Vietnam Part III
Ngo Dinh Diem
He was born in Central Vietnam. His father was a scholar and farmer. Diem was one of many children. His family had been Catholic for over 200 years. Diem’s grandparents and uncles were killed during anti-Catholic Buddhist riots; their church was burned while they were locked inside. This history may have influenced his behavior later on in life.
His father urged all of his children to become either nuns or priests. Diem left home with his brother at the age of 15 to fulfill his dad’s wish, but he found monastic life confining. His brother later became a bishop. Diem opted for a lifetime of celibacy. He went into government service and rapidly rose through the ranks due to his reputation of being hard-working and incorruptible.
In 1945 Vietnam was occupied by five different armies. Ho Chi Minh had declared a Communist republic in the north. The Japanese had surrendered but had not left yet. The Chinese had sent troops to Hanoi to make sure that the Japanese would leave. The French had been in Vietnam for a hundred years and had no interest in departing. The British army was in charge of keeping the order in the south.
The Vietnamese had an emperor. The Japanese, seeking to have some influence in the country after their departure, had tried to talk Diem into being the prime minister in a government headed by the emperor. Diem was not interested. Ho Chi Minh was trying to convince the emperor to abdicate and leave the country. When Diem traveled north to talk the emperor out of this he was arrested by Ho’s men. He nearly died of disease.
Eventually he met with Ho. He was offered a high government position, but by that time his brother had been killed by the Communists and Diem had his own dream to become the top man. He refused Ho’s offer. Shortly after that he had to leave the country.
The next few years were trying times. Diem traveled extensively through Europe and the US trying to garner support for a united Vietnam that would not be communist. He met with the pope and many American politicians. It is said that John Kennedy liked him.
When the French were defeated by Ho in 1954 Diem saw his chance. He came back to Vietnam and became second in command of the new government in the South. Within a few months he got rid of the top guy; slowly he purged anyone and everyone who would not be loyal to him. Since there was a significant Communist presence in the South, Diem tried to make sure that they were all imprisoned or exterminated.
A number of positive actions followed. He accepted 200,000 refugees from the North; he gave them land and the means to grow their own food. He established several universities. He tried to keep the peace within the cities. His power kept growing, but up to 40,000 people were jailed and resentment began to fester.
In the early 1960’s protests intensified. There was an attempt on Diem’s life. There were many palace intrigues. Repression increased. The majority Buddhist population felt that Diem’s policies favored his Catholic brethren.
Diem felt that Buddhists were hiding his enemies within their temples and pagodas. One thing led to another. A number of laws that limited Buddhist rites were passed. There were more protests and riots. In June of 1963 a Buddhist monk drove from Hué to Saigon. He stopped his car at a busy avenue, got out, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.
Images of this gruesome yet spectacular incident were broadcast all over the world. Over the next few weeks other monks followed suit. Diem’s sister-in-law went on TV to say that she would be happy to provide more fuel if these monks wanted to barbecue themselves. Her remarks did not go over well. Popular opposition to Diem swelled. American diplomats and politicians became nervous.
In November Diem’s generals staged a coup (with the CIA’s knowledge and encouragement) and murdered Diem and his brother. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
The North Vietnamese were elated. They knew that the South had no other leaders strong enough to be able to fight them. South Vietnam was soon torn by internal strife. One coup followed another as many generals struggled to gain power. The war effort against Ho Chi Minh suffered.
As all of us know, the handwriting was on the wall even then. As the South Vietnamese morale and leadership deteriorated, more American troops had to be called in to do the fighting. By the late sixties nothing happened in South Vietnam, military or otherwise, without American approval.
American boys were flown over 10,000 miles to fight a war that had nothing to do with them. The South Vietnamese army had trouble finding Vietnamese boys who wanted to do the same.
After the 1968 Tet offensive Americans knew they had had enough. It took another five years for the politicians to come around to this way of thinking. In 1975 Vietnam became a single country under a single political party. More than a million lives had been lost. Seaports, rice fields, power plants, bridges, and highways had been destroyed. People starved. Man’s ambition once again proved to be destructive; all of the individuals who wanted a greater and better country were poisoned by the power they acquired.
May this lesson be learned.