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Ngô Đình Diệm
President of the Republic of Vietnam

In office
26 October 1955 – 2 November 1963
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Dương Văn Minh
Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam

In office
26 June 1954 – 26 October 1955
Preceded by Prince Bửu Lộc
Succeeded by none
Personal details
Born (1901-01-03)3 January 1901
Quảng Bình, French Indochina
Died 2 November 1963(1963-11-02) (aged 62)
Saigon, South Vietnam
Political party Cần Lao
Spouse(s) None
Religion Roman Catholicism

Ngô Đình Diệm (About this sound listen; 3 January 1901 – 2 November 1963) was the first president of South Vietnam (1955–1963).[1] In the wake of the French withdrawal from Indochina as a result of the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diệm led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Accruing considerable US support due to his staunch anti-communism, he achieved victory in a 1955 plebiscite.[2]

A Roman Catholic, Diệm's policies toward the Republic's Montagnard natives and its Buddhist majority were met with protests, culminating in Malcolm Browne's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in 1963.[3] Amid religious protests, Diệm lost the backing of his US patrons and was assassinated, along with his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu by Nguyễn Văn Nhung, the aide of ARVN General Dương Văn Minh on 2 November 1963, during a coup d'état that deposed his government.

Family and childhood

Diệm was born in Quảng Bình, 110 km north from the capital, of the Vietnamese Nguyễn dynasty. His family originated in the central Vietnamese village of Phú Cẩm. Portuguese missionaries had converted his family to Roman Catholicism in the 17th century, so Diệm was given a saint's name at birth, following the custom of the Catholic Church. He would often claim that he was descended from a blue-blooded family of mandarins who were so revered that people believed that it was a great honour and good luck to be buried alongside his ancestors. Most historians dismiss this as false and believe that the family was of low rank until his father passed the imperial examinations.[citation needed]

His father, Ngô Đình Khả, scrapped plans to become a Roman Catholic priest and became a mandarin and a counselor to Emperor Thành Thái during the French colonisation. He rose to become the minister of the rites and , and keeper of the eunuchs. Khả had six sons and three daughters by his second wife, whom he married after his first died childless. Devoutly Roman Catholic, Khả took his entire family to Mass every morning. The third of six sons, Diệm was christened Jean-Baptiste in the cathedral in Huế. In 1907, the French deposed the emperor on the pretext of insanity, because of his complaints about the colonisation. Khả retired in protest and became a farmer. Diệm laboured in the family's rice fields while studying at a French Catholic school, and later entered a private school started by his father. At age fifteen he followed his elder brother, Ngô Đình Thục, later to become Vietnam's highest ranking Catholic bishop, into a monastery. After a few months he left, finding monastic life too rigorous.[citation needed]

At the end of his secondary schooling, his examination results at the French lycée in Huế saw him offered a scholarship to Paris but he declined in order to contemplate becoming a priest. He dropped the idea, believing it to be too rigorous. He moved to Hanoi to study at the School of Public Administration and Law, a French school that trained Vietnamese bureaucrats. It was there that he had the only romantic relationship of his life when he fell in love with one of his teacher's daughters. After she persisted with her vocation, entering a convent, he remained celibate.[4][5]

Early career

After graduating at the top of his class in 1921, Diệm followed in the footsteps of his eldest brother, Ngô Ðình Khôi, joining the civil service. Starting from the lowest rank of mandarin, Diệm steadily rose. He first served at the royal library in Huế, and within one year was the district chief, presiding over seventy villages. Diệm was promoted to be a provincial chief at the age of 25, overseeing 300 villages. Diệm's rise was helped by Khôi's marriage to the daughter of Nguyễn Hữu Bài, the Catholic head of the Council of Ministers. Bài was highly regarded among the French, and Diệm's religious and family ties impressed him. The French were impressed by his work ethic but were irritated by his frequent calls to grant more autonomy to Vietnamese. Diệm said that he contemplated resigning but encouragement from the populace convinced him to persist. He first encountered communists distributing propaganda while riding horseback through the region near Quảng Trị. Diệm involved himself in anti-communist activities for the first time, printing his own pamphlets.[citation needed]

In 1929, he helped to round up communist agitators in his administrative area. He was rewarded with the promotion to the governorship of Bình Thuận Province, and in 1930 and 1931 suppressed the first peasant revolts organised by the communists, in collaboration with French forces. During the violent events, many villagers were raped and murdered.[6] In 1933, with the return of Bảo Đại to ascend the throne, Diệm was appointed by the French to be his interior minister following lobbying by Bài. After calling for the French to introduce a Vietnamese legislature, he resigned after three months in office when this was rejected. He was stripped of his decorations and titles and threatened with arrest.[4][7]

For the next decade, Diệm 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. A conservative by nature, Diệm confined his nationalist activities to occasional trips to Saigon to meet with Phan Bội Châu. 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 Diệm to be a subversive and ordered his arrest. He fled to Saigon disguised as a Japanese officer.[citation needed]

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 had already given the post to another candidate and Diệm avoided the stigma of being a collaborationist. In September 1945, after the Japanese withdrawal, Hồ Chí Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, his Việt Minh began fighting the French. Diệm attempted to travel to Huế to dissuade Bảo Đại from joining Hồ, but was arrested by the Việt Minh 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 Hồ in Hanoi, but refused to join the Việt Minh, assailing Hồ for the death of his brother, Khôi, who was reportedly buried alive by Việt Minh cadres.[4][7]

Diệm continued to attempt to gather support for himself on an anti-Việt Minh platform. Despite having little success, Hồ was sufficiently irritated to order Diệm's arrest, which Diệm narrowly evaded. Diệm was given a respite in November 1946 when clashes between the French and the Việt Minh escalated into full scale war, forcing the Việt Minh to divert their resources. Diệm then moved south to the Saigon region to live with Thục. Diệm co-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.[citation needed]

Diệm's activities garnered substantial publicity and when France decided to make concessions to placate nationalist agitators, they asked him to lobby Bảo Đại to join them. Diệm gave up when Đại made a deal which he felt to be soft,[Clarification needed] and returned to Huế. In the meantime, the French had started the State of Vietnam and Diệm 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 Việt Minh lost patience and 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 Thục, bishop of the Vĩnh Long diocese in the Mekong Delta. Diệm left Vietnam in 1950.[4][7]


Diệm applied for permission to travel to Rome for the Holy Year celebrations at the Vatican. After gaining French permission he left in August with Thục, apparently destined to become a politically irrelevant figure. Before going to Europe, Diệm went to Japan, where he intended to meet Cường Để to enlist his support to seize power. Neither this nor an attempt to woo help from General Douglas MacArthur, the American supreme commander in occupied Japan, yielded meetings. A friend managed to organize a meeting with Wesley Fishel, an American academic who had done consultancy work for the United States government. Fishel was a proponent of the anti-colonial, anti-communist third force doctrine in Asia and was impressed with Diệm and helped him organize contacts and meetings in the United States to enlist support.[8] It was an opportune time for Diệm, with the outbreak of the Korean War and McCarthyism helping to make Vietnamese anti-communists a sought after commodity in America. Diệm was given a reception at the State Department with the Acting Secretary of State James E. Webb. He reportedly gave a weak performance, in which Thục did most of the talking. As a result, no further audiences with notable officials were afforded to him. However, he did meet Francis Cardinal Spellman, who was regarded as the most politically powerful cleric of his time. Spellman had studied with Thục in Rome in the 1930s and was to become one of Diệm's most powerful advocates.[citation needed]

Diệm obtained an audience with Pope Pius XII in Rome before further lobbying across Europe. He attempted to convince Bảo Đại to make him the Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam but was turned down. Diệm returned to the United States to continue lobbying. In 1951 he secured an audience with Secretary of State Dean Acheson. During the next three years he lived at Spellman's Maryknoll seminary in Lakewood Township, New Jersey and occasionally at another seminary in Ossining, New York.[9]

Spellman helped Diệm to garner support among right-wing and Catholic circles. Diệm toured the East Coast, speaking at universities, arguing that Vietnam could only be saved for the "free world" if the US sponsored a government of nationalists who were opposed to both the Việt Minh and the French. He was appointed as a consultant to Michigan State University's Government Research Bureau, where Fishel worked. MSU was administering government-sponsored assistance programs for cold war allies, and Diệm helped Fishel to lay the foundation for a program later implemented in South Vietnam, the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group. As French power in Vietnam declined, Diệm's support in the U.S. increased.[10]

With the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 to the Viet Minh, French control of Vietnam collapsed and Bảo Đại needed foreign help to sustain his State of Vietnam. Realising Diệm's popularity among American policymakers, he chose Diệm's youngest brother Ngô Đình Luyện, 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 Diệm. 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 Diệm was incompetent, with the Prime Minister Mendes-France declaring Diệm to be a "fanatic".[citation needed]

The Geneva accords resulted in Vietnam being partitioned temporarily at the 17th parallel, pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country. The Viet Minh controlled the north, while the French backed State of Vietnam controlled the south with Diệm as the Prime Minister. French Indochina was to be dissolved at the start of 1955. Diệm'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. Diệm arrived at Tân Sơn Nhất airport in Saigon on 26 June where only a few hundred people turned out to greet him, mainly Catholics. He managed only one wave after getting into his vehicle and did not smile.[11]

Consolidation of power

The accords allowed for freedom of movement between the two zones until October 1954; this was to put a large strain on the south. Diệm had only expected 10,000 refugees, but by August, there were over 200,000 waiting in Hanoi and Haiphong to be evacuated; the migration helped to strengthen Diệm's political base of support. Before the partition, the majority of Vietnam's Catholic population lived in the north. After the borders were sealed, this majority was now under Diệm's rule. The U.S. Navy program Operation Passage to Freedom saw up to one million North Vietnamese move south, most of them Catholics. The CIA's Edward Lansdale, who had been posted to help Diệm strengthen his rule,[12] led a propaganda campaign to encourage as many refugees to move south as possible. Diệm also used slogans such as "Christ has gone south" and "the Virgin Mary had departed from the North", alleging anti-Catholic persecution under Hồ Chí Minh. Over 60% of northern Catholics moved to Diệm's South Vietnam, providing him with a source of loyal support.[citation needed]

Diệm's position at the time was weak; Bảo Đại disliked Diệm 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; Diệm's Vietnamese National Army was essentially organized and trained by the French. Its officers were installed by the French and the chief of staff General Nguyễn Văn Hinh was a French citizen; Hinh loathed Diệm and frequently disobeyed him. Diệm also contended with two religious sects, the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, who wielded private armies in the Mekong Delta, with the Cao Đài estimated to have 25,000 men. The Việt Minh was also estimated to have control over a third of the country. The situation was worse in the capital, where the Bình Xuyên organized 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 Bình Xuyên control of the national police for US$1,250,000,[citation needed] creating a situation that the Americans likened to Chicago under Al Capone in the 1920s. In effect, Diệm's control did not extend beyond his palace. In August, Hinh launched a series of public attacks on Diệm, 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 Diệm's collapse, nine members of his government resigned during Hinh's abortive bid for power. Despite its failure, the French continued to encourage Diệm's enemies in an attempt to destabilize him.[citation needed]

Establishment of the Republic of Vietnam

Diệm's appointment came after the French had been defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and were ready to withdraw from Indochina. At the start of 1955, French Indochina was dissolved, leaving Diệm in temporary control of the south.[13] A referendum was scheduled for 23 October 1955 to determine the future direction of the south. It was contested by Bảo Đại, the Emperor, advocating the restoration of the monarchy, while Diệm ran on a republican platform. The elections were held, with Diệm's brother and confidant Ngô Đình Nhu, the leader of the family's Cần Lao Party, which supplied Diệm's electoral base, organising and supervising the elections.[14][15] Campaigning for Bảo Đại was prohibited, and Đại supporters were attacked by Nhu's workers. Diệm recorded an implausibly high 98.2 percent of the vote—an implausibly high result that could have only been obtained through fraud. The total announced number of votes for a republic exceeded the number of registered voters by over 380,000—further evidence that the referendum was heavily rigged. For example, only 450,000 voters were registered in Saigon, but 605,025 were said to have voted for a republic.[14][16] Three days later, Diệm proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Vietnam, naming himself President. Under the 1954 Geneva Accords, Vietnam was to undergo elections in 1956 to reunify the country. Diệm, 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."[17] With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Phạm Văn Đồng,[18] who proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of "local commissions".[19] The United States countered with what became known as the "American Plan", with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom.[20] It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations, but was rejected by the Soviet delegation and North Vietnamese.[20]

After coming under pressure from within the country and the United States, Diệm agreed to hold legislative elections in August 1959 for South Vietnam. 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 Việt Cộng, which carried the death penalty. Phan Quang Đán, the government's most prominent critic, was allowed to run. Despite the deployment of 8,000 ARVN plainclothes troops into his district to vote, Đán still won by a ratio of 6–1. The busing of soldiers occurred across the country, and when the new assembly convened, Đán was arrested.[21][22]


Ngô Đình Diệm, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, arrives at Washington National Airport in 1957. Diệm is shown shaking hands with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Madame Nhu, the wife of Diệm's younger brother Nhu, was South Vietnam's de facto First Lady, and a Catholic convert herself. She led the way in Diệm's programs to reform Saigon society in accordance with Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed, divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws strengthened. Diệm won a street war with the private army of the Bình Xuyên 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 Đài and Hòa Hảo religious sects, which controlled parts of the Mekong Delta. Diệm was passionately anti-Communist. Tortures and killings of communist suspects were committed on a daily basis. According to Gabriel Kolko about 12,000 suspected opponents of Diệm were killed between 1955 and 1957 and by the end of 1958 an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed.[23] However, Guenter Lewy argues that such figures were exaggerated and that there were never more than 35,000 prisoners of all kinds in the whole country.[24] Diệm's repression extended beyond communists to anti-communist dissidents and anti-corruption whistleblowers.[25]

As opposition to Diệm'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 Viet Cong cadres who were being successfully targeted by Diệm's secret police, Hanoi's Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing the use of armed insurgency in the South with supplies and troops from the North. On 20 December 1960, under instructions from Hanoi, southern communists established the Viet Cong (NLF) 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, despite being in almost direct control by the Northern regime. The cornerstone of Diệm'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.[26]

Assassination attempts

The communists in southern Vietnam resolved that "if we are able to kill Ngô Đình Diệm, the leader of the current fascists dictatorial puppet government, the situation would develop along lines more favourable to our side."[27] On 22 February 1957, when Diệm made a visit to an economic fair in Buôn Ma Thuột, a communist cadre named Ha Minh Tri carried out a directive to assassinate the president. He approached Diệm and fired a pistol from close range, but missed, hitting the Secretary for Agrarian Reform's left arm. The weapon jammed and security overpowered Tri before he was able to fire another shot. Diệm was unmoved by the incident.[28] There was a further attempt to assassinate Diệm and his family in 1962 when two air force officers—acting in unison—bombed the presidential palace.[citation needed]

Land policy

During the 1946–54 war against the French Union forces, the Việt Minh, having gained control of parts of southern Vietnam, initiated land reform. During the period of war, rent collection, which hovered at around 50–70%, was impossible in some parts of the country, or the Việt Minh had compelled landlords to seek safety in the city and confiscated their land, distributing it to the peasants. When Diệm came to power, he reversed these re-allocations as upper-class landowners were part of his ideological support base. In the Mekong Delta, 0.025% of landowners owned 40% of the land; most of the land was owned by absentee landlords and worked by tenant farmers. This generated resentment among the populace, as land ownership was highly valued by Vietnamese society. Diệm declared that landlords could collect no more than 25%, but this was not enforced and in some cases the rent levels were higher than those under French colonisation. Under U.S. pressure, in 1956, he limited individual land holdings to 1.15 km², and reimbursed the landlords for the excess, which he sold to peasants. Many landlords evaded the redistribution by transferring the property to the name of family members. Additionally, the ceiling limit was more than 30 times that allowed in South Korea and Taiwan, and the 370,000 acres (1,500 km2) of the Catholic Church's landownings in Vietnam were exempted. As a result, only 13% of the South Vietnam's land was redistributed, and by the end of his regime, only 10% of the tenants had received any land, at a high cost. This policy failure generated anger, and in turn sympathy to the Việt Minh who had given the peasants free land. At the end of Diệm's rule, 10% of the population owned 55% of the land.[29]

Believing the central highlands were of strategic importance to the Việt Cộng or subject to a potential invasion by North Vietnam, Diệm 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. Diệm initiated a program of internal migration where 210,000 Vietnamese, mainly Catholics, were moved to Montagnard land in fortified settlements.[30] When the Montagnards protested, Diệm's forces confiscated their spears and bows, which they used to hunt for daily sustenance.[31] Since then Vietnam has faced Montagnard insurgent separatist movements.[32]

Government policy towards Buddhists

In a country where surveys of the religious composition estimated the Buddhist majority to be between 70 and 90 percent,[33][34][35][36][37][38][39] Diệm's policies generated claims of religious bias. As a member of the Vietnamese Catholic minority, he is widely regarded by historians as having pursued pro-Catholic policies that antagonized many Buddhists, since the Catholic community is anti-Communist. Specifically, the government was regarded as being biased towards Catholics in public service and military promotions, as well as the allocation of land, business favors and tax concessions.[40] Diệm once told a high-ranking officer, forgetting that the man was from a Buddhist background, "Put your Catholic officers in sensitive places. They can be trusted." Many officers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam converted to Catholicism in the belief that their military prospects depended on it.[41]

The distribution of weapons to village self-defense militias intended to repel Việt Cộng guerrillas saw weapons only given to Catholics. Buddhists in the army were often denied promotion if they refused to convert to Catholicism.[42] Some Buddhist villages converted en masse in order to receive aid or avoid being forcibly resettled by Diệm's regime.[43] The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country, and the "private" status that was imposed on Buddhism by the French, which required official permission to conduct public Buddhist activities, was never repealed by Diệm.[44]

Catholics were also de facto exempt from the corvée labor that the government obliged all citizens to perform; U.S. aid was disproportionately distributed to Catholic majority villages. Under Diệm, the Catholic Church enjoyed special exemptions in property acquisition, and in 1959, Diệm dedicated his country to the Virgin Mary.[45] The white and gold Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam.[46] U.S. Aid supplies tended to go to Catholics, and the newly constructed Huế and Dalat universities were placed under Roman Catholic authority to foster a Catholic-skewed academic environment.[47]

Buddhist crisis

The regime's relations with the United States worsened during 1963, as discontent among South Vietnam's Buddhist majority was simultaneously heightened. In May, in the heavily Buddhist central city of Huế, where Diệm's elder brother was the Catholic Archbishop, the Buddhist majority was 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.[48] A few days earlier, however, Catholics had been encouraged to fly religious flags at another celebration. This led to a protest led by Thích Trí Quang against the government, which was suppressed by Diệm's forces, killing nine unarmed civilians. Diệm and his supporters blamed the Việt Cộng for the deaths and claimed the protesters were responsible for the violence.[49][50] 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 Viet Cong.[51]

The Buddhists pushed for a five point agreement: freedom to fly religious flags, an end to arbitrary arrests, compensation for the Huế victims, punishment for the officials responsible and religious equality. Diệm labeled the Buddhists as "damn fools" for demanding something that, according to him, they already enjoyed. He banned demonstrations, and ordered his forces to arrest those who engaged in civil disobedience. On 3 June 1963, protesters attempted to march towards the Từ Đàm 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.[citation needed]

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 Diệm's policies; photos of this event were disseminated around the world, and for many people these pictures came to represent the failure of Diệm's government.[52] 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. Diệm 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 Diệm's brother, Nhu, conducted a brutal August raid of the Xá Lợi pagoda in Saigon. Pagodas were vandalised, monks beaten, the cremated remains of Quảng Đức, which included his heart, a religious relic, were confiscated.[53]

Simultaneous raids were carried out across the country, with the Từ Đàm pagoda in Huế looted, the statue of Gautama Buddha demolished and a body of a deceased monk confiscated.[54] When the populace came to the defense of the monks, the resulting clashes saw 30 civilians killed and 200 wounded.[54] In all 1,400 monks were arrested, and some thirty were injured across the country. The U.S. indicated their disapproval of Diệm's administration when ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. visited the pagoda ex post facto.[55] No further mass Buddhist protests occurred during the remainder of Diệm's rule (which would amount to less than five months).[56]

During this time, Diệm's sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, a Catholic convert and former Buddhist, the de facto first lady because of Diệm's unmarried status, inflamed the situation by mockingly applauding the suicides, referring to them as "barbecues", stating, "If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline."[57] The pagoda raids stoked widespread public disquiet in Saigon. Students at Saigon University boycotted classes and rioted, which led to arrests, imprisonments and the closure of the university; this was repeated at Huế University. When high school students demonstrated, Diệm arrested them as well; over 1,000 students from Saigon's leading high school, most of them children of Saigon civil servants, were sent to re-education camps, including, reportedly, children as young as five, on charges of anti-government graffiti. Diệm's foreign minister Vũ Văn Mẫu resigned, shaving his head like a Buddhist monk in protest.[58] When he attempted to leave the country on a religious pilgrimage to India, he was detained and kept under house arrest.

Coup and assassination

The body of Diệm in the back of the APC, having been shot dead en route to military headquarters.

As the Buddhist crisis deepened in July 1963, noncommunist Vietnamese nationalists and the military began preparations for a coup. Bùi Diễm, later South Vietnam's Ambassador to the United States, reported in his memoirs that General Lê Văn Kim requested his aid in learning what the U.S. might do about Diệm's government.[59] Diễm had contacts in both the embassy and with the high-profile American journalists then in South Vietnam, David Halberstam (New York Times), Neil Sheehan (United Press International) and Malcolm Browne (Associated Press).[60] On 20 August 1963, Nhu's security forces raided the Xá Lợi Pagoda in Saigon. They chose to wear Army uniforms during the raid to make it appear as if the Army were behind the crackdown. Nhu's forces arrested more than 400 monks who had been sitting cross-legged in front of a statue of the Buddha. Thousands of other Buddhists were arrested throughout the country.[citation needed]

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the American ambassador to South Vietnam, refused to meet with Diệm. Upon hearing that a coup d'état was being designed by ARVN generals led by General Dương Văn Minh, and supported by the CIA, Lodge gave secret assurances to the generals that the U.S. would not interfere. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, had become a liaison between the U.S. Embassy and the generals, who were led by Trần Văn Đôn.[61] Conein provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with US $42,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that U.S. forces would make no attempt to protect Diệm.[62]

The orders that ended in the deaths of Diệm and his brother originated with W. Averell Harriman and were carried out by Henry Cabot Lodge's own military assistant.

Having served as ambassador to Moscow and governor of New York, W. Averell Harriman was in the middle of a long public career. In 1960, President-elect Kennedy appointed him ambassador-at-large, to operate "with the full confidence of the president and an intimate knowledge of all aspects of United States policy." By 1963, according to Corson, Harriman was running "Vietnam without consulting the president or the attorney general.".[63]

The president had begun to suspect that not everyone on his national security team was loyal. As Corson put it, "Kenny O’Donnell (JFK's appointments secretary) was convinced that McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor, was taking orders from Ambassador Averell Harriman and not the president. He was especially worried about Michael Forrestal, a young man on the White House staff who handled liaison on Vietnam with Harriman.".[63]

At the heart of the murders was the sudden and strange recall of Saigon Station Chief Jocko Richardson and his replacement by a no-name team barely known to history. The key member was a Special Operations Army officer, John Michael Dunn, who took his orders, not from the normal CIA hierarchy but from Harriman and Forrestal.[63]

According to Corson, "John Michael Dunn was known to be in touch with the coup plotters", although Dunn's role has never been made public. Corson believes that Richardson was removed so that Dunn, assigned to Ambassador Lodge for "special operations", could act without hindrance.[63]

Minh and his co-conspirators overthrew the government on 1 November 1963 in a swift coup. On 1 November, with only the palace guard remaining to defend Diệm and his younger brother, Nhu, the generals called the palace offering Diệm exile if he surrendered. However, that evening, Diệm and his entourage escaped via an underground passage to Cholon, where they were captured the following morning, 2 November. The brothers were assassinated together in the back of an M113 armoured personnel carrier with a bayonet and revolver by Captain Nguyễn Văn Nhung, under orders from Dương Văn Minh, while en route to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff headquarters.[64][65] Diệm was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery next to the house of the U.S. ambassador.[66]


Upon learning of Diệm's ouster and assassination, Hồ Chí Minh reportedly stated: "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid."[67] The North Vietnamese Politburo was more explicit:

"The consequences of the 1 November coup d'état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists ... Diệm was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diệm. Diệm was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists  ... Among the anti-Communists in South Vietnam or exiled in other countries, no one has sufficient political assets and abilities to cause others to obey. Therefore, the lackey administration cannot be stabilized. The coup d'état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last."[67]

After Diệm's assassination, South Vietnam was unable to establish a stable government and several coups took place 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.[68]

See also


  1. Spencer Tucker Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: a political, social, and military history - Volume 1 - Page xxi - 1998 "For Vietnamese personal names we have chosen to use the Vietnamese system of family name first, followed by middle name, then given name. Subsequent references are to the given name only. Thus, in the case of Ngô Đình Diệm, Ngô is the family name, Đình the middle name, and Diệm the given name. After the first reference I refer to him only as Diệm. This follows the common Vietnamese practice of using the first name.. "
  2. "State of Vietnam referendum".,_1955. Retrieved 12 June 2012. 
  3. "Jan Palach - Living Torches". Retrieved 26 October 2012. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Karnow, pp. 229–233
  5. Jacobs, pp. 18–20
  6. Warner, p. 89.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Jacobs, pp. 20–25
  8. University Project Cloaked C.I.A. Role In Saigon, 1955–59 New York Times, 14 April 1966
  9. "The Beleaguered Man", magazine, 4 April 1955. Retrieved 27 March 2008. "For the best part of two years (1951–53) he made his home at the Maryknoll Junior Seminary in Lakewood, N.J. often going down to Washington to buttonhole State Department men and Congressmen and urge them not to support French colonialism."
  10. Jacobs, pp. 25–34
  11. Jacobs, pp. 37–43
  12. Borthwick, p. 388.
  13. Maclear, pp. 65–68
  14. 14.0 14.1 Karnow, pp. 223–24
  15. Langguth, p. 99.
  16. Jacobs, p. 95.
  17. Gettleman, p. 203.
  18. The Pentagon Papers (1971), Beacon Press, vol. 3, p. 134.
  19. The Pentagon Papers (1971), Beacon Press, vol. 3, p. 119.
  20. 20.0 20.1 The Pentagon Papers (1971), Beacon Press, vol. 3, p. 140.
  21. Langguth, p. 108
  22. Jacobs, pp. 112–15
  23. Anatomy of a War by Gabriel Kolko, ISBN 1-56584-218-9, p. 89.
  24. Lewy, Guetner, (1978), America in Vietnam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp294-5.
  25. Maclear, pp. 70–90
  26. "The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby". New York City: Act 4 Entertainment. September 2011. 
  27. Moyar, p. 67.
  28. Moyar, pp. 66–67
  29. Jacobs, pp. 93–96
  30. Jacobs, pp. 90–92.
  31. Langguth, pp. 184–85
  32. Far Eastern Economic Review, 1991
  33. The 1966 Buddhist Crisis in South Vietnam, HistoryNet
  34. Gettleman, pp. 275–76, 366.
  35. Moyar, pp. 215–16.
  36. "South VietNam: The Religious Crisis". Time. 14 June 1963.,9171,874816-2,00.html. Retrieved 20 May 2010. 
  37. Tucker, pp. 49, 291, 293.
  38. Maclear, p. 63
  39. SNIE 53-2-63, "The Situation in South Vietnam", 10 July 1963
  40. Tucker, p. 291.
  41. Gettleman, pp. 280–82.
  42. "South Vietnam: Whose funeral pyre?". The New Republic. 29 June 1963. p. 9. 
  43. Buttinger, p. 993
  44. Karnow, p. 294
  45. Jacobs p. 91
  46. "Diem's other crusade". The New Republic. 22 June 1963. pp. 5–6. 
  47. Halberstam, David (17 June 1963). "Diệm and the Buddhists". New York Times. 
  48. Topmiller, p. 2
  49. Karnow, p. 295.
  50. Moyar, pp. 212–213
  51. Gettleman, pp. 64–83
  52. Gettleman, pp. 264–83.
  53. "South Viet Nam: The Crackdown". Time. 30 August 1963.,9171,940704-1,00.html. Retrieved 20 May 2010. 
  54. 54.0 54.1 "South Viet Nam: The Crackdown". Time. 30 August 1963.,9171,940704-2,00.html. Retrieved 20 May 2010. 
  55. Gettleman, pp. 278–83
  56. Moyar, pp. 212–16, 231–34
  57. Tucker, pp. 292–93
  58. "Vu Van Mau, Last Premier Of South Vietnam, Dies at 84", New York Times, 14 September 1998
  59. B. Diễm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 100.
  60. B. Diễm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 101.
  61. B. Diệm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 102.
  62. "Ngo Dinh Diem biography". Retrieved 26 October 2012. 
  63. 63.0 63.1 63.2 63.3 "The Secret History of the CIA." Joseph Trento. 2001, Prima Publishing. pp. 334-335.
  64. The Pentagon Papers, Vol. 2 Ch. 4, "The Overthrow of Ngô Đình Diệm, May–November 1963", pp. 201–276,
  65. B. Diem, In the Jaws of History, p. 105.
  66. G. Herring, America's Longest War, 1996, p. 116.
  67. 67.0 67.1 Moyar, p. 286
  68. Moyar, pp. 287–90


  • Borthwick, Mark (1998). Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3471-3. 
  • Buttinger, Joseph (1967). Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled. Praeger Publishers. 
  • Fall, Bernard B. (1963). The Two Viet-Nams. Praeger Publishers. 
  • Diem, Bui (1987). In the Jaws of History. Houghton Mifflin. 
  • Gettleman, Marvin E. (1966). Vietnam: History, Documents, and Opinions on a Major World Crisis. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books. 
  • Jacobs, Seth (2006). Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam, 1950–1963. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-4447-8. 
  • Karnow, Stanley (1997). Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-670-84218-4. 
  • Langguth, A. J. (2000). Our Vietnam: the war, 1954–1975. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81202-9. 
  • Maclear, Michael (1981). Vietnam:The Ten Thousand Day War. New York: Methuen Publishing. ISBN 0-423-00580-4. 
  • Moyar, Mark (2006). Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965. New York: Cambridge University Press]. ISBN 0-521-86911-0. 
  • Olson, James S. (1996). Where the Domino Fell. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-08431-5. 
  • Topmiller, Robert J. (2006). The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0-8131-2260-0. 
  • Tucker, Spencer C. (2000). Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social and Military History. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-57607-040-9. 
  • Warner, Denis (1964). The Last Confucian: Vietnam, South-East Asia, and the West. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 

Further reading

  • Fitzgerald, Frances (1972). Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-15919-0. 
  • Halberstam, David; Singal, Daniel J. (2008). The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-7425-6007-4. 
  • Hammer, Ellen J. (1987). A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24210-4. 
  • Jones, Howard (2003). Death of a Generation: how the assassinations of Diem and JFK prolonged the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505286-2. 
  • Mann, Robert (2001). A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam. New York: Perseus. ISBN 0-465-04370-4. 
  • Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Harvard University Press; 2013); rejects idea of Diem as an American puppet; argues he was a shrewd leader with his own vision of modernization.
  • Reeves, Richard (1994). President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-89289-4. 
  • Sheehan, Neil (1989). A Bright Shining Lie. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-679-72414-8. 

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Prince Bửu Lộc
Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Preceded by
President of the Republic of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Dương Văn Minh

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