June 16, 1954: Ngo Dinh Diem Appointed Prime Minister Of The State Of Vietnam

Son Nguyen
Son Nguyen

The “On This Day” series introduces contemporary Vietnamese history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries by explaining political events that occurred today in the past.

What happened?

On this day, 67 years ago, Ngo Dinh Diem was tapped to be the prime minister of the State of Vietnam. His appointer was Bao Dai, the chief of state, who also was the last emperor of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty, which ended before the formation of this regime.

This event could be considered one of the most significant political developments in South Vietnam in the post-colonial era. It was the foundation of a political entity that would later become a fierce rival to the Communist regime in the north.

What was the State of Vietnam?

The State of Vietnam was the predecessor of what would later become the Republic of Vietnam.

Because of the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the Communist regime in the north launched a massive offensive against the French colonial government[1], the French decided to sign an agreement to transfer their administrative powers to a government headed by a Vietnamese, the former Emperor Bao Dai [2], who was chosen by the French.

This move by the French colonial administration is called the “Bao Dai solution,” which presented the French and the Americans with an opportunity to retain their influence in the region amid the rising power of the Communists. [3]

This new State of Vietnam had been  under the French Union since 1949. However, this regime lived a short life as Bao Dai was stripped of power only a few years later by his own appointee as prime minister.

Who was Ngo Dinh Diem?

Ngo Dinh Diem is best known for his role as president of the Republic of Vietnam, the regime in the south of Vietnam that ceased to exist when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He was a Catholic politician in a country with a Buddhist majority, which many say was one of the prime reasons for his downfall.

The Communist regime often portrayed Ngo Dinh Diem as an American puppet who led an imperial regime controlled by the United States. [4] The Communist regime also saw Diem’s rise to power as undemocratic and illegitimate. However, it also unexpectedly ignored the ironic parallels between such complaints compared to North Vietnam’s own pile of undemocratic practices.

However, many foreign-based scholars agree that Diem was much more complicated as a political figure than how the Communist regime portrayed him. Some even argued that Diem was as concerned with American intervention as the Communists were and attempted to create an alternative anti-colonial movement to the Viet Minh, leading by the Communists.[5]

Prior to being made president of South Vietnam, Diem held a role that was lesser known: prime minister of the State of Vietnam.

Diem was appointed because Bao Dai believed that the newly formed State of Vietnam would need American support and that Diem’s Catholic and anti-Communist background would be an appealing advantage. This was done despite Bao Dai’s alleged awareness that Diem was fond of Cuong De, a Nguyen Dynasty’s royal descendent who had challenged Bao Dai’s legitimacy. [6]

Later, Diem would overthrow Bao Dai in a referendum in October 1955, which designated Diem as the new head of state and established the Republic of Vietnam. Though the transition was not violent, it did not happen without smear campaigns against Bao Dai, who was viewed as a collaborator with the French colonialists.[7]

This is not to praise Diem and his administration. On the contrary, the scholarly consensus seems to agree that Diem’s referendum in October 1955 was staged and undemocratic [8], and many have pointed out the shortcomings of his administration. The shocking self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was one illustration of the Diem regime’s failure to handle religious affairs, making many Buddhists feel discriminated against compared to Catholics. [9]

However, it is important to remember that Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician and leader of Vietnam in an important historical chapter, and someone who remains a crucial historical figure to study and discuss. To completely demonize him, and to only study him from the viewpoint of the “winning side,” is to ignore a chapter of Vietnamese history that is scarcely discussed in an equitable manner.


[1] Battle of Dien Bien Phu. (2019, September 23). History. https://www.history.com/topics/france/battle-of-dien-bien-phu

[2] French Indochina/Vietnam (1941–1954). (n.d.). University of Central Arkansas | Political Science. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/french-indochinavietnam-1941-1954/

[3] Hess, G. R. (1978). The First American Commitment in Indochina: The Acceptance of the “Bao Dai Solution”, 1950. Diplomatic History (Oxford University Press), 2(4), 331–350. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.1978.tb00441.x

[4] Nghiem, K. H. (n.d.). Khái quát về Việt Nam lưu trữ Cộng hòa (1955–1975), Phần 1. Faculty of Archival Studies | University of Social Sciences & Humanities. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from http://luutru.hcmussh.edu.vn/?ArticleId=4939505b-d8e6-43d2-b673-f53151a00181

[5] Miller, E. (2004). Vision, Power and Agency: The Ascent of Ngô Đình Diệm, 1945–54. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(3), 433–458. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022463404000220

[6] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.). Cuong De | Vietnamese prince. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cuong-De

[7] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy: South Vietnam’s 1955 Referendum to Depose Bao Dai. Diplomatic History, 30(4), 671–703. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-7709.2006.00573.x

[8] Chapman, J. M. (2006). Staging Democracy, 671-703.

[9] Nguyen, S. (2021, June 11). June 11, 1963: The Internationally Shocking Self-Immolation Of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc. The Vietnamese Magazine. /2021/06/june-11-1963-the-internationally-shocking-self-immolation-of-buddhist-monk-thich-quang-duc/

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