A Franco-Vietnamese government

01

Dec
2021

A Franco-Vietnamese government

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Although large numbers of Vietnamese rallied to the Viet Minh to defend  national independence, there were also many Vietnamese who saw the under- lying Viet Minh agenda of communist revolution as a threat to their vision of an  independent Vietnam. They viewed a renewal of French colonialism as an unlikely long-term prospect in a decolonizing world, and they looked for ways to keep alive the possibility of an independent but non-communist Vietnam. These people needed some kind of plausible leader with a potentially broad national appeal, and some of them began to look in the direction of Bao Dai. Bao Dai had earned a measure of good will among the Vietnamese by his  abdication and willingness to be a “patriotic citizen” during the August Revolu- tion. After a few months in Hanoi as “advisor” to the new government, he went  to China and remained there, drawing the attention of both non-communist Vietnamese politicians and French administrators. The new French constitution contained the legal basis for designing an Indochinese Federation within the French Union, which up until then had been simply a vague idea. In January 1947, the first government of the Fourth Republic was formed under the leadership of Paul Ramadier (1888–1961), a socialist. He envisioned an Indochinese Federation made up not of five or four parts as earlier concepts espoused by d’Argenlieu proposed, but rather three “associated states” for the Cambodians, the Laotians, and the Vietnamese. This willingness to speak of a united Vietnam, despite legal impediments entrenched in the special status of Cochinchina dating from the mid nineteenth century, became the basis for French discussions with Bao Dai. Another factor softening the French position was the Madagascar uprising, which prevented military reinforcements from reaching Indochina before the rains began. In early 1947, the French signed an accord with Cao Dai leaders and, after the communist murder of Huynh Phu So in April, also made an agreement with Hoa Hao leaders. Thereafter, the French subsidized and relied upon Cao Dai and Hoa Hao armies to fight the Viet Minh in rural Cochinchina. With the monsoon rains inhibiting military operations until autumn, the French seemed to be in a mood to talk, if not to negotiate. In March 1947, Ramadier replaced d’Argenlieu with Émile Bollaert (1890– 1978), a man with no experience outside of France. From a family of musicians, Bollaert earned a law degree; served with distinction in the army during the First World War; occupied a series of mid-level government posts, mostly provincial, in the inter-war period; served in the wartime resistance until captured; and ended the war in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the weeks before he was replaced, d’Argenlieu was beginning to promote the idea of using Bao Dai to rally Vietnamese behind French policy. Although not given the freedom of action that had been exercised by d’Argenlieu, Bollaert endeavored to open paths of consultation with Vietnamese who were willing to work with France in a process they were led to believe was aimed at dissolving the colonial relationship. Shortly after arriving in Indochina, Bollaert established contact with both Bao Dai and Ho Chi Minh. At the time of Bollaert’s initial contact with Ho Chi Minh in April 1947, Ho Chi Minh entertained the possibility that the French communists, who were then a significant part of Ramadier’s government, could influence French policy in his  favor. In the summer of 1947, he brought more non-communists into his gov- ernment and attempted to project a demeanor of moderation, expressing a  willingness to be in the French Union if Vietnam were independent and unified. The French were unwilling to go so far and, believing that military operations during the upcoming dry season would eliminate the Viet Minh, preferred to deal with Bao Dai, who was more malleable to their purposes. In early 1947, leading figures in the Nationalist Party and the Revolutionary League who had taken refuge in China during 1946 gathered around Bao Dai.  Subsequently, other prominent figures from inside Indochina also went to con- sult with Bao Dai, including Le Van Hoach (1896–1978), a member of the Cao  Dai who had replaced Nguyen Van Thinh as president of the Republic of Cochinchina; the chief military leader of the Cao Dai; the ranking Vietnamese administrators of Tonkin and Annam; and Ngo Dinh Diem. In September 1947, Bao Dai, in Hong Kong, issued a statement indicating his willingness to talk with the French on behalf of an independent and united Vietnam. Long-distance discussions between Bao Dai and Bollaert accelerated. In October, France signaled its abandonment of d’Argenlieu’s Cochinchina separatism policy by changing the Republic of Cochinchina to the Provisional Government of South Vietnam. At the same time, the French replaced Le Van Hoach, whom they did not trust, with Nguyen Van Xuan (1892–1989), a French citizen and a general in the French army who had collaborated with Nguyen Van Thinh and d’Argenlieu in forming the Republic of Cochinchina a year and a half before. Nguyen Van Xuan also supported an accommodation with Bao Dai. Meanwhile, with the coming of the dry season, General Valluy made his move into the mountains to exterminate Ho Chi Minh’s government. The operation was a dismal failure, and by the end of the year his men were forced to withdraw back to the lowlands. Thereafter, the war appeared to settle into a stalemate that worried the French because they understood that they could not sustain an  interminable war. Furthermore, French policymakers were increasingly con- vinced that even battlefield success would lead nowhere without developing an  alternative to the Viet Minh that was acceptable to a critical mass of influential  Vietnamese. Despite the dramatic post-war growth of the French colon commu- nity, French authorities were dependent upon the service and cooperation of  large numbers of Vietnamese civil servants, including police and soldiers. The politicians who represented these Vietnamese were using Bao Dai to press for change in the Franco-Vietnamese relationship. In November 1947, Ramadier’s government fell and was replaced by the more conservative government of Robert Schuman (1886–1963). Ramadier had been diffident about making an agreement with Bao Dai. That constraint was now removed. In early December, Bao Dai and Bollaert met and signed a statement that became the basis for further negotiations. In June 1948, Bollaert signed an  agreement with Bao Dai that envisioned “independence” and “unity” for Viet- nam. To facilitate this, a month earlier Nguyen Van Xuan’s government in  Saigon was renamed the Provisional Central Government of Vietnam. Now, for the first time, there were two Vietnamese governments claiming jurisdiction over all of Vietnam. But Paris was preoccupied with the failure of three governments within two months, from July to September, and many Vietnamese politicians stepped away from Nguyen Van Xuan’s government, which, despite the changed name, was  primarily comprised of a residue of French and Vietnamese Cochinchina separat- ists. It took several weeks for French policy to regain momentum. In October,  Bollaert was replaced with Léon Pignon (1908–1976). Pignon was a career colonial administrator who had been in Indochina since 1945. He had assisted in negotiating the Franco-Vietnamese agreement of March 6, 1946, and had been a principal advisor of d’Argenlieu. Bollaert did not trust Pignon because of his association with d’Argenlieu’s policies, and Pignon was assigned to Cambodia during Bollaert’s tenure. Pignon was a strong advocate of setting up a Vietnamese government under  Bao Dai to rally the non-communist Vietnamese. He believed that such a gov- ernment could be given a countenance of sovereignty while France retained  control of vital state functions. With his support, the Elysée Agreement was signed in March 1949, granting Vietnam independence and unity but reserving to France control of financial, economic, diplomatic, and military affairs and creating an autonomous territory for non-Vietnamese peoples in the Central Highlands. It took nearly a year before this agreement was fully ratified into law by the French National Assembly. Legal issues related to Cochinchina as a separate jurisdiction were finally resolved in June 1949, and at that time Bao Dai inaugurated his government in Saigon as the State of Vietnam. But not until February 1950 did the French National Assembly ratify the entire agreement. Outstanding issues were slated to be resolved in future negotiations. Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam rallied most of the heterogeneous groups in Cochinchina. While Cao Dai leaders were hostile to the French and wavered between support of Saigon governments and wartime neutrality, in 1949 they firmly supported Bao Dai. The Viet Minh murder of Huynh Phu So in 1947 had made the Viet Minh an enemy of the Hoa Hao. The French subsequently enlisted the Hoa Hao to maintain security in western Cochinchina. There was a pattern of dissention among Hoa Hao leaders, but most pledged their support to Bao Dai. An organization of river pirates in the Saigon–Cholon area had emerged in  September 1945 as allies of the Viet Minh and thereafter became a local eco- nomic and political force called the Binh Xuyen. The Binh Xuyen pledged loyalty  to Bao Dai and subsequently prospered under his patronage, eventually com- manding both the criminal underworld and the police of the metropolitan area.  Although Catholics in the north overwhelmingly supported the Viet Minh until 1950, Catholic militias had formed in the south for protection against Viet Minh attacks and gave their allegiance to Bao Dai.

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