Ngo Dinh Diem

views updated May 29 2018

Ngo Dinh Diem

Born January 3, 1901
Quang Binh Province, Vietnam
Died November 1, 1963
Saigon, Vietnam

President of South Vietnam, 1954–1963

Ngo Dinh Diem served as the president of South Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War. He came to power in 1954, immediately after the Geneva Accords divided the newly independent Vietnam into two sections—Communist-led North Vietnam and U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Diem gained the support of the United States because of his strong opposition to communism. But his corrupt, ineffective, and sometimes brutal government became highly unpopular with the South Vietnamese people over the next few years. The U.S. government finally withdrew its support in 1963, after Diem crushed a Buddhist uprising. A few months later, Diem was killed during the overthrow of his government by a group of military generals.

Rises quickly in the government ranks

Ngo Dinh Diem was born January 3, 1901, in the village of Phu Cam in Quang Binh province in central Vietnam. He was the third of eight children in a devout Catholic family. His father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was an important official under the Vietnamese Emperor Thanh Thai. At the time of Diem's birth, Vietnam was a colony of France. The French colonial government removed Thanh Thai from power in 1907. Diem's father then resigned from his position in protest and returned to Phu Cam to become a teacher and farmer.

Diem received his early education at his father's private school and at Catholic schools in Hue. He considered becoming a priest, like one of his brothers, but instead studied law and government at the College Hau Bo in Hanoi. An excellent student, Diem graduated at the top of his class. After completing his education, he entered public service and began moving up the ranks in government. French colonial officials often promoted his career because he was Catholic.

Diem became a provincial governor at age twenty-five. During this time, he increased his popularity by riding through villages on horseback and personally addressing the concerns of the peasants. In 1929 he learned that a group of Communists was encouraging people to rise up against the provincial government. From this time on, Diem was a strong opponent of communism.

Comes into conflict with the French

In 1932 the French colonial government made eighteen-year-old Bao Dai the new emperor of Vietnam. The following year, with the support of the French, Bao Dai appointed Diem as his interior minister. Diem immediately began pressuring the colonial authorities to give the Vietnamese people more control over their own government. When the French refused, he resigned after three months in office. At that point, the French authorities began to view Diem as a potential threat to their rule. They kept a close watch on his activities, threatened to arrest him, and removed his brother Ngo Dinh Khoi from his position as governor of Quang Nam province.

For the next ten years, Diem lived quietly in Hue. He emerged from seclusion during World War II (1939–1945), when international events began to loosen France's grip on its colonies in Indochina. In the early years of the war France suffered a series of military defeats in Europe and surrendered to Germany. Unable to protect its colonies, the French government allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and set up military bases there in the 1940s. Various factions in Vietnam—including Vietnamese Communists under Ho Chi Minh (see entry), known as the Viet Minh—viewed the Japanese occupation as an opportunity to gain control of the country.

Diem wanted to prevent the Communists from taking over Vietnam. First, he approached the Japanese and asked them to help him establish his own government. When this effort failed, he tried to see Bao Dai in order to convince him not to join forces with the Communists. But on his way to visit the emperor, Diem was kidnapped by Viet Minh agents and taken to a remote area near the Chinese border. He was held captive for six months. During this time, he learned that his brother Khoi had been shot to death by the Viet Minh. Finally, Diem was granted a meeting with Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who asked him to join the Viet Minh in their fight to gain Vietnam's independence from France. Despite the fact that he believed he would be killed if he did not cooperate, Diem refused Ho's offer. To his surprise, he was then released.

In 1945 the Allied forces (which mainly consisted of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) defeated both Germany and Japan to win World War II. As soon as Japan was defeated, the Viet Minh launched a military campaign to take control of Vietnam. This so-called August Revolution was successful, as the Viet Minh captured large areas of the country. In September 1945 Ho Chi Minh formally declared Vietnam's independence from both the French and the Japanese. But it soon became clear that France was not willing to give up its former colony. In 1946 war erupted between the French and the Viet Minh.

Gathers political support as an alternative to Communist rule

For the next four years, Diem traveled around Vietnam trying to gather political support. He presented himself as a true nationalist who opposed both the French and the Communists. In 1950 Diem left Vietnam following an attempt on his life. Over the next few years, he lived quietly overseas while war raged between the Viet Minh and the French. During this time, Diem gradually gained the support of a number of important people. He met with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. He also went to the United States and met with a number of prominent church and government officials, including Francis Cardinal Spellman, Hubert Humphrey, and Senator John F. Kennedy (see entry).

In 1953 Diem went to Europe. He began to gain political support from the large community of Vietnamese exiles in Paris. The following year, the French and Viet Minh signed the Geneva Peace Accords, ending the Indochina War. The peace agreement divided Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam but was usually called North Vietnam. The southern section, which was led by a U.S.-supported government under Emperor Bao Dai, was known as the Republic of South Vietnam.

Concerned about his future, Bao Dai asked Diem to be prime minister in his government. The emperor knew that Diem had American connections and was popular among the Vietnamese living abroad. In July 1954 Diem returned to the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon and began establishing his government. He was one of the only non-Communist Vietnamese leaders known to American officials, so the U.S. government felt obligated to support him. It felt that Diem was the best hope for keeping South Vietnam out of Communist control. The U.S. government began supplying Diem with financial aid and sent Colonel Edward Lansdale (see entry) to advise him.

Refuses to hold national elections

Shortly after becoming prime minister, Diem began taking steps to increase his hold on power. In 1955 he called for an election to let the South Vietnamese people decide whether he or Bao Dai should control the government. Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu (see page 300) then fixed the election results so that Diem received 98.2 percent of the vote. That October, he proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Vietnam. Lacking any other non-Communist alternatives, the U.S. government recognized Diem's government and tried to improve his image by exchanging diplomatic visits with South Vietnam.

Under the terms of the Geneva Accords, the two parts of Vietnam were supposed to hold nationwide free elections in 1956 in order to reunite the country under one government. But Diem, along with U.S. government officials, worried that holding elections in Vietnam would bring power to the Communists who had led the nation's war for independence from France. American leaders felt that a Communist government in Vietnam would increase the power of China and the Soviet Union and threaten the security of the United States. As a result, Diem and his American advisors refused to hold the elections.

"Our policy is one of peace. [Nothing] will divert us from our goal: the Unity of our land, but Unity in freedom, not in slavery," Diem explained in a speech. "We do not reject the principle of elections as a peaceful and democratic means of realizing this unity. Still, though elections may form one of the pillars of true democracy, they are senseless if they are not absolutely free. When we see the system of oppression practiced by the Viet Minh, we cannot but be skeptical as to the possibility of obtaining conditions for a free vote in the North."

Diem's government loses support

Over the next few years, the situation in Vietnam deteriorated rapidly. Ho Chi Minh and other Communist leaders in North Vietnam grew angry when Diem refused to hold the elections as scheduled. They were determined to reunite the country under a Communist government, by force if necessary. In 1960 former Viet Minh supporters in South Vietnam united with other opponents of Diem to form the National Liberation Front (NLF), which later became known as the Viet Cong. The goals of this organization included overthrowing Diem and establishing a coalition government in South Vietnam with Communist representation. Before long, Viet Cong guerrilla fighters had begun taking control of large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside.

As Diem struggled to maintain his hold on power, his government became more and more unpopular among the South Vietnamese people. Diem threw hundreds of his political rivals into prison camps, where many were tortured or killed. He also refused to institute land reforms to help the peasant farmers make a decent living from their labor. Instead, he returned land to the wealthy landlords who exploited the peasants. Diem also filled important positions in his government with his family and friends. Many of these people were corrupt and used their positions for personal gain.

One of Diem's closest advisors was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, known as Brother Nhu. Nhu controlled a secret police force that terrorized people he considered a threat to Diem's government. Nhu's wife, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu (see entry), acted as an honorary first lady and official hostess in the Diem government. She used her influence to convince the president to outlaw divorce, dancing, gambling, fortune-telling, and a variety of other activities. Many people viewed these rules, and the harsh punishments for breaking them, as unfair restrictions on their personal freedom.

When John F. Kennedy became president of the United States in 1961, he tried to convince Diem to make changes in the way he was ruling South Vietnam. Kennedy wanted Diem to introduce policies that would help the nation's struggling peasant population and stamp out widespread corruption in the government. He also urged Diem, who was Catholic, to show respect for Buddhism, the religion practiced by most South Vietnamese families. The United States hoped that by making these changes, the Diem government could reverse its drop in popularity and strengthen its hold on power. During this time, however, Kennedy also continued sending financial aid and military advisors to South Vietnam to help Diem fight the Communists.

Crushes Buddhist uprising

In 1963 a series of incidents convinced the Kennedy administration to end its support for Diem's government. That May, Diem attended a Catholic holiday celebration in the city of Hue. During the celebration, Catholic religious banners lined the streets. A few days later, however, the president refused to allow a group of Buddhists to fly religious banners at a celebration honoring the birth of Buddha. This discriminatory treatment outraged the Buddhist majority in Hue, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in a major protest against Diem's government. Diem's troops responded with violence, attacking the protestors and killing several people.

In June a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in public as a form of protest against Diem's repression of the Buddhist religion. Shocking pictures of the monk's suicide quickly appeared in the United States and all around the world. The photographs stunned many Americans and convinced them to focus greater attention on their country's involvement in South Vietnam. The pictures also triggered a wave of intense international criticism against Diem's government and its treatment of Vietnamese Buddhists. But President Diem and his ruling family reacted defiantly to the criticism. In fact, Brother Nhu and Madame Nhu proclaimed that "if the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be happy to supply the gasoline." These remarks horrified President Kennedy and other American officials.

Killed during the overthrow of his government

In August 1963 U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge (see entry) reported that an influential faction in the South Vietnamese military wanted to overthrow Diem. By this time, U.S. government officials recognized that Diem was so unpopular among his own people that they could no longer support him. "We are launched on a course from which there is no turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government," Lodge wrote in a cable to Washington. "There is no turning back because there is no possibility the war can be won under a Diem administration." At this point, U.S. officials made it clear that they would like to see someone else lead South Vietnam.

On November 1, 1963, a group of South Vietnamese generals led by Duong Van "Big" Minh launched a coup to overthrow Diem's government. Diem and Brother Nhu fled the presidential palace and hid in the Chinese section of Saigon. They agreed to surrender if they were allowed to leave the country safely, and Big Minh agreed. But before Diem and his brother could make their escape, they were discovered and shot to death by military troops. Madame Nhu was out of the country at the time.

After Diem's death, Big Minh became the new president of South Vietnam. But his rule lasted only a short time before it was ended by another coup. Control of the government changed several more times over the next few years. Lacking a strong non-Communist Vietnamese leader to support in place of Diem, the United States became more and more deeply involved in the war.


Hammer, Ellen J. A Death in November: America in Vietnam. 1987.

Prochnau, William. Once Upon a Distant War. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.

Ngo Dinh Diem

views updated May 21 2018

Ngo Dinh Diem

Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963) was South Vietnam's first premier and president. Leader of South Vietnam after the 1954 partition, he initially provided inspiring leadership but later became dictatorial when pressed by the Vietcong assault against his government.

The son of a minister and councilor to a former Vietnamese emperor, Ngo Dinh Diem was born Jan. 3, 1901, near Hue. In the 17th century his ancestors had been converted to Catholicism by missionaries to their Buddhist homeland, subsequently suffering much persecution.

Graduating from the government's school of administration at Hue, Diem rose to be governor of Phan Thiet province at the age of 28. Four years later he was named minister of interior in Emperor Bao Dai's central administration of the protectorate of Annam at Hue. Diem soon resigned his post, however, because neither the French nor Bao Dai would support reforms he advocated. For 21 years, from 1933 to 1954, Diem played no role of importance in Vietnam. His reputation as a nationalist grew nonetheless, largely based on his abandonment of high position in protest of French colonial rule.

Twice during the wartime Japanese occupation, Diem refused invitations to serve as premier. Held captive by Ho Chi Minh's Communist Viet Minh at the war's end, he was offered the post of interior minister in Ho's government but refused. He also declined to participate in Bao Dai's pro-French government of limited "independence" in 1949.

Diem traveled to the United States in 1950, the first year of American aid to still French-ruled Vietnam. He returned after a brief stay in France and lobbied for American support of full independence for Vietnam. He left the United States a year later and took up residence in a Belgian monastery.

Following the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Diem returned to Vietnam to accept the premiership, which he assumed on July 7, two weeks before the Geneva Accords divided the country. Long opposed to Emperor Bao Dai, Diem defeated him in a noncontested election in 1955, declaring South Vietnam a republic and becoming its first president.

Diem at first displayed outstanding leadership, building new schools and roads and surprisingly quickly rehabilitating a badly shattered economy. He refused to acquiesce in the 1956 reunification elections set by the Geneva Accords, however. The Communists subsequently inaugurated a strategy of armed revolt.

Diem became more autocratic as the war years progressed. His family had always been clannish, and he became increasingly dependent on the advice of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, whose attractive and assertive wife also played a major role in his government. Diem's lack of judgment was particularly evident in 1963, when government forces fired on Buddhist demonstrators in Hue, killing eight and precipitating a crisis in which several monks subsequently burned themselves to death. The Americans, who had heretofore strongly supported Diem, gave evidence of wavering, and this was all that a group of soldiers needed to depose him. Diem was overthrown and murdered on Nov. 2, 1963.

Further Reading

Probably the most accurate, although unsympathetic, portrait of Diem is in Willard A. Hanna, Eight Nation Makers (1964), which is a volume of portraits of major Southeast Asian leaders of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A longer and too laudatory treatment is Anthony T. Bouscaren, The Last of the Mandarins: Diem of Vietnam (1965). A more balanced account is in Denis Warner, The Last Confucian (1963; rev. ed. 1964). Robert Shaplen's excellent The Lost Revolution: TheU.S. in Vietnam, 1946-1966 (1965; rev. ed. 1966) contains a perceptive study of Diem. □

Diem, Ngo Dinh

views updated Jun 08 2018

Diem, Ngo Dinh (1901–63) Vietnamese statesman, prime minister of South Vietnam (1954–63). In 1955 he formed a republic, forcing Bao Dai into exile. At first, Diem received strong US support but corruption and setbacks in the Vietnam War led to growing discontent. With covert US help, army officers staged a coup in which he was murdered.

Ngo Dinh Diem

views updated May 23 2018

Ngo Dinh Diem See Diem

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