The Last Emperors of Vietnam: From Tu Duc to Bao Dai, by Oscar Chapuis, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 2000, $65.
Oscar Chapuis served as a French merchant marine captain and maritime official with the French colonial administration in Indochina. He was also a professor at the Vietnam Maritime College. More recently, he has been a visiting professor at the University of South Florida. His first book, A History of Vietnam (1995), covered Vietnam from prehistory to the end of the reign of Emperor Tu Duc in 1883. This second book, which is the seventh volume in Greenwood Press’ Contribution to Asian Studies Series, essentially picks up where the first left off. A short introduction lays out the background, and the first chapter discusses each of the Nguyen emperors from 1802 to 1945: Tu Duc through Bao Dai. The title is somewhat misleading since this is essentially the remaining colonial history of Vietnam from the French conquest (1883) through the First Indochina War and French military defeat in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu.
While this book continues the Greenwood Press practice of a steep price for a slim volume–less than 200 pages–those interested in the background to the Vietnam War (1964-75) will find much useful information here. And if ever there were an instance where a careful reading of history would have stood American planners in good stead, it was Vietnam. Chapuis details the motives behind the French takeover of Vietnam, the process itself, the blunders of the colonial administration, the failure of Paris to grant meaningful reform, the rise of anti-colonialism, the impact of World War II and the critical missteps in 1945-46 that led to war.
Those interested in the 1946-54 Indochina War will be disappointed; Chapuis covers it in about 20 pages. The strength of this book lies rather in the author’s careful detailing of the changes in and motivations behind French policy.
Chapter subheadings make it easy to find material in the text, and the author includes both notes and a detailed bibliography. Both indicate that Chapuis is very familiar with sources in the Vietnamese language. The last paragraph of the book contains an unfortunate typo, as it states that Charles de Gaulle came to power in France in 1950 rather than in 1958. This aside, Chapuis’ book belongs in wider collections of Vietnamese history.
Spencer C. Tucker