VIETNAM - History, Documents, and Opinion
Edited by Marvin E. Gettleman
Pub. by Fawcett -1965, Repub. by Times Mirror -1970
THE GENESIS OF UNITED STATES SUPPORT FOR NGO DINH DIEM
By ROBERT SCHEER
Foreign correspondent for Ramparts magazine, author of A View from Phnompenh, Ramparts, IV (July 1965). pp. 25-31, and co-author (with Maurice Zeitlin) of Cuba: Tragedy in Our Hemisphere (New York, 1963).
The selection is from:
How the United States Got Involved in Vietnam
(Report to the Center for the study of Democratic Institutions [Santa Barbara, CA] 1965), pp. 13-16, 20-44. By permission of the Fund for the Republic.
U. S. Support for Diem ........ THE REIGN OF NGO DINH DIEM
Ngo Dinh Diem had been destined, by family position and training, for service in the Mandarinite, the feudal administrative apparatus that had always governed Vietnam and that the French bent to their own purposes. He belonged to that group of offcials who believed in the traditional Vietnamese monarchy and the Mandarin hierarchy that served it. They hoped for eventual independence, but sought the moderate path of reform from within the French colonial hierarchy.
At the time Diem had been part of the French colonial government, other nationalists, including Communists, Trotskyites, and pro-Kuomintang groups, had chosen the path of violent opposition to the French. In the early 1930's the Indochinese Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, had played the most prominent role in this movement and the "terror" unleashed by the French broke against them. Ho was arrested in Hong Kong and the situation inside Vietnam was disastrous to his cause. As Ellen Hammer described it in The Struggle for Indochina,
The French Legion terrorized north and central Annam. The prisons were filled and thousands were killed. The year 1931 was a time of terror in which perished not only many Communists, but Nationalists and liberals, and many others, innocent victims of French action.
In September of 1933, at the age of thirty-three, Diem abandoned the possibilities of reform from within and left the French administration to go into retirement. But he did not, and never was to, take up active opposition to the French. His decision was determined by a style of political life that he had retained from his Mandarin background. Diem believed in intercession by Providence and his politics were marked by an extreme fatalism. He felt that if one upheld one's personal integrity, remained dedicated, and issued a clear and courageous call to the powers of this world, it would be answered. He had first addressed his call to the French. When that failed, he turned to the Japanese when they occupied Vietnam in 1940. After the war, he tried again with the French, and when that showed little promise, he turned to the Americans.
U. S. Support for Diem
This last turn came in 1950 when Diem, who was then in Japan, encountered WesIey Fishel, a young assistant professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. In an interview with this author Fishel said that he later persuaded Diem to travel to the United States to plead his case and convinced Michigan State University, to which Fishel had moved, to sponsor the trip.
Diem was to spend a considerable part of the next three years in the United States. His brother, Bishop Can, was an important contact with the American [Roman] Catholic Church, and Diem lived for some time in the Maryknoll seminaries in New Jersey and New York State.
The latter school was under the jurisdiction of Cardinal Spellman, and Diem soon developed a close relationship with this important American [Roman] Catholic. The Cardinal became one of Diem's most infuential backers in the United States, and there is no doubt that this support was crucial, for, among other things, it certified Diem as an important anti-Communist - no small matter during the McCarthy period.
Diem was thus launched upon a career as a lobbyist, which was perhaps the most successful role in his political life. He managed to enlist in his cause not only the sympathy of Spellman but also that of liberal and sophisticated political figures who were ordinarily at odds with the conservative prelate.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas [Roman Catholic] was one of the first of this group to champion Diem, in his book North from Malaya, published in 1952. Douglas had traveled in Vietnam and was convinced that the French could not win against the popular support of the Comunist-led Vietminh. This posed a dilemma for Douglas, which he thought was resolved when he met Diem in Washington upon his return from Vietnam. Diem represented the third force Douglas believed the United States could back: ''Ngo Dinh Diem is revered by the Vietnamese because he is honest and independent and stood firm against the French influence.'' At the same time Douglas admitted that "there is little doubt that in a popularity contest Ho Chi Minh would still lead the field.''
Douglas told this author that he arranged a breakfast meeting at which he introduced Diem to Senators Mike Mansfield [Roman Catholic] and John F. Kennedy.
Mansfield was to become the Senate's leading authority on Vietnam and as Majority Leader was an important architect of the Kennedy Administration's Vietnam policy some seven years later. During this earlier period, 1951-54, Mansfield and Kennedy became arch-critics of the French rule in Vietnam and proponents of an independent nationalist alternative. To them, Diem appeared as that alternative.
THE REIGN OF NGO DINH DIEM
The installation of Diem as the Premier of Vietnam helped focus U.S. policy in southeast Asia. Diem was committed to the remaking of Vietnamese society according to a not always lucid, but always anti-Communist and anti-French, model that required for its enactment the concentration of total power in the hands of a small trusted group. According to Bernard Fall, in The Two Vietnams, Diem, unlike some of his advisers, never had any doubts about the necessity for tight central control to divert the Nationalist revolution from Communist objectives. Ho and Giap, the Communist leaders of the Vietminh, were heroes of the resistance to the French. Diem understood that changing the course of their revolution required the liquidation of the Vietminh and the "re-education" of the majority of the population that supported the movement. It was a formidable task for a regime that had arisen late in the day and by grace of a foreign power.
[ Actually, two foreign powers. USA and VATICAN .... JP ]
Diem in his first year in office moved to consolidate his control by crushing all sources of opposition-the religious sects and Nationalist but anti-Diem politicians, along with the cadres left behind by the Vietminh. These came to be called the Vietcong. It was soon clear that Diem would refuse to provide for the popular mandate called for in the Geneva Agreements. Each step to that end required American support and conflicted with the interests of the French, who wanted to limit Diem's power, keep the situation fluid, and maintain whatever influence they could.
Eisenhower was sympathetic to the French position, as his later writings make clear. He recognized not only Ho's popularity but the high cost of any effort to crush his movement. He resisted grandiose schemes for building up Diem's regime as a Western-style alternative to the Vietminh, and the man he chose as his Special Ambassador to Vietnam, General Lawton Collins, shared these sentiments. But the Eisenhower Administration was particularly vulnerable to political pressure, and it was during this unsettled period that Diem"s pre-Geneva lobbying began to bear fruit.
U. S. Support for Diem
One of the first voices raised publicly on behalf of a "hard line" of all-out support for Diem was that of Cardinal Spellman.
In a speech before the American Legion Convention on August 31, 1954, he was quoted by The New York Times:
"If Geneva and what was agreed upon there means anything at all, it means...... Taps for the buried hopes of freedom in Southeast Asia! Taps for the newly betrayed millions of Indochinese who must now learn the awful facts of slavery from their eager Communist masters! Now the devilish techniques of brainwashing, forced confessions, and rigged trials have a new locale for their exercise."
Spellman emphasized the essential theses of the cold war containment policy:
"....... Communism has a world plan and it has been following a carefully set-up time table for the achievement of that plan.. ." "... the infamies and agonies inflicted upon the hapless victims of Red Russia's bestial tyranny........." A show of strength was required, "..... else we shall risk bartering our liberties for lunacies, betraying the sacred trust of our forefathers, becoming serfs and slaves to Red rulers' godless goons."
The danger lay in the illusion of peace with the Communists:
"Americans must not be lulled into sleep by indifference nor be beguiled by the prospect of peaceful coexistence with communists. How can there be peaceful coexistence between two parties if one of them is continually clawing at the throat of the other..... ? Do you peacefully coexist with men who thus would train the youth of their godless, Red world... ?"
The Cardinal demonstrated his support of Diem by going to Vietnam to deliver personally the first check for Catholic Relief Services funds spent in Vietnam.
Others of Diem's early supporters followed suit. Wesley Fishel, the Michigan State University professor who had originally induced Diem to come to the United States, turned up in Vietnam as one of his chief advisers, with residence in the presidential palace.
Another American inhabitant of the palace was Wolf Ladejinsky, a New Dealer who had stayed on in the Department of Agriculture only to be fired under pressure from Senator Joseph McCarthy for alleged (but never proved) radical connections. Ladejinsky had worked on the Japanese land reform program, and Diem hired him to work on land problems in Vietnam - proof to many American liberals of Diem's commitment to serious social reform.
THE REIGN OF NGO DINH DIEM
Another visitor to Diem was Leo Cherne, who had helped to found the Research Institute of America, one of the first of the management-research firms designed to help American corporations cope with the expanding government of the post-1930's. It also supplied its 30,000 business clients with general political information. Cherne was also president of the International Rescue Conmmittee, an organization aimed at helping refugees from Communism.
Cherne went to Vietnam in September 1954 and spent two and a half weeks there, becoming very interested in Diem's potentialities as a democratic, nationalist alternative to the Communists. In a cable he sent back to the subscribers to his Research Institute he reported:
"..... have been talking intimately with American offcials here, including Ambassador Heath. Conferred at length yesterday with Vietnam Premier Ngo Dinh Diem..... success of effort to hold Vietnam from Communists depends on whether all non-Communist Vietnamese can unite for struggle. U.S. Embassy, strongly supporting Diem, views him as key to the whole situation. Political and financial instability..... unless Vietnamese Government can organize important forces and U.S. continues pouring in substantial help and money. ...... If free elections held today, all agree privately Communists would win... situation not hopeless....... future depends on organizing all resources to resettle refugees, sustain new bankrupt government, give people something to fight for, and unite them to resist Communism. ...... West can't afford to lose from now on.
Upon returning to the United States, Cherne sent his second-in-command in the International Rescue Committee, Joseph Buttinger, to set up an office in Vietnam. At this time Buttinger was involved in Socialist politics as an editor of Dissent magazine; during the mid-Thirties, under the name of Gustave Richter, he had been the leader of the underground Social Democratic Party in Austria. This had been a bitter experience. His one accomplishment, as he writes about it in his memoirs, In the Twilight of Socialism, had been to stop the growth of the Communists.
A year after this book was published, a CIA agent named Edward Lansdale introduced Buttinger to the men around Ngo Dinh Diem, and after some three months in Vietnam Buttinger believed Diem to be the answer to the Communist revolution. As Buttinger remarked to this author,
"He was strong and shrewd and determined to stay in power and would stay in power."
During the late fall of 1954, while Buttinger was in Vietnam. ......
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