Ngo Dinh Diem

From Academic Kids

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Ngo Dinh Diem

Ng Đnh Diệm (吳廷琰; January 3, 1901November 2, 1963) was the first President of South Vietnam (1955-63).


Rise to power

Diệm was born in Huế, the original capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam. The Ng family is a Catholic noble family in Vietnam. He was a civil servant in the government of Emperor Bảo Đại before World War II but resigned after accusing the Emperor of being a "tool" of the French. He was a strong nationalist and anti-Communist; his elder brother (Đnh Thuc) was archbishop of Huế.

In 1945 he was imprisoned and exiled to China following conflicts with anti-French Communist forces that were gaining power in Vietnam. After his release, he refused to join in the brief post-war government of Hồ Ch Minh and went into exile in the USA. He returned to be appointed Prime Minister of South Vietnam by Emperor Bảo Đại in 1954 following the French withdrawal. He rejected the Geneva Accord (which called for unification and elections in 1956); on October 26, 1955, in a disputed nationwide referendum, the people voted to remove the Emperor Bảo Đại as head of state and elect Diệm the first President of the Republic of Vietnam.

When the referendum was held, Diệm's troops guarded the polls and those who attempted to vote for the Emperor were assaulted. Diệm's detractors say that the fraud was obvious. In Saigon, for example, Diệm claimed more votes than there were registered voters in the entire area. Emperor Bảo Đại was forced to abdicate rather than divide the country further and issued one last appeal for the country to unite under a democratic government. Diệm's American advisors were frustrated by this, as no one believed the long-absent former monarch could have posed much of a popular threat from his chateaux in France.

His rule was firm, puritanical and nepotistic. His most trusted official was his brother Ng Đnh Nhu, leader of the primary pro-Diệm political party. His brother's wife Madame Nhu was South Vietnam's First Lady and she led the way in Diệm's programs to reform Saigon society according to his own Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed, divorce and abortion made illegal and adultery laws were strengthened. Diệm also won a street war with the forces of the gangster Le Van Vien, the notorious ruler of the Cholon brothels and gambling houses who had enjoyed special favors under the French and Bảo Đại. Ng Đnh Diệm was also passionately anti-Communist and many attribute rising sympathy for the NVA-backed National Liberation Front (more commonly known as the Viet Cong) to his rule.

A member of the Catholic Vietnamese minority, Diem pursued pro-Catholic policies that antagonized Buddhist groups to the extent that Buddhist activists staged mass protests (and even self-immolations) and which triggered several coups attempts, the final one resulting in Diem's own execution. Viewed as a dictator by his opponents domestically and abroad, who blame Diem for a nepotistic and hardline desire to maintain power which led his country into a dangerous relationship with the United States, and to a ruinous civil war, Diem nonetheless has his proponents who credit him with resisting a duplicitous enemy pursuing a relentless insurgency campaign actively supported and encouraged by the Soviet Union with the complicity of Communist China, while taking the steps necessary (although often deeply unpopular domestically or repugnant to international sensibilities) to maintain domestic order during wartime.

U.S. ties

Diệm forged a relationship with the United States for support, while retaining policies toward the Buddhist majority which were criticized as hostile and biased in favor of the minority Roman Catholic population (of which Diệm was a member). The United States supported Diệm out of concern that the North's Communist influence, growing more popular, would permeate South Vietnam. Furthermore, the U.S. government worried that corruption in a democratic referendum would inevitably lead to the installation of a Communist government. Claims of corruption were merely political rhetoric, however. Hồ Ch Minh and his communist policies were popular, and Diệm was not. Eisenhower himself commented that given a democratic election, a socialist government would no doubt win. The United States feared the will of the Vietnamese majority, and given these fears, the U.S. continued to provide Diệm with support, in spite of his weak rule and unpopularity.
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President Ngo Dinh Diem (without hat) reviews Vietnamese National Military Academy cadets who are about to enter the army as second lieutenants.

Diệm's acquiescence to large-scale support by the United States ensured his political dominance, but also rendered his government subordinate to U.S. decision-making.

Diệm's ineffective land reforms are thought to have contributed to increasing popular support in the South for Hồ Ch Minh and his "reforms" in the North. Diệm also abused his power to support minority Catholics. The enforcement of his Catholic "moral values" was often unpopular and the Buddhist community resented the favoritism he showed to his fellow Catholics. While the U.S. had supported Diệm's rise to power, it grew frustrated by his desire for independence from U.S. command. The nominal U.S. support he retained was based on a situational allegiance only, and the U.S. grew increasingly wary of Diệm's ineffectiveness as President, just as Diệm and his family circle grew increasingly wary of U.S. intentions.

U.S. strategists had originally hoped that Diệm could be the charismatic equivalent of Hồ Ch Minh, and thus be a popular and viable counterweight to Hồ Ch Minh's popularity. As Diệm showed to be unsuited to role the U.S. had written for him, the opinions of these strategists began to change in the 1960s. U.S. planners complained, claiming to be annoyed that Diệm had not implemented land reforms to compete with the highly popular Communist program, and further claimed that the nepotism and corruption in his government was hurting the Southern cause.

Coup and assassination

When the regime turned on a protest by Buddhist monks in June 1963, the U.S. stopped giving aid. A small number of monks had immolated themselves in public protest, and the U.S. grew intensely annoyed with Diệm's unpopular public image. In their defense, Diệm and Nhu claimed that the Communists had infiltrated the Buddhist groups, and that their crackdown was in accordance with the agreed-upon anti-Communist policy. Madame Nhu infamously referred to the incident as a 'barbequeing'.

U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge refused to meet with Diệm and began to encourage ARVN Generals led by General Duong Van Minh that overthrew the government and ordered Captain Nhung to execute President Diệm, his younger brother Ng Đnh Nhu, on November 1, 1963.

The U.S leadership had publicly expressed shock and disappointment that Diệm had been killed, but records show that they made no attempts to dissuade the plotters from such an action, and were not surprised with the coup. It could be said that America's reticence to intervene in the coup gave lie to the idea that the U.S. was wantonly propping up such 'puppet regimes'.

At the time of the coup d'etat Madame Nhu was in Beverly Hills, California with her daughter, Le Thuy, for a trip to the United States and Italy, where she intended to expose a scheming President John F. Kennedy and the CIA to the American public.

When Madame Nhu learned of the coup d'etat she immediately suspected the United States saying, "Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies". Madame Nhu went on to predict a dark future for Vietnam and that, by being involved in the coup, the troubles of the United States in Vietnam were only beginning.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy was soon after assassinated as well. The new President Lyndon Johnson would pursue the strategy of creating a "proxy war" in Vietnam with far more gusto than Kennedy had shown, confirming Nhu's predictions.


  • "If Your Majesty ever has cause to be dissatisfied with my handling of our country's affairs, you have but to speak the word and I will step down."
  • "The Communists will defeat us, not by virtue of their strength, but because of our weakness. They will win by default."

Further Reading

  • Hilaire du Berrier. 1965. Background to Betrayal.

See also: Vietnam War

Ng Đnh Diệm (approximately pronounced "Ngoh Din Yim"Template:Audio)

External links


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