|Bai in ceremonial costume
during the Duy Tan era
When Emperor Bao Dai came to the throne in 1926 he was, of course, too young to take up his official duties and was soon returned to France where he had been studying while colonial officials exerted a greater control over Vietnamese affairs in the absence of a strong monarch. To many, Nguyen Huu Bai embodied the view French republicans had of the entire Vietnamese court; backward, reactionary and reticent to embrace change of any kind (all of which were too their credit). Nguyen Huu Bai, however, clashed with the French, from the Resident-Superior in Annam to the Governor-General in Hanoi, because he wanted the Emperor to return as soon as possible. The French, on the contrary, wished for Bao Dai to remain in France past his majority for further study and molding before being dropped back into the very traditional world of the Forbidden City in Hue. Nguyen Huu Bai argued that once the Emperor reached his eighteenth year, anything the council of ministers did in his absence would be seen by the people as overreaching since the Emperor was perfectly capable of carrying out his duties from that time on. The colonial officials, of course, argued that this was merely an effort to make the Emperor bend to the wishes of the court whereas they of course wished him to bend to their wishes. The matter was finally settled when the young Emperor in France declined the request of the court for his immediate return stating that he would not come back until 1932.
|Regent Ton That Han and Nguyen Huu Bai
The next year, in 1933, Emperor Bao Dai shocked the country when he suddenly dismissed the entire council of ministers (save for one) including the venerable Nguyen Huu Bai who, for many years, had effectively been Prime Minister. He had also been President of the Council of Ministers and both officers were totally abolished as the Emperor wished to take direct control over the coming changes he wished to see enacted. This was alleged to be a reaction against the opposition the young monarch encountered from both the Council of Ministers and the Dowager Empresses over his affinity for French sports, fashions and more casual demeanor. To put it in other words, many traditionalists at court feared that his French education had ruined the young Emperor and filled him with foreign and egalitarian tastes. But of all the conservatives who opposed these changes, it was Nguyen Huu Bai who was always portrayed as being ultimately behind it all and there was no end to hatred the French officials had for him. Pasquier compared him to Prince Talleyrand who was always trying to manipulate circumstances to his own advantage. They also accused him of being a Vietnamese nationalist and trying to influence the Emperor into clashing with the French by demanding a stricter adherence to the 1884 protectorate treaty. That they should be so fearful of being asked to submit to their own agreements says a great deal about how far the treaty had been stretched.
|Welcoming Emperor Bao Dai
Despite all the talk of hostility, there was little animosity on display when the Emperor did away with his old ministers. Nguyen Huu Bai had respectfully gone into retirement but retained the title of “Senior Advisor” made especially for him. However, their nationalist-minded replacements, such as Ngo Dinh Diem, began to press for greater autonomy, it was again Nguyen Huu Bai who was blamed for being behind it all, even that he and the family of Ngo Dinh Diem were at the heart of some sort of conspiracy to discredit and remove Bao Dai and replace him with a Catholic emperor. This obviously ridiculous accusation becomes all the more ironic considering that Emperor Bao Dai himself became a Catholic late in life. The French officials could blame Nguyen Huu Bai all they wished for the failure of their “reforms” but in actuality they needed look no farther than the mirror. Diem finally resigned, after consulting with Nguyen Huu Bai, because he was frustrated at being given no authority to do his duty. Ultimately, even Emperor Bao Dai became disheartened and effectively gave up on trying to be an active participant in his own government since the French officials allowed neither him nor his ministers to actually do anything of any real consequence. This was made all the worse because of the extent to which French propaganda about the return of the Emperor and the overturn of the ministers had raised expectations that a new era of legitimate autonomy was about to begin.
|Catholic monarchist hero