Ngo Dinh Diem and South Vietnam

After the Geneva Accords were signed, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades decided to follow a political line. This political line was based on the belief in the moral and economic superiority of communism over capitalism. This line also involved not picking arms against Ngo Dinh Diem.

To begin with, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government did not want to pick up arms against South Vietnam. They were convinced that if they are able to create a true socialist society in North Vietnam, it would in itself be compelling enough for the people of South Vietnam to reject any nation-building experiment that the United States was carrying out in South Vietnam.

This political line also got impetus in 1956 when Nitika Khrushchev condemned Joseph Stalin’s excesses. Khrushchev had declared that both eastern camps representing communism and the western camp representing capitalism could coexist. He further stated that the transition from capitalism to communism could also take place through parliamentary elections. This affirmed the DRV government’s belief that if they take the North Vietnamese society on the path of socialism that would be enough for the people of South Vietnam and North Vietnam to vote for the communists in the 1956 elections. There was no need to take any military course of action. Only the political line of action was enough.

Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)

The United States for its part formed SEATO to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. SEATO was formed in September 1954 and had the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan as its members.

The creation of SEATO gave the United States political legitimacy to intervene in South Vietnamese affairs. Interestingly, only two Southeast Asian countries joined SEATO: Thailand, and the Philippines. The SEATO after its creation extended its protection to South Vietnam and the Kingdom of Laos.

With SEATO formed, the United States set about creating a strong political alternative to North Vietnamese leadership. For this purpose, they chose Bao Dai as the titular head. Bao Dai had been the emperor of the Annam and had served as the titular head under the Japanese and the French. But Bao Dai was no match for Ho Chi Minh and was not popular among the masses. He was looked upon as a puppet of foreign powers. The United States, therefore, looked for a more formidable opponent who could actually run the government and does US’s bidding. This search zeroed-in on Ngo Dinh Diem.  

Eisenhower chooses Ngo Dinh Diem

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (from left) greet South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport. 05/08/1957
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (from left) greet South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport. 05/08/1957

Ngo Dinh Diem was an ardent nationalist and a staunch anti-communist. He had served under the French prior to the Second World War and was anti-French. He was a devout Catholic, unmarried, and led an austere life. But the United States would soon find out that Ngo Dinh Diem was not willing to be a puppet; he had a mind of his own and had his own plans for South Vietnam.

Ngo Dinh Diem also received the approval of US Senate members who were part of the senate foreign relations committee. They supported President Eisenhower’s decision of selecting Ngo Dinh Diem to head South Vietnam. John F. Kennedy was among the senate members who supported this decision. They approved of Ngo Dinh Diem because of his Catholic, anti-communist, and pro-modernization credentials. President Eisenhower even called Ngo Dinh Diem “The George Washington of Asia.”

The Referendum to oust Bao Dai

At the time of his appointment by Bao Dai, Ngo Dinh Diem was not in Vietnam. He had been living away from Vietnam for a few years. With the United States backing, he returned to South Vietnam and set about creating a modern society. However, to achieve this task, he wanted to have complete power. He, therefore, wanted to get rid of the titular Bao Dai whom he saw as an obstacle. In 1955, therefore, Ngo Dinh Diem called for a national referendum. This referendum had two questions for the people of South Vietnam:

  • Do you want to create an independent state?
  • Do you want me to be the leader of that state?

The result of this referendum has been proven beyond any doubt to be rigged. With US backing, Diem was able to oust Bao Dai and create the Republic of Vietnam, also known as South Vietnam.

American Aid and Nation Building

Ngo Dinh Diem started using the American aid judiciously. He created national police, which was headed by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. He also started a number of construction projects. However, he wasn’t completely independent in his thinking. When he entered the presidential palace, his brother and his sister-in-law too entered with him. They would continue to exercise a lot of influence on Ngo Dinh Diem, much to the displeasure of the United States, throughout his reign.

One of Ngo Dinh Diem’s great failings was that he was an authoritarian and did not keep much connection with the people of his domain. The United States would constantly urge him to go out and form a connection with his people. He would do so, but only half-heartedly, which did little to increase his popularity. Nonetheless, Ngo Dinh Diem put the national assistance received from the United States to good use. Up till 1958, the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) created by the United States to oversee the use of military, political, and economic usage of the assistance provided, was always reporting in favor of Diem. All reports during the id-1950s coming out of South Vietnam indicated that Ngo Dinh Diem was using the aid provided by the US very effectively.

Communist Repression

By 1958, Ngo Dinh Diem had started cracking down on the communists in South Vietnam with an iron hand. He was proving to be quite good at it. The communists in South Vietnam pleaded to Hanoi to give up the political line and adopt a more revolutionary approach because the rate and manner in which Ngo Dinh Diem was dealing with them, they were bound to be eradicated entirely from South Vietnam.

Power Balance in Vietnam

Hanoi, so far yet, was not willing to give up the political line. The DRV government of North Vietnam knew that both China and the Soviet Union were still recovering from the devastations of the Second World War and the financial strain suffered during the Korea War. The DRV government knew that they wouldn’t get the backing of either China or the Soviet Union for any action that would upset the power balance in Vietnam and would get the United States even more deeply involved.

Invasion from the North: The Korea Experience

The United States too, at this point, was careful enough not to upset the power balance. They, therefore, equipped Ngo Dinh Diem’s army enough to beat back an invasion from North Vietnam. The military aid provided by the United States was provided keeping the possible invasion from the North in mind.

The Eisenhower administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed firmly that threat to the South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem would come from Hanoi. They, therefore, equipped South Vietnam with heavy-mechanized battle units such as battle tanks, Armored Personnel Units (APUs), etc. that would be very effective in a cross-border conventional invasion from the North. Their decision about the defense of South Vietnam never factored-in the possibility that the threat to the regime could actually come in the form of a local insurgency that would turn into a guerrilla war rather than a conventional one. The United States government and military both believed that just like in Korea, the communists would come in waves from the North.

Faulty Policies

By 1958, Ngo Dinh Diem had built a political infrastructure that resembled the United States. He had a modern conventional army (ARVN), an education system, a health care system, etc. However, these steps were not in-sync with the needs of the people of South Vietnam. In fact, the US policies too towards South Vietnam did not factor in the actual needs of the people. The US policy was more designed and suited to global politics and catered to their own domestic political requirements. Both Ngo Dinh Diem and the United States did not try to see what the people of South Vietnam really wanted; what were their demands, or what issues they were actually facing.

Stage for Insurgency Set

As Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime became more and more repressive against the communists in South Vietnam, the cries for Hanoi’s interference became increasingly louder. While Ngo Dinh Diem was carrying out his repressive measures, all was not well in Hanoi either. The socialist paradise that the North Vietnamese regime had set about to create had been going disastrously. It had resulted in failed land reforms that had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people as the state seized all private property. However, Ho Chi Minh and the communists were convinced of the righteousness of their actions for the greater good. Despite the increasing calls from fellow communists in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese continued to take the political line of overwhelming any nation-building efforts of the United States by creating a socialist paradise.

Related Notes

Vietnam War

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