Friday, January 21, 2011

Marriage of Inconvenience: The United States and the Diem Dictatorship in South Vietnam

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage I describe the tortured relationship between the Kennedy administration and the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam.

South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem knew that he could not win a fair election against Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader who was widely admired as an ardent fighter for Vietnamese independence from France, then against Japanese occupation during World War II. Arguing that if elections were held in 1956 the communists in the North would be able to coerce 100 percent support from their citizens, Diem cancelled the elections and received full American support for his decision.

Born to a well-off family in the city of Huế, Diem lacked a rapport with the poor farmers who made up most of the South Vietnamese population. He had been active in anti-communist politics under the colonial regime, and the French appointed him governor of Phan Thiết Province. When the French placed the Emperor Bao Dai on the Vietnamese throne, they insisted Diem serve as interior minister. Diem resigned, however, when the French refused his request to form a Vietnamese legislature. During World War II, he formed a political party seeking Vietnamese independence. Angered, his former French patrons sought his arrest.

After the war, the French changed course and appointed Diem prime minister. With Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam firmly entrenched in the North by 1954, the government in Paris formally dissolved the colony of French Indochina and proclaimed the birth of the Republic of Vietnam. The Diem government staged a corrupt referendum and voters were asked to choose between living under a monarchy ruled by the Emperor Bao Dai or a republic under a Diem presidency.

South Vietnamese policemen combed neighborhoods, knocked on doors, and told the occupants their lives would be in danger if they chose not to vote. Lansdale, managing the staged election, advised Diem that he needed only a fairly large majority, but Diem claimed 98.2 percent of the vote. In Saigon, with its population of 450,000 registered voters, Diem managed to win 605,025 votes. Intended to establish Diem’s legitimacy, the election instead reinforced the president’s image as a corrupt dictator.

Diem was a wealthy man in a country of poverty. He was a Catholic in a country with a Buddhist majority. He was a man of poor political skills in a badly divided country. This is the man the United States chose to back against Ho Chi Minh, widely regarded as a patriot and a hero in the wars against the Japanese and the French. Ho’s popularity in the North only grew in the 1950s when he implemented badly needed land reform. Before the communist regime implemented land redistribution, 60 percent of the population owned only 11 percent of the land.

Even though the communists used ruthless methods to achieve their ends, including the executions of between 3,000 and 15,000 landowners, according to one historian of the land reform campaign, most peasants approved of the government action. "My conviction is that, if a thorn pricks you on the path and you bleed, that is not a reason to discontinue, it is a lesson for avoiding future thorns," said one Vietcong physician who lived in the North during the land campaign and was interrogated as a prisoner of war by the Americans:

Not popular, except with Catholics, Diem made only haphazard attempts to build public support, and never embraced the idea of democracy. Americans refused to push him in that direction as long as he remained reliably anti-communist. “There was much talk about assisting the Vietnamese to construct an American-style democracy,” wrote historian George C. Herring, “and U.S. advisors helped draft a constitution which contained many of the trappings of Western democracies . . . [but] in fact, the United States devoted little attention to political matters and, despite its massive foreign aid program, exerted very little influence.”

Diem described his political philosophy as “personalism” in which the population owed the ruler absolute obedience. As Vietnam War historian Bernard Fall noted, Diem believed that “compromise has no place, and opposition of any kind must of necessity be subversive and must be suppressed with all the vigor the system is capable of.” In South Vietnam, land remained in the hands of the few. Bureaucrats in the Diem government became infamous for greed. Reluctant to share power, Diem abolished local elections and asserted his authority to appoint village and provincial officials.

“Many of Diem’s appointees were chosen on the basis of personal loyalty, and most were poorly trained for their tasks,” author George Herring wrote. “Some used their position for personal enrichment; province chiefs were known to have arrested wealthy villagers on trumped-up charges and then forced them to pay bribes for their release.” Diem personally controlled drug trafficking in South Vietnam.

Diem shut down newspapers that criticized him. Dissidents who spoke out against the Diem dictatorship faced arrest and torture, and some simply disappeared. By the time Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the head of the South Vietnamese secret police, were killed during a 1963 military coup, 50,000 languished in prisons on political charges. The government detained many dissidents, communist and non-communist alike, in so-called reeducation centers where interrogators abused them and attempted to brainwash them into supporting the regime. According to an American intelligence report, Diem “tended to treat the population with suspicion [or coercion] . . . and has been rewarded with an attitude of apathy or resentment.” Yet U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower hailed Diem as a “tough little miracle man,” and later, Kennedy’s Vice President Lyndon Johnson crowned him as the savior of Southeast Asia.


President John Kennedy harbored doubts about Diem, but for two years felt he had no choice but to support the shaky regime. As Stanley Karnow, journalist and chronicler of the Vietnam War, put it, Kennedy “rejected a withdrawal from Vietnam, but he balked at plunging into total war, a prospect he could not even envision.” When one Kennedy advisor, George Ball, predicted that the United States might eventually have to send 300,000 troops to fight North Vietnam, Kennedy shot back, “Well, George, you’re supposed to be one of the smartest guys in town, but you’re crazier than hell. That will never happen.” Ball actually underestimated the eventual American commitment in Southeast Asia. Later, during the Johnson administration, the United States had a half-million troops in South Vietnam.

By April 1961, Kennedy had assembled a Vietnam task force charged with forming a strategy to prevent communist domination of South Vietnam. The task force recommended increasing the ARVN (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam) from 150,000 men to 170,000, and increasing the number of American military advisors from 700 to 800. The administration also continued to debate the wisdom of placing American combat troops in South Vietnam, an idea that Diem opposed at the time, arguing that it would make him appear to be a puppet of the United States. Kennedy dispatched Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Indochina in May. Johnson compared Diem to Winston Churchill and encouraged the South Vietnamese president to ask for more American funds to expand the South Vietnamese Army even further. That summer Diem sent a long letter to Kennedy asking the U.S. government to fund a 270,000-man ARVN.

The administration’s hand was tipped by an escalation of guerilla warfare waged by the communist NLF. In October, the Vietcong, as the Americans called them, staged attacks causing heavy ARVN casualties at South Vietnamese bases in the Phuoc Thanh and Darlac provinces. His confidence shaken, Diem now asked for American combat soldiers and a bilateral defense pact between the United States and South Vietnam. Meanwhile, Maxwell Taylor, a favored general in the Kennedy camp, toured the region and returned to Washington urging the commitment of American ground forces.

Taylor’s recommendations included dispatching to South Vietnam an increased number of military advisors as well as three squadrons of combat helicopters flown by American pilots. Taylor also urged the secret deployment of 8,000 combat troops, supposedly to help the Diem regime deal with a flood in the Mekong River delta. To discourage the North Vietnamese regular Army (the NVA) from increasing its aid to South Vietnamese guerillas, Taylor suggested a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Taylor embraced the so-called “domino theory” – the argument that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, neighboring countries would be swallowed by the “red tide” until, as Johnson said, American troops would have to fight “on the beaches of Waikiki” in Hawaii.

Kennedy remained skeptical about escalation. He predicted to his friend and advisor, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, “The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everybody will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” Tragically, Kennedy overcame his reluctance. By the time Taylor had toured South Vietnam in late 1961, the number of American military advisors had grown to 3,000 and would reach 16,000 by the time of the America president’s murder in 1963. By the end of 1961 American pilots flew combat missions for the first time, bombing NLF (Vietcong) and North Vietnamese targets under the cover story that they were training South Vietnamese crews.

Meanwhile, the increased number of American military advisors supervised a South Vietnamese offensive against the Vietcong. Using combat helicopters, ARVN forces enjoyed an unprecedented mobility. The larger American presence and the increased military hardware briefly turned momentum. But, as Herring points out, even with the choppers and new electronic communications and surveillance equipment, and with the use defoliation chemicals that stripped trees in South Vietnam of leaves, the rice paddies and dense jungles of the South provided heavy cover for Vietcong bases.

The loud arrival of helicopters signaled an assault by American and ARVN soldiers on the ground, giving guerillas the chance to melt into the environment. VC soldiers quickly figured out how to down the low-flying choppers with small arms, and sometimes stayed concealed until the helicopters departed, when they would launch a surprise attack on the landing party. At the same time, the communist insurgents increased in strength. By the spring of 1962, the Vietcong numbered, according to one estimate, 300,000 male and female soldiers and 1 million supporters among South Vietnamese civilians.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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