The Possible Restoration of Emperor Duy Tan
         If the Nguyen dynasty emperors were unpopular with the nationalist crowd that unpopularity did not extend to those who had opposed the French and lost their throne because of it such as Emperor Ham Nghi and Emperor Duy Tan. There was some sympathy for Emperor Thanh Thai but on the whole his bizarre behavior tended to keep such sentiments limited to sympathy only rather than outright support. The lingering support for Emperor Ham Nghi, though he had long been exiled to Algeria, was still enough that the French suppressed the news of his death in Vietnam for some time. Emperor Duy Tan was another story though. Since being deposed and demoted to his former status as Prince Nguyen Vinh San and being exiled to La Reunion Island for his attempted rebellion in 1916 the young former monarch had managed to become rather well thought of in both Vietnamese nationalist and French circles.
         Prince Vinh San had, during his exile, kept up with political events in his homeland and in Europe and he was a passionate supporter of the Free French cause during World War II. Several months before the liberation of Paris he was finally able to obtain a commission in the Free French military. He went to Madagascar and rallied 1,500 Indochinese troops into a battalion for the Free French and requested transfer to the western front to do battle against the Nazis. Although grateful for his support the French were still wary enough to postpone the movement of the prince and his forces to Europe until after V-E Day. After that he served with the French occupation army in Germany until October of 1945 when he was recalled to Paris for a special mission by General Charles DeGaulle. The specifics of that mission have led to a great deal of speculation over the years because so many questions remain unanswered.
         What is certain is that Prince Vinh San was scheduled to return to Vietnam in March of 1946 but while on route to a quick visit to his home on Reunion his plane crashed and the prince was killed the day after Christmas, 1945. What was his mission? Did DeGaulle have a special plan for him in Vietnam? What might have happened had he not died in that tragic plane crash over central Africa? All of these questions have set tongues to wagging ever since as every detail of the episode have been scrutinized and speculated over. Many believe, with some evidence to support them, that he was on his way to be restored as Emperor of Vietnam in an effort to draw support away from the Communist led nationalists under Ho Chi Minh. It must be remembered that by this time the Emperor Bao Dai, who many viewed as being politically compromised for his collaboration with the French, Japanese and communists in turn, had already abdicated. Furthermore, by his zealous adherence to the Free French cause in their opposition to the Axis during the war Prince Vinh San had regained his stock with the French who no longer saw him as such a threat to them.
         In his memoirs Charles DeGaulle wrote that he had a secret plan to reintroduce Emperor Duy Tan if Bao Dai proved permanently non-viable as a political figure. That could certainly have been argued to be the case considering that he had abdicated to Ho Chi Minh and was, at that time, serving as Supreme Councilor to the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. DeGaulle further stated that Prince Vinh San had not lost his popularity among the Vietnamese public in the years of his exile and that most still held a special place in their hearts for their former young monarch who had lost his throne for attempting to gain independence from France. DeGaulle said that he and the prince had talked about what they could accomplish for Vietnam together but did not elaborate much beyond that. Wanting no part of the communists the French still hoped that the monarchy could command the loyalty of the Vietnamese public but was concerned that Bao Dai no longer held the respect of his countrymen whereas Prince Vinh San never seemed to have lost in and had, in fact, gained public esteem for his opposition to the French. It should be said though that by and large the French never seemed to consider that cooperation with themselves could damage a public figure in Vietnamese eyes anyway. The French mostly felt that Bao Dai had a dubious reputation for his cooperation with the Japanese and the Vietminh.
         Vinh San seemed an acceptable figure for the French because of his service and his political manifesto, which he put out while on Reunion, called for a free Indochina as a federation within the French Union which was almost exactly what DeGaulle himself favored. Even Ho Chi Minh stated that he would be willing to keep Vietnam in the French Union if they did so as an independent, united country though many in France did not believe him to be genuine nor did they have any desire, if he was, for a communist dominated Vietnam within their community. The French liaison officer between Vinh San and DeGaulle later stated that the general did intend to see him restored as Emperor Duy Tan again. He claimed that Bao Dai was viewed as having been discredited and that DeGaulle had helped secure promotions for Vinh San and his transfer to Europe to work toward this exact goal. When his plane crashed and the prince was killed DeGaulle was reportedly very upset and moaned about the bad luck of the French. Prince Vinh San himself told a French friend in mid-December that DeGaulle definitely intended to restore the monarchy, placing him on the throne and would return to Vietnam with him in the Spring of 46 for this purpose. Perhaps most importantly as far as the French were concerned, Vinh San also said that the general had agreed to his demand for the unification of Vietnam which had previously been divided between the protectorates of Tonkin, Annam and (most significantly) the French colony of Cochinchina. This long hoped for unification was a primary demand of virtually every Vietnamese nationalist in play.
         However, it is also true that even if DeGaulle favored a restoration for Emperor Duy Tan, other important people in the French government, especially the Ministry of Colonies, did not. Records show a continual reluctance on their part to allow the prince any significant role or promotions in the Free French forces and a desire to see him returned to Reunion Island as quickly as possible. There is even evidence that they pressed for his assignment to occupation duty in Germany because he was generating too much Vietnamese patriotic support during his time in Paris among the Indochinese community there. When one of his French supporters addressed the issue of his potential restoration to the government their response was that he had only been transferred to Europe so that he could join a combat unit and expressly forbid any mention of a possible restoration to the Prince. Some have even drawn the conclusion from certain facts that the Colonial Ministry had overruled DeGaulle on the subject of Vinh San and a potential restoration. As evidence they point to the attitude of the ministry as well as the perceived despondency of Vinh San toward the end of his stay in Paris. This group stressed that the colonial officials also tended to still regard Emperor Bao Dai as "their man" in Vietnam, no matter who he had collaborated with in the past, and were rather comfortable with him or at least were confident that he would collaborate with France just as easily again as he had in the past.
         That being said though, it is still hard to dismiss the entire episode as a false hope. There were certainly plenty of people who felt passionate about the idea with some even holding to a conspiracy theory that the British had sabotaged the plane to kill Prince Vinh San for fear that his return and restoration of an independent Indochina would lead to similar independence ideas in their own colonies before they were ready. Such an idea certainly sounds absurd, however it is not so easy to dismiss the potential for Vietnam as a restored monarchy under Emperor Duy Tan. Given the level of popularity he still enjoyed and the respect he commanded for his earlier stand for independence, even losing his throne because of it, with his image as a romantic figure, the young king who had lost all and been banished for trying to liberate his country, as well as the possibility of his returning home with the gifts of unification and independence; who could say what might have happened? With such credentials and such benefits on offer it is not unreasonable to suppose that Duy Tan could have drawn support away from the communists and presided over a free and united Vietnam with a monarchy that everyone could unite under and achieve all of their goals while still maintaining a friendly association with the French. Perhaps it is the possibilities that make the speculation so attractive. Such an outcome might have meant that the bloody wars Indochina suffered in the succeeded decades would have been avoided and Vietnam today might be a stable, democratic, constitutional monarchy with a Nguyen emperor still on the Golden Throne in the Forbidden City.
1