b. October 22, 1913 - d. July 31, 1997
Emperor, Vietnam and South Vietnam, 1926-1954
Vietnam's last emperor ascended to the throne in 1932 and cooperated with the Japanese occupying Vietnam during World War II. After the war, he briefly joined ranks with Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, only to flee into exile in Hong Kong and France from 1949-1955. He returned to Vietnam to rule under French control until he was ousted by Diem in a rigged election in 1954.
Born Prince Nguyen Vinh Thuy on Oct. 22, 1913, he was the son of Emperor Khai Din and was given the imperial name Bao Dai (“Keeper of Greatness) on his succession as emperor in 1926 at age 12. With France the colonial ruler, he was sovereign in little more than title, and the French appointed a regent to manage the court's activities while Bao Dai completed his education in Paris. He returned home to the imperial city of Hue in 1932, assuming the ceremonial duties of the 13th emperor of the Nguyen dynasty.
Despite the limitations of his authority, Bao Dai championed reforms in the judicial and educational systems, and he attempted to put an end to the more outdated trappings of Vietnamese royalty. He ended the ancient mandarin custom that once required aides to touch their foreheads to the ground when addressing the emperor. But he became far better known for his leisure activities. He established an early reputation as an adventurer and playboy, devoting weeks at a time to hunting expeditions in the Vietnamese rain forests.
Despite the hopes of Vietnamese nationalists early in the century that Bao Dai might emerge as a pioneer of Vietnamese independence, he was often seen as the puppet of others -- first, the French colonialists, then the Japanese occupiers of World War II, then the communist movement led by Ho Chi Minh, then the French again.
He displayed no similar courage in dealing with the Japanese when they swept across Southeast Asia and occupied Vietnam during World War II. Bao Dai was allowed to retain his throne in hopes that his presence would demonstrate continuity and quiet the population. With defeat looming in March 1945, the Japanese declared Vietnam an independent country under Bao Dai.
When Japan surrendered, the Vietnamese communists under Ho Chi Minh declared themselves to be Vietnam's new rulers and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Bao Dai, whose government was tainted by its collaboration with the Japanese, agreed to abdicate in exchange for an appointment as "supreme adviser" to Ho Chi Minh.
It soon became clear, however, that the communists had no intention of sharing any power with the former emperor. And with France attempting to reassert its colonial claim to northern and central Vietnam by force, Bao Dai left for exile in Hong Kong and China.
In 1949 he was coaxed home by the French, who saw him as a possible alterative to Ho Chi Minh, whose guerrillas were then at war with the French colonial army.
Bao Dai returned to Vietnam with the titles of premier and -- again -- emperor. His government was recognized by the United States and Britain in 1950, but it never won widespread popular support.
As before, Bao Dai seemed to take less interest in governing Vietnam than in perfecting a lavish life style. He left major decisions to his French-backed advisers, preferring instead to spend his time with his many mistresses at his hunting lodge in the cool highlands of central Vietnam.
When the 1954 peace accord between the French and the communists resulted in the division of Vietnam into North and South, Bao Dai and his advisers tried to assume true power in South Vietnam.
But he was thwarted by the U.S.-backed premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, who organized a referendum in 1955 that deposed Bao Dai and ended the monarchy. Bao Dai subsequently lived in exile, primarily in France. He played almost no role in his homeland thereafter.