Ngo Dinh Diem And The Republic Of Vietnam: American Puppet Or National Hero?

A book review on Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam by historian Edward Miller.

Son Nguyen
Son Nguyen

Frustrated with policy issues and human rights abuses of the Communist government of Vietnam, some Vietnamese people turn their focus to the Saigon regime that fell in 1975. The Republic of Vietnam was and still is, seen as an alternative to what Vietnam could have become under a non-communist government.

While the regime long ago fell from power, the Republic’s history, politics, and governance are still assessed by contemporary scholars who seek to understand its path of building a country in the aftermath of French colonialism - an alternative path to its communist counterpart in the north.

However, the public discourse about the Republic often falls into two opposing extremes. On the one hand, supporters of the former Republic idealize it as an example of solid economic growth and democratic principles in contrast to its Communist enemy.

On the other hand, Communist critics denounce the Republic and its leaders, especially its first President Ngo Dinh Diem, as “American puppets” who were mere followers of American orders.

Historian Edward Miller faced nuance in his book, “Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam.”

With the opening of historical archives in Vietnam, American historians and scholars have begun to gain a new understanding of the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese - especially in the south, whose historical narrative has often been sidelined by the official propaganda of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

Despite Miller’s book being written with a predominantly American audience in mind, there are important insights that the Vietnamese audience can derive. These insights are not only important for a comprehensive understanding of Vietnamese history, but also for future interactions between Vietnam and the United States.

A new understanding of Ngo Dinh Diem

The key takeaway of Miller’s research is how we as contemporaries should view and understand Ngo Dinh Diem - who is, perhaps, among the most controversial figures in Vietnam’s modern history.

To be clear, like many other historians of the Vietnam War, Miller is not advocating that the Diem regime and South Vietnam itself were ideals: his book documents a lot of things that went wrong with the regime - from internal infightings, miscalculations, corruption, to outrageous violations of democracy and human rights. The Buddhist crisis in 1963, as well as many prior ethnic and religious tensions that built up the crisis, is a prime example.

Instead of blindly defending Diem, historian Miller offered a nuanced discussion of him and his decision-making. This is a new breath to the historical works on the Vietnam War, as it does not rather completely idealize or demonize Diem.

As mentioned above, the public discourse surrounding Diem has been polarized to either extreme idealization or extreme condemnation. The scholarly assessment of Diem has reflected a rather similar pattern. The caricature of Diem as a “U.S puppet” is the oldest and most prominent one, as some argue that Diem’s rise to power and his governance were both impacted by strong U.S influence.

Another view is of Diem as a conservative man reconciling his identity as a Catholic with the philosophy of Confucianism, which resulted in a rigid figure whose “traditional” beliefs were overshadowed by modernity. And a third narrative, somewhat similar to the “traditional” image, is about  Diem as a “mandarin” whose interest in Confucianism as a governance philosophy served as a way of steering South Vietnam in the right direction.

According to Miller, as a politician, Diem was actually more complicated than that.

First of all, Diem was an anti-colonialist, whose anti-French reputation actually got him into serious political trouble with powerful pro-French officials in the south during the mid-1950s - his early days of being the de-facto leader of Vietnam under the government of Bao Dai. One example would be his feud with General Nguyen Van Hinh, who was the chief of staff of the Vietnamese National Army.

Diem wanted to build a country free from foreign imperialism, a stance that might sound contradictory to Diem’s later alliance with the United States. Gaining support from the Americans, however, was a matter of practical importance in Diem’s plan to build a postcolonial Vietnam as an alternative to the one built by the Communists.

When Diem came back to Vietnam to take on the role of prime minister under the Bao Dai government, U.S officials had little trust in his abilities. His anti-Communist and Catholic background surely helped him gain some allies within the United States. But it was not unwavering support, as the term “Mỹ-Diệm,” (America-Diem), coined by the Communists, implies.  

Second, Diem might be viewed harshly as an authoritarian leader, but he was not a conservative obsessing over the old glory days of Confucianism. As an anti-Communist leader in the global Cold War, Diem explicitly rejected both the Communist path as well as a Western-centric path and struggled to find a path that was “authentically Vietnamese”, according to Miller.  

Diem’s interest in both Confucianism and Catholicism was not based on the illusion of trying to restore the past, but rather because he was trying to build a distinctively Vietnamese vision of developing a postcolonial society. In this sense, he was trying to use old elements to create social change.

All of the traits mentioned above - anti-colonialist, nationalist, pro-self determination - are the traits that the Communist Party has historically attributed to itself. These traits of Ngo Dinh Diem are explicitly hidden from many Vietnamese readers, who are still fed the “U.S puppet” thesis until this very day. By doing so, Diem’s nation-building ambitions are often overlooked and discredited.

It is extremely important to recognize that Diem was a much more complicated character worthy of careful examination as an important politician who strived to build and stabilize a turbulent country without strict adherence to any existing system.

The U.S. is not a monolithic government

Just as Miller provides a new understanding of Diem as a more complicated historical figure than the caricature that has depicted him, the Vietnamese audience could also see from this work that the United States was not a monolithic government that unanimously decided how it should act vis-a-vis Vietnam.

While this might seem to be a rather obvious conclusion to foreign readers, historically the United States has been seen through the lens of Communist propaganda, a view that is surprisingly uniform.

For example, state-sanctioned history textbooks rigidly call the United States an imperial and neocolonial regime, which always plotted military conspiracies to sabotage the Communist movement in Vietnam through its “puppet regime” in South Vietnam.

This interpretation of the communist Government serves two purposes: one is to reduce Diem’s role in building South Vietnam, as he is seen as a mere puppet of the United States, and two is to create the image of an evil foreign enemy that contributed to the classical “us versus them” division, with “us” being the “rightful” communist movement,  and “them” being the powerful imperialist Americans.

Despite Vietnam’s contemporary geopolitics, which has propelled it to closer relations with the United States, the same dichotomy continues today in propaganda, where critics of the Communist Party are portrayed as those who are under foreign influence.

In reality, however, America’s involvement in the politics of South Vietnam was full of conflict rather than being a unanimously agreed grand scheme. On the contrary, Miller notes how the U.S. nation-building vision was very often subverted by the Vietnamese leaders of South Vietnam who wanted the autonomy to decide their own course of action. As a result, Diem was far from beloved by American officials, who were frustrated by their inability to control him.

According to Miller, the disagreement between Washington and President Diem was not just a “clash of civilizations” (i.e., disagreeing because Vietnamese and American people are inherently at odds), but rather a clash of different visions for modernizing and building a country from chaos. Both were anti-Communists, but being anti-Communist in itself does not connote a great political alliance. While Diem had his own version of a postcolonial society, the United States was anxious about the prospect of winning the Vietnam War.

Because of this, the translation of the title of the Vietnamese edition of the book published in Vietnam does not aptly capture Miller’s intention. The word “misalliance” is translated into Vietnamese as “liên minh sai lầm,” which literally means “faulty alliance.” Such a title seems to imply that the alliance between the United States and President Diem should have never happened in the first place.

However, the U.S.-Diem alliance was not “faulty” in such a sense, as the two were true anti-Communist allies in one of the major geopolitical conflicts of the Cold War. What went wrong with the alliance was rather a misunderstanding of the vision of nation-building, and a fixation on beating the Communists as the ultimate goal, rather than steadily building a stable South Vietnamese society.

At the time, nevertheless, the United States and its generous aid to anti-Communist leaders like Diem was the best shot it had in consolidating political power in the south.

History has primarily been concerned with the perspective of Americans, or the perspective of the winning side in the north, but “Misalliance” is about American involvement in South Vietnam as well as the fight with the Communists - from the perspective of South Vietnamese leaders themselves.

If you are questioning whether the U.S should have intervened in Vietnam, Miller’s book is not primarily dealing with such a question. Instead, reading “Misalliance” would give you insights into the behind-the-scenes of the U.S-Diem alliance, how such an alliance failed, and how the fate of the Diem administration was sealed when the country was already riddled with too many internal conflicts and contesting visions for modern Vietnam.

Citations

  1. Báo Nhân Dân. (2021, January 15). Nhanh chóng nhận diện, vạch trần bản chất đen tối của các thế lực thù địch. Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://nhandan.vn/binh-luan-phe-phan/nhanh-chong-nhan-dien-vach-tran-ban-chat-den-toi-cua-cac-the-luc-thu-dich-631825/
  2. Miller, E. (2013). Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Harvard University Press.
Book ReviewPoliticsRepublic of VietnamSouth VietnamNgo Dinh DiemVietnam War