Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When the Soaring Dragon Fell from the Sky

The year 1945 was an eventful one for the lands of French Indochina part of which was previously known as Vietnam. Within a matter of only a few months, Vietnam would experience a shift from French colony to nominally independent empire to a revolutionary republic and the end of an imperial dynasty which had ruled over all of Vietnam since 1802 and over the southern half of the country for far longer still. 1945 was the year that everything changed for Vietnam and then changed again, to the point that once these changes began, they seemed unable to stop. The unprecedented became standard procedure in a country which had, even in the colonial era, had much the same form of government for almost countless centuries.

French Indochina
At the beginning of the year, the three regions of Vietnam were still under effective French colonial rule but with the additional presence of the occupying forces of the Empire of Japan and under the direction of the French regime in Vichy. The system had not changed but changes there were nonetheless. The Japanese, for example, took great pleasure in emphasizing that, while the French colonial authorities remained, it was only because Japan allowed them to. They gave subtle encouragement to anti-French and generally anti-western sentiment and the Vietnamese began to pepper their speech with Japanese words and phrases rather than French ones and those who were already disposed to be anti-French took great pleasure in seeing the European population humiliated in numerous minor ways by the Japanese. For the Vietnamese monarchists who remained friendly with France, they were much happier with the state of affairs which prevailed after the establishment of the “State of France” based out of Vichy.

The values of the French Republic had always been at odds with those of traditional Vietnam and its Confucian monarchy. Vichy France, however, was much more compatible and the French royalist author Charles Maurras became a popular figure in colonial Vietnam during this period. They emphasized the shared values of folk nationalism, sacred kingship and the centrality of the family which they both shared. The Vietnamese monarchists also hoped that, with this new French regime, the treaties which established the Franco-Vietnamese relationship, which were not that bad or unfair as written, would be more scrupulously adhered to by Vichy than they had previously been by Paris. It had always, previously, been a poisonous double-standard for the French in Vietnam who taught the Vietnamese in their schools about democracy, egalitarianism and brotherhood only to then expect these students to bow to their traditional monarch, respect their mandarins and accept a second-class status to the French themselves. Now, for a change, it seemed possible for the French and Vietnamese establishments to be more perfectly aligned in their outlook.

Unfortunately, this was an all-too fleeting state of affairs as the 1944 Allied invasion of France quickly resulted in the downfall of the Vichy regime and the Japanese no longer had any reason to tolerate the French presence in Indochina. Likewise, with the war situation going so bad for Japan, Tokyo was desperate to enlist more pan-Asian support for their war effort and the standard strategy for this was portraying the war not as “Axis vs. Allies” but as a racial war of Asians vs. Caucasians, an anti-colonial struggle to eradicate the forces of western civilization in East Asia. In 1945 Japan was well into their existing plan to supplant the French in Indochina and encourage the nations under French rule to rise up and fight alongside Japan or, as was more actually the case, to support and sacrifice for the Japanese war effort against the western powers. The Japanese had a pretender to the Vietnamese throne, an anti-French prince who had long resided in Japan, ready to go if he was needed but they preferred to work with the existing authorities if that was possible so as to avoid unnecessary infighting.

Imperial Japanese Army in Saigon
A key, though often overlooked figure in this transition, was Jean-Marie Yokoyama. A Japanese subject whose mother was French and who had himself married a French woman and who was Catholic. He worked in the Japanese consulate in Hanoi before being moved to Hue to coordinate with the Nguyen imperial court, a task to which he was well suited thanks to his French wife, giving him connections in Saigon as well. Still, the Vietnamese Emperor, Bao Dai, was unaware that anything momentous was on the horizon and, indeed, was away on a hunting trip when the Japanese launched their anti-French coup on March 9, 1945. Being already effectively in control of the country, most French forces surrendered without a struggle but those who tried to or who refused to surrender were massacred, some in very brutal ways. Nonetheless, when Emperor Bao Dai returned to the Forbidden City he learned that the French were gone and that Japan was now in control of the situation. On March 10, Ambassador Jean-Marie Yokoyama went to the Kien Trung Palace to advise the Emperor to declare Vietnamese independence and work in collaboration with Japan as a part of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Given the situation, there was practically no other option for the Emperor but to comply, nor, frankly, was there any good reason for him to refuse.

Flag of the Empire of Vietnam
The following day, at an official ceremony, Emperor Bao Dai declared all the treaties with France to be nullified and proclaimed the independence of the Empire of Vietnam (Ðe quôc Viêt Nam) as well as pledging his support for the Empire of Japan and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. After failing to make contact with a royalist and nationalist mandarin named Ngo Dinh Diem (future first President of South Vietnam), the Japanese settled on Tran Trong Kim as prime minister. There was a flurry of excitement and activity, at least on a bureaucratic level, as the newly reunited Empire of Vietnam began to take shape on paper. French street names were replaced with those of Vietnamese heroes, a new government framework was drawn up and a new national flag was designed; yellow with three red stripes. The Japanese, on the grounds that they were fighting for the Vietnamese, stripped the country for the sake of their war effort, contributing to a devastating famine which greatly diminished the popularity of the new imperial government and helped boost the reputation of the communist-led Vietminh resistance movement as it broke into storehouses to distribute rice to the starving peasants.

This was the guerilla movement led by the shadowy, Marxist, revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, at the time still better known by his previous alias Nguyen Ai Quoc (‘Nguyen the Patriot’) and, because they promised to rescue downed Allied pilots and opposition to Japan, which also enjoyed the support of the American OSS, forerunner of the modern CIA. This cost them very little as there were few American pilots that needed rescuing and the Japanese were clearly about to lose the war anyway. They denounced the new regime as stooges pandering to an Asian master in place of a European one and, given that Japan had dismantled the French colonial military establishment, they had no reason to fear it. Their reach and influence spread rapidly throughout the few months that the Empire of Vietnam existed. Each passing week brought Japan closer to defeat and the nominally independent Vietnamese empire closer to total isolation and inevitable collapse.

Emperor Bao Dai
That collapse seemed imminent by July when the Allies issued their demand for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, something no one expected to have happened if there was any doubt about an Allied victory. As such, the disintegration of the Empire of Vietnam began with many officials abandoning their posts and with the Kim government becoming increasingly unable to find anyone willing to accept any position within the regime. The Vietminh became increasingly brazen with mass public gatherings often punctuated by the raising of the Vietminh flag, red with a single yellow star in the center. By the first week of August, revolution was breaking out in the north and the empire was rapidly coming apart. Tran Trong Kim was no longer able to lead an effective government and Emperor Bao Dai found no one willing to serve in a new one. That was August 7 and on August 8 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria, ending the last, and extremely naïve, Japanese hope for a Soviet-mediated negotiated peace. When, on August 9, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, it became clear to all that Japan was finished and the Empire of Vietnam was doomed.

Japanese surrender in Saigon
Ton Quang Phiet, a prominent official of the Vietminh, immediately began pressing the Emperor’s secretary, Pham Khac Hoe, to advise Bao Dai to abdicate in favor of Ho Chi Minh, someone the Emperor had never heard of though they did ultimately determine that this was the same man who had previously been known as Nguyen Ai Quoc. By the following week, the Emperor’s newly appointed representative to the south, Nguyen Van Sam, was delayed in taking up his post in Saigon as the Vietminh launched a general uprising throughout the country upon word that the Empire of Japan had surrendered. This caused another division in the country which was already being partitioned, in a way, by the Allied plan to have the Chinese take the surrender of Japanese forces in the north and British imperial troops to take those in the south. The Japanese were split over what to do in the meantime and the division was based on the conflicting political narratives of what Japan had been fighting for. Some, who held to traditional authority, opposed communism and wished to remain loyal to the regime they had previously supported, wanted to shore up the Empire of Vietnam as best they could, some making a token effort to free imperial officials who had been arrested by the Vietminh. Others, however, who saw the war as a racial struggle, liberated Vietminh sympathizers, turned their weapons over to them and even joined their ranks. Most did not find any welcome but, all the same, several hundred Japanese stayed behind to fight alongside the Vietminh in the upcoming war to expel the French.

The King's Knight
On August 17 it became clear who held control of the situation when a political demonstration of Empire of Vietnam bureaucrats, celebrating the unity and independence of Vietnam, was co-opted by the Vietminh. In Hue, even within the Holy Citadel and Forbidden City, people started to abandon their posts. Soldiers of the Imperial Guard looked on while young revolutionaries pulled the imperial standard down from the “King’s Knight”, the large flag pole across from the Ngo Mon Gate, replacing it with the red flag. The tutor to the little Prince Imperiale Bao Long suggested to Emperor Bao Dai that he go to the imperial tombs and rally loyalists there but, remembering his history as a schoolboy in France, Bao Dai refused, recalling what fate had befallen the French Royal Family after they tried to flee from the Revolution. On August 22, the Japanese colonel commanding the (now surrendered) garrison offered to deploy his forces to defend the Holy Citadel but, again, Emperor Bao Dai refused, knowing what fate would surely befall him if the Japanese began shooting down Vietnamese people on his behalf.

More demands came in from various revolutionary groups and committees demanding the Emperor’s abdication and on August 23, at the last cabinet meeting the Emperor would preside over, it was decided that Bao Dai would abdicate, handing power over to the Vietminh in exchange for a guarantee that the lives and property of the Nguyen Dynasty would be respected. The Emperor also wanted an orderly transfer of power with a formal ceremony to mark the occasion and for the imperial flag to fly one last time. When Phan Khac Hoe returned with word that the Vietminh accepted this arrangement, he found the palace resembling an odd sort of temple, echoing with the Buddhist prayers of the Dowager Empress-Mother and her attendants and the Catholic prayers of the Empress Nam Phuong and her attendants. The same day the end of the imperial system was announced at a huge gathering in the local sports stadium. By the following day, perhaps because there was no longer an immediate threat of violent mobs storming the “Great Within”, Emperor Bao Dai began to have second thoughts and many members of his family urged him to cancel the agreement but, neither the Emperor nor any of those who objected, could come up with a viable alternate plan.

A Vietminh demonstration in 1945
Emperor Bao Dai wrote out his formal edict of abdication in which he criticized his own shortcomings, urged unity and support for the new regime, asking only in return that the new government care for the tombs and temples of the Nguyen Dynasty. The edict was posted and many people were moved by it, so much so in fact that the Vietminh authorities warned the court against any further utterances which might arouse loyalist sympathy among the people. This was important as many of the leaders of the Vietminh, all of whom were members of the Indochinese Communist Party, had been just as displeased by the imperial edict. They wanted Bao Dai to denounce his imperial ancestors and the monarchy in general while also wanting to ignore him completely on the grounds that they recognized him as nothing more than a front-man for first the French and then the Japanese, possessing no real power to hand over to them. The public reaction, particularly in the area around Hue and central Vietnam, showed the communists that many remained loyal to the dynasty and the traditional beliefs it embodied which persuaded them that it was better to go along with the imperial court so long as they were surrendering and not risk causing unnecessary problems.

Tran Huy Lieu, Deputy Chairman of the National Liberation Committee, was sent down from Hanoi to Hue to accept the abdication of the Emperor in a formal ceremony. He left early on August 27 but did not arrive in Hue until August 29, stopping frequently along the way to give speeches to assembled crowds of locals, though some clearly did not understand the scale of the changes taking place, speaking of a “new dynasty” or asking who exactly was going to be the new emperor. When he did arrive, Lieu informed the court that the government intended to care for the dynastic tombs and temples but that the Imperial Family would have to vacate the palace, keeping only their personal effects, as all property would be confiscated by the revolutionary government. He did agree to raise the imperial flag one last time prior to lowering it forever and the imperial court allowed their cortege to pass through the central gate to the Holy Citadel, an honor traditionally reserved only for the Emperor, the French Governor-General and the representative of the Emperor of China previously.

Bao Dai in traditional regalia
On August 30, 1945 crowds gathered before the Holy Citadel, the “Yellow Imperial City” to watch the historical hand-over. Lieu and his party arrived, drove just inside and were greeted by Prince Nguyen Vinh Can, the Emperor’s cousin, and Phan Khac Hoe. They climbed the steps to the top of the Ngo Mon Gate where Emperor Bao Dai waited for them, wearing his traditional robes for the last time. Tran Huy Lieu, using loud speakers, addressed the crowd first, informing them that Ho Chi Minh would be reading out their declaration of independence in Hanoi in three days (a declaration which was almost a verbatim copy of the American declaration of independence). At that, Emperor Bao Dai, in his most solemn and ceremonial tone, read out his message of abdication. The crowd was uproarious but even many of those who cheered admitted to mixed feelings at the scene. For the ordinary Vietnamese people, it was the first time they had ever heard the Emperor speak and it was to bring thousands of years of imperial tradition to an end. The imperial dragon flag was lowered from the “King’s Knight” and once again replaced by the red flag of the Vietminh. The Emperor then handed over the imperial sword and seal, emblems of the authority of the Nguyen Dynasty, which Lieu held up to be seen by the crowd in a rather triumphal display.

That simple ceremony marked the end of the traditional monarchy in Vietnam. In the aftermath, Emperor Bao Dai, from that point known as “Citizen Vinh Thuy” received a message inviting him to Hanoi to serve as “Supreme Councilor” to the new government, an offer he was advised not to refuse, particularly considering the uncertainty that still remained regarding the dynasty. He and his family would be leaving but what would become of the Dowager Empress and the other wives of the previous monarch, Emperor Khai Dinh, who wished to remain in the “Great Within” which was their only home? There was even a wife of the Emperor’s grandfather, Emperor Dong Khanh, still living there. Their fate was still uncertain and they were entirely at the mercy of the new regime. Emperor Bao Dai, for his part, would go to Hanoi and take up his post with the new government but learned very quickly that it was an empty position and that the supposedly nationalist coalition of the Vietminh was nothing more than a front for the Communist Party. At the first available opportunity, a diplomatic mission to China, he would abandon the regime and take up residence in Hong Kong where he would remain until being restored as “Chief of State” by the French.

Communist display of the event
That restoration was not, however, a restoration of what had previously been the “Great South”. While it was effectively a monarchy in all but name, the “State of Vietnam” was certainly not the traditional monarchy which had always existed previously. That had ended in 1945 and it was to the detriment of Vietnam as well as countries far across the world that the Empire of Vietnam had not been maintained and supported. Not only was an ancient cultural, political and spiritual tradition lost but it would lead to partition, ideological conflict, republican infighting and horrific wars which would engulf Indochina for decades to come. Truly, everything had changed in Vietnam during 1945 and, ultimately, none of these changes were for the better.

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