Le dictionnaire



Last emperor of Vietnam and head of state (chef d’État) of the Associated State of Vietnam between 1949 and 1954. Born in Hue, Bao Dai was the only son of Emperor Khai Dinh and Quan Doan Huy Hoang Thai Hau. He was invested as crown prince in 1922. He became king of Annam upon the death of his father in 1925 and was crowned as such in January 1926 under the name of Bao Dai, “the great protector”. In that same year, Pierre Pasquier and Albert Sarraut sent him to France to receive a French education under the direction of the former resident of Annam, Eugène Charles. Bao Dai returned to Annam in 1932 as part of a French strategy to use the monarchy to combat nationalist and communist competitors to French colonial rule. It was the true beginning of the so-called Bao Dai Solution.

Bao Dai’s formal ascension to the throne was celebrated upon his return in 1932. The young emperor headed, enthusiastically at the outset, a rejuvenated monarchical government, incorporating dynamic Vietnamese nationalists such as Ngo Dinh Diem. However, under French heavy-handedness, Ngo Dinh Diem resigned and the success of this first monarchical experiment in colonial counter-revolution ended in failure. In the late 1930s and during the Vichy period in Indochina during World War II, Bao Dai withdrew from political affairs, disappointed by French manipulation of the monarchy. He resisted Vichy’s attempts to use him again. He preferred hunting and flying his airplanes. In 1934, he married a wealthy southern Catholic, Marie-Thérèse Nguyen Huu Thi Lan, who became the Empress Nam Phuong.

With the overthrow of the French following the coup de force of 9 March 1945, the Japanese kept Bao Dai on to proclaim the independence of Vietnam on 11 March, although his authority only truly covered the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. However, on 14 August, with Japanese permission, he announced the annexation and unification of Cochinchina with the rest of “Vietnam” thereby creating a unitary Vietnamese state for the first time since the mid-19th century. Following the Japanese capitulation, Bao Dai publicly abdicated on 30 August in favor of the new government formed in Hanoi and subsequently agreed to join it as “supreme advisor” to president Ho Chi Minh. He referred to himself as “citizen Vinh Thuy” and handed over the royal sword as the mandate of heaven seemed to shift to the nationalists. Whatever the case, for the first time in centuries, Vietnam no longer had an Emperor.

Shortly before his abdication, he wrote moving letters to the Allied leaders Truman, Stalin, Attlee and also to Charles de Gaulle, whom he implored on 20 August to respect Vietnamese independence aspirations: Je vous prie de comprendre que le seul moyen de sauvegarder les intérêts français et l’influence spirituelle de la France en Indochine est de reconnaître franchement l’indépendance du Vietnam et de renoncer à toute idée de rétablir ici la souveraineté ou une administration française sous quelque forme que ce soit. De Gaulle would never mention this text; indeed, the French general tried to advance as an alternative to Bao Dai the very king the French had deposed in 1916 for sedition, Duy Tan.

In early 1946, Bao Dai joined the DRV’s National Assembly as a deputy from Thanh Hoa province. However, trust between the former Emperor and DRV leaders was fragile. In April 1946, while traveling to China as leader of a failed mission from the DRV government to Chiang Kai-shek, Bao Dai went into exile in Hong Kong. He was residing there when war broke out in all of Vietnam in late 1946. During his time in Hong Kong, French, DRV, and non-communist Vietnamese emissaries approached him in the hope that the ex-Emperor would collaborate with them. The French, led by Léon Pignon and flanked by Jean Cousseau, were vigorous in their attempts to woo him over to their side. (The disappearance of Duy Tan in a plane wreck left them few royalist options.) To this end, the French government provided Bao Dai with funds to maintain his royal lifestyle.

Getting the former emperor back to Indochina was crucial to making the “Bao Dai Solution” work. However, the French government of the socialist Paul Ramadier did not immediately sanction a monarchical solution. Instead Ramadier sidelined the major advocates of this idea by deposing Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu as high commissioner in early 1947 and dispatching Pignon to serve as commissioner of the Republic to Cambodia. Only with the approach of the Cold War, a weakening of the leftist parties’ influence in the French government, and the appointment of Jean Letourneau (MRP) as minister of Overseas France did the French give up the prospect of re-entering negotiations with Ho Chi Minh and resurrect the counter-revolutionary Bao Dai Solution of the interwar period and pushed by Pignon since 1946. Under pressure from the Americans and the British, Bao Dai and Vincent Auriol signed the Accords of 8 March 1949 creating the Associated State of Vietnam under the presidency of Bao Dai. In April 1949, Bao Dai returned to Vietnam and in May he became head of the Associated State of Vietnam. He did his best to build up a national army capable of taking on the forces of the DRV. The French did not make his task any easier, by refusing to grant his Vietnam real independence to match the nationalist legitimacy of the DRV.

Bao Dai was and remains a controversial figure even after his death in 1997. In the West, many wrote him off as a playboy. Andrew Roth did so in an article published in the Sunday Tribune in Singapore in August 1949. Paul Rivet followed up in French in 1962 when he wrote of “an emperor of night clubs” (empereur des boîtes de nuit). Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fire in the Lake Frances Fitzgerald denied Bao Dai any legitimacy.

Bao Dai returned to France when Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem replaced him as head of state in 1955. The former emperor died there, after having remarried a French woman in 1972 and converted to Catholicism in 1988. French veterans of the Indochina War participated in his funeral and have made moves to associate the Vietnamese emperor with France’s ill-fated colonial war in Indochina. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam sent a bouquet of flowers in homage to the last Emperor. See also ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS ET AMIS DE L’INDOCHINE ET DU SOUVENIR INDOCHINOIS; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES ANCIENS PRISONNIERS ET INTERNÉS D’INDOCHINE; ASSOCIATION NATIONALE DES COMBATTANTS DE DIEN BIEN PHU; MYTH OF WAR.