Bao Dai (1913-1997) was the last emperor of Vietnam. Opportunism, absence of a nationalist outlook, and lack of concern for social reform contributed to his political eclipse as a result of the 1955 referendum.
The son of Khai Dinah, who became emperor in 1916, Bao Dai was born in the protectorate of Annam, part of French-governed Indochina, on Oct. 22, 1913. At the age of 9 he was sent to school in France, where he later continued his primary education at the école des Sciences Politiques in Paris.
Named thirteenth emperor of Annam in 1926 upon his father's death, Bao Dai did not then ascend the throne because of his age and instead went back to Paris to continue his studies. He returned from France in September 1932 to be enthroned at the age of 19.
Bao Dai was subservient to the French during the pre-World War II years, developing in the same period a deserved reputation as a playboy. In 1933 he appointed Ngo Dinh Diem, later to be South Vietnam's first premier and president, the minister of interior in his government, but encouraged by the French, failed to cooperate when Diem proposed various reforms. Bao Dai's unsympathetic attitude and his subsequent canceling of various of Diem's awards and decorations encouraged a strong personal enmity between the two men.
Continuing on the throne during the wartime Japanese occupation, Bao Dai abdicated as emperor in 1945 under Communist pressure in favor of Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam. He was named supreme councilor by Ho but fled to luxurious retirement in Hong Kong in 1946. During the next 3 years he divided his time between Hong Kong and the French Riviera, adding to his already considerable reputation for self-indulgence.
In an attempt to undercut the appeal of Ho by exploiting the traditional office of emperor while retaining real power, France in 1949 encouraged Bao Dai to quit his comfortable retirement and to become head of state of the less than fully independent nation of Vietnam. The Bao Dai regime was quickly recognized by the United States, Britain, and various other Western states—primarily as a means of checkmating the Communists. Their actions, however, merely moved the Soviet Union and China to recognize Ho's Democratic Republic.
Much against Bao Dai's wishes, the French, encouraged by the United States, asked Diem to become premier after the 1954 fall of Dien Bien Phu. When a separate South Vietnam came into being in July 1954 as part of the Geneva settlement, Diem was its political leader with Bao Dai its figurehead ceremonial chief. In a referendum in 1955, in which Bao Dai did not take part, Diem won endorsement for his plan to make South Vietnam a republic with himself as president (and Bao Dai once again a private citizen).
During the campaigning Bao Dai stayed in southern France, where he subsequently remained. In 1980 he published an historical memoir in French under the title Le Dragon d'Annam (The Dragon of Vietnam). A Vietnamese version of the book, Con Rong Viet Nam, was published in California in 1990. "The dragon" here is a Vietnamese idiom referring to the emperor, Bao Dai.
Meanwhile in Vietnam, the government initiated a project to rebuild the old capitol city of Hue and to restore the imperial palace of the Nguyen Dynasty to its original splendor. Bao Dai died in Paris, at the age of 83, on July 31, 1997.
Ellen J. Hammer, The Struggle for Indochina (1954; rev. ed. 1966), is a contemporary and scholarly account of the early 1950s and offers one of the best views of French policy, and Bao Dai's role in it, during these years. Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution (1955; rev. ed. 1966), also offers an excellent treatment of the Bao Dai-French relationship and the subsequent clash between the former emperor and Ngo Dinh Diem. A background book of outstanding quality is Bernard Fall, The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis (1963; 2d ed. 1967). □