COMPARED WITH FRANCE’S PROLONGED MILITARY CAMPAIGNS TO seize control of Cochinchina (1859–67) and Tonkin (1873, 1883–86), the conquest of the central coast was relatively quick and mostly achieved at the negotiating table. This was due in part to the fact that France had already overcome royal troops in the north and south and, as in the past, Sài Gòn provided much-needed rice to the center and north. Like the Tây Sơn army before them, they invaded a weakened, food-starved region in 1883 that offered little resistance; however, the colonial conquerors inherited the same challenge as their predecessors. A force of about one thousand French marines (including several hundred Vietnamese from Cochinchina) landed at Thuận An Beach on August 20, 1883, and obliterated the royal fort, killing an estimated 2,500 royal troops. Aided with ironclads, electric searchlights, and Hotchkiss revolving canons, the French fleet blasted its way up the Perfume River to Huế. It made such a show of force at the coast that the royal government, already in disarray with the death of Emperor Tự Đức a month earlier, immediately agreed to a treaty.1 It ceded all of its forts to France and agreed to call back thousands of troops fighting in the far north of Tonkin near China’s Yunnan Province. French forces continued mopping up this northern resistance for the next year before forcing a revised treaty on the Nguyễn government in June 1884. This new treaty, ratified by France and the Nguyễn dynasty, cut all ties between Vietnam and China and established French protectorates over northern and central Vietnam. A French high resident was established at Huế with the responsibility of conducting most essential affairs for the protectorate of Annam: collection of taxes, adjudicating civil and criminal disputes, and coordinating national defense.2 (See figure 2.1.)
In a manner in keeping with the 1884 Berlin Conference in which Europeans carved up African lands, French officials drew up boundaries for the protectorate of Annam that bore little relation to conditions on the ground. Annam’s northern boundary reached far beyond the natural boundary at Ngang Pass, and its western boundary arced far inland to include remote peaks that had first appeared in Vietnamese atlases only a decade earlier. On the south, it encompassed all of the war-torn former Cham coastline and almost touched Sài Gòn. From a terrain-based point of view, this new state presented the most impossible of territories for any government to manage. The royal road running along the coast was broken in many sections, and there were few roads other than dirt tracks running west into the mountainous interior.
The tiny detachment of French troops and officials posted in Huế and Annam’s ports soon realized that this sprawling area was a natural base for insurgency. One year after the treaty was signed and a new king was crowned in July 1885, Emperor Hàm Nghi and a group of advisers ambushed a French delegation. The delegation survived and upon returning to its camp ordered a naval barrage on the palace and surrounding neighborhoods. The king and his supporters fled to the mountains and proclaimed a “Save the King” (cần vương) resistance movement. Largely a guerilla movement with secret bases in the mountains communicating from north to south, it drew considerable support from former officials and scholars in many towns on the coast. However, lacking detachments of French troops to attack, the movement’s partisans took out their anger on the region’s Vietnamese Christian communities, slaughtering over forty thousand.3 French troops soon reached the central coast, and after a year of fighting to regain the coastal ports, they fought a decisive battle with Nguyễn loyalists at a village near Ngang Pass, Ba Đình. The siege of Ba Đình lasted over two months as over three thousand French troops with artillery pounded encampments of roughly three thousand loyalist forces. In 1887 France enlisted former royal officials such as Hoàng Cao Khải, a former viceroy of Tonkin, to help put down the rebels. The French relied on Mường highlanders, too, who turned over the rebel king.4
This violent, rude awakening to the challenges of governing the central coast in many respects tempered French colonial ambitions in the area through the duration of their rule to 1945. The comparatively tiny French population that settled in Annam was almost wholly concentrated within protected coastal ports at Vinh, Huế, Đà Nẵng, Quy Nhơn, and Phan Thiết. French shipping, the coastal highway, and later a railroad preserved their security within the same ancient strip that had protected the domains of the Nguyễn lords. As the 1885 rebellion showed, the majority of Annam’s area, its forested highlands and deforested hills, presented a threat to French rule with its inaccessible terrain limiting access from the coast.
Throughout the colonial period to 1945, this militarily weak position and the potential for uprisings in the hills shadowed colonial projects while invigorating would-be nationalists. Military conflicts were extremely few on the central coast before a communist-led uprising in Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh Provinces broke out in 1930 near the ruins of the 1887 Ba Đình siege. The majority of conflicts on the central coast were internal security or police actions. While minimally violent, some of these actions were nonetheless pivotal. One small action in Huế in 1908 concerned a young man from Nghệ An, Nguyễn Sinh Cung, who attended Annam’s prestigious high school for the children of French colonials and indigenous elites, Quốc Học (National Academy).5 He ran afoul of security police in Huế while interpreting for farmers in a tax protest and eventually fled town and then Indochina before returning three decades later to the Chinese-Vietnamese border as Hồ Chí Minh. Many would-be political and military leaders came from similar experiences on the central coast.
While the central coast was not host to major military encampments during the colonial era, military processes nevertheless played a formative role in shaping the speculative spaces of colonial development and Vietnamese nationalism. With the arrival of surplus airplanes and aerial cameras after World War I, these leftovers from the Great War radically changed views of Annam, particularly its wasted hills and mountain forests. As photographic sources spread through postcards and books, reform-minded colonials in Huế, especially foresters, considered the economic and political costs of colonial clear cuts and these vistas of eroded hills. The spread of newspapers and the quốc ngữ (romanized) alphabet in Annam connected Vietnamese audiences with far-off events while textbooks from the 1930s put the old villages of the Inner Road and the hills in new aerial perspectives. The world’s conflicts came crashing back to Annam when Japanese planes, ships, and troops arrived in 1941, and new levels of aerial military destruction returned when the US Army Air Force commenced bombing the coast in 1943.
The relatively nonviolent early 1900s in Annam were nonetheless still influenced by military concerns in the colony and militarism globally. Especially during the interwar period (1918–40), colonial leaders struggled with the political and environmental challenges posed by Annam’s degraded lands while Vietnamese nationalists drew upon newspapers and such new technologies as radio and aerial imagery to imagine new postcolonial futures. This chapter explores the more latent ways that the postconquest colonial military figured into land politics, and it considers how colonial reformers and nationalists drew on post–World War I military technologies to forge new perspectives on interconnected political and environmental problems with troubled lands.
MILITARY MANEUVERS IN THE HILLS
After years of fighting uprisings in the 1880s and losing massive sums of money on the colonial venture in Indochina, the tactically savvy governor general Paul Doumer in Hà Nội made a decisive move with respect to the central coast. In 1897 he signed an agreement with the Nguyễn emperor that placed all public lands, from the centuries-old public fields to the hilly commons and the highland valleys, under the colony’s control. It was a historic moment not because it finally helped the colonial government realize its dreams of terraforming empty slopes into plantations but because it made the problems of these areas, especially their poverty, the business of the French. Doumer recognized the precarious military and economic position for France in this narrow strip of ports and urban quarters around the former imperial capital. The Treaty of Huế in 1884 had protected the monarchy’s ability to obtain funds from private fields (tư điền), and although it dispossessed the crown of claims to public fields and unincorporated lands, it did not permit the French colonial government to exploit these lands. The treaty limited European businesses to the confines of urban quarters, mainly in Huế and Tourane (Đà Nẵng), and it required sales of public lands to follow Vietnamese customary laws.6 Only indigenous subjects could buy, sell, and develop these areas. This stipulation was born out of the practical need in 1884 to avoid widening anticolonial sentiment in Annam by preventing what Detreuil du Rhins had imagined: white Europeans running plantations above the old villages. In neighboring Cochinchina, French land auctions and concessions had resulted in sweeping dispossessions as over 3.2 million hectares of land moved into the hands of French nationals by 1902. This did not happen in Huế.7
Doumer attempted to remove this legal barrier in 1897 as a response to the costly military campaigns to put down the Save the King rebellion. He signed with Emperor Thành Thái in Huế a decree placing all of Indochina’s public lands under colonial law and at the colonial government’s disposal. Considering the size of Annam’s uncharted forests and the majority of lowland fields classified as public lands in the past, it was an unprecedented land grab. It permitted the Résident Supérieur of Annam (RSA) to manage the economic and civil affairs of this territory stretching from the edges of ancient villages to unexplored, unmapped highland valleys. Even private land sales, while still taking place between Vietnamese owners, would now be governed by French law and subject to colonial taxes.8 Doumer, famous for consolidating military and political control over Indochina, cut off one of the last main sources of revenue to the royal government. He noted the achievement in a 1902 memoir: “The King abandoned in favor of the Governor General of Indo-China his prerogative to dispose of assets not already allocated to public service, and as a consequence to concede vacant lands without masters. This provided the means for colons to settle in Annam, and we know they will make good use of it.”9 Doumer thus completed the necessary paperwork to open Annam to the full brunt of capitalist enterprises.
There were two problems with this picture, however. First, many of these lands were not—even after the decree—empty of claims, and second, most of the region’s eroded slopes did not lend themselves to cash crops. This difficult terrain did not welcome French settlers, and the few who settled in Annam tended to cluster in the ports. A population estimate for all of Annam in 1913 listed just 1,676 French nationals with most living in Huế and Đà Nẵng. The Vietnamese population topped 4.5 million, and highland groups and other Asian groups numbered half a million.10 Of the land concessions that the RSA did award, many remained “unimproved” and therefore fell back into government hands.
Villagers used what legal claims they could to stymie colonial enterprises, especially in traditional hillly domains. In the hills above Dạ Lê Village in 1900, the RSA awarded one of the first concessions, a 125-hectare tract, to one of its most famous Vietnamese collaborators. Hoàng Cao Khải led the Nguyễn defense of Hà Nội against French attacks in 1883. After defeat, he joined the French and in the next few years helped French troops put down the Save the King insurrection. With the rebellion and its leaders defeated and a collaborationist emperor seated in Huế in 1897, he returned as an adviser to the emperor, steering him into the agreement with Doumer. The RSA awarded Khải a relatively large estate for a Vietnamese national, a sign of his service to the French and also something of an experiment, since few French settlers expressed interest. Khải agreed to improve the property (planting crops) and after five years to start paying taxes on the improved lands.11
In the fine print, however, the agreement recognized prior villager and government claims to the land which eventually drove Khải away. The contract required the aging noble to permit villagers access to ancestor tombs during all holidays and death anniversaries, and it reserved the colonial military’s access to an “artillery polygon” and firing range.12 Figure 2.2, an overlay of the land parcel with a 1909 topographic map of the village, provides additional clues as to why Khải may not have kept to the agreement. In one portion, villagers had already established fields and homes, likely in former public fields. Seizing this land would have engendered personal hostilities as well as problems with village authorities. Khải did not challenge the stipulations or even take the parcel. Instead, he returned north to Tonkin and accepted the position of district chief (tổng đốc) in Hà Đông. The plot, like most of Annan, remained “abandoned” but in public hands.13
While French expeditionary forces had mostly left Indochina by 1897, such sites as the firing range (champ de tir) remained important to the RSA as a symbol of French military hegemony, with hilltop artillery batteries capable of leveling villages below. During the surge in military operations to 1891, the hills around the former capital hosted camps and training grounds for the French Expeditionary Corps. It used sites like this to train an indigenous army of some thirty thousand tirailleurs (light infantry) to mop up resistance across the region.14 Even after the soldiers decamped, many old training grounds continued to host annual training exercises to maintain military readiness. The sounds of live fire drills each year had a calculated political effect, too, reminding people that the destructive power of a modern European military was never far away.
Given the limited entrepreneurial activity in the coastal hills after 1900, these training exercises by colonial military units were some of the most prominent interruptions to traditional land uses in the hills. Their timing and requirements on nearby villages asserted colonial claims in highly disruptive ways. A collection of letters from 1906 to 1913 between residents of Thần Phù Village, the colonial official in Hương Thủy District, the royal court, province officials, the RSA, and the colonial military highlight the political controversy caused by annual exercises. This conflict centered on an annual artillery field school run by the Third Battery of the Colonial Artillery in Tourane. Every year from 1903 until 1914, a group of approximately 15 officers and noncommissioned officers, 50 European artillerymen, 50 indigenous artillerymen, 50 mules, and 6 horses conducted a weeklong fire school (école à feu) on the knolls above Thần Phù Village.15 The location of the fire school in the hills above continued the decimation of what had been the famed Eastern Wood. With the annual fire school running from 1903, the barren hilltops and hillsides became marred by thousands of rounds of artillery shells as students in the fire school practiced their shots.16
The exercises lasted just more than a week, but their timing and requirements on the village amounted to an invasion of cultural spaces and spiritual life. They took place during the Lunar New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) and required villagers to feed the group. The village communal house and pagoda became troop billets while the pagoda yard held the horses and livestock. In 1911 a reform-minded emperor, Duy Tân, used his privy council (viện cơ mật) to raise the issue with the RSA, explaining that the days leading up to Tết were some of the most important, sacred days of the year. Villagers visited ancestor tombs in the hills and prepared offerings for their home altars and at the pagoda. Two days before the New Year, families visited the pagoda to make offerings, plant bamboo, and pray. The celebrations ended on the third day of the New Year, and the privy council recommended that the artillery fire school could start after all the rituals had been observed. Careful to recognize the power of the Resident Superior and the colonial government, the privy council nevertheless revealed deep hostility to this move to use military training to assert French power: “Moving the altar to receive the troops and give up the worship service, these are things contrary to the feelings of people and they will generate much resentment on their part.”17 Despite communication from Duy Tân on the villagers’ behalf, the RSA and the colonial military continued the training as planned. After the event, however, the French district official caught wind of growing Vietnamese resentment and wrote to his boss, the province administrator, to consider moving the dates.
While villagers in Thần Phù had relatively little power to challenge the colonial military, they nonetheless used their customary rights to push back. They cited traditional claims to visit tombs and family shrines to contest military attempts to permanently seize areas in the hills, tying up French officials in a lengthy exchange of paperwork. After each year’s fire school ended, representatives from the village sent a new round of letters to the RSA. They acknowledged their duty to lodge soldiers, but then they attempted to bargain with the government, stating that they should be absolved of labor obligations associated with maintaining the eight kilometers of Highway 1 running through the village. They also requested the government build a permanent barracks for the troops on the hill, perhaps a bid to create jobs and opportunities for local services.18 After several years of these letter-writing campaigns, the RSA sided with the village in 1911, complaining to Hà Nội that the military school stopped all administrative and judicial business for two weeks.19
The dispute, while intensely local, raised larger legal questions about the separation of powers between Indochina’s civil and military leaders. Ultimately, General Théophile Pennequin, the commander of Indochina’s military, settled it. He proposed a compromise, keeping the same Tết schedule but paying the village for food and lodging.20 The province chief, facing another Tết with a fire school on the hillside, complained: “Precisely at the moment that Government seems to be to giving the indigenous population the peace and quiet they need, the requirement for less fortunate villages in the area of Huong Thuy for more than a half month to lodge a contingent of more than one hundred men, certainly seems very painful for the people of this region.”21 Despite these letters, colonial troops resumed their holiday bombing in the hills above Thần Phù.
As France mobilized its colonial militaries to support campaigns in Europe during the Great War, military training and camps again expanded in Annam. The expansion of camps on the fringes of the European quarter in Huế in groves around royal tombs drew a new line of criticism from Huế’s French residents. Soldiers took to cutting pine groves surrounding former royal gardens that had fallen into neglect. Without local guards since the 1897 edict, the pine groves disappeared as people took advantage of these untended spaces to glean wood. A garden city once surrounded by wooded hilltops, Huế’s tree-lined streets and suburban gardens suffered in the early 1900s.
A French priest and historian, Father Léopold Cadière, sounded the alarm in 1916 through a journal he’d founded with senior Vietnamese scholars, Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Huế. He had recently visited one of the city’s largest gardens, the Nam Giao Pavilion, and found soldiers hacking away at the roots of large pines, gathering sap-rich wood chips to sell as matches. Cadière reacted in shock, writing, “I was stunned, I was angry, I was heartbroken.”22 He went on to explain that these twisted pines with thick trunks were sacred trees. Emperors such as Minh Mạng had planted them, and many had brass plates engraved with the name of the royal patron. Cadière, one of the few Frenchmen who lived in the area before the 1897 decree, noted the rapid decimation of these gardens. He was disgusted that a colonial soldier charged with the protection of Indochina could cut down a tree planted by an emperor.
He took to the pages of his journal to register his alarm. He was careful not to blame the soldiers alone, noting that the pine groves’ decimation was not solely the harvesters’ fault. The colonial artillery had cleared some hilltops in the 1890s; and a severe typhoon had plowed through the hills in 1904, toppling many large trees. He identified the main source of destruction as repeated hacks of scythes into tree trunks and roots that exposed the trees to storms and disease. He compared walks in the sunbaked, stripped hills of 1916 to those of 1896, when he’d led students to tombs while shaded by black, twisted pines from decades earlier. He recalled that on this past visit, royal soldiers had greeted the group and warned them about fires. He lamented the reversal in affairs in 1916, writing, “today it is the guards themselves who cut the pines. Today is unbridled havoc, devastation beyond measure. We must act.”23
Despite his plea Annam’s forestry department fell short of achieving any reforestation goals. Annam’s senior forester in 1918, Henri Guibier, was a friend of Cadière and a member of the Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Huế. Like Cadière he wrote books on Annam’s forests and later took to the Bulletin to articulate views on causes of deforestation and possible solutions. He drew attention to reforestation as essential to mitigate terrible annual flooding in Huế. Forests, he argued, were like sponges, retaining water on the slopes.24 Guibier railed against the tradition of burning highland forests called swidden (rẫy); however, he was careful to articulate the differences between traditional highlander practices and burning for livestock grazing in the coastal hills. Guibier advocated creation of forest preserves in the highlands to study regional biodiversity, but he took special interest in Annam’s bare hills.25 He complained that colonial officials tended to view every type of burning as rẫy, assuming this was a sustainable practice and “that excuses everything.”26 Guibier pointed to the hills where he noted that the bulk of inhabitants were not highlanders but ethnic Vietnamese who burned thousands of acres to make permanent grasslands, a sort of “management by clear cut with no reserves, a sort of sartage.”27
Guibier trained his sights on these “idle wastelands” and what he considered “wasteful” behavior, proposing a new, green colonial solution. He presided over tree nurseries set up for pines in 1912, but in the 1920s he turned his attention to newly imported Australian “miracle” species. With support from the RSA, Guibier and the forestry staff opened a string of eucalyptus nurseries. He planted filaos (Casuarina equisetifolia) to reforest sandy areas and eucalyptus for the hills.28 Years later, he took to the pages of the Bulletin to trumpet the benefits of this and other colonizing species.
Guibier became the protectorate’s chief advocate for a new form of green colonialism taking hold in colonies around the world. His enthusiasm for these exotic species reflected a general interest, especially among foresters during the Great Depression, to expand wood commodity markets through reforestation.29 Eucalyptus, particularly Eucalyptus globulus, were the signature species for white settler colonies too. British foresters in South Africa aimed to “wean” natives away from native species by introducing eucalyptus; in the Nilgiri Hills of Madras, they replaced shifting agriculture traditions of native hill groups with plantation frontiers of eucalyptus.30 In California Anglo settlers looked to eucalyptus to populate the bare hills of the old rancheros and to line streets in new towns.31 For Guibier, this botanical “settler” promised finally to do the work of colonizing the hills that Detreuil du Rhins had envisioned in 1876 and Doumer had legalized in 1896. Eucalyptus would colonize the soils and simultaneously kill off native plants by drawing down water tables. This sort of botanical imperialism became the hallmark of colonial terraforming around the world, though it came slow to Annam given the continuing lack of white settlers.
THE AERIAL TURN
The Great War (1914–18) not only spurred new nationalist impulses in colonial territories such as Annam but also brought three important technologies—airplanes, radios, and cameras—that provided colonial officials and nationalists a transformative visual platform that transcended this difficult terrain. The Great War and the failures of the Treaty of Versailles to address the rights of colonized peoples catalyzed a new generation of Vietnamese nationalists hungry for new media and perspectives. A young man from the central coast with a new pseudonym, Nguyễn the Patriot (Hồ Chí Minh), joined French socialists in 1920 and helped form the French Communist Party. Postwar protests in France helped the left gain power in 1924, and many prominent French socialists took on posts as colonial governors where they enacted reforms that popularized vernacular newspapers and textbooks. By the early 1920s, even Huế had become part of this global network, connected by “wireless” communications and air service that compressed time and space. Those lucky enough to ride in old Breguets taking off from dirt fields were exhilarated by views of their homes far below. Aerial perspectives proliferated in the early 1930s, too, via postcards, geography texts, and magazines.
This aerial platform was both enabling and troubling. It opened up new spaces of opportunity for nationalist networks and imaginations at the same time that it revealed the extent of environmental degradation and the territorial limits of colonial “progress” bounded inside the small grids of streets in European city quarters. Aerial technology first reached Indochina’s airfields and broadcasting stations around Hà Nội and Sài Gòn in the early 1920s before spreading to Huế and the central coast via a more skeletal presence of dirt fields, airplane sheds, and radio relays. Nevertheless, for budding Vietnamese nationalists in Huế’s elite schools and some in the older generation who had returned, it undergirded their territorial ambitions and kept them informed of events across Vietnam and the world beyond.
Colonial military actors, veteran pilots especially, played a central role in this aerial transition. They operated most of the early aviation infrastructure and took most of the pictures. They flew bombing raids on a few occasions and provided aerial reconnaissance for internal security police. This technology was necessarily dual use, justified mainly for its military and surveillance values. French politicians recognized the need to modernize Indochina’s military with airplanes, too, to keep up with developments in Siam, Republican China, and Showa Japan. Airfields and airspace in Indochina were primarily military spaces. The Civil Aviation Service of Indochina, founded in 1918, was attached directly to the general government but controlled by a senior French military officer and pilot. The majority of aircraft assigned to Indochina’s airfields in the early 1920s were surplus military aircraft, reassigned into four squadrons of eight to ten planes each at Bạch Mai (Hà Nội) and Biên Hòa (near Sài Gòn).32 While the airplanes and airfields were available for commercial activities, their primary function was defending the colony. In 1924 when an upland minority group in the central highlands killed French and Vietnamese contractors tasked with extending a road, the government responded by sending two planes to bomb the village. The planes landed at a small field near the upland village An Khê. In one day the two planes dropped eight bombs on the village. After more bombing raids, the garde indigène regained control of the village and roadwork continued.33 Five years later, another rebellion broke out in the same region, and planes returned, dropping many more bombs over eight days.34
Throughout this early era of aviation, Huế and the central coast played a minor role. The largest airfields—Bạch Mai (Hà Nội), Tông (Sơn Tây), Phú Thọ (Sài Gòn), Tourane (Đà Nẵng), and Biên Hòa (Sài Gòn)—grew as key urban and military centers. The Radiotelegraph Service, established in 1909, expanded its wireless communications after 1919 to commercial communications with two broadcasting centers at the Bạch Mai and Phú Thọ airfields.35 The Geographic Service of Indochina in 1927 placed aerial photography specialists at Bạch Mai and Biên Hòa to coordinate aerial photographic surveys.36
Huế was by all comparisons a minor stop, but as a scenic, royal center of Vietnam it attracted many of Indochina’s early air travelers. The RSA opened a landing field at Phú Bài in 1924 after purchasing a stretch of sandy soil north of the Phú Bài River. Acquiring these lands at ten piasters per acre, the provincial government groomed a landing strip out of former wastelands damaged by iron smelting. Locals from Phù Bài Village maintained a few sheds at the airstrip and kept the ground clear for landings.37 By 1931 the airfield still lacked basic air services such as fuel, radio navigation, and spare parts.38 The Aéronautique Militaire delivered airmail on a regular basis, but there was only a trickle of letters. The Geographic Service had no personnel in Huế or Tourane, so cartographic-grade aerial photography was limited while the service directed aerial photography missions in Vietnam’s two largest deltas.39 In 1936 the RSA extended a telephone line to the airfield, but it refused requests to relocate Huế’s weather and radiotelegraph stations there. (RSA staff preferred to work in Huế’s European quarter.) Caretakers at the airfield called in each morning to confirm weather conditions for landings and takeoffs.40
While the colonial government had yet to advance aerial land surveys to the central coast, a growing number of oblique shots snapped by pilots over Huế and its environs began to feature in tourist postcards, brochures, and textbooks. Air travel and aerial images played a central role in what historian Christopher Goscha calls the “spatial reworking of Indochina.” Citing a popular French travelogue on Indochina published in 1928, The Five Flowers: Indochina Explained, he notes a passage where a young Vietnamese passenger on a French aircraft describes his “Indochinese vision”: “I thought I was dreaming: I had covered almost two thousand kilometers, crossed ten rivers and a thousand hills. In other words, thanks to a flying-machine, I had just passed over all of Indochina within a few hours.”41 Airplanes, trains, telegraph lines, radio broadcasts, and a growing network of paved roads facilitated the creation of this trans-Indochina space. By 1930 Vietnamese geographers had translated a handful of French geographical works into quốc ngữ, thus introducing more of this trans-Indochina view to Việt audiences. Radical Vietnamese nationalists such as Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Nguyễn the Patriot; Hồ Chí Minh) adopted this Indochinese framework, too, when he and others formed the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930.42
The expansion of commercial travel in the 1930s coupled with advances in photography and printing to produce a new wave of international travel writing. Scores of westerners from academics to wealthy celebrities and self-proclaimed vagabonds visited Huế as a stop on tours of Indochina and Asia. The colony promoted Huế as the seat of “Annamese tradition,” characterized by often-repeated scenes of dragon boats on the Perfume River, the royal citadel and palace, and the gardens. The American writer Harry Franck, made famous by his first book, A Vagabond Journey around the World (1910), visited Huế in 1924 and produced a pithy, photo-rich account of his visit to Annam in East of Siam (1926). Unlike others, however, he advocated an everyman, “vagabond” approach—a forerunner of today’s backpackers—choosing to avoid air travel. Franck was also a veteran of the Great War, and his narrated meanderings capture a sense of how the postwar world had become more globally connected.
His opening lines in East of Siam capture the various ways that people far beyond the boundaries of the French empire had begun to take notice of this remote place: “Those of us who had the good fortune to take part in that great adventure known as the World War can scarcely have failed to notice, among the many kinds of French colonial troops, some little men in khaki and brass-topped mushroom hats, most of them with black teeth. It was not until five years after the Comedy of Versailles that my perpetual wandering over the face of the globe brought me to the land from which they came—Annam, ‘Kingdom of the Eminent South.’ There was not only the motive of satisfying, by seeing them at home, the curiosity raised by these little brown men in the French army; as far back as I can remember I had felt inquisitive toward that strangely shaped spot on the map, that slender country which drips like a stalactite of candle-grease down from the southeast corner of China.”43
Franck eschewed the luxuries of air travel and instead preferred travels by public transport. He traveled by buses along Colonial Route No. 1 and by train on a finished section of the Trans-Indochinois Railway. The book included a map of Indochina, his journey marked in red, and over a hundred “out-of-the-way” photographs snapped by the author, including images taken of the Tết Lunar New Year ceremony at the royal palace, at which he accompanied the Résident Supérieur wearing a formal outfit lent to him by the chief of police.44
The Aéronautique Militaire’s photos around Huế were few and mainly focused on monuments, but they also offer early aerial views of the land. One such image, featured in a set of air photos prepared by the Aéronautique Militaire for the 1931 Colonial Exposition, shows the newest royal tomb, that of Emperor Khải Định (figure 2.3). As an environmental record, this picture conveys a few key details about surrounding hills too. Rows of Sumatran pines from the nurseries shade the hill and gardens around the new tomb. In the background, the image shows hills near Highway 1, all still treeless expanses of grassy, eroded slopes.
For a moment in the mid-1920s, colonial reforms and new developments from airfields to radio stations suggested the possibility of a more peaceful transition to demilitarized life in Annam and Indochina. In 1924 the Cartel of the Left swept France’s elections, and in 1925 a prominent figure of the French Left—Alexandre Varenne—who advocated for closer ties with the Soviet Union took the post of governor general in Hà Nội. He was quick to push reforms intended to empower the native population with improvements in native education and health care as well as granting more political freedoms. He ordered a comprehensive inventory of all military property with an intent to convert many areas. In Huế the RSA scrambled to meet the new demands, and it decided against closing the firing ranges.45 It finally yielded in 1927 by creating a leprosarium in a former military training area in the Vùng Phèn hills near the airfield. However, by converting a former military space into one for people suffering from a communicable disease, the colonial council in effect sidestepped the problem by keeping it as a restricted space.
This fleeting moment of reformism from 1925 to 1927 breathed new political life into Huế, especially for both older and younger nationalists. The Varenne administration opened doors by permitting Vietnamese-language newspapers and loosening censorship. Huế in 1926 became the final home for one of Vietnam’s most well-known nationalists, Phan Bội Châu. Apprehended in Shanghai by French secret police, he was convicted as an accessory to murder before Governor General Varenne commuted his sentence to house arrest in Huế.46 Varenne permitted another famous nationalist, Phan Châu Trinh, to return from France. Trinh intended to visit Huế, but a worsening case of tuberculosis kept him in Sài Gòn. He delivered lectures to packed audiences, making the case for popular democracy. He died the following March, and an estimated seventy thousand people turned out for the funeral. Activists in Huế and across Vietnam used ceremonial eulogies to advocate for more reforms.47
One of the most prominent of these older nationalists and newspaper intellectuals was Huỳnh Thúc Kháng. He hailed from the central coast (Quảng Nam Province) as did Trinh and Châu, and he passed the Confucian national exam with a doctorate degree in 1904.48 Kháng was arrested for his involvement with 1908 antitax movements, and he spent thirteen years at the island penal colony of Côn Đảo until 1921. Upon returning to Huế, Kháng gradually recovered his place in local society, and in 1926 he was elected to preside over a newly formed Indochinese Chamber of People’s Representatives. Kháng’s attempt at political solutions to reform ended with his resignation in 1928, but during this time he successfully launched one of the central coast’s first Vietnamese-language newspapers, Tiếng Dân (Voice of the People). First published on August 10, 1927, the paper ran for an unprecedented sixteen years before Kháng closed it in 1943.49
VIETNAMESE RADICALISM AND LAND REFORM
Apart from the ouster of Varenne and his supporters in 1927, colonial responses to the Great Depression ended what had otherwise been a collaborative moment while ushering in a new era marked by growing radicalism, violent struggles, and increased attention to poor rural areas. This was especially the case in the hills around Huế. Early supporters of communism in Huế, mostly students, followed the writings of figures such as Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Hồ Chí Minh), and joined local communist organizations with the intent to reach out to the peasantry.50 In January 1930 young people from the villages south of Huế in Hương Thủy District formed its first party committee, electing a secretary and establishing a government-in-exile. A month later, representatives from similar committees across Vietnam traveled to Canton, China, to form the Indochinese Communist Party.51
While RSA authorities repeatedly broke up these local cells and arrested leaders, they could not eradicate the network. On May 1, 1930, members of the Hương Thủy District cell planted a red flag with the words “Vietnam Communist Party” on the summit of Ngự Bình Mountain overlooking Huế. That December these party activists together with high school students at the elite National Academy protested the colonial military’s airborne and ground assaults on villagers in the Nghệ-Tĩnh Soviets, a group of breakaway rural districts near Vinh.52 The colonial police arrested many of the founders of Hương Thủy’s party cell as well as students, sending them to the “cradle of the revolution,” a penal colony on Côn Đảo island.
As colonial officials struggled to find new ways to respond to this political and agricultural crisis, they used their new aerial platform, especially air photos, to “peer over the village hedge” and suggest new models of social and ecological engineering.53 By the mid-1930s, geographers in Indochina and around the world had seized upon new views afforded by aerial photography to focus greater attention on the depletion of tropical soils and pressures of overpopulation in densely occupied regions. French geographer Pierre Gourou’s 1936 study, Les paysans du delta tonkinois, made extensive use of the photographs from the Aéronautique Militaire to suggest how unique cultures and ecologies combined to produce the various agricultural regions in the ancient delta. For colonials, studies like Gourou’s marked an important turning point in the ways that military men and social scientists viewed unruly, rural landscapes. They paid greater attention to “local genius” while also advocating large-scale resettlement schemes to transplant these local experts to ecologically different, degraded frontiers.54
Aerial photography and aerial perspectives lent themselves to many different social and ecological engineering schemes in the 1930s. They suggested, to colonial reformers and Vietnamese nationalists alike, a detached omniscience from the agricultural traditions and land politics that shaped ancient villages.55 The wastelands that air photography depicted in the hills of the central coast prompted foresters, politicians, and radicals alike to propose radical regreening strategies. In Huế, Guibier expanded nurseries of eucalyptus while such intellectuals as Kháng took to his newspaper to blend green strategies with views on rural politics.56 His newspaper, Tiếng Dân, and other Vietnamese dailies covered traditional issues important in the countryside such as unfair taxation, famines, and landowner abuses of tenant farmers. One daily, Ánh Sáng (Bright light), even went so far as to suggest that a communist defeat of Chinese Nationalist Party troops in 1935 was the direct result of nationalist failures to respond to famine and high taxes in these rural areas.57 Kháng and other editors evaded the censors by reporting such news from China, but the political point vis-à-vis Vietnam was clear. Rural issues and land were fast becoming a core issue for anticolonialists.
In other essays, Kháng took a more moderate tone on rural development, echoing the terraforming views of Guibier. In one essay titled “Chợ Làng Mới” (New Markets and Villages), Kháng described a “garden city” approach for rural revitalization following the work of Englishman W. R. Hughes in New Town: A Proposal in Agricultural, Industrial, Educational, Civic, and Social Reconstruction. The approach was an attempt to build small cities in garden-like environs that addressed the economic, social, and spiritual wellbeing of rural citizens. (Hughes was a prominent Quaker and an advocate for rural reform.)58 Kháng applied the book’s principles to the famine-prone, impoverished hills around Huế. Playing to his more radical audience, he suggested that a “garden” socialism might take hold, embracing cottage industries, human-scale capitalism, and local craft traditions.59
GLOBAL WAR COMES TO THE CENTRAL COAST
This momentary flowering of ideas faded in the late 1930s with the surge of militarism in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Showa Japan. Vietnamese nationalists paid greater attention to the spread of Japan’s global military while French voters elected a Popular Front government of communists, socialists, and other leftist groups opposed to fascism. During the Popular Front’s rule in Indochina (1936–38), Vietnamese nationalists, especially Communist Party members, took advantage of relaxed colonial policies to recruit new members and expand the reach of quốc ngữ newspapers. After the Popular Front government dissolved in December 1938, the colonial police in Huế responded harshly, rounding up some sixty journalists and Communist Party members. Most were sentenced to prison, serving terms at Côn Đảo. In July 1939 colonial police finally caught up with the province’s party secretary, Nguyễn Chí Thanh, and in April 1940 they sent him to Côn Đảo.60
After 1940 new concerns about a second world war took precedent as Japanese armies approached Indochina’s borders. After the Nazis’ marched into Paris in June 1940 and Japanese troops camped across Indochina’s northern border in China, the colonial government signed a treaty with Japan in September that permited Japanese military units to operate in Indochina.61 The first twenty-five thousand Japanese troops moved to the northern port Hải Phòng and the airfields around Hà Nội in what became a rear base for their campaigns in China.62 The following July, the troops headed south along the Inner Road, setting up at airfields including Phú Bài in preparation for an offensive to seize all of Southeast Asia. This southward expansion in Indochina provided Japan with military infrastructure useful to the surprise offensive in December 1941. The government of French Indochina accepted the presence of Japanese troops in return for retaining authority over domestic affairs. Japanese military forces, aiming to prevent conflicts in the towns, expanded camps near the airfields and ports while Japanese diplomats, businessmen, and advisers worked in colonial towns.63
This unusual wartime agreement between unequal allies inaugurated a new wave of military base construction on the central coast. One company of Japanese troops managed regional air operations at Phú Bài. Across the highway and railway they closed the leper colony and built weapons bunkers and a rice storehouse for shipments to the front.64 Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its secret police organization, the Kempeitai, worked with French colonial officials to direct the area’s rice and industrial crops to the war effort. A series of diplomatic accords signed between France and Japan delineated annual and regional volumes of rice to be exported.65 The colonial army, an organization of mostly Vietnamese soldiers with a handful of French officers, remained under arms inside the city; but it was subordinate to Japanese military and police commands.66
The Japanese military presence beyond the airfield remained relatively minimal until early 1945 as Allied advances in Europe and Asia caused Japanese military leaders to take a more defensive position around Huế. On March 9 it waged a surprise military coup against the French colonial government, and within a few days they disarmed and imprisoned French officials and military officers, transferring control of the government (at least nominally) to the monarchy in Huế.67 With this sudden move by the Japanese government, Huế and the royal palace reemerged after more than fifty years as a center of government.
AMERICAN MILITARY VIEWS FROM ABOVE
With a new generation of bomber aircraft and more advanced air photography equipment, the US military began flights over the central coast in late 1943, photographing key Japanese industrial and military sites for bombing runs. This photo reconaissance effort was but one extension of the war effort led by US General Claire Chennault into Southeast Asia. The founder of the First American Volunteer Group or Flying Tigers in Kunming, China, Chennault presided over an expanded military effort in mid-1942 with the creation of the US Army Air Force Twenty-Third Fighter Group. By 1943 it grew into the Fourteenth Air Force. From then until the end of the Pacific War, the Fourteenth Air Force gathered intelligence about Japanese infrastructure and carried out bombing missions.
This US-led photographic effort, turned to destructive ends, finally brought the central coast into the Americans’ global mosaic of air photos over strategic areas. By mid-1944 American planes dominated Indochina’s airspace while advancing radio and wireless communications to Allied groups on the ground. Air travel and wireless communications transformed the mountain interior into a new battlefield. Intelligence operatives in Kunming combined the photographic intelligence with intercepted Japanese navy and diplomatic wireless messages to expand strategic attacks and develop a more detailed sense of conditions on the ground.68 This photographic effort fit within a more global reconaissance effort that paralleled the American military’s advances through Europe and the Pacific. On photography missions, single pilots flew Lockheed P-38 small bombers outfitted with a large-format camera behind the cockpit. The planes had a range of approximately 1,400 miles; missions to Huế required a 1,300-mile round-trip, stretching the pilots and planes to their limits. Pressurized cabins permitted the pilots to fly high at an altitude of 31,000 feet, well beyond the range of older fighter planes or anti-aircraft guns. The large-format camera (Fairchild K-18) onboard produced high-resolution prints at a relative map scale of 1:16,000 on a large-format, 9-inch by 18-inch negative.69 Figure 2.4, an image of the Phú Bài airfield and Japanese camps built near the former leprosarium, represents one of the first produced by the United States over Huế on October 11, 1943. The dark area on the right is overexposed, but it neatly details the inner shoreline running along the estuarine rice fields in the lower domains of the villages. Rows of rectangular plots along the coast detail the hedges surrounding village homes. The triangular configuration of lines in the lower center define the airfield, and the parallel highway and railway run through the middle of the image. Compared to colonial photo surveys, these runs covered large areas in just a few frames. The entire series of photos from this mission followed a twenty-kilometer stretch of highway and railroad ending in Huế.
While these photos’ primary function was to provide the US military with intelligence about Japanese military assets, on closer inspection they indicate stark contrasts between the Japanese military’s new roads and buildings and the surrounding poverty of the hills. Figure 2.5, an excerpt of the above frame of the camp in the Vùng Phèn hills, shows white roads connecting bunkers and other buildings across bare hills. A pattern of white dots and streaks in the hills depicts individual family tombs. Every year families from Phù Bài and other villages visited these graves to clean them of weeds, leaving a ring of bare ground that washed down the slope with heavy annual rains. Black blotches indicate the outlines of shrubs and trees; for the most part they hug tight to the streams.
Aside from these photographs, little written record exists either in books or archives to provide more detail about this period of military occupation. Another excerpt from a different shot in the 1943 run (figure 2.6) shows a more promising feature: young forests, in the hills above Dạ Lê and Thanh Thủy Thượng Villages. Here the same pattern of white-marked tombs covers the hills above the villages; however, three patches of woods suggest that village authorities, the royal family, and the colonial forestry department may have achieved some success in regreening. In the area of Emperor Khải Định’s tomb, pines cover the hilltops. On three hillocks inside the village of Thanh Thủy Thượng near an old Buddhist monastery, the canopy of an old village wood covers hills that had been on the auction block in the 1900 land concession (see chapter 1). Villagers planted this land as a wood and expanded homesteads around it. Finally, a plantation forest, probably eucalyptus, fills neat geometric outlines of an area along a road connecting the Japanese base area to Huế.
GROUND WAR, GROUND NETWORKS
The lack of American knowledge about conditions on the ground in Vietnam helps to explain why the United States forged closer ties with Hồ Chí Minh and his Việt Minh organization in 1945. In the first years of the American war effort in China, a primarily French network of informants sympathetic to the resistance and the Allies passed intelligence into China. By 1944, however, that network was very much diminished, and it disappeared entirely after the Japanese-led coup overthrowing the French colonial government, police, and military in Indochina in March. Military historian Ronald Spector traces the complex, multilayered communications from January to June 1945 that characterized a developing relationship between the United States, the man from Nghệ An, and the organization he led, the Việt Minh. Contrary to many popular accepted views, the American officials in Kunming and their superiors in Washington had not abandoned support for the French in Indochina; their problem for gathering intelligence on Japanese forces and movements was of a high enough priority that they were willing to overlook Hồ Chí Minh’s communist affiliations to achieve short-term strategic objectives of gathering intelligence and retrieving downed pilots.70
While American support for the Việt Minh in mid-1945 is remarkable given the later circumstances of the Cold War, the support given to Hồ Chí Minh in 1943 by the Chinese Nationalist commander in the region north of Vietnam played a more substantial role in the development of the Việt Minh from 1945 to 1947. General Zhang Fakui helped free Hồ Chí Minh from imprisonment at his headquarters in Liuzhou (Guangxi Province) in 1943; in September, seeking an effective leader among Vietnamese anti-Japanese organizations, he designated Hồ his liaison for the Chinese Nationalist–supported league for Vietnamese independence, the Đồng Minh Hội.71 Hồ and his Việt Minh comrades quickly made use of funds and weapons supplied by Zhang to turn the Đồng Minh into an effective guerilla organization and intelligence network with strong support from underground bases in northern Vietnam. Zhang’s move permitted the Việt Minh to build an armed resistance and infrastructure that was both anti-Japanese and anti-French. After the Japanese coup in 1945, the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had attempted ground operations relying on French officers. The first OSS operation commenced in June, but the group found Vietnamese populations hostile and abandoned the operation. By July OSS agents opted to work with the Việt Minh, finding them to be most effective in intelligence gathering.72
The American atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 8, 1945, brought a quicker-than-expected Japanese surrender and caused the Việt Minh to rush not only to Hà Nội but to Japanese military areas and key infrastructure sites like radio stations. In Indochina the rapid and generally nonviolent process by which Việt Minh groups took control over local and national government reflects the depth of the political underground across the country. Historian David Marr draws on OSS records, interviews, and Vietnamese memoirs to provide a province-by-province summary of the Việt Minh’s accession, especially in the central Vietnamese provinces. With some exceptions, Việt Minh interactions with foreigners and members of the Japanese-backed government of Emperor Bảo Đại were peaceful. Marr recounts the journey of one member of Bảo Đại’s government traveling up the coast to Hà Nội. After being detained at a checkpoint in Vinh, he secured permission from the local Việt Minh official to travel on, remarking that his “captors returned every bit of his baggage, money, and documents.”73
Local memoirs from Huế and Hương Thủy District describe a similarly well-organized, decisive move to seize control over government, with calculated operations to control key bunkers, granaries, and especially radio sites. On August 15, the same day that the Japanese emperor gave a radio-broadcast speech indicating his intention to surrender, party-led resistance committees met across Vietnam to determine immediate liberation strategies. The committee of the central region, Annam, met in Huế, outlining policies to be carried out by district- and commune-level committees.74 Four days later, at a colonial blockhouse situated on one of the wooded hills overlooking Thanh Thủy Thượng, village resident Lê Minh became chairman of the District Liberation Committee. From the safety of a concrete observation post built into the hill, Liberation Committee members organized the transfer of authority village-by-village along the main highway. From August 20 to 22, the committees gained control over government, police, and military from Huế south on the highway to the “founding villages” of An Cựu, Thanh Thủy Thượng, Dạ Lê, Thần Phù, and Phù Bài.75 The rapid transfer of power depended largely on voluntary and often secret commitments of support from Vietnamese administrators and military officers employed in the Japanese-backed government. In Hương Thủy the prerevolution district prefect (tri huyện), Võ Thọ, voluntarily threw his support behind the Việt Minh and ordered guards and local officials to do the same. The Vietnamese military commander in charge of a highway post at Thanh Thủy Thượng had secretly promised, before the August Revolution, to transfer all weapons and stand down. He did so, enabling the committee to take possession of military bases and training camps.76
In this burst of activity to August 23, the liberation committees and their armed groups moved down the road to the province’s strategic prize: the camps and granaries at Vùng Phèn. Besides small weapons and ammunition, the bunkers contained large stores of rice. The Japanese military had hoarded it since late 1944, despite a severe famine that gripped the country and caused over a million deaths. After the Japanese emperor announced his intent to surrender on August 15, Japanese troops at Phú Bài handed their weapons to the Việt Minh and stood aside as they removed the rice.77
When Hồ Chí Minh delivered his independence speech on September 2, 1945, in Hà Nội to a crowd of several hundred thousand, he was the the first Vietnamese leader to give a live nationwide radio broadcast. The Việt Minh’s ascension to power that August was due to victories not only on the ground but also in the air. Hồ Chí Minh was insistent on continuing this aerial presence. He issued an order to establish a national radio station just after arriving in Hà Nội. A Việt Minh communications team, likely trained by OSS radio operators, gathered local radio technicians and the parts to build a transmitter. They took an old Morse code transmitter from the colonial radiotelegraph center at the Bạch Mai airfield, and they converted it to transmit an AM radio signal, locating it at a building near the square where Hồ would give his independence speech. They flipped the transmitter’s switch and his Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) went out live on the airwaves.78
This historic Vietnamese moment on the air signified not only a modern political entrance into the post–World War II world but also the beginning of a military organization that relied on radio as an aerial platform.79 The radio rebroadcasts on Allied and Japanese stations of the Japanese emperor’s declaration of surrender on August 15 spurred local Việt Minh committees into action; OSS agents accompanying Hồ Chí Minh on the journey to Hà Nội used radios to relay news and information to the American military headquarters in Kunming, keeping the Việt Minh informed of the series of events unfolding daily including the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Việt Minh lacked airplanes, but at the independence speech, many Vietnamese in the crowd took the flyover of a squadron of American P-38 bombers as a sign of Allied air support.80
While the major events of the August Revolution depict a groundswell of Vietnamese support for independence, they also suggest the fragility of nationalism and diplomacy in a wider world now defined by several air powers, notably the United States and the USSR, that leveraged significant control over much of the planet’s airspace. Americans ended the Pacific War by detonating two atomic weapons in the air above Japanese cities; a new ship, the aircraft carrier, helped turn the naval contest in the Pacific to the Americans’ favor. The Việt Minh as well as the prerevolution government headed by Emperor Bảo Đại in Huế used radio for communications and information about the war, but their presence in the air was much more tenuous.
Sixty years of colonial rule in Annam introduced new technologies, ideas, and species that catalyzed new ways of transforming the backcountry and Vietnamese society. But with the global depression and a Japanese military occupation, the “terraformers” had made little progress. In 1944–45 Allied bombing missions destroyed bridges on the highway and railroad, cutting off rice shipments from the south. Japanese troops hoarded rice in preparation for Allied amphibious landings, and many people on the central coast starved. Famine in 1944–45 killed over 1 million people. Detreuil du Rhins’s vision of cash crops and Kháng’s vision of garden cities had failed to take hold. Guibier’s eucalyptus and filao nurseries propagated new trees, but they had yet to deliver any economic bounty.
Despite the lack of real change on the ground, the arrival of aircraft and radio in the 1930s played a powerful role in shaping futurist ideas and nationalist imaginations. New bird’s-eye images of the palace and coastal villages circulated in newspapers and textbooks. A lucky few managed to travel on airplanes, and many more watched them take off and land. Wireless brought world events into the local papers within a day of their occurrence, and radio in the early 1940s connected small audiences with distant events. Emerging nationalists such as Hồ Chí Minh and the provincial party leader Nguyễn Chí Thanh reached followers via underground pamphlets and newspapers. Then, on September 2, 1945, Uncle Hồ spoke to his countrymen in a live, nationwide broadcast. This new aerial perspective offered hope to nationalists while it permitted the few French who had survived in Huế after 1945 to hold on to dreams of imperial networks.