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Two Asian leaders who used two different strategies to liberate their people from the evil clutches of colonialism.

The power of non-violence versus the nobility of revolution: perhaps one of the greatest debates in the genre of military history.  No two historical figures face off on this topic more eye-openingly than Ho Chi Minh and Mahatma Gandhi.

Perhaps the reason why their contrast is so impressive is because of the startling list of similarities between the two; both were Asians, both fought on the side of the oppressed, both were patriots working against imperialistic forces, and both shocked the world by triumphing over the superpowers that oppressed them.  Yet in spite of all these similarities, the two could not be more different.  Minh was a revolutionary; Gandhi, a peace-maker.  Minh was a military strategist; Gandhi, a non-violent protestor.  Minh lies in the ranks alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevera; Gandhi has been cited as the greatest inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Before taking leadership in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh traveled to and lived in the United States, England, and France.  In America, while working as a dishwasher in New York City’s China Town, Minh found that the civil liberties granted to immigrants in the US were astounding in comparison to the oppression he felt under Vietnam’s colonial rule.  While studying politics in France, Minh embraced communism and later went on to found the French Communist Party before moving to Moscow.  In 1941, he returned to Vietnam and successfully led the Viet Minh Independence Movement against the Japanese.  He also deterred the French from re-occupying the country later that same decade.  In 1945, he officially declared Vietnam’s independence when he read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  Much of the Declaration was adopted and adapted from the US Declaration of Independence; he even had the US National Anthem played at the conclusion of the speech.  Ironically, the US would later become his greatest challenge when they invaded the country during his presidency.  Despite his reputation in the West as a communist dictator who brought great poverty to Vietnam, Minh’s people have honored and revered him as the revolutionary who liberated them from imperialistic aggression.  The capitol of South Vietnam, Saigon, was named Ho Chi Minh City in 1975.  Despite extreme pressures and the atrocities inflicted upon his country during an unjust and unprovoked war, Minh never caved to US imperialism.  In fact, he was quoted as saying: “You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.”

Like Minh, Gandhi travelled abroad in his younger years, but unlike Minh, who saw liberation for immigrants on foreign shores, Gandhi faced oppression and racism with every step.  While in South Africa, Gandhi was driven from a courtroom, barred from hotels, and beaten by a stagecoach driver for refusing to travel on the foot board so that a European passenger could travel inside.  The racism he faced has often been cited as his earliest inspiration for becoming an advocate for social change later in life.  When Gandhi returned to India, he became a leader in the struggle for Indian independence.  Throughout all of his fighting, however, Gandhi remained an adament advocate for non-violence.  As India’s leader, all of his work was done through peaceful protest; he even refused to defend himself when attacked by his oppressors.  When groups of Indians rebelled in violence against the British government, Gandhi criticized them as well as the British, for non-violence, he believed, was the greatest weapon any people could have against tyranny and oppression.  He was a great advocate for civil disobedience, and is probably most famous for his march to the sea to make salt in opposition of the British Salt Tax.  Gandhi also fought for the equality of women, an end to poverty, and the annilihation of India’s discriminatory caste system.  After winning India’s independence in 1947, Gandhi continued the non-violent fight for peace, as he strove to unite the Hindu and Muslim populations of his country while avoiding any form of civil war.  Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, but in spite of all the opposition he faced, he never raised a fist in his fight for peace.  He has been quoted as saying: “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”

Yet, in spite of their tremendous differences, both Minh and Gandhi succeeded in gaining independence for their countries.  So, whether you are a supporter of war or an advocate for passivism, the comparison of Ho Chi Minh and Mahatma Gandhi can serve as an important lesson to us all: There is more than one path to revolution.

1st November 2006
FACE OFF: Ho Chi Minh vs. Mahatma Gandhi
By Jill A. Bolstridge