Ngo Dinh Diem

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Ngo Dinh Diem : biography

03 January 1901 – 02 November 1963

Early career

After graduating at the top of his class in 1921, Diệm followed in the footsteps of his eldest brother, Ngô Ðình Khôi, joining the civil service. Starting from the lowest rank of mandarin, Diệm steadily rose. He first served at the royal library in Huế, and within one year was the district chief, presiding over seventy villages. Diệm was promoted to be a provincial chief at the age of 25, overseeing 300 villages. Diệm’s rise was helped by Khôi’s marriage to the daughter of Nguyễn Hữu Bài, the Catholic head of the Council of Ministers. Bài was highly regarded among the French, and Diệm’s religious and family ties impressed him. The French were impressed by his work ethic but were irritated by his frequent calls to grant more autonomy to Vietnamese. Diệm said that he contemplated resigning but encouragement from the populace convinced him to persist. He first encountered communists distributing propaganda while riding horseback through the region near Quảng Trị. Diệm involved himself in anti-communist activities for the first time, printing his own pamphlets.

In 1929, he helped to round up communist agitators in his administrative area. He was rewarded with the promotion to the governorship of Bình Thuận Province, and in 1930 and 1931 suppressed the first peasant revolts organised by the communists, in collaboration with French forces. During the violent events, many villagers were raped and murdered.Warner, p. 89. In 1933, with the return of Bảo Đại to ascend the throne, Diệm was appointed by the French to be his interior minister following lobbying by Bài. After calling for the French to introduce a Vietnamese legislature, he resigned after three months in office when this was rejected. He was stripped of his decorations and titles and threatened with arrest.Jacobs, pp. 20–25

For the next decade, Diệm lived as a private citizen with his family, although he was kept under surveillance. He was to have no formal job for 21 years. He spent his time on reading, meditating, attending church, gardening, hunting and amateur photography. A conservative by nature, Diệm confined his nationalist activities to occasional trips to Saigon to meet with Phan Bội Châu. With the start of the Second World War in the Pacific, he attempted to persuade the invading Japanese forces to declare independence for Vietnam in 1942 but was ignored. He founded a secret political party, the Association for the Restoration of Great Vietnam. When its existence was discovered in the summer of 1944, the French declared Diệm to be a subversive and ordered his arrest. He fled to Saigon disguised as a Japanese officer.

In 1945, the Japanese offered him the premiership of a puppet regime under Bảo Đại which they organised upon leaving the country. He declined initially, but regretted his decision and attempted to reclaim the offer. Bảo had already given the post to another candidate and Diệm avoided the stigma of being a collaborationist. In September 1945, after the Japanese withdrawal, Hồ Chí Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, his Việt Minh began fighting the French. Diệm attempted to travel to Huế to dissuade Bảo Đại from joining Hồ, but was arrested by the Việt Minh along the way and exiled to a highland village near the border. He might have died of malaria, dysentery and influenza had the local tribesmen not nursed him back to health. Six months later, he was taken to meet Hồ in Hanoi, but refused to join the Việt Minh, assailing Hồ for the death of his brother, Khôi, who was reportedly buried alive by Việt Minh cadres.

Diệm continued to attempt to gather support for himself on an anti-Việt Minh platform. Despite having little success, Hồ was sufficiently irritated to order Diệm’s arrest, which Diệm narrowly evaded. Diệm was given a respite in November 1946 when clashes between the French and the Việt Minh escalated into full scale war, forcing the Việt Minh to divert their resources. Diệm then moved south to the Saigon region to live with Thục. Diệm co-founded the Vietnam National Alliance, which called for France to grant Vietnam dominion status similar to the Commonwealth of Nations. The alliance was sufficient to generate support to fund newspapers in Hanoi and Saigon respectively. Both were shut down; the editor in Hanoi was arrested and hit men were hired to kill his Saigon counterpart.