Vietnamese city of Haiphong, killing thousands.
In response, the Viet Minh launched an attack against the French in Hanoi on December 19, 1946—the beginning of the First Indochina War. During the eight-year war, Mao Zedong’s Chinese communists supported the Viet Minh, while the United States aided the French and anti-communist Vietnamese forces. In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat at Dien Bien Phu, in northwest Vietnam, prompting peace negotiations and the division of Vietnam along the 17th parallel at a conference in Geneva. Vietnam was divided into northern and southern regions, with Ho in command of North Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai in control of South Vietnam.
In the late 1950s, Ho Chi Minh organized a communist guerrilla movement in the South, called the Viet Cong. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong successfully opposed a series of ineffectual U.S.-backed South Vietnam regimes and beginning in 1964 withstood a decade-long military intervention by the United States. Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969, 25 years after declaring Vietnam’s independence from France and nearly six years before his forces succeeded in reuniting North and South Vietnam under communist rule. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after it fell to the communists in 1975.