|A Roman Catholic Response to the Legacy of President Ngo Dinh Diem of Viet-Nam|
| So far, it has been the case that most Catholic Christians are stout supporters of President Ngo Dinh Diem (saving perhaps those in Vietnam today), and with good reason. He was a well-known patriotic nationalist, a devout man, and a leader who based his government on his own core values. His values were Catholic values, he was firmly opposed to the expansion of Communism and succeeded in building a non-Communist national movement in South Vietnam, which he called "Personalism". However, the assumption by all Catholics that Ngo Dinh Diem is simply "our man" comes about primarily through the events of his presidency, particularly toward the end, when political divisions in Saigon had raged out of control (partly as a result of Diem's policies it must be said) and the strong "us and them" attitude which has prevailed from that time on. However, perhaps it would be wiser for Christians, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, to look at the whole career of Ngo Dinh Diem and perhaps come to a more balanced view of a complex man.
For most patriotic Vietnamese Catholics, the early career of Ngo Dinh Diem is beyond all repproach. His family were old and loyal servants of the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors and early converts to the Christian religion. His oldest brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, would eventually become Archbishop of Hue. Diem himself considered taking Holy Orders but ultimately decided to become a mandarin at the imperial court. Once there, he came under the guidance of the most well-known and highly esteemed Catholic in the Nguyen monarchy, the venerable Minister of the Interior Nguyen Huu Bai, a Vietnamese traditionalist, devout Catholic, loyal monarchist and avowed antagonist of the French colonial regime.
Nguyen Huu Bai, and his compatriots like Ngo Dinh Diem, favored returning more power to the Emperor, the establishment of Vietnamese elected assemblies to advise the government, and the reduction of French control to come into strict accordance with the treaties signed in the last century between France and Viet-Nam. Thus, from the start of his career, Ngo Dinh Diem earned a reputation for nationalism, opposition to the French, ambition and devotion to his religion. He was chosen from among the young nationalists at court for a cabinet office by Emperor Bao Dai, but resigned when the French would not give up any authority to the native Vietnamese leaders and dismissed the Emperor as a "powerless tool of the French". Sidelined during World War II, Diem, like the rest of the Catholic bloc, supported the restoration of Emperor Bao Dai as head of the State of Viet Nam in 1948.
Here, however, outside influences begin to creep in. The Americans took an early interest in Diem as the only leading nationalist who had not held office during the Japanese occupation (though he was the first choice for Prime Minister), as a result, he gained many new friends in the American government. America used their financial support of the Vietnamese National Army to push for the acceptance of Diem as Prime Minister. Emperor Bao Dai, according to his memoirs, called Diem to France and offered him the job as the only man who could manage the political divisions in Saigon. At first, Diem refused the office. Bao Dai said, "Each time I need to change the government, I have to call you to serve, but you refuse it every time. However, the current situation is very dangerous and the country can be cut in half. You should lead a government". This was during the Geneva Convention where France was agreeing to abandon Vietnam and allow the country to be partitioned and the army disbanded, all of which the Emperor and all non-Communist Vietnamese were opposed to. At last, Diem agreed, but perhaps recalling his earlier resignation and support for Prince Cuong De, the monarch had Diem take a solemn oath of loyalty to him before a crucifix with the pledge to fight against all enemies of Vietnamese independence and to clean up the corruption in Saigon. This Diem vowed and said to his Emperor that if he ever lost faith in him, he had but to say the word and he would resign.
For Catholics, this act cannot possibly be understated and becomes a problem in the evaluation of Diem later on. From such sacraments as matrimony and holy orders, it has long been a well-established doctrine that any oath taken before God is a sacred, eternal and inviolable pact, the very fact that it is an oath making it impossible to break. Diem already owed Bao Dai his loyalty, but this event made the situation absolutely crystal-clear. Certainly the two men who complete opposites. Diem was an austere and devoutly religious man, while Bao Dai was known for his love of sport, gambling and assorted pleasures of life. When the two joined forces, observers began calling the pair "the Puritan and the Playboy". However, the personal character of Diem can be praised and that of Bao Dai torn down endlessly, but the fact remains, Diem swore total obedience to his king and yet once he was securely in power, on the recommendation of his American advisor Colonel Edward G. Lansdale, overthrew the former monarch in 1955 after refusing a summons from Bao Dai to come to France.
For anyone who believes in the time-honored moral that "a promise is a promise" this start to Diem's presidency cannot be condoned, however, it is essential that it be understood as Saigon politics at the time was an extremely complicated business. First of all, the United States had been less than enthusiastic about the former Emperor serving as Head of State from the very start of the French anti-communist effort. They were pushing hard for the last vestiges of the monarchy to go and for Vietnam to be rebuilt in the image of the United States, a republic which could serve as America's "showcase for democracy". Ngo Dinh Diem also shook up South Vietnam considerably in his driving effort to firmly unite all of the various factions with the Saigon government against the Communists. His zealous energy had good as well as bad consequences. The fragile coalition which had been built up around the emperor was destroyed with a combination of military force and funds from the CIA. However, in truth, there was little cooperation going on between these various factions, which only served to fragment South Vietnam and run the risk of having the entire region degenerate into warlord conflict. In Saigon itself, Diem cracked down on the Binh Xuyen, a mafia-style group based in Cholon that ran the gambling and prostitution in Saigon. Diem also broke up the private armies of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, despite the fact that they had all been united in the Japanese era by their support of the Nguyen Prince Cuong De.
These actions inadvertently drove some nationalists into the Communist camp, which at this time was still claiming to be nationalist rather than purely Communist. Diem deserves a great deal of credit for being the most independent and involved of Vietnam's presidents, and the danger he posed to the Communists is seen by the fact that the dreaded Viet Cong was created entirely as a response to Diem's policies, though these same policies also meant that the "National Liberation Front" as they called it, also included many who were not Communists and would otherwise might never have been involved with them. He was the champion of Vietnamese Catholics, yet in a nation which was religiously overwealming Buddhist, his open religious devotion had dire consequences, as did accusations of nepotism. Family members worked all throughout the government, but none were so important and highly controversial as his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife. Nhu was the leader of the Can Lao political party and a very complicated, brilliant and politically astute man. The strategic hamlet system was his brainchild as was the responsibility of dealing with insurgents within South Vietnamese society. His wife, Madame Nhu, was behind the moral laws banning divorce, abortion, contraception, beauty contests, dances and closing down the opium dens, brothels and gambling houses. Her frank and blunt way of speaking caused a great deal of controversy for President Diem, but he always supported his family, even to the death.
Ultimately however, Diem was the victim of the circumstances he had helped put into motion. His authority was based on temporary things. The United States had helped him come to power, but when he proved too independent the US withdrew its support, complaining that Diem was "a puppet who wants to pull his own strings". Likewise, Ngo Dinh Diem was a traditional man. Raised as a monarchist, trained as a mandarin in a family with a long tradition of doing the same, he was a Confucian-Catholic who once said that, "a sacred respect is due the person of the sovereign, he is the mediator between the people and Heaven". After he became President, he still could never be a politician. He was a remote, dignified figure, not the sort to play the political game of gushing speeches, making empty promises and putting on insincere pubic relations stunts. In short, he had become President but was still ruling like a traditional Vietnamese emperor. Yet, he was not the Emperor and when the United States began to turn against him, it became clear that strong legitimacy was lacking for his administration. America had helped him gain office and so felt untroubled by allowing that office to be taken from him, even violently. Many of the same tactics once used against Bao Dai were then used against Ngo Dinh Diem, the foremost of which was bribery.
Yet, ultimately, despite the imperfections, Ngo Dinh Diem was the best political leader Vietnam could have hoped to have. He was incorruptible, intensely patriotic, independent and fought against the Communists with more zeal and talent than any of the quick succession of military leaders who came after him. It is safe to say, Ngo Dinh Diem was the best President South Vietnam was destined to have. He was also a man faced with near impossible obstacles to overcome and strong principles which would not allow him to compromise his convictions. His government may not have been ideal, but given the alternatives at the time, it was the best South Vietnam could hope for and the only regime which seems to have stood a real chance of winning against the Communists.