The Magazine

The Opening Act

‘Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.’

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By CHARLES TRUEHEART
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Fifty years ago this coming All Saints’ Day, the United States government concluded its patronage of Ngo Dinh Diem by dispatching him from the presidency of South Vietnam. His removal, in a U.S.-countenanced Vietnamese military coup, might have been less dramatic had President Diem not perished, with his brother and svengali Ngo Dinh Nhu, at the hands of junior Vietnamese officers entrusted with their safe exfiltration. But the coup’s consequences remained the same: a succession of keystone-kops military governments that finally settled on Nguyen van Thieu, who won elections and survived his own incompetence, and American impatience, even longer than Diem had.

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President Ngo Dinh Diem, Saigon, August 26, 1963

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President Ngo Dinh Diem, Saigon, August 26, 1963

bettmann / corbis

The story of the coup against Diem was quickly obscured by the real and unmitigated pressures that had led to it—escalating U.S. alarm about the ability of South Vietnam to defeat the Communist insurgency—and the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks later. The 16,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam at the time of the 1963 coup grew tenfold within two years and more than thirty-fold within five. The rest is a sad and better-known story. It was only a decade later that Congress, drawing lessons from the Diem affair—and the attempts, successful and otherwise, on the lives of Patrice Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo, Fidel Castro, and others—banned the practice. After 9/11, the assassination ban suddenly seemed quaint.

Meanwhile, a new generation of American scholars of the Vietnam war is reexamining the Diem years in an effort to resuscitate the reputation of this underestimated and putatively misunderstood anti-Communist Catholic mandarin. Their analysis implies, with varying degrees of subtlety, that the United States might have turned the tide of the war if it had stuck with Diem. 

Remembering that Diem is pronounced Ziem, there was a saying at the time that sums up well the subject of Edward Miller’s new book: “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.” (It is attributed to Homer Bigart, the New York Times correspondent in Saigon who preceded David Halberstam.) This was effectively the policy of Dwight Eisenhower, and then Kennedy, as their respective administrations surveyed the tenacity of the Communist insurgency and anguished over President Diem’s failures, their plans and remonstrations constantly buffeted and frustrated by the—there is no other word for it—inscrutable behavior of their client in Saigon. Hamid Karzai today is a direct descendant of Ngo Dinh Diem—as the infuriating, uncooperative client-president to whom there is no apparent alternative. 

Diem was an anti-Communist, but he was no democrat. Behind his pseudo-intellectualism and his Western and mandarin breeding lay a gently authoritarian despot; behind the democratic republic was a police state. Diem was “a messiah without a message,” in the words of an American diplomat in Saigon, as early as 1954. But he was our despot and messiah, “our chosen instrument,” in the words of another American official. Lyndon Johnson, on his first foreign trip as vice president, went to Saigon in 1961 and, within two days, had compared Diem to George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill.

Ngo Dinh Diem was infamous for his logorrhea and the deafness that accompanies it. He would chain-smoke (his only vice) and lecture his interlocutors on Vietnamese history for four or six hours at a time. One reads of such behavior from many dictators, who are unaccustomed to being interrupted, let alone contradicted—let alone entertaining the stiffening démarches and ultimatums the United States was delivering during the spring, summer, and fall of 1963. 

Born in 1901 in Hue to a prosperous family, Diem was educated in the colonial French system, learned Latin and classical Chinese, and became a lifelong vegetarian, teetotaler, workaholic, ascetic, bachelor, and “personalist” philosopher. With the help of family connections, and his brother Nhu’s darker skills, for a decade after World War II he outmaneuvered his Vietnamese rivals and the French colonials while courting rising American politicians and gradually overcoming skepticism in Washington. For Miller, far from being a patsy or mere instrument, Diem was a sophisticated political operator and a deep thinker who was determined “to fashion a new vision of how Vietnam might become a modern nation .  .  . [in] an ambitious attempt to synthesize certain contemporary ideas and discourses about Catholic Christianity, Confucianism, and Vietnamese national identity.”

Miller enjoys setting up prevailing historical views with which he begs to differ. He aims to understand the misalliance of his title in a fresh context, removed from Cold War geopolitical machinations, domestic American politics, and the human eccentricities and bureaucratic warfare that can make history so interesting. For Miller, who teaches at Dartmouth, the misalliance was a clash of opposing approaches to “nation building.” His book skillfully places the establishment of the new nation in the great debate after World War II between the high modernist (Walt Rostow et al.) and low modernist (The Ugly American) development schools. Miller’s command of the various parties and factions that jostled for power at the collapse of, first, Japanese occupation and then French rule is exhaustive, and his analysis of the economic development programs—land reform, the Agrovilles, the Strategic Hamlet program—is fascinating in its own right.  

Miller is among those who believe that there was a chance, even up until the very last moment, that the coup could have been called off—that Diem might have been persuaded to dump his radioactive brother and set the country on a new course of economic development, political freedom, and counter-insurgency. Hindsight can be helpful, but not very much so here. Given the course of the war at that moment, and Kennedy’s anxieties about an impending reelection season, it is hard to see how Diem might have been (or should have been) saved. What brought him down in 1963 was tangential to American preoccupations. At the same time, it served as the most damning evidence yet of Diem’s political ineptness—or, as some hoped to believe, the thrall he was under to his brother.  

This cause was the Buddhist crisis. Some may remember from the headlines of 1963: a government crackdown on a Buddhist celebration in Hue in May; the self-immolation of a Buddhist bonze, Thich Quang Duc, on a Saigon street in June; an August raid on 12 Buddhist pagodas in Saigon, in which hundreds were detained. The deteriorating political situation in South Vietnam became an international story, fueled by robust and contrarian American news reporting. American officials in Washington and Saigon were alarmed but, until the end, were not in full accord about what to do.   

My father, William C. Trueheart, deputy chief of mission at the Saigon embassy at the time, and chargé d’affaires in the periodic absence of U.S. ambassadors that summer and fall, was a supporting player in this drama. The historical record associates him with the camp of those in the embassy and administration with less, rather than more, patience and optimism about the prospects of salvaging the war effort with Diem as chief of state. In any case, there came a time when there was no turning back. The Vietnamese generals rounded up by Lucien Conein, one of the more colorful CIA men of his generation, had been given 50 shades of green light during the late summer and fall. The Ngos knew full well that plotting was afoot and that Washington was abetting it, but believed their lines of authority were stronger, or that American patience was deeper than it was, or both.

Miller establishes throughout this account that the Ngo brothers, having outfoxed or worn down American policymakers and their domestic opponents for so long, had lost touch with reality. The best evidence of this is that, in the last days of their regime, Diem and Nhu were sending negotiating feelers to the National Liberation Front—not, in Miller’s view, because they were prepared to form a “neutralist” coalition government with their adversaries, as the United States feared (and as Charles de Gaulle dreamed), but because they sincerely believed their enemies were on the verge of collapse and would sue for peace!

It’s reasonable enough to ask the “what-if” question, even if the premise of a transformed and Nhu-less Diem is difficult to imagine. That said, it is incontrovertible that the Kennedy administration and the Saigon embassy, in reassuring the coup plotters of American support for Diem’s removal, were “throwing away a bird in the hand before we have adequately identified birds in bush, or songs they may sing,” in the lovely phrase of William Colby, the CIA station chief in Saigon who went on to run the agency.

The first bird in question was the burly Duong Van “Big” Minh, whose potential leadership appealed to one U.S. policymaker because he was tall; Diem was short and stout. Minh lasted but three months, overthrown by other generals whose leader, Nguyen Khanh, lasted a year, before another coup or two installed Nguyen Cao Ky and, finally, Nguyen van Thieu, with whom the United States would swim and sink. After one of these successor coups, President Johnson directed Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to tell the new general in place: “No more of this coup s—t!” Indeed.

Oddly, Misalliance concludes abruptly before any of this had occurred—on the second day of the coup—as the Ngo brothers, hands tied behind their backs, entered the armored personnel carrier where they would die. 

Charles Trueheart, director of the American Library in Paris, is a contributing editor to the American Scholar.