While Marcus Garvey organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the 1920s a young Ho Chi Minh lived in Harlem and analyzed the connections between all oppressed people.
This article was originally published in Hood Communist.
If you possess even a cursory history of oppressed peoples, then you have undoubtedly heard of the great Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the outstanding Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Ho Chi Minh, who’s actual name was Nguyen Ai Quoc, was the founder and leader of the Viet Minh Front, which was the organized force of Vietnamese people that led their national liberation against colonial invading forces (including the U.S.) from the 1920s through the 1970s. Marcus Garvey was the Jamaican born African who helped initiate and lead the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which grew to be the largest liberation organization African people have ever known.
Garvey started the UNIA in the 1916 in Jamaica, but the organization didn’t began to take on steam until he moved to New York City and began to establish roots there that same year. By the mid 20s, the UNIA had millions of members on three continents and the Caribbean. To help the UNIA spread their message of African identity and the need for African self-determination, they had the “Negro World” newspaper which was published in English, Spanish, and French in 33 countries. The UNIA’s success in capturing the imagination of the African masses towards a vision of a united Africa for African redemption caught the attention of the 24 year director of the newly formed U.S. Department of Justice in 1919. That director – a man by the name of J. Edgar Hoover – would go on to become director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) until 1971. Hoover played a significant role in working to discredit Garvey and the UNIA, and Hoover orchestrated the trumped up charges of mail fraud against Garvey that led to the creator of the red, black, and green flag being deported from the U.S. in 1927. After Garvey’s imprisonment and deportation, the UNIA struggled to maintain the clout it enjoyed in the mid 20s and by 1940, Garvey had died in Britain, depressed, and separated from the organization he helped make into a worldwide fighting force.
Ho Chi Minh was completely unknown to Hoover or any other U.S. bureaucrat when he researched, penned, and mailed off a multi-paged document to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. The document was Ho Chi Minh’s declaration for independence for the Vietnamese people from French colonialism and an appeal for the U.S. to help Vietnam achieve this objective. Its unlikely that Wilson himself ever saw the document. Ho Chi Minh held out hope that the fact he had modeled his independence document from the U.S. constitution would be enough to encourage U.S. officials to take his efforts seriously, but he never received any type of response to his document. Undeterred, Ho Chi Minh went to work building his consciousness around struggling for his people. In doing so, he began to question capitalism as the solution to those problems. Consequently, he began working to lay the initial foundation for the creation of the Vietnamese Worker’s Party, or the Vietnamese Communist Party. The party then went on to play the crucial role in creating and developing the Viet Minh Front which was comprised of local organizations of Vietnamese workers, students, peasants, women, and all segments of the country. In the early 1960s, the U.S. had military advisors in Vietnam making assessments of this Viet Minh Front, or what the U.S. called, in typical racist fashion, the Vietcong. By the mid 60s, U.S. troops were present in Vietnam and by the late 60s, the U.S. was engaged in a full scale war against the Vietnamese people. By 1975, Ho Chi Minh had been deceased for six years and the Vietnamese had lost approximately 1.5 million people in the war. The U.S. had lost over 55,000 troops, and Vietnam was free and independent.
What’s amazing is that despite the fact the U.S. lost so many people in the Vietnam war, one is hard pressed to find any comprehensive material about the Vietnamese people, especially Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh Front anywhere in the U.S.. This is so much so that even in 2018, most people in the U.S. would be surprised to learn that Ho Chi Minh actually went to college in the U.S. He attended Columbia University in Harlem, New York in the early 20s. It was there, working as an undocumented dishwater at various restaurants, including soul food outlets, that Ho Chi Minh became quite acquainted with life in the U.S. Particularly life in the U.S. for a poor man of color. And, since he lived and worked in Harlem, then the most vibrant African community in the U.S., he had specific exposure to the rampant, brutal, and systemic white supremacy that permeated every aspect of U.S. society. And since all repression always breeds resistance, since Ho Chi Minh did live in Harlem, he got the opportunity to observe first hand the methods African people employed in standing up and fighting against that oppression. Ho Chi Minh wrote in his memoirs that one of his favorite past times whenever not working or studying in Harlem was listening to African street speakers who displayed daily passion and determination to challenge the African masses to stand up against the system that was dedicated to holding us down. The speakers he indicated he enjoyed hearing the most were Father Devine, Daddy Grace, and several others, but the one he mentioned most consistently was Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
As Garvey railed against the evils of white supremacy and the necessity for African people to look towards Africa to achieve our salvation, the young Ho Chi Minh paid close attention. Decades later, he used what he learned from Garvey about the racist system in the U.S. to employ strategies that would help lead his country to defeat U.S. imperialism. The scenes utilized in popular movies like the 1995 “Dead Presidents” (starring Lorenz Tate, Keith David, and Chris Tucker) where U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam were presented with leaflet drops where the Vietnamese encouraged African troops to abandon U.S. forces by declaring “Black man go home! This is not your war!” actually happened. There are numerous documented accounts of the Vietnamese capturing African U.S. troops and engaging in political education sessions with the captured troops, imploring them to abandon the immoral war effort because the Vietnamese were not their enemies. The Vietnamese explained over and over to these U.S. Africans that they should join the Vietnamese in fighting the U.S. government for the same freedom and democracy that neither the Vietnamese or the Africans enjoyed. There is no question these efforts played a central role in demoralizing a significant number of Africans and other U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam. A great portrayal of this process is outlined in the 1984 book “Bloods” edited by Terry Wallace. This book presents several perspectives of the war from African troops and how much the Vietnamese efforts began to cause African troops to openly question the war. The stories recount how this effect, coupled with the massive anti-war effort in the U.S., and around the world created an unwinnable situation for the U.S. in Vietnam.
Another significant historical element that has been left out of most history books is the role Ho Chi Minh played in helping contribute towards Pan-Africanism with one simple act in 1967. Kwame Ture, who was known then as Stokely Carmichael was the main voice and face for the emerging Black power movement. Due to his militancy and defiance, the then Stokely Carmichael was branded as public enemy number one. He was a chief target of J. Edgar Hoover’s counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) which illegally targeted African liberation leaders and organizations for murder and disruption. The system’s disdain for the young Stokely Carmichael of course caused him to be loved by the masses of African people. Due to this reverence, the Black Panther Party in its ongoing discussions with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to unite their efforts, drafted Ture as its Prime Minister in 1967. Unfortunately, COINTELPRO was in full operation and the FBI’s concerted efforts to plant seeds of distrust began to bear fruit. As Ture began to question the Panther’s apparent lack of commitment to systemic political education and other contradictions he observed in the party, the FBI continued to pour oil on the fire. There were rumors of contracts being put out on Ture’s life by Panther leadership. In an effort to sort out how to proceed with making his best contribution to the struggle, the young Carmichael arranged to take a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam in 1967 to have an audience with Ho Chi Minh. While sitting in the war torn country having lunch with the leader of that country’s resistance against U.S. imperialism, the young Ture explained his dilemma and asked “Uncle Ho” what he thought he should do. While pouring tea, Ho Chi Minh quietly told the future Kwame Ture; “your African…Why don’t you go to Africa?” Already being steered in this direction from a number of objective circumstances, Ture went to Guinea-Conakry the next year and by 1969 he was political secretary to Kwame Nkrumah. House guest to Sekou Ture. Comrade to Amilcar Cabral, and he would spend the last 30 years of his life in Guinea working to to contribute to the struggle for one unified socialist Africa.
This virtually unknown history of Ho Chi Minh and his connection to Marcus Garvey, Kwame Ture, and the African liberation struggle gives an entirely different perspective to Muhammad Ali’s famous declaration in 1967 that “No Vietnamese ever called me a n – – – – r!” And, today, we believe that from a political standpoint, the initial ideas for African unity that were articulated by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s, have been solidified through the work of Kwame Nkrumah in the “Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare.” As 2018 represents the 50th year since the publication of the Handbook, we can say confidently that the concrete on the ground manifestations of Pan-Africanism are stronger today than they have ever been. This is part of the legacy of Kwame Ture, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Ture, Amilcar Cabral, Marcus Garvey, and many, many others. In a very seldom talked about, but no less significant way, its also the legacy of Nguyen Ai Quoc aka Ho Chi Minh.
Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.