Ngo Dinh Diem


Ngo Dinh Diem : biography

03 January 1901 – 02 November 1963

With the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 to the Viet Minh, French control of Vietnam collapsed and Bảo Đại needed foreign help to sustain his State of Vietnam. Realising Diệm’s popularity among American policymakers, he chose Diệm’s youngest brother Ngô Đình Luyện, who was studying in Europe at the time, to be part of his delegation at the 1954 Geneva Conference to determine the future of Indochina. Luyen represented Bảo Đại in his dealings with the Americans, who understood this to be an expression of interest in Diệm. With the backing of the Eisenhower administration, Bảo Đại named Diệm as the Prime Minister. The appointment was widely condemned by French officials, who felt that Diệm was incompetent, with the Prime Minister Mendes-France declaring Diệm to be a "fanatic".

The Geneva accords resulted in Vietnam being partitioned temporarily at the 17th parallel, pending elections in 1956 to reunify the country. The Vietminh controlled the north, while the French backed State of Vietnam controlled the south with Diệm as the Prime Minister. French Indochina was to be dissolved at the start of 1955. Diệm’s South Vietnamese delegation chose not to sign the accords, refusing to have half the country under communist rule, but the agreement went into effect regardless. Diệm arrived at Tân Sơn Nhất airport in Saigon on 26 June where only a few hundred people turned out to greet him, mainly Catholics. He managed only one wave after getting into his vehicle and did not smile. Jacobs, pp. 37–43


Madame Nhu, the wife of Diệm’s younger brother Nhu, was South Vietnam’s de facto First Lady, and a Catholic convert herself. She led the way in Diệm’s programs to reform Saigon society in accordance with Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed, divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws strengthened. Diệm won a street war with the private army of the Bình Xuyên organised crime syndicate of the Cholon brothels and gambling houses who had enjoyed special favors under the French and Bảo Đại. He further dismantled the private armies of the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo religious sects, which controlled parts of the Mekong Delta. Diệm was passionately anti-Communist. Tortures and killings of communist suspects were committed on a daily basis. According to Gabriel Kolko about 12,000 suspected opponents of Diem were killed between 1955 and 1957 and by the end of 1958 an estimated 40,000 political prisoners had been jailed.Anatomy of a War by Gabriel Kolko, ISBN 1-56584-218-9, p. 89. However, Guenter Lewy argues that such figures were exaggerated and that there were never more than 35,000 prisoners of all kinds in the whole country.Lewy, Guetner, (1978), America in Vietnam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp294-5. Diệm’s repression extended beyond communists to anti-communist dissidents and anti-corruption whistleblowers.Maclear, pp. 70–90

As opposition to Diệm’s rule in South Vietnam grew, a low-level insurgency began to take shape there in 1957. Finally, in January 1959, under pressure from southern Viet Cong cadres who were being successfully targeted by Diệm’s secret police, Hanoi’s Central Committee issued a secret resolution authorizing the use of armed insurgency in the South with supplies and troops from the North. On 20 December 1960, under instructions from Hanoi, southern communists established the Viet Cong (NLF) in order to overthrow the government of the south. The NLF was made up of two distinct groups: South Vietnamese intellectuals who opposed the government and were nationalists; and communists who had remained in the south after the partition and regrouping of 1954 as well as those who had since come from the north, together with local peasants. While there were many non-communist members of the NLF, they were subject to the control of the party cadres and increasingly side-lined as the conflict continued; they did, however, enable the NLF to portray itself as a primarily nationalist, rather than communist, movement, despite being in almost direct control by the Northern regime. The cornerstone of Diệm’s counterinsurgency effort was the Strategic Hamlet Program, which called for the consolidation of 14,000 villages of South Vietnam into 11,000 secure hamlets, each with its own houses, schools, wells, and watchtowers. The hamlets were intended to isolate the NLF from the villages, their source of recruiting soldiers, supplies and information.