Ngo Dinh Diem


Ngo Dinh Diem : biography

03 January 1901 – 02 November 1963


Buddhist crisis

The regime’s relations with the United States worsened during 1963, as discontent among South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority was simultaneously heightened. In May, in the heavily Buddhist central city of Huế, where Diệm’s elder brother was the Catholic Archbishop, the Buddhist majority was prohibited from displaying Buddhist flags during Vesak celebrations commemorating the birth of Gautama Buddha when the government cited a regulation prohibiting the display of non-government flags.Topmiller, p. 2 A few days earlier, however, Catholics had been encouraged to fly religious flags at another celebration. This led to a protest led by Thích Trí Quang against the government, which was suppressed by Diệm’s forces, killing nine unarmed civilians. Diệm and his supporters blamed the Việt Cộng for the deaths and claimed the protesters were responsible for the violence.Karnow, p. 295.Moyar, pp. 212–213 Although the provincial chief expressed sorrow for the killings and offered to compensate the victims’ families, they resolutely denied that government forces were responsible for the killings and blamed the Viet Cong.Gettleman, pp. 64–83

The Buddhists pushed for a five point agreement: freedom to fly religious flags, an end to arbitrary arrests, compensation for the Huế victims, punishment for the officials responsible and religious equality. Diệm labeled the Buddhists as “damn fools” for demanding something that, according to him, they already enjoyed. He banned demonstrations, and ordered his forces to arrest those who engaged in civil disobedience. On 3 June 1963, protesters attempted to march towards the Từ Đàm pagoda. Six waves of ARVN tear gas and attack dogs failed to disperse the crowds, and finally brownish-red liquid chemicals were doused on praying protesters, resulting in 67 being hospitalised for chemical injuries. A curfew was subsequently enacted.

The turning point came in June when a Buddhist monk, Quảng Đức, set himself on fire in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection in protest of Diệm’s policies; photos of this event were disseminated around the world, and for many people these pictures came to represent the failure of Diệm’s government.Gettleman, pp. 264–83. A number of other monks publicly self-immolated, and the U.S. grew increasingly frustrated with the unpopular leader’s public image in both Vietnam and the United States. Diệm used his conventional anti-communist argument, identifying the dissenters as communists. As demonstrations against his government continued throughout the summer, the special forces loyal to Diệm’s brother, Nhu, conducted a brutal August raid of the Xá Lợi pagoda in Saigon. Pagodas were vandalised, monks beaten, the cremated remains of Quảng Đức, which included his heart, a religious relic, were confiscated.

Simultaneous raids were carried out across the country, with the Từ Đàm pagoda in Huế looted, the statue of Gautama Buddha demolished and a body of a deceased monk confiscated. When the populace came to the defense of the monks, the resulting clashes saw 30 civilians killed and 200 wounded. In all 1,400 monks were arrested, and some thirty were injured across the country. The U.S. indicated their disapproval of Diệm’s administration when ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. visited the pagoda ex post facto.Gettleman, pp. 278–83 No further mass Buddhist protests occurred during the remainder of Diệm’s rule (which would amount to less than five months).Moyar, pp. 212–16, 231–34

During this time, Diệm’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, a Catholic convert and former Buddhist, the de facto first lady because of Diệm’s unmarried status, inflamed the situation by mockingly applauding the suicides, referring to them as “barbecues”, stating, “If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.”Tucker, pp. 292–93 The pagoda raids stoked widespread public disquiet in Saigon. Students at Saigon University boycotted classes and rioted, which led to arrests, imprisonments and the closure of the university; this was repeated at Huế University. When high school students demonstrated, Diệm arrested them as well; over 1,000 students from Saigon’s leading high school, most of them children of Saigon civil servants, were sent to re-education camps, including, reportedly, children as young as five, on charges of anti-government graffiti. Diệm’s foreign minister Vũ Văn Mẫu resigned, shaving his head like a Buddhist monk in protest., New York Times, 14 September 1998 When he attempted to leave the country on a religious pilgrimage to India, he was detained and kept under house arrest.

Assassination attempts

The communists in southern Vietnam resolved that "if we are able to kill Ngô Đình Diệm, the leader of the current fascists dictatorial puppet government, the situation would develop along lines more favourable to our side."Moyar, p. 67. On 22 February 1957, when Diệm made a visit to an economic fair in Buôn Ma Thuột, a communist cadre named Ha Minh Tri carried out a directive to assassinate the president. He approached Diệm and fired a pistol from close range, but missed, hitting the Secretary for Agrarian Reform’s left arm. The weapon jammed and security overpowered Tri before he was able to fire another shot. Diệm was unmoved by the incident.Moyar, pp. 66–67 There was a further attempt to assassinate Diệm and his family in 1962 when two air force officers—acting in unison—bombed the presidential palace.