America’s Mandarin

By 1954, following the Geneva Conference, reputable Viet¬namese nationalists outside the ranks of the Vietminh were scarce. Many had been liquidated by the Communists or killed by the French, or had withdrawn from politics to private occupations in Saigon. Some had even moved to France to become dilettante activists—holding sterile meetings, issuing mean¬ingless manifestos and conspiring constantly in the comfort of side¬walk cafes. Ngo Dinh Diem filled a vacuum, but despite his record of integrity, he lacked the dimensions of a national leader.
An ascetic Catholic steeped in Confucian tradition, a mixture of monk and mandarin, he was honest, courageous and fervent in his fidelity to Vietnam’s national cause; even Ho Chi Minh respected his patriotism. But he was no match for Ho, whom even anti- Communists regarded as a hero. Imbued with a sense of his own infallibility, as if he were an ancient emperor ordained to govern, Diem expected obedience. Distrustful of everyone outside his family, he declined to delegate authority, nor was he able to build a constit¬uency that reached beyond his fellow Catholics and natives of central Vietnam. Above all, he could not comprehend the magnitude of the political, social and economic revolution being promoted by his Com¬munist foes. He saw their uprising in narrow military terms—a mis¬perception shared by his American patrons. Limited thus, he could not effectively mobilize the South Vietnamese people to cope with the growing Vietcong insurgency, nor could he check the mounting opposition of his critics, whose frustrations with his regime were only aggravated by his inability to check the Communists.
The flawed Geneva accommodation had postponed rather than achieved a settlement. Hastily contrived to prevent a wider war, it was merely a temporary truce between France and the Vietminh—to be honored until a durable political solution could be reached. Diem, having rejected it, refused to cooperate, and the United States backed him. But the Communists, who had fought to unify Vietnam, would not accept the prospect of permanent partition; they prepared to renew their struggle, again alarming the United States, which saw Indochina
as a test of “containment. ”
The Americans had underwritten Diem “because we knew of no one better,” as John Foster Dulles put it. But while they publicly extolled him, U.S. officials were not deluded by their own rhetoric and privately conceded, as Dulles had, that they could find no alter¬native. The Kennedy administration later shared that unenthusiastic assessment of Diem. Carried away by oratorical hyperbole during a visit to Saigon in 1961, Lyndon Johnson, then vice-president, publicly compared Diem to Churchill. “Did you really mean it?” I asked John¬son aboard his airplane later. “Shit,” he drawled, “Diem’s the only boy we got out there.”
Lavish rhetorical praise only reinforced Diem’s belief in his impor¬tance to the United States, and he defied American advice to reform his administration. It also stiffened his intransigence toward his internal critics, and in turn stiffened their resistance to him. Gradually, the United States concluded that the conflict could not be won with Diem. For nine years, though, he served as America’s surrogate in Vietnam— and through him the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia deepened.
As a foreign correspondent, I first met Diem in Paris in the spring of 1954, on the eve of his return to South Vietnam as Bao Dai’s prime minister, and I later spent many hours with him in Saigon after he had become president. Invariably dressed in an immaculate white sharkskin suit—the sartorial status symbol of Vietnamese official¬dom—he was a rotund little figure whose feet barely touched the floor when he sat on an elegant chair in a salon of the Gia Long palace, the former French governor’s residence. He looked as fragile as porcelain, with delicate features and ivory skin, but his black eyes projected a fanatical faith in his crusade. Pausing only to light one cigarette from another, he would talk tirelessly in a high-pitched voice, recalling his life in excruciating detail. Once, after an entire afternoon of listening to his monologue, I stepped into the fading tropical twilight bewil¬dered by the fact that, with his country in crisis, he could devote half a day to a reporter. Outside, on the veranda, a crowd of officials, army officers and politicians were waiting impatiently, their urgent business delayed by my lengthy audience.
But that was part of his problem. Diem traced his roots back to the village of Phu Cam, in central Vietnam, where the Ngo Dinh clan, converted to Christianity by seventeenth-century Portuguese mis sionaries, had suffered persecution. Nevertheless, the Ngo served as mandarins at the imperial court in Hue, and Diem’s father, Ngo Dinh Kha, carried on the tradition, rising to the grade of counselor to Emperor Thanh Thai, whom the French deposed in 1907 on the pre¬text of insanity. Quitting in protest, Kha retired to the countryside to meditate and farm a few rented acres; though virtually penniless, he scraped together the money to educate his six sons.
The third boy, Diem, was born in 1901 and christened Jean-Baptiste in the cathedral at Hue. He labored in the family’s rice fields while attending a French Catholic school nearby, and he later entered a private school opened by his father. He declined a scholarship to study in France, contemplated the priesthood, then dropped the notion be¬cause, he told me, the discipline was too rigorous. Like his older brother Thuc, who became a worldly priest, Diem might have led a less monastic existence if he had joined the clergy, which at least deals directly with people. As an adolescent, he had a mild flirtation with a girl, but she jilted him for a convent, and he probably remained chaste for the rest of his life. An old acquaintance of his once remarked: “A woman might have tempered his character.”

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