In contrast to most cities or countries outside of Europe where the YCW was launched by missionary priests, it was a layman, Nguyễn Mạnh Hà, who founded the movement in the Vietnamese port city of Hai Phong.
Manh Hà, as he was known to his friends, was born 110 years ago in 1913 – exact date unknown – to a Catholic family in the town of Hung Yen in the French protectorate of Tonkin in the north of the then colony of Indochina.
While his grandfather had worked as an interpreter, Manh Hà’s father became one of the earliest indigenous graduates from the Hanoi medical school. Like many other young Vietnamese men during World War I, the young doctor travelled to France to offer his services to the French army. His outstanding work on the battlefields was rewarded with French citizenship. Sadly, in 1926, he would die from the lingering effects of wounds suffered during the war.
Prior to that, however, in 1925, he took his son Manh Hà, then twelve years old, to France to carry on his education. There the boy boarded with the Jaubert family in the port city of La Ciotat near Marseille, attending the school at which M. Jaubert was principal.
Here, through the elder son of the Jauberts who was already a member of the YCW, Manh Hà had his first encounter with the movement, assisting in the establishment of the YCW in La Ciotat.
Founder of the YCW in Hai Phong
After completing high school, Manh Hà moved to Paris to study law at the the Institute of Political Science, from which he graduated in 1937 with a doctorate in law. During this period, which coincided with the government of the left-wing Popular Front elected at the 1936 general election, he came into contact with various progressive Catholic leaders, including Edmond Michelet, later a minister of justice from 1959-61.
While still in Paris, he met and married a young French woman, Renée Marrane, daughter of Georges Marrane, senator and Communist mayor of the city of Ivry on the southern edge of Paris. Despite this new family connection, Manh Hà kept his distance from the Communist Party while Renée converted to Catholicism.
In 1937, Manh Hà finally returned with his new wife to Vietnam, where he was appointed by the Governor of Tonkin as labour health and safety inspector in the industrial and port city of Hai Phong, the first person to hold such a position in Indochina.
In this government role, it was evidently not possible for him to take initiatives to launch trade unions for the exploited workers of the colony.
“If I were to help the workers organise themselves, I would be suspected of being a communist revolutionary as in a colonial regime, anyone linked with the workers’ class was considered communist,” he later told historian, Claire Tran Thi Liên. “It was not my job, but their job, the Vietnamese workers, to defend themselves and their interests. To me, the creation of the JOC was the only way to organise the young workers in Hai Phong, bypassing the colonial state.”
As a civil servant in Labor Inspection, nobody could criticise me for caring about workers. I never had problems with the administration, but the periodical Le Courrier de Haiphong accused me of being a communist, as the son-in-law of a French communist leader.
By this time, French missionary priests were already busy in Tonkin, seeking to implement Pope Pius XI’s directives to promote Catholic Action. As early as 1934, the Holy See nuncio had explicitly called for this at the Catholic Plenary Council for Indochina held in Hanoi.
However, with his existing experience of the YCW in France, Manh Hà was not impressed with some of the early initiatives. In his interview with Claire Tran Thi Liên, he recalled:
During the spring of 1938, I took part with my wife in a congress of the Catholic Youth in Hai Phong. I realised that the church’s proposal to the young Christian workers was very weak. At the end, they were singing a religious song to the melody of a [French] popular song: “Il était une petite chemise rose avec une petite femme dedans!” [There was a little pink shirt with a little woman in it!].From that moment, I became aware of the necessity of offering a serious training to the youth workers. Thus I began the experience [of the JOC] at the end of 1938.
Meanwhile, as Tran records, the French Dominican Alexis Cras, a teacher at the Pasteur School and student chaplain, founded a branch of the Young Christian Students [Thanh Sinh Công] as well as a branch of the Young Christian Workers [Thanh Lao Cong or TLC]. French Sulpician and Hanoi major seminary faculty member André Courtois and Canadian Redemptorist Gérard Gagnon also worked to promote Catholic Action. French MEP priest André Vacquier did similarly in the industrial city of Nam Dinh.
Such was the context in which Manh Hà sought and gained the support of the Spanish Dominican bishop of Hanoi, Francisco Gomez de Santiago for the establishment of the TLC in Hai Phong. To this end, he recruited a priest in his parish, the Spanish Dominican, Pablo Lopez, to become chaplain for the movement in the Hai Phong diocese. Significantly, Lopez had previously studied social science at Louvain in Belgium, where he had no doubt also become familiar with the YCW.
With Bishop Lopez’s support, in 1939, Manh Hà launched a magazine Hy Vọng Lao Động or Worker’s Hope, which sold over 4000 copies per month. Over the course of that year, six TLC sections were launched, each with 25-30 members.
Wartime “saviour” of Hai Phong
Sadly, war was about to break out again. In 1940, Germany invaded France establishing the collaborationist Vichy government. Soon after, it allowed Japan to station military forces in Indochina during the war.
With the aid of TLC leaders and groups, Manh Hà began to launch a series of worker restaurants, which also included adjoining reading, meeting and entertainment rooms.
Meanwhile, in 1943, Manh Hà was appointed Economic Director and Labour Inspector of Tonkin. As such, the mayor of Hai Phong, a Corsican named Luciani, called upon him to take responsibility for maintaining the supply of rice in the city, a task that the French had failed to achieve ensure owing to corruption and the development of a black market.
“Since you are a man of integrity, I am appointing you as economic director of Hai Phong entrusting you to find a solution (to the rice supply problem),” Luciani told him.
To avoid speculation and the resale of cheaply purchased rice, Manh Hà, working with a friend, Nguyen Son Ha, mobilised TLC leaders to set up five popular restaurants where they sold ready-cooked rice, which could not be stored and sold on the black market.
“The rice we sold at the official price was ten times cheaper than the rice on the black market,” he later told Claire Tran.
By this means, they were able to ensure the distribution of more than 20,000 meals per day. As a result, Hai Phong avoided famine and Manh Hà earned the title of “saviour” of the local population
Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Once the war ended in 1945 and following the August Revolution against the return to French colonialism, the new Viet Minh government led by Ho Chi Minh invited Manh Hà, whose reputation as an organiser now preceded him, to collaborate with him in the Provisional Government.
Manh Hà told the story as follows:
A lawyer friend, formerly a law student with Mr Vo Nguyen Giap, told me: “Mr. Giap wants to meet you.” I then went to meet Mr Giap, who simply said: “You used to be the Economic Director of Tonkin, so of course with your experience, you must be the Minister of Economy of the first Government that we I’m about to start.” (Tran 2022)
Soon after, when introduced to Ho Chi Minh, the latter greeted him, asking “Is it correct that you are son of Georges Marrane?” In fact, Ho had previously met Manh Hà’s father in law, Georges Marrane, at a congress of the French Communist Party in Tours in 1921.
“Is that you, the son of Georges Marrane?” Ho asked Manh Hà, who was impressed by the Viet Minh leadership.
The outcome was that on 2 September, 1945, Manh Hà was appointed as Minister of National Economy in the new Provisional Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This did not last long, however, and on 1 January 1946, he became Deputy Minister of the same ministry, assisting Nguyen Tuong Long.
The same day, Manh Hà also became a signatory to the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. A week later, on 6 January, 1946, he was also elected Member of the National Assembly of Vietnam representing Hung Yen province in the first national elections.
Negotiations with France
Despite all these developments, Ho Chi Minh’s government did not succeed in ending the colonisation by the French, who regained control following the end of the war.
During the negotiations that subsequently took place, Manh Hà joined a goodwill delegation of the Vietnamese National Assembly that visited France in May 1946. He was further appointed as an envoy in the Vietnamese Delegation to Paris in July 1946 to participate in the Fontainebleau Conference, where he took part in the Economic and Financial Committee.
Following an incident in Hai Phong in November and a National Resistance Day in December 1946, the First Indochina War, as it became known, broke out.
As a Catholic who also possessed French nationality and because his wife Renée was also French, Manh Hà was able to remain in Hanoi even though he had become a member of the National Resistance.
As such, he continued to oppose French colonialism although he remained wary of the communist core of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). He served as news editor of Cong Luan, which was shut down by the French in 1948 for its allegedly subversive ideas.
He criticised the forced labour camps the French set up in central and southern Vietnam and he maintained secret contacts with DRV leaders during the entire Indochina War.
In 1947, he issued an Appeal to French Catholics published in the magazine, Témoignage Chrétien.
Nous espérons que les catholiques de France, d’un commun accord, élèvent en ce moment la voix pour défendre la justice, la charité et la paix. Après les fusillades et les tueries, il faut avoir la paix. La paix véritable, la paix selon l’esprit du christianisme.
La condition essentielle, c’est que le Vietnam soit traité avec le respect que l’Evangile conseille vis-à-vis des nations comme vis-à-vis des personnes. C’est la France qui, ayant les armes pour la guerre, a aussi la grande responsabilité d’édifier la paix. La paix avec le Vietnam et non la paix selon les contraintes de la nation française.
Que les catholiques de France ne se dérobent donc pas à leurs responsabilités.
We hope that French Catholics, by common agreement, will raise their voices to defend justice, charity and peace. In the wake of shootings and killings, peace is necessary. Genuine peace based on the spirit of Christianity.
The essential condition is that Vietnam should be treated with the respect that the Gospel counsels in relation to nations as well as persons. It is France, which since it has the arms of war, also has the great responsibility of building peace. Peace with Vietnam and not peace based on the requirements of the French nation.
May French Catholics not back away from their responsibilities.
Even so, the colonial government continued to court him. However, in May 1949, he rejected an offer of a government position.
Two years later, in 1951, matters finally came to a head. As a result of his opposition to the government and support for independence, he was deported to France by order of French High Commissioner Jean de Lattre de Tassigny.
Living in France and Switzerland
Once back in France, Manh Hà continued to participate in the movement for Vietnamese independence, playing a key role in the development of what became known as the “Troisième Force” or “Third Force,” which sought independence for Vietnam by making South Vietnam neutral while also opposing communism. Despite this, he was accused by South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem of being pro-communist.
In 1965, he participated in the Indochina People’s Congress convened by the then Head of State of Cambodia to discuss America’s direct involvement in the war in Indochina.
We could add much more to this simple outline of Manh Hà’s life. Perhaps the best way to conclude is by citing the words of Fr Cras, writing to a fellow Dominican in 1946:
Mr Ha is, I think, one of the most influential personalities of the Annamese Catholic elite and is the president of the National Catholic Federation. He proved his worth as a man of action and a popular speaker, but not a demagogue. Moreover, he showed, in particularly difficult circumstances, the seriousness of his Christian education… He has always refused to let Catholic Action be turned into a political party. (Tran 2022)
After a lifetime of commitment to the cause of the Vietnamese people, Nguyen Manh Hà died in Switzerland in 1992 at the age of 79.
Thanks to Associate Professor Claire Tran Thi Liên of the Université Paris Cité for her assistance with information and advice for this article.
Other information I have gleaned from Google translations of Vietnamese press articles. Please alert me to any errors I may have made.
Nguyễn Mạnh Hà (Wikipedia.vn)
NGUYỄN MẠNH HÀ (1913–1992) (The Indo-China War 1945-1956 An interdisciplinary tool946)
Tran Thi Liên Claire, “Les catholiques vietnamiens et la RDVN (1945-1954) : une approche biographique” dans Naissance d’un Etat Parti – Le Viêt Nam depuis 1945/ The Birth of a Party State, Vietnam since 1945, de Treglodé B et Goscha C (Ed), Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2004, pp. 253-276.
Tran Thi Liên Claire, “The Young Christian Workers (Thanh-Lao-Công) in Tonkin (1935–1945) From Social to Political Activism”, in Special Issue, Hoang T (Ed) “Vietnamese Engagement with Global and Transnational Catholicism”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies, University Press of California, Vol. 17, Issue 2-3, pp. 93-125.
Tran Thi Liên Claire,”Aux origines de la troisième force : Nguyên Manh Hà et la solution neutraliste pour le Sud Vietnam (1954-1962)”inL’Indochine entre les deux accords de Genève (1954-1962), L’échec de la paix?,Goscha C(Ed), Paris, Les Indes Savantes, 2010, pp 347-371.
Vân Nguyen, Phi. “The Vietnamization of Personalism: The Role of Missionaries in the Spread of Personalism in Vietnam, 1930–1961.” French Colonial History, vol. 17, 2017, pp. 103–34. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.14321/frencolohist.17.1.0103. Accessed 29 Dec. 2023.