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Ngo Dinh Diem


Ngo Dinh Diem: John F Kennedy was the 35th American President who served in office from January 20,1961 to November 22, 1963. One of the important events during his presidency was the rise in power of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Definition and Summary of the Ngo Dinh Diem
Summary and definition:
Ngo Dinh Diem (3 January 1901 – 2 November 1963) became the first president of South Vietnam in 1955 and remained in this position until his assassination in 1963. With the support of the American government, the staunchly anti-communist, Catholic Diem led South Vietnam from 1954 to 1963, when he was assassinated alongside his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, in a military coup.

Diem was a paranoid and ruthless dictator whose use of terror and his repressive polices, such as his refusal to hold elections and the suppression of Buddhists in South Vietnam,  gave rise to fear and hatred of the South Vietnamese people and contributed to the rise of the guerrilla army known as the Viet Cong (National Liberation Front or NLF) led by Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War.

Who was Ngo Dinh Diem? Ngo Dinh Diem was the ruthless and unpopular President of South Vietnam from 1955–1963 during the Vietnam War. Diem was backed by the US government until he was assassinated on 2 November, 1963.

Why did the United States support Ngo Dinh Diem? The United States supported Diem because they believed that as a staunch anti-communist he would enforce democracy in South Vietnam.

Why was Ngo Dinh Diem unpopular? Ngo Dinh Diem ruled using terror tactics and fear assisted by his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the brutal and corrupt head of the Can Lao, the South Vietnamese secret police. Diem refused to hold a General Election and arrested his opponents, putting  100,000 people into prison camps. Diem belonged to the minority Catholic religion and persecuted the Buddhists leading to the much publicized suicides of Buddhist monks who set themselves alight.

What happened to Ngo Dinh Diem? American officials sympathized with Vietnamese generals who were plotting to overthrow Diem. The generals seized power and Diem, and his brother Nhu, were assassinated on November 2, 1963.

Facts about Ngo Dinh Diem
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Ngo Dinh Diem.

Ngo Dinh Diem was born in the Phu Cam, Hue, Vietnam on 3 January 1901. His ancestors had been converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries and Diem was raised as a staunch Catholic. Vietnam had became part of the French Empire in 1862 and Diem was educated at French Catholic schools.

The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism and about 70% of the population were followers of Buddha. Roman Catholics was a minority religion and made up only just over 10% of the population in South Vietnam.

The French rewarded Roman Catholics in Vietnam by appointing them to influential government positions. The Vietnamese government officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics and passed various anti-Buddhist laws.

Diem became a government administrator and by the age of twenty-five years old he became a provincial governor of the Běnh Thuan province in Vietnam.

In 1930 Ho Chi Minh had helped to form the Indo-Chinese Communist Party. (Ho Chi Minh eventually became the first president of North Vietnam (1954-1969) and the leader of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong were Vietnamese supporters of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF) who fought the guerrilla war in South Vietnam).

In collaboration with French forces, Diem helped to the suppress the first Vietnamese peasant revolts, organized by the communists, in 1930 and 1931.

In 1933 Diem was appointed, by the French, to the position of interior minister to Emperor Bao Dai (Emperor Bao Dai was the 13th and last emperor of Vietnam, who reigned from 8 January 1926 - 25 August 1945 when he abdicated and retired to France).

Emperor Bao Dai was an ineffective ruler who needed the support of the French colonial regime. Diem attempted to convince Bao Dai to make him the Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam, but his request was denied. He lost his political position when he denounced Bao Dai as "nothing but an instrument in the hands of the French".

In 1941 the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) was formed, primarily led by Communists, to counter the Japanese invasion of Vietnam. Japan handed Vietnam to the Viet Minh in 1945.

Diem was exiled by the Viet Minh but gathered support for a "third force" Nationalist government as an alternative to communism and French colonialism. During his exile he met American academic Wesley Fishel,  a proponent of the "third force" ideology that opposed communism and colonialism.

In July and August 1945, the Allied Powers met in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference and agreed to partition Vietnam into a Northern and a Southern region. In September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and became the first president of North Vietnam (1954-1969).

Between 1946 and 1954, the Viet Minh fought against the French for control of the country, the conflict was known as the First Indochina War. During the French-Indochina War, Diem left Vietnam for the United States where Wesley Fishel arranged for him to meet with influential politicians and Catholics, including John F. Kennedy.

Diem took the opportunity to emphasize his opposition to communism and French colonialism and argued that he would make a good leader of Vietnam if the French decided to withdraw.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (March 13, 1954 – May 7, 1954) ended the French effort to retain Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the Indochina War. The United States promised $100 million worth of aid to the anti-communist Vietnam, in line with the US Policy of Containment to restrict the spread of communism.

The Geneva Accords of 1954 were designed to secure peace in Vietnam and organize an interim government in Vietnam pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country and Vietnam’s transition to independence. The United States delegation proposed Diem's name as the new ruler of South Vietnam.

The French vehemently opposed the proposal  claiming that Diem was "not only incapable, but mad". However, eventually it was decided that Diem presented the best opportunity to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism.

Ho Chi Minh became the first president of communist North Vietnam (1954-1969) and the leader of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN or North Vietnamese Army).

Following the Geneva Accords, there was a 300-day period in which people could freely move between the two regions of Vietnam (later known as South Vietnam and North Vietnam). The U.S. Navy program called 'Operation Passage to Freedom' saw up to one million North Vietnamese, most of them Catholics, to South Vietnam.

The proposed interim elections were held, with Diem's brother, Ngo Děnh Nhu, organizing and supervising the elections. In October 1955, the pro-American, anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Vietnam and became President of South Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese government reminded Diem of the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference and that a General Election for the whole of the country was due in July, 1956.

Diem refused to hold a General Election, arrested his opponents and put 100,000 people into prison camps. He specifically targeted communists, trade-unionists, journalists, socialists, leaders of religious groups and Buddhist monks.

With the cancellation of the General Election, Ho Chi Minh and his followers began their own mission to reunify Vietnam. They organized a guerrilla army known as the Viet Cong who formed armed guerrilla groups to fight in the jungles of South Vietnam.

The Viet Cong were Vietnamese supporters of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF or National Front for the Liberation of the South) who fought the guerrilla war in South Vietnam  between 1959 and 1975 in an attempt to topple President Ngo Dinh Diem and his American backers.

The Vietnam War (1955 - 1975) started on November 1, 1955.  Fighting began between Diem's forces in South Vietnam and the communist Viet Cong and President Dwight Eisenhower increased aid and sent hundreds of military advisors to train South Vietnam's army in order to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism.

The Americans soon discovered that Diem was unwilling to be just a 'puppet' ruler and was creating a right-wing dictatorship in South Vietnam. Diem constantly rejected advice from the Americans and made decisions that upset the South Vietnamese people. Several attempts were made to overthrow Diem but he survived.

His brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, wielded considerable power as the corrupt and brutal head of the Can Lao, the South Vietnamese secret police. Nhu, and his terror tactics were hated by the South Vietnamese population as was his spiteful, extravagant wife, Madame Nhu. They cared little for the peasants and the actions of this  powerful couple increased the hatred of many South Vietnamese. 

Despite the assistance from America, the Viet Cong therefore gained more power and influence because many Vietnamese opposed Diem's corrupt and anti-communist government and its Catholic officials. Their pro-Catholic policies antagonized many Buddhists.

Although the Americans were unhappy with Diem's performance as president, they felt they had no choice but to support him. President Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961 and increased military aid and the number of American advisors in Vietnam. By 1963 the number of military-related personnel had increased from 2000 to about 15,000.

American officials urged Diem to adopt a more democratic form of government and introduce reforms to help the Vietnamese peasants. His reforms were limited and one of the ideas he introduced, on the advice of the Americans, relating to 'Strategic Hamlets' resulted in more hatred for the Diem the dictator.

The 'Strategic Hamlets' were special fortified villages armed with machine guns that were protected by trenches, bunkers and barbed wire. Peasants strongly resented being uprooted from their homes and moved to the 'Strategic Hamlets' which were clearly designed not only to protect the peasants from the Viet Cong, but also to prevent the peasants from giving aid to the Viet Cong.

The Diem government had consistently refused to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws which had been initially passed in the days of French colonialism. On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2527th birthday of the Buddha. Attempts were made to disperse the crowds and the police opened fire on them. Eight children and a woman were killed as they attempted to run away from the police and others were injured.

Angry demonstrations followed against the Diem government referred to as the Buddhist Crisis. The Buddhists were furious and asked for volunteers to commit suicide to attract world attention to the situation. On 10 June 1963, U.S. journalists were informed that "something important" would happen the following morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon.

On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Due, a 66 year old Buddhist monk, sat down in the middle of the busy Saigon street. He was surrounded by a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who poured petrol over his head and then set fire to him.

Photographs of the terrible death of Thich Quang Due appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world and people learned that Thich Quang Due had burned to death as a public protest to the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem.

By August 1963 another five Buddhist monks had committed suicide by setting fire to themselves.

The response of Diem's government to the suicides was to declare martial law and arrest thousands of Buddhist monks.

The 'Buddhist Crisis' and other events surrounding the brutal and corrupt government of Diem convinced President Kennedy that Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Up to this point Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect the dictator but this policy toward Diem now changed.

American officials sympathized with Vietnamese generals who were plotting to overthrow Diem. The generals launched a US-backed military coup and seized power on November 1, 1963.

The Vietnamese generals at first promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country but they changed their mind the next day and Ngo Dinh Diem, together with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed on November 2, 1963

Diem was replaced by Nguyen Van Thieu, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of South Vietnam. The new government grew increasingly weak and unstable and the United States became even more involved in the Vietnam War. (The first US combat troops were not sent to Vietnam until March 1965).

Coincidently, three weeks after the overthrow of Diem, President Kennedy was also assassinated on November 22, 1963.

US American History
1945-1993: Cold War Era
The Vietnam War

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