Two Catholic Presidents and the escalation of the Vietnam War

Geoffrey Shaw’s "The Lost Mandate of Heaven" recounts how Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of Vietnam, was taken down and murdered by a military coup sponsored by the U.S. government

Early on November 2, 1963, the then President of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Nhu, had just heard Holy Mass at a church in a suburb of Saigon. They had fled there the previous evening having received word of a military coup. After Mass, the brothers remained for some time, deep in silent prayer. For Diem, there was nothing unusual in this. He had been a daily communicant for most of his life, and this early morning routine of Mass and private prayer had become an integral part of his life and indeed of his presidency. That morning, however, was to be different.

Soon, there came the sound of American Jeeps and an armored personnel carrier driven by Vietnamese soldiers no longer loyal to the legitimate head of state. They found their president, alongside his brother, still knelt in prayer before an image of Our Lady. Both men were seized and bundled into the back of the personnel carrier. There, awaiting them, was a soldier with bayonet drawn, who proceeded to cut out Diem’s gallbladder. Once this torture had been completed, both brothers were summarily shot.

Why did the plotting general want Diem and his brother Nhu, a trusted advisor and confidante, dead? One of the generals said later: “They had to be killed. Diem could not be allowed to live because he was too much respected among simple gullible people in the countryside, especially [by] the Catholics and the refugees [from North Vietnam].” Just over ten years later, the penultimate President of South Vietnam, Tran Van Huong, was to remark as his country’s slid inexorably towards capitulation to the Viet-Cong: “The generals knew very well that having no talent, no moral virtues, no political support whatsoever, they could not prevent a spectacular comeback of [Diem]” if he had been left alive.

A new book from Ignatius Press, The Lost Mandate Of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam by Geoffrey Shaw, examines these events, placing the shocking murder of the two Ngo Dinh brothers in its historical context. Also on display is the part American foreign policy played in this. Furthermore, and more disturbing still, the book points the finger of blame for complicity in these murders not at some shadowy group working outside the bounds of legitimate political control, but at the US President, and fellow Catholic, John F. Kennedy.

From Hanoi in the north, the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, reportedly said on hearing of the assassination: “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” What had just taken place was far more than short-sighted stupidity, however, as what had been sanctioned in the murders unleashed upon Vietnam and her neighboring countries of Cambodia and Laos (and, indeed, America herself) a bloody nightmare that haunts to this day.

The Lost Mandate of Heaven is a formidable piece of scholarship. Mr Shaw has left no stone unturned in putting together the pieces of the jigsaw of the last days and final betrayal of Diem by the Vietnamese Generals and their American collaborators. If one wishes to retain a benign view of American foreign policy then it’s best not to read further. If, however, one is not surprised by the political machinations that lead to a just man dying – with its echoes of the call for one man’s death to benefit a whole nation – then this account will only confirm one’s belief in the nature of this fallen world in which global and national politics are but the reflections, for better or worse, of what is in men’s hearts.

Born on January 3, 1901, Diem was raised a Catholic. He came from a family and background that combined Christian faith and Catholic social teaching with the Confucian ideals of serving the common good. It was to prove a formidable combination in his political career. Diem was seen to possess the Confucian ‘Mandate of Heaven’, combining both moral and political authority, as many of his countrymen recognized. From the start, he was a patriot who refused to be a puppet either of the then colonial French, or, later, the Japanese. After a hard won, and only partial, national independence—the north was still subject to the Communist yoke—Diem proved to be a politician whose loyalty was not to his own self-aggrandizement but to his country. He served the people of Vietnam, not a clique or faction within it. He was that rare thing in politics: a man of integrity.

So much so that his reputation was held equally high in the communist controlled north as it was in the south. Diem was just as much committed to a Vietnam once more reunited and free from foreign interference as was the Marxist Ho Chi Minh. In 1945, Diem was captured by communists and taken to meet the communist leader. Minh tried to convince his future southern counterpart of the benefits of socialism for all their citizens, not least Diem. Ho Chi Minh argued drawing from Marx and Lenin; Diem’s replies came from a deeper source, his Catholic faith. Needless to say, when the debate concluded, while Diem was unmoved by the arguments that had been presented to him, Minh was left puzzled. Moved by the integrity of the man to whom he had spoken, Minh, unusually, let Diem return to the south unharmed.

From his youth Diem was a man of deep faith. He would rise early each morning for prayer and Holy Mass; later, although president—and much to the confusion of some Western onlookers—his lifestyle remained frugal and unpretentious. Initially, like St. Thomas More, patron of politicians, Diem had been drawn to the religious life as a possible vocation. It was not the Carthusian way that attracted him, however, but the Rule of St. Benedict. As it turned out, his calling lay elsewhere. Nevertheless, he became a Benedictine Oblate with his daily life in the world retaining something of the monastic rhythm; his ‘cloister’ was to be the corridors of power, his ‘habit’ that of integrity in the cesspit of politics, and his ‘silence’ the sounds of battle from an ever encroaching Communist insurgency.

Shaw dispels some of the myths that have grown up around Diem. Most notable among these is his alleged discrimination against Buddhists in favor of his co-religionists. The author, who is not Catholic, shows clearly that this was propaganda—much of it, but by no means all, Communist inspired. In any event, as one reads, the charges appear wholly out of character with the man who emerges from these pages. Perhaps more telling still is the fact that while such allegations were being made certain Western news outlets, chiefly American and French, were, for a variety of motives, orchestrating a campaign to remove President Diem. This soon had a marked effect on how the president was perceived abroad—fatally, as it turned out with regard to the US State Department.

For many years Diem had countered, both militarily and politically, the ongoing North Vietnam inspired insurgency; ultimately, it was not by his own people that Diem was primarily betrayed. Whatever the military did or did not think—and Shaw paints an unflattering portrait of the coup leaders —they would have done nothing without the ‘blessing’ of the superpower that guaranteed South Vietnam’s sovereignty in the face of Communist aggression then threatening all of South East Asia. By 1963, President Kennedy found himself more and more preoccupied with Vietnam. As Shaw points out, a botched attempt to negotiate with Communists over neighboring Laos had left the American President vulnerable to criticism. He looked weak, and was determined that he would not do so again, especially with a presidential election approaching the following year. Whatever could be done to make him look stronger and thus secure re-election, was now needed, no matter the cost.

The Lost Mandate of Heaven builds a convincing case that the Kennedy administration was more than simply an impartial observer of the then internal politics of South Vietnam. In fact, Shaw places the real responsibility for the tragedy that was about to unfold where ‘the buck’ ultimately stops – the Oval Office.

Interestingly, Vice President Lyndon Johnson had been impressed during his meetings with Diem. All the more poignant, therefore, is the following quotation unearthed by Shaw from a recording made in 1966 of the now President Johnson speaking to Senator Eugene McCarthy on the death of Diem some three years earlier: “[We] killed him. We all got together and got a gaddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now we’ve really had no political stability since then.” Given that this conversation took place when the war in Vietnam had escalated to a level unthinkable in 1963, these are telling comments indeed.

In the end, the 1963 coup destroyed any political harmony South Vietnam had known. The generals who had been its instigators were soon at loggerheads; more blood flowed with plotter killing plotter. The murder of Diem was to loose upon that land a malign spirit; the nation’s worst fears soon after were realized as a full-scale war got underway. As it did so, not only Vietnamese lives but American ones were to be sacrificed on its altar.

Former US Ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick Nolting, a friend and admirer of Diem, who had been relieved of his ambassadorial duties just a few months prior to the November assassination, appalled at what had taken place, was later to write:

There were several things he could have done, but the worst alternative was what [Kennedy] opted to do. Even worse than the practical consequences of the coup were the moral effects. I will not go into the sequence of events here because I believe it is clear that after the revolution things went from bad to worse, regardless of the number of troops that we put in and regardless of the fact that the cost went up dramatically: 57,000 American lives, eight years of dissension in our country, huge increases in public debt, and the inflation that afflicted us throughout the 1970s. The actions of the Kennedy administration set the stage for all this.

That day, November 2, 1963, was Diem’s last upon this earth. Early on that morning, having been dragged from prayer in a Catholic church, he was brutally assassinated in a waiting military vehicle. Before that same November was to end, however, another President, one campaigning for that much-prized re-election, was also to be gunned down as he drove through the late autumn sunshine of a Dallas afternoon. Both of those untimely deaths were to cast long shadows upon their respective nations, and to leave forever the nagging question: What if?

About K. V. Turley 50 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.