Ngo Dinh Diem

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For more information, see: Vietnam War.
See also: Vietnam War, Buddhist crisis and military coup of 1963

Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician in French Indochina, who became Premier of the State of Vietnam before partition, and then became President, although in a 1955 election widely accepted as dishonest; Diem's overall margin was 98.2 percent, and he seemed to have received 605,000 votes from the 405,000 registered voters of Saigon. [1] He served until his overthrow and assassination in November 1963.

He was a personally ascetic Catholic in a majority Buddhist country, with a Confucian attitude toward authority. The third of sixth sons, his closest advisers were among his surviving brothers, especially the increasingly irrational Ngo Dinh Nhu, his key political advisor. Other brothers, had were effectively private armies, except for his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, Archbishop of Hue. Since Diem himself was a bachelor, his sister-in-law, born Tran Le Xuan but usually called Madame Nhu, acted as official hostess and was extremely visible. Perhaps the most charitable view that could be taken of Diem was that he believed that his personal rectitude freed him from responsibility to the people he governed.

Douglas Pike observed that Diem was a not a charismatic leader such as Ramon Magsaysay, but "very cold and aloof", but charismatic leadership does not appeal to Vietnamese; Pike cited Nguyen Cao Ky as highly charismatic, but whose charisma merely made him suspect. Pike denied that Diem was an immense loss to the anticommunist cause, saying that the ideal leader would have had to have had great organizational ability, citing Ho Chi Minh as such. Alternatively, the moral integrity of a Magsaysay, rather than his charisma, might have had such an effect. Diem was neither a good organizer nor able to eliminate corruption.[2]

Other brothers included:

  • Ngo Dinh Luyen, Ambassador of the Republic of Vietnam to the United Kingdom until November 2,1963; survived coup because he was out of the country
  • Ngo Trong Hieu, Vietnamese Minister of Civic Action and Diem's Director of Political Intelligence until November 1, 1963
  • Ngo Dinh Can, the chief of central Vietnam under Diem, executed after the overthrow of Diem; led actions against Buddhists in Hue
  • Ngo Dinh Thuc, Archbishop of Hue, later excommunicated twice for ordaining priests without proper authority
  • Ngô Ðình Khôi, a French provisional governor killed by the Viet Minh

While the U.S. had supported him from the time he took office, he, or especially his brother Nhu, was seen as more and more of a problem. In 1963, the Mendenhall-Krulak mission, and then the Taylor-McNamara mission, evaluated his position, which led to gradual withdrawal of support for his rule.

Early life

Diem, the son of an Annamite mandarin who resigned when the French removed Emperor Thanh Thai. His father Ngo Dinh Kha, with lineage going back to Ngo Quyen, went to the countryside after resignation, and Diem, as opposed to many other later leaders, had the experience of plowing in a rice paddy, behind a water buffalo. [3] Bui Tin said Ho respected Diem, He respected as a patriot, but in a different way, an "exceptional political figure with profound patriotism, courage, and integrity, and a simple way of life". [4]

The young Diem developed an intense Catholicism and indeed went to a monastery to study for the priesthood but, according to his brother, left because he was too independent for Church discipline. He then studied at the Lycee Quoc Huoc, turned down a scholarship for advanced education in France, then graduated at the top of his class in the School for Law and Administration in Hanoi. Immediately named a district chief, he was promoted to province chief by age 28 — but almost resigned because the French refused his requests for better schools and greater local autonomy. In province administration, he was admired for fairness, austerity, and unwillingness to accept bribes. It remains a mystery as to how moralist he could personally be, but later tolerant of corruption that ate into the legitimacy of his government.

Under French rule

In 1933 he became the Minister for the Interior in a French colonial government under Bao Diem, but resigned. Diem, a nationalist, had exiled himself from the South, in 1950, under Viet Minh death sentence for organizing a new nationalist organization. [5].

He had been organizing anti-French subversion in 1942-1944. Viet Minh guerrillas, helping him hide, took him to Ho. Diem asked Ho, "Why did you kill my brother?" Ho claimed it was a mistake and caused by confusion. Asked by Ho to become Minister of the Interior, Diem said he would do so only with full information and involvement in all decisions. Ho could not accept that, although he tried to change Diem's mind, eventually releasing him. Moyar observes that it was a measure of Ho's respect for Diem that he did not have him killed, and "also the biggest mistake he ever made."[6]

Bao Dai offered him the Prime Minister role in a cabinet formed after the Japanese assumed control in March 1945, but he declined. While the eventual ministers were French-trained but nationalist, Diem did not see the opportunity to make adequate changes. [7]

Traveling to the U.S., Diem established a base at the Maryknoll Seminaries, where he launched a two-year speaking campaign. Through his brother, Rev. Ngo Dinh Thuc, he met and gained the support of Francis Cardinal Spellman, politically powerful Cardinal Archbishop of New York City and vicar of the United States Armed Forces (i.e., heading spiritual services to all Catholics in the U.S. military). [8] Spellman was strongly anti-Communist, and close to William Donovan, former head of the Office of Strategic Services, and of Joseph Kennedy, the father of John F. Kennedy.

The British Catholic writer, Graham Greene, wrote that Diem, although genuinely pious, has allowed Catholicism to hurt his government, by the visible role of American Catholic advisors.[9]

Early rule

See also: The Two Vietnams after Geneva

He arrived in Saigon from France on 25 June 1954. With U.S. and French support, was named Premier of the State of Vietnam by Emperor Bao Dai, who had just won French assent to "treaties of independence and association" on 4 June.

Diem was an Annamite, from Central Vietnam (although not the Central Highlands) in the South upon taking power. In seeking political support from Southerners, he was not nearly as visible as Bao Dai, nor was he seen as sympathetic to Buddhism or the smaller minorities. Diem had to create a viable alternative to the Vietminh in those areas where the French had provided security, both the cities and towns, but also in pockets of the rural areas inhabited by people of the regional or "folk" religions, such as the Cao Dai. The existing upper class might be wealthy, but the French had found it was neither popular nor internally cohesive. [10]

Francis Cardinal Spellman, in the region to visit U.S. troops, came to Vietnam in early January, celebrated masses, and gave a donation to Catholic Relief Services. While various reports suggested Spellman was Diem's patron in the U.S., it seems likely that his visit was one for his coreligionists. Obviously, Spellman would not be unhappy with a Catholic leader, but the U.S. was quite aware that Diem's Catholicism isolated him from the majority of South Vietnamese. When an Australian cardinal visited Vietnam shortly afterwards, J. Lawton Collins suggested to Diem's brother, the Bishop of Hue, that there be a moratorium on high-level Catholic visits.[11] Greene said a Vietnamese priest had spoken of Spellman, who "spoke to us much of the Calf of Gold but less of the Mother of God". [12]

The French had turned against Diem, and tried to turn the U.S. against him. John Foster Dulles rejected the argument. Without being excessively confident in Diem, Dulles saw him as deserving a chance as an anticommunist, Dulles' passion. Another factor accounting for American support of Diem was his Catholicism, which may have resonated with Dulles' religiosity. [11] The French Minister for the Associated States said that Tran Van Huu was the best alternative, but had "no character and no will."[13]

Potential plotters had been coming to the American embassy since July, asking for support but not receiving it. U.S Ambassador Donald Heath encountered coup plotting in August. [14] While Heath did not sanction the coup, the amount of opposition impressed him. The chief coup plotter was the senior National Army officer, Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, a Francophile who clashed with both the sects and with nationalists such as Diem. Diem offered Hinh a "study mission" with France, but allowed a journalist to learn it was really a firing. A furious Hinh protested in public. Bao Dai, the Army, and the French all told Diem not to expel Hinh. Diem ignored Bao Dai's order to resign.

While Heath tried to get Hinh and Diem to compromise, Diem shot back that he could not make concessions that might be an invitation to more, an attitude much as he showed toward negotiation with Buddhists in June 1963. While Heath recommended the U.S. force Diem to resign if he would not broaden his government, Eisenhower directed the French to "get rid of Hinh". Hinh left on November 19, and the French began to turn the army over to Diem. Eisenhower replaced Heath with GEN J. Lawton Collins, former Army Chief of Staff greatly respected by Eisenhower. While Dulles and Eisenhower hoped Collins would develop a better relationship with Diem, such was not the case; Collins initially was contemptuous of Diem's lack of charisma, assuming that would be a problem of leadership. Later, however, Collins became more impressed with Diem's character, although he still believed Diem knew little of politics.


The U.S. and France, going into 1955, were dubious of Diem's ability to unify South Vietnam, but there was no obvious alternative: anti-French, nationalist, anti-Bao Dai.

Diem and the Sects

The French supported the Vietnamese National Army chief of staff. Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh. Hinh, working with the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Binh Xuyen, failed to organize a coup.

On 28 April, Diem, against U.S. advice, against French advice, and against the advice of his cabinet, moved again against the sects. When Binh Xuyen resisted in Saigon, and fired mortars against the Presidential Palace, Diem committed a loyal ARVN battalion and broke the Binh Xuyen he committed the Vietnamese army to battle. Keyes called this Diem's "finest hour". Lansdale and Keyes knew one another by then, and regretted the death of a Cao Dai general, apparently a moderate on the CIA payroll, during the Binh Xuyen incident. Keyes also said that Diem got Lansdale in "hot water" with the French. [15]

Diem's brother, Nhu, used the incident to form a coalition against Bao Dai. John Foster Dulles had been planning a withdrawal of support on the day before the incident, but concluded Diem was acceptable based on his performance. [1]

In June, concerned that Viet Minh might win, Diem abolished elections for village councils.[16] Traditionally, the village level was autonomous. By replacing it at all, he inherited responsibility for corruption at that level. His appointments were usually from outside the villages; outsiders that he considered "dependable" Catholics, Northerners, or others not tied to the rural culture. This drove the villagers to the sort of conspiracy that they used against the French.

Renunciation of the Geneva accords

The Geneva agreements had specified the start of consultations on the 1956 referendum would begin, between Hanoi and Saigon, in July 1955.[17] Diem refused to enter into talks. On 20 July, Vietnam announced that it would not participate in talks for the reunification of North and South Vietnam through the elections that were scheduled for the following year, according to the Geneva agreements. [18] Diem pointed out that his government had not signed the Geneva agreements, and thus was not subject to them.[16]

Assumption of Power

On 26 October Ngo Dinh Diem became President and Commander-in-Chief after defeating Bao Dai in an election. [19]

Land Reform

December was a time of land reform in both North and South. In the North, it was a period of ideological purges, with thousands of landowners executed or imprisoned (see Giap below)

In 1955, the first part of Diem's land reforms involved resettling refugees and other land destitute Vietnamese on uncultivated land;[16] the ownership of this land was not always clear. Nhu directed the land reform, under the semisecret ideology of the Can Lao', which followed a French philosophy called "Personalism". Personalism had distinct similarities to Confucianism; the two justified an authoritarian rule in the interest of order. [20]

The Binh Xuyen attacked Diem's palace, and he decisively broke their organization.


Under the French, the Montangnards of the Central Highlands had been autonomous. Diêm moved ethnic Vietnamese, as well as refugees from the North, into "land development centers" in the Montagnard areas. He intended to assimilate the unwilling tribes, a point of ethnic resentment that was to become one of the many resentments against Diem.[21] These resentments both cost internal support, and certainly were exploited by the Communists.In the fall of 1956, Diem dealt strongly with another group not considered of his circle: the approximately 1,000,000 Chinese-identified people of Vietnam, who dominated much of the economy. [22] He barred "foreigners", including Chinese, from 11 kinds of businesses, and demanded the half-million Vietnamese-born men, known as "uncles", "Vietnamize", including changing their names to a Vietnamese form. His vice-president, Nguyen Ngoc Tho, was put in charge of the program.


In 1957, the 300-man Lien doi Quan Sat soi 1 (1st Observation Unit) was formed, trained by United States Army Special Forces for special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare. While it was under the Presidential Liaison Office, it was originally based in Nha Trang, and perhaps was comparable to the paramilitary side of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was commanded by a Diem loyalist, then-LTC Le Quang Tung. [23]


A year after its formation, it was slightly increased in size, renamed a Group, and moved to Saigon to be more responsive to Diem. While it did take on some border reconnaissance, it was primarily a presidential guard, and used to carry out paramilitary missions for the Diem and his immediate advisors.


Khanh had been Diem's army chief of staff at the time of the 1960 coup by the ARVN Airborne Brigade, which was disturbed over both Diem's favoritism for loyalists but failure to stop the VC. He took command of the defense, obtaining key assistance from Tran Thien Khiem. [24]

Government development

Legislative Assembly elections were held in 1959, and the highest plurality of any candidate was won by an opposition candidate, Phan Quang Dan. While he was briefly in the Cabinet, Diem had him arrested after a 1960 coup; he did return to post-Diem governments. U.S. Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow had recommended that Dan would be useful as a member of a "loyal opposition", a concept not acceptable to Diem.

Strategic Hamlet Program

A major thrust of Diem's government was the Strategic Hamlet Program to provide rural security. After receiving British and U.S. advice, he started the program in 1962, directed by Ngo. Both the actual effectiveness of the program, and its effect on national political stability, remain controversial to this day.

Some, such as U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting, felt they could have been the key:

The strategic hamlet program, which was Nhu's principal thing, and in my opinion a good thing, was wiped out. And all these hospitals and schools and things that I’ve been talking about were virtually wiped out. Finally, the U.S. was faced with the alternatives: either go in to save Saigon or wash our hands of it. President Johnson made the decision to send American combat forces, but I do not think that there was a need up to ‘63, before the coup, of American military power in that situation[25]

John Paul Vann, in contrast, believed forced relocation was a cruel folly. He strongly rejected a similar programme in 1965, on the theory that the allegiance of the peasants could be gained only by keeping the peasants in the land they cherished, and bettering there lives in their villages.[26]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Donaldson, Gary (1996), America at War Since 1945: Politics and Diplomacy in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 86-87 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Donaldson" defined multiple times with different content
  2. Douglas Pike (June 4, 1981), Oral History interview by Ted Gittinger, Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, pp. I-20 to I-21
  3. Moyar, Mark (2006), Triumph Forsaken, Cambridge University Press, pp 11-12
  4. Moyar, p. 13
  5. Moyar, p. 33
  6. Moyar, p. 18
  7. {Hammer, Ellen J. (1955), The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955: Vietnam and the French Experience, Stanford University Press, p. 48
  8. Palmer, Dave R. (1978), Summons of the Trumpet, Presidio Press, pp. 6-7
  9. Hammer, pp. 350-351
  10. Sorley, Lewis (Summer 1999), "Courage and Blood: South Vietnam's Repulse of the 1972 Easter Invasion", Parameters, p. 15
  11. 11.0 11.1 Thomas Maddux, ed. (2004), America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam Roundtable Review, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia., Duke University Press Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Jacobs" defined multiple times with different content
  12. Greene, quoted in Hammer, p. 350-351
  13. Dulles to Collins teleconference record, 4 April 1954, FRUS 1955-1967, vol. 1 p.96n, quoted in Moyar, p. 428
  14. Moyar, pp. 42-43
  15. Ted Gittinger, ed. (March 22, 1983), Oral interviews of Keyes Beech, p. I-4 to I-5
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 , Volume 1, Chapter 5, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960 Section 1, pp. 242-69, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1
  17. Patti, Archimedes L. A (1980). Why Viet Nam?: Prelude to America's Albatross. University of California Press. , p. 447
  18. Eckhardt, George S. (1991), Vietnam Studies: Command and Control 1950-1969, Center for Military History, U.S. Department of the Army, p. 13
  19. Eckhardt, p. 13
  20. Moyar, p. 36
  21. Human Rights Watch (April 2002), III. A History of Resistance to Central Government Control, Repression of Montagnards: Conflicts over Land and Religion in Vietnam's Central Highlands
  22. "500,000 Uncles", Time, May 13, 1957
  23. Conboy, Kenneth & Simon Mccouaig (199`), South-East Asian Special Forces, Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1855321068, pp. 30-31
  24. Moyar, pp. 109-112
  25. Hasdorff, James C. (January-February 1974), "Vietnam in Retrospect: An Interview with Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr.", Air University Review
  26. Sheehan, Neil. (1988), A bright shining lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, New Random House, p. 540