This is the last episode in the French Indochina mini-series (the others are Episodes 25, 26 and 34), and the last episode for 2017. Here we wrap up by looking at the development of nationalist movements in Vietnam before World War II, with special emphasis on Ho Chi Minh, who will be the most important nationalist after the war. And then we will meet the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, two new religious sects that got started in South Vietnam in the early twentieth century.
(Transcript, added 07/12/2020.)
Episode 35: French Indochina, Part IV
or, Nationalism in Vietnam
Greetings, dear listeners! This is the fourth and last episode of our French Indochina mini-series, so let us bring Robin Williams back for one more introduction:
<GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!>
Of course not everyone listens to all the episodes of a podcast in order. Heck, the typical listener may skip some episodes. Therefore we need to start with a quick recap of Parts 1, 2, and 3. Especially since the episodes are organized into two pairs, rather than as one bunch of four, as we did with the mini-series on the Philippines.
Part 1 was Episode 25 of this podcast. In it we saw the French start as missionaries and advisors to the Vietnamese, turn into protectors of Vietnamese Catholics, and finally become conquerors, adding Cambodia and Cochin China, the southernmost part of Vietnam, to the French Empire. Part II was Episode 26, and there the French completed the conquest of Vietnam, the areas they would call Tonkin and Annam, and they added Laos when they had the opportunity to grab some territory from Siam. Then we broke off on that topic to bring ourselves up to date on Siam, the Philippines, Burma and Indonesia. Finally we returned to Indochina with Episode 34, Part III of this series. With Part III we saw how Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos fared under French rule. Because I pointed out last time that Laos and Cambodia did not develop nationalist movements until the end of World War II, we will not have to talk about those countries again until our narrative reaches 1945, the last year of that great war.
For Part IV we have one last subject to attend to, and that is the development of nationalism in Vietnam. In a sense, nationalism developed the way it did because the French ran Vietnam pretty much the opposite way from how the Americans ran the Philippines. When the Americans came to those islands, they found a fully developed nationalist movement, and after the Americans fought a war to stay there, they decided to cooperate with the nationalists. By the beginning of the 1940s, they had won the friendship of most Filipinos, the soldiers defending the islands were mostly Filipino, and a native government was learning how to take care of itself, so the Americans would have granted independence soon, if World War II had not gotten in the way.
By contrast, as we saw in the last episode, the French ruled Vietnam with only profits for the mother country in mind, and they stamped out any effort to give the Vietnamese a voice in managing their own affairs. The French even had a replica of their infamous penal colony, Devil’s Island, in the South China Sea. This was an island south of Vietnam that the English named Pulo Condore, and the French renamed Grand-Condore; today it is called Con Son Island. On this island the French constructed a prison to hold political prisoners; these included Pham Van Dong and Le Duc Tho, two individuals who will become important North Vietnamese leaders in the late twentieth century. And while the French claimed they were in Vietnam to introduce modern civilization, which of course meant French civilization, even this policy was restricted when they found out that educated Vietnamese were more likely to resist French rule. For example, the University of Hanoi was founded in 1907, and one year later it was closed because of political agitation from the students. It wasn’t reopened until 1918, and in the early 1920s its originally comprehensive curriculum was cut back to just vocational courses; at any given time it never had more than a thousand students. This meant that students who wanted to get enough education to become French citizens had to go to France to do it, and as we saw last time, it did not do them much good, since they had so few opportunities to apply what they learned. There were few jobs available to them when they returned, and for the few who got government jobs, the best-paid Vietnamese official earned less than the lowest-ranking French government worker.
In physics we learn that if you let the pressure of a gas or liquid increase, without giving it an outlet to release that built-up force, sooner or later you run the risk of an explosion. The same is true with political pressure. The longer you try to suppress nationalism, the more powerful, hostile and radical that force will become. That happened in Vietnam. The first Vietnamese nationalists might have accepted an arrangement that would have kept Vietnam within the French sphere of influence, with at least economic and cultural ties to the mother country. Unfortunately, even their moderate proposals for reform were met with apathy from uneducated Vietnamese and open hostility from the French, who saw any concession as bad for them. In India, the British governed with a conscience, and that allowed Mahatma Gandhi to win independence by passive resistance, but in Vietnam, French intransigence forced the nationalists to turn to violence.
Thus, as time went on revolutionaries replaced the reformers, and those who wanted Vietnam to imitate France as a capitalist democracy were replaced by those who thought socialism or even communism would work better. One of the first to notice was Colonel Joseph Gallieni, who was stationed in Vietnam in the early 1890s, and went on to become a hero in World War I. He said, quote: “A country is not conquered and pacified by crushing its people through terror. After overcoming their initial fear, the masses grow increasingly rebellious, their accumulated bitterness steadily rising in reaction to the brutal use of force.” End quote.
The anti-colonial movement among the Vietnamese people started all the way back in 1859, when the French took the city of Saigon. Throughout Cochin China, Vietnamese were encouraged to fight, using the guerrilla tactics that had worked so well in past ages, when China was the enemy; those who answered the call were given swords and spears. Sometimes Buddhist monks organized and led military units, rather than the usual army officers or mandarins. The guerrillas established campsites for themselves in two swamps that were almost inaccessible to the French: the Plain of Reeds, an area north of Saigon, and the Caumau Peninsula in the southwest corner of the Mekong delta. Admiral Bonard, the French commander in Cochin China, issued this report about the fighting at the end of 1862. Quote: “We have had enormous difficulties in enforcing our authority . . . Rebel bands disturb the country everywhere. They appear from nowhere in large numbers, destroy everything and then disappear into nowhere.” End quote. One hundred years later, American officers reporting on their situation in Vietnam would be able to use the same statement, and not have to change a single word.
The guerrillas did not give up when the Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc, surrendered to the French. On the contrary, the local mandarins throughout Cochin China launched a general uprising in 1863, but the French suppressed it within a few weeks. A much larger uprising, the Can Vuong movement, broke out when the French conquered the rest of the country; it lasted from 1885 to 1889. The last of these old-fashioned rebellions was the one we mentioned in the previous episode, that involved the boy emperor Duy Tan in 1916. None of the rebels were able to coordinate their activities beyond the local level, meaning the French never had to face an uprising across the whole country, and it did not help when the rebels persecuted Vietnamese Catholics, thereby driving this group to support the French. In all cases, the rebel leaders wanted to restore the old society of pre-colonial Vietnam, with an emperor and a bureaucracy modeled after those in China. This goal did not appeal to those Vietnamese who grew up after 1900 and received a modern education, so after the mandarins were defeated militarily, they were also dead politically.
The first modern Vietnamese nationalist was Phan Boi Chau, a radical monarchist. Born in 1867, he was the son of a poor scholar, and at first followed in his father’s footsteps, studying archaic Confucian literature until 1900, when revolts in his native province, Nghe An, caused so much destruction that he switched to politics. During the first years of the twentieth century, he traveled around Vietnam, looking to organize a new anti-French movement. He also read the works written by several famous European and Chinese thinkers, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Darwin. From these he concluded that the reason why Vietnam fell to the French was because its emperors refused to modernize the country, so henceforth he called his group the Association for the Modernization of Vietnam.
Phan Boi Chau rejected French rule but not Western ideas; he wanted Vietnam to modernize itself under a progressive monarch, like Japan and Siam had done. Before long he met a Vietnamese prince who agreed with him. This was Cuong De, a great-grandson of the great emperor Gia Long, and a grandson of Nguyen Canh, the crown prince who fought to unify Vietnam around 1800. Long-time listeners will remember Gia Long and Nguyen Canh; we met them in Episodes 19 and 25. Anyway, with such a lineage, Cuong De was the perfect choice to become the front man for Chau’s organization, their choice for emperor should they succeed. Then in 1904 and 1905 came the Russo-Japanese War, in which the Japanese mopped the floor with the Russians. This amazing victory caught the attention of people all over the world; for the first time in centuries, an Asian power had beaten a European power. From Africa to China, nationalists saw Japan as an example to follow.
The Russo-Japanese War convinced Chau he was right, so after the war he smuggled a number of young Vietnamese into Japan, including Prince Cuong De. There they met other Asian nationalists, including Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Guomindang, China’s Nationalist Party. The students studied science and all manner of clandestine activities, including propaganda and terrorism. When they returned to Vietnam they launched anti-French demonstrations and uprisings, but they were suppressed easily. The Vietnamese emperor Thanh Thai also contacted the movement and tried to join it, but as we saw in the last episode, the French declared him insane and deposed him.
As for Phan Boi Chau and Cuong De, they were expelled from Japan in 1909, after the Japanese received a loan from France. They separated and wandered around in Hong Kong, Siam and China. Eventually Chau set up a government in exile in Canton, this time with Cuong De as the movement’s president, rather than its monarch. By now Sun Yat-Sen had briefly served as the first president of China, but he and the rest of the Guomindang were too busy with China’s multitude of problems to give Vietnamese nationalists any aid. In fact, Chau was arrested by the Chinese in 1914, on a charge that he had helped rivals to the current government, and he was held in jail until 1917.
Because Chau was locked up, and always on the run after he got out, his political movement declined rapidly. Over the next few years, he always traveled secretly, because he knew the French wanted him, going from Vietnam to China to Hong Kong to Japan to Siam and to Vietnam again. In 1925, when he was fifty-eight years old, French agents caught up with him in Shanghai, kidnaped him and took him back to Vietnam. There he lived under house arrest until his death in 1940.
Meanwhile, Cuong De fared better, but not by much. The prince was allowed to return to Japan in 1915. This time the Japanese gave him a monthly allowance, and promised to support him in his efforts to gain independence for Vietnam. As it turned out, though, he ended up spending the rest of his life in Japan. Of course he was devastated when he heard that the French had captured his colleague, Phan Boi Chau. When the Japanese installed Puyi, the last emperor of China, as ruler over Manchukuo, the puppet state they set up in Manchuria, Cuong De saw this as a sign that the Japanese would put him in charge of Vietnam. And two new religious movements in southern Vietnam, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, announced they would like to see Cuong De become their emperor. But there was already an official emperor, Bao Dai, and the Japanese thought it would be better to keep Bao Dai as their Vietnamese puppet. When World War II ended, Ho Chi Minh staged a communist revolution in Hanoi, and because communists don’t get along very well with members of royal families, Cuong De decided this wouldn’t be a good time to go back to Vietnam. Afterwards he became a Japanese citizen, but the Japanese wouldn’t let him travel to Vietnam, when it looked like it would be safe for him to go. He died of cancer in Tokyo in 1951.
The next important nationalist was Phan Chu Trinh, the son of a rich landowner in central Vietnam. He got involved in politics unwillingly when his father got involved in the Can Vuong uprising and was killed in 1885, by a rebel faction that saw his father as a traitor. Phan Chu Trinh was thus left an orphan at the age of thirteen. When he grew up he did well enough studying the Confucian classics to gain a job in the mandarin bureaucracy, and in 1900 he was promoted to the rank of minister at the imperial court, but after the Russo-Japanese war, he quit to become a full-time activist, and went to Japan to learn how the Japanese education and political systems worked. By then he had also met Phan Boi Chau, and while they agreed that Vietnam should be an independent, modernized state, they disagreed on three key issues. First, Trinh did not want any kind of monarchy, not even a progressive one; for him a republic was the only answer. Second, because Japan also had an empire, and was run by a militant government, he did not trust the Japanese, and would not take assistance from them. Third, Trinh believed that if the French lived up to their civilizing mission – meaning that if the French practiced what they preached – he and the French would be able to work together.
In 1907 Trinh founded a private school in Hanoi, which he called the Tonkin Free School. Both boys and girls were allowed to attend, instruction was given in three languages – Vietnamese, Chinese and French – and the curriculum combined modern courses like science, economics and French literature with Asian classics. The school carefully avoided doing anything illegal, but the French smelled sedition; in 1908 they used tax revolts as an excuse to close the school and arrest Trinh. At first he was sentenced to death, but then the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on Con Son Island. There he stayed for three years, and was released in 1911 on condition that he go to France. There he looked for other Vietnamese exiles and liberal French who supported Vietnamese self-determination, formed a group with them, and together they wrote patriotic articles. Trinh returned to Vietnam in 1924 and died of tuberculosis in 1926. Throughout Vietnam the schools were closed for a day to mourn Trinh’s passing, and his funeral ceremony lasted a week.
The years during and immediately after World War I saw a number of anti-French terrorist acts, demonstrations, and disorganized local revolts. Back in Episode 27 we saw Siam send an expeditionary force to Europe, made up of 1,230 men, to fight alongside the French, and it arrived so late that none of its soldiers were killed in action. By contrast, Vietnam made a deeper commitment to the war effort. At least 80,000 Vietnamese went to France during World War I, either to fight on the Western Front, or to work alongside women in French factories, now that male factory workers had gone off to the war. Among these Vietnamese abroad, 30,000 were killed in the war, and most of the rest who fought were wounded.
We don’t know much about the next Vietnamese nationalist, because he did not live long. This was a teacher named Nguyen Thai Hoc. In 1925, when he was twenty-three years old, he founded a revolutionary group called the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, meaning the Vietnamese Nationalist Party; VNQDD for short. As you might expect from its name, the VNQDD imitated China’s nationalist party, the Guomindang, and its goal was establishing the same kind of republic for Vietnam. It also preached terrorist action, and infiltrated the garrisons of native troops to launch an anti-French mutiny. On the scheduled night of the uprising (February 9-10, 1930), only one garrison, Yen Bai in Tonkin, mutinied. Here 40 troops and 60 civilian members of the VNQDD killed the garrison’s French officers, but the other 550 Vietnamese soldiers in the garrison stayed loyal, so the mutineers were overwhelmed in a few hours, and executed a day later. Naturally a wave of arrests and trials followed; 87 of those arrested were found guilty, and among those, 39 were sentenced to death. Presidential pardons saved two thirds of the condemned from the death penalty, but on June 17, 1930, Nguyen Thai Hoc and twelve of his collaborators were guillotined; my sources report that each cried out “Viet Nam!” as the blade fell on their necks. Afterwards, thousands of other rebels were killed or dumped in concentration camps. Today several Vietnamese cities have roads named Nguyen Thai Hoc Street in memory of him, and most of those streets got their names during the mid-twentieth century, when Vietnam was divided into a communist northern and an anti-communist southern state. This means he is a patriot in the eyes of all present-day Vietnamese, whether they are communists or not.
What was left of the VNQDD fled to China, where many joined the communists. After World War II, the Chinese president Chiang Kai-Shek recognized the remnant VNQDD as the legitimate government of an independent Vietnam. He would, since he was violently anti-communist by this time. During the First Indochina War, the VNQDD was attacked by both the French and Ho Chi Minh’s communist organization, the Viet Minh, so when that war ended, surviving VNQDD members fled to South Vietnam. Then when South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, the VNQDD had to flee once more, becoming a political party for Vietnamese exiles who don’t like communism.
Podcast Footnote: Back in 1997, when I first got onto the Internet, I was surprised to stumble upon a website belonging to the VNQDD; I didn’t know that organization still existed. Unfortunately I could not find the website when I looked now, so it and the organization may no longer be around. The last address I could find for the organization was in Oviedo, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. Now it just so happened that I lived in the Orlando metropolitan area for forty years, before moving to my present home in Kentucky. Orlando has a good-sized Vietnamese community; in one neighborhood, that I affectionately call “Little Saigon,” all the shops are Vietnamese owned. Thus, it is not too strange that the VNQDD headquarters could end up in the middle of Florida. What amazes me is that at one point, the headquarters was only ten miles from my house, and I didn’t know it! End footnote.
Ho Chi Minh
We are now up to the most important figure in recent Vietnamese history; in fact, he was one of the most important people in the twentieth century. Born on May 19, 1890, in Nghe An Province, the same province that Phan Boi Chau came from, his birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cung, but everyone knows him better by the name he gave himself late in life – Ho Chi Minh. I will explain the names momentarily. His father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, had studied hard enough to pass the civil service exams and become a mandarin, but when the French took over, he refused to learn the French language, so he could no longer work at the imperial court in Hue. After that, he spent the rest of his life wandering the countryside, earning an income as a traditional healer, and writing letters for those who could not read or write. The younger Nguyen did so well in school that when he was ten years old, his father gave him a new name: Nguyen Tat Thanh, or Nguyen the Accomplished.
Older biographies claim that Nguyen became politically active during his high school years, taking part in the anti-French demonstrations of 1907 and 1908, until the French expelled him from school and marked him for arrest, should he continue to make trouble. However, this now appears to be an addition to his biography, added to make it look like he was a revolutionary from the start. We now have school records showing that he attended the French academy in Hue in 1908. It is also from these records that we know his original name, Nguyen Sinh Cung; biographies written before 1980 asserted that Nguyen Tat Thanh was the name he started with. And at this early date it looks like the only Frenchman he opposed was his teacher, a former Foreign Legionnaire who was getting back at the native guerrillas he used to fight by acting as a dictator over his Vietnamese students.
In 1909 Nguyen went to the southern town of Phan Thiet, and taught at a village school for six months. Like other Western-educated Vietnamese he had little opportunity to succeed in his homeland, so he went to Saigon in 1911, and signed up as a cabin boy on a French steamer. This steamer took him to France, and he would not come back for thirty years. In France he applied for the French Colonial Administrative School, but his application was rejected. Therefore he spent the next few years seeing the world, and working at various odd jobs. Here the biography becomes murky; he worked as a snow shoveler and a pastry cook in London, and as a photo retoucher in Paris, but aside from that, we don’t know what he really did, or where he really went. The possible places he visited include Boston and New York City, and it looks like his first impression of the United States was a favorable one; he wrote that Asian immigrants in the United States have more opportunities to prosper than Asians under colonial rule at home. He also learned many languages during his travels; eventually he would speak not only Vietnamese but also French, Russian, English, Thai, and three dialects of Chinese.
In 1917 Nguyen came to Paris. We noted earlier that there were thousands of Vietnamese in France at this time, assisting the French effort in World War I. And their help was needed; by 1917 it looked like France was going to lose the war. On the Eastern Front, the Russian Tsar had abdicated, and Russia was collapsing, meaning the Germans could start transferring their troops from the east to the Western Front, in order to fight the French. America entered the war at this time, but the Germans were not concerned yet; they knew that it would take a year for the United States to train its soldiers and ship enough of them across the Atlantic to make a difference. Now the Germans felt that if they could strike the winning blows in France before the Americans arrived, victory would be theirs. Finally, French morale was very low at this time; when French soldiers were ordered to march across No Man’s Land into German machine gun fire for the umpteenth time, some of them went bleating like sheep.
Right, they sounded like that. By June 1917, fifty-four divisions–half of the French army–were in a state of mutiny, and there were no reliable troops left between the front line and Paris. When Vietnamese police units were ordered to shoot at mutineering French soldiers, Nguyen knew that the myth of the white man’s superiority, so carefully cultivated by Europeans for centuries, was exactly that–a myth.
By this time Nguyen was starting to show his intellectual talent. He belonged to the same think tank in Paris that Phan Chu Trinh had joined, and we believe he did the writing for this group; his articles appeared in leftist political journals. He also got in the habit of changing his name more frequently than his address, to keep one step ahead of any authorities he might offend. On the ship that took him away from Vietnam, he used the name Van Ba, and when he first arrived in France, he called himself Nguyen Tat Thanh. During his next few years he wrote under dozens of aliases, until only his friends knew who he was. His favorite pseudonym was Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot, so we will call him Quoc for the next few minutes. One of my sources claims that he used seventy names over the course of his lifetime. Those of you who know the history of communism in other countries will recognize this pattern. In Russia, for example, Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov became Nikolai Lenin, Lev Davidovich Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, and Yosif Djugashvili became Joseph Stalin. Finally in 1943 he took the name Ho Chi Minh, meaning “The Bringer of Light,” and he stuck with it, so we have called him Ho Chi Minh ever since.
While in Paris, Quoc heard about the ideas promoted by US President Woodrow Wilson, to make the world a better place, and that these ideas included self-determination. He did not know that Wilson was also a racist who had endorsed a movie promoting the Ku Klux Klan, had re-segregated the White House, and was only interested in applying self-determination to white European ethnic groups that did not have countries of their own yet. Nevertheless, when the Allies met at Versailles in early 1919 to plan what the world should look like after World War I, Quoc saw a splendid opportunity, because Versailles is only a few miles from Paris. He drafted a petition calling for France to govern Indochina under a constitution, and give everyone equal treatment under the law; his plan was to present this petition to Wilson and the other Allied leaders. He did not mention independence, probably because he knew the French weren’t ready to grant that much yet. You would not have recognized Ho Chi Minh if you saw him at this time; he did not yet have the goatee that appears in all his pictures later on; he was twenty-nine years old, clean-shaven, and he rented a proper coat and a top hat for the meeting. It was a wasted effort; the Allies refused to grant him an audience. Several episodes back, I commented on how the history of Vietnam’s relations with the West is full of misunderstandings and lost opportunities; here is another one. Imagine how different the twentieth century would have been for Vietnam, France and the United States, if the Allied leaders had listened to what Quoc had to say.
A turning point in Quoc’s life came in December 1920, when he attended a socialist conference in the French town of Tours; here he made his first speech that we know of. Because the Bolsheviks had recently installed a Communist government in Russia, many socialists quit their party to form the first Communist Party of France. Quoc went with them, because he had decided by now that communism was the only ideology that was serious about ending colonialism. In 1923 he traveled to Moscow for the first time. Here he met Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, attended the meetings of the Comintern, the organization set up to spread communism beyond Russia, studied at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, and translated the works of Marx and Lenin into Vietnamese. In China, a Chinese Communist Party had been founded in 1920, and soon an alliance was formed between the Communists and the Guomindang. Sun Yat-Sen died in 1925, and Chiang Kai-Shek succeeded him as the Guomindang leader. Nguyen Ai Quoc came to China in the same year, because Stalin sent him to act an interpreter for Mikhail Borodin, the Soviet advisor to Chiang.
This was the age of the warlords in Chinese history, when almost every province in China was ruled by a different warlord, and one province, Sichuan, had seven warlords. Most of the warlords had no ideology besides “Me first!”; about the only factions that had a real ideology were the Guomindang and the Communists. During the struggle, Chiang Kai-Shek would accept help from anyone who would give it; that explains the alliance with the Communists, and the aid from the Soviet Union. But by 1927 Chiang had conquered the southeastern quarter of China, and it looked like he would soon defeat all the warlords, so he turned against Communists, savagely attacking them after he captured Shanghai. Quoc fled back to Moscow, and with nothing better to do, he visited Paris once more. Then he headed back to Southeast Asia, this time to organize communist activities in the region. In Bangkok he disguised himself as a Buddhist monk by shaving his head, and spent 1928 looking for recruits among the Vietnamese who lived in Siam.
Next, Quoc returned to China; in Hong Kong in 1930, he formed the Indochinese Communist Party, or ICP, by bringing together three older communist organizations that had been based in different parts of Vietnam, and did not work together. As you can tell by its name, the Indochinese Communist Party was also the first communist organization to recruit members from Laos and Cambodia. Later in the same year, the new party launched a peasant uprising that set up “Soviet” administrations in two provinces; one of those provinces was Nghe An, Quoc’s birthplace. The French responded brutally, and though the uprising had been launched without Quoc’s approval, the French sentenced him to death in absentia. However, the communists, unlike the previous nationalist groups, were able to recover quickly from their setback. One of the reasons why previous nationalist movements had failed was because they had only tried to recruit the well-educated upper class; most Vietnamese were peasants, and they were ignored. Communists would not make the same mistake.
Nguyen Ai Quoc himself had a close call when he was arrested in Hong Kong, in 1931. He had tuberculosis at the time, so the British put him in a prison hospital. To avoid being handed over to the French, he persuaded a hospital employee to report him dead. His obituary appeared in more than one newspaper, so the French authorities stopped looking for him, closing the file on Nguyen Ai Quoc with a note that said, quote: “Died in a Hong Kong Jail.” End quote. Two years later, the British quietly released him, and he went to Moscow again, where he spent the next few years studying and teaching. Since his visits in the 1920s, his influence had faded, other Vietnamese members of the Comintern criticized him for being a Vietnamese patriot first and a Communist second. Somehow he escaped the purges going on in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, perhaps because Stalin did not even notice him. In 1938 he made another visit to China, where he served as a Soviet advisor to Mao Zedong’s Communist guerrillas at Yan’an.
When Quoc heard about the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, he knew he could finally return there in safety, so in early 1941 he snuck back into Vietnam. Here he turned the Indochinese Communist Party into a guerrilla force to fight both the French and the Japanese, and renamed it the League of the Independence of Vietnam. In Vietnamese the name was Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, and soon this was shortened to Viet Minh, a name you’ll hear again in future episodes about Vietnam. And as we noted already, it was soon after this when Nguyen Ai Quoc changed his name to Ho Chi Minh.
Although Ho Chi Minh was a prolific writer, he never talked or wrote much about himself, nor did he ever tell his life story to a reporter. That is why we don’t know much about him before he became famous, and that is why we did not know his birth name when he was alive. What’s more, he never mentioned taking a wife or raising a family, so it appears that he was a lifelong bachelor. In most of Asia, everyone is expected to marry except monks, so this behavior is highly unusual. His followers like to say that Ho was only married to the revolution and his country. There are rumors that he was briefly married in the 1920s, but I could not verify any of them. And that’s enough about Ho Chi Minh for today.
In southern Vietnam the communists had to contend with a strong Trotskyite faction that called itself La Lutte, meaning “The Struggle” in French. They also had rivals in the form of two new religious sects with political leanings, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, and I will finish today’s episode with a few words about them.
Cao Daism was founded by Ngo Van Chieu, a Vietnamese civil servant with an interest in spiritism. While attending a séance in 1919, he experienced a vision calling him to start a new religion, which he called Cao Dai, meaning “High Palace.” According to him, the Supreme Being, who we call God, spoke to mankind twice in the past, and introduced new creeds each time. The first message created Judaism and Hinduism, which the Cao Dai believe got started around the same date. Likewise, the second message created Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism and Daoism–again all at once.
Podcast footnote: Here I have to disagree with the Cao Daists, because the dates don’t work for the second message. While Laozi, Confucius and Buddha lived in the sixth century B.C., all our ancient sources mentioning Jesus have the founder of Christianity living more than five hundred years later. End footnote.
Back to the narrative. Supposedly God created multiple religions to make them compatible with the world’s different cultures, and the third time God gives mankind a message, the religion created will be understood by everybody, thanks to modern communications. Cao Daism goes on to say that the ideal creed will include the best ideas from older religions, so it carries the idea of syncretism to the limit; it combines Confucian ethics, Daoist occult practices, Buddhist ideas about karma & reincarnation, and the organization of the Catholic Church. The eight saints claimed by the Cao Dai as their own are just as diverse: they are Confucius, Buddha, Pericles, Julius Caesar, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen. The main Cao Dai temple is a technicolor building in Tay Ninh, a town about 60 miles northwest of Saigon; the temple features images of the saints and their symbol of God, an all-seeing eye in a triangle which reminds me of the pyramid on the back of an American dollar bill.
By the way, did you notice Mohammed is not on the list of saints? It may sound politically incorrect to some of you, but the Cao Dai sect takes no teachings or practices from Islam, because they consider Islam too barbaric.
The new creed grew rapidly, claiming 300,000 new followers by 1938. After that its leaders started preaching anti-French and pro-Japanese sermons, and the French acted to keep the sect from spreading out of Cochin China. During World War II the Japanese recruited a Cao Dai army. After the war the army did not disband, and the creed’s followers had grown to one and a half million, making them a force to reckon with.
Hoa Hao is a no-frills Buddhist sect, named after the home village of its founder, Huynh Phu So. It emphasizes home worship by lay people, and argues that money should not be spent on pagodas or elaborate weddings and funerals, if the money could be better used helping the needy. This doctrine has made Hoa Hao very popular among south Vietnamese peasants; today it claims two million followers, and in some parts of the Mekong delta, as much as 90 percent of the local population practice it. The main Hoa Hao symbol is a plain brown flag, a reminder of their teaching that any table with a plain brown cloth on it makes a suitable altar; the shade of brown used does not matter. The only other items used in worship are fresh water, flowers and incense; they don’t see a need for temple bells or gongs. A worshiper away from home will pray facing in the direction of India, west from Vietnam’s point of view. Because the communist government of present-day Vietnam persecutes the Hoa Hao from time to time, many members of the sect have fled abroad, especially to California.
Hoa Hao has a bizarre story to explain its origin. In 1939 Huynh Phu So was a sickly 20-year-old monk, and one stormy night he was miraculously healed. He suddenly started preaching eloquently for hours about the need to reform Buddhism; the witnesses who saw his healing became his first converts. Soon he was known all over south Vietnam as the “crazy bonze” or the “living Buddha,” depending on one’s point of view. His prestige grew tremendously when three of his first prophecies all came true: the fall of France in World War II, the Japanese invasion of Indochina, and that Americans would come to Indochina at a later date. The French put So in a mental hospital, then exiled him to Laos after he converted his psychiatrist. After the Japanese occupied French Indochina, they allowed So to return to Vietnam. By this time he was predicting that the “true king” would return to lead Vietnam to faith and prosperity; his followers thought he was talking about Cuong De, so they became pro-Japanese during the war, and like the Cao Dai sect, they raised a private army.
When World War II ended, Huynh Phu So tried to form a partnership between the Hoa Hao and the Viet Minh, but because communists are atheists, it could not last. He tried to form a political party that was both anti-French and anti-communist, but then in April 1947, while traveling to a meeting that was supposed to end the quarrel with the Viet Minh, he was seized, tried and executed by the communists. Since then the Hoa Hao have avoided talking about this incident; many refused to believe So was dead, and predicted that he would return during a future crisis to save the day. The South Vietnamese government broke the power of the Hoa Hao army in 1956, but both it and the Cao Dai remained important forces in South Vietnamese politics until Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.
That does it for today. Because I have recorded two episodes a month since the podcast’s earliest days, this is the last episode for 2017; you can expect Episode 36 to be ready on or near New Year’s Day in 2018. And with the New Year we will begin telling the story of World War II in and around Southeast Asia; I know you won’t want to miss that.
On a personal note, I started a new job while recording this episode. For most of the time since this podcast was launched, I have been out of work, and made ends meet as an Uber driver. A new job is good news for me, and hopefully I can continue to record new episodes. I don’t want my gain to be your loss. Nor do I plan to disappear from cyberspace, the way Rob Monaco did when real world matters interrupted his “Podcast History of the World.”
The holiday of Hanukkah is also going on as I record and upload this, so Happy Hanukkah to those of you who observe it. And since this is not the only holiday in December, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
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