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Our man Diem

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How America came to back South Vietnam's despised and doomed president

Diem in a parade up Broadway, New York City, May 13, 1957, with a city official and the State Department's chief of protocol. Photo by Carl T. Gossett, Jr./New York Times Co./Getty Images

Diem in a parade up Broadway, New York City, May 13, 1957, with a city official and the State Department's chief of protocol. Photo by Carl T. Gossett, Jr./New York Times Co./Getty Images


By Seth Jacobs

THE "WINSTON CHURCHILL OF SOUTHEAST ASIA" WAS A PITIFUL FIGURE AT THE END. Shortly before 10 a.m. on November 2, 1963, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem stumbled out of a Catholic church in Cholon, Saigon's Chinese district, to face the martyrdom he had courted ever since assuming command of his country in the mid-1950s. Eyes glazed from lack of sleep, trademark white sharkskin suit spattered with mud and soaked with perspiration, he hardly looked like a chief of state, much less the demigod eulogized by Washington policy makers and the American media. Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu followed him down the church steps and into a narrow, dead-end street. Almost immediately, the two men were set upon by a contingent of soldiers who bound their hands behind their backs and ordered them into an armored personnel carrier. Diem did not protest the rough treatment but expressed disappointment that the cabal of generals who would presently constitute South Vietnam's government had not sent a limousine befitting his rank. One of the soldiers responded that the armored car had been deliberately chosen to protect its distinguished passengers against "extremists." This appeared to satisfy Diem, but Nhu snarled, "You use such a vehicle to drive the president?" The soldiers had to force Nhu's head down as they shoved him into the car.

During the trip to army headquarters in Saigon, Diem and Nhu were sprayed with bullets and repeatedly stabbed with knives and bayonets. Their bodies were buried in a prison cemetery. The officer who typed the brothers' death certificates inflicted a further, posthumous indignity upon Diem, describing him not as "head of state" but as "chief of province," a position he had held years earlier during the French colonial period. Even more degrading, in light of Diem's Catholic faith, was the official cause of death: "suicide," later amended to "accidental suicide" when published photographs of the president's corpse showed his hands tied behind his back.

As news of the assassinations went out over the radio, Saigon exploded in jubilation. An American correspondent reported, "Everybody seemed to be in the streets, singing, dancing, shouting, waving banners, or just standing by, watching. There were smiles on practically every face." Tens of thousands flocked around the tanks of rebel soldiers to shower their heroes with presents and expressions of gratitude. Nightclubs threw open their doors, and revelers danced the twist, the tango, and all the other dances Diem had banned. Saigon's Buddhists congregated at Xa Loi Pagoda for a daylong service of thanksgiving. Students stormed the shell-scarred Presidential Palace, screaming "Freedom!" and "Long live the junta!" When newly released political prisoners began relating stories of torture, outraged mobs laid waste to the National Assembly Building and set fire to the homes of government officials. A few resourceful citizens used a power winch from a ship in Saigon harbor to pull down a statue of Diem's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu. The offices of the Times of Vietnam, a pro-Diem newspaper funded by the United States, were burned to the ground. Crowds lit bonfires in front of the residences of American diplomats, ransacked buildings and business establishments owned by the Ngo family, and ripped up Diem's portrait wherever it was displayed. The cathartic rioting lasted less than a day, and then calm settled over the city. "After the crisis had passed," Frances FitzGerald wrote, "the people of Saigon rarely spoke of the Diem regime again. There was nothing more to be said."

Thus ended America's nine-year attempt to turn Ngo Dinh Diem into a popular leader capable of posing a noncommunist alternative to North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had invested billions of dollars in Diem in the conviction that he, and he alone, represented South Vietnam's best hope for national survival. A slew of American political advisors had traveled to Saigon to assist Diem in everything from public relations to constitution writing; American military advisors had trained South Vietnam's armed forces to resist communist insurgencies and any neutralist threat to Diem's paramountcy; mainstream American newspapers and magazines had touted Diem as the "Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam" (Life magazine) and "a man history may yet adjudge as one of the great figures of the 20th century" (New York Times). For almost a decade, American policy makers adhered to a strategy that the journalist Homer Bigart caustically dubbed "sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem." But after the drama of the Diem era played itself out, all the United States had to show for nearly a decade of support were a whopping list of expenditures and a South Vietnamese republic in greater chaos than it had been in during the tempestuous early months of its creation.

While every historical phenomenon is subject to waves of revision and counterrevision, it would be difficult to characterize America's "sink or swim" policy as anything other than a disaster. When Diem became prime minister of South Vietnam in 1954, there were several dozen American advisors in that fledgling nation. By the time of his murder, U.S. personnel "in country" exceeded 16,000. France, the dominant Western power in Vietnam for almost a century, refused to endorse Washington's so-called Diem experiment and relinquished its former colony within months of Diem's assumption of office, thereby conferring upon the United States primary responsibility for stemming the red tide in Southeast Asia. Diem's regime marked America's crossover point from advice and support to cobelligerency in a Vietnamese civil war. The commitment to Diem was the essential precondition for the ensuing measures that led to the defeat and humiliation of the United States.

Vietnam War historians usually ascribe this fateful partnership to the regnant anticommunist ethos of the American cold war and the anonymity of most Saigon politicians. Diem's virulent anticommunism, so the argument goes, made him the logical free-world proxy for U.S. cold warriors seeking to quarantine Soviet and Chinese influence north of Vietnam's 17th parallel, especially since Washington was unaware of any credible rivals for the South Vietnamese premiership. Yet as the record of administrative deliberations in the mid-1950s makes plain, several popular, qualified, and irreproachably anticommunist politicians in Saigon presented attractive alternatives to Diem, and every member of President Dwight Eisenhower's policy-making coterie was aware of their existence; indeed, one aspirant, the former defense minister Phan Huy Quat, came close to unseating Diem, as J. Lawton Collins, Eisenhower's special representative in Vietnam, relentlessly badgered Washington to effect such a change in command. Other suitable candidates included the foreign affairs minister Tran Van Do and General Nguyen Van Hinh. These men had all established their anticommunism, and all had greater political experience than Diem. Yet none was able to secure the backing of the Eisenhower administration.

Moreover, the contention that Diem initially governed South Vietnam as a liberal reformer and became an autocrat only in the final months of his reign—a narrative that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations promulgated in the early to mid-1960s—is simply false. Evaluations composed by American observers during Diem's first days in office identified the very same qualities that would bring about his assassination nine years later: discrimination against non-Catholics, refusal to share power, and easy resort to violence to quell dissent. Diem never pretended to be anything other than what he was, and he never changed.

Traditional explanations cannot account for the launching of the Diem experiment by men who, on the face of it, ought to have known better. The 1954 Geneva Accords that came out of multilateral peace talks on the Indochina War allowed the United States only two years in which to build up its Vietnamese candidate into a figure capable of challenging Ho Chi Minh in a nationwide election. Why did Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles gamble on a devout Catholic in a country 90 percent Buddhist? Why stake America's future in Southeast Asia on an individual temperamentally lacking in the flexibility necessary to deal with the problems he confronted? Why, to paraphrase the historian Barbara Tuchman, would intelligent statesmen behave in a manner so contrary to the way reason pointed and enlightened self-interest suggested? In an after-dinner talk to a gathering of State Department officials on April 11, 1955, Dulles laid bare the fundamentally religious beliefs and values that drove his policy.


DULLES BEGAN HIS REMARKS BY ACKNOWLEDGING THE infinite complexity of the modern world. "There is hardly any international problem which lends itself to easy or sure solution," he declared. "I have the impression that, in the days before the world became so unified, it was easier to take decisions. The issues were, or seemed to be, simple. . . . Today, almost every problem has many complications." He noted that traditional geographical concepts like the nation-state had "lost much of their former forbidding significance" as a result of global information technology, near-instant communications, and air power. Many people did "not want to be contained by the lines which statesmen have drawn," he said, and he offered two examples:

In Korea, the 38th parallel became famous as a line between the free and communist-dominated parts of Korea. But the line did not demarcate the hopes and aspirations of the people. I recall being in Korea in June 1950 and addressing at Seoul a religious gathering of thousands of refugees. They had fled from the North and crossed the parallel to the South in the hope of finding the freedom of religion which they cherished. In Viet-Nam a line was drawn at the 17th parallel. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have crossed it, fleeing to the South. Again, the driving force was a longing for religious freedom.

To Dulles, these were vivid demonstrations that in the cold war the old "geographical solutions rarely coincide with human solutions."

Some policy makers, Dulles observed, were defeated by the volume of information they felt obliged to master. Their effort to see all sides of a problem before acting tended to "deprive decisions of the dynamic quality which is needed to make them effective. The mainspring of action is a sense of certainty. Unhappily, those who are best informed are often deprived of that satisfaction."

How was a geopolitician to overcome the paralysis brought on by information overload? Dulles's solution could not have been farther removed from the unsentimental realism normally attributed to statesmen of his generation. "The great deeds of history," he argued, "were wrought primarily by men with deep conviction and dynamic faith. They were sure that they were right. It seems today that sureness can be dependably found only in the spiritual realm." If policy makers were to avoid inhibitive anomie, Dulles—son of a Presbyterian minister and the most unapologetically religious man to superintend America's foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson—counseled them to set their sights on a higher goal than "immediate political expediency." Stop trying to absorb every piece of intelligence that flows into your department, he in effect advised, and remember a few maxims: "It was said by Jesus that material things will be added unto those who seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. . . . Men who feel a sense of duty to some Higher Being strive here to do His will. Because of their faith, they have power and virtue and simple wisdom." In conclusion, and without naming Ngo Dinh Diem or any other American ally, Dulles reminded his audience, "Our policies must be dependably embraced by . . . our people, who are essentially religious."

THE SENTIMENTS EXPRESSED IN DULLES'S SPEECH—THE mistrust of facts and data, the preference for doctrinal certainty—were those of a Savonarola, not a Metternich. Dulles spent much of April 11 prior to delivering his address opposing Special Representative Collins's campaign to strip Diem of office, going so far as to obstruct transmission of a presidential message authorizing the appointment of a new South Vietnamese premier. In conniving to rescue Diem, Dulles may, to appropriate his own phraseology, be said to have cast America's lot with "faith" against "facts."

Dulles had never encountered a more alien state of affairs than the wars-within-wars maelstrom that raged in South Vietnam in 1954–55. He could not begin to fathom this cauldron of competing ethnic, economic, and political groups. That Diem was a Christian and his rivals were not proved to be the organizing principle for the secretary and for other policy makers who seized upon that distinction to solve the riddle of Vietnam. Phan Huy Quat and Tran Van Do may have been more seasoned politicians than Diem, but they were also Buddhists, and American ethnocentrism linked that faith to certain assumed traits, including passivity, impracticality, and cowardice.

A U.S. secretary of state makes dozens of speeches a year; unless he or she is proposing a Marshall Plan, threatening "massive retaliation," or announcing "peace is at hand," the orations are soon forgotten. But if one is willing to allow that religion, shaping as it does the deepest values of life, might play some part in shaping policy, then what Dulles said to his audience of fellow policy makers—after a day of struggling to shore up American support for Diem—may have been the most revealing articulation of his ideological frame of reference ever set down, and the implications for the study of foreign policy are profound.

 

Seth Jacobs is an assistant professor of history at Boston College. His article is drawn from America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia, copyright © 2004 by Duke University Press, by permission of the publisher.

 

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