It is easy to think about transnationalism as a system of concepts. Ideological, cultural, psychological concepts all move across the globe, are changed in turn as they move and interact with other concepts, and so on. But to view transnationalism in this way is to make a simple but costly mistake. It is to forget about the vectors of these ideas, transnational people and their lives. It is they who carry these concepts with them as they travel, being changed and changing in turn as they do.

It is these figures whose lives, some of them at least, are documented in Transnational Lives: Biographies of Global Modernity. It offers many fine points, such as the way in which a transnational approach to biographical history can rescue the “captive nations” subsumed by colonialism. Meanwhile the joint biography of Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdink, stressing their shared colonial upbringing. The contrast between their cultural role as paragons of uncomplicated “Englishness” and their more complicated actual origins sheds light on the cultural amnesia that separates the first and second halves of the twentieth century in modern Britain. However, the article which I found most interesting, and which led indirectly to the topic of this blogpost, was by Carroll Pursell, about Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States of America.

Before his ascension to the presidency, and before even the career in philanthropy that made his name, Hoover was an engineer. In this career he travelled all over the world, particularly to Asia and Oceania. This career, shaped as it was by both the colonialist and masculine mores of its day, played a large role in shaping Hoover as a man and ultimately as a president. Further, by investigating Hoover as an engineer, the broader subject of engineers as transnational subjects can be investigated. The American engineer in general is treated as a transnational subject, filling the ranks of empires across the globe. Pursell ties this into the American national idea, claiming that the imperial positions these engineers occupied represented an “imagined frontier”, to replace the subjugated American West.

So, what does this have to do with Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot, both named in this posts title? I would argue that it is interesting to consider both these leaders as transnational figures, just as it is with Hoover. However, while Hoover was a colonial figure interacting with the colonized world, both Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot were colonised figures. Both are remembered mainly as national figures, but it is a mistake to consider them only as that.

Going by the popular image of Ho Chi Minh, it might be thought that his status as a transnational figure would be best explored through his relationship with America. And he did author one of the most strikingly transnational political documents of the modern age, the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in part with America in mind. Famously he began by quoting the American declaration of independence, that “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. This alone helps us to understand the hegemonic nature of American rhetoric and ideology. That the speech was written with the assistance of a Major in the OSS only compounds this. However just as important to our understanding of the transnational nature of Ho Chi Minh should be his relationship with France. Beyond the expected relationship between colonial power and first colonized subject and then revolutionary, Ho Ci Minh lived for many years in Paris, and was present for one of the first great transnational events of the twentieth century, the Versailles conference. To view him as a merely national figure is to ignore this important period in his life.

Similarly to Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot status as a merely national figure should be challenged. Like Ho Chi Minh he spent a considerable period in the imperial metropole. However, unlike Ho Chi Minh, who washed dishes and wrote articles in Paris, Saloth Sar as he was then known was a student at the Sorbonne. This multi-national environment being the place where he was exposed to the books that informed much of his politics, such as the works of Stalin and Kropotkin. It has also been suggested that the style of writing and thinking which the Sorbonne inculcated in its students stayed with Pol Pot for the rest of his life. It has been said of many of his slogans, such as the infamous “To keep you is no gain, to lose you is no loss”, carried the ring of this education in them. So again, we see that these nationalist figures have far more transnational features to them than might be thought.

A particularly brave man, or one struggling to meet their word count, might continue this blogpost with a discussion about whether the SAS training camps which trained fighters in the coalition Pol Pot formed against Vietnam were in fact transnational spaces. However I am neither, and so will end this post here.

Understanding Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot as transnational figures