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By Joseph A. Crisp, II
            The last Emperor of Viet-Nám was born Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy, son of the 12th emperor of the Nguyen-Phuc Dynasty, Khai Dinh and the Empress-Dowager Tu Cung. He spent his youth living in France with a host family, where he was educated according to western principles and ideas. Prince Vinh Thuy was only thirteen when his father died and he was returned to Viet-Nám for his enthronement as the new emperor. In an ancient Confucian ceremony in July of 1926, the last of it's kind in the world, Prince Vinh Thuy was invested as the King of Annam, August Emperor of Viet-Nám and the Son of Heaven. He took as his reign name; Bao Dai (keeper of greatness). Since he was, as yet, too young to take up his royal duties the young monarch was returned to France to continue his studies. A council of regency, made up of French loyalists, ruled Viet-Nám in his absence.
            During this time in history Viet-Nám was becoming increasingly unstable as more and more groups raised up to challenge the foreign occupation of Indochina. Among these were the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, lead by Nguyen Thai Hoc, the scholarly revolutionaries lead by Phan Boi Chau and the Nguyen Prince Cuong De as well as the communist forces lead by Ho Chi Minh. As rebellions and subversion increased, the French realized they would have to make some efforts to appease the people and at least give them the appearance of some local government other than the French. In 1932 they decided it was time to bring the emperor back to Viet-Nám and so Bao Dai returned to set up a new nationalist cabinet that would bring reform and modernization to the "Great South". Among these were the likes of the journalist Pham Quynh, who wished to work with the French to modernize Viet-Nám as well as the mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem, a wealthy Catholic known for being fiercely independent as well as anti-communist.
            At the start things seemed to go well for the new administration. Emperor Bao Dai disbanded the French Council of Regency, abolished such ancient and rather outdated institutions such as the court harem and the requirement that subjects bow their foreheads to the floor in his presence. He also updated the education system, improved the judicial system and abolished forced labor except in cases of national emergency. He was also a patron of the Boy Scouts movement, an organization the communists complained hurt their efforts to increase membership by stressing such ideals as loyalty and devotion for the family along Confucian lines.
            Unfortunately, the efforts of Emperor Bao Dai to bring greater independence to the nation were not appreciated by the French who soon put a stop to his efforts to actually rule his own country. These brakes on their progress disheartened the court and soon the cabinet broke up as ministers resigned in aggravation. Emperor Bao Dai occupied his time playing golf and going on hunting trips since he was not allowed any real authority in his own government. On March 24, 1934 he married Jeanette Nguyen-Huu-Hao, daughter of a prominent Catholic south Vietnamese family who took the name Empress Nam Phuong (perfume of the south). The couple had two sons and three daughters; Bao Long, Bao Thang, Phuong-Mai, Phuong-Lien, and Phuong-Dung. Although the imperial pair had their share of problems they never broke up. The approach of World War II however, soon had Viet-Nám filled with hopes of independence in the future.
            Emperor Bao Dai hoped that France would be too concerned with events in Europe to resist his calls for greater autonomy for the country and greater authority for his native government. He demanded a direct representative in the French Colonial Office, and native officials in the three provinces who would report to him rather than the French Governor-General. Paris however, could plainly see where this was going and knew such things were only the first step toward demands for independence. They stalled Bao Dai and used the war as an excuse to delay talks on Indochinese liberty. They also sent the emperor a new airplane in the hope of placating him. After France was conquered by Germany a collaborationist government was set up in Vichy, which allowed Germany's Japanese ally to occupy Indochina and use French bases in Viet-Nám for their conquest of Southeast Asia. Emperor Bao Dai had not been consulted or even advised of these developments and first learned of the Japanese invasion when his car was stopped by Japanese troops on his way back to Hue City.
            The Japanese pledged not to interfere with the imperial court and cooperated with the French colonial government already in Viet-Nám. There were however, still dissenters who were determined to drive out the Japanese. Most prominent of these was the communist leader Ho Chi Minh who was given weapons, training and support by the United States government after 1941. The native government had no military force of its own and was powerless to harm or help the guerilla units. In 1945, with defeat looming on the horizon, Japan seized control of Indochina from the French and demanded that Bao Dai declare independence from France with Viet-Nám as a member of Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". Their propaganda slogan was '"Asia for the Asians!" No one knew that the Japanese had threatened to replace Emperor Bao Dai with their ally Prince Cuong De, a Nguyen Dynasty revolutionary who had been living in Japan, if Bao Dai refused their request. It was clear that Japan was going to lose the war and Bao Dai hoped that he could free Viet-Nám from the French and then wait until the Allied victory to finally have complete independence for Indochina.
            All treaties with France were repudiated and the Emperor declared independence for Viet-Nám. However, Japan was quick to demonstrate that Tokyo had merely replaced Paris as the real power in the region and began dictating to the government at Hue how to set up their new administration. Japan first chose Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister, but at the last minute decided on Tran Trong Kim who formed the first nationalist government of Viet-Nám. However, the communists were continuing to gain support, particularly in the north with aid coming in from both the United States and the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong. At first Ho Chi Minh tried to make common cause with other revolutionary groups, taking them all in under the Vietminh, however it was the communists who formed the core of leadership in the Vietminh. They were the only other military force in Viet-Nám other than the Japanese occupation troops.
            When the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Forces in the Pacific the communists began stepping up their efforts to mobilize the public under the red flag. The British sent troops in to disarm the Japanese in the south while the Nationalist Chinese were responsible for the north. The Chinese however, were more concerned with the ongoing civil war in their own country and left the Vietminh in tact in the north. The court at Hue was further handicapped by the French announcement that they intended to reestablish their colonial rule of Viet-Nám. Emperor Bao Dai wrote a letter to the French leader Charles DeGaulle explaining that such efforts would be completely futile and that Viet-Nám would never be controlled by a foreign power again. Bao Dai never even received a reply from the French concerning this appeal. It seemed clear that the Vietminh were the group in control of the country and that it was a choice between them and French colonial rule. Bao Dai also believed that Ho Chi Minh still had the support of the United States, which had backed the Vietminh throughout the war.
            In August of 1945 the Imperial Capitol was surrounded by Vietminh forces, some of the palace guards were even agents of the Vietminh. Everything seemed to be in their favor, they were the only armed group to oppose foreign control, the French were committed to reestablishing colonial control and Ho Chi Minh seemed to have considerable support from the United States. With all of these cards in their hand, Ho Chi Minh went to the Emperor and "asked" him to abdicate. With no other alternative in sight for an independent Viet-Nám Bao Dai felt he had no choice but to agree. The Japanese garrison approached the Emperor and offered to defend the Forbidden City with the support of the Allied High Command but Bao Dai refused saying, " I cannot allow a foreign army to spill the blood of my people." Using enemy troops to shoot down crowds of his own people was simply not an option. Bao Dai also believed that since America had supported Ho Chi Minh during the war, they would also guarantee the independence of Viet-Nám under a Vietminh administration. Premier Tran Trong Kim resigned and on August 23, 1945 Emperor Bao Dai agreed to abdicate the throne. On August 25 a delegation from Hanoi, the seat of power for the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nám set up by the communists, accepted the imperial seal and sword from Emperor Bao Dai in a solemn ceremony that passed authority to Ho Chi Minh. Emperor Bao Dai now became "Citizen Vinh Thuy". He explained his actions by saying, "I would prefer to be a citizen of an independent country rather than king of an enslaved one." To add legitimacy to the new regime Bao Dai was taken to Hanoi with the title of "Supreme  Political Advisor" to the new government.
            Once in Hanoi it became clear that the presence of Bao Dai was merely to give the impression that the new regime was legitimate and included all members of national society. Although Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were polite and correct with the Emperor, he was given no role in the actual administration of the country. In fact, with the French on their way back in, and certain groups within the country still refusing to bend to the rule of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh actually offered Bao Dai the position of Head of State, in the hopes that he could unite the country while he continued to exercise the real governing power. Bao Dai, however, refused to involve himself in the communist regime and delayed answering Ho Chi Minh until the offer was withdrawn. In 1948 Bao Dai was sent to China on a diplomatic mission. In reality, the French were attempting to reassert colonial rule and Ho Chi Minh was afraid the Emperor would be a rallying point against him and work with the French to overthrow the communist regime. However, Bao Dai went into exile in Hong Kong as soon as he arrived in China, having no desire to be associated with the communist regime or any effort to reestablish French rule in Indochina.
            Most thought that the emperor's political life was at an end but the French were completely unprepared by the level of resistance found in Viet-Nám. It soon became quite obvious that Bao Dai had been correct in his letter to DeGaulle, the people simply refused to allow France to continue ruling their country. The polarization of the people caused by the French invasion also pushed many more patriotic people into the arms of Ho Chi Minh. The French knew they needed someone to be an alternative personality in mobilizing the public to oppose communist expansion. The natural choice, the only other prominent figure who had a legitimate right to power, was Emperor Bao Dai. The French then developed what they referred to as the "Bao Dai Solution" which would set up a native local government and allow the French to continue their war against the Vietminh. When approached with this plan in Hong Kong, Bao Dai was not impressed. He knew that French rule would not be tolerated and he refused to agree to anything that meant a return to colonialism. He demanded that the French first give a public guarantee of the complete independence of Viet-Nám before he would assist them in opposing Ho Chi Minh and the communist forces. The Emperor was also presented with news that the people in Saigon were marching in the street demanding his return.
            Finally, an agreement was reached in which the French promised full independence for "The Associated States of Viet-Nám" within the French Union. They would continue to carry out the war against the Vietminh and Bao Dai would return as Head of State in an independent administration in Saigon. The Emperor at last gave his consent and returned to Saigon to set up the democratic government of South Viet-Nám. H.I.H. Prince Buu Loc was appointed as Prime Minister who represented the nation at the Geneva Conference which recognized South Viet-Nám and the Bao Dai government as the legitimate authority in the area. All sides agreed to hold nation-wide elections to decide which government would rule the entire country, that based in Hanoi or Saigon. All the major nations of the Free World, such as France, Great Britain and the United States, recognized the government of Bao Dai in the south while nations of the communist bloc, such as the Soviet Union, People's Republic of China and North Korea, recognized the northern government of Ho Chi Minh.
            Once these things were done Prince Buu Loc resigned, thinking that the mission of building a free and independent national government had been completed. However, Viet-Nám was far from true independence. The French soon made it clear that they intended to continue "calling the shots" for the new Saigon government. Aside from the war against the Vietminh, the French also controlled all of the new government's defense forces and foreign policy. They also became very evasive about when full independence would be given. The Emperor was frustrated and complained, "What they call a Bao Dai Solution turns out to be only a French solution." Rather than play into their hands Bao Dai left Viet-Nám and went to France. When the French authorities protested he replied that he would return when he was given freedom to act as Head of State and French interference ceased.
            The war against the Vietminh continued to go badly for the French and the United States began planning to take over the defense against communism in Southeast Asia. They had been visited by the prominent former mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic and noted nationalist from a wealthy south Viet-Námese family. He impressed upon the U.S. government his anti-communist beliefs and desire to lead Southeast Asia in the fight against the Hanoi regime. The Americans gave Ngo Dinh Diem a letter of support, which he presented to Emperor Bao Dai indicating that if he was given the position of Prime Minister Viet-Nám could expect American assistance. The Emperor was aware that France was fading fast and with no native military to speak of, the Saigon government would have to have American support. He decided he had no choice but to appoint Diem to the post of Prime Minister, but was wary enough of the way in which he put himself forward to demand a special meeting. Bao Dai called Diem to France, placed a crucifix before him, and had him swear loyalty to him and pledge to sweep out corruption, and fight the communists and, if need be, the French. Ngo Dinh Diem swore his oath and pledged to the Emperor, "If Your Majesty ever has cause to be dissatisfied with my handling of our country's affairs, you have but to speak the word and I will step down." Bao Dai had just sealed his political fate.
            The communist leader Ho Chi Minh had promised the French forces, "You may kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." This prophetic statement was proven true when the Vietminh troops under General Vo Nguyen Giap inflicted a devastating defeat on the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The French were forced to pull out of Southeast Asia and America began to take over their job of defending the area. In the north, the government and people were united by a totalitarian regime, in the south Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was unifying the region, but making alot of enemies doing it. He appointed his family to most high offices, sent military troops after dissidents and Communist insurgents and promoted Catholic moral values. He turned against the Binh Xuyen gang in a street war, though the group had been sending Bao Dai a percentage of their profits to maintain their status. Diem would not tolerate this. When word reached Emperor Bao Dai in France he immediately decided to remove Diem from office.
            Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem knew this was coming. He was also supported by the American Colonel Edward G. Lansdale who urged him to replace the traditional government with a more "American style" republic, which the people in the United States would be more willing to support. On October 6, 1955 the Ministry of the Interior announced that a referendum would be held to depose Bao Dai in favor of Ngo Dinh Diem and replace the Vietnamese monarchy, which had existed for thousands of years, with a republic. The Emperor denounced this decision, and said such on the 13th in a note to the French government and the Paris embassies of Britain, the United States, Russia and India. On the 18th Emperor Bao Dai announced the dismissal of Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister and the revocation of all powers he had previously granted him. The next day he told the Vietnamese people he did this because, "police methods and personal dictatorship must be brought to an end, and I can no longer continue to lend my name and my authority to a man who will drag you into ruin, famine and war". However, the Emperor was in France and Colonel Lansdale had been using funds from the C.I.A. to bribe government officials and buy support for Ngo Dinh Diem. He also attempted to have one of the Emperor's most loyal supporters assassinated but when the attack failed, the government silenced the issue. None of it was probably necessary. The Emperor had been associated with the French for so long, and had been away from Vietnam for such lengthy periods that his government never really had any grass-roots support. Ngo Dinh Diem could have undoubtedly won without the use of any strong-arm tactics. However, in Vietnamese politics, regime-change was never about democracy but rather about power. Diem had it, Bao Dai did not.
            When the referendum was held, Ngo Dinh Diem was in complete control of the polling stations and the entire voting process. Colonel Lansdale had also helped to give the would-be president an unfair advantage. He had the ballot cards for Bao Dai printed in green ink, the color of misfortune, and printed those for Ngo Dinh Diem in red, the color of good luck and prosperity. Those who did not understand the voting system were told by the troops at the polls to place the red ballots in the envelopes and throw the green ones in the trash. Those who persisted in trying to vote for Emperor Bao Dai were caught outside and assaulted by the soldiers. Some were severely beaten, others had water forced down their throats or hot sauce poured up their nose. In retrospect many said that Bao Dai never had a chance of winning even a fair election. However, this was a matter of principle for Diem who wanted to send a clear message to the country and the world as to who was in charge. A life-long monarchist (at least until now) Diem wanted a display of power as well as 'democratic progress'. When the votes were counted Ngo Dinh Diem claimed victory by 98%. Colonel Lansdale advised him to lower the number to a more realistic percentage, after all, anyone with experience in democracy knows that winning 98% of the electorate is unheard of. This advice was refused and everyone knew the referendum to be fraudulent. In Saigon for example, Diem claimed to have received more votes than there were registered voters in the entire area.
            Bao Dai had few choices after this development. With America in support of Ngo Dinh Diem, no one had even listened to his original objection over the holding of the referendum and he had no reason to believe that this would change now. Already the Americans were taking on a larger role in the war effort. Most of the government officials had been bribed into supporting the new president (though only temporarily as time would tell) and Bao Dai had no real avenue with which to protest the results. He also knew that any effort to contest the results of the referendum would only further fragment an already divided nation. Instead, he decided that his only choice was to accept defeat and abdicate once again as the Head of State for Viet-Nám. The Emperor made one last appeal as he left the political stage for peace and unity and for his successors in the Saigon government to give consideration to all parties in the national struggle. He then settled into a life in exile and watched from the sidelines as his country was torn apart. In 1965 he told the French writer Hilaire du Berrier, "If your government had given me one thousandth of the sum it spent to depose me, I could have won that war." Colonel Nicholas Thorne, the U.S. Marine Corps language specialist and authority on the central region of Annam, had said the same as early as 1959. The Diem regime fell quickly after the public grew tired of his harassment and the first President of the new Republic of Viet-Nám was assassinated by his own officers. Successive administrations all failed to rally any great public support and were known only for their corruption and inability to deal with the communist threat.           
With the new Viet-Nám being called America's "Showcase for Democracy" Colonel Lansdale came home and left behind Colonel Albert Pham Ngoc Thao to replace him. After the war it was released that Thao had been a communist agent and his remains were removed to the "Heroes Cemetery" in Hanoi. As for Emperor Bao Dai, he was reduced to the life of a powerless exile. During his final years in politics the Emperor's reputation was ruined by the American media. The CBS bureau chief in Paris, David Schoenbrun, wrote a story inCollier'sof September 30, 1955 regarding Emperor Bao Dai. He was more concerned with politics than factual journalism however, saying, "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". Naturally neither the Diem regime nor the communist dictators in the north had any reason to be kind to their former emperor. It all served their interests to see anything positive ripped from the name of Bao Dai and the Nguyen Dynasty. Only later would the Emperor himself learn how successful this campaign against him had been, and it is no wonder considering he was the enemy of the communists, the American sympathizers and the French who thought he had not given them enough cooperation.
Aside from one call for peace during the Viet-Nám War, Emperor Bao Dai made no further effort to attempt a restoration until the early 1980's. Recent events had given the Nguyen Dynasty reason to hope that the communist regime may have been susceptible to monarchist sentiment. The remains of the heroic Emperor Duy Tân had been allowed to be removed from Africa and carried home to the Forbidden City for a traditional burial in the tomb of his ancestors. Bao Dai and his supporters decided to "test the water" for an attempt to restore the Nguyen Dynasty to the Golden Throne. Bao Dai toured the universities of the United States to meet with Vietnamese exile youth groups and make the case for a return to constitutional monarchy in Viet-Nám. His reception was an extremely cold one. Everything the young people had ever heard about the monarchy and the Emperor had been told to them by either the Diem regime and its successors, the communist government or the United States. In every case, the party in question had an interest in making the traditional system look bad to justify their own actions.
Disheartened at the change of heart in his people, the Emperor returned to France and made no further effort to encourage a return to monarchy. Emperor Bao Dai passed away in a Paris military hospital in 1997.