A Revolving Door of Leadership in South Vietnam

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  • 0:01 Opening Pandora's Box
  • 0:56 General Minh
  • 2:22 General Khanh
  • 3:42 The Civilian Government
  • 5:00 The Young Turks
  • 7:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Following the loss of Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States faced a cycle of leadership changes in South Vietnam. Learn about the revolving leadership and how it impacted the United States' effort in the Vietnam War in this lesson.

Opening Pandora's Box

The successful coup d'état against Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), or South Vietnam, in November of 1963 created a power vacuum in the region. From the end of 1963 to the American exit of the Vietnam War in 1973, the United States faced a carousel of leadership in South Vietnam that was often inept and defiant. Why is this important to examine?

Well, the fluid political situation in South Vietnam caused complications for the United States' war effort. The varying personalities involved all wanted to pursue different strategies. Additionally, much of the leadership often failed to win the support of the Vietnamese. This was vital because the United States needed this support to stabilize the region in cultural and political terms and help eliminate members of the National Liberation Front, or NLF, based within South Vietnamese villages. Let's take a look at the post-Diem leaders of South Vietnam.

General Minh

General Duong Van Minh helped create the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and served as a military advisor to Diem. Following Diem's removal in November, Minh created the Military Revolutionary Council, and became the president of the South Vietnam. His political cabinet consisted primarily of military generals, notwithstanding his Prime Minister Nguyen Ngoc Tho. Minh removed many Diem-era sanctions within South Vietnam, reopening newspapers, eliminating the constitution and relocating troops. The United States placed its full support behind Minh by recognizing his leadership and providing aid, material and personnel to the government in order to combat the NLF.

Complications quickly arose during Minh's tenure. While the Military Revolutionary Council was a noble idea, it deteriorated into a power grab by the competing military generals. Minh eliminated Diem's province chiefs, which caused local governments to fail and spawned backlash from citizens. His relocation of troops into nonessential areas of South Vietnam resulted in significant infiltration of NLF insurgents into important cities, such as Saigon and Hue.

Minh also scrapped the Strategic Hamlet Program, which opened South Vietnamese villages to the NLF. By January 1964, NLF activity in South Vietnam had drastically grown. While the United States questioned the leadership of Minh, other South Vietnamese factions took action. On January 30, Minh was bloodlessly removed from power by rival military officer, General Nguyen Khanh.

General Khanh

Sensing the American and Vietnamese distrust against the Minh regime, Khanh removed the Military Revolutionary Council from power and took control of South Vietnam. Interestingly, Khanh allowed Minh to remain in position as the head of state. This essentially became a nominal title as Khanh ruled South Vietnam from the position of prime minister.

The United States viewed Khanh optimistically; it hoped a single ruler might once again stabilize South Vietnam. Additionally, Khanh was willing to listen to the advice of American leaders and military personnel. He quickly adopted the United States' strategy of pacification by delivering personal visits and speeches to South Vietnamese villages and cities. However, internal complications quickly damaged Khanh's image.

The South Vietnamese army was not progressing as quickly as the United States had hoped; it was losing both minor skirmishes and major battles. The Strategic Hamlet Program, which Khanh hoped to revive, struggled. Khanh failed to protect local governments, which resulted in public chaos, polarization and further infiltration by the NLF. Backlash against Khanh rose significantly from Buddhists, Catholics, students and laborers. Eventually, he was forced to militarize many large cities to quell the opposition. By fall of 1964, American officials believed that the Khanh government was on the brink of collapse. His end came on October 30, when he resigned amid mass protest.

The Civilian Government

From November 1964 to June 1965, South Vietnam was under the leadership of what became known as the 'civilian government.' Phan Khac Suu, a Vietnamese engineer, served as the president of South Vietnam, while Dr. Phan Huy Quat, a medical specialist, was the prime minister. Many within South Vietnam believed that Phan Khac Suu was the natural heir to the presidency following the Diem assassination; his civilian government was a welcome sign.

The civilian government stressed a rapprochement of Vietnamese citizens. It pursued peace over internal opposition, and many of its programs helped maintain order throughout the first half of 1965. United States officials placed Phan Huy Quat in charge of the Americanization process, but he was strongly opposed to an increased presence of the United States in South Vietnam. The prime minister often resisted many American initiatives and often stalled the Americanization process.

Additionally, the NLF gained a stronghold of territory in South Vietnam. The United States eventually began sidestepping the civilian government. Simultaneously, a South Vietnamese faction known as the 'Young Turks,' comprised of General Nguyen Van Thieu and Vice Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, garnered the attention of the United States. After mounting external opposition and the presence of the Young Turks, the civilian government peacefully dissolved on June 11.

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