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The House of Ngo - 1954-1963

Ngo Dinh Diem had established his nationalist credentials in the early 1930s by quitting as the puppet emperor's Interior Minister when the French obstructed his proposed reforms. The other nationalists contended against each other in a welter of tiny, conspiratorial parties. Most of these lacked any roots in the agrarian base of the society and none had a popular base in the rice-rich provinces of the Mekong Delta. On 18 June 1954, Emperor Bao Dai invited Diem to form a government to replace that of the Francophile courtier Prince Buu Loc.

Diem's piety impressed the Catholics, and his patriotism and personal honesty impressed everyone who was not distracted by his flaws. These included a narrow and rigid mind, a near-obsession with the evils of French colonialism, and an inability to engage in genuine dialogue. For a real exchange of information and ideas, Diem tended to substitute endless monologues that exhausted his listeners without necessarily addressing their interests.

Diem never sought to establish his government on a popular base. Instead, he utilized traditional Vietnamese and French colonial techniques of ruling from the top down, leaning on elite groups and religious minorities to govern. Local autonomy did not flourish and power settled at the province level in the hands of province chiefs appointed by the central government.

Diem did seem to grasp the nature of the threat to South Vietnam better than his American advisors during the late 1950's. For instance, when he favored emphasis on local militia in the rural areas to combat the rising Viet Cong insurgency, US military advisors insisted on organizing and equipping the Vietnamese army to combat a massive invasion from the North similar to that experienced in the Korean war.

Official Washington persisted in hoping that improved organizational efficiency, buttressed by US advice and material support, would suffice to contain the insurgellcy. It is conceivable that this formula would have worked if Diem had appealed to the non-Communist adherents of the Viet Minh to participate in the political and economic development of the countryside. This would, of course, have risked sabotage by Communist infiltrators, and the requisite land reform would have alienated the Westernized elite, which constituted the most anti-Communist constituency outside the government itself. Such a policy would also have involved some devolution of authority, rather than the paternalistically hierarchical system that Diem in fact imposed. Whatever its theoretical merits, a political system conceived along these lines held no attraction for Diem.

Diem seems in fact to have found CIA Station Chielf Ed Lansdale's egalitarian, quasi-Jeffersonian notions simply incomprehensible. He proceeded to follow his instinct, which was to reward loyalty and to punish even the suspicion of disobedience. Unfortunately for his hold on office, his rural administration failed to replace Viet Minh influence with that of Saigon. The near-destruction of the Communist apparatus in the countryside, between 1955 and 1959, resulted not in the consolidation of Saigon's control, but in the creation of a political no-man's land.

The reliance on anti-Communist ideology both to explain the insurgency and to motivate resistance to it accounts for otherwise inexplicable idiosyncrasies in the US approach to the Diem regime. The CIA Station officers who managed the never-ending experiment in political training for Nhu's National Revolutionary Movement consistently abdicated any role in supplying its political content. Their one-note dependence on the theme of resistance to Communist aggression was reinforced by the absence of prospects for rural reform, especially in the matter of land tenure. Diem's disinclination to challenge his landowning constituency left this domain to the Communists.

The perennial absence of a concrete political program led to another aberration, small but illustrative, in the Agency's efforts on behalf of the regime. This was the substitution of appearance for substance in a series of proposals to treat the regime's problems as the result not of incompetence or repression or corruption but of poor public relations.

Diem chose an essentially repressive strategy for the consolidation and expansion of his government's control. Its effect was to "dry the grass," as Mao had put it, intensifying peasant alienation from the government while it built for Diem the image of a reactionary mandarin dependent on foreign support for the survival of his nepotistic government.

Repression meant government by fear, at least where the government found its authority directly challenged by the Viet Congo In order to keep the disaffected on the defensive, this approach required not only ruthlessness but disciplined effectiveness - a quality denied the Diem regime by its reliance on nepotism and by the sycophantic incompetence of its officials. Indeed, a theme that pervades the entire course of Agency dealings with the Ngo family and its retainers is the regime's irredeemable ineffectiveness in all matters except the pursuit of suspect Communists. But even in his greatest achievement - decimating the Communist stay-behind organization before 1960 - Diem's indiscriminate violence stimulated precisely the resistance he intended to suppress.

The rule of the House of Ngo ended on 1 November 1963, after a group of President Diem's generals, encouraged by the US Government, surrounded the Palace with units they brought into Saigon from Bien Hoa and the Mekong Delta. The military coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu terminated an American commitment to their regime that had endured since 1954.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:36:28 ZULU