Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

01

Dec
2021

The threat from Europe

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The French navy was increasingly active along the Chinese coast in the early 1850s, collaborating and competing with the British and the Americans for treaty privileges and territorial concessions. But it was not until the end of the Crimean War in 1856 that Louis Napoleon was prepared to initiate a policy toward Vietnam. The British had obtained a commercial treaty with Siam in 1855, and Louis Napoleon sent Charles de Montigny (1805–1868) to Bangkok to obtain a similar treaty. Montigny had gone out to the Chinese coast with the French navy as a member of a diplomatic mission in 1843. He subsequently spent the rest of his career in the French diplomatic service in China, serving as the first French consul in Shanghai (1848–1853) and later as consul at Tientsin (1863– 1868). He was experienced in Chinese affairs but had little knowledge of Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the countries placed on his 1856 itinerary. His Vietnamese agenda was to obtain a treaty protecting Christians and to open the country to trade. The plan was for Montigny to appear in Vietnamese waters with a naval escort that would support his negotiations with a show of force. However, poor  coordination between Montigny and the navy resulted in Montigny’s ship arriv- ing four months after the navy had come and gone. The first of two naval vessels  assigned to meet Montigny at Da Nang, a new steam-powered warship, arrived at Da Nang in September 1856. Waiting for Montigny, the ship’s captain was frustrated by the cold welcome he received from local officials. Feeling  threatened by what he interpreted as Vietnamese military preparations, he bom- barded and demolished the harbor forts. By the time Montigny arrived in early  1857, the navy had long since departed and the Vietnamese were uninterested in talking with him. When the French warship had first arrived at Da Nang in September 1856, local officials reported to Hue that the French captain threatened that if the Vietnamese king did not agree to negotiate a treaty with the soon-to-arrive French envoy, it would be reported to the British navy, which would then arrive with unpleasant consequences for the Vietnamese. If this report was correct, it reveals an interesting use of the British by the French for making threats, suggesting that the French lacked confidence in their own reputation. In response to this news, Hue ordered that military units be put on the alert and that patrols be maintained to watch for any additional ships. If the French should attempt to sneak ashore, the intruders were to be confronted, “so that they will know that we are prepared.” A few days later, news reached Hue that the French had bombarded and destroyed the harbor fortresses. Tu Duc was reportedly upset by this and said: The provincial officials did not know how to be prepared. Reading their report makes it sound like they were only a few feeble people in a situation beyond their means. Considering that this one Western ship was beneath our forts and that a ship can contain but a certain number of shells and furthermore that it must shoot them slowly and deliberately, how could the shells from this ship have come down like rain as claimed in the report? Furthermore, our soldiers were at higher elevations with strong fortifications. How could this ship destroy every one of our emplacements but we could not shoot the ship? Surely our troops did not have the heart to fight with the enemy, so they schemed in fear to simply save their lives. This reaction to the Da Nang action contains four points of interest. First, Tu Duc had no understanding of the technical disparity between modern Western warships and Vietnamese coastal batteries. Second, he did not know the difference between giving a command and ensuring that it was executed. Third, he was easily distracted from the reality of a situation by quibbles over the use of a metaphor, in this case his objection to mention of French shells coming down like rain. Finally, and most tellingly, he was fully prepared to attribute cowardice  to his own soldiers. His scolding comments echo the analysis of northern insur- gency recorded two years before. Trouble comes from the bad performance of  officials and soldiers. It did not occur to him that failure could be caused by anything other than people not correctly performing their duties. Unlike Japanese leaders, who quickly understood the threat posed by Western navies and who were willing to accept revolutionary change in order to respond to it, Vietnamese leaders phlegmatically watched an increasingly rampant French fleet materialize off their coasts during the course of nearly two decades. Finding themselves in a world dominated by military technology and organization beyond what they possessed, Vietnamese leaders took comfort in being members of a civilized world led by China. Like Japan, Vietnam was vulnerable to hostile sea power. But unlike Japanese leaders, who even after more than two centuries of peace had retained the samurai’s sensitivity to military affairs, Vietnamese rulers, like their counterparts in China, were educated in literature, history, and philosophy. What appeared to be plausible for China, however, did not hold for Vietnam. Vietnam lacked the vast hinterland that enabled China to project an air of sovereignty despite the loss of control over its coasts. On the eve of the French conquest, leaders at Hue faced an impasse. The moral values on which they believed their society was built did not let them agree to legalize either Christianity or opium. Yet, accepting the treaty demands of the Western powers whose warships threatened their harbors meant opening their country both to Christianity and to opium. Expectations of being able to prevail in this confrontation may appear unrealistic from the perspective of later events, but these men had no choice but to resist as best they could, for they were not prepared to change their fundamental view of what it meant to be civilized. After Montigny’s visit to Da Nang, a new anti-Christian edict was published  and a fresh wave of persecution passed through Vietnamese Christian commu- nities. In July of 1857, a Spanish missionary was executed in northern Vietnam.  Dominicans based in Manila maintained an active mission in the Red River plain. Little more than a year later, a joint Franco-Spanish expedition was prepared to forcibly open the country. The issue of Christianity in motivating French and Spanish military action against Vietnam, while superficially apparent, was not fundamental. Christianity had been a discernible part of Vietnamese society for over three hundred years before the French conquest. Vietnamese rulers had attempted to discourage Christianity from time to time when urged on by their Confucian advisors, but Christians were largely integrated into normal society. For example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Christian soldiers in the north were allowed to take their oaths of loyalty in the name of their own religion rather  than in the name of the traditional mountain spirit. Relations between commu- nities of Christians and non-Christians were overwhelmingly peaceful.  The virulence of the anti-Christian policy initiated by Minh Mang, while built  upon conventional Confucian views, more immediately expressed fear of Euro- pean imperial intentions. It arose at the time of the First Anglo-Burmese War  (1824–1826) and was accompanied by a wave of anti-Christian propaganda in Vietnam that was unprecedented in associating Christianity with European imperialism. The participation of Christians in Le Van Khoi’s uprising confirmed the Hue court in a view of Christians as disloyal and prone to rebellion.  Furthermore, Christianity offended Minh Mang’s passion for enforcing uniform- ity in all aspects of his country’s life. By the time that decades of anti-Christian  propaganda and persecution had developed into the outbreaks of violence between Christians and non-Christians of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, during  the years of French conquest, the association of Christians with French aggres- sion had hardened in the minds of many royal officials and of others educated to  be influenced by them. When missionaries were the only Frenchmen in Vietnam, their importance to French policy appeared much larger than it actually was. The significance of Christianity for drawing French imperial interest toward Vietnam wore off within weeks of the landing of the Franco-Spanish expeditionary forces at Da Nang near the end of summer in 1858. In the calculations of Louis Napoleon and his chief advisors, the religious question was a convenient explanation to rally Spanish participation and public support for military action in Vietnam, but economic and political considerations were more fundamental. Men with little patience for religion built French Indochina. Naval officers led the way in their search for an Asian seaport and a river route to the back door of China to gain an advantage over the British, who policed China’s front doors. The British seizure of lower Burma in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852–1853 aroused French fears of the British gaining the Chinese back door through Burma and of failure to compete for colonial territories. The new Prussian navy began to appear in Asian waters by the mid 1850s and provoked apprehensions of another competitor. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, under the Third Republic, industrialists and merchants became the driving force for expanding the colonial holdings in Vietnam. Then, beginning in the mid 1880s, colonial administrators began to pursue a vision of building a modern Asian state to demonstrate the imperial genius of France. By the turn of the twentieth century, the creative energy of the French to initiate change in Vietnam had been mostly spent. Aside from a great surge of investment in the 1920s, French rule in Vietnam would thereafter be a holding operation as initiative for change shifted to the Vietnamese. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the new country of Vietnam appeared in a world of great and constant change. In the 1820s and 1830s, Minh Mang endeavored to centralize his authority over all Vietnamese and to establish his realm as a major regional power, imagining that seaborne threats could be kept at bay. In the 1840s and 1850s, however, the imperial powers of  Europe gained momentum, riding their superior technology, their military dis- cipline, and their visions of great achievements. At the same time, Vietnam  slipped into a ferment of insubordination without effective leadership. Tu Duc was isolated from disturbing events, never traveled far from his palace, and had no policy aside from avoiding change. What ensued for the Hue monarchy was a painful process of being forced to accept change. By the late 1880s, Vietnamese kings had become functionaries of a colonial regime.

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