I've always known there was something fishy about this story, especially since i knew my share about the war and about the propaganda and brutality of the communists. Well, in his classic thorough style, President Nixon provided the best response to this ludicrous story that I know of in his indispensable 1985 history "No More Vietnams". I couldn't have asked for more
When the two leaders are compared side-by-side, the suggestion that Ho would have outpolled Diem head-to-head seems ridiculous. Yet during the war, many critics of the American effort to save South Vietnam argued this very point. They said that the Geneva Declaration of 1954 legally bound Diem's government and the United States to unify the two halves of Vietnam through elections and that Ho would have inevitably come out the winner. They were wrong on both counts.
The text of the Geneva Declaration about elections was not legally binding to the United States or South Vietnam. Nine countries gathered at the conference and produced six unilateral declarations, three bilateral cease-fire agreements, and unsigned declaration. The cease-fire agreements alone were binding for signatories; the provision concerning reunification elections appeared in the separate final declaration. Only four of the nine states attending committed themselves to the declaration's terms. The United States did not join in it. South Vietnam, which was not even present in Geneva, retained its freedom of action by issuing a formal statement disavowing the declaration. North Vietnam also did not associate itself with with the declaration. Very simply, it had no legal force.
Nor did any of the participants expect elections to occur. The Geneva Conference was intended not to establish peace for all time through the ballot box but rather to create a partition of Vietnam similar to the of Korea. Partition was formally treated as a temporary expedient, but all major participants expected it to be permanent. Whatever their words about elections, their actions revealed their intent: They established two governments, allowed for two separate military forces, and arranged for the movement of refugees between the zones. It would have been senseless to go through all this trouble in 1954 only to turn around and undo it after elections in 1956.
The whole idea was wildly unrealistic in any case. Reunification was supposedly to be decided by free elections. Because elections would not be free in North Vietnam, South Vietnam could legitimately object to holding them. A stalemate was inevitable. North Vietnam understood this. After the conference, its delegate, Pham Van Dong, told a reporter, "You know as well as I do that there won't be elections."
When the time came to discuss elections in 1956, Diem refused to participate, and the United States supported him. We were not afraid of holding elections in Vietnam, provided they were held under the conditions of genuine freedom that the Geneva Declaration called for. But we knew that those conditions would exist only in South Vietnam, and this sentiment was bipartisan. Senator Kennedy said that neither the United States nor South Vietnam should be party to an election "obviously subverted and stacked in advance." After spending two years crushing every vestige of freedom in North Vietnam, Hanoi's leaders would never have allowed internationally supervised free elections to decide their fate. Following later consultations, even the Soviet Union agreed that a plebiscite was unfeasible.
North Vietnam, with a cynicism appalling even for Ho, briefly pressed the issue. But balloting conducted in Viet Minh territory in 1946 revealed just what they had in mind for 1956. Ho never permitted any suspense about the outcome. In order to secure the participation of other political parties, he openly guaranteed the leaders of one party that they would win twenty parliamentary seats and those of another that they would take fifty. The returns themselves made Diem's elections look like a model of good government. Ho received 169,222 votes in Hanoi, a city with a population of only 119,000. That amounted to 140 percent of the vote, if every person regardless of age cast a ballot.
Ho's distaste for uncontrolled elections had not abated by 1956. Pham Van Dong told a reporter how Ho expected the elections to run. There would have to be a multiparty contest in South Vietnam, but the ballot in North Vietnam, where the people were "united," would have only the Communist party on it. This would have made the election a sure thing for Hanoi, because North Vietnam contained 55 percent of the total Vietnamese population. An election that guaranteed victory was the only kind Ho ever would accept.
Many in the American antiwar movement claimed that Ho would have defeated Diem in a fair contest. They argued that even President Eisenhower conceded this point in his memoirs. Tge passage they always cited reads: "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Bao Dai." Those who conclude from this quotation that Ho would have won any election overlook two facts. The Geneva-sponsored election was to be help not at the time of the fighting, by wat Eisenhower meant 1954, but rather in 1956. And Ho's opponent would have been not a hapless French puppet, Bao Dai, but a popular anti-French nationalist, President Diem.
Ho would not have fared well in a fair election. In 1954, one out of every thirteen North Vietnamese fled the country rather than live under his rule. His so-called land-reform program had convulsed the country, produced severe food shortages, and sparked major peasant revolts that began in Ho's home home province and spread into at least two others. General Giap later admitted thatin putting down the unrest, his government killed 50,000 people. By 1956, Ho was hardly the man to head up a ticker. Diem, whose populatity was then peaking, would have won decisively. There was only one reason why North Vietnam's leaders, like those of any other communist country, never would have dared to hold genuinely free elections: They knew that they would lose.
For the United States to have forces South Vietnam to hold elections blatantly stacked to guarantee a Communist victory would have been legally absurd, strategically senseless, and morally ludicrous.