Ngo Dinh Diem – a summary

The architect of the South Vietnamese state, and the United State’s principal ally in South East Asia, Ngo Dinh Diem ended his political career in ignominies fashion; shot in the back of an army van after being deposed by his own forces acting with the connivance of the country which had sustained him throughout his premiership since 1954.

Ngo Dinh DiemBorn 3 January 1901, Ngo Dinh Diem grew up in a rich, aristocratic Vietnamese family, and spent time working under Emperor Bao Dai. He went on to become a hardline regional governor, gaining a reputation for taking a tough anti-communist line, and for demonstrating an independent position between French colonialism and the VietMinh nationalists.

Diem and the US

During the First Indochina War he was captured and almost killed by the VietMinh. After escaping, he visited the United States, where he met politicians such as the (Roman Catholic) senator John F. Kennedy. After the French defeat, he returned to Vietnam and was put forward, in the face of French opposition, by the US delegation as a possible ruler of South Vietnam.

The key moment in his rise to the top of South Vietnamese politics was the 1955 referendum over who should rule the country: Bao Dai or himself. Relying heavily on CIA subversion, vote-rigging, and physical intimidation of potential Bao Dai voters, Diem achieved an overwhelming victory; claiming to have won 98.2% of the vote.

Diem in power

Once in power, he proved himself to be as intolerant of political opposition as he was enthusiastic to develop a system of nepotism and patronage. Although Roman Catholics made up approximately 10% of the population, all positions of political and military power and land ownership were in the hands of Catholics. He arrested tens of thousands of political opponents, targeting suspected communists for the most part, but also including trade unionists and Buddhists in his trawl of prisoners.

As opposition to his rule grew, and American tolerance of his methods was undermined by his failure to stabilise South Vietnam, his grip on power gradually weakened. In February 1962 two disaffected South Vietnamese air force pilots bombed the presidential palace. Diem survived unharmed, but authorised his brother to increase repression on political dissidents.

By October 1963, the CIA and the US Ambassador to South Vietnam were aware that senior Vietnamese officers were developing a plan to overthrow Diem. On 1 November, with US permission, the plan was implemented. Diem and his younger brother and chief political advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were arrested, and the following day, 2 November 1963, murdered in the back of an army van.

Neil Smith

For more about the Vietnam War, see Vietnam War: History In An Hour published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

See also articles on Nguyen Van ThieuHo Chi Ming and Domestic opposition to the Vietnam War