Ngo Dinh Diem between communists and Americans

01

Dec
2021

Ngo Dinh Diem between communists and Americans

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The contradiction between French colonialism and American promotion of an independent, sovereign Vietnamese state had been a prominent aspect of US involvement in Vietnamese affairs in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the late 1950s, although the French were no longer part of the situation, an analogous contradiction between controlling the policies of a client regime and respecting the sovereignty of an allied government became embedded in the US bureaucratic  structure that grew up around the American commitment to defend a non- communist South Vietnam. This contradiction became increasingly volatile as  the Hanoi decision to initiate war in the south gathered momentum and Saigon’s dependence upon US assistance accordingly increased. Ambassador Durbrow and others believed that the upsurge of insurrection  produced by implementation of Hanoi’s Resolution Fifteen in 1959 was primar- ily a political and not a military problem, and that the correct solution was for  Ngo Dinh Diem to share power with his critics. This point of view began to  appear in US press reports, which from a Vietnamese perspective were under- stood to represent official US policy. Durbrow’s idea of “linking” US support for  the Republic of Vietnam to liberalizing reforms became well known among Ngo Dinh Diem’s Saigon critics and emboldened eighteen of them to sign a public manifesto in May 1960 that echoed American criticisms of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. This “Manifesto of the Eighteen” became popularly known as the Caravelle Manifesto after the name of the hotel in downtown Saigon where the group met. The eighteen men who signed the Caravelle Manifesto included two who had  served as provincial governors under the French, five who had served in pre- 1954 Bao Dai cabinets, six who had briefly served in Ngo Dinh Diem’s first  cabinet in 1954, two professors, one elderly graduate of the 1903 doctoral examination, a Catholic priest, and a medical doctor (six of the others were also medical doctors). Their manifesto was addressed to Ngo Dinh Diem and reflected criticisms of his government that had begun to appear in both American and Vietnamese newspapers, such as charges of corruption, nepotism, and promotions in both the civil administration and the army that were based on personal loyalty rather than competence; the manifesto also asserted that the south could compete successfully with the north only by embracing liberal democracy and civil rights. The manifesto charged that the Ngo Dinh family had manipulated the legislative elections of the previous year to exclude those who were not members of its entourage and that the election was spoiled by censorship and politically motivated arrests. It lamented unemployment, poverty, and the lack of economic activity. It claimed that the elimination of sect armies  simply left the countryside vulnerable to the communists and that the govern- ment’s agrarian policy, which was then focused upon the building of rural towns  called agrovilles, was provoking disaffection and giving ammunition to enemy propaganda. There was substance to these complaints, particularly with how the agroville  scheme had been implemented and how the legislative elections had been con- ducted during 1959. In both cases, the Ngo Dinh brothers had responded to the  upsurge of communist-led insurgency by resorting to severe measures that alien- ated as well as mobilized. When they saw this, however, they endeavored to  modify their policies. They abandoned the agroville plan in 1960 and subse- quently loosened their control over electoral political activity. On the other hand,  they sought to minimize American involvement in what they viewed as internal Vietnamese affairs. Meanwhile, their Vietnamese critics were beginning to think that they could legitimize a role for themselves in the Saigon government by championing American demands for political reform. The contradiction in US policy had expanded into Saigon’s domestic politics.

The agroville concept had been hastily developed in early 1959 as part of a response to the rising communist challenge in the countryside. The idea was to concentrate the rural population into new towns where it could enjoy the benefits of urban life with schools, hospitals, stronger community organizations, and physical security. The people were expected to volunteer their labor to create the agrovilles and thereby gain a sense of self-sufficiency and develop a spirit of public service. American involvement was excluded to preclude the intrusion of foreign ideas and money that would simply induce an attitude of dependency upon the US. The Ngo Dinh brothers were influenced by their personalist ideology about modernizing through self-reliance and collective advance. They were also determined to keep American hands from reaching too deeply into Vietnamese society.

Within a year, however, the agroville experiment was discredited by the coercive practices of local officials seeking to meet unrealistic deadlines, the reluctance of rural people to relocate and to donate their labor for a project they did not understand, and by the success of communist agents in sabotaging and denouncing the policy. Around twenty agrovilles had been started when the scheme was discontinued in mid 1960. Not only had the agrovilles aroused internal opposition, but they also provided a new target for American criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. By the autumn of 1960, Ambassador Durbrow’s demands for reform were being expressed with greater urgency as warfare in the countryside intensified. At the same time, Ngo Dinh Diem lost his strongest ally among the Americans when General Lionel Charles McGarr (1904–1988) replaced Samuel Williams as the MAAG commander in the summer of 1960. McGarr’s appointment was made in response to the upsurge of rural insurgency. He had been associated with studies of counterinsurgency, and he gave more attention to the details of small-unit action than Williams had been inclined to do.

Meanwhile, Durbrow’s pressure for change increased. In October 1960, he  conveyed to Ngo Dinh Diem a list of suggested reforms that included reorganiza- tion of the cabinet, restricting the Ngo Dinh patronage system, increasing the  powers of the legislature, relaxing press censorship, raising the price of rice, and providing subsidies to people mobilized for community service. He also urged that Ngo Dinh Nhu be excluded from the government. Ngo Dinh Nhu was especially disliked by Ngo Dinh Diem’s critics, both Vietnamese and American, because of his effectiveness in maintaining the security of the regime and his resistance to proffered American tutelage. Durbrow’s threat of “linkage” between Ngo Dinh Diem’s compliance and continued US support was not a secret. The resonance of Durbrow’s agenda with the Caravelle Manifesto of five months before was apparent to politically alert Vietnamese. Some disgruntled and adventurous Vietnamese imagined that the Americans were prepared to countenance a change of government, as had occurred in South Korea when Syngman Rhee was pushed out of power the previous spring. Criticism of the Saigon government in the American press and Durbrow’s advocacy of political reform encouraged some of Ngo Dinh Diem’s critics to imagine that the Americans would welcome his overthrow.

Three days after the election of a new American president in November 1960,  some army units led by officers resentful about what they perceived as discrimin- ation in promotions attempted a coup to unseat Ngo Dinh Diem. They were  joined by some civilian political figures, including Phan Quang Dan, the most outspoken critic of Ngo Dinh Diem in the late 1950s, whose election to the legislature in 1959 had been annulled. Others who adhered to the coup were people associated with the Caravelle Manifesto and with political groups that had been sidelined by Ngo Dinh Diem, such as the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, the Dai Viet Party, the Hoa Hao, and the Cao Dai

. While the outcome of the coup hung in the balance, Durbrow struck a pose of neutrality and urged Ngo Dinh Diem to compromise with the coup leaders. This  thoroughly alienated Ngo Dinh Diem from Durbrow and was the end of Dur- brow’s effectiveness as ambassador. It also aroused the specter of Syngman  Rhee’s overthrow, and Ngo Dinh Diem’s sense of trust in the US was irreparably damaged.

The coup collapsed when army units loyal to Ngo Dinh Diem converged on Saigon. Military leaders of the coup escaped to Cambodia where they obtained asylum. Phan Quang Dan and several signers of the Caravelle Manifesto were arrested. This episode demonstrated the extent to which critics of the government were sensitive to indications of deteriorating American support for Ngo Dinh Diem, and its timing caught the attention of the newly elected American President.

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