Most Americans associate the word “Vietnam” with a futile war, popular films, angry and demented veterans, and classic rock soundtracks. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t fit this word association. True, word association is a fickle thing, but apparently President Obama consciously associates Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam’s former leader, with one of the American Founders.

In a meeting with Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang, Obama proclaimed “…Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson.” But how can this be possible? Let’s analyze Obama’s statement and the men mentioned.

Active in Asian Communism for many decades, Ho Chi Minh‘s place in history comes from his leadership of North Vietnam. Minh’s political career started while he was living in France in the early 1920s. After various stints aiding Communists in other parts of Asia, Minh organized an independence movement in his native Vietnam against the French. This movement, known as the Viet Minh, fought the Japanese during World War II, and received Allied support. (For clarity’s sake, the organization’s name bears no relation to Ho Chi Minh’s name, as Nguyễn Sinh Cung was his birth name.) Once the war ended, the Viet Minh aided the French in slaughtering their political rivals. But change came soon.

In 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared North Vietnam’s its own separate nation and started an uprising against the French. Soon the First Indochina War commenced, leading to huge casualties for both the French and Viet Minh. The war ended in 1954, with the splitting of Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

During the period between Vietnam’s partition and the first American combat troops’ deployment to South Vietnam (1965), North Vietnam established its government in a quintessentially collectivist and statist manner through augmenting the Communists’ political power and implementing collectivist policies. But this sounds more reminiscent of language manipulated in Kafkaesque fashion, in which the real meanings of certain actions are concealed. For example, many of the“land reforms” of Ho Chi Minh’s government equated to massacring opponents, landlords, and many middle- and upper-class citizens. North Vietnam showed itself to be no different from China or the Soviet Union.

Later, Ho Chi Minh’s government spread its tentacles to Laos and Cambodia, sending troops to aid Communists in those nations. His government also began supporting the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. Nearly four years after American combat troops arrived in the Republic of South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh died.

Juxtaposed with a Vietnamese collectivist, we find the man on the nickel. As many know, Thomas Jefferson played a vital role in the United States’ founding. We know Jefferson best as the Declaration of Indolence’s author, the minister to France, and the United States’ third president. While we analyzed Ho Chi Minh’s life in detail, Jefferson, due to his being a better-known historical figure, does not require the same. Rather, we shall examine his influences and ideas.

John Locke stands as a major figure in Jeffersonian thought. Locke’s Second Treatise on Government served as a vital work for many Founders and subsequent lovers of liberty. Locke’s concepts of natural rights and the social contract between individuals and government color much of Jeffersonian thought. Richard Henry Lee even alleged that Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” plagiarized Locke.

Although, when one discusses Jefferson, one inevitably faces a complicating factor. Jefferson’s seeming contradictions and changes of opinion exist as fascinating additions to an already interesting man. Perhaps the greatest of these is the Louisiana Purchase. Jeffersonian thought promotes distrusting the Federal government, yet President Jefferson purchased 828,000 acres from France. While these debates on Jefferson need to be discussed for the sake of their importance to American history, these controversies about Jefferson also greatly relate to the matter at hand.

One cannot doubt Ho Chi Minh’s view. He was clearly a Marxist and collectivist, who used the state’s power to further his own thuggish ideology and power. But Jefferson remains a clouded topic. In this way, the lacking of concrete and universally agreed on views about Jefferson’s actions make it easier for the likes of Obama to make such erroneous claims. Many libertarians, including myself, don’t wholly agree with Jefferson’s opinions, but we find something more important. Agreement aside, Jefferson distrusted government and possessed a foundation of Lockean natural rights. We see this justifying thread throughout his actions—even the controversial ones. Therefore, no matter how invalid or incorrect, his actions carried the purpose of preserving these natural rights.

Taking into consideration what we now established, how much did Thomas Jefferson influence Ho Chi Minh? Perhaps some influence exists, but examination shows it to be minimal. The American Founders led thirteen colonies against an imperial power they thought unjust. This sounds rather similar to Ho Chi Minh’s struggle. And, interestingly, Ho Chi Minh penned a declaration of independence. The declaration’s text mentions the American Revolution, but its tone and superficial inspiration show as the only influence. With passages like “[the French] have mercilessly exploited our industrial workers,” or “All the nations on the earth are equal from birth, all the nations have the rights to live, be happy and free,” clearly illustrate the differences. Jefferson’s rights were individual in nature—life, property, and liberty (acting as one pleases without harming others). Ho Chi Minh’s rights were decidedly collective in nature, with the emphasis on “nations” rather than “men” (i.e. the collective rather than the individual).

Ho Chi Minh’s point on the French’s economic “exploitation” carries some necessary statements with it. Mercantilism stood as a feature of imperialism. This ugly and perverted economic philosophy argued that a government must control foreign economies in order to benefit the mother country. (Such led to colonies.) Minh’s critique of the colonial economics doesn’t make him right by any means, though. For this, we must consider Minh’s Marxism. To him, the exploiting entailed free markets as a whole. Again, we see the same difference between him and Jefferson.

We return, finally, to President Obama’s remarks. Perhaps the remark resulted from his typical posture, akin to that of a nervous schoolboy. Or he might believe such a fact to be the case. Regardless, keep in mind the overall meaninglessness of his remark. Yes, it shows a disturbing ignorance. But ignorance doesn’t alter the sorrow “Uncle” Ho brought or the fact that Americans fought an absurd war in Vietnam. Let us use moments such as this for teaching and educating, something greater than a political distraction.


Christian Lopac | Wabash College | @CLopac