US in Indochina: Ngo Dinh Diem,the incompetent, US-backed leader who led South Vietnam to the verge of collapsing

Between October 1955 and November 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem governed the precarious South Vietnam to a point of total disaster. While being backed and strongly influenced by the US, Diem’s South Vietnam was an attempt to establish a working democracy and anti-communist stronghold in Southeast Asia, mainly for the US’ policy of containment. By 1963, such an aim to restrict the growth of communism seemed to be harder and harder to achieve under Diem’s near-dictatorial rule, and as a result, he was removed by a coup planned by ARVN rebels and backed by US officials. Diem’s lack of experience in government work, but favourable anti-communist stance and Vietnamese identity made him a significant figure in the Vietnam War.

Diem was born on January 3rd, 1903, in the Quang Binh province, into one of the main noble families in Vietnam. His family’s strong roots to Catholicism was linked to them being one of the original converts in the 17th century from the influence of French priests. He and his family has good relations with the Vietnamese imperial family, and he even managed to work under Bao Dai’s rule in 1933 as the minister of the interior. After disputes with French authorities, he was removed from his position and lived away in Hue until 1945. During 1945 in the early stages of the First Indochina War, he was captured by Ho Chi Minh’s forces and offered a position in his government, which he rejected. After being almost killed after this action, he fled abroad for nine years.

In 1954, Diem returned to Vietnam following the end of the First Indochina War to serve as the Prime Minister of the newly established, US-backed, Republic of Vietnam (more commonly known as South Vietnam). Following the rigging of the October 1955 referendum, the emperor, Bao Dai was removed, and Diem was the sole leader of the South Vietnam. Furthermore, as a result of a combination of a lack of popular support and US influence, Diem refused to abide to the nationwide (whole of Vietnam) elections stipulated by the 1954 elections. Over the next several years, Diem consolidated power, with the support of US officials, such as Colonel Lansdale, transforming the democracy to authoritarian rule, with his family dominating the core positions of government.

Diem’s reign over South Vietnam could only described as being disastrous. Despite his ‘economic miracle’, which brought about prosperity to the South Vietnamese economy, its effects were limited to urban areas, and the economy was purely dependent on US financial aid, which was arriving at a substantial rate. This is seen with the fact that between 1955 and 1961, South Vietnam was the largest beneficiary of US financial aid, as they received over $2 billion. [1] However, over time a range of growing issues started to arise in South Vietnam,  testing his leadership over the nation. Corruption and nepotism were issues that plagued the Diem government, especially with the substantial financial aid that the US offered (many government officials pocketed their own share from such aid) and the government hierarchy being dominated by close relatives of Diem himself. Another huge problem was Diem’s lack of popular support, as his Catholic identity was not very relatable to a population that was predominantly Buddhist. His lack of experience in such a position of leadership was especially troubling when he faced the most significant threat to his nation: the Viet Cong (VC). With the Ho Chi Minh Trail and tunnel systems of the VC, they infiltrated the South and attempted to gain popular support from rural villagers through various methods. Also, the worked to discredit the Diem regime through an extensive terrorist campaign, which involved thousands of civilians being kidnapped or killed (by 1965, 25000 South Vietnamese civilians had been killed by the VC). Diem’s responses, with the Agroville program and Strategic Hamlet Program involved forcibly moving villagers away from their homes to protected and monitored areas, where they would supposedly be protected from the VC. However, these measures worked terribly, as they still failed to stop the influence of the VC, and by displacing villagers, he damaged his chances of improving his support.[2]

File:Thích Quảng Đức self-immolation.jpg
The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the Diem government; this incident symbolized the disaster of the Buddhist crisis and worked discredited the US’ work to support Diem’s supposed democracy in South Vietnam (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

By the early 1960s, South Vietnam was in a precarious position and Diem’s leadership was also similarly in a weak position, especially with his introduction of the ‘National Assembly Law 10/59′, which further worsened support for his regime (and thus aiding the VC) by allowing anyone suspected of being a member of communist organisations to be executed. Even worse, was the was attempted coup against him in 1960 from rebelling ARVN officials, signalling his vulnerability, as even his own army was not completely supportive of him. The situation in South Vietnam spiralled out of control with the Buddhist crisis during 1963, where tensions between Diem’s government and Buddhist monks peaked, with extreme repression against the Buddhists. This resulted from an incident involving the raising of the Buddhist flag above the South Vietnamese flag, resulting in the shooting of eight civilians by security forces on the 8th May, 1963. As the unpopularity of Diem and his regime rose, the VC’s support and infiltration of South Vietnam grew extensively, thus threatening the survival of the nation in the South. With the situation becoming increasingly dire under his poor leadership, an armed ARVN coup, backed by US officials, was executed on the 1st November, 1963, resulting in Diem and his brother, Nhu, being shot in the back of a van in the morning of the next day.[3]

Ngo Dinh Diem after being assassinated on the morning of 2nd November, 1963 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Diem’s troubled leadership formed the unstable foundation in South Vietnam that ultimately contributed to rising tensions and the later escalation of the Vietnam conflict. Throughout his life, his nation and his vision for it was tied strongly to him, and with them being threatened by both external (VC) and internal forces (ARVN/US officials) by 1963, he found his own life in an identical position too.

1.^ Miller, E. (2013). Misalliance (1st ed., p. 6). Berlin: De Gruyter.
2.^ Cantwell, T. (2010). Contested Spaces. South Melbourne, Vic: Nelson/Cengage Learning.
3.^ Ibid.


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