Anyone familiar with the “Viet Nam experience” will be acquainted with the many characters involved: Gen. Westmoreland, Gen. Giap, various American presidents, Le Duc Tho, Henry Kissinger and don’t forget…
Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch!
Got the blue ball fever and the seven year itch!
But of all the actors in this drama, Ngo Dinh Diem is perhaps the most pivotal. Born into a Catholic family in central VN, his father was a high ranking civil servant. Their clan had converted to Catholism in the 17th century. Educated in french speaking schools, Diem still inherited his father’s dislike of the colonial rulers.
Fast forward to the aftermath of WWII and the United States is trying to extend it’s influence around the world. We backed the French in VN in the hopes they would establish an “autonomous state” as U.S. policy was based on “containment”…containing the communist threat. U.S. leaders and intelligence analysts alarmed by events in China after WWII and the communist takeover in 1949, put this policy at the fore front of our foreign relations, not just in Asia but around the world.
Meanwhile the French created the State of Viet Nam in 1948 with the former emperor Bao Dai as head of state. Diem had been serving as a mandarin and minor official in Central VN. He had been working his way up the civil service ladder and had gained a reputation as a hard worker and non corrupt. Bao Dai selected him to be prime minister. This country was a joke, but kept a lot of the old colonial government intact and facilitated the French businesses staying in business. Export and import businesses, Michelin Rubber, etc. In actuality most of the countryside was controlled by the DRV (Democratic Republic of Viet Nam), established by Ho and the communist leaders in Tonkin north of the 17th parallel.
Diem positioned himself as both anti-French and anti-communist.
Did I mention the Viet Minh? In 1941 Ho Chi Minh returned to VN after 30 years exile and helps establish the Viet Minh. Their origins date back to the 1930’s as part of a Vietnamese anti- imperialist united front. After the Japanese occupation in WWII, they were of course anit-Japanese as well. At this time they were receiving funds from China, the Soviet Union and the United States!
With the end of WWII and the surrender of the Japanese, Ho and the Viet Minh establish the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRV) in Tonkin. They hope to unite all of Viet Nam under communist rule. One of the things that I found interesting in my reading was the Viet Minh’s strategy of political struggle as opposed to military or armed action. Armed confrontation was always considered the last resort and only then was considered when there was low risk of failure.
Dien Bien Phu and France’s defeat
Fast forwarding to 1954, the French get their asses kicked and have to withdraw from Viet Nam. Almost immediately, a Geneva Conference is convened to deal with the Indochina question.
Timeline of Events
1941 – Ho Chi Minh returns to Tonkin after 30 years of exile.
1944 to 45 – There is famine in Japanese occupied Tonkin or N. Viet Nam. I think this is primarily because the bulk of the rice crop is being converted to fuel and/or shipped to Japanese occupied areas. The peasants become more radicalized and begin to organize out of desperation.
1945 – World War II ends with the surrender of the “Axis” countries.
1946 to 1954 – First Indochina War which ends in the French defeat.
1954 – Bao Dai appoints Ngo Dinh Diem premier. The Geneva Accords are signed dividing Viet Nam at the 17th parallel. There are to be elections to decide the fate of the country, meaning both Tonkin and Cochin-China. These are never held.
1955 – Following a rigged referendum, Diem proclaims the Republic of Viet Nam with himself as President. Bao Dai is ousted.
The money coming in from the U.S. gives Diem a free hand in taking control of many aspects of Vietnamese life.
#1-He does away with the old civil service system and installs family and those loyal to him to take charge of towns, districts and provinces. Police and soldiers torture and kill many people seen as rivals under the guise of eliminating the VC.
#2-Chinese people have lived in Viet Nam for thousands of years and though a small percentage of the population they control the biggest chunk of the economy. Diem attacks them as well. By attacks, I mean their property was confiscated and to stay in business they would have to become Vietnamese citizens.
#3-Early in 1963 buddhists in Hue begin demonstrating in protest; they were not allowed to fly Buddha’s flag on his birthday. This escalates in unforeseen ways. By the summer of 1963, Diem’s brother Nhu orders attacks on their pagodas. By attacks, I mean soldiers are shooting people.
Meanwhile under President Kennedy, the number of American “advisors” has grown from 600 to over 16,000 including helicopter pilots and other key personnel. While the South Vietnamese can typically control towns and cities, most of the countryside is controlled by the communists. The southern peasants and villagers, tired of colonialism and inept rulers are wanting the land reforms that the commies promote and in some cases are able to carry out in places like the Mekong Delta.
1963 – Backed by the U.S., General Duong Van Minh leads a coup d’etat overthrowing Diem. Diem is shot and killed shocking U.S. officials and particularly President Kennedy. He had not expected or anticipated the killing of Diem.
22 days later Kennedy himself is killed leaving unanswered the question-Would JFK have committed U.S. Forces as we did?
1964 – The infamous Tonkin Gulf incident. The U.S. begins bombing N. Viet Nam.
The rest is history.