Vietnam Notebook: Geneva 1954 and the Rise of Ngo Dinh Diem

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secret...

Geneva 1954 and the 1950s

Realignment in the North and South

We now turn our attention to the period of political and diplomatic realignment that followed the 1954 Geneva Accords, during which time the United States replaced the French as the dominant non-communist party in the affairs of Indochina.


The war to evict the French didn’t cease seamlessly throughout Indochina; in some places, Tonkin for example, there was a fairly abrupt disengagement, in other regions, Annam and Cochinchina, the process was less clear-cut. And although the French transfer of power (including in Laos and Cambodia) was very carefully planned and negotiated, thousands suddenly found themselves behind enemy lines. Many moved to safer ground in the days and months following the withdrawal, many others stayed behind only to be persecuted for their fifth column potential. The treatment of these distinct populations over the following decade had profound implications for the course of events in Vietnam.

The French and Americans did their best to get those in the North who had supported them evacuated to the South. The Catholics were the most important group, both numerically and politically. Many Catholics moved south in the months following the cease-fire, quickly becoming a source of resentment for many Southerners. Catholics left behind in the North turned into a major irritant for Ho Chi Minh’s ruling Workers Party of Vietnam (aka Lao Dong Party), culminating in the bloody Nghe Anh uprising in 1956. Meanwhile, in the newly created South Vietnam, Vietminh soldiers found themselves behind Diem’s lines and were subjected to his bloody “Denunciation of Communists” campaign. Thousands were relocated to the North by the Party, some destined to return years later to lead an insurgency. Others stayed back and went underground in the South. They would be the seed bed from which the Viet Cong would eventually grow. In addition, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen sects in the South were highly unpredictable elements in an increasingly smoldering cauldron.

With the fall of the French on the battlefield in May 1954, there was a considerable political vacuum left in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s troops moved quickly and hardened their control over Tonkin. But the situation was more fluid in the South and Central zones. The French, Americans and British all had vested interests in keeping the Communists at bay during those chaotic days. They were particularly interested in keeping them from gaining a foothold in Saigon, the commercial heart of the country. A suitable governor had to be found, one that was loyal to the “idea” of a South Vietnam and who would advocate for western policies once in place. A name that had surfaced on-and-off throughout the years of French rule was Ngo Dinh Diem, a western educated member of one of the country’s most prominent Catholic families. So, with the assistance of “our man in Saigon,” Edward Lansdale, Ngo Dinh Diem was inserted into the power vacuum left by the French in June 1954.

In Saigon during the Diem years the overwhelming sense of foreboding and intrigue was palpable. Hit and run cafe bombings, running street battles, systematic political assassinations, spies everywhere (some working for both sides), huge gambling, prostitution and racketeering interests pumped up by massive US aid, and the proliferation of modern military machinery and weapons. All of this fed a hyper-accelerating atmosphere dripping with fear and helplessness. Franz Kafka would have identified with the place. A different author, Graham Greene, actually captured the spirit of the age quite well in his masterpiece about the period, the Quiet American.

Looking ahead, the spark that set the tinderbox ablaze, initiating the tragic series of events between the two Indochina Wars, would be Diem’s decision (with American backing) to ignore the Geneva Accords agreement to hold nation-wide elections two years after the 1954 treaty. When the time came, in 1956, Diem (and by extension the Eisenhower Administration) knew the election would almost certainly result in a national victory for Ho Chi Minh. Whether achieved through force or by consent (still a controversial topic to this day) a victory for Ho was seen as the worst possible outcome for America’s Cold War foreign policy. So their proxy Diem refused to participate. The leaders of the Lao Dong, along with millions of their revolutionary followers, felt that they had been double-crossed. They had won the war against the French but had acquiesced to Cold War realities at Geneva on the condition of future elections to settle matters. From that point on there would be no more deals– it would be strictly Dau Tranh. No representative of Ho Chi Minh would sit at a negotiating table with the West again until well into the late 1960s.

Ngo Dinh Diem would be dead within a decade (1963), assassinated by members of his own army, the years of his rule were chaotic and frequently hellish for the inhabitants of the South. The events during this period set the country on the path to the second Indochina war, the war the Vietnamese now call “the American War.” Let’s take a closer look now at the story of America’s descent into the Vietnam quagmire, beginning in Geneva in the immediate aftermath of Dien Bien Phu…

The Geneva Conference 1954:

Ho Chi Minh and his close circle of associates – namely, Le Duan, Truong Chinh, Pham Van Dong, Le Duc Tho and Vo Nguyen Giap—fresh off a grueling, hard-fought, victory to end foreign colonial rule– understandably felt strongly that they should have been awarded control of all of Vietnam. After all, they had led the resistance and the victorious war against the French. Yet the battlefield victories came mostly in the North, in Tonkin and Annam. The French on the other hand continued to maintain a significant presence in the southern half of the country. Saigon, Michelin rubber plantations and Mekong Delta rice represented the real economic engine in Vietnam. A lucrative enterprise to say the least. As a result the French, with help from their American backers, were able to resist a complete Vietminh takeover. This was the situation in late spring 1954 when the world powers convened in Geneva to hammer out a settlement.

The United States was not listed as one of the official signatory parties at Geneva. Instead, we had observers in place. Our senior observer was General Walter Bedell Smith, General Dwight Eisenhower’s former chief of staff.  Smith wasn’t necessarily intransigent but he was clearly constrained by the Cold War spirit of anti-communism, exemplified in the strongly combative statements of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Clearly the Eisenhower government felt it had a stake in what happened at Geneva. And even though the Americans were not a direct party to the settlement they did heavily influence the final outcome. Probably for the worse as it turned out. The agreement was among Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of VietnamFranceLaos, the People’s Republic of China, the State of Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The United States took note and acknowledged that the agreement existed but refused to sign it to avoid being legally bound to it.

The Geneva Accords, which were issued on July 21, 1954, carefully worded the division of northern and southern Vietnam as a “provisional military demarcation line, on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal”. To specifically put aside any notion that it was a partition, they further stated, in the Final Declaration, Article 6: “The Conference recognizes that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.”  American observer Walter Bedell Smith added: “In connection with the statement in the Declaration concerning free elections in Vietnam, my government wishes to make clear its position which it has expressed in a Declaration made in Washington on June 29, 1954, as follows: ‘In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek unity through free elections, supervised by the United Nations to ensure they are conducted fairly.”

As it happened, the definition of “free” elections became Diem’s out when it came time to have those elections. In 1956 he would claim that a nation-wide election was unrealistic, that it would be marred by intimidation and corruption on the Communist side and as such could not be trusted as being “free.” This from a man who one year earlier had gained power in a rigged referendum (to be discussed momentarily). With his influential American backers providing political cover, Diem’s refusal to participate worked. Or did it?

Indochina – Statement by the Under Secretary of State at the Concluding Plenary Session of the Geneva Conference, July 21,1954

The Geneva Accords “temporarily” divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. Why such a disappointing outcome for Ho Chi Minh and his comrades? At the time Ho’s primary allies, the USSR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), had other geopolitical considerations that outweighed any benefits to be gained from digging in their heels for Ho Chi Minh. In the USSR, Stalin was dead and the struggle for control of the Party was in play. His eventual successor, Nikita Krushchev, was still emerging as leader. This was a very tense period of the Cold War; the Red Scare was still running rampant in America; the USSR was in a period of sustained industrial growth and was in the process of building its first generation of nuclear arms; most eyes were on Europe, the focus was on Berlin and consolidating Soviet rule “behind the Iron Curtain.” And even though the Vietminh victory over France represented maybe the greatest single success of a communist inspired insurgency since 1917, the full unification of Vietnam under Ho’s leadership was a secondary matter in Moscow. In addition, the Korean War was fresh in the memory. There the Cold War had turned hot, quickly flaring out of control, both sides backing-up proxy armies with the threat of nuclear weapons. After three bloody years the war ground to a standstill with no clear winners, and plenty of losers. After WWII and Korea, the super powers wanted a break from fighting. Although not yet easily apparent at Geneva, the Krushchev led USSR was beginning to move toward a policy of greater openness with the West.

The Korean War was an unexpected and unwelcome development for Mao and his CCP. Coming as it did so shortly after victory over Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Civil War (1949), the Korean War postponed Mao’s effort to consolidate Communist rule over the vast country. He was also forced to break off plans to pursue and eliminate Chiang and his Kuomintang Army once and for all, having to send his armies to Manchuria to fight Americans instead. The Chinese Communists were also lobbying, primarily against US objections, to be recognized at the UN as the sole representatives of China. Chiang Kai-shek had escaped to Formosa (Taiwan) and was being backed by the West in the UN and protected by the US under threat of nuclear retaliation. Throw in the fact that much of China lay in ruins after years of civil and world wars and it becomes clear that Mao’s delegates in Geneva, led by Zhou Enlai, weren’t going to go out on a diplomatic limb to strengthen Ho Chi Minh’s hand. More than anything else, the Chinese Communists needed time to rebuild their own country before focusing on building Ho’s.

Telegram from Walter Bedell Smith to Secretary of State Dulles on the Chinese Position, 18 July 1954

With the Geneva Accords completed the U.S. replaced the French as the political and military benefactor in South Vietnam. In the wake of the French withdrawal, within a year after Geneva, in a bold move aimed at consolidating power, Ngo Dinh Diem, then the fledgling Prime Minister under Bao Dai, staged the October 23, 1955 Plebiscite rigged by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu to unseat Bao. Almost comically, Diem came away with 98% of the vote in South Vietnam, with 133% in Saigon. Then, as discussed earlier, Diem refused to hold the national elections in 1956, noting that the State of Vietnam never signed the Geneva Accords. He then went about attempting to crush communist opposition. In fact, both sides violated provisions of the Accords, with both regimes engaging in military buildups in direct violation. Northern inspired guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisers continued to support and train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

Author Joseph Buttinger wrote at the time: “The Vietnamese conflict started in the late 1950s because the Communists were once more deprived of certain victory, this time by the United States, and because they were in danger of being exterminated by the Diem regime. It is a conflict essentially over the question of who shall control South Vietnam, and the related long-term question of whether and under whose auspices the reunification of the country will take place.”  — Joseph Buttinger, A Dragon Defiant

It took until 1975 for Ho Chi Minh’s followers to accomplish, through force of arms, with millions of casualties, what could have been settled in Geneva in 1954. But it was not to be. The lesson learned by Ho Chi Minh and his men was that costly victories on the battlefield could be squandered at the treaty table. They would never let it happen again. Just ask Henry Kissinger!

Catholics and CIA:

After the partition, there were sixteen million people in the North and fourteen million in the South, eighty-five to ninety percent of them ethnic Vietnamese. And although not considered an overly devout religious country the vast majority of Vietnamese identified as Buddhists. American CIA operatives had become actively involved in clandestine measures aimed at destabilizing the North. They conducted small-scale sabotage in and around Hanoi, putting acid in the gas tanks of buses for example, all in an effort to discredit Ho’s Communist government by making it look weak and non-responsive.

The most successful CIA undertaking in the wake of the Geneva Accords, maybe too successful as it turned out, was the incredible effort to persuade Catholics to flee to the South from the North known as Operation Passage to Freedom. Most Vietnamese Catholics lived north of the 17th parallel at the moment of the French fall. CIA flown planes dropped leaflets urging Catholics to follow the Virgin Mary South, propaganda was spread by radio, posters and word of mouth. In the end, significant numbers of Catholics went south, something on the order of 800,000. Close to half of all Northern Catholics fled. Many made it across on American planes and boats. With so many Catholics moving to the south Ho’s government was left with substantial amounts of prime rice-growing land to distribute as they wished. That was a positive consequence and a pretty nice bargaining chip. In addition, a potentially significant internal security problem was greatly reduced. Not totally though; evidence that the threat remained came in 1956 when predominately Catholic peasants in Nghe Anh Province rose up in rebellion against Ho’s government. Nghe Anh proved to be a black eye and an embarrassment for Ho. We’ll discuss that momentarily.

Suffice it to say, the fallout in South Vietnam from the mass migration of Catholics was enormously damaging. The decision to encourage it was the first in a series of key miscalculations made by Diem and the Americans. Many of the Catholic interlopers were given preferential treatment by the Diem government when they arrived south of the 17th Parallel. The new political exchange rate in South Vietnam was not in favor of the native population, and they were realizing it. To make matters worse, in his effort to gain control in the countryside and in many towns, Diem employed a police apparatus that went about dismantling age-old political structures and village alliances. His men unceremoniously deposed local and regional officials throughout the Country. Everywhere long-standing elected elders found themselves suddenly out of favor and replaced by government cronies, characterized by a proliferation of the newly arrived Catholics in positions of power. This all ran concurrently with Diem’s “Denunciation of Communists” campaign where tens of thousands of Southerners, many considered heroes for their actions in the recently concluded Indochina War, were hunted and sometimes targeted for death by the Diem government for their ties to the Vietminh. As you might imagine these controversial directives had serious blowback consequences down the line. Millions of South Vietnamese began asking themselves: who was this distant mandarin in the sharkskin suit who appeared suddenly on the scene, backed by the Americans, with millions of Catholics in tow? And why should we support a man who chose to sit out the war against the French and who now hunts down and kills the patriots who fought for our independence?

Eisenhower’s Folly:

American president Dwight Eisenhower’s government subscribed officially to the  global defense policy known as “Containment.” What was being contained? Communism. By the time Eisenhower entered office in 1953 the Soviets had nuclear weapons. They acquired thermonuclear weapons—the hydrogen bomb—not long after we did. Moreover, the Chinese were about to get nuclear weapons. And even though Ike was elected on a campaign promising to end the Korean War, his primary foreign policy concern was the Soviet threat to western Europe and his focus was on NATO and Germany. That held true through the eight years of the Eisenhower presidency. The Soviets had several tank armies in East Germany, a huge force compared with what NATO had on the ground. It was obvious that we couldn’t stop them with ground troops, so the only recourse would be to use nuclear weapons. Eisenhower and his advisers determined that there wasn’t much chance of stopping a nuclear war at the tactical level. Once any nuclear weapons were used, however small, the genie was out of the bottle. Ike decided on a policy to go immediately to a general nuclear attack, massive retaliation, if the Soviets attacked. If the USSR invaded Germany, we would respond with nuclear weapons against deployed Soviet forces and against Russia itself. So Europe was what mattered, massive retaliation was the official, if controversial, policy and Indochina was just one piece of a very large puzzle.

Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency through the rear view mirror appears fairly nondescript and moderate. But Eisenhower was an experienced Cold Warrior who took advice from two of the most strident anti-communists of the age—the Dulles brothers (Allen and John Foster)—both of whom advocated an aggressive stance against what they believed, incorrectly in retrospect, was a unified communist bloc led from Moscow and Peking bent on world domination. Even though the gaze remained on Europe, Ike and his group believed strongly that they couldn’t lose sight of the rest of the world. They became involved in places like Iran and Vietnam. They were also beginning to formulate the geopolitical concept that would come to be known as the Domino Theory.

According to historian George Herring: “the basic problem of nation building was political. There was much talk about assisting the Vietnamese to construct an American-style democracy, and US advisers helped draft a constitution that contained many of the trappings of Western democracies. Some Americans naively assumed that Diem shared their political values; others were preoccupied with the security problems that seemed most urgent. Most probably shared Dulles’s view that it was enough for Diem to be “competent, anti-Communist and vigorous.” For whatever reason, the US did little to promote democracy or even political reform until South Vietnam was swept by revolution.” — George Herring, America’s Longest War

The Lansdale Factor:

Into the Indochina mix at this moment appeared Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, ostensibly a colonel in the US Air Force, but in reality a CIA operative.  He is widely regarded as one of the most influential agents in history. As we’ll see, he had some serious competition on the communist side. Lansdale is a fascinating character. He was an advertising executive until World War II when he enrolled in the OSS, which he later denied. He’s a shadowy character. After WWII, Lansdale wound up in the Philippines, where he used his Air Force commission as cover and became an influential policy maker.

Lansdale in the Philippines:

In the immediate post-war period the Philippines was in political and economic chaos. In 1946-47 there was an anti-imperialist, Communist-led, guerrilla movement working to overthrow the American backed government. The name of the movement was Hukbalahap (in Tagalog). Huks for short. The Huks it seems had turned on big landowners in a bid for power. The landowners owned almost everything, had outsized political influence, and were not much loved by the peasants. There was rampant and blatant injustice and economic inequity and the Huks took full advantage of the situation. Then Lansdale appeared. He went, for example, into the mountains and setup next to trails that he knew were used by the Huks. Sometimes he even mingled with them on the trails. He learned a good deal about their movements, motivation and force makeup. He used it to advise the Filipinos on how to fight back. In the process, Lansdale may have invented one of the earliest American counter-insurgency strategies. He also understood the importance of a popularly elected, popularly supported government. To that end, Lansdale engineered the popular election of Ramon Magsaysay as president of the Philippines. Magsaysay then used his mandate to go after the Huks. All the way he leaned on Lansdale’s expertise and knowledge of the ins and outs of guerrilla warfare and operations. It was a bloody affair but Magsaysay (and Lansdale) prevailed.

Lansdale in Vietnam:

When Lansdale arrived in Saigon several years later he found himself in a fluid, incredibly dynamic environment. The famous French security service, the Surete, was still active in Saigon and around South Vietnam, still keeping track of dissidents and still engaging in political intrigue. The French wanted to retain as much influence as they could, as did the Binh Xuyen, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai and various nationalist groups. Who was in charge? Lansdale surveyed the Vietnam situation and quickly concluded that our best bet in the South was Ngo Dinh Diem, then Bao Dai’s Prime Minister. So, on Lansdale’s recommendation, in October 1954 the Eisenhower administration decided to support him with cash. Diem may have been an unknown quantity politically, but he was deemed far better than the French or the unreliable Bao Dai, let alone the Communists. One wonders whether the US missed an excellent opportunity by focusing exclusively on Diem rather than on cultivating ties with some of the more popular nationalist organizations that existed in South Vietnam at the time, the Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang for example. Instead, the Eisenhower administration backed Diem singularly with one hundred million dollars in military aid. Maybe more importantly, Diem then knew he had the tacit US backing he needed as he moved to exploit a political environment highlighted by the weakness of his boss, Bao Dai. According to Historian George Herring: “at that moment in October 1954 we became so committed to South Vietnam that we couldn’t back out without sustaining a serious foreign policy embarrassment—we had crossed the Rubicon.” – George Herring, America’s Longest War

From 1954-57 Lansdale was stationed in Saigon as the head of the Saigon Military Mission. During this period he was active training the Vietnamese National Army (in violation of Geneva), in negotiating relations between the Caodaist militias and the Diem family, and in the propaganda campaign encouraging North Vietnam’s Catholics to move to the south. Interestingly, Lansdale was actually against the way Diem handled the widely discredited 1955 referendum that saw him replace Bao Dai and proclaim himself President of the newly formed Republic of Vietnam. Lansdale advised Diem to not rig the poll so obviously. Instead, remembering Magsaysay, Lansdale advised Diem to lower his sights and content himself with a more realistic 60-70% result. That way, he believed, it would appear more legitimate in the eyes of the South Vietnamese people and world. Diem ignored Lansdale. He was emboldened after getting the big loan. He knew he had a ton of leverage with the US and he began to use it. As noted earlier Diem was credited with nearly one hundred percent of the vote, over one hundred percent in Saigon! Not exactly a believable outcome. Diem cared not about world opinion, he would use the numbers to justify his regime’s violence.

That particular quarrel was short-lived; when it came time for Diem to face down the sects in his bid to consolidate power Lansdale was always right there, supplying muscle and brains. It was Lansdale who steeled Diem, providing backbone and tactical support when the chips were down, urging the apprehensive leader onward in the heat of battle. Without Lansdale it is unclear whether Diem would have survived the street war with the Binh Xuyen in April 1955. That victory marked the first real triumph of his rule. In an ironic twist, it was Lansdale who mentored, trained and recommended Phạm Xuân Ẩn, a reporter for Time Magazine who turned out to be a highly placed North Vietnamese spy! More about him later. Turn about is fair play.

So it was Eisenhower who initially set the US on the path to war in Vietnam. Not JFK, not LBJ, but Ike, and it was Lansdale and the Dulles Brothers who had his ear. Remember also, we were just emerging from the McCarthy Era, the fear of losing anything to Communism was a very powerful rallying cry in American politics. In the late 1940s and early ’50s the GOP were relentless in blaming the Democrats for “losing China.” So ignoring Diem, or worse, backing out, was not an option, even for a GOP president. That suited Edward Lansdale just fine.

The Ngo Dinhs:

Born to a Mandarin family in 1901, Ngo Dinh Diem was an ardent Catholic. In his youth he received a first-rate education at a school founded by his father, Ngo Dình Kha. The school’s mission was to provide young Vietnamese with a first-rate European-style education. Ironically the school had actually become a hotbed of anti-French sentiment, Ho Chi Minh studied there for example (before being expelled for anti-French political activities), but Diem maintained a much lower profile. Yes he did show nationalist tendencies, he had Vietnamese patriotism in his blood, but he was not yet inclined to go against the system that had served his family so well.

After graduating at the top of his class in 1921, Diem joined the civil service. Starting from the lowest rank of mandarin, he steadily rose. Diem first served at the royal library in Huế, and within one year was the district chief, presiding over seventy villages. He was promoted to be a provincial chief at the age of 25, overseeing 300 villages. The French were impressed by his work but did not appreciate his frequent calls to grant more autonomy to the native Vietnamese officials.

In 1929, Diem led the round-up of communist agitators in his administrative area. He was rewarded with a promotion to the governorship of Bình Thuan Province, and in 1930 and 1931 suppressed, with French assistance, the first peasant revolts organized by the communists there. In 1933, with the return of Bao Dai to the throne, Diem was appointed by the French to be his interior minister. After calling for the French to introduce a Vietnamese legislature, he resigned after three months in office when this was rejected. He was stripped of his decorations and titles and threatened with arrest. For the next decade, Diem lived as a private citizen with his family, although he was kept under surveillance by the French Surete. He was to have no formal job for 21 years. — Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam A Political History

During WWII Diem was not a member of the Japanese proxy government of Bao Dai and somehow managed to get through the period of Japanese occupation politically unscathed. There are questions about whether he actually worked as an inside agent for the Japanese, but the evidence is slim, and hence the rumors are unsubstantiated. We do know that with the end of the Second World War in sight, in 1945, the Japanese offered Diem the premiership of a puppet regime under Bao Dai. They were organizing a last ditch effort to install a friendly government to protect their interests upon leaving the country. Diem declined and thus avoided the stigma of being seen as a collaborationist.

When the Vietminh made their bid for power in August 1945, during the chaotic days following the Japanese surrender, they identified Diem’s eldest brother as a possible rival for power. Ngo Dinh Khoi, a leader among Catholics in the North, had served as a governor during French rule. He was reportedly buried alive by the Vietminh right after the August Revolution. As a result, Diem became a most combative anti-communist. And who can blame him?

In September 1945, after the Japanese withdrawal, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The Vietminh then began fighting the French. Diem attempted to travel to Hue to dissuade Bao Dai from joining Ho’s forces but was arrested by the Vietminh along the way and sequestered in a remote village. Months later, after surviving a bout with malaria while in captivity, Diem was taken to meet Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. There he was offered a cabinet post in the newly forming government by Ho Chi Minh. Diem flatly refused to join the Vietminh, he assailed Ho for the death of his brother Khoi and argued vehemently with him over the course of the revolution. Amazingly, Ho let Diem go! Perhaps he hoped that he could one day bring Diem around, or maybe he just dismissed Diem as a false threat. The true answer went to the grave with Ho Chi Minh. Ho was to admit later that the decision to release Diem was one of his most serious mistakes.

In spring, 1954, while events were playing out at the Geneva Conference, Diem went to Europe for a meeting with Bao Dai, who still exercised sovereign authority over South Vietnam. Diem seems to have offered his services to Bao at that time. The motivations and the final disposition, whereby Bao Dai ultimately appointed Diem to be his premier, remain controversial to this day. Many historians have argued that Bao Dai appointed Diem in response to heavy pressure from the United States. It’s true that Diem had prominent contacts in the United States, mostly in Catholic circles, through his older brother Ngo Dinh Thuc. The two visited the United States in the early 1950s, while the French Indochina War was raging back home, and Diem for a time lived in a seminary in upstate New York. Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, probably the most influential Catholic religious leader in the country at the time, was an acquaintance. It’s unclear whether any of this had anything to do with Diem’s seemingly lightning rise to prominence in the waning days of French rule. It is very possible that Bao Dai appointed Diem on his own rather than having been forced to do so by the US. Under the existing circumstances, chaotic to say the least, Bao needed someone to represent his interests in Saigon. Diem was a known nationalist with uncompromising anti-communist and anti-French credentials. In short, he was a logical choice for Bao Dai. So it’s murky as to how Diem’s rise came about during those days and weeks at the end of French colonialism in Vietnam. We do know that it didn’t take long for Diem and Lansdale to forge a strong bond, a partnership that ultimately led to the first big US loan to Diem’s newly forming South Vietnam regime.

Here is where Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu makes his first appearance on the scene; a brilliant organizer and manipulator, Nhu was put in charge of pulling off the logistics in Saigon for Diem’s assumption of power. Diem exemplified the Mandarin mentality; distant; imperious; arrogant; domineering; not exactly the greatest material from which to build a cult of personality. Nhu was put in charge of propaganda and by extension the marketing of his brother’s image. He proved an astute and ruthless political tactician. He seized control of media outlets through intimidation, or through force, if required. Although he held no formal executive position in Diem’s government, Brother Nhu in many ways was the unofficial power behind the scenes. He commanded the ARVN Special Forces (which served as the Ngo family’s de facto private army) and the secret Can Lao political party (also known as the Personalist Labor Party) which he formed and which served as the regime’s secret police. In 1955, Nhu and his henchman helped intimidate the public and rig the vote that capped Diem’s fast rise to power. So Nhu more than anyone founded Diem’s political party. Together they constructed a top-down institution with the power to implement its own orders, not an organization designed to reflect public opinion or gain popular support.

George Herring:

“Political reform would have been lost on Diem, for whom democracy was alien in terms of experience and temperament. Inasmuch as he had a political philosophy, it was the vague concept of “personalism,” a fusion of Western and Eastern ideas that Diem and his brother Nhu used as a rationalization for absolute state power, distrust of popular rule,  and the belief that a small elite was responsible for defining the general welfare.” Some contemporary critics felt that personalism was just a small leap from fascism, and many have accused Diem and Nhu, at the time and in retrospect, of misusing the philosophy toward totalitarian ends. Herring continues: “Diem’s vague words only slightly obscured his authoritarian tendencies. Diem’s philosophy of government was expressed with uncharacteristic succinctness in a line he personally added to the constitution: ” The President is vested with leadership of the nation.” He identified his principles with the general good and firmly believed that the people must be guided by the paternalistic hand of those who knew what was best for them. To please his American advisers, Diem paid lip service to democracy, but in practice he assumed absolute powers. He personally dominated the executive branch, reserving to himself and his brothers all power of decision making”– George Herring, America’s Longest War

Journalist Neil Sheehan wrote this about brother Nhu:

“Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s younger brother, bore the title of counselor to the president. In addition to being a chain smoker like Diem, Nhu was a heavy user of opium. He was the second most powerful man in the country and overseer of numerous intelligence and police agencies he put together to protect the family. At the height of the regime he had thirteen different security agencies operating with power to arrest and imprison or execute without trial.

“Nhu was responsible for the hodgepodge of ersatz Fascist and Communist techniques that the regime resorted to in its efforts at political control. Totalitarianism fascinated him. Nhu borrowed promiscuously from both right-wing and left-wing varieties of totalitarianism. The regime’s principal political party, which he created, was a clandestine society called the Can Lao, designed to covertly penetrate, and so better manipulate, the officer corps of the armed forces, the civil bureaucracy, and business and intellectual circles. During the initiation ceremony, new members knelt and kissed a portrait of Diem.” – Neil Sheehan, A bright Shining Lie

Nhu’s wife, known to history as Madame Nhu, also came to play an important role in subsequent events. Because Diem never married, Madame Nhu doubled as his de facto first lady. From a wealthy pro-French family she was an ardent Catholic.  She was also fluent in English, and had an amazing capacity for making controversial statements and decrees, some of which would play a role in her husband’s and brother-in-law’s demise.

Events in South Vietnam after Geneva:

Early in 1955 events were moving quickly for Diem. The organization with the most potential for broad based popular support in South Vietnam in 1955 was the Hoa Hao. The Hoa Hao controlled large chunks of territory along the Cambodian border and in the lower Mekong Delta. The Cao Dai with their militias controlled large areas as well. The Binh Xuyen, the river pirates, controlled Saigon and the area immediately to the south. Bear in mind that in 1955 the French still had a significant military and commercial presence in the South, particularly in the Saigon area.

Joseph Buttinger:

“After Geneva, a politically unified state and single administrative authority in South Vietnam was possible only by setting the government above the Army, by taking control of the police away from a private armed group, and by incorporating all regions controlled by the religious-political sects into the national administration. This meant that the openly dissident Army leadership had to be replaced, that the Binh Xuyen, if it refused to give up control of the police, had to be destroyed, as would the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai if they refused to incorporate their forces into the country’s Army and if they refused to accept the central administrative authority of Saigon. Diem understood this better than any other nationalist leader.”– Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Political History

Back in 1949 Emperor Bao Dại, in order to bolster his forces in the war against the Vietminh, decreed all non-communist military forces in the country as independent armies theoretically contained within the larger conventional army. La Van Vien (aka “Bay”) was given the rank of Major General of the Vietnamese National Army and his troops became the Bình Xuyen, funded largely with revenues from legally-run brothels and casinos; General Vien made arrangements with Bao Dại giving the Binh Xuyen control of their own affairs in return for their nominal support of the regime, similar to an arrangement Bao Dai had made with the French colonial government.

The smart money in Saigon– the politicians, intellectuals and French businessmen– assumed that Diem was weak and his days were numbered. In fact, the fall of Diem was predicted daily in newspapers, cafes, and political circles even before he took on the sects. They were wrong. He approached the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai and asked for their help in getting rid of the Binh Xuyen. He went to the Americans and was helped by Colonel Lansdale. Diem decided to provoke a showdown with the Binh Xuyen for control of Saigon. With support from the newly established South Vietnamese National Army (VNA), notably the parachute battalions, Diem went after the warlord Bay Vien.

In what is known as the Battle of Saigon, begun in April in 1955, between the Bình Xuyen and Diem’s Vietnamese National Army (VNA), Vien had five regular battalions and two battalions of public security shock troops. There was heavy fighting in downtown Saigon with Binh Xuyen mortar shells bursting onto the grounds of the Presidential Palace. The ubiquitous Lansdale was right in the heat of the fight, standing right beside Diem.  After a few weeks the VNA paratroops wore down the  Binh Xuyen in intense house to house street fighting.The Bình Xuyen’s paramilitary forces were mostly wiped out by troops under the command of Duong Van Minh (aka “Big Minh”) in Operation Rung Sat in 1955. Bay Vien, the Binh Xuyen leader, was exiled to Paris.

Having faced down and broken the Binh Xuyen, Diem had police power in Saigon, but he still had the French to deal with. The French had relinquished direct political control in South Vietnam but they still maintained major commercial concerns, the rubber plantations for example, and, along with the Chinese merchants and bosses in Cholon, they still had their hands in the till when it came to many of the less reputable enterprises in and around Saigon. French General Paul Ely felt he had used Diem to get rid of the Binh Xuyen for him, thus securing French influence, especially in the rackets. His hubris was attributable to the bond he had with the commander of the South Vietnamese Army, General Nguyen Van Hinh, who was strongly pro-French, a brother officer who had fought alongside them against the Vietminh. But Diem outwitted them. He “offered” Hinh a vacation in France and backed it up with force. General Hinh barricaded himself in his headquarters and called tanks into the streets of Saigon, but Diem stood his ground.

In the end it was an offer Hinh could not refuse. And once again, Edward Lansdale was in the middle of things. Hinh went into exile in Paris, Diem seized control over the Army after skillfully outmaneuvering his adversaries. From then on the hand-writing was on the wall for the French. They began their final withdrawal shortly thereafter. Diem and Nhu had flattened the Binh Xuyen and sent the French packing. Machiavelli would have been impressed. Diem reorganized the army, beginning a trend of packing high posts with his cronies, while brother Nhu continued to build his infrastructure of secret police and message control. They then moved quickly and powerfully against the Communists.

Neil Sheehan:

“ Because of the sufferings of the war against the French, the population of the South might still have put up with the Ngo Dinhs for quite a while had it not been for the denunciation of Communists Campaign that Diem let loose in the summer of 1955 with US encouragement and help. The 8,000 to 10,000 trusted cadres who had been instructed to stay behind in the South were by no means the only Vietminh there. The country was full of men and women who had fought as regional and part-time village and hamlet guerrillas, served as administrators in the local Vietminh governments, or worked as intelligence agents, messengers, or guides for the revolutionary forces. There were also Vietminh sympathizers, most obviously the families and relatives of those who had gone North, or who had died fighting the French. These people were not Communists. They were the non-Communist majority who had followed the Communists out of nationalism. Diem did not understand that if he persecuted the Vietminh he would be persecuting a great mass of non-Communist Vietnamese who looked back on what they had done with emotions of patriotism. In his loathing of Communism, Diem regarded all Vietminh as evil. Madame Nhu liked to use the French term—they had become “intoxicated” with Communism. American thinking roughly paralleled that of the Ngo Dinhs.

“No one knows how many real Communist cadres and other suspected of being Party members were killed while the campaign gained momentum during the latter half of 1955 and reached a summit of violence in 1956 and 1957. Those doing the killing were not accustomed to keeping an accurate tally of the lives they extinguished, and after a time the murdering accelerated to the point where, as in the land-reform campaign in the North, no one would have been able to keep score. The extent of the killing can be documented well enough to say with certainty that thousands died. The regime officially admitted to imprisoning 50,000 people in “reeducation” in camps around the country by the time the campaign ended in 1960. Unofficial estimates put the number of people sentenced to concentration camps at approximately 100,000. – Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie

Widespread resentment continued to grow and opposition to Diem’s policies hardened. Diem would win out in his battles with the sects, the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Xuyen Binh. Yet the extreme discontent sown during this period, especially in the villages, would eventually lead to his demise, and ultimately that of South Vietnam. The hatred continued to build for years until finally exploding onto the scene in the late 1950s with the emergence of the southern insurgency—the Viet Cong—led by many of those that Diem had set out years before to hunt down in his most dangerous game. More on that later, but first, let’s take a look at what was happening in North Vietnam at this time…

Communist Rule in the North After Geneva:

In the aftermath of the Geneva Accords, the Communists in the North got serious about land reform (aka collectivization). Actually the process began back in March of 1953, well before Dien Bien Phu, with Party directives on population classification. In 1955 the Communists escalated the violence by launching an anti-kulak campaign. The elaborate classification infrastructure was put to use in identifying rich peasants, kulaks, who could then expect a visit from Communist security forces bent on relieving them of their lands and, in many cases, their lives. The land was then redistributed, in most cases, to the poorer peasants. Wealth was measured in things like the amount of land and rice paddies one owned, the volume of rice in the granary, the number of pigs and oxen on the property and how many man-hours of hired labor was employed. The process went something like this– committees comprised of the poorest peasants, considered the most pure, were organized by Communists and were given the power to identify the rich peasants, who were then classified as class enemies and targeted for confiscation. As might be expected, in places, the process was rife with corruption, vengeance, and produced uneven, many times tragic, consequences. Land reform in North Vietnam became a bloody affair.

On the 2nd of November 1956, the excesses of the kulak purges produced a peasant revolt in Nghe Anh province.  Those involved were mostly Catholic peasants who had been under Communist control for many years. They hadn’t wanted collectivization to begin with and were terrified by the arbitrary nature of the local committees, fearing for their property and their lives. So they rose in revolt, chasing the cadres out of their villages. Nghe Anh, ironically, was Ho Chi Minh’s home province. Ho and the Party responded by sending in troops, in the form of the 325th Division. There was heavy loss of life, perhaps several thousand killed and many more imprisoned. In the meantime, the anti-kulak campaign had picked up a momentum of its own. Many heads of households in North Vietnam were identified as kulaks and executed. The number of people being killed and imprisoned was producing mass resistance. Nghe Anh appears to have acted like a cold bucket of water in the face for Ho Chi Minh. The intensity of the revolt pointed out that the land reform program, as it stood, was not entirely popular and needed serious adjustment. He moved quickly to address the error. On the 8th of November 1956, Ho Chi Minh went on radio and apologized to the nation. He then launched what he called the “Rectification of Errors” campaign to undo some of the damage.

Throughout the period there was an internal struggle within the ranks of the Communist party over how, when, or if, the armed struggle should be pursued. On one side of the debate were the northerners who believed that their first priority should be to create a proper Communist society in the north, arguing for a gradualist approach to see a unified Vietnam under communist rule. Their immediate priority was to consolidate strength in the North. The northerners were led by Truong Chinh, Pham Van Dong and General Vo Nguyen Giap. It was Truong Chinh who took the fall after Nghe Anh. Labeled as the ideological instigator of many of the more brutal aspects of the land reform debacle, Truong lost influence that he would not regain for decades after Nghe Anh. The southern faction conversely wanted to move swiftly to take the revolution to the South. They included Le Duan, Le Duc Tho and Nguyen Chi Thanh (Giap’s principle rival).

This was an important moment in Vietnamese history. The fall of Truong Chinh led to the ascent of Le Duan to second in command after NgheAnh. With that the southern strategy began to gather influence and momentum. Looking ahead, as time went by, the southerners would gain increasing influence, especially with the coming of the NLF and the southern war. Nguyen Chi Thanh for example, more than any other individual, would be responsible for selling the Politburo on the all-out 1968 Tet Offensive. Le Duc Tho would represent the Communists at the bargaining table during the peace negotiations with the Americans. And Le Duan, who eclipsed Truong Chinh as second in command after Nghe Anh, would rise to lead the Party, even in the years before Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969. Le Duan ruled until his death in 1986 (succeeded ironically by Truong Chinh!).

Further reading: Exploding the Myths About Vietnam

The Late 1950s – Diem’s Luster Begins to Fade:

Diem’s Denunciation of Communists sweeps clearly reduced the Communist presence in the countryside over the short term, but over the long term he created resentment and bitterness. Diem did another thing that turned out to be disastrous over the long term. He was very concerned about being overthrown by a coup. He had built up his power by dividing and ruling. To do that, at one point he had had to ally himself with the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai. They each had their own militias that had been armed by the French and neither group could be accused of harboring Communists in the areas under their control. Nevertheless Diem felt threatened by any independent political power and he turned on the Hoa Hao, using General Nguyen Kanh as his commanding officer. After crushing the Hoa Hao, Diem turned the army against the Cao Dai and neutralized them.

Another place where a Diem policy fell far short of the mark was his half-hearted attempt at land reform. Author Joseph Buttinger: “Diem’s capacity for constructive leadership was apparently exhausted. Unlike the better monarchs of the dynasties of pre-colonial Vietnam, Diem failed to understand the vital importance of a sound agricultural policy for Vietnam. The crying need for a radical land reform was not met. Diem’s program of protection for tenants and land distribution, decreed in 1956, was not only far too limited in scope but was also effectively sabotaged by the many members of the landlord class holding important positions in the administration.” Joseph Buttinger, A Dragon Defiant

Favoritism toward Catholics; dismantling long-established village political structures; aggression against the sects; the Denunciation of Communists Campaign; the failure of land reform; and widespread desecration of war memorials and cemeteries– Diem had unwittingly created the conditions for a revolution in the South. He had crushed all the groups that had popular support because he believed, whether correctly or not, that they didn’t support him. Yet he didn’t replace them with any real support of his own save for the Army and police. In addition, Diem knew that his control of the army was tenuous at best. He practiced the art of favoritism and intimidation among his senior officers in order to keep them from plotting against him. As we shall see he was less and less successful over time.

Neil Sheehan:

“The dissident Southern cadres who decided to fight back discovered that the Ngo Dinhs and the Americans had made the South ripe for revolution. They went to non-Communists who had been their Vietminh comrades in the Resistance War and found these comrades willing to join them in a new resistance because they too were being hounded by Diem’s campaign. The guerrilla-band remnants of the armies of the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao were ready to forget the past and make common cause. Most important of all, much of the peasantry was so angry that the farmers were prepared to face the agony of another war to rid he country of this foreigner who had replaced the French.

“The Southern cadres, with their old comrades from the Resistance and their newfound allies in the sects, first began striking back at the Ngo Dinhs and the Americans in early 1957, assassinating detested village police agents and village chiefs appointed by Diem. By the beginning of 1958 they had a campaign of counter-terror fully launched and were beginning to form guerrilla units on a systematic basis. By late 1958 the dissident cadres had succeeded in presenting the Party leadership in Hanoi with a fait accompli – a major guerrilla revolt in the South.

“Ho and his disciples in Hanoi were prepared to assume control of it. As Diem’s South had been moving toward renewed war, Ho’s North had been stabilizing. By 1959 the capacity to learn from error had enabled the Communist mandarins to restore much of the confidence in their regime that had been destroyed by the land reform campaign. There was hatred of the regime and opposition, but nothing similar to what existed in the South. The clue was the absence of barbed wire. The entrances to the police and other government buildings in Hanoi and in the smaller towns and villages of North Vietnam were not protected by the barbed-wire barricades and bunkers that guarded every government building in Saigon and the rest of the South. The Vietnamese Communists were not afraid of their people.

“Toward the end of 1958, Ho sent Le Duan, the man he was soon to name secretary-general of the Party, on a secret trip to South Vietnam to determine whether the rebellion was as widespread and self sustaining as the reports claimed it was. Duan, a Central Vietnamese by birth, had fought almost the entire French war in the South, rising to become a senior leader of the Vietminh in the Saigon area and the Mekong Delta. Le Duan returned to Hanoi in early 1959 and urged the Party leadership to reverse policy and resume the unfinished revolution. Ho and the rest of the Politburo agreed. The full Central Committee was convened in May and ratified the leadership’s decision. The second war formally began.” – Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie

The National Liberation Front:

So the southern faction won in the internecine debate in the North. In consequence, the Hanoi government began building up the rebellion in the South. In late 1960 the Southern insurgency gained an identity, labeling itself the National Liberation Front (NLF). The fledgling rebellion had been fathered by the Lao Dong Party, but it had to be done clandestinely out of necessity. If the Party leaders announced openly that the Southern rebels, quickly labeled the Viet Cong by their enemies, were under their control they were admitting openly that they had violated the Geneva Accords. The party line from Hanoi was that they had nothing to do with the insurgents other than offering their sympathy. It was a thin veil to hide behind but remarkably Ho was able to dodge international scrutiny for years. Historian Douglas Pike, writing during the war, was not so easily convinced:

“The NLF was not simply another indigenous covert group, or even a coalition of such groups. It was an organizational steamroller, nationally conceived and nationally organized, endowed with ample cadres and funds, crashing out of the jungle to flatten the GVN. It projected a social construction program of such scope and ambition that of necessity it must have been created in Hanoi and imported. The creation of the NLF was an accomplishment of such skill, precision, and refinement that when one thinks of who the master planner must have been, only one name comes to mind: Vietnam’s organizational genius, Ho Chi Minh.” – Douglas Pike, Viet Cong

The November 11, 1960 Coup:

Back in Saigon things were going from bad to worse for Diem. 11 November 1960 saw an attempted coup against him by three of his own parachute battalions and a Marine battalion. The revolt was led by Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong, a competent soldier highly regarded by US military advisors. He and his co-conspiring officers believed that Diem was not pursuing the war effectively, that he was meddling in operational matters far too much, and his penchant for promoting cronies into positions of high authority was weakening the armed forces. In their view, many of Diem’s appointments were made primarily to bolster the security of Diem and his family and they frequently knew little about tactical command and might well lose the war! So the paras and Marines decided to talk some sense into Diem. It doesn’t appear that Vuong and his men actually wanted to remove Diem from office.  Rather they wanted to get Diem to change his policies. They came close. But at the last possible moment fate intervened, or was it fate?

The plotters succeeded in sequestering Diem but they failed to tightly cordon off the Presidential Palace or cut the telephone lines into the Palace. They negotiated with Diem for thirty-six hours and during that time Diem’s supporters had time to plan a counter-attack. General Nguyen Khan entered the Palace grounds at an unguarded point and quickly moved to fortify Diem’s presidential guard. Colonel Vuong and his conspirators had Diem ready to read a statement of change on Vietnamese national radio when suddenly a relief column of marines and paratroops led by a Lieutenant Colonel Albert Pham Ngoc Thao arrived on the scene. The coup was over. It must have seemed like a miracle to Diem. We now know that it wasn’t– the world would learn after the war that Pham Ngoc Thao was actually a communist double agent planted within the highest echelons of Diem’s army! It follows logically then that the Communists wanted Diem to remain in power, so much so that they actually engineered his rescue. It was an important moment in the lead-up to war. The leaders of the coup went into exile in Cambodia, Diem tightened his control over the military, and the Communists were sending troops and supplies South along a newly cut path through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia, later to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail…

Douglas Pike:

“He (Diem) missed the whole lesson of the aborted November 11, 1960 coup d’etat, for instance, not interpreting it as a sign of serious discontent in at least one segment of society but viewing its failure as evidence of Heaven’s approval of his policies, since “the hand of god had reached down” to protect him. What Diem was apt to say: “he is a person who commands a sizeable following, who is a potential successor to me; into jail with him. No political leader could go on indefinitely alienating one major social group after another and expect to survive. Yet that is exactly what Diem did.”

As a lead-in to the next chapter I leave you with more from Professor Pike:

“ No leader could afford to alienate his country’s professional political leaders; the arrest of Dr. Dan in 1960 probably was the Diem government’s point of no return. Disenchantment gained momentum (by this time actively encouraged by the NLF) in the mismanaged strategic-hamlet program and then among the Buddhists. After May 8, 1963 the whole nation caught fire; bonzes in self-immolation, students in mass rioting, soldiers refusing to fire on crowds and openly encouraging demonstrators. The social pathology spread like a prairie fire. Saigon, those last days of Diem, was an incredible place. One felt that one was witnessing an entire social structure coming apart at the seams. In horror, Americans helplessly watched Diem tear apart the fabric of Vietnamese society more effectively than the Communists had ever been able to do. It was the most efficient act of his entire career.”

“The Diem Record, 1954-1963: The Chronological record of alienation:

1955-56 – the three major sects: the Binh Xuyen, the Cao Dai, and the Hoa Hao, all three of which had their own armed forces, lucrative interests, and special privileges (note: many of them became supporters, if not outright members, of the NLF according to Pike)

1956 – certain elements of the armed forces that challenged Diem’s right to rule

1955-1956 – the monarchists who supported Bao Dai

1959 – persons and families victimized by improper administration of Law 10/59 (which made political violence punishable by death and property confiscation)

1960 – professional politicians of almost all groups

1960-1962 – rural villagers, victims of mismanagement of the various resettlement programs – the prosperity zone, the agroville, and the strategic hamlet

May 1963 – the Buddhist hierarchy and then Buddhist laymen

July – August, 1963 – the students

August – November 1963 – the field grade office corps, the young Turks

Finally, the General Staff; to a man not one general acted to save Diem at the end.”

—Douglas Pike, Viet Cong

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s