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Support for Ngo Dien Diem

The agreement in Geneva that ended France's seven years of war in Vietnam held that Vietnam was to be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, that for two years the French were to be allowed to maintain their administration in the southern half of Vietnam, and then elections were to be held to reunite the country. Vietnam, according to the agreement, was not to be another divided country like Korea.

The communist Viet Minh abided by the Geneva agreement. It withdrew its military from areas in the south that it had dominated for years. It ruled in the north of Vietnam while the French maintained its puppet regime in the south led by the monarch Bao Dai. And, as agreed to at Geneva, the Viet Minh remained organized and represented in the south.

Elections Denied

Ngo Dihn Diem, Eisenhower and Dulles

click for details Enlargement of photo of Diem Eisenhower and Dulles

Below the 17th parallel the US had been applying its influence. A Christian Vietnamese named Ngo Dinh Diem had been in the United States between 1950 and 1954, and there he had met Cardinal Francis Spellman and Senator John F. Kennedy. Diem was Catholic, and in 1945 the communists in Vietnam had imprisoned him and then exiled him to Chiang Kai-shek's China. Diem's anti-communism attracted the Americans. He had become their hope as an alternative to communism in Vietnam.

While Diem was in the United States, Bao Dai was living in Paris while remaining "Head of State" in French ruled South Vietnam. In June 1954 Bao Dai named Diem as his prime minister. The Eisenhower administration was giving Diem financial support and began training an army in the southern half of Vietnam loyal to Diem. Ignoring the Geneva agreement of 1954.

Bao Dai regretted his association with Diem, and on 18 October 1955, a message from his Paris office announced that he was dismissing Diem from office. The message described Diem as using "police methods" and a "personal dictatorship." In Vietnam the message was squelched by the Diem regime, and Diem moved quickly to have himself elected president in Bao Dai's place through a referendum in the South. In that election, held on the 26th of October, Diem's troops guarded the polls, and those who attempted to vote for Bao Dai were assaulted. Observers claimed that the fraud was obvious. In Saigon, Diem claimed more votes than there were registered voters in the entire area. Diem won and proclaimed himself President of the Republic of South Vietnam.

All this ignored the settlement created at Geneva. The Eisenhower administration had recognized that the popularity of the Diem regime could not stand up to the popularity of the Viet Minh and their leader Ho Chi Minh. Eisenhower had feared that Ho Chi Minh would win as much as 80 percent of the vote. This was one of those elections that communists could have won, and people in Washington were not about to surrender to an exception. What mattered was not an international agreement. What mattered was defending the "free world." Some French were annoyed by being pushed aside regarding control of the southern half of Vietnam, but among the French value was being placed on the French and American friendship. A French minister, Guy le Chambre, said,

We would prefer to lose in Vietnam with the US than to win without them... we would rather support Diem knowing he is to lose and thus keep Franco-US solidarity than to pick someone who could retain Vietnam for the free world if this meant breaking Franco-US solidarity. note75

Diem Attacks Supporters of Communism in the South

Diem has been described as a Vietnamese nationalist and a man of courage. But he was not popular with the common Vietnamese. He surrounded himself with friends and family and failed to cultivate relations with local leaders and various political and religious groups in the South. He tried to rule by command. He sided with large landowners who wanted lands returned to them or payment for lands that had been distributed to people by the Viet Minh. Peasants in the South who were being threatened with a loss of the land given them by the Viet Minh were as ready to fight to keep their land as were farmers in the American West.

Something fundamental to a new war in Vietnam was developing. Communist leadership in North Vietnam saw the Diem regime as illegitimate. They saw it as the creation of and maintained by foreigners. They believed that they and their supporters in the southern half of Vietnam had more right to apply their wills to developments in the whole of Vietnam than did these foreigners.

Diem had begun a campaign against the Viet Minh and communists in the south, and in the process his forces in rural areas became increasingly feared. The Viet Minh and communists in the south struck back while in the North the Viet Minh remained hesitant, fearing war with the United States. In October, 1957, under pressure from comrades in the South, the regime in the North ordered the organization of new fighting units in the South: the Vietcong. Diem's regime started a "strategic hamlet" program, rounding up and relocating peasants into communities surrounded by barbed wire, to separate them from communist guerrillas. A new guerrilla war had begun.

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