There are many books in English about Vietnam that claim that in 1946 Hồ Chí Minh stated that “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life (or some versions have “for a thousand years”).”

(“Thà ngửi chút phân Pháp trong vài năm còn hơn phải ăn phân Tàu trong ngàn năm tới.”)

According to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), the context in which Hồ Chí Minh said these words was in a meeting with members of his government, after he had agreed to let the French return. More specifically, after negotiating with Jean Sainteny, Hồ Chí Minh agreed to let Vietnam become a Free State in the French Union, and to let French troops be stationed there (I think the agreement was that they were to be there for 5 years).

Karnow has a longer quote which is as follows:

“You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” (153)

In other words, according to Karnow, Hồ Chí Minh made this statement to justify his decision to allow the French to return.

But where did Karnow get this extended quote? He doesn’t indicate a source. The earliest source I have been able to find for this quote is the 1952 work by Paul Mus, Viêt-Nam: Sociologie d’une Guerre (Paris, Éditions du Seuil), in which Mus claims to have heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh said the final sentence – “Plutôt flairer un peu la crotte des Français que manger toute notre vie celle des Chinois.” – not the extended paragraph that Karnow later provided.

Who was Paul Mus and what was the context in which he noted this quote? Paul Mus was a French scholar, and after WW II he played an important role in attempting to gain the return of Vietnam for the French. In other words, Mus was deeply invested in the colonial enterprise.

In talking about the period of 1946, Mus argues that when Hồ Chí Minh looked at the situation around him, he felt that the French were not that bad.

A great deal of evidence can be presented to put forth a counter argument about the tenor of the times. At the end of the war, some Vietnamese started a significant campaign to educate the world about the negative side of French colonial rule.

Tracts like this one from 1945 which presented the “crimes” of the French page after page were distributed to representatives of foreign governments, such as the US, which during the war had expressed a great deal of opposition to allowing the French to retain their colonies.

By 1952 when Paul Mus published his book, accounts of torture and atrocities committed by French forces in the First Indochina War had also emerged. So in the 1940s and into the 1950s there was a strong anti-French discourse.

Meanwhile, from 1949 onward Hồ Chí Minh received considerable assistance from the Peoples Republic of China (an odd thing to do for someone who, according to Mus, was so nervous about China).

I therefore find it very suspect to see Mus claiming that in 1946 Hồ Chí Minh would make some statement indicating that he was more amenable to the French than the Chinese. That statement simply does not fit that historical context.

It does, however, fit nicely with the agendas of Paul Mus and Stanley Karnow. Mus was attempting to demonstrate that French rule was not that bad, and that even Hồ Chí Minh could admit as much, albeit with some reluctance.

For Karnow, writing in the aftermath of the American War and from an anti-war position that was sympathetic to the nationalist narrative that the North produced during the war, the quote likewise made sense. It told him that the Americans never should have gotten involved in Vietnam because the Vietnamese had been fighting off foreigners for thousands of years. . .

What Karnow did not realize, is that the nationalist narrative he agreed with, only dated to about 1965, when Vietnamese intellectuals in North Vietnam started to write about Vietnam’s supposed “history of resistance to Chinese aggression.”

Kosal Path points this out in his “Hà Nôi’s Responses to Beijing’s Renewed Enthusiasm to Aid North Vietnam, 1970-1972,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 6.3 (2011): 101-139.

If you go back to the 1950s, you find, as I’ve discussed here, the Chinese presented as historic “fighting friends” of the Vietnamese.

Prior to that you can find some occasional references in the first half of the twentieth century about fighting the Chinese, but nothing as coherent and dominant as the narrative that appeared in the 1960s in North Vietnam.

By now, however, the “fact” that “the Vietnamese” have been “resisting Chinese aggression” for thousands of years has become unquestioned “truth.” And as a result, an absurd quote can be attributed to Hồ Chí Minh, and can get expanded (in the case of Karnow’s quote) and published numerous times without anyone questioning it.

Seriously, does anyone think that Hồ Chí Minh would have referred to anyone as “you fools!”??? Does that fit any assessment that has ever been made of how that man spoke to others? The Karnow quote is a great example of how far from reality the discussion about Vietnam had become by the end of the American War.

And yet it is that perspective that became “enshrined” as the “official narrative” of those years in books like Karnow’s.

Lien-Hang Nguyen recently published a piece in the New York Times on “Exploding the Myths About Vietnam.” The myths she was referring to were ones popularized by people like Karnow. And while she discusses in her article more significant matters than quotes like this one, this quote is nonetheless yet another of the myths about Vietnam that needs to be exploded.