Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



Cochinchina and the new generation

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A leftist coalition was elected to power in France in 1924. It included many politicians opposed to colonialism, which led in 1925 to the replacement of Merlin by Varenne, a Socialist politician who had expressed sympathy for Vietnamese aspirations. Although disowned by his own party for accepting the colonial appointment, Varenne believed that he should do what he could to apply his political beliefs to the Indochinese situation. However, between Merlin’s departure in April and Varenne’s arrival in November, a series of  unprecedented events had begun to change the political atmosphere in Indo- china, and Varenne was immobilized between Vietnamese hope and French  colon fear. The shift in French politics encouraged Phan Chu Trinh to return to Indochina after fourteen years of voluntary exile in France that had followed his release from prison in 1911. He arrived in Saigon in June 1925. Shortly after, Phan Boi Chau was arrested by French agents in China and brought to Hanoi to stand trial. Suddenly, the two major figures of the older generation who had chosen exile over living under French colonialism were back in the country. Fresh from the outside world, the venerable voices of Phan Chu Trinh, in public lectures, and Phan Boi Chau, speaking in his defense during his trial, woke many Vietnamese from the mental somnolence induced by living under the French regime. In addition to these Vietnamese voices from the past, the dissonant voices of angry Frenchmen filled Saigon newspapers during the summer of 1925. André Malraux (1901–1976), a French writer accused of stealing antiquities while adventuring in Cambodia, conceived a repugnance for the colonial regime and,  taking the side of his Vietnamese friends in the Jeune Annam movement, pub- lished a Saigon newspaper called Indochine, in which he denounced colonialism  and engaged in a public feud with Governor Cognacq. The two men traded public insults until Cognacq managed to shut down Malraux’s newspaper by intimidating the printers. This spectacle of verbal battle between Frenchmen inspired Vietnamese observers to imagine that times were changing, particularly since one of the combatants was the despised Cochinchinese governor. While waiting for the new governor general to arrive, the French were also waiting and preparing for the death of King Khai Dinh, who had suffered from spinal tuberculosis for several years. His health declined rapidly from mid summer, and he died in early November. His 12-year-old heir, Bao Dai, was studying in Europe. The French decided to leave him in Europe to complete his studies and meanwhile to administer the protectorate without a king. The  monarchy had already become an object of derision, not only among the reform- ists of the old generation like Phan Chu Trinh, but even more generally among  the younger generation. Yet, the absence of a king in the country was unprec- edented and gave edge to a sensation of passing into a new era.  Within two weeks of Khai Dinh’s death, Varenne arrived in Saigon and was immediately pressured to respond to Vietnamese expectations by Nguyen Phan  Long, who met with him and presented an itemization of reforms. Under counter- vailing pressure from the French colons, Varenne equivocated and proceeded  to Hanoi where Phan Boi Chau had just been sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. Although Varenne decided to pardon the old foe of France and allow him to retire to Hue under house arrest, this did not dispel the hardening Vietnamese perception of the new governor general as unwilling or unable to initiate change, and disappointment rapidly spread. Shortly after Varenne’s arrival, Malraux began publishing a new newspaper called Indochine Enchaîné, in which he renewed his verbal duel with Cognacq. At the same time, Nguyen An Ninh restarted his La Cloche Fêlée, which earlier had ceased publication when he took a trip to France. He now became even more critical of the French regime than he had been before. Nguyen Phan Long’s L’Écho Annamite also registered chagrin at Varenne’s pusillanimity, and Bui Quang Chieu, despairing of Varenne, went to France to present his plan for reform directly to the government in Paris. He called for basic civil liberties, expanded educational opportunities, administrative and judicial  reforms, greater Vietnamese representation in government, extension to Indo- china of French labor legislation, and suppression of the alcohol monopoly.  Although he had friends among French politicians, Third Republic politics were too fragile to bear the weight of such a program of reform, particularly since the French colons in Indochina also had their allies among politicians in Paris and they were at the same time calling for the recall of Varenne because he was not firm enough toward the Vietnamese. Bui Quang Chieu’s trip was in vain. During the early weeks of 1926, Jeune Annam activists took up the cause of a Vietnamese journalist being prosecuted for exposing the abuse of workers from Tonkin and Annam at Cochinchina rubber plantations and rice farms. In late March, they organized a public rally in Saigon. Tracts were distributed that called for political action with rhetoric reminiscent of communist slogans in Europe, and Nguyen An Ninh gave a rousing speech. He and two of his associates were arrested a few days later. In subsequent weeks, La Cloche Fêlée serially published Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. While Nguyen Phan Long and other Constitutionalists were dismayed by this radical turn, it propelled youth into a new politics of the streets. A few days after the rally, Bui Quang Chieu returned from his trip to France and was met at the dockside by a crowd of Vietnamese showing their support for his agenda and a crowd of French people demonstrating against him. He scrambled away to avert an incident, and his later mild utterances discredited him among the younger generation. Meanwhile, Phan Chu Trinh died. In early April, Jeune Annam organized a funeral procession through the streets of Saigon that included contingents of students from all over Cochinchina. The efforts of authorities to punish students for absenting classes and for wearing black armbands provoked an escalation of school boycotts as students expanded their mourning of Phan Chu Trinh to protest the harsh discipline and racist attitudes of their French teachers. Student activism spread from Saigon to other cities in Cochinchina and, to a lesser extent,  in Annam and Tonkin. Unrest also spread to urban workers, who were embold- ened to organize strikes to improve their salaries and working conditions.  Varenne restored a modicum of calm by enforcing public order, which included the expulsion of insubordinate students from their schools, and by sending Cognacq back to France, thereby removing what he viewed as a primary cause of the disturbances in Cochinchina. Malraux was also induced to return to France. The Jeune Annam movement had burst out of its Constitutionalist  chrysalis but began to lose its coherence as members scattered in various direc- tions, taking with them commitments to resist the colonial state that found many  manifestations. Some of the Jeune Annam activists with the means for travel went to France where they studied and gained experience in anti-colonial politics. Some of these returned to Indochina a few years later with commitments to communism in either its Stalinist or Trotskyist version. For a few, Paris was a stop on the way to Moscow and the embrace of the Third Communist International (Comintern), which promised world revolution. Young Vietnamese in France during the 1920s increasingly organized anti-colonial propaganda activities, sometimes with the support of sympathetic French people. Meanwhile, most Vietnamese of the new generation had to come to terms with the reality of living in Indochina. By 1926, the role of newspapers in expanding the realm of commentary on public affairs had been clearly demonstrated. From then, a new generation of aspiring journalists expressed their political aims through investigative reporting to uncover corruption and abuse and through editorializing essays. Censorship was less strict in Cochinchina than it was in Annam and Tonkin. It was also less strict in the French language than in Vietnamese. Nevertheless, the emerging new generation created a great surge of publishing in the alphabetic vernacular throughout the Vietnamese regions of Indochina, not only of newspapers but also of journals, books, and pamphlets. For example, between 1923 and 1928 approximately sixty daily and weekly Vietnamese newspapers were started in Indochina. Many had a relatively short life-span due to financial and censorship problems, but they continued to appear. Journals that typically appeared monthly or bi-monthly were produced on a wide range of topics. In 1925 there were around thirty-five Vietnamese journals; by 1930 there were seventy-five. The rush of the new generation into vernacular alphabetic print was a major event. It was accompanied by an expansion of alphabetic literacy that in the 1930s enabled the emergence of new literary trends as well as the widespread dissemination of political programs that crossed the boundaries separating the three colonial jurisdictions of Vietnam. After his release from prison and a trip to France, Nguyen An Ninh,withdrew to his home village of Hoc Mon, a short distance northwest of Saigon, where in 1928 he organized a secret revolutionary society with a network of adherents numbering a few hundred. Within months, French authorities uncovered his activities and he was returned to prison. His turn to the countryside appears to have been partly influenced by an anarchist dream of “returning to the people.” But he was also influenced by a new religion that had appeared in Cochinchina. The popular Buddhist millennialism and the mutual-aid secret societies that had contextualized the rural disturbances of 1913 and 1916 had not disappeared. Within ten years, the continuing distress of landless Cochinchinese peasants  combined with the altruism of sympathetic Vietnamese landlords and civil ser- vants to create the Cao Dai religion. Cao Dai combined aspects of several reli- gious, philosophical, and literary traditions from both Asia and Europe based on  messages received from the one deity that was believed to exist behind all religions. Cao Dai operated through a hierarchy modeled on the Roman Catholic Church and established communities that reified the landlord–tenant relationship into a fellowship of believers. It was loosely associated with a constellation of secret societies cum popular cults that were active in rural Cochinchina. It spread widely,  organizing rural communities and building temples. Its leaders erected an impres- sive cathedral in Tay Ninh, around eighty kilometers northwest of Saigon.  Cao Dai was a model of Vietnamese banding together from various social classes to address problems exacerbated by the colonial state. Its concern for Vietnamizing rural society away from the economic exploitation of Chinese business and the administrative indifference of French officials overlapped to some extent with the aims of Constitutionalists. Nguyen Phan Long took a strong interest in the new religion. Although the very existence of Cao Dai  expressed alienation from the colonial project, the French perceived no immedi- ate threat to their authority and did not interfere with it.

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