Friday, October 5, 2012

Monarchist Profile: Nguyen Huu Bai

Nguyen Huu Bai is not the sort of monarchist I usually profile here. However, he was a defender of his monarchy yet is often portrayed as an antagonist. His story appears for the purpose of clearing up any confusion on that score and because he is simply one of my favorite historical characters from that period, a traditionalist from head to toe. Nguyen Huu Bai was born in Vietnam on September 28, 1863, though in due time the region would become known as the ‘Kingdom of Annam’ as French colonial policy divided the country into three pieces; the Viceroyalty of Tonkin in the north, the protectorate of Annam in the center and the French colony of Cochinchina in the south. Nguyen Huu Bai was born into a family of Vietnamese Catholic converts at a time when that could be dangerous. However, when it came to the early emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty regarding Christians, their bark was usually worse than their bite. At the time Nguyen Huu Bai was born the ruling monarch was Emperor Tu Duc (known as the last “independent” Emperor of Vietnam) who issued edicts against Christianity while still having talented Christian converts among his closest courtiers. In any event, full religious freedom was extended to Christians during the reign of Emperor Dong Khanh and Nguyen Huu Bai had a more fortunate upbringing than others despite belonging to a minority religion.

Bai in ceremonial costume
during the Duy Tan era
An intelligent and capable man, he took and passed the notoriously onerous civil service exams to become a mandarin. Most of these exams involved an extensive knowledge of the teachings of Confucius and throughout the rest of his life Nguyen Huu Bai was always attached to the teachings of the ‘Great Sage’ while remaining a very devout Catholic. By the end of the reign of Emperor Khai Dinh and the accession of the young Emperor Bao Dai, Nguyen Huu Bai had reached the pinnacle of his career and was a widely respected elder statesman and the most prominent Vietnamese Catholic in the government. He had even accompanied Emperor Khai Dinh on his famous voyage to France for the Colonial Exhibition in Marseilles. However, he was often at odds with the French Resident Superior in Annam, Pierre Pasquier, was happened to be a very close friend of Emperor Khai Dinh. This mostly came down to the fact that Nguyen Huu Bai favored a more strict (which is to say accurate) interpretation of the protectorate treaty which would give the Emperor and the Vietnamese government (of which Nguyen Huu Bai was effectively the head) control of local matters. This tended to put him at odds with the French authorities but his loyalty to the monarchy was never in question though his enemies often tried to portray his position as self-motivated.

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 return of Bao Dai had been publicized by the French as the start of a new progressive era, something which raised hopes and expectations (foolishly so as it turned out since the monarch would remain essentially powerless) but did not bode well for Interior Minister Nguyen Huu Bai and his fellow courtiers. There had even been talk of moving the capital away from Hue because of French concerns that the “atmosphere” of the Forbidden City would strangle their young protégé but, of course, this proved impossible. When the Emperor did return, Nguyen Huu Bai was among the Vietnamese dignitaries on hand to greet him. He was likely less than pleased with the initial actions of the new monarch who started by abolishing the ritual of kowtowing and who talked a great deal about change, reform and a “new era”. Nguyen Huu Bai did not think much of this and stated that the majority of the people simply wanted peace and quiet to tend to their fields, raise their children and leave politics to the colonial officials and the imperial court. There were proposals for everything from educational reform to, most dramatic of all, a written constitution.

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
One Resident Superior was even sent home for being too friendly with Nguyen Huu Bai and even arguing that he should be retained on the Council of Ministers. Many tried to portray this period as a sort of undeclared war between Nguyen Huu Bai and the Emperor although, as time would tell, it was closer to being a clash between Nguyen Huu Bai and the other conservatives at court and the French colonial officials with the Emperor caught in the middle. While most media was obediently positive about the changes, most factions had their own papers and the “old guard” of Nguyen Huu Bai had the Tribune Indochinoise which criticized the reforms as tearing down traditional Vietnamese institutions and ill-treating loyal and long-serving imperial officials. However, while the “old guard” were dismissed and replaced by a new crop of mostly young officials, Nguyen Huu Bai was not forgotten. One of those young mandarins promoted to a ministerial post was the Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem, the protégé of Nguyen Huu Bai and whose daughter had married Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Khoi. The views of the Nguyen Huu Bai faction were thus still represented and Bai continued to urge for a return to the original protectorate which would include greater authority for the Emperor, the court and control of the local budget with a reduced role for the French officials.

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
In any event, Nguyen Huu Bai would not live to see the rest of the story play out as he died not long after on July 10, 1935. It is grossly unfair how the good name of this loyal and upstanding man has been besmirched over the years by republican revolutionaries on one side and jealous colonial officials on the other. He was ever and always loyal to his emperor, to his country and to their traditional values and institutions. He simply wanted agreements made to be kept and, in the end, he was proven all too correct. Had the French colonial officials not insisted on divisive but mostly cosmetic changes to the Vietnamese monarchy but instead granted genuine autonomy as called for in the 1884 treaty things might well have worked out very much for the better, to the benefit of both the traditionalists like Nguyen Huu Bai and the French themselves and their presence in Indochina.

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