Thomas Jefferson to Ho Chi Minh

Gary Sanders in Iowa City, 2006. Photographer unknown.

Thomas Jefferson to Ho Chi Minh: The Long Road of the Declaration of Independence
A Guest Post by Gary Sanders

Hostilities between England and the American colonies had been brewing for years, but boiled over in the skirmish between English soldiers and a group of colonials at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775. What followed was 15 months of debate up and down the 13 colonies as to whether to remain an English colony — with negotiations with King George and Parliament for more rights — or to declare independence and risk war with the most powerful country in the world.

At least a third of the colonists favored conciliation with England. The most crucial event in turning public opinion was the publication of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” in January 1776. Unlike many other leaders in the colonies, Paine had a meager education, and was not wealthy. Common Sense was a pamphlet that could be understood by the average person, and it was widely read throughout the colonies. In February the English Parliament established a blockade of American ports and a declaration that American ships were enemy vessels. King George further fueled the colonists’ anger by hiring German mercenaries to quell the rebellion.

Ferment continued unabated, and on June 7 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution to the Continental Congress which declared that the colonies were independent. A five man committee was set up to draft a formal declaration, detailing the reasons for independence. When the committee met they decided that Thomas Jefferson should be the primary author.

On July 2 the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence from England. That night John Adams wrote to his wife that July 2 was going to be forever celebrated as the day of our independence. But it was on July 4 that the wording of Jefferson’s declaration was approved. That night 200 copies were printed and distributed to newspapers throughout the colonies.

Reading the second paragraph is still inspiring: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I am, of course, well aware of certain facts: Jefferson was a slave owner — how could he possibly write that “all men are created equal?” That phrase certainly didn’t cover slaves, or even Black freedmen. It didn’t cover women, Native Americans, or white male indentured servants. But for the times it was “revolutionary” (and, if we had lost the Revolution, all 56 men who signed it would probably have been hung by the English).

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence did not stop being a “revolutionary” document when we finally gained our independence in 1783, with the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War. It has remained a revolutionary document all over the world ever since. The first major application of it was in France in 1789, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man at the beginning of the French Revolution. And it has been quoted by revolutionaries around the world ever since.

The most important application of Jefferson’s words in modern history was by Ho Chi Minh on Sept 2, 1945, when he declared Vietnam an independent country from the French colonial empire, which had ruled Vietnam, as part of French Indochina, for 80 years. Ho spoke in front of a large crowd at Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square, and he began speaking, “All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yes, Thomas Jefferson’s exact words, 169 years later.

Ho wanted our help in his independence fight against the French. Earlier in 1945 our OSS (precursor to the CIA) had worked with Ho to help wrest control of Vietnam from the Japanese. He had hopes that America in September 1945 would follow through on Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 after WWI (Ho was there trying unsuccessfully for a hearing on Vietnamese independence). Or that we’d follow through on what Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill promised in the Atlantic Charter of 1941: to see “sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” (Of course FDR and Churchill were talking about the conquered peoples who were suffering under the rule of Germany and Japan, not people in the colonies of Britain or France).

By the time of Ho’s September 1945 declaration of independence, Germany and Japan had been defeated and Harry Truman was president. At the end of World War II there had been a fight in the US State Department about what to do about French Indochina. The Far East Division urged that pressure be put on France to grant Indochina “true autonomous self-government,” or else there would be “bloodshed and unrest for many years.” The European specialists in the State Department favored France keeping Indochina, cautioning against any steps that would have a “harmful effect on American relations with the French government and people.” French President Charles de Gaulle, who had been the leader of the Free French fighting the Nazis, wanted to keep Indochina.

This was, as became clear in the next 35 years, a crucial moment in history.

Ho Chi Minh, though a communist, was a more ardent nationalist. If the United States had recognized the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, Ho would have followed the route of more democratic revolutionaries and not the route of communist revolutionaries. He would not have had to ask “Communist” China and the Soviet Union for help in Vietnam’s War of Independence against France. The United States would not have sent money and armaments to the French fighting to keep their colony — until they were finally defeated in 1954.

If the United States had recognized Ho’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945, the United States would not have taken up the fight against “revolutionary” Vietnam, at the cost of 58,000 American lives, possibly 3 million Asian lives, and untold billions of dollars. And we would not have possibly forever damaged our reputation as the Liberator of World War II, that we earned with immense loss of life and civilian hardship.

If only Truman — and later Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, had truly listened to Ho Chi Minh’s Sept. 2, 1945 Declaration of Independence. Is it not possible that they would have been so moved by Jefferson’s words that they would have taken a different path? Tragically, we will never know the answer.

Printed with permission from author Gary Sanders, who was inducted into the Johnson County Democrats Hall of Fame in 2015 and remains a longtime Iowa City activist.

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