|President Ngo Dinh Diem
The First President and Founding Father of the Republic of Viet Nam
| Ngo Dinh Diem is possibly the most controversial figure in an era of Vietnamese history when almost everyone is controversial. He was hailed as the champion of Vietnamese independence and symbol of the struggle against Communist totalitarianism by his allies in the south, and condemned by his enemies in the north as a reactionary, oppressive puppet of capitalist imperialism. In many ways, President Diem was a contradiction. He founded the Saigon-based Republic of Vietnam yet he was known as a life-long monarchist. He was aided in his rise to power by the United States, yet was continually at odds with America for refusing to rule according to their wishes. He was also a devout Catholic in a predominately Buddhist nation. The legacy of Ngo Dinh Diem is still debated today, but one thing can be reasonably stated; judging by the unmatched hatred of him by the Communists as well as the disdain in which he is held by many American politicians of the time, it is safe to say he was probably the most successful and truly independent of the South Vietnamese presidents.
The family of Ngo Dinh Diem was an old and respected one in Vietnam.They originated in Phu Cam and were converted to Christianity by the Portuguese in the XVII century, enduring much persecution over the years for their faith. Nevertheless, they rose to a position of great importance in the Vietnamese mandarinate with Diem's father, Ngo Dinh Kha becoming a counselor to the Emperor Thanh Thai. As a family, they were also fiercely independent, as is seen by the fact that Ngo Dinh Kha resigned his exalted post in protest when the French deposed Thanh Thai. Diem, the third boy of the family, was born in 1901 and baptized Jean-Baptiste. He worked in the rice fields and went to Catholic school in Hue. He seriously considered joining the priesthood like his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, but instead he entered the mandarinate like his father, though in the era of French colonial rule, it would be a challenge for him. Despite being educated for some time in a French school, Diem was bitterly opposed to their rule of his country and turned down an opportunity to go to France to college.
At a time when many mandarins had a bad reputation, Diem soon gained one for excellence, becoming a provincial governor when he was only 25-years-old. He dealt with the people directly, dismissed corrupt officials and wrote counter-arguments against the Communist propagandists who were just starting to infiltrate the countryside. He believed in the traditions of Vietnam and strict adherence to a value system that was influenced by both the Catholic Church and the Confucian culture of his native country. In the 1930's when Emperor Bao Dai returned from France he dismissed the Council of Regency and began forming a new cabinet of young nationalists, including Ngo Dinh Diem who was given the post of Interior Minister. However, when the French refused to give any real power to this government, Diem resigned, denouncing the Emperor as a "tool of the French" and declaring that he could not "act against the interests of my country". He did, however, remain a monarchist, as he had been all his life. Instead of the collaborationist court of Bao Dai, he shifted his attention to rallying Catholic nationalist support for the exlied pretender Marquis Cuong De, grandson of the Catholic Crown Prince Canh.
In 1942, after the Japanese invasion, he argued for a declaration of independence but was ignored. When Japan finally did push for an independent regime, they passed over Ngo Dinh Diem as being too unreliable and settled on the more solidly pro-Japanese mandarin Tran Trong Kim. This was actually a blessing for Diem as he was untainted in the eyes of the United States as the only prominent nationalists who was anti-French, anti-Communist and who had no relations with the Japanese. When the Communist Revolution came he tried to warn Bao Dai against handing power over to the Viet Minh but could not get to him in time. After the Communist takeover, he went to America and stayed at the Maryknoll Seminary and gained a reputation for pure nationalism, humility and devout faith. Among his strongest supporters was Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York. In 1954, with the French war clearly going badly, he got his chance for political opportunity when he was summoned to Bao Dai's chateaux in France.
It seemed to Bao Dai that Ngo Dinh Diem was the only one capable of saving the situation. He said to Diem, "Each time I need to change the government, I have to call you to serve, but you refuse it all the times. However, the current situation is very dangerous and the country can be cut in half. You should lead a government." At first, Diem modestly refused, but finally was persuaded to agree and was given complete authority from the Head of State to unite the country against the Communists and stamp out the corruption in Saigon. One account says that Diem swore before a crucifix loyalty to the Emperor and to defend Vietnam "against the Communists and, if necessary, the French." He quickly went back to Vietnam and was warmly welcomed, particularly by the Catholic community.
In his brief career as Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem did everything in his power to unite southern Vietnam against the Communist threat, wipe out the corruption in the local government and to foster greater public support for the regime of the former Emperor. In a very typically monarchist phrase, he once said that, "A sacred respect is due the person of the sovereign...He is the mediator between the people and heaven as he celebrates the national cult". However, none of these goals would be easily met, particularly with the restrictions of the Geneva agreement (which neither Bao Dai, Diem or the U.S. ever agreed to) and it soon became clear to Prime Minister Diem, painfully so for a loyal monarchist, that the former Emperor was a hindrance rather than a help to the cause of "national salvation".