The involvement of the United States in the regimes of South Vietnam, from Presidents Ngo Dinh Diem to Nguyen Van Thieu, remains an area of history that has been thoroughly studied at length. However, there has been much less attention paid to how America became involved in South Vietnam and their role in the rise and fall of its first nationalist government, the State of Vietnam, and its leader, the Emperor Bao Dai.
            There could be stated several reasons for this. It is true that the United States has a political culture and historical record of hostility towards monarchy and traditional leaders. What is though a much more likely explanation for the silence on the regime of Emperor Bao Dai, and the manner in which he is constantly dismissed with almost the exact same epithets on every occasion is the role played by America in first supporting Emperor Bao Dai, but ultimately playing a large part in his removal, and the fall of the first nationalist[1] government in Saigon.
            First, we must look at the broader history of the Emperor Bao Dai himself, and clarify some of the misconceptions concerning his early political career. He was born at a time when Vietnam was ruled ultimately by the French, and received an education in the schools and universities of France before taking up his royal duties (Karnow 187).
            There were many early problems and Bao Dai soon discovered that as long as the French remained in Vietnam, he could never be a real monarch. He had been promised the authority of a traditional king (Hall 804) but this never materialized. In fact, the prestige and traditional authority of the monarchy in Vietnam had already been dangerously eroded by the French, due to their constant interference in every aspect of the Imperial Court (Hue-Tam 36). The so-called "support" of France was actually ruining the traditional government of Vietnam.
            However, Bao Dai had studied the works of the more intellectual and humane nationalists and was determined to institute progressive reforms in his country (Hall 805). The goals he championed had been established by several leading patriots during his father's reign and included the election of a democratic national assembly under the Emperor[2] (Hall 803). The new ministers Bao Dai appointed to the cabinet in May of 1933 were all young, idealistic nationalists. However, many of their reforms were opposed by the French and their native allies in government (Hall 805).
            The problem of French rule would not be removed until 1945 when Japan occupied the seat of power and removed the French administration (Karnow 159). It was then that Emperor Bao Dai established the very first nationalist government of Vietnam, based on the principle of Mencius, "dân vi quí" (the most precious thing is the people) and vowed to rebuild the country with the help of scholars and "men of virtue" (Lockhart 145). Although, until the departure of the Japanese, there was no guarantee how far this independence would go.
            After the surrender of Japan, Emperor Bao Dai wrote letters himself to such major world leaders as Charles DeGaulle of France, President Truman of the United States, Chiang Kai-shek of China and H.M. King George VI of Great Britain, pleading with them to accept the current situation and recognize the nationalist government of the newly declared independent Vietnam (Joes 23). The letter to "the people of France" was especially noteworthy, in which Bao Dai spoke as a friend rather than monarch, and warned them that Vietnam would no longer tolerate any foreign control, French or otherwise (Bao Dai 114-115).
            Sadly, this recognition, which could have been so significant and powerful, did not come. The new regime was therefore destined to live a short life. I discussed the final days of the Vietnamese monarchy with H.I.H. Prince Nguyen-Phuc Buu Phuc by telephone in an interview on October 27, 2002. He is a cousin of the last emperor's and can clearly recall the August Revolution, which he witnessed as a young man. According to Prince Buu Phuc, Bao Dai felt he had little choice but to step down. The Emperor feared that if he remained on the throne he would be responsible for a Vietnamese civil war[3]. He told his people that he would rather be a citizen in a free country than the Emperor of an enslaved one.
            Another reason was the constant U.S. presence alongside Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, a fact that naturally led Bao Dai to assume that Ho's Vietminh had the support of the United States (Joes 23). However, even Ho Chi Minh had more political awareness than the United States (who could never see beyond the Japanese) and, recognizing the honored status of Bao Dai, and his continuing popularity, Ho tried desperately to associate the Emperor with his "Democratic Republic of Vietnam" by taking Bao Dai to Hanoi and naming him "Supreme Advisor" to the new regime (Joes 23).
            Despite Ho's pretended loyalty, the association was not destined to be a long one. H. M. Bao Dai had refused to participate in Ho's negotiations with France, despite knowing the French delegate personally, and when the agreement for the return of French troops was signed Bao Dai went into exile in Hong Kong. A few months later Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to the Emperor in an attempt to reconcile with him, saying that Bao Dai symbolized the nation and history of Vietnam and paying tribute to the great name of the Nguyen Dynasty. Bao Dai did not respond (Lacouture 137). This was the end of the Communist efforts to form a broad-based government and future conflict seemed unavoidable. Ho Chi Minh was committed to absolute power for the Hanoi regime and France was still determined to reassert control over Indochina (Isoart 46).
            With that background in mind, we can have a better understanding of French and American involvement in the South Vietnam government, starting with that of Bao Dai. What became famously known as the "Bao Dai Solution" started through the efforts of the French emissary Emile Bollaert, who had been trying for some time to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh for Indochina to remain in French hands. After being rebuffed by Ho he sought out the former Emperor Bao Dai in China. When he sent envoys to discuss the return of the Emperor they all came back with nothing. Bao Dai refused to take part in any reestablishment of French control and insisted that he would take no action whatsoever toward his return without the consent of the Vietnamese people (Chapuis 152).
            France came back with offers again and again asking H.M. Bao Dai to support and lead a French-backed regime in Vietnam, but he continued to refuse (Hall 889). To convince the Emperor that the people wanted him back, Bollaert appealed to all Vietnamese nationalist parties on May 17, 1947 to join in a new government within the French Union, but as an equal partner with full political independence (Chapuis 152).
            Following this announcement, support began pouring in for Emperor Bao Dai. Dr. Truong Dinh Tri, a former minister under Ho Chi Minh, agreed to independence within the French Union and Tran Van Tuy of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang nationalist party called for Bao Dai to be restored. On September 9, 1947 twenty-four delegates from across Vietnam, including Viceroy Nguyen Van Sam, Minister of the Interior Ngo Dinh Diem and provincial Judge Dinh Xuan Quang all joined in favor of Bao Dai's restoration. After a short time they were joined by Tran Quang Vinh of the Cao Dai, Tran Van Ly of the Catholic bloc, VNQDD Truong Dinh Tri, Dong Minh Hoi Nguyen Thai Than, Dai Viet Nguyen Tuong Tam, social democrat Phan Quang Dan and the United National Front's Tran Van Tuyen (Chapuis 153).
            After this broad and dramatic show of support, as well as the uncompromising attitude of Emperor Bao Dai, France formally agreed to give Vietnam full independence on September 10, 1947 in Ha Dong. Four days later demonstrators took to the streets of Saigon demanding the return of Emperor Bao Dai. Simultaneously the leaders of Cochinchina (a French colony) agreed on the reunification of the south with Annam and Tonkin under H.M. Bao Dai. In response to this, on September 19, 1947 Emperor Bao Dai said he was willing to negotiate with France in response to the voice of the people. (Chapuis 153).
            The formalities took much longer but nevertheless, many people were stirred by these recent events. Emperor Bao Dai signed an agreement in June of 1948, which opened with the words, "France solemnly recognizes the independence of Viet Nam". For the first time, Ho Chi Minh was not the only alternative as national leader. One observer said, "Bao Dai had obtained from the French in two years of negotiating what Ho had not been able to obtain in two years of fighting: the word 'independence'". This development even caused many non-communist Vietminh members to defect to South Vietnam (Joes 24). The French pledge was also influenced by the United States, through an article in Life magazine by William Bullitt, causing France to believe the U.S. would support a government headed by Emperor Bao Dai (Karnow 187). This would prove to be a mistake, as were the beliefs by the Vietnamese that France was being genuine in their actions toward an independent Vietnam.
            One of the people most alarmed by the return of Emperor Bao Dai and the pledge of independence from France was President Ho Chi Minh. On October 10, 1947 Ho ordered the assassination of Nguyen Van Sam and Truong Dinh Tri who had formed the Mat Tran Quoc Gia Lien Hiep or Allied National Front, to promote a constitutional monarchy for Vietnam (Chapuis 153). He even began praising the Emperor in public again, saying he was close in the thoughts of the people, and also announced he also would support remaining in the French Union as a free and equal partner (Karnow 188).
            The "Central Provisional Vietnam Government" was proclaimed on May 20, 1948 under Nguyen Van Xuan. It was not until March 8, 1949 that H.M. Bao Dai agreed to assume the position of Head of State, after renewed assurances of freedom and the complete unification of the country. He took office officially on December 30, 1949 (Hall 889). On February 6, 1950 the United States and the United Kingdom officially recognized Emperor Bao Dai as the legitimate government of Vietnam (Hall 890). It was the start of American support for South Vietnam.
            However, the often-promised independence from France was slow in materializing anywhere other than on paper. Everyone in the French government, from Christian Democratic to Radical Socialists, continually put off the subject of freedom for Vietnam (Karnow 189). On this issue of independence, which had been the cornerstone of all of his dealings with France, the Emperor let his feet do the talking and left Vietnam for Europe and vowed not to resume the imperial throne until "true unity and real independence" were given to Vietnam (Karnow 189). Suffice it to say; although it was not realized at the time, Emperor Bao Dai would never see Vietnam again.
            America began pouring support into the Saigon regime but only by way of France so as to support their ongoing war against the Vietminh. However, even here the Vietnamese were being cheated. Emperor Bao Dai, once allowed to build his own army, complained quite justifiably that the American funds were not being spent entirely on Vietnam and that the weapons and equipment sent to his army were antiquated and unreliable (Hall 894). Although the American chargé d?affaires in Saigon warned his countrymen not to underestimate Bao Dai, and described him as "intelligent and patriotic", the United States government never gave him their full support (Bradley 180).
            America voiced loud disapproval of the on-going interference of France in Vietnamese affairs but at the same time had a persistent attitude that the Vietnamese were incapable of self-government (Bradley 180). Nevertheless, they continued sending financial support, advisors and assistance in developing a national iconography for the State of Vietnam and Emperor Bao Dai (Young 42). The result of this strategy in the end was that American aid supported the battle of South Vietnam but starved them of victory.
When the battle of Dien Bien Phu ensured that the French presence in Indochina was at an end, the United States stepped up their plan of "nation-building".
            The United States was most concerned about the threat of global communism penetrating Vietnam. They justified their involvement by warning that a victory for Ho Chi Minh was a victory for Stalinism. However, at the Geneva Conference it should have been clear to everyone that the Soviet Union, and more importantly the People?s Republic of China, were not acting in total unison with the regime of Ho Chi Minh. In fact, at the end of the Conference the leading Chinese delegate, Premier Zhou Enlai, drank a toast to the health of Emperor Bao Dai and even suggested that his State of Vietnam set up a legation in Beijing (An 40).
            The American influence in South Vietnam at this time was lead by O.S.S. Colonel Edward G. Lansdale who was also the biggest supporter of the long-time government official and mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem (Young 45). On April 28, 1954 France, at last convinced that their years of control had ended, jointly declared the "total independence" of Vietnam along with Emperor Bao Dai (Hall 917). With this goal accomplished, and the principle of national unification agreed upon, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, H.I.H. Prince Buu Loc, resigned (Chapuis 160). The man favored to replace him was H.I.H. Prince Buu Hoi, who also had the support of the nationalist Vietnamese army. However, America wanted Ngo Dinh Diem for the job and pressured the French to drop their support for Prince Buu Hoi or lose American sympathy in their war in Algeria. Next, they threatened to cut off the money going to the Vietnamese army unless they also dropped Prince Buu Hoi and backed Ngo Dinh Diem (Young 48).
            Ngo Dinh Diem then went to France to meet with Emperor Bao Dai. He brought with him a long list of prominent Americans who wished him to lead the government of South Vietnam. He also brought a letter from Mike Mansfield of Montana, Senate Majority Leader for the U.S. Congress, which stated that America would "save" Vietnam if he was chosen as Prime Minster (Berrier 2). Emperor Bao Dai could only assume that if Diem did not become Prime Minister America would abandon Vietnam to the communists. However, he was very suspicious about the way his hand was being forced and had Diem, a Roman Catholic, swear before a crucifix loyalty to the Emperor and to defend Vietnam "against the Communists and, if necessary, against the French" (Karnow 234). America now had its own favorite in power in Saigon. 
            With Diem in office as Prime Minister, and Edward Lansdale taking full credit, it was now time for the United States to take direct control over the affairs of Vietnam. They soon made it clear Emperor Bao Dai would be deposed at the first opportunity (Devillers 345). As early as March of 1955, when Diem (as Premier) began attacking his opponents, Ambassador Collins (U.S.) recommended to Washington that they support a change in leadership. However, the CIA opposed such a measure and the crackdown by Diem continued, being carried out by his American-funded army (Maclear 53).
            Colonel Lansdale threatened to cut off pay to the palace guard if they followed the orders of Chief of Staff General Nguyen Van Hinh, who was loyal to Bao Dai. He even attempted to assassinate General Le Van Vien when money failed to induce him to betray his Emperor (Berrier 3). Emperor Bao Dai tried to form a new government in Saigon, which had been demanded by the three sects of great influence, the Cao Dai, Binh Xuyen and Hoa Hao (Devillers 338). However, the Americans had neutralized all of these groups, through bribery (with CIA funds) and outright military force by Diem's police (Devillers 339).
            Emperor Bao Dai responded to this subversion and state of virtual civil war within a civil war by ordering Diem to resign for "selling the blood of the Vietnamese". Diem turned to Lansdale for help and the American officer informed him that the only claim to power Diem had was through the traditional authority of Emperor Bao Dai, and therefore the only way to stay in power was to remove Bao Dai as Emperor (Maclear 53). Subsequently, a plebiscite was planned and Bao Dai came under attack by the U.S.
            One of the most constant complaints and reasons for which America claimed Bao Dai to be unpopular was because of his absence from Vietnam (Maclear 48). However, as early as August 11, 1954 Emperor Bao Dai announced that he would be returning to Vietnam. As soon as this news spread the French Premier, Mendés-France, received a memorandum informing him that the American embassy in Paris asked the French government "to prevent Bao Dai from leaving for Saigon". American officials stated Congress would be reluctant to renew aid to Vietnam if the former Emperor returned home. The advisor also suggested softly blackmailing Bao Dai into staying in France (Devillers 331). He also suggested using a media campaign to discourage the return of Emperor Bao Dai (Devillers 332).
            The American press dutifully let loose a torrential hate campaign against Bao Dai, claiming that he chose to live in comfort in France rather than going home to fight for his country (Devillers 332), all while they were doing everything in their power to force the Emperor to stay out of Vietnam. On September 30, 1955 the CBS bureau chief in Paris wrote a virulent article in Collier's attacking the Emperor. He stated the basic American goal that, "Diem must not only remove Bao Dai but must do it in such a way that he no longer has any usefulness as a symbol of Vietnamese unity," (Berrier 4).
            With the Emperor's reputation being ruined in the press Diem pressed on with the plebiscite. He sent agents throughout the countryside to show American films on the benefits of living in a country like the United States. First though, the people were subjected to a political indoctrination lesson in which they were told by Diem's supporters that everything Vietnam had believed in for thousands of years, particularly the idea of the thien menh or "Mandate of Heaven" and monarchist government was all wrong and that, in choosing between Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem, they were really choosing between liberty or returning to North Vietnam. Some openly admitted they learned the techniques used at these sessions from the Communists (Nguyen 177).
            The outcome of the election was never in doubt. Edward Lansdale saw to it that Emperor Bao Dai was presented as archaic and out of touch while Diem was promoted as the modern man of liberty. It also helped that Diem's police controlled the polling stations and went through villages house by house threatening anyone who voted for Bao Dai with violent retaliation. Even the color of the ballots was rigged to make Bao Dai look unappealing. They also counted the votes themselves, totally unsupervised (Young 53). Those who still persisted in voting for Bao Dai were later assaulted (Chapuis 160).
            The Emperor, had no way of campaigning and could only protest the illegality of the plebiscite. Lansdale had suggested a 60% victory but Diem engineered an obscene 98% in his favor (De Groot 62). In fact, Diem had claimed to have received more votes than the number of people listed on the electoral roll (Hall 918). Once in power Diem saw to it that the parliament was filled with nothing but his chosen sympathizers and all parties who opposed him were banned (De Groot 63).
            This was the illegitimate beginning to the first American-sponsored Vietnamese government. It is no wonder that in the years to come stability became Saigon's biggest problem. For a government founded on threats, bribery and deceit, no one could have expected absolute loyalty. One expert on Vietnam described Emperor Bao Dai as "an underrated man" (Joes 23). It does seem that, upon closer examination of the facts, the "Bao Dai Solution" had great promise, but was doomed from the very start, not so much by her enemies, but mortally so by her friends.
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Additional information provided by: H.I.H. Prince Nguyen-Phuc Buu Phuc, October 27, 2002
[1] Though both sides claimed to be nationalist, the title is used here to differentiate from the communists.
[2] Emperor Khai Dinh "the auger of peace and stability", 12th Nguyen emperor
[3] ?Devant la pression et les menaces que laissaient sentir les communistes du Viet-Minh, l?Empereur Bao Dai préféra abdiquer le 25-8-1945 pour éviter le risque d?une guerre civile. »