Why We Should Care About Ngo Dinh Diem

Read Time:5 Minute, 43 Second

By: Jason Beck

Edited By: Alexandra Huggins

There are certain inflection points, singular moments in time, which completely changed the trajectory of a country or a global conflict and forever left their mark on the world we live in today. We are approaching the 60th anniversary of one such moment, one that has gone under the radar for a very long time. On a Sunday evening in Saigon, on November 3rd, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem, long-time President of the Republic of Vietnam (better known as ‘South Vietnam’), was killed, murdered alongside his brother and chief advisor Dhu by a handful of rebellious generals with direct assistance from the American government. Diem had ruled South Vietnam since its creation in 1955 when he ousted the former Emperor Bao Dai and established a freely independent and anti-communist Vietnamese state, locked in civil war with its northern brother, the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (better known as ‘North Vietnam’). 

Born into a Catholic family of former imperial mandarins during French rule, Diem from a young age dedicated his life to an independent and sovereign Vietnam free from foreign control, whether colonial, imperialist, or ‘anti-imperialist’. During a time when the communist Viet Minh was the major nationalist organization fighting against foreign rule, Diem aimed to create a space in the fight for independence separate from the fight for socialist revolution. His adherence to traditional Vietnamese Confucian values as well as his devout Catholic faith alienated Diem from communism, and the murder of his brother Khoi at the hands of guerillas was the final straw in separating Diem and his growing following from Ho and the Viet Minh.

Following the final defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 at the hands of communist military mastermind Vo Nguyen Diap, the former French colonies in Indochina were partitioned under the Geneva Conference. Diem ruled in the South and the Communist Politburo ruled in the North. From the onset, the Communists did not recognize the legitimacy of South Vietnam and began to fund, train, and support guerilla movements in the South, later known as the Viet Cong; these guerillas terrorized the rural population of South Vietnam, forcing them to hand over rice, taxes, and manpower and publicly tortured and massacred government officials who worked for Saigon, chipping away at Diem’s mandate.

By the late 1950s, the now infamous domino theory pushed Washington into deep collaboration with Saigon; while Diem welcomed diplomatic and military support for his country, he was unwilling to accept American decision-making in his domestic politics, leading to significant disagreements between his regime and the State Department. Distancing the country from Washington was also essential for Diem in countering accusations by the communists regarding the legitimacy of his government and his state. However, as a result, he cultivated a wide array of enemies within the US government.

Major points of disagreement were the Strategic Hamlet Program to protect the rural population from VC attacks and the Buddhist crisis, mass uprisings against persecution of Buddhist monks by the Catholic president. It was this last crisis that was the final straw between Diem and the US government. Under pressure from advisors, President Kennedy authorized the removal of Diem from power through rebellious ARVN generals in the controversial Cable 243 document (the irony of course being that Kennedy himself was assassinated less than three weeks later).

President Diem greeting schoolchildren

I became interested in the story of Diem and his betrayal after reading The Sympathizer this summer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. The novel describes the story of a half-French half-Vietnamese communist double agent living amongst Vietnamese refugees in late 1970s Los Angeles. The figure of Diem becomes a martyr for these refugees and former ARVN soldiers, representing the failed promises of the American government and the betrayal of their South Vietnamese allies throughout the War. 

The fact that such reverence was held for a person I had previously only known in a minimal capacity poked my curiosity. My questions about Diem and his life brought me to Geoffrey Shaw’s The Lost Mandate of Heaven, the leading English-language book on Diem’s political career and his conflict with the State Department that led to his demise. In his thesis, Shaw identifies Diem with the Confucian idea of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, a long-standing cultural paradigm within East Asia where the legitimacy of a ruler who follows traditional Confucian morals and orthodoxy is derived from divine authority.

For Shaw, the inability of many US officials in Vietnam to recognize the fact that Diem retained an irreplaceable popular mandate was a critical turning point in the eventual failure of the American intervention in Southeast Asia. The fact that the generals who succeeded Diem never regained the same level of control over the country illustrates this point clearly. The power vacuum left in Saigon eventually led to an increase in American advisors and later ‘boots on the ground’, and the explosion of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s that we all know well.

While US officials who supported Diem’s overthrow viewed the action as necessary to strengthen an anti-communist bulwark, the leaders in the North, with a clear understanding of Vietnamese culture and history, were quick to analyze the move as a complete strategic failure that would eventually be the nail in their coffin. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Ho Chi Minh reportedly said, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid”, and an official communique from the Politburo stated, “[it] will be contrary to the calculations of the US imperialists…Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Among the anti-Communists…no one has sufficient political assets and abilities to cause others to obey.” What the DoS could not predict during months of debate, the Vietnamese understood within a matter of days.

A main takeaway from the tragic story of Diem is the importance of understanding cultural subjectivity within international relations. From the perspective of Washington, Diem was ungrateful and corrupt, and there would be no difference if the Saigon government was led by him or an ARVN general. But for many citizens of South Vietnam, Diem was a mandarin-prince dedicated to his people and his nation, the same personification that the North Vietnamese developed for ‘Uncle Ho’. The concept of the Mandate of Heaven cannot be easily manufactured by winning ‘hearts and minds’, but is naturally and culturally derived. The erasure of Diem’s story in our cultural paradigm has cursed US foreign policy in numerous other areas and conflicts, and we should consider this moment in time for what it was: an autumn evening in Saigon that, in hindsight, changed the world.

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