America’s Mandarin 5

Lansdale also helped Diem to outsmart his domestic adversaries. He nipped General Nguyen Van Hinh’s planned coup d’etat in the bud, for example, by hustling his chief lieutenants off on a trip to Manila. And when the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao defied the regime, Lansdale bribed several of their leaders to rally to Diem, paying them as much as $3 million each out of CIA funds. General Duong Van Minh, a Diem loyalist, finally subdued the sects in early 1956 by capturing the fanatical Hoa Hao guerrilla commander, Ba Cut, who was publicly guillotined. Minh, a burly figure known as Big Minh, was to head the conspiracy that overthrew Diem seven years later— and in April 1975, as interim chief of state, he surrendered Saigon to the Communists.
The big trial for Diem, however, was his showdown with the Binh Xuyen force of forty thousand,, which challenged him in the spring of 1955. Lansdale had dangled a deal before Bay Vien, the Binh Xuyen boss, but Diem rejected it, and skirmishing began in Saigon in March. The French, who openly favored the Binh Xuyen, fed its officers with intelligence and threw up road barriers against Diem’s troops. The French government in Paris meanwhile denounced Diem, and Bao Dai entered the fray from his chateau on the Cote d’Azur, attempting to manipulate factions in Saigon. Diem seemed to be finished by late April. Reporting from Saigon, the influential newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop wrote him off as “virtually impotent.” As was often the case, Alsop erred.
On April 27, Diem ordered the Binh Xuyen to cease its deployments in the city. The Binh Xuyen disobeyed and Diem’s army attacked its strongholds the next day. The Binh Xuyen riposted by firing shells into the park around the presidential palace, and soon Saigon was a battleground as the rival forces fought street by street. Artillery and mortars obliterated the city’s poor districts, killing five hundred ci¬vilians and rendering some twenty thousand homeless. As the fighting raged, Bao Dai summoned Diem to France, hoping to neutralize him. Diem refused to budge. When Bao Dai’s officers tried to oust him, Diem turned his generals against them. By the end of May, the Binh Xuyen had been routed and its boss, Bay Vien, flew to asylum in Paris. Diem had prevailed—but at a cost that he would have to pay later. Nearly two thousand defeated Binh Xuyen, Hoa Hao and Cao Dai fighters joined the underground Communist forces concealed in the recesses of the Mekong delta, and they would emerge afterward among the Vietcong guerrillas.
The United States rewarded Diem for his stubborn courage. A new American ambassador, G. Frederick Reinhardt, landed in Saigon to express unequivocal U.S. confidence in the regime. Five months later, Diem consolidated his power. With Lansdale and other Americans helping, he deposed Bao Dai in a referendum and promoted himself to the rank of chief of state.
The election, like others to follow, was a test of authority rather than an exercise in democracy. With Bao Dai far away, Diem’s activists could easily exert pressure on the voters. Lansdale, with his talent for advertising, showed them how to design the ballots in order to sway the electorate. Those for Diem were red, which signified good luck, and those for Bao Dai green, the color of misfortune. Diem’s agents were present at the polling stations. One voter recalled the scene in a village near Hue: “They told us to put the red ballot into envelopes and throw the green ones into the wastebasket. A few people, faithful to Bao Dai, disobeyed. As soon as they left, the agents went after them and roughed them up. The agents poured pepper sauce down their nostrils, or forced water down their throats. They beat one of my relatives to a pulp.”
In several places, including Saigon, the tally of votes for Diem exceeded the number of registered voters. He claimed to have won 98.2 percent of the vote—having spurned American advice to aim for a more credible 60 or 70 percent. What the Americans failed to un¬derstand was that his mandarin mentality could not accept the idea of even minority resistance to his rule. With no compunctions whatso¬ever, Diem again renounced the nationwide elections prescribed by the Geneva agreement because, he said, they could not be “absolutely free.” If the Communist takeover of the north alarmed Washington and worried Diem, it only partially satisfied Ho Chi Minh and his com¬rades, who had been denied complete victory at the Geneva conference table. Within a year of the accord, moreover, they could sense that the elections scheduled to unify Vietnam would never take place. Diem refused to discuss election preparations, and the United States indi¬rectly backed him, saying that the matter “should be left up to the Vietnamese themselves.” The Soviet Union and China did nothing to press for a political settlement. So the deadline, July 1956, passed without any action to fulfill the most important clause in the Geneva agreement, and it looked as if Vietnam would become another trun¬cated nation, like Germany and Korea. Indeed, the Soviet Union even suggested a permanent partition by proposing in early 1957 that both North and South Vietnam be admitted to the United Nations as “two separate states . . . which differ from one another in political and eco¬nomic structure. ” The United States, unwilling to recognize a Com¬munist regime, rebuffed the initiative—a grievous mistake. For international endorsement of “two Vietnams” might have averted the later confrontation.

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