America’s Mandarin 3

Diem made no headway with the Eisenhower administration, then committed to the French. In May 1953, he quit the United States for a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, but he shuttled frequently to Paris to visit his youngest brother, Luyen, an engineer, who had been lobbying for him among exiled Vietnamese in France. Diem needed French endorsement, American approval and an official appointment from Bao Dai. A year later, as the Geneva conference augured a settlement in Vietnam, the pieces fit together.
Bao Dai was still residing at his chateau near Cannes with his wife and five children. He kept a Vietnamese mistress in Paris, and aides supplemented his sexual diet with elegant French courtesans. He also spent his evenings at the roulette wheels of Monte Carlo, squandering extravagant sums. He had sunk into an intellectual torpor, yet his political interest in Vietnam could be aroused if he felt that events might affect him directly. As the Geneva negotiations approached a denouement, he finally realized that his own status hung dangerously in the balance. He summoned Diem.
The playboy and the puritan made an odd couple, but they could use each other. Diem perceived Bao Dai to be his path to power. And Bao Dai saw two advantages in Diem. For one thing, Diem’s brother Nhu had organized the Front for National Salvation in Saigon, and it appeared to be a plausible political coalition. Bao Dai also estimated that Diem, having sojourned in the United States, would bring Amer¬ica onto the Vietnamese scene to supplant the French, whose days seemed to be numbered. But contrary to the legend that Dulles, Car¬dinal Spellman and other Americans were then pushing for Diem, the United States had not yet anointed him. Indeed, American officials in Geneva politely brushed off his brother Luyen, who was urging them to meet Diem. The French government, meanwhile, regarded Diem with indifference.
Bao Dai, a captive of his own fancies, nevertheless believed Diem to be America’s challenge to France when he called him to his chateau. There, on June 18, 1954, Bao Dai placed Diem before a crucifix and persuaded him to swear to defend Vietnam “against the Communists and, if necessary, against the French. ” He thereupon named him prime minister—and, unwittingly, dug his own political grave.
Diem’s new prestige scarcely altered him. Back in Paris, as he pre¬pared to return to Vietnam, he consented to hold formal audiences at the ornate Hotel Palais d’Orsay, but insisted on sleeping every night in a room without bath at the sordid Hotel de la Gare, located in a slum neighborhood near the Austerlitz railroad station. When I in¬terviewed him at the time, he sounded like a Vietnamese version of Joan of Arc, forecasting that the national army he planned to mobilize “will inspire the people to flock to us.” He had a long road ahead. On June 26, 1954, when he landed in Saigon, a group of barely five hundred, mostly Catholics, greeted him at the airport. The rest of the city stayed home.
Just as generals face each new war with the strategies of the last war, so Dulles now feared a repetition of the Korean conflict in Southeast Asia, with Communist hordes sweeping southward. He conceived the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, composed of the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Pakistan, to defend the region, and a protocol to the treaty put South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos under its protection. The alliance proved to be irrelevant, since its signatories had different—often divergent—prior¬ities. More to the point, South Vietnam was threatened not by outright aggression but by a combination of internal instability and subversion. From the start, consequently, uncertainties confronted the Eisenhower administration as it contemplated Diem’s government in Saigon.
Under the Geneva agreement, a French force was supposed to re¬main in South Vietnam to guarantee the armistice until nationwide elections took place in July 1956. But Diem, aware of his weakness, had no intention of participating in elections. He made it equally plain that he aimed to replace the French with American patrons. His de¬mands increased tension between the United States and France and sparked a dispute between the secretary of state and the joint chiefs of staff of the kind that would persist, with variations, through several administrations.
The joint chiefs, as reluctant as ever to invest in a shaky cause, asserted as early as August 1954 that the United States ought not assume the burden of training the South Vietnamese army until Diem demonstrated that he had a “stable” government. Dulles replied that training Diem’s army was “one of the most efficient means” of strengthening his government. Senator Mansfield complicated their differences by reporting, after a quick trip to Vietnam, that there was no alternative to Diem, whose program “represents genuine nation¬alism.” Eisenhower, caught in the cross fire, seemed to arbitrate the squabble by telling Diem that U. S. aid would depend on his “standards of performance. ” In fact, plans to furnish direct American assistance to Diem were already taking shape, without regard to his performance. But the debate continued among senior U. S. representatives in Saigon.
Diem was plagued by chaos throughout the summer. General Ngu¬yen Van Hinh, the irreverent army chief of staff and a French protege, had attempted to oust him, contending that South Vietnam needed a “strong and popular” leader like himself. Diem ordered him out of the country, but Hinh defied the directive by charging around Saigon on his motorcycle, displaying the expulsion notice. Finally, under American pressure, Bao Dai eliminated Hinh by inviting him to France for “consultations.” Now Diem, facing the challenge of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao and Binh Xuyen factions, tightened the circle around himself to his family and close friends, as he always would under pressure.
General J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, the former army chief of staff, arrived in Saigon in December as Eisenhower’s personal em¬issary. Sensing the confusion, he concurred with the French that Diem was hopeless. He proposed that limits should be put on aid, even suggesting an American withdrawal unless the situation improved. Donald Heath, the U.S. ambassador, disagreed. Underwriting Diem was a “gamble,” he admitted, but denying him help would have “a far worse effect.” Dulles sided with Heath, arguing that the United States had “no choice” except to bolster Diem, “if only to buy time.” The time-buying operation opened with $300 million in American assistance.

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