On 2 November, groups of Vietnamese men, women, and children will gather for memorial services across the world to honor the death of a man largely forgotten in American historical memory. Once this man was a household name, frequently featured on the front pages of our nation’s newspapers and spoken from the mouths of reporters on the nightly news.
That man is Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam (better known as South Vietnam) from 1955 to 1963, his rule and life cruelly ended in a military coup tacitly supported by the U.S. government. A recent book on Diem’s life, “The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam,” by military historian Geoffrey Shaw clarifies why Americans would do well to mourn the tragic loss of a man many deemed to be Vietnam’s best chance of defeating communism.
Diem was rarity in history as a devout Catholic head of state in Asia. He has not been served well by the most popular American appraisals of the Vietnam War era. Less than two months ago, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s popular PBS series on the Vietnam War devoted much of its second episode to Diem’s rise and fall. Burns’ portrayal appears to borrow heavily from an earlier PBS documentary on the Vietnam War produced by foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow that aired in 1983. Both tell essentially the same story.
An Overplayed Trope: Diem the Antipathetic Ally
According to the Burns-Novick and Karnow narrative, Diem, a member of a well-respected, well-connected aristocratic Vietnamese Catholic family, served in various French colonial government positions prior to Vietnam’s independence in the 1950s. Vietnam’s division between north and south at the 17th parallel at the Geneva Conference in 1954 enabled Diem to assert his authority over South Vietnam with the support of the French and Americans.
A referendum held in the south in 1955 — one many viewed as illegitimate due to fraud — sealed Diem’s role as president of the country. With the approval of the United States, Diem shortly thereafter rejected the Geneva stipulation that the north and south were to hold nationwide, conciliatory elections in 1956 to determine the government of a unified Vietnam, allegedly because he knew he would lose to the more popular Ho Chi Minh, who ruled the communist north.
As the years progressed, Diem and his notorious brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were plagued by turmoil within his administration, failing government programs across the countryside, and rising popular support for the communist insurgency. The brothers in turn pursued ever-more repressive measures to preserve their authority. Secret police forces led by Nhu imprisoned, tortured, and murdered enemies of the regime, while government policies enriched the country’s Catholic minority to the detriment of the majority-Buddhist nation.
Eventually, the Vietnamese could take no more. Protests erupted across the country, resulting in some of the most iconic moments of the Vietnam War era. Photos of the public self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức ultimately scored American photographer Malcolm Browne a Pulitzer Prize, and seemed to encapsulate the degree of resentment among the Vietnamese populace towards Diem and his brother.
The two, fearing the loss of their authority, pushed even harder on the Buddhist protesters, while Washington, which by this point was pouring significant financial and military resources into the country, grew increasingly impatient with the seemingly intransigent and incompetent Diem regime.
Members of the John F. Kennedy administration, finding Diem an intractable force increasingly hostile to U.S. interests, gave the green-light to leaders in the south Vietnamese military to remove Diem from power. A coup initiated on 1 November, 1963 drove the brothers into hiding. By the next day, their hideout in a Catholic Church discovered, they were both dead, murdered in the back of a military truck.
Although many of the details above are true, Shaw’s work shows that the overall theme — Diem the troublesome, dictatorial politician — is far from accurate.
Diem, the Ideal Vietnamese Leader
Shaw’s biography of Diem paints a far different picture of “America’s Mandarin.” For starters, Diem was a deeply religious man, whose Catholic faith was central to every decision in his life. Often attracted to the religious life, Diem had to be constantly pushed to embrace his natural skills as an administrator and politician.
Diem had a reputation both as an ascetic scholar and a capable bureaucratic, one who seemed to perfectly fit the role of the ideal Vietnamese Confucian leader. Indeed, as Shaw shows, Ho Chi Minh admired Diem’s austerity, and likely sought to emulate it. Even at the height of his power, Diem lived meagerly, and was known to constantly give money away to any in need. He was known to rise early every day to attend Mass, and worked brutal 16-hour days.
Nor was he a distant, removed politician unfamiliar with the people he governed. According to many first-hand accounts, Diem seemed most alive when tramping through the Vietnamese countryside meeting with peasants, hearing their stories, and seeking to improve their lives. Nor is “Diem the anti-Buddhist” a fair caricature. Diem’s government poured large sums of money into supporting the preservation or revival of Buddhist buildings and organizations.
The Buddhist protesters who so famously undermined Diem’s regime in the months leading up to his ouster were in fact a minority within the south, incited by Buddhist extremist leaders very likely supported by the communists. Rather than a reflection of the teetering authority of the government, the Buddhist crisis was more likely a propaganda effort to obstruct what so many contemporary accounts and historical documents suggest: Diem and his brother were incrementally winning on both the political and military fronts.
A Biased Media, an Ambivalent Government
So how have we come to have such a skewed perception of Diem and his reign as president of South Vietnam? According to Shaw, two sources share the majority of the blame: an American press heavily biased against Diem, and a circle of senior government officials — led by Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman — hell-bent on replacing him.
Correspondents from such publications as The New York Times and Washington Post, contrary to their portrayal by Burns and Novick’s television series, were often junior reporters in search of the next sexy story to burnish their credentials. Many spent most of their time in Saigon and other major cities, inevitably drawn into the circles of rumor and intrigue that represented only a segment of Vietnamese society. This created a skewed perception of Vietnamese popular opinion, which was particularly troublesome given that Diem’s efforts were focused largely on protecting and improving the lot of poor South Vietnamese farmers, who made up a majority of the population.
Throughout the Kennedy administration, the press corps published article after article condemning just about everything Diem did, while urging his removal. The media’s presentation of events on the ground were far more negative than those military assessments offered, or those of U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who supported Diem’s regime. The media’s hatchet job was so over-the-top that U.S. officials on a number of occasions complained directly to the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post.
The Buddhist uprising of 1963 should be interpreted within this context, with Buddhist demonstrators (often protesting in English!) seeking to gain the attention of American journalists eager for the next breaking story.
As for Kennedy’s administration, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman led a cadre of officials within the government vehemently opposed to Diem’s regime. Much of this stemmed from Harriman’s distaste for Diem’s attempts to maintain autonomy over his government, the latter often spurning U.S. directives he viewed as misguided, if not a threat to the survival of his country.
Probably the most famous example is Harriman’s support for the neutrality of neighboring Laos, a policy that allowed the communists to take over large parts of the Laotian countryside and use it to transfer fighters and materiel to communist insurgents (the notorious Vietcong) in the south. The route through Laos became known, jokingly, as the “Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.” Diem was adamant in calling this out for what it was: a direct attack on his nation’s security and viability. Harriman, a classic example of a condescending WASP bureaucrat, was widely known to despise Diem for resisting U.S. policy.
Shaw’s research shows it was Harriman who instigated and led growing support within the Kennedy administration for Diem’s removal, consistently setting the tone of cabinet discussions as explicitly anti-Diem. As would be expected, he sought to sideline those individuals — like Nolting — who offered a different, more sympathetic take. Harriman also relied heavily on the biased reporting of the American media, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Marguerite Higgins observing:
And thus is history recast. All those Vietnamese-speaking Americans circling the countryside for the purpose of testing Vietnamese opinion; all those American officers gauging the morale of the troops… all those dispatches from Ambassador Nolting — an army of data — collectors in reasonable agreement had been downgraded in favor of press dispatches stating opposite conclusions. It was the first time that I began to comprehend, in depth and in some sorrow, what was meant by the power of the press.
Harriman’s argument — that Diem’s persecution of Buddhists had “made it impossible for the United States to back him” — eventually won in the White House, despite a congressional fact-finding mission in late October 1963 (the month before the assassination) that concluded Washington should stick with Diem. The White House ignored the report, and a wealth of other information, and communicated to Vietnamese military coup plotters they would not oppose Diem’s removal.
The men who supported the coup surely must have known what would happen to Diem and his brother. When the two were discovered inside the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in Cholon on 2 November, soldiers acting on coup leaders’ orders secured them inside a personnel carrier, where their executioner “cut out their gallbladders while they were still alive, and then shot them.”
This was the ignominious end to an American ally, a man whom observers — Americans, French, British, Australian, and even North Vietnamese — believed (or in the case of the communists, feared) was Saigon’s best chance to preserve an independent South Vietnam. In an ironic twist of fate, the man at the helm of the administration responsible for Diem’s demise was himself assassinated three weeks later in Dallas, Texas. The rest, unfortunately, is in the words of Nolting, a “most unsavory story” of missed opportunities and lost lives.
Setting the Record Straight
Ngo Dinh Diem came to power in South Vietnam through the help of the United States. Burns-Novick’s film and Karnow suggest even this was a farce, given Diem’s ultimate rejection of the planned 1956 nationwide elections, though Shaw’s careful research proves this a problematic thesis, as well. Although the communists quite expectedly called “foul” when Diem demurred on elections, Ho Chi Minh’s government had already been in direct violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords by building up their military forces and supporting communist insurgent networks in the south.
Meanwhile, in the north, the communists were busy suppressing revolts, murdering thousands of people during their unpopular and poorly contrived land reform efforts. Moreover, as Shaw argues, their flagrant violation of the Laotian neutrality agreement years later proves the communists would never have allowed a free and fair nationwide election anyway. Diem simply saw the sham for what it was.
Shaw’s account of the rise and fall of this ideal Confucian, Catholic Vietnamese leader is a page-turning, if terribly sorrowful account of how the United States betrayed a man of remarkable character and political genius. It is steeped in primary and secondary sources, and many years in the making. Perceived weaknesses of the book — such as its possible under-reliance on Vietnamese, rather than Western sources — should be tempered by the acknowledgement that much of that data remains unreleased by a communist Vietnamese government eager to preserve a certain narrative regarding Diem’s rule.
For those interested in understanding a different perspective on the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam than that peddled by the fiercely anti-Diem Burns-Novick and Karnow documentaries, “The Lost Mandate of Heaven” is a much-needed antidote. Shaw not only sets the record straight on a man who deserves our esteem rather than our enmity, he provides a valuable lesson on carefully vetting the sources we should rely on to rightly judge men’s character, motives, and ability. As Diem’s story proves, our judgments may determine the fates of nations.
This article has been updated to reflect the co-directorship of the Burns-Novick documentary.