Ngo Dinh Diem (Vietnamese: (January 3, 1901 – November 2, 1963) was the first President of South Vietnam (1955–1963).
For the next decade, Diem lived as a private citizen with his family, although he was kept under surveillance. He was to have no formal job for 21 years. He spent his time on reading, meditating, attending church, gardening, hunting and amateur photography. Being a conservative, Diem was not a believer in revolutions and confined his nationalist activities to occasional trips to Saigon to meet with Phan Boi Chau. With the start of the Second World War in the Pacific, he attempted to persuade the invading Japanese forces to declare independence for Vietnam in 1942 but was ignored. He founded a secret political party, the Association for the Restoration of Great Vietnam. When its existence was discovered in the summer of 1944, the French declared Diem to be a subversive and ordered his arrest. He fled to Saigon disguised as a Japanese officer. In 1945, the Japanese offered him the premiership of a puppet regime under Bảo Đại which they organised upon leaving the country. He declined initially, but regretted his decision and attempted to reclaim the offer. Bảo Đại had already given the post to another candidate and Diem avoided the stigma of being a collaborationist. In September 1945 after the Japanese withdrawal, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, his Vietminh began fighting the French. Diem attempted to travel to Hue to dissuade Bảo Đại from joining Ho, but was arrested by the Vietminh along the way and exiled to a highland village near the border. He might have died of malaria, dysentery and influenza had the local tribesmen not nursed him back to health. Six months later, he was taken to meet Ho in Hanoi, but refused to join the Vietminh, assailing Ho for the death of his brother Khoi. Khoi had been buried alive by Vietminh cadres.
Diem continued to attempt to gather support for himself on an anti-Vietminh platform. Despite having little success, Ho was sufficiently irritated to order his arrest. Diem narrowly evaded arrest but was given respite in November 1946 when clashes between the French and Vietminh escalated into full scale war, forcing to Vietminh to divert their resources to fighting. Diem then moved south to the Saigon region to live with Thuc. Diem then jointly founded the Vietnam National Alliance, which called for France to grant Vietnam dominion status similar to the Commonwealth of Nations. The alliance was sufficient to generate support to fund newspapers in Hanoi and Saigon respectively. Both were shut down; the editor in Hanoi was arrested and hit men were hired to kill his Saigon counterpart. Diem’s activities had gained him substantial publicity and when France decided to make concessions to placate nationalist agitators, they asked him to lobby Bảo Đại to join them. Diem gave up when Bảo Đại made a deal which he felt to be soft, and returned to Hue. In the meantime, the French had started the State of Vietnam and Diem refused Bảo Đại’s offer to become the Prime Minister. He then published a new manifesto in newspapers proclaiming a third force different to communism and French colonialism, but raised little interest. In 1950, the Vietminh lost patience sentenced him to death in absentia, and the French refused to protect him. Ho's cadres tried to kill him while he was traveling to visit his elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc in the Mekong Delta, where he was the bishop of the Vinh Long diocese. Diem then left Vietnam in 1950.
With the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to the Vietminh, French control of Vietnam collapsed and Bảo Đại needed foreign help to sustain his State of Vietnam. Realising Diem's popularity among American policymakers, he chose Diem's youngest brother Ngo Dinh Luyen, who was studying in Europe at the time, to be part of his delegation at the 1954 Geneva Conference to determine the future of Indochina. Luyen represented Bảo Đại in his dealings with the Americans, who understood this to be an expression of interest in Diem. With the backing of the Eisenhower administration, Bảo Đại named Diệm as the Prime Minister. The appointment was widely condemned by French officials, who felt that Diem was incompetent, with the Prime Minister Mendes-France declaring Diem to be a "fanatic". The Geneva accords resulted in Vietnam being partitioned temporarily at the 17th parallel, pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country. The Vietminh controlled the north, while the French backed State of Vietnam controlled the south with Diem as the Prime Minister. French Indochina was to be dissolved at the start of 1955. Diem's South Vietnamese delegation chose not to sign the accords, refusing to have half the country under communist rule, but the agreement went into effect regardless.
Diem arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon on June 26, where only a few hundred people turned out to greet him, mainly Catholics. Diem managed only one wave after getting into his vehicle and did not smile. He was not a man of the people and did not intend to become one, being more interested in commanding respect than popular affection.
Diem's position at the time was weak; Bảo Đại disliked Diem and appointed him mainly to political imperatives. The French saw him as hostile and hoped that his rule would collapse. At the time, the French Expeditionary Corps was the most powerful military force in the south; Diem's Vietnamese National Army was essentially organised and trained by the French. Its officers were installed by the French and the chief of staff General Nguyen Van Hinh was a French citizen; Hinh loathed Diem and frequently disobeyed him. Diem also had to contend with two religious sects, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, who wielded private armies in the Mekong Delta, with the Cao Dai estimated to have 25,000 men. The Vietminh was also estimated to have control over a third of the country. The situation was worse in the capital, where the Binh Xuyen organised crime syndicate boasted an army of 40,000 and controlled a vice empire of brothels, casinos, extortion rackets, and opium factories unparalleled in Asia. Bảo Đại had given the Binh Xuyen control of the national police for 1.25 m USD, creating a situation that the Americans likened to Chicago under Al Capone in the 1920s. In effect, Diem's control did not extend beyond his palace.
In August, Hinh launched a series of public attacks on Diem, proclaiming that South Vietnam needed a "strong and popular" leader; Hinh bragged that he was preparing a coup. This was thwarted when Lansdale arranged overseas holiday invitations for Hinh's officers. Fearing Diem's collapse, nine members of his government resigned during Hinh's abortive bid for power. Despite its failure, the French continued to encourage Diem's enemies in an attempt to destabilize him.
Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnam was to undergo elections in 1956 to reunify the country. Diem, noting that South Vietnam was not a party to the convention, canceled these. Criticising the Communists, he justified the electoral cancellation by claiming that the 1956 elections would be "meaningful only on the condition that they are absolutely free", despite his numerically impossible tally in the 1955 contest.
After coming under pressure from within the country and the United States, Diem agreed to hold elections in August 1959 to form a national legislature. Newspapers were not allowed to publish names of independent candidates or their policies, and political meetings exceeding five people were prohibited. Candidates were disqualified for petty reasons such as acts of vandalism against campaign posters. In the rural areas, candidates who ran were threatened using charges of conspiracy with the Vietcong, which carried the death penalty. Phan Quang Dan, the government's most prominent critic, was allowed to run. Despite the deployment of 8,000 ARVN plainclothes troops into his district to vote, Dan still won with a 6–1 ratio. The busing of soldiers occurred across the country, and when the new assembly convened, Dan was arrested.
Diem's rule was authoritarian and nepotistic. His most trusted official was his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, leader of the primary pro-Diem Can Lao political party, who was an opium addict and admirer of Adolf Hitler. He modeled the Can Lao secret police's marching style and torture styles on Nazi designs. Ngô Đình Cẩn, his younger brother, was put in charge of the former Imperial City of Huế. Although neither Cẩn or Nhu held any official role in the government, they ruled their regions of South Vietnam, commanding private armies and secret police. Another brother, Ngô Đình Luyện, was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom. His elder brother, Ngô Đình Thục, was the archbishop of Huế. Despite this, Thuc lived in the Presidential Palace, along with Nhu, Nhu's wife and Diem. Diem was nationalistic, devout Catholic, anti-Communist, and preferred the philosophies of personalism and Confucianism.
Diem's rule was also pervaded by family corruption. Can was widely believed to be involved in illegal smuggling of rice to North Vietnam on the black market and opium throughout Asia via Laos, as well as monopolising the cinnamon trade, amassing a fortune stored in foreign banks. With Nhu, Can competed for U.S. contracts and rice trade. Thuc, the most powerful religious leader in the country, was allowed to solicit "voluntary contributions to the Church" from Saigon businessmen, which was likened to "tax notices". Thuc also used his position to acquire farms, businesses, urban real estate, rental property and rubber plantations for the Catholic Church. He also used Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel to work on his timber and construction projects. The Nhus amassed a fortune by running numbers and lottery rackets, manipulating currency and extorting money from Saigon businesses. Luyen became a multimillionaire by speculating in piasters and pounds on the currency exchange using inside government information.
Madame Nhu, the wife of his brother Nhu, was South Vietnam's First Lady, and she led the way in Diem's programs to reform Saigon society in accordance with their Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed, divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws were strengthened. Diem also won a street war with the private army of the Binh Xuyen organised crime syndicate of the Cholon brothels and gambling houses who had enjoyed special favors under the French and Bảo Đại. He further dismantled the private armies of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which controlled parts of the Mekong Delta. Diem was also passionately anti-Communist. Tortures and killings of "communist suspects" were committed on a daily basis. The death toll was put at around 50,000 with 75,000 imprisonments, and Diem's effort extended beyond communists to anti-communist dissidents and anti-corruption whistleblowers.
As opposition to Diem's rule in South Vietnam grew, a low-level insurgency began to take shape there in 1957. Finally, in January 1959, under pressure from southern cadres who were being successfully targeted by Diem's secret police, Hanoi's Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing the use of armed struggle in the South. On 20 December 1960, under instruction from Hanoi, southern communists established the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam in order to overthrow the government of the south. The NLF was made up of two distinct groups: South Vietnamese intellectuals who opposed the government and were nationalists; and communists who had remained in the south after the partition and regrouping of 1954 as well as those who had since come from the north, together with local peasants. While there were many non-communist members of the NLF, they were subject to the control of the party cadres and increasingly side-lined as the conflict continued; they did, however, enable the NLF to portray itself as a primarily nationalist, rather than communist, movement.
The cornerstone of Diem's counterinsurgency effort was the Strategic Hamlet Program, which called for the consolidation of 14,000 villages of South Vietnam into 11,000 secure hamlets, each with its own houses, schools, wells, and watchtowers. The hamlets were intended to isolate the NLF from the villages, their source of recruiting soldiers, supplies and information.
Believing that the central highlands may be of strategic importance to the Vietcong or in a potential invasion by North Vietnam, Diem decided to construct a Maginot Line of settlements. The area, inhabited by Montagnard indigenous people, had been largely allowed local autonomy in previous times, and the locals distrusted ethnic Vietnamese. Diem initiated a program of internal migration where 210,000 Vietnamese, mainly Catholics, were moved to Montagnard land in fortified settlements. When the Montagnards protested, Diem's forces confiscated their spears and bows, which they used to hunt for daily sustenance. Since then, and to the present day, Vietnam has been faced with a Montagnard insurgent separatist movement.
The white and gold Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam. U.S. Aid supplies tended to go to Catholics, and the newly constructed Hue and Dalat universities were placed under Catholic authority to foster a Catholic-skewed academic environment.
The regime's relations with the U.S. worsened during 1963, as well as heightening discontent among South Vietnam's Buddhist majority.
In May, in the central city of Huế, where Diem's elder brother was the archbishop, Buddhists were prohibited from displaying Buddhist flags during Vesak celebrations commemorating the birth of Gautama Buddha when the government cited a regulation prohibiting the display of non-government flags.. A few days later, Catholics were allowed to fly religious flags at another celebration where the regulation was not enforced. This led to a protest lead by Thich Tri Quang against the government, which was suppressed by Diem's forces, killing nine unarmed civilians. Diem and his supporters blamed the Vietcong for the deaths and claimed that the protesters were responsible for the violence. Although the provincial chief expressed sorrow for the killings and offered to compensate the victims' families, they resolutely denied that government forces were responsible for the killings and blamed the Vietcong.
The Buddhists pushed for a five point agreement: freedom to fly religious flags, an end to arbitrary arrests, compensation for the Hue victims, punishment for the officials responsible and religious equality. Diem labeled the Buddhists as "damn fools" for demanding something that, according to him, they already enjoyed.
Diem banned demonstrations, and ordered his forces to arrest those who engaged in civil disobedience. On June 3, 1500 protesters attempted to march towards Tu Dam Pagoda. Six waves of ARVN tear gas and attack dogs failed to disperse the crowds, and finally brownish-red liquid chemicals were doused on praying protesters, resulting in 67 being hospitalised for chemical injuries. A curfew was subsequently enacted.
The turning point came in June when a Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, set himself on fire in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection in protest of Diem's policies; photos of this event were disseminated around the world, and for many people these pictures came to represent the failure of Diem's government. A number of other monks publicly self-immolated, and the U.S. grew increasingly frustrated with the unpopular leader's public image in both Vietnam and the United States. Diem used his conventional anti-communist argument, identifying the dissenters as communists.
As demonstrations against his government continued throughout the summer, the special forces loyal to Diem's brother Nhu conducted an August raid of the Xa Loi Pagoda in Saigon. The Pagodas were vandalised, monks beaten, the cremated remains of Thích Quảng Đức, which included a heart which did not disintegrate, were confiscated. Simultaneous raids were carried out across the country, with the Tu Dam Pagoda in Hue being looted, the statue of Gautama Buddha demolished and a body of a deceased monk confiscated. When the populace came to the defense of the monks, the resulting clashes saw 30 civilians killed and 200 wounded. In all 1400 monks were arrested, and some thirty were injured across the country. The U.S. indicated their disapproval of Diem's administration when their ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge visited the Pagoda ex post facto. No further mass Buddhist protests occurred during the remainder of Diem's rule.
During this time, Madame Nhu, who was the de facto first lady due to Diem's bachelor life, inflamed the situation by mockingly applauding the suicides, referring to them as "barbecues" while Nhu stated "If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.
The pagoda raids stoked widespread public disquiet in the previously apolitical Saigon public. Students at Saigon University boycotted classes and rioted, which led to arrests, imprisonments and the closure of the university; this was repeated at Hue's University. When high school students demonstrated, Diem arrested them as well; over 1,000 students from Saigon's leading high school, most of them children of Saigon public servants, were sent to re—education camps. Children as young as five were also sent to these camps on charges of anti-government graffiti.
Diem's foreign minister Vu Van Mau resigned, shaving his head like a Buddhist monk in protest. When he attempted to leave the country on a religious pilgrimage, Diem had him jailed.
On orders from U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, refused to meet with Diem. Upon hearing that a coup d'etat was being designed by ARVN generals led by General Dương Văn Minh, the United States gave secret assurances to the generals that the U.S. would not interfere. Dương Văn Minh and his co-conspirators overthrew the government on November 1, 1963.
The coup was very swift. On November 1, 1963, with only the palace guard remaining to defend President Diem and his younger brother, Ngô Đình Nhu, the generals called the palace offering Diem safe exile out of the country if he surrendered. However, that evening, Diem and his entourage escaped via an underground passage to Cholon, where they were captured the following morning, November 2. The brothers were executed in the back of an armoured personnel carrier by Captain Nguyen Van Nhung while en route to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff headquarters. Diem was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery next to the house of the US ambassador.
After Diem's assassination, South Vietnam was unable to establish a stable government and numerous coups took place during the first several years after his death. While the U.S. continued to influence South Vietnam's government, the assassination bolstered North Vietnamese attempts to characterize the South Vietnamese as supporters of colonialism.