Twilight of the Nguyen Dynasty
Twilight of the Nguyen Dynasty
         Following the removal of Emperor Duy Tan in 1916 the French were again faced with a dilemma which one colonial official described as having to face the danger of either an intelligent king who is capable and popular but becomes dangerous to France or an incompetent one who does not help the colonial regime of the Vietnamese monarchy. The French, the preeminent European republicans it must be remembered, were content to let the throne remain vacant but the Vietnamese court insisted that this could not be done and suggested Prince Nguyen Buu Dao to succeed Duy Tan. He was the son and heir of Emperor Dong Khanh, the monarch the French had found the most acceptable so far, and so from a family line with some points of legitimacy in his favor. Hoping for a return to the friendlier era of Dong Khanh the French finally agreed and Nguyen Buu Dao was enthroned as Emperor Khai Dinh. One can see in his reign a man trying to do what was best as he saw it but, sadly, most anything he did which pleased France angered his own people and what he did to help his people often annoyed the French.
         Emperor Khai Dinh tried to project a national image of peace and stability, both among the Vietnamese and the French, that the troublesome plots and intrigues of the past were over and to restore the image of the Nguyen monarchy. He accepted that the French protectorate was in Vietnam to stay and wanted to make their coexistence as peaceful and cordial as possible. He also wanted to shore up the respect of his own people for the traditional role of the monarchy in Vietnamese life. He established a new ceremony called the Celebration of National Restoration to honor the unification of Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty founder Emperor Gia Long. This was a tightrope to walk though since, while most of his people certainly felt national unity was important, the French had divided the country up into the three regions of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina and were wary of any emperor acting too imperial when it came to their protectorate over Tonkin or the French colony of Cochinchina. Still, in 1918 the French allowed Emperor Khai Dinh to visit Tonkin which was rarely done even though it was still nominally his own dominion. On the whole though the French were rather unenthusiastic about the efforts of the Emperor to shore up respect for the monarchy as, due to recent history, they feared it would only encourage opposition to themselves and the place of Vietnam in the French colonial empire.
         Khai Dinh also suffered from some unintended side affects of French culture and innovations in his country such as political theories which celebrated republicanism, questioned royal authority and, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of the mass media. Whereas the emperor in the Vietnam of yore reigned on high, mostly unseen, as a mysterious, almost mystical figure who interceded for his people as the Son of Heaven, Khai Dinh had to worry about public image, newspaper articles, revolutionary tracts and criticism of his daily activities even down to the style of clothes he wore. The result was that Khai Dinh became one of the most widely scorned monarchs of the Nguyen dynasty, usually due to circumstances beyond his control or as a result of less than fair propaganda. When a great deal of fanfare was made for his unprecedented visit to France for the Colonial Exhibition at Marseilles in 1922 many Vietnamese revolutionaries took the opportunity to attack him for his friendship with the French.
         Many nationalist and revolutionary figures first became known during this period. Ho Chi Minh wrote satire mocking Khai Dinh for being surrounded by such pomp and splendor while having no real power at all. Phan Boi Chau railed mostly against the French (he was a monarchist in his early period) but also criticized the court at times for being friendly with them or lowering the imperial dignity by adopting foreign customs. Phan Chu Trinh praised the monarchies of Japan and Siam but ridiculed his own and personally attacked Emperor Khai Dinh in his famous Seven Point Letter which criticized the emperor for a number of things from serious issues like government corruption to less consequential things like kowtowing to the downright absurd such as ridiculing his adoption of a new style of dress that combined French and Vietnamese elements. How many revolutionary writers have ever taken the time to make an issue out of royal tastes in clothing and architecture?
         The truth is, however, that Emperor Khai Dinh was making sincere efforts to do what he felt was in the best interests of his country. He was not a charismatic figure and suffered from frequent poor health but of the criticism leveled against him is really unfair. The French increased taxes on his watch but he had no control over that and he did protest the increase and, though he was often criticized for having a luxurious lifestyle while his people suffered the truth is that the Vietnamese monarchy operated on far less money than even their smaller neighbor of Cambodia. In 1920 Khai Dinh became so disgusted with his situation that he talked about abdicating but the French would not allow it. The French also were sometimes critical of him for not being cooperative enough and Khai Dinh complained that they were undermining the Nguyen dynasty, quite unfairly as he saw it, since he had always shown nothing but friendship and goodwill in trying to ensure a health Franco-Viet alliance.
         One of the ways he did this was through his young son Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy. A great deal of hope for the future was placed on the young boy by Khai Dinh and his close friend Pierre Pasquier, the Resident Superior in Hue from 1921 to 1926. When the Council of Royal Family Members petitioned the emperor to formally invest his son as crown prince Khai Dinh authorized it mostly because the French felt it would be helpful to do so. This was something which had not been done since the reign of the first Nguyen emperor, Gia Long, and was meant to ensure a peaceful succession as well as to dispel any doubts about the legitimacy of Vinh Thuy. Khai Dinh had been very slow to have children (his lack of heirs was one reason the French did not allow him to immediately succeed his father Dong Khanh) and some, probably relatives from a rival imperial line, spread rumors that Khai Dinh could not have children and that Vinh Thuy was not really his own (though simply comparing their photographs would be proof enough for most people). In 1921 the ceremony was held in the Holy Citadel and Vinh Thuy officially became Crown Prince. The following year he accompanied his father to France and was left behind to be educated along modern lines in the hope that he would one day be the ideal, modern monarch and a model of the best of the Franco-Viet colonial relationship.
The Minister of Colonies and Emperor Khai Dinh with Prince Vinh Thuy trailing behind arriving in Paris in 1922. The trip was intended to foster more Franco-Viet friendship but many observers felt that the Vietnamese Emperor was displayed like a trophy.
         It was not many years later though that Emperor Khai Dinh, riddled with Potts Disease and tuberculosis, died in November, 1925, leaving the country again without a mature monarch to take the throne. Vinh Thuy was rushed back to Vietnam for the funeral and his ceremonious enthronement as Emperor Bao Dai after which he was returned to France to continue his education during his minority. The French also took the opportunity to strip the Vietnamese court of most of what little authority it still had, a situation which was to endure until 1932 when Bao Dai returned home to take up his royal duties. The French were worried that the Vietnamese court, which remained very conservative and traditional, was not as cooperative as they should have been and were not going along with the progressive efforts of the French to modernize and (in French eyes) civilize Vietnam. The traditional Vietnamese elites scorned such an attitude, pointing out that their country had an intricate and civilized society when the French themselves were still wearing animal skins and worshipping trees.
         One of the instigators of the shift in French policy was Resident Superior Pasquier who had been a close friend and supporter of Emperor Khai Dinh. He viewed the court ministers as a scheming group of reactionaries who were detrimental to the French protectorate though he did support the court as an institution and was not of the same mindset as the Governor-General in Hanoi who simply wished to take advantage of the imperial absence to bring the monarchy under ever stricter French control. Pasquier, however, prevailed in his plans and when the Vietnamese regent, Ton That Han, authorized the changes it was on the understanding that they were only temporary and once Emperor Bao Dai had matured and taken up his duties as monarch things would revert back to their normal state. Changes that were made included, the following year in 1926, the establishment of Chambers of the Representatives of the People (CRP) in Tonkin and Annam which replaced the lesser representative assemblies the French had previously established. This was a major step and one the French were rather wary about even though the members were chosen from a very restricted franchise, met only a few days every year and were confined to non-political issues in their discussions.
         Nonetheless, in Annam especially, the CRP quickly became very political and was a focus of political debate as nationalists demanded that more powers be given to the CRP to the detriment of the French authorities. There is even a first draft in French archives for what was titled as a constitution for the Kingdom of Annam though needless to say nothing ever came of it. Not to many years later, while the nominal Emperor was still away in France going to college, playing tennis and picking up a taste for French girls, one of the major political upheavals of the late imperial era was exploding. In February of 1930 a group of Vietnamese colonial troops at the Yen Bai military post in Tonkin mutinied and killed their French officers in what was to be the spark for a nationalist uprising organized by the militant nationalist party the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang also known as the Viet Quoc or simply VNQDD. This group had set itself up as the Vietnamese equivalent of the successful Kuomintang nationalist party in the Republic of China. The French were able to squash the rebellion before things got out of hand and the ringleaders were executed but it put the entire colonial establishment on edge and did not bode well for the future. The Nghe Tinh Soviet revolts in the northern Annam provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh later in the year were even more serious because they represented some of the first real blood shed by the infant Indochinese Communist Party and these outbursts were not totally eliminated until the summer of 1931.
         These and other revolutionary outbursts convinced the French that they had to stop taking the loyalty or at least peacefulness of most Indochinese for granted and they began talks of some limited reforms or at least attitude changes in dealing with the Vietnamese. This new direction in colonial policy was to be linked with the return of Emperor Bao Dai who was expected to lead a new era of improvement in Franco-Viet relations and colonial cooperation. Part of this was the fact that the French government was extremely reluctant to entrust any changes in policy to the Vietnamese court and preferred to put their trust in a closely supervised monarch who had spent most of his life in France. As time passed the French made Bao Dai the keystone of their plan for a new direction in Vietnamese affairs. Some veteran colonial officials expressed concern that the young monarch had been too far from his country for too long to fully understand the often very complicated and intricate problems and attitudes of Vietnam. On the whole though French officials, particularly Pasquier, were confident that Bao Dai could be all things to all people. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, revolutionary grumblings grew as did the debate between the more peaceful, political factions and even among those loyal to the monarchy and the colonial system.
         Much of these debates involved the native Vietnamese bureaucracy. The mandarins had been the backbone of the imperial government for as long as anyone could remember. These were the Confucian scholar-administrators who were alternately praised for their great learning and morality and despised and ridiculed for their corruption at other times. The French distrusted them, many Vietnamese grumbled about them and accused them, as they long had, of being dishonest and fleecing the villagers under their watch. The French worried that they were a threat and resented being the front men for better paid French officials who actually made all the decisions. No doubt many were resentful of the French for usurping their position but the French usually used the more popular accusation that the mandarins were corrupt and incompetent (if true this later accusation might have had something to do with the fact that French administrators, even of the lowest orders, were paid far more than the Vietnamese mandarins). However, as much as the French complained about the mandarins they never showed any hesitation for using them to carry out policies they knew would be very unpopular such as executing revolutionaries.
         There was also debate, because of all this, about whether or not the French should not abolish the native administration altogether, scrap the protectorate and rule directly themselves. Pham Quynh, an articulate loyalist writer, argued that the native government and monarchy had to be preserved in peace with the French in accordance with a more honest adherence to the original protectorate treaty and a more high profile role for the emperor with more power to carry out his duties. His ideal of combining the best elements of French and Confucian values were right at home in the reign of the late Emperor Khai Dinh and looked to be safe for the future under Bao Dai. On the other side of the argument was Nguyen Van Vinh who detested the monarchy, the mandarins and the entire traditional system of government and authority in Vietnam, preferring the adoption of more Western, liberal, progressive ideas to accomplish their goals. For those in his school of thought the monarchy, court and mandarins were useless and often corrupt figureheads they would be better off without. Pham Quynh and Nguyen Van Vinh, representing these two factions, waged a long war of words in the local newspapers with one arguing to revitalize the imperial system in cooperation with the French to improve the country and the other arguing for the abolition of the false fronts of these institutions many regarded as useless anachronisms.
pro- French monarchist Pham Quynh
         Most people, in spite of or because of these squabbles looked anxiously for the return of Emperor Bao Dai from France. The court officials, led by the venerable Catholic Minister Nguyen Huu Bai, wanted this to happen as soon as possible, as soon as the emperor reached legal age. The French resisted this, afraid that the court was trying to gain control of their protege; before he was mature enough to be independent (which in their mind meant following French advice rather than the advice of his Vietnamese ministers). Since the reign of Emperor Khai Dinh when he came to high office Nguyen Huu Bai had been a thorn in the side of the French officials and Pasquier for one despised him. The French were helped by the fact that Bao Dai himself had no urgent desire to leave France and sided with them that it was best to put off his return to Vietnam until he was a few years older and everything was properly prepared. That date was set for late 1932 and the French orchestrated a considerable public relations campaign to herald the long awaited return of their young monarch after a ten year absence.
         In the time leading up to his arrival there was some revolutionary murmurings by those who condemned the monarch for cooperating with the French at all but on the whole the country was gripped by royal hysteria and excitement for the event. Emperor Bao Dai left France from Marseilles and arrived at Tourane on the Vietnamese coast on September 8, 1932 to a very colorful reception and was met by French officials as well as regent Ton That Han and Interior Minister Nguyen Huu Bai. He journeyed to Hue to take up his residence in the Forbidden Purple City and issued a decree thanking the French for his education and their friendship and promising a new era of reform and modernization. One of his first acts of reform was to abolish kowtowing (or the lays as they were often called) which the liberals and the CRP certainly approved of as they viewed such acts of obeisance and submission as archaic and humiliating. Liberal writers and newspapers hailed it as the symbol of a new era, a departure from the foolish native ways of the past. A very few archconservatives however bemoaned the loss of the ancient custom and even more so the increasing tendency by almost everyone to associate anything traditionally Vietnamese as backward and outdated.
Nguyen Huu Bai, venerable Catholic and anti-French monarchist and defender of the established Vietnamese court. In spite of his many honors the French were very distrustful of him and worried that he was scheming to put a Catholic on the Vietnamese throne.
         Emperor Bao Dai put any major changes on hold, however, as he spent a few months touring the provinces of Annam which he said would allow him to gain some first hand information as to what changes would be necessary. The French tended to expect big things to happen while the conservative Vietnamese court seemed to dismiss such notions, though it may have been wishful thinking on their part. Vo Liem, Minister of Rites, assured the press that Bao Dai would preserve traditional customs and stressed the importance of the monarchy in Vietnamese life while Nguyen Huu Bai gave the opinion that the average Vietnamese person simply wanted peace and stability to live their lives and leave politics to the French and the imperial court. Minister of Justice Ton That Dan said that judicial reforms would mostly entail some further definitions and clarifications of the original Nguyen dynasty legal code of Emperor Gia Long. This certainly represented the hopes of the court but it remained to be seen what the emperor would do acting on his own with the French behind him.
         The court and country was thus quite shocked when, on May 2, 1933, Emperor Bao Dai sacked all but one of his ministers and replaced them with a cabinet of young officials known for their nationalism and zeal for reform. He eliminated the office of prime minister entirely and announced that he would handle things himself with the advice of five cabinet ministers. The French were quite pleased with this event, often termed the coup of 1933, because they considered the court and the dowager queens to be entirely too conservative and traditional. They disapproved of the extent to which their monarch had been Gallicanized, disapproved of his preference for western clothes and western sports and the French accused the entire group of trying to dominate the emperor with most of the blame in French eyes falling on Nguyen Huu Bai. No doubt a great deal of this stemmed from the fact that Bai was a nationalist himself who favored a more strict adherence to the 1884 treaty by the French. Pasquier accused Bai of trying to influence the Emperor to confront the French on this issue and he accused Bai of being behind any negative comments directed at the emperor for being more French than Vietnamese and caring more about gambling and sports than his duties as Vietnamese emperor. Whether so staunch a monarchist as Bai would do that is debatable, but looking at the life of the last emperor as a whole it would be hard to say such accusations were entirely unfounded.
         Vietnamese reactions to this unprecedented event were mostly favorable but a closer look reveals a few things which did not bode well for the future of the monarchy. Many loyal royalists were pleased to see the Emperor taking such initiative and assume more direct control over the government. The problem there is that the actual powers of the Vietnamese government did not change at all and real power still rested with the French which meant that enthusiasm in that regard was not bound to last. The favorable response of the avowed opponents of the monarchy to the changes were also unsettling. Nguyen Van Vinh, for example, was very pleased with the so-called coup and credited the emperor with starting the movement to wipe away the ancien regime. These people approved of what happened only because they viewed it as strengthening the position of the radicals. Finally, there were a minority of voices which voiced opposition, the best example of this was the reaction of the Saigon newspaper Tribune Indochinoise. The paper ridiculed the French for the dismissals, calling it unfair treatment for such loyal servants and argued that this was all an effort to surround the emperor with pro-French advisors. The paper also saw the new high-profile position of the emperor as a danger to the monarchy as it would doubtlessly make him at least appear more involved in politics and tie the fate of the monarchy to political activities which, serving French interests, might be unpopular and would give Vietnamese revolutionaries more ammunition to fire at the emperor and the imperial institution.
Emperor Bao Dai and Resident Superior Pasquier with French elites. France hoped that Bao Dai would modernize Vietnam, galvanize the public and foster greater Franco-Viet cooperation. Not surprisingly perhaps the French republic did not seem to have a very firm grasp of how to encourage loyalty to a monarchy. Bao Dai was given enough rope to hang the court conservatives but not enough authority to put anything in their place.
         There was a short flurry of activity as Bao Dai and the new ministers enacted a number of reforms dealing with the CRP, education, law and the civil service. Standards for candidates to the mandarinate were changed to favor those with a more modern, western style education, the legal code was updated to be more along the lines of the more French inspired system in Tonkin and education in Annam was put more in Vietnamese hands at certain levels following complaints that the French educators were not instilling a proper respect for the emperor among their pupils. Most hope was put in changes for the CRP but these proved mostly illusory. The Emperor could dissolve the body but it remained absolutely forbidden for the chamber to discuss political issues and whatever acts they did pass had to be approved, not only by the Vietnamese Interior Minister but also by the French Superior Resident. So, in effect, nothing had substantially changed and those who hoped the modernizations that came with the return of Bao Dai to Vietnam saw their hopes dashed as it became clear that whatever changes occurred the French still had the final word on everything of any significance that was done.
         One of the new ministers who was particularly disgusted by this situation was the new Interior Minister Ngo Dinh Diem. A young official, he had been elevated mostly because of his reputation for honesty, intelligence and the strong monarchist credentials of his Catholic family. As one of the Catholics at court he first informed his predecessor and patron Nguyen Huu Bai of his desire to resign from his new office and in July he gave Emperor Bao Dai a letter stating this and listing a number of reasons for his decisions. Pasquier later made some of these known which were; the continued violations by the French of the 1884 protectorate treaty and the abolition of the traditional court council, the lack of increased ties between Annam and Tonkin which were expected with the return of the Emperor and the failure to grant the CRP and deliberative part in government. The French accused Diem of insolence in his letter and the Governor-General refused to accept his resignation until he agreed to do so for personal reasons and promised not to make any political statements about it. Emperor Bao Dai later said though that Diem had been very respectful and had told him he simply did not wish to continue on in a charade with the French constantly disregarding the 1884 treaty.
         The French put a great deal of the blame for this controversy at the feet of Nguyen Huu Bai who had most annoyed them because of his constant complaints about France taking much more power than the 1884 protectorate treaty allowed. When Diem made the same complaints they chalked it all up to the continued actions of the Bai, Catholic-nationalist faction. The French much preferred the Pham Quynh faction even though he too argued for a stricter adherence to the treaty but he was much more appreciative of the French and their presence than Nguyen Huu Bai and his faction seemed to be. The most basic difference was that while Pham Quynh believed the French sincerely wanted to work with the loyalist Vietnamese, Nguyen Huu Bai did not. The French believed that the resignation was part of a scheme by Ngo Dinh Diem, backed up by Nguyen Huu Bai, to counter Pham Quynh and challenge the status quo of the protectorate. As stated though, Pham Quynh would also have liked to see the treaty followed more exactly but felt that Emperor Bao Dai was in the best position to persuade the French to do this whereas Diem and Bai more likely thought that after a decade of being raised and educated in France Bao Dai would be unable or unwilling to get very tough with the French on such a central issue.
         In the end, as with some earlier alleged comments, the group associated with Nguyen Huu Bai proved to be correct. As time passed it became more and more clear that those who hoped for real change out of these new moves at court following the return of the Emperor would be disappointed as it was still the French who had final say on virtually every matter of significance. Far from being best equipped to challenge the French on their domination and violations of the 1884 treaty Emperor Bao Dai himself claimed, in his memoirs, to have been disappointed by his lack of power and felt it was futile to even pretend as though he was a significant part of the government of Vietnam. He stated that it was for this reason that he decided to live as a monarch-in-exile in his own country and hold on, in his words, to his spiritual role as supreme pontiff of the country which no one could take from him. This power basically referred to the imperial prerogative to recognize village genies. Instead, Bao Dai gave most of his time over to parties, hunting trips and building and enjoying his summer retreats away from the Forbidden City. The result was that the court and the monarchy ceased to play any significant role in political events and was largely ignored by the public and the Vietnamese and French language press.
         The French were almost as disappointed with this development as the Vietnamese were as they hoped that Bao Dai would be more active in promoting Franco-Viet cooperation. However, he was at least not opposing them and better that he be a playboy than a revolutionary. It does not seem to have ever even occurred to them that their position could have been strengthened by more genuine, equal cooperation at all. So, they indulged the emperor in his indulgence, even giving him a private plane for his use to go along with his yacht and fleet of fast cars and let the status quo continue. Few people at the time realized that, as the revolutionaries became the only vocal section of the political chorus, that both the colonial regime and the Nguyen monarchy had entered their final stages. All that was left was the cataclysm of World War II which would bring foreign occupation, the extremely brief life of the Empire of Vietnam and finally the fall of the Nguyen dynasty and the end of more than a thousand years of monarchism in Vietnam with the abdication of Bao Dai, his handing over of the imperial seal and sword to Ho Chi Minh and thus, in the eyes of the public, the passing of the Mandate of Heaven to the communist government in 1945.
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