Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam from 1955 until his murder in 1963, divided opinion amongst U.S. officials throughout his reign. He was regarded as ‘Yogi-like mystic’ by Ambassador to France Douglas Dillon, was doubted by General Lawton Collins but was described as ‘the Winston Churchill of Asia’ by Lyndon Johnson. However, both critics and supporters alike acknowledged him as a man of courage and dedication.
Born into a distinguished Catholic mandarin family, Diem graduated from the French run Hanoi School of Administration at twenty before entering the mandarinate (civil service). He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a province chief in 1930 and heading a commission investigating corruption in the Annamese administration in 1932.
Diem’s rise continued in 1933 when Emperor Bao Dai
appointed him Minister of the Interior, however, he resigned after only three months in the role when the French refused to agree to his reforms. After retiring to Japan, Diem spent several years garnering support for Vietnamese independence. World War II
Twice during World War II he refused Bao Dai’s invitations to serve as Prime Minister, believing that the Japanese occupation offered little prospect of true independence. Following Japan’s formal surrender in September 1945 Diem was arrested and imprisoned for six-months by the Viet Minh. While held captive and following the Communist’s assassination of his brother Ngo Dinh Koi, he refused the post of Minister of the Interior in Ho Chi Minh’s
DRV government.French Indochina War
After the outbreak of war between the Viet Minh and the French in December 1946, Diem began to play an active role in negotiating Boa Dai’s return to power. However, he disapproved of the limited independence granted by the 1949 Franco-Vietnam Elysee Agreement and again rejected an offer from Bao Dai to become Prime Minister. Diem subsequently went into self-imposed exile, living in America (New Jersey) for two years before entering a monastery in Belgium in May 1953. Following the Communists victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu
in May 1954, Diem finally accepted Emperor Bao Dai’s invitation to form a government and returned to Vietnam in late June.Rule
Almost immediately after taking office Diem was tasked with implementing the Geneva cease-fire agreement
, which partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel and triggered an influx of refugees from the Communist north. After a first year in office, during which he also had to see off a coup plot by his Army’s Chief of Staff and quash uprisings by the sects, he swept to victory over Bao Dai in a referendum and became President of the new Republic of Vietnam.
As Premier he steadfastly refused to implement the elections for the unification of Vietnam promised by the Geneva agreement, believing that necessary conditions for free voting did not exist in the north. Diem also introduced stringent policies that were initially effective in quashing rural dissidence and routing out communist cadre left in the South.
However, in 1958 the insurgents began a politically motivated terror campaign, kidnapping and murdering government officials. They also started to field larger units that actively sought engagements with Diem's army (ARVN
Believing that both a popular government (GVN
) and an effective military (RVNAF
) were necessary to defeat the Viet Cong
, the U.S. repeatedly tried to persuade Diem the broaden his administration and to streamline the military chain of command. However, following an attempted coup by three paratroop battalions in November 1960, he was understandably wary of being toppled by the military. As a result, Diem ensured that senior army promotions were made on the basis of loyalty to the regime, rather than on merit. He also fragmented the armed forces, placing the hamlet militia outside the military chain of command and under the control of his province chiefs.
With the Viet Cong mounting increasingly large attacks and fearing that South Vietnam was in serious trouble, in November 1961 President Kennedy significantly expanded America's advisory and material assistance to the RVNAF. In return the U.S. expected to share in the GVN's decision making.
Though he needed American support to fight the insurgents, Diem was equally cognisant that extensive foreign involvement in the government would impugn Vietnamese sovereignty and give credence to communist claims that he was a U.S. puppet. Consequently, though he received the aid, Diem again refused to reform his administration and continued to rely heavily on his trusted brother Nhu, who headed the government's principal counterinsurgency effort, the Strategic Hamlet program
The ARVN, equipped with American helicopters, vehicles and weapons, were temporarily able to turn the tide against the Viet Cong during 1962, but in mid 1963 a political crisis erupted that would end Diem's regime. Overthrow
On 8th May, Buddha's birthday, Buddhists in Hue demonstrated against a recently imposed ban on the public display of religious flags. When preliminary efforts to disperse the crowd failed, government troops fired on the protesters, killing nine and wounding fourteen. Diem refused to accept responsibility and blamed the Viet Cong, but the incident triggered widespread protests against his government.
Believing that the political turmoil was undermining the war effort, the U.S. tried to persuade Diem to address the Buddhist grievances and win back popular support. However, on 21st August Special Forces units loyal to Nhu ransacked pagodas throughout the country, arresting over 1,400 monks. The raids shattered any illusions about Diem's conciliatory approach to the Buddhists and prompted the U.S. to tacitly approve a coup d'état.
At 1:30pm on 1st November 1963 General Duong Van (“Big”) Minh led an assault on the Presidential palace. Diem and Nhu initially managed to escape to the Cholon area of Saigon, but after finally surrendering the pair were murdered in the back of an Amored Personnel Carrier.
U.S. policymakers were initially hopeful that the new regime would be more receptive to American advice. However, this optimism was short lived. Far from improving the political situation in South Vietnam, Diem’s death brought continued turmoil. In the 19 months that followed Saigon had 13 governments, whilst the Viet Cong continued to strengthen their grip on the countryside.