America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U. S. Intervention in Southeast Asia


America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam rethinks the motivations behind one of the most ruinous foreign-policy decisions of the postwar era: America’s commitment to preserve an independent South Vietnam under the premiership of Ngo Dinh Diem. The so-called Diem experiment is usually ascribed to U.S. anticommunism and an absence of other candidates for South Vietnam’s highest office. Challenging those explanations, Seth Jacobs utilizes religion and race as categories of analysis to argue that the alliance with Diem ...

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America's Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia

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America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam rethinks the motivations behind one of the most ruinous foreign-policy decisions of the postwar era: America’s commitment to preserve an independent South Vietnam under the premiership of Ngo Dinh Diem. The so-called Diem experiment is usually ascribed to U.S. anticommunism and an absence of other candidates for South Vietnam’s highest office. Challenging those explanations, Seth Jacobs utilizes religion and race as categories of analysis to argue that the alliance with Diem cannot be understood apart from America’s mid-century religious revival and policymakers’ perceptions of Asians. Jacobs contends that Diem’s Catholicism and the extent to which he violated American notions of “Oriental” passivity and moral laxity made him a more attractive ally to Washington than many non-Christian South Vietnamese with greater administrative experience and popular support.

A diplomatic and cultural history, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam draws on government archives, presidential libraries, private papers, novels, newspapers, magazines, movies, and television and radio broadcasts. Jacobs shows in detail how, in the 1950s, U.S. policymakers conceived of Cold War anticommunism as a crusade in which Americans needed to combine with fellow Judeo-Christians against an adversary dangerous as much for its atheism as for its military might. He describes how racist assumptions that Asians were culturally unready for democratic self-government predisposed Americans to excuse Diem’s dictatorship as necessary in “the Orient.” By focusing attention on the role of American religious and racial ideologies, Jacobs makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the disastrous commitment of the United States to “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.”

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Seth Jacobs makes a seminal contribution to the study of the origins of American involvement in Vietnam. Combining prodigious research in a rich variety of primary sources, a sophisticated conceptual framework that illuminates the intersection of high politics and popular culture, and an especially engaging writing style, Jacobs fundamentally recasts how we view this critical period in the history of the Vietnam wars and the Cold War.”—Mark Bradley, author of Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950

“Seth Jacobs’s interesting and provocative argument adds a new interpretation to the massive literature on the United States and the path toward full deployment in Vietnam. Jacobs writes with a lively, punchy style that makes his work both entertaining and instructive.”—Michael Latham, author of Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Seth Jacobs is Assistant Professor of History at Boston College.

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America's Miracle Man in Vietnam

Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia, 1950-1957
By Seth Jacobs

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2004 Seth Jacobs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822334293

Chapter One

"Colonialism, Communism, or Catholicism?": Mr. Diem Goes to Washington

On 7 July 1954, Jean Baptiste Ngo Dinh Diem formally took over the government of the young, besieged State of Vietnam. Diem's appointment as prime minister represented the culmination of many years of campaigning, a time during which, like most politicians, he cultivated the support of influential patrons by seeking out their company and telling them what they wanted to hear. He was also fortunate in that certain features of his background and character, over which he had no control, appealed to many government officials and well-connected private citizens. Through a classic mix of networking and luck, Diem had built up such an effective power base by the summer of 1954 that the emperor of Vietnam had no choice but to over him the premiership.

What made Diem's rise to prominence noteworthy was the fact thatnone of his prestigious sponsors were Vietnamese. Indeed, Diem was not widely known in his native land, where he had held no public office for more than twenty years. He was likewise unable to command any meaningful support in France, Vietnam's longtime colonial overlord. It was in the United States that Diem won his post. His piety and his appeals to Americans' paternalistic and missionary impulses favorably impressed statesmen like Senator Mike Mansfield and Representative Walter Judd, among others. Not merely Diem's Christianity but his Catholicism endeared him to elite figures in the Eisenhower administration and made him stand out among possible candidates for America's cold war surrogate in Saigon. Moreover, widespread assumptions that Asians were culturally, and perhaps racially, unready for democratic self-government predisposed U.S. policymakers to excuse Diem's overtly dictatorial ambitions as appropriate for Vietnam.

From the beginning, Diem's government was an American creation. As a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative stationed in Saigon in the mid-1950s recalled, Diem was "so wholly dependent on American support that he would have fallen in a day without it.... What he did was inspired by Americans, planned by Americans, and carried out with close American guidance." Those Vietnamese who disparaged the Diem regime as "My-Diem"-"American Diem"-were more insightful than they could have known, as was the British novelist Graham Greene, who in 1955 called Diem "The Patriot Ruined by the West." The same qualities that enabled Diem to acquire South Vietnam's highest office through the agency of the Eisenhower administration also ensured that he would never establish a government of any popular legitimacy and doomed his so-called republic to permanent, quasi-colonial reliance upon Western aid-a cruel paradox for a man who, whatever his faults, must be counted among Vietnam's staunchest nationalists.

"An Exceptionally Serious Catholic"

Diem first set foot on American soil in late August 1950, less than two months after the outbreak of the Korean War. While hardly the most distinguished Asian statesman to visit the United States that year, he came with impressive references. Edmund Gullion of the American embassy in Saigon informed Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Diem was "the chief leader of the Vietnamese Catholics" and speculated that his visit might heighten Catholic awareness of "the communist danger to Viet-Nam." Charles Spinks, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, saw Diem during the latter's stopover in Tokyo and alerted his superiors that Diem was "anti-French, anti-communist, progressive, liberal, [and] a good possibility as an American tool in Indo-China." Ever on the lookout for potential tools to arrest the communist advance in Asia, Washington took heed of these reports. The State Department's Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs made arrangements for a reception for Diem at the capital.

Diem arrived in Washington accompanied by his brother, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, who ironically made a better impression on State Department representatives than Diem did. James Webb, acting secretary of state, cabled the Saigon embassy, "We were impressed that Thuc, through the Catholics, might be [an] important figure in [the] present IC [Indochina] complex.... [The i]nfluence of Thuc's clerical background and position[,] with its evident bearing on his thinking[,] was apparent." Diem, on the other hand, struck officials as "less precise, realistic, and authoritative.... He fits more into [the] mold of [a] present-day Vietnamese politician, steeped in Oriental intrigue." Both Diem and Thuc stressed the need for greater Vietnamese autonomy from France, criticized the Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, for his inability to rally popular support to the anticommunist cause, and argued for more direct American involvement in the war raging in Vietnam. They were, however, incapable of advancing any strategy whereby the United States could displace the French in Indochina without damaging the recently inaugurated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and proved similarly unable to explain how American forces, nearly expelled from the Korean peninsula just weeks before, could fight two land wars in Asia at the same time. Diem in particular irritated Webb with his "resort to generalities." "Like other prominent Vietnamese," the acting secretary complained, "Diem is ... either incapable or unwilling to [sic] over any constructive solution to [the] current dilemma other than vague and defamatory ref[erence]s to Fr[ance] and implications that only [the] U.S. can solve [the] problem, thru him of course."

The Ngo brothers remained in America for almost a month, occasionally meeting with lower-level functionaries in the Truman administration but associating primarily with clergymen and other individuals active in Catholic circles. They left for Europe in mid-October to lobby for Diem's installation as Vietnamese prime minister. Shortly after their departure, Dean Rusk, then assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, wrote to Father Frederick McGuire, a former Vincentian missionary to Indochina who often advised the State Department on Asian matters. Rusk thanked McGuire for his "cooperation and assistance ... in receiving Mr. Diem" and called Diem and Thuc "valuable allies in our common endeavor to preserve the rights of free men in Indochina." While Rusk did not anticipate that Diem and Thuc would return to America, he assured McGuire that "they have expressed themselves eager ... to remain in touch with the Catholic clergy of the United States."

No American newspaper mentioned Diem's visit, and a contemporary observer could be forgiven for assuming that the stocky little man from the other side of the world would soon fade into obscurity. Indeed, Diem's life prior to 1950 suggested a personality ill-suited to politics, at least by Western standards. Born in 1901 near the imperial city of Hue in central Vietnam, Diem was one of nine children in a wealthy family headed by Ngo Dinh Kha, the highest-ranking mandarin in the court of Emperor Thanh Thai. The Ngo family had been Catholic for generations, converting in the seventeenth century. They paid a heavy price for their faith under emperors Minh Mang and Tu Duc, who encouraged the persecution of Catholics. Around 1880, when Kha was studying for government service in Malaya, Buddhist monks led an anti-Catholic riot that nearly wiped out the Ngo family. More than a hundred Ngo-including Kha's parents, sisters, and brothers-were burned alive. Such oppression only intensified Kha's devotion to the Catholic Church, a sentiment he passed on to his six sons and three daughters.

Diem grew up in a household in which, according to one biographer, "Catholicism and Confucianism went hand in hand." Kha was not a nurturant or forgiving father. Through harangue, catechization, and frequent beatings, he impressed upon his children the importance of self-denial and conformity to the moral and social order. Diem stood out for his piety, rising every morning before dawn to pray and flying into a rage if interrupted by his siblings. At six, he won his first school prize-for "assiduousness." At fifteen, he entered a monastery and considered becoming a priest but dropped the notion because, as he informed Stanley Karnow, "the discipline was too rigorous." Denis Warner is probably nearer the mark when he concludes that Diem "found the Church too pliable for his own unbending will."

A year after leaving the monastery, Diem took competitive examinations for French Indochina's equivalent of a high school diploma. He scored so high that the French overed him a scholarship in Paris, but he declined, enrolling instead in Hanoi's School of Public Administration and Law. While a student there, he had a fleeting romance with the daughter of one of his instructors, but she jilted him and joined a convent. He probably remained celibate for the rest of his life. Diem performed well at school, graduating first in his class and moving into government service. Within a few years, he became provincial chief of a district containing over three hundred villages. It was here that he first encountered local communist agents distributing propaganda. Revolted by the Marxist doctrines of social revolution and atheism, he helped the French suppress the first communist-inspired peasant revolts. By 1933, when he was only thirty-two years old, the French agreed to his appointment as minister of the interior under Emperor Bao Dai.

It was a decision the French would regret. Shortly after assuming office, Diem was invited to head a commission to examine possible administrative reforms. He submitted a list of proposals, all of which the French rejected. In an act of considerable bravery, he publicly resigned, denounced Bao Dai as "nothing but an instrument in the hands of the French," and returned all of the decorations the emperor had bestowed on him. The French threatened him with deportation. Diem retired to his family home in Hue to nurse his wounded pride. He would not work for a living for the next twenty-one years, although he remained politically active, meeting often with nationalist intellectuals and keeping up a diligent correspondence with the legendary Phan Boi Chau, Indochina's most famous anticolonial activist.

Like Ho Chi Minh, Diem recognized that World War II presented a unique opportunity for Vietnam to break free from French control. When Japan completed its occupation of Indochina in 1942, he tried to convince Japanese officials to grant Vietnam its independence, but they preferred to leave the outward form of French colonial administration in place. Three years later, the tide of war having turned, the Japanese relented and asked Diem to serve as prime minister in a nominally sovereign Vietnam. Diem refused. Both the Japanese and the French declared him a subversive and ordered his arrest. Diem fled south to Saigon, where he lay low and managed to avoid capture until the end of the war. His older brother Ngo Dinh Khoi was not so fortunate. The communist Viet Minh apprehended Khoi and his son, tried and convicted them for counterrevolutionary acts, and buried them alive.

Diem himself was seized by Viet Minh agents in late 1945. His anticommunism and prior service in the colonial administration might have sealed his fate, but Ho Chi Minh was anxious to have a Catholic in his first coalition cabinet. Rather than order Diem's execution, he had Diem brought to Viet Minh headquarters in Hanoi. The ensuing dialogue between the two men vividly demonstrated both Ho's political skills-which enabled him to hold a fractious, poorly armed population together through decades of war-and the dogmatism that would hamstring Diem's evorts to pull off a similar feat:

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 country, and you have held me prisoner.

Ho: I apologize for that unfortunate incident. When people who have been oppressed revolt, mistakes are inevitable and tragedies occur.... 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.... 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.

Impressed by his captive's audacity, Ho let Diem depart.

The Viet Minh may have expected Diem to be grateful for his reprieve and beat a hasty retreat south, but Diem was nothing if not courageous. He remained in the hostile Tonkinese countryside for months, trying to organize anticommunist guerrilla bases, and even after he returned to Saigon in late 1946 he did not retire from public life. He founded a political party that attempted to pressure the French into setting up a Vietnamese government under dominion status. These evorts, while unsuccessful, earned Diem some public notice, and when in 1949 the French proposed to bring Bao Dai back from exile and install him as leader of a new government in the south, Diem briefly became the chief negotiator between the Fourth Republic and the exiled Vietnamese emperor. Diem tried to get Bao Dai to insist upon a French commitment to independence, but Bao Dai refused to hold out for Diem's terms. Disgusted, Diem went into seclusion at the home of his brother Thuc, by now bishop of Vinh Long diocese in the Mekong Delta.

The forty-nine-year-old Diem had numerous incentives to leave Vietnam in 1950. He had spent many years in the political wilderness, and the chances of his being overed a post in the present regime were slim. He had no organized popular support. The Viet Minh appeared poised to overrun all of Vietnam, making prospects for a conservative Catholic look ominous. Of greatest importance, Ho Chi Minh decided in early 1950 to reverse his previous clemency and sentenced Diem to death in absentia. When Diem asked the French for protection against Viet Minh agents, he was informed that no police were available. Recognizing that if he remained in Vietnam he would be easy prey for the communists, Diem applied for permission to travel to Rome for the Holy Year celebrations at the Vatican. En route, he changed his itinerary, sailing instead for America. This proved an inspired decision.

Following Diem and Thuc's month-long sojourn in the United States, the Ngo brothers flew to France to urge Bao Dai to appoint Diem prime minister. The emperor declined, after which a disconsolate Thuc returned to Vietnam. Diem, however, sensed Bao Dai's increasing dependence on the deep pockets of the United States and decided to try his luck with the State Department again. By the end of 1950, Diem was back in America. This time, he managed to gain an audience with Secretary of State Acheson, who noted that Diem "spoke with much more balance than heretofore."


Excerpted from America's Miracle Man in Vietnam by Seth Jacobs Copyright © 2004 by Seth Jacobs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 "Colonialism, communism, or Catholicism?" : Mr. Diem goes to Washington 25
2 "Our system demands the supreme being" : America's third great awakening 60
3 "These people aren't complicated" : America's "Asia" at midcentury 88
4 "Christ crucified in Indo-China" : Tom Dooley and the North Vietnamese refugees 127
5 "The sects and the gangs mean to get rid of the saint" : "Lightning Joe" Collins and the battle for Saigon 172
6 "This God-fearing anti-communist" : the Vietnam lobby and the selling of Ngo Dinh Diem 217
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