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Ngo Dinh Diem: Rise to Power, Foreign Ties & Strategies

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  • 0:03 Origins
  • 2:00 Refuge in the U.S.
  • 2:45 Diem Assumes Control
  • 5:01 On the Eve of War
  • 6:07 Early War Years
  • 9:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

Ngo Dinh Diem was expected to serve as the bulwark against North Vietnamese communism during the Vietnam War. Learn about Diem, including his background, early years and rise to leadership of the Republic of Vietnam, in this lesson.

Origins

Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the Republic of Vietnam (also known as the RVN or South Vietnam) from 1955 to 1963, is a very important figure for you to remember when studying the Vietnam War. Diem was expected to be the individual who could help the United States defeat communism in Vietnam; however, fate dictated otherwise. He had an upbringing that was identical to his rival and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (also known as the DRV or North Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh.

Diem was born in 1901 into a family of Catholic Vietnamese nationalists. His father was an ardent anti-colonialist and resisted French encroachment in Indochina during the early 20th century. Like Ho, Diem was indoctrinated in nationalist sentiment; a trait that remained with him throughout the rest of his life. Also, Diem was exposed to Western ideals, which translated into his opposition of communism.

Diem rose quickly through the political ranks in Indochina. In the early 1930s, he was active in court politics in the city of Hue. By 1933, Diem became minister of the interior under Bao Dai, the Emperor of Annam. Diem's relationship with Bao Dai quickly deteriorated as he believed the emperor had been overly influenced by France. He resigned as minister of the interior and was absent from Vietnamese politics during the Second World War. Instead, he attempted to build an opposition campaign against French colonialism and the newly formed communist-nationalist organization, the Viet Minh.

Ho reached out to Diem on several occasions to organize a unified Vietnamese movement. Diem flatly rejected Ho's advances and refused to join the Viet Minh. Bao Dai also attempted to earn Diem's trust. However, Bao Dai's agreement with France, known as the Elysee Agreement, created in 1949, led to Diem rejecting the emperor. With a multitude of enemies, coupled with a death sentence levied by Ho, Diem fled Indochina.

Refuge in the United States

Diem arrived in the United States in 1950. At first, Diem was shunned by President Harry Truman due to his anti-French rhetoric. However, he forged a relationship with a number of American allies between his arrival and 1953. Diem first met Wesley Fishel, leader of the Michigan State University Group, who supported his cause in Indochina and would become an important ally.

Additionally, prominent individuals, such as Senator John F. Kennedy, Senator Mike Mansfield, Cardinal Francis Spellman and President Dwight Eisenhower, all responded favorably to Diem's anticommunist, pro-Catholic stance. Diem's asylum in the United States was temporary; he returned to Southeast Asia following the end of the First Indochina War in June 1954.

Diem Assumes Control

The political landscape of Indochina had been severely altered by the time Diem returned in 1954. The agreements reached at the Geneva Conference called for the division of Indochina at the 17th parallel; it officially recognized the DRV (or North Vietnam) and the State of Vietnam (or South Vietnam). Diem immediately called for a reassessment of the Bao Dai regime. His calls for reform were left unanswered. Instead, Diem formed his own government in the State of Vietnam.

On July 7, Diem became the premier of the Council of Ministers. One of his first challenges was to oversee Operation Passage to Freedom, or the relocation of Vietnamese refugees between North and South Vietnam. Luckily for Diem, the resettlement process brought in a slew of Catholic Vietnamese to South Vietnam.

Another major issue for Diem was his battles against various religious sects, including the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, and the organized crime cartel, the Binh Xuyen. Incensed by Diem's anti-French and pro-Catholic policies, these various organizations launched opposition campaigns against the premier. Diem was able to quell the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao dissent, but his battle with the Binh Xuyen was much more significant.

On March 29, 1955, the Binh Xuyen launched an offensive against Diem's Vietnamese Nationalist Army headquarters in the city of Saigon. One month later, on April 27, the Battle for Saigon commenced. Diem quickly, and impressively, suppressed the Binh Xuyen on May 2. Remaining elements of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao either surrendered or fled. This was a major achievement for Diem for two important reasons.

First, Diem gained enough support from his political party, the Can Lao, and Vietnamese citizens to overthrow Bao Dai. On October 23, Diem removed Bao Dai from power, proclaimed himself president during a referendum and renamed the State of Vietnam to the Republic of Vietnam. Second, Diem gained substantial American support following his victory. France removed its remaining elements in Southeast Asia on the day that the RVN was established. The United States quickly filled the void by throwing its support behind Diem. The United States and Ngo Dinh Diem were now aligned in an impending war against North Vietnam.

On the Eve of War

The year 1956 was important for Diem, South Vietnam and the United States. The most significant event to transpire during the year was Diem's refusal to participate in the reunification elections outlined in the Geneva Agreements of 1954. Diem believed that he did not have to abide by the agreements since he did not sign them. Vietnam remained divided at the 17th parallel; Ho began preparing for war.

North Vietnam was not the only state to begin rearming. In 1956, Diem restructured his military forces. He created the Vietnamese Special Forces and organized the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN. The United States also increased its activity within the region.

Eisenhower approved of the Temporary Equipment Recovery Mission (TERM) in South Vietnam. The ultimate objective of the mission was to inject additional American military advisors into the state in order to develop the newly created ARVN forces. American organizations, such as the Michigan State University Group and Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG), provided advice and support to Diem in his battle against North Vietnamese insurgents.

Early War Years, 1957-1962

The North Vietnamese insurgency in South Vietnam had increased significantly between 1957 and 1959. Diem attempted to combat the growing problem by introducing the Agroville Program in 1959. The objective of the program was to pacify, or eliminate, the threat of insurgents in the villages of the South Vietnam countryside. To do so, Vietnamese villagers were forced to relocate to areas that were deemed secure by Diem and his ARVN forces. Many villagers rejected this security technique, which led to the failure of the program.

Simultaneously, Diem was forced to deal with internal dissent against many of his policies. The fearless leader received state-wide criticism when he enforced Decree #10, which identified Buddhism as an association rather than a religion. To make matters worse, Diem rigged the 1959 elections for the National Assembly to prevent unfavorable candidates from earning a seat.

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