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.”