Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



From Two Countries To One

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Saigon After Bao Dai went to France in late 1953 to pursue possibilities for negotiating full independence with the Laniel government, Ngo Dinh Diem departed the United States for Europe, sensing that he may find a role in the changing situation. Ngo Dinh Diem’s youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen (1914–1990), was a childhood friend of Bao Dai from their schoolboy days in France and served as a go-between. Although Bao Dai had never been comfortable with Ngo Dinh Diem’s strong anti-French attitude, in May 1954 he turned to him because there was no other person of his stature and reputation as an uncompromising nationalist. Furthermore, Ngo Dinh Nhu’s emergence as a political figure in Saigon the previous year suggested that Ngo Dinh Diem had a point of access into the political world of the State of Vietnam. Two other considerations were apparently on Bao Dai’s mind. Ngo Dinh Diem’s appointment would apply pressure on the French to sign the independence treaty, and no other Vietnamese politician was likely to elicit the American assistance that would be necessary for the future of his government. However, Bao Dai soon realized that with the appointment of Ngo Dinh Diem he had ended his role in the political life of his country, and he never returned to Vietnam. In the summer of 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem was seemingly without any firm source of support. The United States was beginning to provide institutional assistance but was non-committal regarding Ngo Dinh Diem himself, being unsure of whether he would be able to surmount the daunting situation in Saigon. The French army had regrouped to southern Vietnam and was still the pre-eminent military force in the country. The French military commander and commissioner in Vietnam was General Paul Henri Romuald Ély (1897–1975), who made no secret of his opinion that Ngo Dinh Diem should be replaced. The French continued to insist that American military assistance to the Vietnamese army be channeled through them. General Nguyen Van Hinh, commander of the Vietnamese army, publicly affirmed his intention to depose Ngo Dinh Diem until Bao Dai was persuaded to recall him to France in October. The various sect armies continued to receive subsidies from the French and showed little regard for Ngo Dinh Diem’s authority. In May 1954, Bao Dai had sold control of the Saigon–Cholon police to the Binh Xuyen gangsters, and they, with the covert support of the French, were determined to resist Ngo Dinh Diem’s authority. Concerned about the direction of French activities in Saigon, the Eisenhower administration sent a senior French-speaking army general to Vietnam with ambassadorial rank, Joseph Lawton Collins (1896–1987), thereby providing an American peer of Ély. Collins and Ély worked well together and negotiated an arrangement for Americans to participate in training the Vietnamese army. Collins was susceptible to Ély’s negative evaluation of Ngo Dinh Diem, however, and, in the spring of 1955, he began to report his opinion that Ngo Dinh Diem should be replaced. This came during several weeks of crisis during which a coalition of sect armies led by the Binh Xuyen openly challenged Ngo Dinh Diem, seemingly with French encouragement. Against this threat, Ngo Dinh Diem rallied army units and sect leaders such as the Cao Dai maverick Trinh Minh The. The Binh Xuyen was destroyed and its allied sect armies were driven into the countryside. The United States promptly made a commitment to support Ngo Dinh Diem and, in May  1955, informed France that thereafter it would no longer consult about Viet- namese affairs. Within a year, all remaining French forces were evacuated and  the French command in Vietnam was abolished, although French advisors to the navy and air force did not depart until 1957. Ngo Dinh Diem stood for those who had had enough of French colonialism and its decaying residue, and he did not shrink from entering and mastering the ruthless world of Saigon politics. France never ratified the independence treaty initialed by Joseph Laniel and Buu Loc on June 4, 1954. Furthermore, Ngo Dinh Diem understood that his government would not be free of France until its link to Bao Dai was broken, for many aspiring Saigon politicians continued to shelter under Bao Dai’s Francophile wings. Consequently, in October 1955 he staged a referendum to remove Bao Dai as head of state. The public campaign and voting procedure for this referendum was used to spread popular awareness of the new  government and its break with the French past. With Bao Dai and his quasi- monarchical and colonial aura out of the way, Ngo Dinh Diem proclaimed the  Republic of Vietnam. This was a declaration of independence from France. In March 1956, elections were held for a constituent assembly, which drew up a constitution and then sat as a national assembly until legislative elections under  the new constitution were held in 1959. Ngo Dinh Nhu had organized the quasi- clandestine Revolutionary Personalist Labor Party (Can Lao Nhan Vi Cach Mang Dang), which did not directly participate in elections but selected and promoted candidates in allied parties, in particular the National Revolutionary  Movement (Quoc Gia Cach Mang Phong Trao), which served as a front organ- ization. Three major parties that supported Ngo Dinh Diem won two-thirds of  the seats in the 1956 elections. As would be true in all the elections held under the 1956 constitution, opposition candidates fared best in Saigon where the urban and international environment was more congenial to constitutional freedoms than in the countryside where the level of education and understanding of democratic procedures was lower and where respect for those in power was more ingrained and more efficiently enforced. The Geneva agreement provided for the redeployment not only of armies but also of civilians from one side of the armistice line to the other. Between eighty and ninety thousand people embarked for the north on Soviet Bloc ships from the two main areas ruled by communists: Ca Mau in the extreme south of the Mekong plain and the Quang Ngai and Binh Dinh region of the central coast. Many of these people were youths selected for education in the north. Around ten times this number of people shifted from the north to the south, one-third of them transported by the United States navy. Two-thirds of the immigrants into the south were Catholics, and Ngo Dinh Diem provided settlements for them in localities along the northern edge of the Mekong plain. The arrival of large numbers of northern immigrants both strengthened the political base of Ngo Dinh Diem and introduced tension between northerners  and southerners and between Catholics and non-Catholics, partly from resent- ment about resources devoted to the newcomers and partly from cultural differ- ences between northerners and southerners. Southerners perceived northerners  as “pushy” while northerners perceived southerners as “lazy.” Furthermore, Catholics tended to live in close-knit communities under ecclesiastical leadership in a global hierarchy, which maximized their potential for economic success and a relatively high standard of living. This, along with lines of patronage via the  Church to the Ngo Dinh family, inspired resentment among many non- Catholics.  The departure of people from Ca Mau and the central coast was accompanied by the extension of Saigon authority into those areas. During 1955 and 1956, the Republic of Vietnam launched a campaign to identify and eliminate communist leaders who had stayed behind. A few hundred people were imprisoned or killed in this “denounce the communist” (to cong) campaign. At the same time, Ngo Dinh Diem introduced a modest agrarian policy that limited land rent for tenants  and the amount of land that any single person could own. According to redistri- bution legislation, about one-third of all tenanted land in the country was to  be expropriated. Resistance from landowners and local officials inhibited implementation, however, and only 40 percent of this land was actually trans- ferred to farmers. Ngo Dinh Diem espoused the idea of “collective advance,”  which aimed to bring improvements to rural life without radical or violent measures, such as were then being used in the north. Even so, many landowners were embittered by their loss of land, including the father of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s wife, Tran Van Chuong (1898–1986), a career diplomat whom Ngo Dinh Diem made ambassador to the United States. Although Ngo Dinh Diem tripled the number of farmers owning land in the Mekong plain, the great disparity between landowners and farmers that historically had characterized this region was not significantly ameliorated. One area that worried Ngo Dinh Diem was the Central Highlands, a vast upland region sparsely inhabited by non-Vietnamese peoples along the Laotian and Cambodian borders. He suspected that he had limited time to stabilize social conditions and consolidate government authority in this remote region before the  communists became active there. The French had discouraged Vietnamese settle- ment in the Central Highlands and had tried to preserve it as an autonomous  non-Vietnamese region. In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem initiated a program both to settle Vietnamese in the highlands and to encourage peripatetic upland peoples to make permanent settlements. In 1957, the United States took an interest in the program and allocated money for it but withdrew after a year because of disagreements about how it was being implemented. Ngo Dinh Diem believed the matter was urgent and that it was more important to encourage a spirit of self-reliance among the people than to wait for the American bureaucracy to complete its studies and its paperwork before releasing allocated funds. Before his death, he had settled a quarter of a million Vietnamese in the Central Highlands. On their side, American aid officials criticized the Central Highlands program for being too hasty, too disorderly, and too undemocratic, an analysis that became the standard institutional view of Ngo Dinh Diem’s policies among the American aid mission and embassy staff during the ambassadorship of Elbridge Durbrow (1903–1997), who arrived in March of 1957. On the other hand, General Samuel Tankersley Williams (1896–1984), commander of MAAG since October 1955, saw Ngo Dinh Diem as doing the best possible in a difficult situation. Williams had a colorful and valorous career as a combat officer in both World Wars and Korea. He respected Ngo Dinh Diem as a strong leader who understood the priorities of his situation. Durbrow, a career diplomat without prior experience in Asia, began to advocate a policy of “linkage” between American aid and Vietnamese government “reforms.” Tension between Durbrow and Williams over their divergent views was the beginning of a new contradiction in American policy toward Vietnam that would eventually lead to Ngo Dinh Diem’s death in 1963. To some extent, this contradiction was an American version of the old French arguments about “assimilation,” turning Vietnamese into French men and women or into Americans as the case may be, and “association,” conceding space for the Vietnamese to develop their own way within the relationship of colonialism or Cold War alliance, as the case may be. Military personnel attached to MAAG stabilized at around 650 men in early 1956, most being involved in training activities. The civilian aid establishment attached to the American embassy, with exceptions, became a critical mass of rotating people in culture shock, frustrated that Vietnamese did not act like Americans. This, combined with a sense of power and global responsibility, produced among many Americans a teachery attitude verging on the racist condescension typical of a colonial relationship. Furthermore, while claiming  to be against colonialism, American policy appeared to dominate smaller coun- tries through the flow of money and material goods, as demonstrated by the  manner in which the United States provided monetary assistance to the Saigon government. In 1955, the United States established the Commodity Import Program as the means for transferring funds to Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. The United States provided dollars for purchase by Vietnamese importers. The dollars were spent  in the United States for commodities, mainly consumer goods such as refriger- ators, televisions, radios, stoves, air conditioners, and comestibles, which the  importers then sold in Vietnam. Importers bought dollars with Vietnamese piastres at a fixed exchange rate that represented a subsidy for them. The piastres were placed in a “counterpart fund” for use by the Vietnamese government. Eighty percent of all American aid funds were provided through the Commodity Import Program. This scheme was intended to control inflation, prevent dollars from overwhelming the local economy, and keep taxes low. Negative effects  included the retardation of local manufacturing; creating a Vietnamese govern- ment that was dependent on a foreign source of money rather than taxing its own  citizens; corruption in the licensing of importers; non-market exchange rates; and  the creation of an import-based urban consumer economy that artificially separ- ated cities from the rest of the country.  The Commodity Import Program was controversial among Vietnamese. Phan Quang Dan (b. 1918), the main opposition politician in Saigon during the late 1950s, became well known for speaking out against the Commodity Import Program. Originally from Nghe An, he became politically active in 1945 and chose to follow Bao Dai to China. Disappointed with Bao Dai’s lack of firmness in dealing with the French, he tried to form his own party before going to the United States, where he lived in exile until returning to Vietnam at the end of the war. Ngo Dinh Diem was also critical of the Commodity Import Program and tried unsuccessfully to have aspects of it changed. The scheme created an institutional dependency that made Durbrow’s “linkage” idea plausible as a way to force the Vietnamese government to follow American advice. The ultimate example of this occurred in October 1963 when the suspension of the Commodity Import Program was used as a signal to indicate American support for a conspiracy against Ngo Dinh Diem. The Commodity Import Program was in principle and in effect not very different from the manner in which Chinese and Soviet aid was provided to the government in Hanoi, except that with two rival patrons the  northern government was in a better position to prevent either one from becom- ing dominant.

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