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The Party's founding:behind the scenes

Update: February, 01/2015 - 17:01
Party planning:This painting by artist Phan Ke An (1923- ) depicts the meeting in early February 1930 when Ho Chi Minh, on behalf of the Comintern (Communist International based in Moscow), drew together the three communist parties then active inside modern-day Viet Nam to form the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Analysing a famous painting of the Vietnamese Communist Party's founders sheds light on the historical record. Lady Borton reports.

A famous painting by artist Phan Ke An (born 1923) depicts the meeting in early February 1930, when Ho Chi Minh, on behalf of the Comintern (Communist International based in Moscow), drew together the three communist parties then active inside modern-day Viet Nam to form the Vietnamese Communist Party. No one took a photograph of the meeting, and no one made a sketch at the time. An studied photographs taken in later years of the Party's founders before he began painting.

Ho Chi Minh, founder of the Party, had nearly two hundred pseudonyms and aliases. He began using "Ho Chi Minh" (Ho with an Enlightened Mind) in the middle of 1941. In the painting, Ho Chi Minh appears on the left, with his face to the painter, followed by (left to right, with their faces shown) two representatives from the Annamese Communist Party and two from the Indochinese Communist Party. It would be reasonable to assume that the two men with their faces not shown are representatives from the third party, the Union of Indochinese Communists.

However, that assumption is false.

General Vo Nguyen Giap was one of the key organisers for the communist nucleus that became the Union of Indochinese Communists. He did extensive interviews with his brother-in-law, Gen Pham Hong Cu, who tells the following story in General Giap: Childhood and Youth. The French secret police arrested eight leaders from the Union of Indochinese Communists on January 1, 1930 at Trai Sampan Ferry in Duc Tho District, Ha Tinh Province.

Giap was not among those arrested. The arrestees were meeting in the sampan to select two representatives for the Hong Kong gathering. Thus, the famous meeting on February 3, 1930 did not include representatives from the Union of Indochinese Communists. That group joined the Vietnamese Communist Party three weeks later, on February 24, 1930.

So then, who are the two men whose faces are not shown?

They are probably the two key cadres – Ho Tung Mau and Le Hong Son – who seem to have done the footwork of organising the Hong Kong meeting. At that time, nationalistic organising was extremely dangerous. The French arrested nationalists, tortured them to secure names, and imprisoned them. Executions were common. In an effort to avoid French scrutiny, Vietnamese revolutionaries often organised outside the country-in Thailand, Canton, Kunming, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, etc. They were careful to cover their tracks.

Or so they thought.

The French Ministry of Colonies Archive in Aix-en-Provence harbours a treasure trove of reports, newspapers, circulars, maps, diagrams, and other documents.

On February 12, 1930 (nine days after the official date for the founding of the Party), French Governor-General Pierre Pasquier, who was based in Ha Noi, wrote an eight-page report to the Minister of Colonies in Paris. Pasquier based his letter on a seized school notebook, which initially appeared only to be a vocabulary list of French and Vietnamese words but which, on inspection via iodine, revealed twenty-four documents, some from as late as mid-January 1930. These included plans to create "a new group with a more communist façade", which would "take the name Annamese Communist Party or Vietnamese Communist Party".

Ho Tung Mau and Le Hong Son's names appear as organizers.

Indeed, in early 1930, they were Ho Chi Minh's two key lieutenants.

Ho Tung Mau (1896-1951, given name: Ho Ba Cu) and Le Hong Son (1899-1933, given name Le Van Phan) both came from Nghe An, the same home province as Ho Chi Minh.

Mau's father, a patriotic scholar, had been shot while trying to escape from Lao Bao, one of the five major French prisons for political activists.

In 1919, Mau and Son hiked across the Truong Son Mountains and through Laos to Siam (Thailand). From there, they went to Canton (Guangzhou, China). In 1923, they established the Tam Tam Xa (Society of Similar Hearts) with seven members. Unbeknownst to Mau and Son, one of the members, Lam Duc Thu, was a French secret-police informer.

On September 25, 1924, the acting general secretary of the Comintern sent Ho Chi Minh, then a member of the Comintern Presidium and using the alias Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), a formal assignment to liaise from Canton with peasant movements in China, French Indochina (Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia), Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), Formosa (Taiwan), and the Philippines. His cover was press attache and interpreter for Mikhail Borodin, Soviet advisor in Canton, whose assistance had been requested by Sun Yat-sen.

On June 21, 1925, while in Canton, Ho Chi Minh (using the aliases Ly Thuy and Vuong) established the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League with nine participants, including Mau, Son, and, yes, the secret-police informer. Lam Duc Thu "facilitated" the French arrest of patriotic scholar Phan Boi Chau in Shanghai a week later, on June 30, 1925. Thu was not exposed as a French informer until 1947; his fellow villagers executed him.

Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese forces arrested both Mau and Son during their surprise attack in 1927 against the Soviet-Comintern presence in Canton.

Ho Hoc Lam, a Vietnamese revolutionary working secretly inside the Nationalist Chinese armed forces, secured their release.

Ho Chi Minh was tipped off about his impending arrest. He and Borodin escaped.

In September 1932, the French arrested Son in Shanghai; they sent him back to Viet Nam and executed him.

Mau held many positions after Viet Nam's largely peaceful August 1945 Revolution. He was killed during the War of Resistance Against France (1945-54) by French bombing while he was on a road in Thanh Hoa Province.

Gov Gen Pasquier's eight-page report from February 1930 does not mention the police informer, but it does include details from communications from Mau and Son to Nguyen Duc Canh (1908-32) and Trinh Dinh Cuu (1906-90), the two representatives from the Indochinese Communist Party at the Hong Kong meeting.

Canh and Cuu were active inside Viet Nam. They appear on the far right of An's painting. According to the French report, they were urged to facilitate connection inside Viet Nam with the Annamese Communist Party and Tan Viet (General Giap's group, which became the Union of Indochinese Communists) as well as with the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. (This last detail may not reflect accurate informer reporting, given that the Vietnamese Nationalist Party was allied with the Chinese Nationalist Party, which had detained both Mau and Son and had tried to arrest Ho Chi Minh and Mikhail Borodin.)

The French governor-general's report mentions the First Congress of representatives from Viet Nam in China, held in May 1929 under the auspices of the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, and it describes the schism at that congress between the Youth League and the delegates who had founded the Indochinese Communist Party. It also mentions a letter written by Mau on November 14, 1929, where he describes his organising activities.

Among the most interesting details in Gov Gen Pasquier's letter written nine days after the Party's founding is the report's only footnote and only mention of Ho Chi Minh.

The recipient highlighted this section. Here, "VUONG" is Ho Chi Minh. The footnote appears on the report's fourth page in the summary of the twenty-four iodine-exposed documents: "(1) - A note in this order of topics is a passage in the letter dated October 4, 1929 from the Central Committee of the Communist International, which says: 'If VUONG (NGUYEN AI QUOC) returns, we will follow the same conduct toward him as toward you,' that is to say, the party must have the qualities of a communist party to be accepted as a new applicant by the Communist International, which will count it as one united party." — VNS

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