One of my main areas of collecting interest focuses on the airborne, commando and unconventional auxiliary units relating to French Indochina. This interest grew out of my first visit to Vietnam in the late 1990’s when I bought a xeroxed copy of Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City. Published in 1955, a year after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the novel explores the breakdown of French colonialism in Vietnam and raises questions about the foundations for the growing American involvement in the country. This is explored through the eyes of a weary British journalist, Thomas Fowler, a naïve young CIA agent named Alden Pyle and Phuong, Fowler’s mistress who becomes the subject of both their attentions.
I think that Greene’s canny observations, based on his experience as a war correspondent in Vietnam, combined with the fact that I was reading the book ‘in-country’ whilst tooling around South Vietnam in a 1964 Ford Galaxy (formerly a USN staff car) with an old army buddy and a couple of Vietnamese friends started to shift my interest away from the ‘American War’ to the French experience in Indochina. In future posts I will share some of my insignia related to this conflict and detail some of the background to the units represented.
Whilst a work of fiction, The Quiet American fleshed out the plot with observations that revealed the reality of the situation and weaved between fact and fiction.
“I began, while he watched me intently like a prize pupil, by explaining the situation in the north, in Tonkin, where the French in those days were hanging on to the delta of the Red River, which contained Hanoi and the only northern port, Haiphong. Here most of the rice was grown, and when harvest was ready the annual battle or the rice always began.
‘That’s the north,’ I said. ‘The French may hold, poor devils, if the Chinese don’t come to help the Vietminh. A war of jungles and mountains and marsh, paddy-fields where you wade shoulder-high and the enemy simply disappear, bury their arms, put on peasant dress. But you can rot comfortably in the damp in Hanoi. They don’t throw bombs there. God knows why. You could call it a regular war.’
‘And here in the south?’
‘The French control the main roads until seven in the evening: they control the watch towers after that, and the towns – part of them. That doesn’t mean you are safe, or there wouldn’t be iron grilles in front of the restaurants.’
How often I had explained all this before. I was a record always turned on for the benefit of newcomers … Sometimes I would wake up in the night saying, ‘Take the case of the Caodaists.’ Or the Hoa-Haos or the Bình Xuyên, all the private armies who sold their services for money or revenge. Strangers found them picturesque, but there is nothing picturesque in treachery and distrust.
‘And now,’ I said, ‘There’s General Thé. He was Caodaist Chief of Staff, but he’s taken to the hills to fight both sides, the French, the Communists…’ (Part 1, Chapter 2, Section 1)
Greene’s description of the situation in Indochina at the time is an accurate summation of how the conflict was fought. In the north, in Tonkin where the Viet Minh were strongest, French forces pursued a fairly conventional military strategy, whilst in the south they adopted a pacification campaign that relied on auxiliaries and ‘private armies’ to help free up much needed man-power for operations elsewhere. This led the French to form uneasy alliances with some interesting bed-fellows, primarily, the ‘Three Sects’, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, none of whose loyalty could never be guaranteed and who exploited the situation to best suit their own interests.
The Cao Đài, a militant politico-religious sect, was the most powerful of these groups which at the time claimed more than two million adherents. Originally a purely religious organisation it evolved as a response to strong Vietnamese nationalism, quickly developing a political orientation and at its peak, before Premier Ngô Đình Diệm brought it to heel in 1955, the Cao Đài boasted an army of more than 20,000 men.
The Cao Đài sect was officially established in Tây Ninh, approximately 90 kilometres northwest of Saigon in 1926. Caodaism is a monotheistic syncretic religion which synthesises Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and spirit worship. Caodaists believe that these religions, which were established in different parts of the world, previously failed to converge due to a lack of communication but does so under Cao Đài (which literally translates as the “Highest Lord” or “Highest Power”) who is the supreme deity.
The spirit of Cao Đài first revealed itself to Ngô Văn Chiêu, the colonial government district administrator of Phú Quốc Island off the coast of Cambodia, during a séance in 1919. Chiêu continued to communicate with Cao Đài in seances held with other civil servants and also a wealthy businessman named Lê Văn Trung, who was directed by the spirit to join Chiêu in leading the Cao Đài movement. Chiêu opted to abstain from proselytism and relinquished his leadership to Trung in April 1926. On October 7, 28 Cao Đài leaders and 247 adherents sought official recognition of Cao Đàism as a religion, which was granted in November and by that stage had already attracted over 20,000 followers. In March 1927, the Holy See or Holy Seat of the faith was established in the village of Long Thành near the town of Tây Ninh in Tây Ninh Province. Whilst the political and military activities of the Cao Đài have been suppressed, Tây Ninh is still the centre of its religious practices which are tolerated by the current government.
In 1934 at the time of Lê Văn Trung’s death, the Cao Đài numbered over 300 000 adherents, controlled over 128 chapels and were particularly strong in Mỹ Tho, Chợ Lớn, Gia Định and Bến Tre. Its growth can be attributed to two factors, the form of the cult was not contrary to the main religions already practiced by the Vietnamese and its spiritualistic nature held great appeal for a peasant population with a proclivity for the supernatural.
Trung’s successor as Hộ Pháp (“Defender of Doctrine” or commonly referred to as the ‘Pope’) was Phạm Công Tắc. He was aware of the increasing discontent with the French and joining the growing number of clandestine nationalist groups began to steer the Cao Đài away from its primarily religious nature, towards more political aims. Under Tắc’s leadership the sect entered into secret negotiations regarding the liberation of Vietnam with the Japanese and at the outbreak of World War Two, became more overt in its anti-French stance. This eventually resulted in the French governor of Cochin China, exiling Tắc and his lieutenants to Madagascar (where they remained until the end of the war), closing most of the chapels and in September 1941, having French troops occupy Tây Ninh.
In 1943, with the help of the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police), the Cao Đài under the leadership of Trần Quang Vinh prepared for direct action against the French. Armed by the Japanese, Vinh formed clandestine paramilitary groups estimated at around 3000 men. With Japanese support they fought the French and helped the Japanese take over Indochina in March 1945. They openly supported the Japanese regime, assisting with policing the countryside until the Japanese capitulated in August 1945. The Cao Đài then joined forces with other nationalist groups to form the United National Front to take over administrative control of the region. Plagued with factionalism, the United National Front was unable to exercise effective control. Taking advantage of the situation, the communist Viet Minh were able to convince the front to gather in an alliance under their leadership, but once again internal rivalries and at times, open warfare, undermined the nationalist aspirations and the French, with British support, were able to reoccupy Saigon.
Meanwhile, the Viet Minh attempted to wrest control of the Cao Đài militia which created further problems for the Cao Đài, with Trần Quang Vinh being detained and conflict between the two parties ensuing. In Vinh’s absence, the militia was reorganised and eventually agreed to fight alongside the Viet Minh against the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient – CEFEO).
In November 1945, French military forces marched on Tây Ninh and accepted the surrender of the Cao Đài followers there. Trần Quang Vinh, who had managed to escape from the Viet Minh negotiated a truce with the French in June 1946 As a result, Nguyen Thành Phương, who led one of the Cao Đài militia’s in Vinh’s absence, brought his 1000 strong force of troops to Tây Ninh to be reviewed by Vinh and the French High Command. However, two other Cao Đài militias, under the leadership of Duong Van Dang and Nguyễn Văn Thành, refused to participate, opting instead to seek refuge in the Ba Den Mountain. The deal between the Cao Đài and the French permitted them to maintain a militia, now officially part of the French Forces Supplétifs. of 1470 partisans including 12 Brigades of 60 men each and garrison troops in 16 posts around Tây Ninh province. It should be noted that the Cao Đài ignored the agreement and soon created new formations such as a ‘Papal Guard’, ‘Shock Battalion’ and other unofficial units, supposedly, for the defence of the scattered Cao Đài communities in the region.
With the Cao Đài, nominally, back on side with the French, the authorities allowed Phạm Công Tắc to return from exile and a peace deal was agreed to in August, with Tắc proclaiming the need for a French presence and the reestablishment of public order. But when fighting broke out between the Viet Minh and the French in December 1946, Tắc remained neutral, until the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh and in January 1947, he sought French protection.
French military aid was conditional upon the Cao Đài pacifying the countryside. With the exception of members loyal to Trinh Minh Thé, a fanatical nationalist (who, later, in 1951 would organise his own guerrilla unit, the Liên Minh, to fight both the French and Viet Minh), the sect’s militia inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Minh for the next twelve months. This led the French High Command to send Cao Đài troops throughout Cochinchina, a move encouraged by the Cao Đài leadership as it allowed them to spread their influence and gain converts. The population was presented with a simple ultimatum, the protection of the Cao Đài militias would only be given to members of the Cao Đài sect.
In March 1949 Vietnam, under the leadership of Emporer Bảo Đại, was granted self-government within the French Union. On 6 May 1950, the Cao Đài formally pledged allegiance to the government and as a sign of good will allowed a Cao Đài battalion to be integrated into the Vietnamese National Army. But at the same time, they resumed their private territorial war with another sect, the Hòa Hảo, an action that greatly weakened the nationalist movement. The allegiance of all three sects, the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and Bình Xuyên, to Bảo Đại and the French was always opportunistic, with self-interest overriding any loyalty that they professed.
However, despite exercising an almost feudal control over most of Cochin China, none of the sects were totally unsupervised. The French Inspectorat General des Forces Suppletives, co-ordinated the military activities of all three sects, garrisoning French liaison officers and training staff with all the sect units, operating in much the same way as American, Kiwi and Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) advisors did in the 1960’s and 70’s.
For the Cao Đài this training included developing their own officer’s school which ran a five-month long course training promising candidates the rudiments of modern warfare. However, the tactical value of the Cao Đài troops was limited as the sect was more concerned with increasing its own power base and considered its troops too valuable to lose in military operations against the Viet Minh. For the French advisor and liaison officers attached to the Cao Đài units, their job was just as hazardous as their successors in the Second Indochina War, particularly with some of the smaller and less well organised groups whose ‘war effort’ was little more than banditry. In many cases the units massacred their French cadres, fought over supplies or with other groups for control of territory.
These factors may have influenced the French decision to refuse a request to arm and train three full Cao Đài divisions, numbering some 45,000 men, plus grant the Cao Đài three cabinet seats. This prompted Cao Đài general Nguyễn Văn Thành to issue a secret order cease all offensive action other than self-defence against the Viet Minh. Taking advantage of the situation, the Viet Minh attacked Tây Ninh causing Thành to reverse his decision. Eventually the French and Vietnamese Government, in view of the deteriorating situation, also acquiesced to the Cao Đài, arming additional troops and granting cabinet positions to some of the sect’s leaders.
In 1953, Tắc, sensing the changing winds begins to distance the Cao Đài from the French and Premier Nguyễn Văn Tâm’s government. Hedging their bets, they push for both independence and a close association with the France, throwing their support behind Bảo Đại at the Nationalist Congress of October 1953.
On April 9th, 1954, Phạm Công Tắc declared his unquestioning support for Bảo Đại and “for liberation of the Vietnamese people from the communist yoke…” But when this promise was tested three days later after the government decided to integrate the sects into the Vietnamese National Army. Cao Đài commander, Nguyễn Thẩm Phương, resisted, resulting in the order not being complied with until the following year.
The signing of the Geneva Accords in July 1954 and the French withdrawal of financial support for the sects in January 1955 signalled the end of Cao Đài influence during this period. The new regime under Ngô Đình Diệm, a staunch Catholic who perceived the sects as a threat, now controlled the US subsidies that financed them. The Cao Đài, along with the Bình Xuyên and Hòa Hảo now faced a loss of their autonomy, privileges plus incorporation of their forces into the National Army. On February 13, 1955, Cao Đài commander Trình Minh Thế, newly promoted to the rank of General in the Vietnamese Army, marched into Saigon at the head of his 5,000 black uniformed, Liên Minh troops. Later on 31 March, 15,000 Cao Đài troops under the command of Nguyen Thành Phoung were integrated into the Vietnamese National Army.
Meanwhile the countryside in the southwest was drifting into anarchy as bands of Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài fought for control of territories that were largely devoid of any administrative authority. In an attempt to regain control of the situation, Bảo Đại sent his cousin, Prince Vĩnh Cảnh to urge the sects to unify. This resulted in a non-aggression pact between the two and along with the Bình Xuyên, the formation of a “United Front of National Forces” designed to “protect the country and serve the people.”
On 21 March, 1955, the Front sent an ultimatum to Diệm, giving him five days to form a government of national union. General Thé changed his position from supporting Diệm to the Front, but then, after a substantial bribe, back to Diệm who had refused the Fronts demands. Factional disputes were also undermining the Front and sensing the changing political atmosphere, the Cao Đài commanders plus some of the Hòa Hảo sects retired from the impending conflict. Cao Đài General Nguyen Thành Phoung then defected to Diệm with his 20,000 troops after receiving a US$3.6 million bribe and monthly payments for his soldiers. It should be noted though that the Cao Đài leader, Phạm Công Tắc, did not support Phương’s defection and remained part of the Front. But the defections left the Bình Xuyên mostly alone to confront the National Army when fighting broke out on the night of 29/30 March.
In the turmoil that followed, Diệm was able to use the National Army to bring the Bình Xuyên and the few remaining Hòa Hảo into line. On 3 May 1955, while standing near his military jeep, General Trình Minh Thế was shot in the back of the head by a sniper. The murder was unsolved, with some blaming the French who had vowed to kill Thế due to his implication in a series of bombings between 1951-53 and alleged involvement in the assassination of French General Chanson, the Commander of the French-Indo-Chinese forces in South Viet Nam, who was killed by a Caodaist suicide bomber in 1951. Others blamed the South Vietnamese government who saw him as a threat and possible replacement for Diệm.
In October 1955 the Cao Đài autonomy and political influence were further suppressed when General Phương disarmed the 300 strong ‘Papal Guard’ and deposed Tắc as Hộ Pháp. In February 1956, as government troops were preparing to occupy the Holy See in Tây Ninh, Tắc fled to Cambodia where he died in exile in 1959. As Cao Đài influence declined, so did their military capacity. In 1954 the Caodaists in Tây Ninh had up to 25,000 troops, but by early 1956 only 1000 remained. In June 1956 the remaining Liên Minh who were not integrated into the army and numbering around 700 men, fled to Cambodia. By 1958 only minor clandestine operations were being carried out against the Diem regime by a small number of fighters. For now, the power of the Cao Đài had been broken.
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