From the early sixteenth century on, Vietnam tumbled into turmoil as competing families waged arcane power struggles that make the rivalries of Renaissance Italy seem simple by comparison. One clan, the Mac, defied the reigning Le dynasty, thereby antagonizing the Trinh faction, which aspired to the throne. After subduing the Mac forces, the Trinh effectively governed the north through figurehead Le emperors. But Trinh in-laws, the Nguyen, broke away to set up their own realm in central Vietnam, and they pushed farther south to seize the fertile Mekong Delta, until then under feeble Cambodian control.
Civil unrest continued in Vietnam for two centuries, as the Trinh and the Nguyen fought each other. Just as the Geneva accords of 1954 divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, so the earlier rivals even¬tually agreed to a partition along roughly the same line. They also conceded to an expedient truce, each hoping to fight again once it had regained strength. The Nguyen leader of the late eighteenth century, Nguyen Anh, turned to France to bolster his cause. His appeal, carried to Versailles by Pigneau de Behaine, set the scene for French inter¬vention.
Over the centuries, consequently, Vietnam’s attempts to attain po¬litical cohesion were repeatedly thwarted by centrifugal forces, and the pattern persisted into modern times. The war between North and South Vietnam after 1954 largely expressed ancient regional animos¬ities only newly overlaid with an ideological veneer. And the same tensions continued after 1975 as southern Communists balked at dom¬ination by their northern comrades. Equally inimical to Vietnam’s unity was the traditional autonomy of its rural communities. Peasants symbolically revered the throne as the divine link between heaven and earth, but they were ruled in practice by their own councils of local dignitaries, selected for their age, education, wealth, and family status. “The edicts of the emperor,” went the old Vietnamese adage, “stop at the edge of the village.” A sense of Vietnamese national identity nevertheless grew in reaction to foreign intervention—crystallizing during the long resistance against the Chinese. It confronted the French from their first intrusions into Vietnam.
The Vietnamese emperors were too weak to check the French militarily or diplomatically. Assorted armed groups emerged during the nineteenth century, some encouraged by the imperial court, others fighting on their own. They inflicted a heavy toll on the French, yet they failed for lack of a nationwide organization. Even so, the repres¬sion of each revolt inspired later uprisings, sowing the seeds of future resistance. General Joseph Gallieni, the great French colonial officer and a hero of World War I, perceived this reality while serving in Vietnam in the late nineteenth century: “A country is not conquered and pacified by crushing its people through terror. After overcoming their initial fear, the masses grow increasingly rebellious, their accu¬mulated bitterness steadily rising in reaction to the brutal use of force. ” Vietnamese partisans appeared as early as 1859, when the French captured Saigon, and insurgent movements spread through Co- chinchina soon afterward. Buddhist monks led several of these fac¬tions. The early guerrillas, elusive and resilient, carved out sanctuaries in such inaccessible zones as the Plain of Reeds, a swampy zone north of Saigon, and the Camau peninsula, an area of marshes located in the southwestern corner of the Mekong Delta. They nagged French soldiers then just as the Vietminh and Vietcong would frustrate the French and Americans a century later. Admiral Bonard, the French commander in Cochinchina, issued a report at the end of 1862 that could have been duplicated in 1962: “We have had enormous diffi¬culties in enforcing our authority. . . . Rebel bands disturb the coun¬try everywhere. They appear from nowhere in large numbers, destroy everything and then disappear into nowhere.”
In 1862, after the emperor Tu Duc reluctantly ceded to France the three provinces adjacent to Saigon, regional dignitaries continued to harass the French despite the ruler’s decision. One of them, Truong Cong Dinh, the son of a military mandarin from central Vietnam mobilized his own peasant units, armed them with spears and swords and told Tu Due that “we are determined to disobey your orders as long as you speak of peace and surrender.”
Betrayed and killed a year later, Truong Cong Dinh was succeeded by his twenty-year-old son, who himself soon met death when he tried to expand his father’s movement through alliances with other partisan groups. His comrades in that venture included a poet, Nguyen Huu Huan, who was later captured and executed by the French; his verses typified the burgeoning nationalistic sentiment of the period:
The more I sense my duty the more I feel
On my shoulders its infinite weight.
A man worthy of the name must blush
If he cannot pay the debt with his life.
Only in the summer of 1885 did the sporadic and disjointed Viet¬namese opposition gain broader legitimacy when Ham Nghi, the thirteen-year-old emperor, joined the resistance. His movement col-lapsed within three years, but his defiance assumed legendary pro¬portions.
The mastermind behind his insurrection was a passionate nationalist, Ton That Thuyet, a scion of the royal family. After 1883, when the French forced a “protectorate” on Vietnam, he smuggled arms, am¬munition, food and money to a secret base north of Hue, the imperial capital. He also disposed of three earlier emperors whose submis¬siveness to the French exasperated him. When the French imposed their demands at Hue in July 1885, he provoked them into an attack. They pillaged the city and palace, and he fled to his sanctuary with Ham Nghi, whom the French promptly replaced by a pliant elder brother.
Ton That Thuyet escaped to China, ostensibly to seek aid, while Ham Nghi took refuge in a Hmong village near the Laotian border. The French, who had set the mountain tribes against lowland Viet-namese, bribed the Hmong village chief with money, opium and a military title to betray the fugitive emperor. They captured him in late 1888, exiled him to Algeria and executed all of his followers except the two sons of Ton That Thuyet—one of whom died defending his monarch. The other strangled himself to death out of shame.