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The Demystified Zone: The Diem Disaster

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  • Dr. Roger Pauly
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Dr. Roger Pauly, Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas provides an introduction to the complex history of the Vietnam War for audiences ranging from those who are unfamiliar with the events of the era to those who are seeking an insightful refresher course in anticipation of the broadcast of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series "The Vietnam War." From the Indochinese War to the Vietnam War's portrayal in popular films, "The Demystified Zone" series covers the Vietnam War in a way to make historical events understandable for novices and enthusiasts alike.

At the time of the Geneva Conference, 53-year old Ngo Dinh Diem was most widely-recognized leader of the so-called "Third Bloc" factions in Vietnam. These groups agitated against French colonial rule but were opposed to the communism. Diem was well suited to this role has he understood his enemies and potential allies very well. He had lived and studied in France and the United States and had a strong education in both Confucian philosophy and Catholic theology. He often considering joining the priesthood as a young man but, ultimately, decided to render himself unto Caesar.

The most widely recognized leader of Vietnam's Third Bloc factions, Diem understood his enemies and potential allies very well: he had lived and studied in France and the United States, and he was strongly educated in both Confucian philosophy and Catholic theology.

Everybody Loves Diem

During World War II, Diem collaborated with the Japanese in the vain hope they would grant Vietnam independence. This greatly raised his stature in the country but, mysteriously, did not damage his reputation much. In 1945 the Japanese offered him the post of prime minister to puppet Emperor Bao Dai (who the Japanese kept in office, perhaps recognizing his usefulness as a symbol). However, Diem turned down the offer. Not long afterwards, he met and impressed the anti-Japanese, guerilla leader Ho Chi Minh who, in a surprise move out of an M. Night Shaymalan movie, offered him the position of Minister of the Interior in the Viet Minh government. Diem turned this down as well.

In 1945, Diem was offered the post of prime minister to puppet Emperor Bao Dai by the Japanese, which Diem turned down. Not long afterwards, Diem impressed the anti-Japanese, guerilla leader Ho Chi Minh who offered to make Diem the Minister of the Interior in the Viet Minh government. Diem turned it down, too.

The Geneva Conference of 1954, however, opened up new opportunities for Diem and, once again, Bao Dai offered him the position of prime minister. This time, Diem accepted.

Diem then spent much of the First Indochina War traveling the globe making foreign contacts, often in Catholic circles. Among his new friends was a young congressman from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. The Geneva Conference of 1954, however, opened up new opportunities for Diem and, once again, Bao Dai offered him the position of prime minister. Do not forget that at this point Bao Dai was only the leader of the State of Vietnam in the south since Ho Chi Minh firmly ruled the north as prime minster of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

Shady Voting

Diem accepted the title on this second occasion and moved quickly and skillfully to purge his political opponents from the military and state bureaucracy. In 1955, he held a dubious referendum to determine whether he should take the reigns of government from Bao Dai and transform the State of Vietnam into a republic.

In 1955, Diem held a dubious referendum to determine whether he should take the reigns of government the emperor and transform the State of Vietnam into a republic: he won by a remarkable 98.2 percent.

He won by a remarkable 98.2 percent. They really, really liked him. A lot.

He did not like all referendums though. Shortly after proclaiming himself president of the new Republic of Vietnam, he refused to hold the scheduled referendum to determine if Vietnam should reunite into a single country as called for by the Geneva Conference. From that point onward, the communist North Vietnam versus non-communist South Vietnam dynamic was established.

A Democracy of One

The problem for the U.S. was that while Diem's new regime was not communist, it was hardly democratic. He called his system "democratic one man rule" – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Diem routinely jailed and executed opponents, sent army units to vote in contested local elections and censored the press when he felt it necessary.

The problem for the U.S. was that while Diem's new regime was not communist, it was hardly democratic. He called his system "democratic one man rule" – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one.

Ngo Dinh Diem loaded down his government with corrupt family members and his sister-in-law, the beautiful Tran Le Xuan, lived a notoriously lavish lifestyle. Known as "Madame Nhu" after Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, she became the de facto First Lady of Vietnam because Diem himself was unmarried. Madame Nhu quickly became famous for both her stunning appearance and her stunning mouth as she showed a proclivity to making insensitive and callous remarks.

Diem's sister-in-law Madame Nhu quickly became famous for both her stunning appearance and her stunning mouth as she showed a proclivity to making insensitive and callous remarks.

Diem was a dictator, but he was a dedicated and brutal opponent of communism and made South Vietnam almost 100 percent comrade-clean. In later years, Vietnamese communists admitted that the late 1950s were their darkest days in South Vietnam. Whatever his other faults, the United States approved of such a ferocious ally and supported him with military hardware and the continuing presence of military advisors –stay tuned for more on that in an upcoming blog.

   

Dusk for Diem

As for Diem, went on to survive a serious military coup attempt in 1960, but his regime's days were numbered. It was not a ferocious military commander or communist insurgent who was to end Diem's reign. Instead that credit might best go to a devout Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc.

It was not a ferocious military commander or communist insurgent who was to end Diem's reign. Instead that credit might best go to a devout Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc

Relations between South Vietnam's Buddhist community and Diem deteriorated over the course of the early 1960s. Many Buddhists believed with reasonable cause that Diem, as a Christian, was actively persecuting other religions. Some of these complaints might seem minor on the surface, but they of huge symbolic meaning. For example, Buddhists were prohibited from waving flags during one of their holidays, supposedly in accord with a law banning all non-government flags. However, days earlier, Diem's brother had publically displayed a Catholic flag.

A Protest Seen Round the World

Thich Quang Duc decided to make a highly visible protest against Diem's government and, on June 10, 1963, he burned himself to death in the middle of a traffic intersection in Saigon. The world was stunned. A photograph of the incident became the World Press Photo of the Year. Madame Nhu, of course, made things worse with a controversial comment about a ‘Buddhist barbecue.' Americans had to reconsider their Man in ‘Nam. As more monks burned themselves and mass protests followed, Kennedy decided that Diem was done.

Americans had to reconsider their man in Vietnam: as more monks burned themselves and mass protests followed, Kennedy decided that Diem was done.

The removal procedure was badly botched, though. In a messy, U.S.-backed coup conducted by several South Vietnamese generals, Diem and his brother Nhu were arrested before being shot and stabbed to death in the back of an armored personnel carrier. Then, one of the coup leaders reported to a U.S. official that the two brothers had committed suicide. Presumably, he tried to say this with a straight face. Ho Chi Minh, who considered Diem a more-than-worthy opponent, was delighted at the news. Kennedy was reportedly upset about the assassination but, sadly, met his own a mere three weeks later.

For further reading, consider these sources:

  • Jacobs, Seth. Cold War Mandarin. Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.
  • Shaw, Geoffrey. The Lost Mandate of Heaven. Ignatius, 2015.

LEARN MORE:

The Demystified Zone: Making the Vietnam War Understandable

TUNE IN:

"The Vietnam War," directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, airing Sept. 17-21 and Sept. 24-28 at 7 each night.