The man who held the mandate of heaven
The Kennedy Administration lost the Vietnam War by ousting South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.
On November 1, 1963, generals of the South Vietnamese army staged a coup. On the next day, All Souls Day, President Ngo Dinh Diem, and his closest advisor and brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, surrendered after attending Mass in a Catholic Church. They were bundled into an armoured personnel carrier with their hands tied behind their backs and were told that they would be flown into exile. On the way to the airport, their guards sprayed them with bullets at point-blank range and stabbed them over and over.
Although US President John F. Kennedy – who was a personal friend of Diem -- was surprised that the president had been murdered, he had authorised the coup, believing that the war could only be won if Diem were ousted. It was one of the most shameful moments in American diplomacy.
Canadian military historian Geoffrey Shaw has just published an analysis of Diem’s difficult relationship with the US, The Lost Mandate of Heaven: the American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam. MercatorNet interviewed him about the still-controversial figure.
* * * * * * *MercatorNet: Most Americans believe that Diem was inept, corrupt and deeply unpopular. Was that true?
Geoffrey Shaw: Americans have been poorly served by this description of Ngo Dinh Diem. The above portrait was created for public consumption mostly by young reporters (in their 20s) who had little experience of the world at large, no expertise in Southeast Asia and a desire for sensational stories.
As New York Times reporter David Halberstam admitted after the death of Diem, he and his colleagues had created popular political fiction so as to sell papers. Their spin also served the purpose of Averell Harriman, an American senior diplomat with tremendous influence over President Kennedy, who had an intense dislike for and a lack of confidence in Diem.
The real Diem was so admired by patriotic Vietnamese of all stripes (including many Communists) that he was considered a prize to be won over; Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh tried this at least once, and Vo Nguyen Giap on many occasions.
Diem’s devotion to his country was so ardent that the French colonial rulers of Vietnam jailed him a few times for his refusal to play by their rules. They kept releasing him because of his talent for governing villages, and then provinces, was superior to that of any other Vietnamese in their administration. Early in his civil service career (his mid-20s) he earned the Mandate of Heaven amongst Vietnamese peasant farmers. This title is granted to leaders who exhibit the civic and personal virtues valued by Confucius.
As for his credentials as a war-time leader, when his first government of Vietnam was formed, the French and the Americans urged him to reach a live-and-let-live accommodation with some powerful South Vietnamese militarized sects, the most notorious of these being the Binh Xuyen, a military formation of gangsters and river-pirates. But Diem ordered his fledgling army to root them out.
After a number of Buddhist monks immolated themselves as a protest against Diem’s government and the regime retaliated by raids on pagodas with many casualties, the Kennedy administration decided that the president had to go. Was the Catholic Diem hostile toward the Buddhist majority in his own country?
Shaw: Diem, a Confucian Catholic, was the greatest benefactor of Buddhism in post-1945 Vietnam – with no rivals, including Buddhists, coming close. He diverted substantial government funds into rebuilding Buddhist shrines, pagodas, schools, etc., which had wasted away under French rule. Diem viewed Buddhism as part of Vietnam’s traditional character and heritage — something no Confucian would disregard. He also saw it as a protection against the inroads of the Communists, who were trying to replace traditional Vietnamese culture with their ideology, which opposed all religions.
The Buddhist monks immolating themselves had come under the influence of a small sect that had some membership in Communist North Vietnam and China. There was known Communist infiltration in this sect.
The first monk in Vietnam to kill himself by fire, Thich Quang Duc, had done the act to fulfil a pledge he and another monk had made many years before — that when either of them heard that the other had sacrificed himself to Buddha by fire, the remaining one most follow. Quang Duc’s brother monk had recently immolated himself in China, and so he followed suit. Diem, via his physician, got word of this and tried to stop the suicide, but to no avail; the Communist agents within the radical pagoda in Saigon, the Xa Loi, staged the man’s suicide as a public protest against Diem, and they encouraged American newsmen to show up in time for the event. The subsequent burnings were carried out by monks who had been heavily pressured to perform these acts.
Why raid the Buddhist pagodas? The two pagodas that had been infiltrated by Communist agitators, the Tu Dam in Hue and the Xa Loi in Saigon (ironically, both had been rebuilt and funded by Diem), were stockpiling arms.
Was Diem elevating Catholics in important government jobs over Buddhists, as many American journalists claimed? In the Vietnamese government in general, in Diem’s cabinet in particular, and in the army, Buddhists held the majority of the positions. Buddhist General Nguyễn Khanh, who served in Diem’s government and participated in the coup against Diem, scoffed at the idea that Diem had been prejudiced against Buddhists in favour of Roman Catholics.
Was Diem’s Catholic faith sincere? Did it influence his policies?
Shaw: Well, any man who can be up at 6:30 am every morning to go to Mass can hardly be considered to taking his faith lightly. His personal life was exemplary for any Christian as he despised ostentation and personal comfort, submitting, instead, to living humbly —even in the presidential palace in Saigon, where he slept on an old army cot in his office. He remained a celibate all his life. Years earlier, at the Maryknoll Seminary in upstate New York, he had surprised his hosts and America’s elites by undertaking the most humble tasks when he stayed there.
While he could be impatient with the “chattering class” in Saigon, he was, nevertheless, always open for talks with anyone, especially peasant farmers for whom he had a sincere respect and affection. His policies toward even his enemies often included a means for reconciliation and wining them over; he hated the thought that even Communists would die in the war as he saw them, first, as Vietnamese men made in the image of God and then, secondly, as enemies trying to undo the government.
The Vietnamese people, Catholic and Buddhist alike, even down to this day, testify to the purity and the honesty of the man. Even some of the radical Buddhists who had clamored for his overthrow and celebrated his murder later came to repent the deed and admitted that his loss was a disaster for Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, reportedly said, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid” when he heard about the coup. What effect did his assassination have upon how the war was fought?
Shaw: Ho understood that a People’s War is a political war and that the fight is not won on battlefields but, instead, in the hearts and the minds of average people, where the true seat of political legitimacy lies. Diem, as Ho knew perfectly well (and thus the reason for why he had tried to recruit Diem to his side), had political legitimacy in the eyes of the average Vietnamese, because he was known to be patriotic, upright and honest; in other words, he had the Mandate of Heaven.
Ho could not believe that the Americans would be so stupid as to get rid of the one key leader who made the government of South Vietnam politically and morally viable in the eyes of the average Vietnamese. In short, and not to put too fine a point on it, by murdering Diem, the Americans murdered South Vietnam. Ho knew that the soldiers replacing Diem would have no standing in the eyes of the Vietnamese and that destabilization must follow — as soldiers, the Binh, were considered the lowest on the scale of who should rightly govern in the Confucian order.
CIA Saigon Chief William Colby admitted, privately to this writer, that after Diem political stability in South Vietnam was problematic at best. At a practical level, counter-insurgency experts, such as the British Robert Thompson, believed that the loss of Diem would undermine everything that was working against the Communists, especially the successful Strategic Hamlets Program.
As predicted, revolving-door coups ensued as generals fought against each other. Fighting the Communists dwindled to the point where the United States attempted to prop-up the charade of a government in Saigon with American troops — otherwise the war would have been lost in 1964-65. Sadly, or so it could be argued, America simply prolonged South Vietnam’s agony. The forcing of Diem’s demise was a terrible mistake that, really, lost the war.
Would the Vietnam War have had a different outcome if Diem had lived?
Shaw: There can be little question that the outcome would have been different as Diem was winning the war, with American help, in 1962 and 1963. This success is what caused the very clever Communist leadership to look for a way to undermine Diem in America’s eyes — and thus the masterfully engineered Buddhist Crisis.
How do we know that Diem was winning then? Because the Communists themselves were admitting, implicitly and explicitly, that they were losing. This is why they ramped up their fight against the Strategic Hamlets Program, as it was winning the people away from the Communists. After his travels with Viet Cong, Australian journalist Wilf Burchett admitted that SHP was making headway against the insurgency. He even called 1962 “Diem’s year.”
You say that you discovered a Conradian Heart of Darkness in your research — but not in Saigon, but in Washington D.C. Can you explain?
Shaw: There were always disgruntled officers in Saigon, as well as intellectuals who thought they could do a better job than Diem, but none of them would have ever made a move against Diem unless they believed that Washington would back them 100 percent. This is a point of singular importance, because the politically disgruntled in Saigon, military or civilian, knew that they would not have a shred of support in the countryside to oust Diem and that, should they make such a move, they would quickly be ousted and Diem reinstated.
However, if the plans for a coup were made in DC and backed by DC, then there would be a grudging acceptance amongst others jockeying for power that they would have to bow before the prevailing wind emanating out of DC.
Averell Harriman was at the centre of the plotting in Washington, as he had a deep and abiding personal dislike of Diem since their very first meeting in 1961, when he had travelled to Saigon to cudgel Diem into compliance on his Laos Neutrality Accords. Diem did not back the accords, because he knew they would result in Vietnam’s inability to defend itself from Communist incursions across the Vietnam/Laos border. From that point on, Harriman did everything in his power to change US policy toward Diem, as he had taken it as a personal affront that a Southeast Asian “despot” would question his ability to secure Communist compliance with Laotian neutrality.
Harriman drew around him a number of powerful men, such as Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, National Security Advisor Roger Hilsman, and several other senior appointees of note.
The manoeuvrings that Harriman unleashed, from cajoling to actually intimidating JFK and others, became the hallmark of what went on in Washington during this time. Anyone who opposed the Harriman group was either side-lined or moved to another posting, which was the eventual fate of Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting, who constantly reminded JFK that his office had given a pledge of support to Diem that they could not reasonably go back on without damaging America’s honour.
Of course, the depth of the Harriman intrigue is exposed, with considerable rigour, in the text of the book. Arrogance, spite and hatred became the key features of the Harriman group’s approach with Diem and to a degree that defied reason and sound policy. In short, there was an irrational element at work, to “get” Diem regardless of the cost, and this is what I have perceived to be the heart of darkness.
Ultimately Diem’s fate was decided by diplomats like Averell Harriman and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr and journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan. Did they have a particular animus against the president?
Shaw: Yes, they had an animus toward Diem — as explained earlier. I would say that Lodge, though, was simply an apparatchik who was following orders from Harriman and less inclined to be caught-up in that animus to the same degree as the Harriman group. The young newsmen, or so I have come to perceive, disliked Diem because he was very much a conservative traditionalist and they, of course, were the exact opposite.
But for the newsmen, I think their anti-Diemist zeal was based less on a deep hatred of the man than on the fact that they came to realize that they had enormous power in their hands and that they were starting to drive American opinion and, subsequently, policy back home. Halberstam even bragged about how his editors told him to “keep it up” (ie, the unrelenting anti-Diem stories) as the politicians in DC were beginning to come around to their way of seeing things.
In short, they were giddy with power and, no doubt, they were being used by older, more cynical men such as their editors; some of the latter being in the same social circle as Averell Harriman.
Apparently the Americans had no succession plan after Diem’s ouster. Are there lessons that the U.S. should have learned about regime change?
Shaw: Yes, is the short answer. The drive to get rid of Diem took on its own irrational logic that simply swept all before it — very much as the deep desire to “get” Saddam Hussein and his WMDs did in 2003. The profound difference here being that Diem was a good man, venerated by the average farmer in his country, whereas Saddam was feared and hated but kept the lights on and the proverbial trains running on time, and, most important of all, kept a myriad of violent factions in check with the vicious ferocity that tyrants are known and expected to possess. The same could be said for both Mubarak of Egypt and Kaddafi of Libya.
These latter leaders, unlike Diem, were “devils,” but the question the American government has still failed to address adequately, as surely as it failed all those years ago with respect to Vietnam, is this: Is the devil that we know better than the devils we don’t know? Plainly, the answer is yes.
The corollary lesson here is that if America deems it expedient to remove a leader, it had better be darned certain that the replacement leader will be accepted in the country and not simply be another corrupt politician on the make. Sadly, American foreign policy makers, as of late, have forgotten that their choice, more often than not, will not be between good and evil but only between lesser or greater evils.
Take Ukraine, for example, where President Poroshenko, brought to power via a US-sponsored and funded coup, has now amassed more wealth than the previous premier Yanukovych, while corruption has expanded at an exponential rate making the ousted regime look like the model of fiscal responsibility by comparison.
In the final analysis, I would have to say that viewing the world through gauzy rose-coloured liberal democratic lenses, and not wanting to see it for what it is, is the wrench that keeps sticking into the spokes of American foreign policy. With Diem, however, America had a truly decent man and a great leader as their faithful ally in South Vietnam. LBJ referred to him as the Winston Churchill of Asia, and other Asian leaders, such as India’s premier at the time, pretty much agreed with his assessment.
Geoffrey Shaw was an Assistant Professor of History for the American Military University for 14 years, and has written and spoken widely about US military involvement in Vietnam and the Middle East