What Joseph Alsop several years later called the "miracle" of the Agency's success in Vietnam was the product of CIA's close relationships with Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and confidant Ngo Dinh Nhu. CIA's energy and self-confidence in managing these relationships contrasted sharply with State Department caution and reflected an institutional ethos inherited from the Office of Strategic Services. This aggressive, enterprising spirit was encouraged by the Eisenhower Administration's confidence in covert operations as a means of containing Soviet expansion.
After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, the United States invoked the domino theory of Communist expansionism when it sponsored Diem as the leader of an effort to create a nation south of the demilitarized zone at the 17th paraJlel. Working mainly through his younger brother, Nhu, the CIA Station in Saigon tried for the next nine years to help create national political institutions. With the Special Forces of Diem's army, CIA also pioneered the rural self-defense units that constituted the first expression of US counter-insurgency practice in Vietnam.
The CIA, although pessimistic about establishing a stable, civilian regime in South Vietnam, nevertheless set about assisting Diem in creating a new state. CIA's evolving relationship with Diem evolved over time, first as he struggled to consolidate his power and then as his increasingly authoritative regime faltered and collapsed when the South Vietnamese military seized power in a coup favored by the United States. The military generals assassinated Diem and his brother Nhu. The CIA Station - indeed in the early years, two Stations - worked diligently and effectively to aid Diem in forming a viable state. CIA advisors to Diem and Nhu contradicted each other, usually unwittingly, on fundamental issues until unitary command was established in late 1956. That this effort to build a modern nation state failed greatly frustrated CIA officers. Nevertheless, the CIA continued its efforts to influence and shape policies and programs in South Vietnam long after Diem's death.
By 1957, with the residual Viet Minh organization reduced to nuisance proportions, Diem emerged as the embodiment of American faith in anti-Communism as the foundation of counterinsurgency in the third world. As a result, US judgment of the balance of forces, as the Communists usefully put it, was perpetually flawed by the assumption that Diem's citizenry saw the alternatives in much the same tenus as Americans did--either the Southern insurgents and their masters in Hanoi or the Diem regime and its benevolent US sponsors. In his own way, Diem fell victim to the same misperception, attributing to his people an antipathy for Communism comparable to his own, or at least a disposition to accept his wisdom in the niatter.
CIA and other US officials' preoccupation with Communism allowed them to underestimate the power of these concerns and thus to dismiss Buddhist dissidence, peasant resistance to Strategic Hamlets, and the pervasive incompetence of the regime as either irrelevant or as remediable by a program of military and police repression. If the ubiquity of CIA officers in Vietnam did not lead to an understanding of the Buddhist leadership or of peasant psychology, this reflected not lack of energy or access but rather the prevailing mindset which classified all Vietnamese into three groups, namely, anti-Communist patriots, their Communist adversaries, and fence-sitters-s-deluded, self-interested, or timid. South Vietnamese without a personal stake in Diem's regime appear to have defined the struggle in quite different terms. These always included the Chinese notion of the "mandate of heaven," that is, legitimacy earned by demonstrating the capacity to govern. This gap in perceptions of the nature of the conflict in Vietnam prevented the Agency, and more generally the US, from recognizing the implications of Diem's self-defeating reliance on the two instruments of family government repression and indiscriminate repression.
During his nine years as Prime Minister and then President of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem could call for help on all the agencies of the US Government represented in Saigon. Although the scale of material aid from CIA was dwarfed by that furnished by the economic and military aid missions, it is fair to say that the Agency played a central role in preserving Diem in power, especially during his first year. No other arm of the US devoted as much effort to helping him prevail over his numerous enemies, and no other agency dedicated both advice and and material support to a long term effort to create popular government south of the 17th parallel.
Diem grew steadily more unpopular as his regime became more repressive. This persuaded Washington to approve, in late August 1963, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge's proposal to unseat Diem. Diem and Nhu were overthrown in a military coup on 01 November 1963, and General Duong Van Minh took over the government. American appeals for safe conduct for Diem and Nhu were ignored when one of Minh's officers loaded them into an armored personnel carrier and there shot them to death.
The CIA Station that; for its size, played such a disproportionately large role in the political history of South Vietnam, was composed of some two hundred people when the Diem regime was deposed in late 1963. The operational sections included action components charged with rural pacification and intelligence. Other Station elements dealt with both recruited and noncontrolled figures in the GVN and in the non-Communist opposition, using them partly for intelligence and partly in efforts to develop democratic institutions.
Following the fall of President Ngo Dinh Diem, CIA Saigon Station made efforts to work with and understand the various military governments of South Vietnam which followed Diem, and attempted to stabilize and urge democratization on the changing military regimes in order to save South Vietnam from Communism. The massive American commitment to strengthen the South Vietnamese government saw the Station and the field offices not only reporting on rapidly fluctuating conditions, but also attempting to influence or reform the various regimes themselves.
Agency programs, especially the rural pacification projects, expanded in response to the growing US commitment. By the time the Communists launched their Tet offensive in. 1968, the CIA presence in South Vietnam had reached about one thousand people, including the six hundred working in the provinces under four regional chiefs. The size of the Station began to diminish in 1969, as CIA and the rest of the US Government gradually withdrew from direct participation in the conflict. The regional outposts were maintained, but from then until the end, intelligence and influence ~rations at the top of the GVN became the heart of the Station's work.
There was increasing pressure on CIA field officers "to get with the program" and devote less attention to reporting on government corruption and the integrity of the South Vietnamese political process. Sharp splits often developed between CIA officers in the field and their counterparts in other agencies, especially Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and White House advisers and US military officials, over policies and operations.
President Thieu finally approved the cease-fire terms in January 1973, and CIA intelligence collection on the Saigon government, and efforts to influence it, turned to questions of truce implementation. In one dramatic episode, the Station was instrumental in securing Saigon's adherence to a protocol on the lines of cease-fire demarcation between the forces of North and South.
Cease-fire implementation receded into the background in late 1974, when the Station's most reliable source on Communist intentions predicted a major offensive for early 1975. For the next several months, the Station tracked North Vietnamese initiatives and South Vietnamese reaction. In mid-March 1975, the South Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands collapsed. Da Nang fell shortly thereafter, and the chaotic failure of the evacuation effort there persuaded the Station that no mass evacuation of the government's military and civilian adherents from Saigon could succeed. Accordingly, the Chief of Station and the Ambassador launched fin ultimately desperate effort to help broker a political settlement that would preserve a non-Communist South Vietnam long enough to permit orderly evacuation.
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