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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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.