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Historical Dictionary

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NGUYỄN VǍN TÂM (1895–1990)

Prominent non-communist nationalist strongly opposed to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) during the Indochina War. Born in Tay Ninh province in southern Vietnam, Nguyen Van Tam began his career as a school teacher, but shifted into the colonial administration where he rose to the rank of provincial governor. He was an ardent French supporter and obtained French nationality in 1927. He was instrumental in the effective repression of the communist uprising in Cochinchina in 1940. His harsh tactics, especially in My Tho province, in the 1930s led people to refer to him widely as the “Tiger of Cai Lay” (the birthplace of Cao Dang Chiem). One of his sons, Nguyen Van Hinh, became a pilot in the French Air Force and served in the Battle of France in 1940.

Following the Japanese overthrow of the French in March 1945, Nguyen Van Tam was arrested and tortured. Upon the advent of the DRV, he found himself behind bars again. Forces loyal to the DRV killed two of his other sons, something which Nguyen Van Tam never forgot or forgave. On 1 June 1946, he joined the French-conceived Provisional Government of the Republic of Cochinchina as under-secretary of state for Internal Security. He then became minister of Defense in the cabinet of Le Van Hoach following the suicide of Nguyen Van Thinh in November 1946.

Nguyen Van Tam supported the political auto-nomy of Cochinchina. He was an advisor to the Provisional Committee of the Rassemblement autonomiste cochinchinois and, on 11 March 1950, became its general secretary. However, he put his separatist ideas on hold in order to support the anti-communist Associated State of Vietnam, led by Bao Dai.

Nguyen Van Tam concentrated on developing the new state’s policing and security forces. On 12 June 1950, he began serving as general director of the National Police and Security in the first cabinet of Tran Van Huu, putting an end to the DRV’s urban war on Saigon in 1950. He became minister of Public Security in the second cabinet of Tran Van Huu, created on 18 February 1951. He was said to be “tough and hard-working and an expert in dealing with the terrorist movements in Saigon”. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny made him Officier de la Légion d’honneur on 8 May 1951 in recognition of his counter-terrorist activities and had him promoted to commander in March 1952.

In June 1951, Nguyen Van Tam was put in charge of the reorganization and “pacification” of “liberated” zones in northern Vietnam and obtained “special powers” from the government to achieve these ends. In August 1951, he became acting minister of National Defense during the absence of Tran Van Huu. On 16 November 1951, because of his effective “pacification” activities, the government asked him to serve temporarily as the governor of northern Vietnam. On 2 December 1951, Bao Dai issued a decree making him imperial delegate for the territory of the Populations montagnardes du Nord. In 1952, Nguyen Van Tam became minister of the Interior in the third government of Tran Van Huu, created on 8 March 1952. On 6 June 1952, Bao Dai asked him to form and lead a new government, maintaining his portfolio as minister of the Interior.

While there is no doubt that Nguyen Van Tam’s destiny and choices were closely tied to those of the French, even this stalwart partner became disillusioned by the colonizers, announcing in a public radio broadcast that it was “important that we no longer remain in this Union as tenants of a house built without us”. Nguyen Van Tam played a pivotal role in shutting down the DRV’s urban war in Saigon-Cholon and elsewhere. He also did not mince his words or his actions. He advised Jawaharlal Nehru to settle his own problems before trying to arbitrate those of his neighbors. And as for Vietnamese communism, he said that “One does not come to terms with the Indochinese Communist Party. One beats it down, or it beats you down”. He died in France in 1990.