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Emperor Bao Dai: Role & Influence on Vietnam

Emperor Bao Dai: Role & Influence on Vietnam
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  • 0:03 Life as a Figurehead
  • 0:26 The Last Emperor
  • 1:21 Foreign Puppet
  • 2:23 Exile and Return
  • 4:17 Ngo Dinh Diem
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll consider what it meant to be emperor of Vietnam during the 1940s and 1950s. Consider the limitations of Bao Dai's role and why he lived his life primarily outside of Vietnam.

Life as a Figurehead

Would you like to be emperor? Sounds like a lot of power in your hands, right? What if being emperor really meant that you were given the role of figurehead, or a leader without real power, who must represent the views of others and not your own? This lesson explores Emperor Bao Dai and his role as a figurehead in Vietnamese history.

The Last Emperor

Bao Dai, born Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy, was the last emperor of Vietnam. He was only 12 years old in 1926 when he was officially given the title of emperor of what was then called Annam, now the central region of Vietnam. At the time, the region was considered a French protectorate, meaning that the France both protected and controlled the region. Since Bao Dai was too young to take the throne officially, he returned to France to finish his education.

When he turned 19, Bao Dai ascended to the throne and brought with him some ideas for reform and modernization. He sought to change some of the traditions surrounding his role of emperor that did not make sense to him. For instance, he no longer wished for those interacting with him to bow down and touch their heads to the ground in an act of extreme respect. He also had ideas on reforms for the country's schools and judicial system.

Foreign Puppet

However, Bao Dai did not have primary power to make sweeping changes or set the country on a new path. His role was actually that of a French vassal, one who is obligated to another power. French authorities had the final say on government issues, not him. He could be exiled if he did not cooperate.

Having little ability to impact politics in a real way, Bao Dai thoroughly enjoyed his own private leisure time, sometimes spending long stretches of time outside of Vietnam.

When Japan occupied Vietnam during World War II, they kept Bao Dai on board as a symbolic figurehead much as the French had done. At the direction of the Japanese, Bao Dai declared independence from the French, but the reality in his country was not in line with this declaration. Vietnam was now under the control of the Japanese instead of the French. A tool to help keep a sense of continuity, Bao Dai, once again, was given a role described as a foreign puppet, with others pulling the strings and dictating what he could say and do.

Exile and Return

In 1945, when Japan surrendered following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese were forced to leave Vietnam. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who had gained support over time for the cause of nationalism, declared the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Bao Dai abdicated his throne, signaling to the Vietnamese people that their independence was now in the hands of Ho. When Bao Dai's new role as an adviser among the revolutionaries didn't pan out, he lived in exile in China and Hong Kong.

The French viewed Ho as a threat to their control over the region. Many Western powers, including the United States, were also worried about the role that communism was playing in the world, a sentiment that intensified with time. Although Ho's Viet Minh forces were not all communist, there was no question that Ho and many of his supporters were aligned with the ideas shaping communist China. Ho's success would mean yet another country in the world would follow the ideology that many Western powers distrusted and feared.

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