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Historical Dictionary

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STALIN, JOSEPH (1878–1953)

Between 1922 and 1953, Stalin served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and ruled the massive Eurasian state with an iron fist following the death of Lenin in 1924. During the interwar period, Stalin focused mainly on the communist transformation of the USSR. While he supported the Comintern’s activities in Asia, he was never a great believer in the socio-economic prospects for socialist revolution in the non-industrialized East. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the expansion of the Japanese into Manchuria in the early 1930s, Stalin placed greater emphasis on security in defining his dealings in Asia. Like the United States, he maintained his diplomatic relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China in order to check the Japanese, now in charge of a Manchurian government bordering the Soviet Union. Ties existed between Stalin and Mao Zedong, now holed up in the caves of Yan’an; but as the world slid into war and the Nazis invaded the USSR, Stalin’s main Asian partner was Chiang Kai-shek, not Mao Zedong. As for Vietnamese communists, Stalin gave little if any real thought to them or their plight in light of his larger wartime concerns. Moreover, in 1943, Stalin disbanded the Comintern to reassure the Allies of his good intentions, but in so doing removed an important network linking Asian communists and information to Moscow.

With the end of World War II and the advent of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh fired off letters to Harry Truman, Chiang Kai-shek, and Joseph Stalin, pleading with them to support Vietnamese independence. Long out of touch, the Soviets knew little about Vietnam and Stalin certainly did not give much thought to Ho Chi Minh and his problems with the French. Stalin was much more focused on Europe and had little desire to annoy the French at a time when the French Communist Party (FCP) was strong. When Ho Chi Minh’s request arrived on the desk of S. P. Kozyrev, chief of the European section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow, the latter wrote on it simply: “Not to answer.” Like the United States, Stalin had no intention of forcing the French hand on decolonization via the United Nations.

Stalin’s obsession with Tito from 1948 complicated the DRV’s isolation from the USSR. In fact, Stalin was one of Ho Chi Minh’s doubters. Maurice Thorez, general secretary of the FCP at the time, tried to convince Stalin that Ho was a reliable and authentic communist believer. According to Thorez, Stalin felt that Ho Chí Minh had gone too far in his collaboration with the Americans during World War II and was annoyed by Ho Chi Minh’s failure to solicit advice from him before making major decisions. Stalin cited Ho Chi Minh’s decision to dissolve the ICP in 1945. According to Ilya Gaiduk, in a memo on the DRV dated 14 January 1950, the Soviet Foreign Ministry pointed out that in Ho Chi Minh’s interviews “there is some ambiguity … Speaking about the Vietnam government’s attitude towards the U.S., Ho Cho Minh evades the issue of U.S. expansionist policy towards Vietnam. … Until now Ho Chi Minh has abstained from the assessment of the imperialist nature of the North Atlantic Pact and of the U.S. attempt to establish a Pacific bloc as a branch of this pact.” Stalin had also suspected Mao Zedong of Titoism. The Soviet leader feared that these “Asian” leaders were, at the core, more nationalist than internationalist and, like Tito, would not necessarily toe the Soviet line in this tense time in the Cold War.

In the end, victorious Chinese communists played the decisive role in convincing a reluctant Stalin to take sides by diplomatically recognizing the DRV in January 1950. Had Chinese communists agreed with Stalin and balked at recognizing the DRV, it would have dealt a catastrophic blow to the DRV in its drive for independence. In exchange for his support, however, Stalin insisted in meetings with Ho Chi Minh in 1950 and again in 1952 that the Vietnamese could not have it both ways. They had to adopt communist policies, the most important of which was land reform. Vietnamese communists complied.