Radicalization of the Viet Minh



Outbreak of the Seventy Years War

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The Le restoration movement was initially led by Nguyen Kim, a son of Nguyen Hoang Du who was briefly a major figure in the turmoil following Tran Cao’s uprising in 1516. In 1529, shortly after Mac Dang Dung took the throne, Nguyen Kim assembled his family and retainers and went to Laos where he submitted to King Photisarath (r. 1520–1548), during whose reign the kingdom of Lan Xang, based along the Mekong River at Luang Prabang and Vientiane, enjoyed an era of power, peace, and prosperity. King Photisarath accepted Nguyen Kim as a vassal and assigned him territory in the region of Sam Nua at the headwaters of the Ma and Chu Rivers, which flow down to the sea through Thanh Hoa. The Mac suppressed Le loyalist uprisings in Thanh Hoa in 1530 and 1531, but survivors found refuge with Nguyen Kim. In 1533, Nguyen Kim proclaimed Le Duy Ninh, an 18-year-old son of Le Y, as king. King Photisarath acknowledged this claim and allocated resources to support it. Envoys were sent to the Ming court to denounce Mac Dang Dung as a usurper and to request aid in restoring the legitimate dynasty. The Ming emperor Zhu Houcong (r. 1521–1567), like his predecessor Zhu Houzhao (r. 1505–1521), was not very interested in government affairs. Imperial administration was enfeebled by neglect, corruption, and intrigue. The question of whether the Le or the Mac were the legitimate rulers of the vassal state of An  Nam was ignored until 1537 when officials prepared to send missions to tribu- tary states to announce the birth of an heir apparent and there had to be a  decision about to whom the announcement should be addressed. Some officials argued in favor of the Le and drew up plans for an expedition to suppress the Mac. Other officials argued in favor of the Mac, citing interpretations of dynastic policy toward small tributary states, the cost of such an expedition, and the Mongol threat on the northern border. Although the emperor was inclined to favor the Le, war preparations were kept in abeyance as border officials were divided in their opinions and court officials were indecisive. Finally, the Ming  conceived a compromise solution according to which there would be no exped- ition if the Mac would recognize the Le as suzerain. Mac Dang Dung’s rejection  of this demand triggered the expeditionary project, and by mid 1540 an army of over 110,000 soldiers had assembled on the border. Despite this, both sides were looking for a way to avoid war. The Mac worried about the growing Le threat in Thanh Hoa. The Ming worried about Altan Khan (1507–1582), the Mongol leader who was beginning to pose a serious problem on their northern frontier. Mac envoys met with Ming officials and worked out an accommodation. Near the end of 1540, Mac Dang Dung and over forty of his officials and family members crawled on their hands and knees across the border bareheaded, barefooted, and with ropes tied around their necks symbolizing surrender. Mac Dang Dung presented tribute and administrative records to the commander of the Ming army; he yielded a few parcels of border territory and begged to be allowed to submit peacefully. The Ming army was withdrawn and within a year the Ming court issued a proclamation recognizing the Mac as administrators of their territory, albeit at a lower status in the scheme of tributary relationships than had previously existed for the Le. The proclamation declared that it was not clear whether or not the aspiring king in Thanh Hoa was really a descendent of the Le royal family, but if this should eventually be proven to be true, the Le would be allowed to administer Thanh Hoa Province. By the time this proclamation was issued in late 1541, Mac Dang Dung had died. Historians later denounced his diplomatic settlement with Ming as an act of servile capitulation. However, given the context of events, it was an astute way to exploit the contradictions among Ming policymakers and a small price to pay for Ming recognition and for peace on the northern border. Nguyen Kim was beginning to send soldiers into the lowlands of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An and the Mac needed to concentrate their resources in that direction. One of those who gathered around Nguyen Kim in the Laotian uplands was Trinh Kiem. He was from Vinh Loc district in Thanh Hoa, not far from Tay Do. Some scholars have speculated that he was related to the family of Trinh Duy San and Trinh Tuy, which was prominent in the uproars that ensued upon Tran Cao’s uprising in 1516, but there is no evidence of this. He reportedly grew up in poverty and herded buffaloes in his youth, which does not suggest membership in a prominent family. Nguyen Kim discovered that Trinh Kiem was good at leading soldiers and made him his son-in-law through marriage to his eldest daughter Ngoc Bao. It was Trinh Kiem who, during a famine in 1539, led an army out of the mountains and struck the first blow in what became a long war by defeating a Mac army in Tho Xuan district along the lower Chu River in Thanh Hoa. The Mac had initially placed Thanh Hoa in the hands of a eunuch from that province named Duong Chap Nhat. In 1532, an ambitious nobleman from Thanh Hoa named Le Phi Thua had persuaded the Mac court to divide Thanh Hoa and create for him a second command. In 1537, he had gone over to Nguyen Kim. His arrogance was insufferable and Nguyen Kim had him strangled four years later. But his defection added to the turmoil in the province, which gained momentum with Trinh Kiem’s victory in 1539. By 1542, Nguyen Kim’s men were attacking into both Thanh Hoa and Nghe An. In 1543, Duong Chap Nhat was besieged at Tay Do and surrendered, after which Nguyen Kim gained control of all Thanh Hoa. In 1545, Nguyen Kim was ready to attack into the Red River plain. While camped near Hoa Lu in Yen Mo district, Ninh Binh Province, he was invited to dine with Duong Chap Nhat, who poisoned him before fleeing back to the Mac. With Nguyen Kim’s death, Trinh Kiem became the leader of the Le camp. He was a competent general who repeatedly demonstrated his battlefield prowess during the next quarter-century. He was also a ruthless politician who was determined to eliminate all rivals within the Le restoration movement. He secured the death of Nguyen Kim’s eldest son, Nguyen Uong, in circumstances that have not been recorded. Nguyen Kim’s other son, Nguyen Hoang (1525– 1613), benefited from the counsel of his mother’s elder brother Nguyen U Di, who had raised him during his father’s sojourn in Laos, and feigned insanity to deflect Trinh Kiem’s suspicious eye. In 1546, Trinh Kiem gained the submission of all the provinces south of Thanh Hoa and the situation shifted rapidly in his favor as the Mac fell into a prolonged succession dispute. Mac Dang Dung had apparently endeavored to establish a dynastic system modeled on the Tran by raising his son Mac Dang Doanh to be king in 1530 while he became the senior king. When Mac Dang Doanh died in 1540, his eldest son Mac Phuc Hai replaced him as king. But when Mac Dang Dung died a year later and Mac Phuc Hai might have replaced him as senior king, Mac Phuc Hai had no adult son to make king. Then, when Mac Phuc Hai died in 1546, a dispute erupted over the succession. Mac Phuc Hai had an infant son named Mac Phuc Nguyen, who, following the practice of primogeniture, held first claim on the throne. However, a general named Pham Tu Nghi argued that, considering the perilous situation in Thanh Hoa, the dynasty could not afford to have a child king. He championed the cause of Mac Chinh Trung, a younger son of Mac Dang Dung, and attracted a large following in the home region of the Mac family. Opposed to him was the Mac court in Dong Kinh led by Mac Dang Doanh’s third son Mac Kinh Dien, who stood up on behalf of his small nephew Mac Phuc Nguyen. Pham Dao, Nguyen Binh Khiem’s son-in-law, was among those favoring Mac Phuc Nguyen. He was on very close terms with Mac Kinh Dien because his mother had been Mac Kinh Dien’s wet nurse and was credited with saving him from a sickly infancy. Mac Kinh Dien fought Pham Tu Nghi for five years in the eastern plains and along the northern coast until capturing and beheading him in 1551. Mac Chinh Trung fled across the Ming border for refuge. These events provoked border problems and led to years of discussions with Ming envoys. As if this were not enough trouble for the Mac court, Pham Dao’s schemes brought further difficulties, fulfilling the apprehensions that had led to his father-in-law Nguyen Binh Khiem’s retirement a few years earlier. While Mac Kinh Dien was busy with Pham Tu Nghi, a feud developed between Pham Dao’s family and the family of Le Ba Ly, the Mac general in command of the army facing Thanh Hoa and the most senior Mac commander  after Mac Kinh Dien. Le Ba Ly was originally from Thanh Hoa but he main- tained a residence in the same village near Dong Kinh that was the home village  of Pham Dao. For unrecorded reasons, the two families nurtured enmity against one another. Pham Dao denounced Le Ba Ly as a traitor at court and obtained a royal order for his arrest. However, Le Ba Ly had many friends and allies. He happened to be the father-in-law of Nguyen Quyen, son of Nguyen Thien, who was the Minister of Personnel and a senior member of the court. Nguyen Thien, an examination graduate of 1532, had been a classmate of Nguyen Binh Khiem, and Nguyen Quyen had been Nguyen Binh Khiem’s student. In 1550, when Pham Dao’s influence proved insurmountable at court, Le Ba Ly, Nguyen Thien, and other prominent men along with their families and retainers went to Thanh Hoa and submitted to the Le, leaving the southern border defenseless. Pham Dao’s baleful manipulations continued until 1562 when, accused of treachery, he was finally killed by the Mac. In 1551, Trinh Kiem sent Le Ba Ly and others into the Red River plain against Dong Kinh. The Mac court fled to the safety of the eastern plains as Mac Kinh Dien guarded the capital until the Le forces withdrew. Thereafter, the two sides concentrated upon recruiting, training, arming, and organizing their armies. Finally, in 1555, Mac Kinh Dien led a large army up the Ma River against Trinh Kiem. A short distance downriver from his headquarters near Tay Do, Trinh Kiem ambushed and defeated the Mac. In 1557, Mac Kinh Dien again invaded Thanh Hoa and was again defeated. Trinh Kiem followed up this victory by pursuing the Mac army into Ninh Binh Province in the Red River plain. There, he defeated it again in a battle from which Mac Kinh Dien barely escaped with his life. A Mac seaborne invasion of Nghe An drew Trinh Kiem back south, but, after defeating it, Trinh Kiem renewed his invasion of the Red River plain. In a major battle on the Giao Thuy River in Truc Ninh district, Nam Dinh Province, he suffered a serious defeat near the end of the year and returned to Thanh Hoa to rebuild his forces. After the battles of 1557, both sides were exhausted and needed time to rebuild their armies. During the course of these battles, both Le Ba Ly and Nguyen Thien had died, whether in battle or of natural causes is not recorded. Nguyen Thien’s son, Nguyen Quyen, retained a sense of loyalty to the Mac despite the family feud that had taken him into the Le camp. With his father and father-in-law both dead, he was susceptible to an appeal from his former teacher Nguyen Binh Khiem, who sent him a poem and then arranged to meet him, facilitating his return to the Mac camp. Nguyen Quyen was a gifted military leader and became one of the most celebrated of the Mac generals. During this time, Trinh Kiem resolved a small dynastic question. King Le Duy Ninh had died in 1548 and was succeeded by his son Le Duy Huyen. When Le Duy Huyen died without an heir in 1556, Trinh Kiem was said to have consulted Phung Khac Khoan about what to do. The dilemma was supposedly about whether or not to declare the Le family line to be dead, possibly opening the way for Trinh Kiem to claim the throne. According to a story recorded later, Phung Khac Khoan sent a relative to seek the counsel of his teacher Nguyen Binh Khiem, whose reply indicated that when a crop fails, one should plant seeds obtained from earlier harvests. Trinh Kiem subsequently found Le Duy Bang, a fifth-generation descendent of Le Loi’s second eldest brother, and made him king. In fact, Trinh Kiem had little practical alternative to this, for his leadership was based on loyalty to the Le and any effort to change that would have provoked an uproar among his followers. The idea of consulting Nguyen Binh Khiem was later used to explain how another quasi-dynastic question was resolved at that time. The mother of Nguyen Kim’s son Nguyen Hoang was from a locality near Nguyen Binh Khiem’s home village. According to this story, she was concerned for the future of her son and sent an emissary to consult Nguyen Binh Khiem, whose reply indicated that Nguyen Hoang should go into the south beyond Ngang Pass. In 1558, Nguyen Hoang’s sister, Ngoc Bao, persuaded her husband, Trinh Kiem, to appoint Nguyen Hoang as governor of Thuan Hoa, which encompassed the modern provinces of Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien. He departed with his maternal uncle and mentor Nguyen U Di, along with a large entourage of family members and retainers and made his headquarters near the modern town of Quang Tri, thus initiating the fortunes of his family in the south. In fact, Trinh Kiem’s appointment of Nguyen Hoang to Thuan Hoa was an obvious solution to the perplexity of what to do with him. He was the leader of the Nguyen family, which still held the loyalty of many people in Thanh Hoa. Furthermore, Mac agents were becoming increasingly active along the southern coast and the Nguyen entourage would assist to keep that frontier in the Le camp. During the following decade the fortunes of war shifted from side to side as Trinh Kiem and Mac Kinh Dien repeatedly met in battle. For a few years, Trinh Kiem kept the Mac on the defensive with extended raids that penetrated into nearly every part of the Mac territories, in both the uplands and the plains. This prompted the Mac to build a long defensive rampart west of Dong Kinh in 1560 to block the points at which Le forces were issuing from the mountains. In 1561, Mac Kinh Dien campaigned for six months in Thanh Hoa with some success. In 1562, Trinh Kiem occupied the southern part of the Red River plain for three months to collect the rice harvest; during that time he built a fortress in Ung Hoa district about forty kilometers south of Dong Kinh to shield his activities. He continued to campaign each year in this region. By 1565 he had built up such a position of strength there that Mac Kinh Dien decided to avoid direct battle and instead embarked an army and attacked into Thanh Hoa by sea, winning a major victory over Le forces in Hau Loc district and forcing Trinh Kiem to return to Thanh Hoa, after which the Mac army re-embarked and returned to Dong Kinh. For three more years, Trinh Kiem continued to conduct annual raids into the lower Red River plain, but he was growing ill and weak and during his final two campaigns had to be carried in a litter. With news of Trinh Kiem’s failing health, Nguyen Hoang traveled from Thuan Hoa in 1569 to pay his respects and to renew the anti-Mac alliance. According to surviving accounts, the two brothers-in-law enjoyed an amicable reunion. Before  returning south in early 1570, Nguyen Hoang obtained an additional appoint- ment as governor of Quang Nam, thereby giving him authority over all the  southern territories. Within days of Nguyen Hoang’s departure from Thanh Hoa, Trinh Kiem died. Several years of tumult within the Trinh family ensued. Before his death, Trinh Kiem announced that his eldest son Trinh Coi would be leader in his stead. However, Trinh Coi had a reputation for wine and women, for excessive pride, and for lack of personal discipline. Within a few weeks of Trinh Kiem’s death, many of his prominent followers abandoned Trinh Coi and instead gathered around Trinh Kiem’s second son, Trinh Tung. Within three months of their father’s death, the brothers were at war with each other. Mac Kinh Dien quickly took advantage of this by advancing his armies into Thanh Hoa. Trinh Coi surrendered to him while Trinh Tung resisted. Mac Kinh Dien took possession of the Thanh Hoa lowlands while Trinh Tung defended the uplands and harassed the Mac with nighttime raids. Amidst the fighting, much of the lowland population fled to the hills, no harvest was taken, famine spread, and many starved to death. At the end of the year, after eight months of campaigning, Mac Kinh Dien withdrew from Thanh Hoa for lack of food. In 1571, Mac Kinh Dien advanced to Nghe An. During the previous year, Mac agents had recruited and organized an army in Thuan Hoa and the Mac were aiming to recover the southern frontier from which to build a second battlefront against Thanh Hoa. However, Nguyen Hoang defeated the Mac forces in Thuan Hoa and Trinh Tung forced Mac armies to withdraw from Nghe An. During this year of fighting in Thuan Hoa and Nghe An, Trinh Tung tried to resettle the refugee population of Thanh Hoa back into the lowlands but failed to obtain a rice crop, so Thanh Hoa endured a second year of famine. In 1572, Mac Kinh Dien again marched through Thanh Hoa and advanced into Nghe An. At the same time, a Mac army arrived in Thuan Hoa by sea and rallied many of the people there. Trinh Tung met the Mac invasion with scorched earth and sent an army to Nghe An. There was no harvest in Nghe An. Famine and an epidemic carried away over half the population, and large numbers of survivors fled from the province. Nguyen Hoang defeated the Mac army in Thuan Hoa, and Mac Kinh Dien withdrew back to the north. Meanwhile, resistance to Trinh Tung formed among members of the Le royal family led by a prince named Le Cap De. Near the end of the year, after the military campaigns had subsided, Trinh Tung seized and killed Le Cap De. This prompted the king, Le Duy Bang, to flee to Nghe An with his four eldest sons. Trinh Tung then raised Le Duy Bang’s fifth son, Le Duy Dam, to the throne. In 1573, Le Duy Bang was captured and killed and a Mac attack on Thanh Hoa was repulsed. Trinh Tung remained preoccupied with rivals, however, and in 1574 he suppressed a group of dissidents within the Trinh family. In that year he also sent an army to repulse Mac forces that had arrived in Nghe An by sea. Beginning in 1575 and continuing for seven years, the Mac conducted annual invasions of Thanh Hoa. Mac Kinh Dien led the first five of these, until his death in 1580. After the death of King Mac Phuc Hai in 1546, Mac Kinh Dien had led Mac armies in the field while his youngest brother Mac Don Nhung kept order at the court of the child king Mac Phuc Nguyen. When Mac Phuc Nguyen died of smallpox in 1561 and was succeeded by his infant son Mac Mau Hop, Mac Don Nhung continued to lead the court as regent while Mac Kinh Dien attended to the war. During the campaigns of the 1570s, Nguyen Binh Khiem’s former student Nguyen Quyen emerged as Mac Kinh Dien’s most able lieutenant. In those years, Nguyen Quyen typically invaded Nghe An while Mac Kinh Dien invaded Thanh Hoa. This was the apex of Mac military fortunes. Mac armies dominated the lowlands of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An during the fighting seasons. Those provinces suffered endemic famine, and Trinh Tung was constantly on the defensive. Nevertheless, in major battles when Mac Kinh Dien endeavored to destroy Trinh Tung, he was invariably defeated and forced to withdraw. Nguyen Quyen achieved some battlefield successes in Nghe An during these years, and this contributed to his reputation as a great general.

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