Monday, July 5, 2010

Viet Nam De Quoc: Opportunity Lost

During World War II, French Indochina was occupied by Japan with the permission of the Vichy-based government of the "State of France". So it was that the Japanese entered Viet Nam without opposition and with virtually no trouble with the French colonial forces already present. In fact, the French in Indochina were the only foreigners not placed in internment by the Japanese throughout the war. Japan allowed their administration to remain intact while they made use of bases in Vietnam for their further conquest of Southeast Asia and extracted resources, which were already stretched to the limit by decades of French exploitation.

This, in itself, was a lost opportunity for both Japan and Vietnam. For some time, the Vietnamese, like most all other Asians, had admired Japan for her stunning victory over the Russians, her wealth and prosperity as well as her determination to beat the Western powers at their own game and prove that the Europeans could not only be rivaled by Asians, but defeated by them. The Meiji Restoration had kept the basic forms of Japanese society in place while also allowing massive innovation that put them on an equal footing with Western powers. There were many in Vietnam who wished that the Nguyen Emperor would have taken the same course of action for their country.

Throughout the colonial period, Japan had been seen, correctly or incorrectly, as a friend of the Asian people living under European rule. They were a particular source of haven if not outright support for the anti-French nationalists Pham Boi Chau and Marquis Cuong De. For some time there was considerable support for Phan Boi Chau's movement to overthrow the French administration, depose the Nguyen emperors who collaborated with them and enthrone Cuong De as Emperor of a modernized Vietnam, but still one based on the traditional principles Phan Boi Chau and the other mandarins were familiar with. Even after Phan Boi Chau began to follow the example of Sun Yat-Sen's Chinese republican movement, Prince Cuong De, working mostly from Japan, still had considerable support among nationalist-monarchist groups such as the Dai Viet party, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects as well as the future President of Viet Nam, the mandarin Ngo Dinh Diem.

Many Vietnamese were then extremely disillusioned when Japan marched into Vietnam and chose to work alongside their French occupiers rather than liberating their "brother Asians" from foreign domination. Although some, hoping for the best, collaborated with the Japanese, many became disgusted by Japanese actions and joined the ranks of the American-backed Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, a Communist-ruled nationalist group under the leadership of "Nguyen Ai Quoc", later best known as President Ho Chi Minh. However, when the war began to turn against Japan, they were motivated to take action toward creating a client state in Indochina, as they had done in Manchuria and parts of China and Mongolia as well as Burma.

In March, 1945, when the Japanese launched a coup against the French administration, the reigning Emperor, Bao Dai, who had been totally sidelined by the French, had no idea what had happened until his car was stopped by Japanese soldiers on his way back to the capital. Prior to this, the Japanese had had little to do with him, Cuong De was seen as "their man" and Bao Dai had been allowed only a nominal role in national affairs by the French. Japan now presented Emperor Bao Dai with the opportunity to be rid of the French, declare independence, and join Japan's "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere", an eloquent term for those nations under Japanese control.

Actually, Bao Dai had little choice in the matter. The Japanese were obviously in control of the country, and Cuong De, who had at least some following as a nationalist leader, was standing by to assume the throne if he refused. Despite what some have written, Bao Dai was under no illusions as to what this offer of independence meant. However, it was easy enough to see that Japan was on the brink of defeat and the Emperor decided that even the word "independence" was too good to pass up. He agreed and on March 11, 1945 issued a royal ordinance declaring their complete independence from France, the abolition of all treaties signed with them, and the formation of the "Viet Nam De Quoc" or the Empire of Vietnam. This came before Ho Chi Minh's declaration of independence and provided the basic symbolism later adopted by the republican regime in South Vietnam.

Although Ngo Dinh Diem was first suggested, it was the scholar Tran Trong Kim who became the first Prime Minister of the Vietnamese Empire. Japan approved of him, he was a nationalist and had written extensively on the principles of Confucius and his books on the subject were standard reading in Vietnamese schools. For a time there was a flurry of activity: a national flag and national anthem were adopted. Streets were renamed for Vietnamese heroes and Nguyen Emperors while French names were dropped. Vietnamese became the official language of government again and efforts were made to gain foreign recognition and encourage public support for the new government. Vietnam finally had a native regime that was independent, in name even if not yet in fact, if only the people would rally to it.

Unfortunately for everyone, the colonial history and the presence of the Japanese, proved too much for people to look past. The VietMinh, rather than acknowledge the declaration of independence by the Emperor and joining with the new government, chose instead to ignore and finally subvert it. The public was swayed by the fact that Japanese exploitation, combined with a famine, brought a horrible starvation crisis to north Vietnam, which the Tran Trong Kim administration was powerless to act against. Instead, it was the VietMinh who came in with hunger relief and so won over a huge number of people in the north, the core supporters for the Communist revolution. There was also the problem of the continued separation of the south, the lack of an effective infrastructure and disunity within the ranks of Bao Dai's government. The presence of a few Japanese officials, and the lack of a ministry of defense in the new government, gave the Communists ample propaganda ammunition to label the Kim government as collaborators and to encourage people to continue to resist the new empire and back the VietMinh.

In fact, some of Bao Dai's own officials resigned from office to join the VietMinh, especially when it became so obvious that the Japanese were on their way out and the Communists had the only major force on the ground since the French surrender. At a rally for support of the Empire of Vietnam in Hanoi, the VietMinh launched a pre-arranged take-over of the event, hauled down the imperial flag and replaced it with the red and began singing the Communist anthem. In short order, the major cities rose up with the VietMinh and ultimately Emperor Bao Dai was obliged to abdicate. Tran Trong Kim had resigned earlier and went to the Japanese for protection. The era of the Nguyen Dynasty was declared to be at an end and a second declaration of independence was issued, this time by Ho Chi Minh, for the "Democratic Republic of Vietnam".

It is important to understand what a great opportunity for Vietnam was lost when groups such as the VietMinh, who could not see past the Japanese, failed to unite in solidarity around the Viet Nam De Quoc. Japan was clearly defeated and the time clearly at hand to seize the day and secure independence if only all nationalist parties could have overcome their differences and worked together. Bao Dai called for international recognition, but none was forthcoming. Invitations were made for unity with all independence parties, but few chose to cooperate. The ruling clique within the VietMinh had made it clear that they wanted absolute power, not shared with anyone, and they would settle for nothing less. If cooler, more moderate heads within the VietMinh could have prevailed, and all sides come together to support the new government and work for the future, what immense pain, suffering and death could have been avoided in the future.

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