The Light That Failed 2

The United States ideally preferred Indochina to be a “self-governing nationalist state” uncontaminated by Communism and closely asso¬ciated with the West, “particularly with France.” The French were waging “a desperate and apparently losing struggle” but could not withdraw. Nor could they negotiate with Ho Chi Minh, even though he was “the strongest and perhaps the ablest figure” in the region, and his exclusion from any settlement would be “an expedient of uncertain outcome”—hence the need for “some solution” that would “strike a balance” between Vietnamese aspirations and French inter ests. But the State Department experts had no such formula to pro¬pose. They shelved their Indochina study.
The French, aware of America’s yearning for a truly nationalist Vietnamese regime to rival the Vietminh, reached back to Admiral d’Argenlieu’s notion of a return to a “traditional monarchy”—mean¬ing, of course, Bao Dai. No matter that Bao Dai had abdicated in 1945, thereby transmitting the “mandate of heaven” to Ho. Outfitted in his regal trappings, he would symbolize imperial authority. He was easy to manage. And, most important, he had been touted in a Life magazine article by William Bullitt, a former U.S. envoy to General de Gaulle during World War II, which prompted the French to believe that his investiture would gain American support—and stimulate Washington to give France help in the war.
Bao Dai did indeed have gilt-edged credentials. His ancestor had been Gia Long, the emperor whose cause had been helped by Pigneau de Behaine. He had been crowned at the death of his father in 1925, when he was twelve, and almost immediately sent to Paris, where he lived with the family of a French colonial official, studied music, learned to play tennis and attended a public lycée. Back in Vietnam seven years later, he ascended the throne and tried to govern with a cabinet of nationalists, among them Ngo Dinh Diem. But the French quickly reminded him that they gave the orders, and his brief dream evaporated. He was even tyrannized by his mother, a betel-chewing crone addicted to gambling. Lonely and powerless, he devoted himself to hunting and wenching. The Japanese had tolerated him during their occupation, and his stint as Ho’s “supreme adviser” lasted only a year. In 1946, on the pretext of representing Ho in China, he fled from Hanoi to Hong Kong, where he spent an evening with, of all people, S. J. Perelman:
The pleasure dome where His Majesty frolicked nightly turned out to be a somewhat sedater version of Broadway’s Roseland. . . . Bao Dai was seated in a snug alcove surrounded by several hostesses whose skinny necks and high-pitched avian cackle lent them more than a passing resemblance to a flock of spring fryers. The royal exile, a short, slippery-looking customer rather on the pudgy side and freshly dipped in Crisco, wore a fixed, oily grin that was vaguely reptilian. Since he spoke almost no English, the interview was nec¬essarily limited to pidgin and whatever pathetic scraps of French we could remember from Frazier and Square. To put him at ease, I inquired sociably whether the pen of his uncle was in the garden. Apparently the query was fraught with delicate implications in volving the conflict in Indochina, for he shrugged evasively and buried his nose in his whiskey-and-soda.
After a short cultural exchange on the subject of films, in which Bao Dai revealed that his favorite actress was Jeanette MacDonald, a silky party appeared to clear up what he termed to be several misconceptions about the emperor.
For example, he said, certain elements had been circulating tales that His Highness liked to smoke a little pipe or two. He could brand this as a calumny. His Highness was a serious student of international affairs who kept abreast of all the latest political de¬velopments and was deeply interested in economics, sociology, archeology, paleontology, epistemology, hagiology and dendrol¬ogy. Backbiters were also saying that he went to the movies every afternoon. If he did, it was only in an effort to improve his En¬glish. … At this juncture, a bonecracking yawn contorted the regal lineaments, clearly signifying that the audience was over. We shook hands formally all around . . . grateful that we had had this rare chance to cement international good-fellowship.
Bao Dai might have been a weak, unpredictable, corruptible play¬boy, but he was no fool. When the French sent representatives to Hong Kong in early 1947 to lure him back to the throne, he insisted, as Ho did, that France must first accede to Vietnam’s independence and unity. His stand heartened anti-Communists like Ngo Dinh Diem, who urged him to stick to his position. It also worried Ho, who ordered the murder of two Vietnamese nationalists engaged in pro¬moting a Bao Dai alternative. Ho engaged in a more moderate ma¬neuver as well, reiterating his eagerness to remain within the French Union if only France would recognize a free and unified Vietnam. He even spoke sweetly about Bao Dai, saying that “he may be far from us in distance, but not in our thoughts.” And lastly, he reshuffled his cabinet, confining its Communists to a handful of key posts and de¬moting Giap, whom the French considered too aggressive.
A possible transaction between Ho and Bao Dai alarmed the French. In September 1947, Emile Bollaert, the French high commissioner, offered to dissolve the separatist “Republic of Cochinchina” invented by Admiral d’Argenlieu and foster a “self-governing” Vietnam, with France responsible for its defense and diplomacy. This was essentially a revival of the nineteenth-century protectorate, and Ho called the proposal “too narrow” yet signaled a willingness to bargain. A group of anti-Communist nationalists, some on the French payroll, rushed to Hong Kong and persuaded Bao Dai to talk with Bollaert. They met on December 7, 1947, aboard a French cruiser anchored in the Bay of Along, north of Haiphong, with a spectacular coastline of limestone needles rising from the sea. Bao Dai wanted a firm French pledge of independence, but Bollaert persuaded him to sign a “pro¬tocol” that so hedged the magic word with qualifications as to render it meaningless. Bao Dai had been trapped.

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