The process of integration of the religious armed forces in the south into the Vietnamese National Army started soon after the August 1950 announcement by Prime Minister Trần Văn Hữu that the National Army was created. As General De Lattre de Tassigny assumed supreme military and civilian authority in Indochina, he outlined a policy of “Vietnamization” of the war. The initial stage of the plan involved a considerable expansion of Vietnamese military personnel. Therefore, the French military commander in the south, General Chanson, aimed at the integration of the sect armed forces into the auxiliary forces of the National Army.
On July 19, 1951, General Chanson announced that the integration of Hòa Hảo forces was to start on January 1, 1952. Hòa Hảo military leaders including General Trần Văn Soái, Colonel Lâm Thành Nguyên, and Major Lê Quang Vinh, agreed to integrate their troops, General Chanson argued - less than two weeks before he fell victim to a terrorist attack.
However, due to subsequent political instability, negative military developments and the deaths of General De Lattre de Tassigny and General Chanson, the plan to integrate the sect armed troops into the National Army failed to materialize. Only by 1953 had the Vietnamese government and the French military discussed the integration plans once again.
By early 1952, the total number of the auxiliary forces in Indochina reached 112,370, hence, the French military reorganized these troops by introducing one type of a military unit, known as Type unique dunité standard. Specifically, as of February 1, 1952 all auxiliary troops were reorganized as companies, known as Compagnie Légère de Suppletifs, or C.L.S. However, the auxiliary companies of the religious movements remained under the command of their respective leaders. These forces operated in the areas controlled by the religious communities.
Moreover, historian Phạm Văn Sơn argued that the armed forces of the religious movements, also known as sect troops, were in fact the first nationalist armed groups in Vietnam. Quân lực Việt Nam Cộng Hòa tong giai đoàn hình thánh 1946-1955. Phòng 5, Bộ tổng tham mưu QLVNCH, Saigon, 1972, pp. 268-271. They spontaneously emerged in 1945 as a sort of “peoples armies.” In other words, these units were formed long before any talk relative to a nationalist solution in the south. Although sect forces allied with the French against the Việt Minh, the religious leaders declined to transfer all control to the French military and these troops retained their own commanders.
Moreover, it might be argued that the French military and Saigon authorities regarded the problems of the Hòa Hảo community as military and administrative issues, instead of viewing it as a complex political problem. This point of view led to the creation of certain psychological barriers on both sides.
Notably, on May 27, 1954 the French sent an official note to Trần Văn Soái, which said that “the Hòa Hảo project” had been considered by the French high command and the Vietnamese government on April 3, 1954. Message porté urgent B224. 27/05/1954. The French also suggested that Trần Văn Soái was to asseverate urgently. This document may be interpreted as circumstantial evidence that the French viewed the relations with the Hòa Hảo as an administrative and not as a political problem. The decision making relative to the integration of the Hòa Hảo troops fully belonged to the French command, while Hòa Hảo leaders were only in position to suggest some advice. Moreover, the integration was arranged by the French high command and the Vietnamese government was not a part of the discussion.
Due to cultural differences as well as the unfavorable political and military environment, the integration of the Hòa Hảo troops was stalled between 1951 and 1954. Moreover, an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion emerged between the Hòa Hảo forces and the National troops and it further complicated the problem of integration.
For instance, in 1954 a number of unfortunate incidents took place because of mutual mistrust. Several Hòa Hảo officers were arrested and tortured by agents of Lieutenant-Colonel Trần Đình Lan, the head of the 6th Department (Political Intelligence) of the Army Chief-of-Staffs Office. In response, a battallion of the National Army of Major Nguyễn Văn Ngưu was blocked at the Bắc Cần Thơ Bridge by Hòa Hảo units. The army battalion was set free after hours of tense negotiations with Hòa Hảo leaders.
However in September 1954 the Hòa Hảo and the Cao Đài representatives joined the first coalition government of Ngô Đình Diệm. Notably, four Hòa Hảo followers joined the cabinet. Huỳnh Văn Nhiệm became interior minister, Nguyễn Công Hầu was named agriculture secretary, Lương Trọng Tường became economy secretary, while General Trần Văn Soái was appointed state secretary of the defense ministry. Four Caodaists were also invited to join the government. General Nguyễn Thành Phương assumed the same post as Trần Văn Soái, while Phạm Xuân Thái became information secretary, Nguyễn Mạnh Bảo assumed the post of social affairs secretary and Nguyễn Văn Cát became deputy interior minister.
Following the formation of the coalition cabinet, an atmosphere of cooperation between the government and the religious movements replaced the pre-existing mutual mistrust. Moreover, the presence of Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài representatives in the government helped Ngô Đình Diệm to overcome a serious crisis, General Hinhs coup attempt in October.
On November 3, when Lê Ngọc Chấn, a lawyer by profession with clients among Hòa Hảo leaders including Ba Cụt, was still defense minister, Diệm issued two decrees: 1025/QP stipulating the principles of integration, and 1026/QP stating that the first stage of the phased plan would involve the integration of 3,000 Hòa Hảo soldiers. An earlier decree, 973/QP, implied the equally phased integration of Caodaist troops.
According to the decrees, the sect troops were to surrender their weapons and then to be armed by the National Army. In particular, the Hòa Hảo troops were to wear uniforms of the National Army with the brown Hòa Hảo insignia. During the transitional period, there should have been a special sect department within the defense ministry and the office of general staff. It should be pointed out the plan was worked out in the course of direct negotiations between the defense ministry and the Hòa Hảo high command.
Nevertheless, this phased plan was eventually dropped in favor of Diệms uncompromising demand of immediate and unconditional integration, while the decrees mentioned above remained a dead letter. Eventually Lê Ngọc Chấn and later Hồ Thông Minh both were sacked as defense minister. Therefore, the phased integration of the Hòa Hảo troops never materialized.
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