south vietnam's president ngo dinh diem -- 7/02/18

Today's selection -- from The Age of Eisenhower by William I. Hitchcock. The seeds of America's eventual defeat in Vietnam stemmed from the horrifying policies and practices of South Vietnam's president Ngo Dinh Diem. He was assassinated in a CIA-backed coup in 1963:

"In June 1954, as the French and Vietnamese communists hammered out the Geneva accords that partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, [South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh] Diem saw his chance. ... [He] returned to Viet­nam to form a government that would usher out the hated French and open the way to the creation of an independent and noncommunist South Viet­nam. ... Diem became the face of a new experiment in Asian self-rule.

The partition of French Indochina that
resulted from the 1954 Geneva Conference.

"Although Diem was a Catholic in a Buddhist country; although his extended family, the Ngo clan, had a notorious reputation for corruption, criminality, and connections to reactionary military circles; and although he had little popular appeal or legitimacy, he seemed to the Americans the per­fect man to build a free and democratic South Vietnam. He was ferociously anticommunist. His Catholicism marked him as Western in American eyes. And he already had close friends in Washington. In fact his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, had been working with the CIA since 1952 and would maintain that link for the rest of the decade. As Diem consolidated power, he relied upon American support to fend off a military coup attempt in 1954 as well as uprisings launched by sects and gangs in Saigon in 1955. ...

"As Diem's power grew, his relationship with the United States became more troubled. He was an authoritarian man with a messiah complex. He relied upon his brother, who ran the secret police, to wage a relentless war upon communist sympathizers and subversives. By itself that did not dis­please Washington, but the methods used -- mass arrests, torture, wanton murder -- did upset the narrative that Washington wished to write of Diem as a model Asian leader. Even the CIA station in Saigon urged Diem to adopt land reform and political liberalization so as to develop some degree of popular support and legitimacy. Diem refused, citing the constant threat of internal subversion as a reason to focus on building up the South Viet­namese Army and deploying harsh tactics against any dissidents.

"Diem understood that he could manipulate the Americans. In return for his anticommunism, he sought and received enormous amounts of aid, to­taling $2 billion between 1954 and 1961. Not only did the United States sup­ply the South Vietnamese Army and security police, but it gave vast sums in the form of development aid and loans, allowing South Vietnam to purchase huge quantities of American cars, trucks, household goods, and food. The United States built roads, bridges, schools, railways, canals, and airports; set up a national telecommunications network; supplied civil aviation aircraft; and implemented nationwide English-language education. South Vietnam rapidly became the showcase for the American way of modernization and militarization in the Third World. And all the while hopes for democratiza­tion withered. ...

Diem is shown shaking hands with US President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Washington National Airport in 1957.

"American officials consoled themselves that, for all his shortcomings, Diem nevertheless shared America's aims in Asia. A briefing book prepared for Eisenhower on the eve of Diem's visit declared that Diem 'feels that Vietnam in its present situation and given its own heritage is not yet ready for a democratic government. ... His concept is one of benevolent authoritarianism.' Diem 'believes that the Vietnamese people are not the best judges of what is good for them.' While these attitudes prompted some discomfort in Washington, Diem's anticommunism inoculated him from serious American criticism.

"When Diem met with Eisenhower at the White House on May 9, 1957, Ike praised him for 'the excellent achievements he has brought about' and barely registered any protest when Diem insisted that he needed more milltary aid. Given the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress, Diem declared that his country had used its annual subvention of $250 million to wage war on communism. The budget-conscious representatives gave him a standing ovation. In New York City, Diem received a ticker-tape parade. Mayor Robert Wagner hailed the Vietnamese 'miracle' and described Diem as 'a man to whom freedom is the very breath of life itself.' The press hailed him as 'Vietnam's man of iron' and a 'symbol of a free new Asia.' ...

"In 1958 and 1959 Diem transformed South Vietnam into a regime of terror, corruption, and repression in his campaign to wipe out communist subversion. He was tactically successful in hunting down and cracking communist cells, but his methods were so brutal that they alienated his own people. More signifi­cant, his methods persuaded North Vietnam to escalate its support for the rebellion inside South Vietnam. In January 1959 the North Vietnamese de­cided to launch a major campaign of subversion in the South to overthrow Diem's regime and attempt to reunite the country. A new Indochina War was about to begin.

"As communist attacks increased in South Vietnam, Diem responded in kind. His government herded hundreds of thousands of peasants into con­centrated villages ('agrovilles') so they could be better policed and blocked from offering support to the rebellion. Diem also expanded even further his security apparatus, channeling American aid into the secret police and diverting the army into internal security duties. In May 1959 he forced through a new decree that gave the government extraordinary emergency powers to arrest, try, and execute suspected communist guerrillas. In an appalling act of barbarism, the government sent guillotines to all the prov­inces. Those people found guilty of subversion met their death strapped to a horizontal plank beneath a slashing blade. Predictably such policies stimulated massive hostility throughout the South."

From THE AGE OF EISENHOWER: America and the World in the 1950s by William I. Hitchcock. Copyright © 2018 by William Hitchcock. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.



William I. Hitchcock


The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2018 by William Hitchcock


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