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President Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963)

Ngo Dinh Diem's attractiveness to his first American patrons derived from three qualities: he was a certified anti-Communist nationalist, he was a Roman Catholic, and he understood English. Besides being staunchly anti-Communist, he had a virtue US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles could appreciate: he disliked and distrusted the French.

Diem established his anticolonialist reputation in 1933, the year he was appointed Interior Minister in the imperial government that served the French as the instrument of indirect rule in Tonkin and Annam. He resigned after only a few months, protesting French interference with his proposed reforms. A flirtation with the Japanese toward the end of World War II reflected his nationalist values more than it compromised them, driven as it was by his hostility to the return of the French. After the war he displayed his anti-Communism by rejecting an invitation from Ho Chi Minh to join the Viet Minh government. In 1949, courted this time by the French, Diem spurned an offer to make him their puppet prime minister.

Diem returned to Saigon in the summer of 1954 as premier with no political following except his family and a few Americans. His authority was challenged, first by the independent Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects and then by the Binh Xuyen, an organization of gangsters that controlled Saigon's gambling dens and brothels and had strong influence with the police. Rallying an army, Diem defeated the sects and gained their grudging allegiance. Remnants of their forces, however, fled to the jungle to continue their resistance, and some, at a later date, became the nucleus of Communist guerrilla units.

Diem was also challenged by members of his own army, where French influence persisted among the highest ranking officers. But he weathered the threat of an army coup, dispelling American doubts about his ability to survive in the jungle of Vietnamese politics. For the next few years, the United States commitment to defend South Vietnam's independence was synonymous with support for Diem. Americans now provided advice and support to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN); at Diem's request, they replaced French advisers throughout his nation's military establishment.

Diem's religion did not necessarily recommend him to every American influential in Indochina matters, but it helped win the favor of such prominent figures as Francis Cardinal Spellman, and Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. And even non-Catholics could see his religious affiliation as confirming his anti-Communism.

Diem's access to official Americans was also the product of his competence in English, rare in Vietnamese of that period, which he acquired while living with the Maryknoll missionaries in New Jersey and New York between 1951 and 1953. Residence in the US also gave him a platform for the vigorous lobbying that made him an early frontrunner when the United States began looking for indigenous leaders for Vietnam.

To his early supporters, Diem's anti-colonialism and anti-Communism, buttressed by unquestioned personal integrity, qualified him for national leadership. Others in Washington were more skeptical. A State Department officer who met him in late 1950 reported that Diem had no constructive solutions, only "vague and defamatory" references to the French and an apparent belief that "only [the] US can solve [the] problem, thru him to be sure." The working level at State remained wary throughout Diem's stay in the US, but as Cold War tensions grew, he found new supporters, among them Congressman Walter Judd (R-ND), who was influential in East Asian affairs, and Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN).

The diversity of American reactions to Diem reflected different expectations of him. His 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. A US military officer attending a meeting with him in 1953 left with the impression that he had been listening to a "mystic nut." Thus, while some of his American interlocutors saw him as the only hope for the anti-Communist cause in Vietnam, others saw him as incapacitated by both personal limitations and lengthy absence from the political scene.

Before his brief tenure as Interior Minister in 1933, Diem had served as district chief and province chief in Central Vietnam (Annam). With the exception of this service, he had no prior administrative experience when he took over the government in 1954. His political assets at that point consisted of his reputation for nationalism and personal probity, a modest following in Central Vietnam, and the loyalty of those-at the time, perhaps five percent of the population-who shared his Catholic faith. He seems to have taken for granted the unquestioning obedience and personal loyalty of anyone commitled to an independent. non-Communist Vietnam.

The scarcity of competent people with this disposition helps explain Diem's reliance from the beginning on members of his family to run the govemment. The problem was vividly described by Tran Chanh Thanh , a former Viet Minh who became Minister of Information in 1955. "There are just not enough educated Vietnamese... half of [them] are in Hanoi, and half the remainder are in Paris, (the other) half of the remainder are here. and half of that won't work with us. So, ... whenever we find a man can do a job efficiently, the President gives him two."

Diem was personally modest and uncomfortable with ceremony. Immune to the ego demands of the charismatic personality, he made himself the servant of his self-assigned mission. This monomania had its disadvantages, perhaps the greatest of which was insensitivity to the interests and needs of other peopie, both his followers and the fence-sitters whose loyalty had to be won, not taken for granted. Tran Trung Dung, Diem 's deputy defense minister, was a case in point. "Dung was a good man but... he had what is sometimes called galloping consumption and... [was] just not physically capable of working... 18 to 20 hours a day. He'd ask for leave, and Diem would ask, why do you have to take leave, you are still on your feet. This was the... distasteful part of working with Diem, he was absolutely impossible to deal with."

The absence of personal empathy and communication at the human level seems to have governed even Diem's family relationships. Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem's younger brother and closest advisor, told one CIA Officer in 1954 that Diem simply could not be influenced. He "won't listen, he sits there with his ears closed." The same officer said of Diem that he "lived with God," not as a second divinity, but in another world, like a "cloistered monk." So far as this CIA Station officer could see, not even brother Nhu, as the prime minister's closest confidant, had a spontaneously human relationship with him.

Diem's sense of entitlement to his office ruled out any sharing of either policymaking or executive power. This authoritarian bent early on. Some, usually junior CIA officers, concluded well before 1963 that Diem's governing style, unaccompanied by the pervasive controls of a totalitarian regime, must eventually lead to failure.

The lack of enlightened political leadership on the part of Diem was all too obvious. Diem habitually interfered in military matters - bypassing the chain of command to order operations, forbidding commanders to take casualties, and appointing military leaders on the basis of political loyalty rather than competence. Many military and civilian appointees, especially province and district chiefs, were dishonest and put career and fortune above the national interest. When Buddhist opposition to certain policies erupted into violent anti-government demonstrations in 1963, Diem's uncompromising stance and use of military force to suppress the demonstrators caused some generals to decide that the President was a liability in the fight against the Viet Cong.

The Agency experience with the Ngo brothers and their entourage demonstrated the central dilemma of any nation-building enterprise in a former European colony during the Cold War. CIA and other US officials always recognized the popular appeal of the nationalist pretensions of even Communist-led Third World revolutionary movements. Lansdale and Colby, especially, laid great stress on this point, insisting on impeccable nationalist credentials as a condition of the legitimacy of any candidate for leadership in Vietnam. But they and others also expected Diem and Nhu to accept US advice on the style and substance of governance. When these clients demonstrated their independence by pursuing patently self-destructive policies, the dilemma prevented any decisive remedial action; the only alternative left was to resume looking for a leadership which would accept American prescriptions while preserving its own autonomy. As it turned out, the generals who overthrew Diem first tried to cut the Gordian knot by abdicating the "political part" to their CIA advisors.

As the insurgency advanced after 1959, American officials looking for a response to it framed their discussions almost exclusively in disjunctive terms. One side insisted that Diem's continued tenure doomed the South to absorption by the Communists. The other saw his continuation in office as indispensable to the defeat of the insurgency. Whatever the possibilities in 1955, it is possible that by 1963 the conflict could not be won either with Diem or without him. That is, it could not be won at all, or at least not at any politically sustainable level of American commitment.

On 1 November 1963, with American encouragement, a group of reform-minded generals ousted Diem, who was murdered along with his brother.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:37:25 ZULU