As the Cold War escalated in the United States, Eisenhower and Washington would make their anti-communist policies felt by stopping Ho Chi Minh from realizing his goal of reunification of Vietnam. The Americans would erect a new non-communist government in Nam, or south, and put at its helm, Ngo Dinh Diem. From 1954-1963, Diem presided over an increasingly corrupt, devious, and repressive regime. Communist guerrillas backed by North Vietnam launched a new rebellion, but a civil disobedience campaign led by the country’s Buddhist monks contributed more directly to his downfall.
Brutal persecution of the dissident monks in 1963 damaged the regime’s already shaky international reputation. With American support, Vietnamese generals overthrew and assassinated Ngo later that year. This basically sums up how the majority of people thought of Ngo Dinh Diem. He was a narrow leader only worried about gaining and keeping loyalty. Diem believed that he had a mandate of God to rule over Vietnam, and he did not have to earn the public’s trust and admiration. Rather, these two items should be automatically bestowed.
Diem thought the people owe him that much. The factors that led to his increased unpopularity and later demise are well documented in nearly all works on the Vietnam War. But is there more to the story? How did the people of Saigon, the ones that were most loyal, view their leader? Khiem Khac Pham, a native citizen of Vietnam believed Ngo Dinh Diem was a great man. Khiem believes that Diem loved his country, and would do anything to fight the communists threatening to take it over. Khiem was born in a village 50 miles outside of Hanoi in 1944.
His father saw Ho Chi Minh recite the American Declaration of Independence. Events, however, would soon turn sour for Khiem’s family. His father worked in the market, selling various items. He saved all his money and gave it to Khiem and his siblings. They built a house in the village and lived peacefully. After the fall of the French, the Viet Cong occupied the village and rounded up all the people they thought were dangerous to their movement. Among these was Khiem’s father. The Viet Cong charged him with treason against the welfare of the people and an advocator of imperialism.
He was executed by decapitation. Khiem remembers, “They came in and took my father and they said that he was a traitor. I remember that day clear as anything. I was 12 when it happened. He was one of many. They rounded up lawyers, doctors, merchants, French translators and teachers, and anyone wearing the colors white, red ,or green. These were the colors of the French. Many people didn’t even know that. It is just clothing, but they were all caught. The Viet Cong buried them all alive or beheaded them. Others they drowned.
I remember walking out of the village and seeing hundreds of mounds. ” Khiem would grow up to know the communist and fear them. In 1955 he and his family took advantage of the Cathlolic migration from north to south. They fled to avoid communist persecution and settled in Saigon. Khiem remembers life to be relaxing and prosperous in the city. However, he was Buddhist and would soon protest alongside monks to rebel against Diem. As the war in Vietnam escalated, Khiem is drafted to join the army and would later be assigned to rank of lieutenant of a naval ship.
As Americans pulled out in 1963, Khiem was captured by Vietcong troops and sent to a concentration camp where he spent 3 years. After he is released, he and his family fled Vietnam as one of the many “boat people,” and were picked up by an American cruiser. He would soon find himself in the United States where he has lived for over 15 years. Today, Khiem still reveres Ngo Dinh Diem despite his knowledge of Diem’s actions and policies in Vietnam. Khiem argues that one must see Diem in the light of Vietnam and its indigenous people to understand why he did the things that he did.
Khiem’s reasons for respecting and admiring Ngo Dinh Diem will be examined and contrasted with the opposition’s views. According to historians, the entire Diem reign can be summed up in a few words: corruption, repression, and alienation. Corruption marked Diem’s rule from the very beginning. With the help of Ed Lansdale, CIA agent and chief American advisor to Diem, elections were held in 1955 to formally place Diem at the head of the South Vietnam government as Chief of State. The choices on the ballot were hardly fair.
Citizens had the choice of either Ngo Dinh Diem or Bao Dai. The latter was hardly a formidable opponent. A powerless symbol of Vietnam’s past, the last emperor, Bao Dai was seen as only a figurehead and a puppet of the former French regime that ruled Vietnam for over one hundred years. Lansdale noted to Diem, “I said, all you need is a fairly large majority,” (Young) but the rigged election gave Diem an overwhelming 98. 2 percent of the voters. Out of a total 450,000 registered voters, Diem received a dashing 605,000 votes.