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LÊ HỮU TỪ (1897–1967)

One of the most influential Catholic nationalist priests during the Indochina War, opposed both to Vietnamese communism and French colonialism. Born in Quang Tri province in 1897, he was ordained a priest of the Order of Cistercians in December 1928. He became vicar apostolic of Phat Diem in June 1945 and was ordained archbishop on 1 November 1945. As Charles Keith has noted, this “was the first ordination in independent Vietnam and the first ordination of a Vietnamese bishop to take place without a single European bishop or missionary present. The event marked the degree to which Vietnamese bishops had become a locus of growing cultural nationalism in the Vietnamese Catholic community”. Hostile to the return of French colonialism to Vietnam, Le Huu Tu accepted Ho Chi Minh’s invitation to serve as a supreme advisor to the government, like Bao Dai.

Following the outbreak of full-scale war on 19 December 1946, Le Huu Tu did his best to keep his large Catholic diocese out of the line of fire. The two dioceses of Bui Chu and Phat Diem constituted a sort of autonomous Catholic zone in upper central Vietnam. Until the Cold War intensified the war, Le Huu Tu was largely successful in keeping the French colonialists and the Vietnamese communists at bay. He was also perhaps the only priest at the time in Vietnam to head his own private “army”, a Catholic militia numbering some 6,000 individuals as of 1951. However, as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) moved to control this strategically important area in the early 1950s, the French responded in kind, drawing Le Huu Tu and his followers inexorably into the conflagration. Despite the DRV propaganda attacks against him, Le Huu Tu remained ardently anti-colonialist and continued to repel French efforts to bring him and his disciples over to their side. His hostility towards the French was such that General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny met privately with the Pope in Rome in 1951 in an attempt to rein in this independent-minded priest.

Caught in the middle, Le Huu Tu eventually agreed to work with the emerging Vietnamese state led by the former emperor, Bao Dai. In April 1951, the bishops of Bui Chu and Phat Diem joined the Associated State of Vietnam. However, Le Huu Tu’s hostility to French colonialism remained. In 1953, he advised Bao Dai to take refuge in the United States rather than cooperate with the French. Le Huu Tu met personally with the American consulate general in Hanoi and tried to negotiate directly with them rather than going through the French. He commanded a loyal following among Vietnamese Catholics and his nationalism even earned him the respect of Ho Chi Minh and the communists. One of the Indochinese Communist Party’s top officials, Tran Dang Ninh, met with this independent-minded priest in a bid to keep him on the DRV’s side. To no avail. Following the division of Vietnam into two states in mid-1954, Le Huu Tu moved to southern Vietnam where he died in April 1967. See also CATHOLICS, EXODUS FROM NORTH; CATHOLICS IN VIETNAM AND THE WAR; CHRISTIANS AND OPPOSITION TO THE INDOCHINA WAR; VATICAN.