America’s Mandarin

May 1st, 1954: General Giap, commanding Viet Minh forces which outnumber his foe five to one, besiege and capture the French airborne at Dien Bien Phu, forcing the 10,000 survivors to force march to prison camps, most of which are hundreds of miles away, only half survive their labor. The French military command collapsed in the wake of the fall of their prized fortress and a general withdrawal from the region was sounded, signaling the end of French colonial rule and a seeming victory for Ho Chi Minh and his Communist forces. At Geneva it was soon decided by a council of nations comprised of the United States, Britain, the USSR, France, representatives of the Viet Minh and Bao Dai, Cambodia and Laos that in order to establish peace in the region known today as Vietnam (then French Indochina provinces Assam and Tonkin) that the area would be divided in half at the 17th parallel, with the Communists based at Hanoi represented in the north and Bao Dai’s Saigon government located in the south forming two new countries, North Vietnam and South Vietnam respectively. The North Vietnamese state would come to be heavily influenced by the politics of Moscow while in the South the French worked designs. The Geneva Accords also called for a general election in two years time in order to finally unify the country under a single government. In October Bao Dai confirmed Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister, a little known nationalist who had spent years studying in a New Jersey seminary prior to his election. Diem immediately exercised corruption by installing family members and fellow Catholics fleeing from the North in positions and power and influence, maligning the Buddhist majority and military and political veterans who had served before his rise to power. Some initial violent reactions, such as in the attempted coup by Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hinh and insurgencies of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious groups along the Mekong Delta, would contribute to instilling a paranoid, distrustful and dangerously stubborn perception of opposition in Diem, persuading him to reject the 1956 attempt at reunification.

From the beginning it can be observed that Diem held no respect for the rule of law and the sentiment of democratic elections. The referendum of October 23 1955, which was held to officially legitimize the republican Diem government over the Bao Dai monarchy, was largely a manufacture of fraud, deception and secret police action. Ngô Đình Nhu, Diem’s brother, leader of his family’s Can Lao party, provided all logistical, record keeping and electoral management for the campaign[1]. Nhu instituted a rigorous campaign of suppression of Bao Dai support, often by virtue of direct attacks and intimidation, and thoroughly rigged the results of the polls. In the end Diem laid claim to 98.2% of the vote. In cities such as Saigon 605,025 people turned out to vote for Diem while only 450,000 had registered[2][3].

Hypocritically Diem claimed that because elections could only be “meaningful only on the condition that they are absolutely free,”[4] that he would be forced to cancel the 1956 reunification elections due to the supposed tampering and intrigues of Communists in the countryside. This motion would reveal itself to be nothing more than a Reichstag fire ploy to further consolidate his authoritarian rule over a country which was increasingly becoming divided by social disorder, civic disintegration and popular support of opposition movements, most notably the Communist Viet Cong. The United States initially supported Diem’s breech of the Geneva Accords as it meant that another domino would remain standing in South East Asia in accordance with the policy of containment, all indications pointing to the viability of a Communist popular election, but soon would become embarrassed by the prime minister’s arrogant dismissal of counsel. In a 1967 interview[5] Eisenhower would justify his administrations support of Diem’s actions by claiming “At that time, [Ho Chi Minh] was now controlling more than half the country, and with a great deal of the population, and he would get a hundred percent of the vote!” Ike’s naïve statement about his decision to back Diem echoes the prime minister’s own implied philosophy that the will of the people is not to be respected, that vested interest is more important than popular interest and that even if Communism is desired by the people, it is to be contained. For Diem this containment derives out of a need to maintain his family’s vast network of corrupt black market industries[6] fueled by national labors and for Eisenhower is favored in order to maintain international respect during the most inflamed years of the Cold War. Both leaders would justify their illegal actions with propaganda, claiming that the Communists had somehow tampered with elections, when it was they themselves which were guilty of the deed. Democracy in South East Asia seemed to only be possible in Cold War platitudes.

With US consternation mounting Diem finally made a superficial nod toward democratic government in August of 1959 when he formed the national legislature of South Vietnam. Yet this motion would be followed by even more stringent internal suppression of independent and opposing politics, as newspapers were heavily censored in order to maintain an obedient status quo as the propaganda arm of the central government. Political gatherings in excess of five people were banned, rural opposition candidates were charged as being Viet Cong agents and were frequently executed and electoral fraud continued to be a common element of the political process[7].

Political oppression was not the extent of the authoritarian devotions of Diem. When Buddhist monks rallied by Thich Tri Quang began to peacefully protest the government’s decree to ban the public display of non-government flags while also allowing Catholics to ignore the rule ARVN forces were dispatched. Diem’s forces brutally suppressed the demonstrations, resulting in thousands of arrests, injuries and at least nine deaths, which the government would quickly attribute to the actions of Viet Cong agents[8]. Diem then moved to ban public demonstrations and began to consider those practicing civil disobedience as criminals worthy of arrest, enacting a curfew to actualize his new laws and crushing all resistance with attack dogs and toxic gas. In defiance of the prime minister’s autocratic habits Thích Quảng Đức would be the first of several monks to follow who would immolate themselves in public[9] in order to draw attention to such intolerable conditions. The Xa Loi Pagoda raids to follow, in which the prime minister ordered the desecration and pillaging of the Buddhist temples[10], would be the final straw for much of the top brass within the ARVN army, themselves practicing Buddhists, who would in the months to come conspire and eventually succeed in overthrowing Diem’s government.


[1] Langguth, A. J. (2000). Our Vietnam. Simon and Schuster. p. 99

[2] Jacobs, Seth (2006). Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 95

[3] Karnow, p. 239.

[4] Gettleman, Marvin E. (1966). Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis. Penguin Books. p. 203

[5] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/series/pt_02.html

[6] Langguth, p. 258

[7] ibid., p. 108.

[8] Gettleman, pp. 64-83.

[9] ibid, pp. 264-283

[10] The Crackdown. TIME. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,940704-2,00.html