Tennis: Casus Bellum of The Vietnam War: Legacies of Colonial Doctrine in French Indochina

"All subject peoples are filled with hope by the prospect that an era of right and justice is opening for them...in the struggle of civilization against barbarism" -Ho Chi Min, 1960


"never to cry to the King, and to meet quietly when the circumstances demand, until the constitution of France is happily singing" Honore Gabriel Rigqueti, French National Assembly, 1789

With crisp white uniforms, haughty players and the repression and alienation of ball boys, if any sport could rile up a budding communist, it would be Tennis. In fact, its imagery became so emblematic of the bourgeoisie, that in pre-1950's Vietnam, the Caricature above was drawn to mock Vietnamese who had become too beholden to their fromage-eating masters.
Though American Involvement in South East Asia grabs most headlines, the Vietnam war was simply a continuation of an independence struggle that had lasted for centuries. America's war of general containment was brief and certainly not as involved as compared to that of the French. The French had had their eyes on Vietnam since before the 1880's and like other nations moved by the white man's burden, the colonial administrators, domestic politicians and public consensus all conferred that for the Vietnamese, "no greater honor could befall a conquered people than to absorb the ideas and high culture of France".

Along with boulevards, it is clear that for the artist of the above caricature, tennis became a metaphysical extension of french culture and imperial presence. This was not a lone sentiment, as a distaste for imperial symbols aligned with the disenfranchised masses' anger with the leisurely elite.
France remained committed to its mission and enthroned Bao Dai as a soverign emperopr 1926. Emperor only in name, Bao Dai was a puppet who, much to the outrage of nationalists,
spent his youth in Paris where he lived with a French family. It is noted that while he was being groomed by his imperial masters, the francophone Bao Dai, "aquired a particular affection for French girls and also, damningly
enough, learned to play tennis!
Though Bao Dai's love of tennis was a minor concern of his detractors, his captivation with the Gallic sport no doubt helped to brand him as both disconnected to local struggles and as a collaborateur. These facts and bureaucratic ineptitude across the entire regime spurred a credibility gap that garnered support to the nationalist Vietminh, the precursor to the Vietcong.

(bao dai is on the far right playing tennis in pre-communist dandy Vietnam)



Those at tennis-playing French schools in colonial Indochina were attracted to the modernity french values and its intelligentsia, but who also simultaneously rejected it for the hypocrisy of its limited practice. Ho Chi Min himself was a student of french schools and studied in Paris, a telling location as a city central to liberty and violent upheaval. While in Paris, one of Ho Chi Min's associates was the radical Jules Raveau who wrote stories of Europe's revolutions and struggle to establish the rights of man in the journal La Vie Ouvriere.

The presence of Tennis in Vietnam's Independence was not as one sided as the above caricature and the smug photo of Bao Dai may lead us to believe. One pivotal event, which Jules Raveau and the young Ho Chi Min were sure to celebrate in La Vie Ouvriere, was the serment du jeu de paume, an oath in 1789 taken by the infant french government's third estate to resist king's assault on popular power. GRC members should take note that on this fateful day when these forerunners of french and universal liberty attempted to cast their vote, they found their assembly locked and guarded by the king's soldiers. In a move that forced to the king to recognize that political power was derived from the people, the deputies rushed to the nearest possible open space to hold their convention on their own terms. Than place just happened to be a tennis court, where they took the "Tennis Court Oath" to "never to cry to the King, and to meet quietly when the circumstances demand, until the constitution of France is happily singing." Jacques-Louis David imortalized the event that revoked the rule of divine right in his famous sketch scene here entitled "The Tennis Court Oath"



(note the net and tennis racquets in the bottom left corner)


While it cannot be certain if Ho Chi Min was directly influenced by the "tennis court oath" that became the foundation for the french revolution, he was molded by the story's general sentiment.
On The subject matter at the journal, an associate of his recalled that Ho Chi Min was "so overwhelmed by an article that i had written that he asked to kiss my check". Thus while Vietnamese patriots rejected the French and its tennis playing Bao Dai, it is one of the rich ironies of histories and tribute to tennis, that the modern independence movement was both founded on the eternal rights of man and in between two baselines.

To understand French colonial rule in Indochina and tennis's place on the peninsula, it is useful to draw a comparison to France's eternal enemy, England. In 1925 five thousand british officials governed 300 million indians, but it took the same number of French to manage an Indochinese population 1/10th its size. The British employed native systems, and did not covert their subjects' distinct identities. Vietnam's independence struggle was unique, but it was also part of a greater movement in the post-war years. As the once mighty colonial powers retreated under the umbrellas of the superpowers, the foreign sports of these nations' previous imperial oppressors would enjoy very different levels of popularity in the newly independent states. The legacy of India's native governance, as opposed to French assimilation efforts, can bee seen in the continuities of India's adoption of its colonial oppressor's a bicameral Westminster-style legislature, as opposed to Vietnam's absolute rejection of all things French in its violent brand of Eastern liberation communism. Due to an ancient identity forged by attempted invasions and France's inflexible particular breed of colonialism, a rejection of colonial rule required those who sought self governance also totally reject French culture, law, language and sadly, tennis included.

Is it any wonder that English has become the worlds franca lingua and Britain's former colonial possessions, have separated British culture and British rule enough to recognize the value of its precepts and remain crazy about cricket? Just think of the West-African and Quebecois tennis supper stars that could have emerged if the French has merely adapted their colonial doctrine. The tennis world is undoubtedly poorer for it, but at least potential players have a choice, something whether they know it or not, was born on a tennis court. So, as the United States finds itself in Iraq and Afghanistan, let us take heed from the French and the cricket crazy commonwealth and build baseball diamonds, but let the occupied pick their own teams and make certain that the hotdogs are 'Halal.

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