America’s Mandarin 10

A local supervisor disclosed what had gone on: “The rice and cash grants are being stolen by officials, who also rob the fertilizer sent here and sell it. I’d like to tell President Diem how they are profiting from the sweat of the people.”
“Have you protested?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied, “and I’m due to be transferred to another district.”
Several peasants sounded a note of fatalism, and that sentiment worked to Diem’s detriment, since neutrality deprived him of the support his regime needed. My small sampling convinced me then that he could not mobilize that support, and one peasant put that conclusion into words: “We are always for the government—no mat¬ter which government is in control. But in our hearts we like the government that takes the least from the people and gives them abun¬dance and happiness. We do not yet have that government.”
More vocal disenchantment in Saigon paralleled the peasant dissat¬isfaction. Doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals, most of them educated under the French, were disturbed less by the lack of genuine democracy than by Diem’s rigidity. The grumbling rose to an audible pitch in August 1959, when he organized legislative elec¬tions, mainly as window dressing for his American patrons. The con¬test, arranged under U.S. auspices, was designed to replicate a Western political exercise. The government registered voters, vowed to respect the secret ballot and even invited critics to run against the regime. But the election was a sham. In the countryside, Diem’s officials coerced peasants into voting for the government candidates or simply stuffed the ballot boxes. In Saigon, where rigging was more difficult, they resorted to other techniques, such as disqualifying uncongenial poli¬ticians for “irregularities.” On election day, the regime brought con¬tingents of troops into the city to vote for its candidates.
Diem’s repression only stimulated his domestic adversaries. In April 1960, eighteen distinguished nationalists, including several former members of his cabinet, signed a petition urging him to reform. Their requests were modest; they merely asked him to broaden his entou¬rage, and they even offered to serve him. To Diem, however, their gesture amounted to lese-majeste. Instead of liberalizing, he closed op¬position newspapers and arrested a number of journalists, students and other intellectuals, accusing them of “Communist affiliations.” And he turned more and more to his brother Nhu.
Though the United States had by then sunk more than a billion dollars into South Vietnam, its leverage over Diem was diminishing. Elbridge Durbrow, the American ambassador in Saigon, was a chubby figure with a Rotarian manner whose gawky wife insisted on wearing an ao dai, the gossamer Vietnamese dress. But Durbrow was a shrewd diplomat. He warned Diem that Nhu and his wife were damaging the government’s reputation and tactfully suggested that they be sent abroad. Diem dismissed the criticism of his brother as “Communist propaganda.” In a message to Washington on December 4, 1960, Durbrow floated an idea that, three years later, would become U.S. policy: “We may well be forced, in the not too distant future, to undertake the difficult task of identifying and supporting alternative leadership.”
During that period, though, Diem knew that he could resist Amer¬ican pressures for reform because the United States needed his regime as an anti-Communist bastion. Thus he became, as one American official then in Saigon put it, “a puppet who pulled his own strings— and ours as well.”
Diem was also skilled at manipulating splits within the U.S. mission to his own advantage. Durbrow had long been frustrated by Lieuten¬ant General Samuel T. Williams, chief of the U.S. military advisory group, who considered himself to be the ambassador’s equal if not superior. Not only did the two men hate each other personally, but their disputes often degenerated into shouting matches at mission meetings.
A veteran of two world wars, Williams had risen from private in the Texas national guard to division commander in Korea. Along the way he acquired the nickname “Hanging Sam” for imposing the death penalty on a rapist in his regiment and the label fit. A lanky figure with a leathery face and a bristling moustache, he was a strict disci¬plinarian who refused to abide laziness, waffling or incompetence. He was also the caricature of a crusty old soldier. Impatient with diplo-matic delicacies, he would express his opinions in barracks-room lan¬guage—invariably beginning, in his Texas drawl, with “Shi-i-it. . . .”
Williams arrived in Saigon in 1955 without the faintest knowledge of the cultural, political or social complexion of Vietnam, and he declined to learn. Closing his eyes to the nepotism and corruption that riddled the South Vietnamese army, he dismissed as Communist “propaganda” reports that its officers and men routinely dealt on the black market, embezzled official funds, ran prostitution rings, traf¬ficked in drugs and extorted peasants whose “hearts and minds” they were supposed to be winning. He also rebuffed evidence that the Can Lao party, headed by Nhu, took a cut of all business transactions and was probably siphoning off a percentage of U.S. aid. Nor did he regard as serious the rival cliques that divided Diem’s military estab¬lishment, crippling its effectiveness. For him, as an American army historian has observed, their feuds were no different from the innoc¬uous factional squabbles within America’s armed forces. But Williams resembled most other Americans in Saigon at the time, who naively maintained that, by transplanting their institutions to Vietnam, they would inspire the Vietnamese to rally behind the anti-Communist cause.

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