3 – Le Duan (Vietnam 1960 – 1986)
While Ho Chi Minh remains as the best-known Vietnamese leader, Le Duan was one of the nation’s most vicious ‘leaders.’ Although he was never technically the head of state, Le Duan was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Central Committee which meant he was ruler in all but name. He was one of the founding members of the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and fought against the French. Le Duan then joined Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, a communist Anti-French front. By 1945, he had become an influential member of the Central Committee in the new Republic of Vietnam.
Throughout the 1950s, Le Duan was increasingly hostile and aggressive towards South Vietnam and became the head of the Central Office of South Vietnam in 1951. By the end of the decade, he was second only to Ho Chi Minh in the Indochina Communist Party and in the early 1960s, his leader’s health started to decline. As a consequence, Le Duan was a de facto ruler as he assumed most of Ho’s responsibilities.
When Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, Le Duan became the most powerful man in North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, he proved to be a capable leader as he was adept at organizing the party and mobilizing troops. When the war ended in 1975, he helped his party through the tough period as the county was formally unified. In 1976, the party became the Vietnamese Communist Party whereupon Le Duan took the title ‘secretary-general.’
Although he had a gifted political mind, he failed miserably when it came to running the country. When North Vietnam took Saigon in 1975, Le Duan ordered the deaths of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers. Upon the formation of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976, Le Duan continued his purge of ‘enemy’ soldiers and imprisoned up to 300,000 in his infamous ‘re-education camps.’ His brutal actions resulted in mass emigration from the country. Between 1975 and 1995, an estimated two million people left Vietnam, around 800,000 of them were classified as Vietnamese Boat People. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that up to 400,000 boat people died at sea.
Le Duan’s actions also ruined the South Vietnamese economy and established a ‘new economic zone’ where landowners and the wealthy were stripped of their possessions. While the country was a mess after the war, Le Duan only made things worse, and in 1983, Vietnam was named as the “single most repressive government in the world” by the United States Department of State. Further wars with the People’s Republic of China and Cambodia resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. Vietnam finally escaped from his yoke on July 10, 1986, when Le Duan died of natural causes in Hanoi although he had suffered a heart attack not long before.