Ngo Dinh Diem

Son of a counselor to Emperor Thanh Thai, Ngo Dihn Diem was born in 1901 and claimed to descend from mandarins. The third of six sons, Diem graduated first in his class from a Catholic school in Hue and studied for the civil service at a French college in Hanoi. Rising quickly through governmental ranks, he became minister of the interior in 1933 but resigned two months later because of French reluctance to grant Vietnam greater autonomy. A dedicated nationalist and early opponent of communism, Diem retired from public life for twenty years, having nothing further to do with the French and refusing offers from the Japanese during World War II. His anticommunism toughened when Vietminh forces killed one of his brothers and a nephew. Diem refused Ho Chi Minh's offer to join his government, denouncing him as a "criminal." In 1950, Diem went to the United States where he met Cardinal Spellman and Senators John Kennedy and Mike Mansfield. These contacts served Diem well when he accepted Emperor Bao Dai's 1954 offer to become prime minister of what would become the Republic of Vietnam. One of Diem's first acts was to ask for American assistance.

Diem could be described as a brilliant incompetent who beat the odds longer than anyone thought possible. Given his twenty-year retirement, he was not well-known in Vietnam and had no following outside the Catholic community in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation. Reclusive and paranoid, he depended almost exclusively on his family, refused to delegate authority, and did little to build a broadly based, popular government. Diem was astonishingly adept in meeting challenges to his government. In 1955, he rejected the reunification elections specified in the Geneva Accords, disposed of Emperor Bao Dai in a deceitful election (winning 98.2 percent of the vote), neutralized the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, and defeated the Binh Xuyen in open combat. He survived a 1960 coup attempt which rendered him even more dependent on his family, particularly his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Governing through tyranny and intrigue, he swiftly murdered or imprisoned the remaining Vietminh infrastructure along with most other possible opponents. His oppressiveness and refusal to instigate reforms tried the patience of the United States, which thought of dumping him as early as 1955. By 1963, however, he was finished. The final blow was Ngo Dinh Nhu's brutal attacks on Buddhist dissidents and the ensuing national paralysis. Although not involved in the coup, the United States signaled that it would accept a change in government. On November 1, the generals moved; Diem and his brother were murdered the next day.

After the coup, Diem was denigrated, but Vietnamese attitudes toward Diem changed in the 1970s as the United States withdrew and South Vietnam's fate became apparent. In South Vietnam's final weeks, Diem was rehabilitated as a brave nationalist regrettably victimized by the United States.