From ............. VIETNAM - A HISTORY
by Stanley Karnow ............. ISBN 0-670-74604-5
VIKING PRESS ...... 40 West 23rd St. ....... NYC 10010
During the late 1940s, Diem's efforts to muster support tor himself were fruitless. Even so, the Vietminh deemed him enough of a nuisance to be condemned to death in absentia, and, reversing Ho's verdict, its agents tried to kill him as he was traveling to visit his brother Thuc, by now bishop of Vinh Long diocese, in the Mekong delta.
Brave but not foolhardy, Diem left Vietnam in 1950, ostensibly to attend the Holy Year celebration at the Vatican. He eventually went to the United States where he spent two years at the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey, washing dishes, scrubbing floors, and praying, like any novice, and he even watched a football game at Princeton. More important, he gained introductions to such prominent Americans as Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, Justice William O. Douglas, and Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy.
Diem pleaded his case with a simplistic if compelling logic that appealed to conservatives and liberals alike. He opposed both Communist domination and French colonialism; thus he represented true nationalism. The added attraction for Cardinal Spellman was Diem's Catholicism and he became one of his active promoters.
Diem made no headway with the Eisenhower administration, then committed to the French. In May 1953, he quit the United States for a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, but he shuttled frequently to Paris. His guide there was his youngest brother, Luyen, an engineer, who had been lobbying for him among exiled Vietnamese in France. Diem needed French endorsement, American approval, and an official appointment from Bao Dai. A year later, as the Geneva Conference augured a settlement in Vietnam, the pieces fit together.
Bao Dai was still residing at his chateau near Cannes with his wife and five children. He kept a Vietnamese mistress in Paris, and his aides supplemented that diet with elegant French courtesans. He also spent his evenings at the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo, squandering extravagant sums. He had sunk into an intellectual torpor, yet his political interest in Vietnam could be aroused if he felt that events might affect him directly. As the Geneva negotiations approached a denouement, he finally realized that his own status hung dangerously in the balance. He summoned Diem.
The playboy and the puritan made an odd couple, but they could use each other. Diem perceived Bao Dai to be his path to power. And Bao Dai saw two advantages in Diem. For one thing, Diem's brother Nhu in Saigon had organized the Front for National Salvation, which appeared to be a plausible political coalition. Bao Dai also estimated that Diem, having sojourned in the United States, would bring America onto the Vietnamese scene to supplant the French, whose days seemed to be numbered. But contrary to the legend that Dulles and Cardinal Spellman, and other Amcricans were then pushing for Diem, the United States had not yet anointed him. Indeed, American officials in Geneva politely brushed off his brother Luyen, who was urging them to meet Diem. The French government, meanwhile, regarded Diem with indifference.
Bao Dai, a captive of his own fancies, nevertheless believed Diem to be America's challenge to France when he called him to his chateau. There, on June 18, 1954, Bao Dai placed Diem before a crucifix and persuaded him to swear to defend Vietnam "against the Communists and, if necessary, against the French."
He thereupon named him prime minister - and, unwittingly, dug his own political grave. Diem's new prestige scarcely altered him. Back in Paris as he prepared to return to Vietnam, he consented to hold formal audiences at the ornate Hotel Palais d'Orsay, but insisted on sleeping every night in a room without bath at the sordid Hotel de la Gare, located in a slum neighborhood near the Austerlitz railroad station. [--------------]
When I interviewed him at the time, he sounded like a Vietnamese version of Joan of Arc, forecasting that the national army he planned to mobilize "will inspire the people to flock to us." He had a long road ahead.
On June 26, 1954, when he landed in Saigon, a group of barely five hundred, mostly Catholics, greeted him at the airport. The rest of the city stayed home.