Ngo Dinh Diem


Ngo Dinh Diem : biography

03 January 1901 – 02 November 1963

Catholics were also de facto exempt from the corvée labor that the government obliged all citizens to perform; U.S. aid was disproportionately distributed to Catholic majority villages. Under Diệm, the Catholic Church enjoyed special exemptions in property acquisition, and in 1959, Diệm dedicated his country to the Virgin Mary.Jacobs p. 91 The white and gold Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam. U.S. Aid supplies tended to go to Catholics, and the newly constructed Huế and Dalat universities were placed under Roman Catholic authority to foster a Catholic-skewed academic environment.

Family and childhood

Diệm was born in Quảng Bình, 110 km north from the capital, of the Vietnamese Nguyễn dynasty. His family originated in the central Vietnamese village of Phú Cẩm. Portuguese missionaries had converted his family to Roman Catholicism in the 17th century, so Diệm was given a saint’s name at birth, following the custom of the Catholic Church. He would often claim that he had descended from a blue-blooded family of mandarins who were so revered that people believed that it was a great honour and good luck to be buried alongside his ancestors. Most historians dismiss this as false and believe the family was of low rank until his father passed the imperial examinations.

His father, Ngô Đình Khả, scrapped plans to become a Roman Catholic priest and became a mandarin and counselor to Emperor Thành Thái during the French colonisation. He rose to become the minister of the rites and chamberlain, and keeper of the eunuchs. Khả had six sons and three daughters by his second wife, whom he married after his first died childless. Devoutly Roman Catholic, Khả took his entire family to Mass every morning. The third of six sons, Diệm was christened Jean-Baptiste in the cathedral in Huế. In 1907, the French deposed the emperor on the pretext of insanity, because of his complaints about the colonisation. Khả retired in protest and became a farmer. Diệm laboured in the family’s rice fields while studying at a French Catholic school, and later entered a private school started by his father. At age fifteen he followed his elder brother, Ngô Đình Thục, later to become Vietnam’s highest ranking Catholic bishop, into a monastery. After a few months he left, finding monastic life too rigorous.

At the end of his secondary schooling, his examination results at the French lycée in Huế saw him offered a scholarship to Paris but he declined to contemplate becoming a priest. He dropped the idea, believing it to be too rigorous. He moved to Hanoi to study at the School of Public Administration and Law, a French school that trained Vietnamese bureaucrats. It was there that he had the only romantic relationship of his life when he fell in love with one of his teacher’s daughters. After she persisted with her vocation, entering a convent, he remained celibate. Karnow, pp. 229–233Jacobs, pp. 18–20

Coup and assassination

As the Buddhist crisis deepened in July 1963, noncommunist Vietnamese nationalists and the military began preparations for a coup. Bùi Diễm, later South Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States, reported in his memoirs that General Lê Văn Kim requested his aid in learning what the U.S. might do about Diệm’s government.B. Diễm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 100. Diễm had contacts in both the embassy and with the high-profile American journalists then in South Vietnam, David Halberstam (New York Times), Neil Sheehan (United Press International) and Malcolm Browne (Associated Press).B. Diễm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 101. On 20 August 1963, Nhu’s security forces raided the Xá Lợi pagoda in Saigon. They chose to wear Army uniforms during the raid to make it appear as if the Army were behind the crackdown. Nhu’s forces arrested more than 400 monks who had been sitting cross-legged in front of a statue of the Buddha. Thousands of other Buddhists were arrested throughout the country.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the American ambassador to South Vietnam, refused to meet with Diệm. Upon hearing that a coup d’état was being designed by ARVN generals led by General Dương Văn Minh, and supported by the CIA, Lodge gave secret assurances to the generals that the U.S. would not interfere. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, had become a liaison between the U.S. Embassy and the generals, who were led by Trần Văn Đôn.B. Diệm and D. Chanoff, In the Jaws of History, p. 102. Conein provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with US$40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that U.S. forces would make no attempt to protect Diệm. Minh and his co-conspirators overthrew the government on 1 November 1963 in a swift coup. On 1 November, with only the palace guard remaining to defend Diệm and his younger brother, Nhu, the generals called the palace offering Diệm exile if he surrendered. However, that evening, Diệm and his entourage escaped via an underground passage to Cholon, where they were captured the following morning, 2 November. The brothers were assassinated together in the back of an armoured personnel carrier with a bayonet and revolver by Captain Nguyễn Văn Nhung, under orders from Dương Văn Minh, while en route to the Vietnamese Joint General Staff headquarters., "The Overthrow of Ngô Đình Diệm, May–November 1963", pp. 201–276,B. Diem, In the Jaws of History, p. 105. Diệm was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery next to the house of the U.S. ambassador.G. Herring, America’s Longest War, 1996, p. 116.