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Was Ho Chi Minh nationalist or communist? The easy answer, and probably the best, is that the question is irrelevant for he was both. His credentials as a nationalist are unimpeachable, yet he was unswerving in his adherence to the theory and practice of Marxist- Leninist revolution and stands in the legendary first generation of communist leaders alongside Lenin, Trotsky and Mao Tse-tung.

The communists at first concentrated on organization and on developing their theory, downplaying direct revolutionary action. Meanwhile the VNQDD was attacking French officials and assassinating collaborators, and many of Ho's colleagues urged a more active communist role. Ho's policy of restraint was vindicated when the French attacked the nationalist with brutal effectiveness in 1930-31 and the communists moved against their rivals at an early stage by liquidating thousands of nationalists, at times with French connivance. Then, in 1939, a French crackdown forced Ho's cadres to go underground or flee.

At this low ebb in their fortunes the Communists were saved by World War II and, improbably, by Japanese imperialism. When Japan moved into Vietnam in 1940, France had fallen to Nazi Germany and Indochina was under the Vichy regime, nominally a Japanese ally. The Japanese quickly put down such resistance as the French offered, installed garrisons and took control of strategic airfields, but left the colonial regime in place. Then, in March of 1945, with Nazi Germany defeated and Japan's days numbered, partisans of French leader Charles de Gaulle attempted a coup. Their plans were compromised and the Japanese struck first, interning French troops, imprisoning their leaders and replacing them with a Vietnamese puppet government. For its leader they turned to the last of the Nguyen Emperors, French-educated Bao Dai, crowned as a boy in 1932. Meanwhile, in May of 1941 Ho had organized the Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, the "League for the Independence of Vietnam", Vietminh for short. A well known communist as Nguyen Ai Quoc, he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh to conceal his party affiliation. Vietminh cadres set up base camps in the jungles of the Viet Bac, between the Red River Delta and the Chinese border, and began the patient work of organization, training and recruitment, working at first mainly among non-Vietnamese mountain tribes. During a trip to China in August of 1942, Ho fell into nationalist hands and was jailed, only to be released the following September and sent south with a monthly subsidy of 100,000 Chinese dollars to foment anti-Japanese resistance. The Vietminh contribution to the struggle against Japan was minimal, but they attracted the attention of the American OSS, receiving aid in the form of a team dropped in to coordinate efforts to assist downed U.S. aviators.

On 6 August, 1945, the first atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. Two days later a second destroyed Nagasaki and Japan surrendered within a week. In the preceding months, popular support for the Vietminh had increased dramatically, particularly in the north. Ho and his cadres concealed their communist identity and, with the French discredited and the Japanese defeated, stepped into the power vacuum, proclaiming themselves legitimate rulers of Vietnam. Bao Dai abdicated on 25 August, handing over his imperial seal to Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi on 2 September, the same day that General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender in Tokyo Bay.

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