America’s Mandarin 2

Following in the footsteps of an older brother, Khoi, who had enrolled in the civil service, Diem studied law and administration at a French school that trained native bureaucrats. Promoted rapidly after graduation, he became a provincial governor at the age of twenty- five, and entered what may have been the happiest period of his career. He rode horseback through the rice fields and mountains, and it was then that he first encountered local Communist agents distributing propaganda. He tried to counter them by publishing his own pam¬phlets, eradicating corruption and improving the conditions of peas¬ants in his area, but, as he later recollected, “I was working with advanced ideas in very small dimensions.”
In 1933, the French advised Bao Dai, just back from France to ascend the throne, to name Diem his minister of interior. They also appointed him to a commission to examine administrative reforms. Diem hes¬itated, asking how far the reforms would go. “You have a difficult character,” a senior French official replied. “Take the job and don’t complain.”
Diem took the job and complained. He insisted that the French invest real influence in a Vietnamese legislature, but his demands were rebuffed. Resigning in disgust after only three months, he publicly proclaimed that he could not “act against the interests of my country.” The French stripped him of his decorations and titles and even threat¬ened him with arrest. Summing up the experience, Diem made a prophetic comment at the time: “The Communists will defeat us, not by virtue of their strength, but because of our weakness. They will win by default.”
Over the next decade, Diem vegetated in Hue at the home of his mother and a younger brother, Can, the least educated of the Ngo sons, occasionally contacting nationalist comrades. The French kept him under surveillance and harassed his family by dismissing his oldest brother, Khoi, from the post of governor of Quangnam province. When the Japanese occupied Indochina in 1942, Diem tried to persuade them to declare Vietnam’s freedom, but they preferred to function through the Vichy French colonial administration. The Japanese spurned him again three years later when they selected a more docile prime minister to head the “independent” government they had set up under Bao Dai. Vietminh agents captured him in September 1945 as he was traveling from Saigon to Hue to warn Bao Dai against joining Ho Chi Minh, then in Hanoi. They exiled him to a primitive highland village near the Chinese border, where he might have died of malaria had not local tribesmen nursed him back to health. While there, he learned that the Vietminh had shot his brother Khoi and Khoi’s son. Six months later, he was taken to Hanoi to meet Ho Chi Minh for the first time.
Fifteen years afterward, Diem painted an almost sympathetic por¬trait of Ho, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he spoke gently. Their conversation, as Diem recalled it, was candid.
DIEM: What do you want of me?
HO: I want of you what you have always wanted of me—your cooperation in gaining independence. We seek the same thing. We should work together.
DIEM: YOU are a criminal who has burned and destroyed the coun¬try, and you have held me prisoner. HO: I apologize for that unfortunate incident. When people who have been oppressed revolt, mistakes are inevitable, and trag¬edies occur. But always, I believe that the welfare of the people outweighs such errors. You have grievances against us, but let’s forget them.
DIEM: YOU want me to forget that your followers killed my brother? HO: I knew nothing of it. I had nothing to do with your brother’s death. I deplore such excesses as much as you do. How could I have done such a thing, when I gave the order to have you brought here? Not only that, but I have brought you here to take a position of high importance in our government.
DIEM: My brother and his son are only two of the hundreds who have died—and hundreds more who have been betrayed. How can you dare to invite me to work with you? HO: Your mind is focused on the past. Think of the future— education, improved standards of living for the people. DIEM: You speak a language without conscience. I work for the good of the nation, but I cannot be influenced by pressure.
I am a free man. I shall always be a free man. Look me in the face. Am I a man who fears oppression or death? HO: You are a free man.
With that, Diem walked out. In early 1981, I talked with the Viet¬namese Communist party propaganda chief Hoang Tung, who crit¬icized Ho for his leniency. “Considering the events that followed,” he said, “releasing Diem was a blunder.”
During the late 1940s, Diem’s efforts to muster support for himself were fruitless. Even so, the Vietminh deemed him enough of a nuis¬ance to be condemned to death in absentia, and, reversing Ho’s verdict, its agents tried to kill him as he was traveling to visit his brother Thuc, by now bishop of Vinh Long diocese, in the Mekong Delta. Brave but not foolhardy, Diem left Vietnam in 1950, ostensibly to attend the Holy Year celebration at the Vatican. He eventually went to the United States, where he spent two years at the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey, washing dishes, scrubbing floors and pray¬ing, like any novice, and he even watched a football game at Princeton. More important, he gained introductions to such prominent Ameri¬cans as Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and Justice William O. Douglas as well as Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. Diem pleaded his case with a simplistic if compelling logic that ap¬pealed to conservatives and liberals alike. He opposed both Com¬munist domination and French colonialism; thus he claimed to represent true nationalism. The added attraction for Cardinal Spellman was Diem’s Catholicism, and he became one of his active promoters.

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