When the U.S. Abandoned a Catholic President

An Interview with Geoffrey Shaw, author of The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam.

On November 2, 1963, shortly after they attended Mass in the city of Cholon, Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were taken from a nearby Marian grotto and executed. They had fled Saigon in the face of a military coup, a revolution encouraged by the United States government, which had repeatedly pledged its support for Diem. In retrospect, Diem’s fall was a pivotal moment in the Vietnam conflict, a significant cause of the “quagmire” that so divided Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and cost the lives of more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers.

During the Cold War, Vietnam was seen as a key battleground between the free world and Communism. As the United States became more deeply involved in the early 1960s, one critical question was whether and how the U.S. should partner with President Diem. Diem, the scion of a prominent Catholic family, was not a proponent of liberal democracy in the Western vein, but he was staunchly anti-Communist and enjoyed widespread popular support.

He was, according to diplomatic and military historian Geoffrey Shaw, the best leader that could be hoped for in the Vietnam of the 1960s, and the U.S. was wrong to abandon him. In The Lost Mandate Of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam (Ignatius Press, 2015), Dr. Shaw investigates the person and regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and finds that conventional histories have obscured the truth about him and his government. CWR spoke with Dr. Shaw about his research, focusing on how and why so much misinformation has clouded the historical record on this point.

CWR: The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975, more than forty years ago. It seems that this country is finally healing from the civil strife and rancorous disagreement that characterized that period in our nation’s politics and culture. Why revisit that poisonous time and reignite one of the contentious debates: the character of President Diem and the wisdom of American policy toward his regime?

Shaw: The foremost reason for revisiting this terrible time is that the truth must be honored and, in so doing, yes, an unhealthy, festering scab may be torn off the old wound in the process, but the purpose here is not to re-injure but to heal, and only the truth can bring about real healing. Perhaps Confucius held the best perspective on this (as did the early Doctors of the Church): When a society starts to fail, it is because it has failed to call things by their right name (i.e., tell the truth) and the only way to go back from the precipice of catastrophic failure, where all is lost, is to start calling things by their right name again; in short, tell the truth again!

Related directly to this is the fact that U.S. foreign policy, in the post-1945 era in general and post-1963 Vietnam in specific, has careened from disaster to disaster because its very foundations have been built on an erroneous view of the world that has emanated from activist liberal humanists within the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Robert Hickson has called these folks Liberal Imperialists and they seem driven to recreate the world in their own liberal image via strenuous social engineering. (Remember, in more recent times, their claims that they were going to make Iraq “the aircraft carrier of democracy in the Persian Gulf?” To paraphrase old ‘Winnie’ Churchill: “some aircraft carrier; some democracy!”).

This, of course, is idolatry and it has led America’s good intentions by the hand down some very dark paths. The murders of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, on All Souls Day, 1963, became one of those critical ‘hinges’ of history upon which everything that follows swings. Rather than face up to what had been done via these murders—nothing short of the murder of South Vietnam—the perpetrators, and those of like liberal/humanist mind, have dug in and re-victimized the victims, Diem and Nhu, by blaming them for what their killers have brought down on the heads of all Vietnamese and, indeed, all Americans who suffered and died or were left wounded or scarred for life by what followed.

And how they have ‘dug in’! They have worked quite literally like demons (and, in my estimation, were inspired by the cadres of the evil one) to make the lie, their narrative, the ‘truth’ about the history of that conflict and, conversely, they have ‘moved mountains,’ via their infernal zeal, to make the factual truth appear as a lie. But they are undone because the truth, like water, does not like to be compressed and squished into some dark, small corner; inevitably, it bursts out and breaks the bonds of the lie. Darkness cannot extinguish the light, though it strives mightily to do so. The release of all the U.S. Government documents, held classified for over three decades, has brought a devastating light upon the lie that the liberal news media and U.S. Department of State activists tried to maintain; indeed, all they can do in reaction is call the messengers of these facts by various derogatory names, such as ‘revisionist’ (always, a pejorative amongst the left who hold sway in academe).

Perhaps, their greatest tactic is to simply ignore the truth; for example, two of the finest and most truthful accounts written about Ngo Dinh Diem and the unholy alliance between apparatchiks within the State Department and mutinous South Vietnamese military men have been generally ‘panned’ in academe. I am referring here to Ellen Hammer’s A Death in November and Maggie Higgins’ Our Vietnam Nightmare. Both of these authors, expert in their own particular ways on Vietnam, with much more experience under their belts than the celebrated liberal press journalists, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, were deliberately ignored in academe’s history departments from coast to coast while Halberstam and Sheehan’s ‘histories’ (and I use that term advisedly) were hailed as ‘compelling.’

I hope the point is well made that, starting with this rotten foundation of lies that led to Diem’s persecution and death, the superstructure of U.S. foreign policy built upon said shoddy foundation, has been crumbling ever since. And this is because it has no truthful basis upon which to stand and reality, from Kosovo, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, back to Iraq, Benghazi and on to Ukraine, has made this so manifest that only the truly delusional can continue to cling to this failed superstructure as if all were just fine in the world. In short, the liberal/left/humanist worldview has been exposed as the same complete deceit that Communism was revealed to be with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only thing that keeps it going in the west, ironically, is that capitalism has given our dishonest and idolatrous view deeper pockets upon which it can draw than Communism permitted the Soviets. But to be absolutely clear, both ideologies have been exposed as frauds and, in many ways, are remarkably similar in spirit and effect.

CWR: Much of the story revolves around the conflict between the views and actions of two key American figures: US ambassador to Vietnam, Frederick Nolting, and Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman. In sum, Nolting had a favorable view of Diem and was committed to building a positive relationship with him, while Harriman lost faith in Diem and sought to undermine and eventually replace him. In your view, what are the most important factors that account for this radical difference of opinion about the best way forward in Vietnam, circa 1963?

Shaw: When Frederick ‘Fritz’ Nolting initially went out to Vietnam in 1961, he was skeptical as to the nature of the South Vietnamese government (GVN), as he too had heard the reports that Diem was a difficult customer. But Ambassador Nolting also went to Vietnam with a very keen mind that was open and, it should be noted, he had instructions from President Kennedy to assure Diem of America’s support, whereas Averell Harriman went out to meet Diem and lay down the law with him over the impending Geneva Accords on Laotian neutrality. Moreover, upon first seeing Diem, before either man had spoken, Harriman (by all eyewitness accounts) took an immediate and visceral dislike to Diem; it was as if electricity was crackling in the air. (Christians would put this down to spiritual warfare.) Things went downhill from that moment and never recovered.

So, to be absolutely clear, Harriman never lost faith with Diem as he simply never had any to begin with; indeed, to the contrary, he very much seems to have taken a deep and abiding loathing of the Vietnamese leader before they even spoke. Once back in the U.S., Harriman set about, almost immediately, undermining Kennedy’s policy of promised support to Diem and his government. To the outside world, though, which is wont not to consider spiritual warfare amongst rational considerations (though it should), the critical stumbling block for Averell Harriman was the Laotian Neutrality question. The Laos deal, cemented via Harriman’s long-standing Soviet relationship, was the honor upon which the elderly but exceedingly vain U.S. diplomat wanted to hang his reputation for posterity. It was very much a legacy issue to this prideful soul and he would not tolerate any backwoods Vietnamese mandarin who might derail his legacy. Irony, which I believe is Heaven’s jest at man’s folly, insisted that the vain Harriman legacy was indeed tied to Laos but not for the reasons he had hoped: The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the massive North Vietnamese supply system into the flanks of South Vietnam and Cambodia, facilitated in no small part by Harriman’s Laotian Neutrality Accords, became known as the Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.

To sum up then, Laos (as one of Diem’s ministers told me back in 2003) was the key and Averell Harriman had told Nolting that he had “a finger-tips feeling” that the Soviets would get their clients, the North Vietnamese, to comply. Nolting answered Harriman’s bold statement with the quip that he did not have Harriman’s experience with the Soviets but that his ‘fingertips,’ nevertheless, were telling him the exact opposite.

CWR: Religion is not at the center of your book, but it does play a significant role. Specifically, the fact that Diem and many high-ranking officials were Catholics—a minority in Vietnam—provided grist for the mills of Diem detractors within and outside Vietnam. A critical episode was the Buddhist crisis of 1963, which produced images in American media of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death and which seemed to support the notion that Diem cultivated religious intolerance. You convincingly demolish that myth in the book. What are some of the most egregious popular misunderstandings related to Diem, Catholicism, and Buddhism, and why are they wrong?

Shaw: The most outstanding errors concerning Diem’s positions on Catholicism and Buddhism that are still clung to, quite regardless of the facts, are those which insist that he promoted Catholics into positions of high office over Buddhists and that he favored Catholics at every turn in the government, in the army, etc. I do not know how one undoes these untruths because they fly in the face of all the historical facts that are currently available.

What I think happened is that, in their zeal, the young and anti-Diem U.S. newsmen, Halberstam, Sheehan, and Stanley Karnow, fabricated a so-called ‘urban-myth’ of Diem the religious bigot that simply refuses to die. This fabrication, promulgated in the New York Times and Washington Post, has become one of the foundational edifices upon which rests the whole false narrative concerning Diem and his government. If we can finally put these lies to rest, I think America may well find its history in Vietnam becoming reacquainted with reality; it truly would be calling something by its right name.

But then you have the bigger problem that the New York Times and Washington Post have been, by and large, responsible for stampeding American public opinion in an error-riven direction. Moreover, you have then to acknowledge that the Pulitzer Prizes won by these fraudulent newsmen were given based on their ideological leanings and not their good writing (as their written facts/narrative/history are so abysmally untrue). I think the burden on the whole liberal/left psyche in American government and society would be so great that they could not possibly face what they have done and, as Shakespeare had Macbeth state: “it is better to go on than turn back now.” In other words, they have purchased, wholesale, one of the evil one’s greatest lies: i.e., that you cannot repent and go back when you have done great evil. Yet, the ever-increasing piercing light of the truth reveals what a great lie has been told and clung to.

CWR: You don’t write much about it in the book, but did the long and deeply rooted American tradition of anti-Catholicism have anything to do with the Kennedy Administration’s abandonment of Diem? (There is irony in the question, considering that Kennedy was the first Catholic president—but the State Department, the media, and the American electorate remained predominantly non-Catholic.)

Shaw: Yes, I think you have hit the proverbial nail on the head in this question as Kennedy was greatly concerned about being accused of running a Catholic cabal in D.C. This was so much the case that he bent over backwards to create the opposite impression, which helped Diem’s foes substantially. For example, the ambassador sent out to replace Nolting, Henry Cabot Lodge, came from a prestigious New England family that was every-inch the upper-crust Episcopalian, non-Catholic Bostonian. In turn, he felt no particular restraint upon himself when he went out to Vietnam to usher in a coup against Diem in 1963. He lied straight-faced to Diem about how America would keep on supporting him while he had reluctant Vietnamese generals cajoled into coup-formation. He even gave an enemy of the state, Thich Tri Quang, asylum in the U.S. Embassy, even while the devilish monk continued to orchestrate insurrection against Diem. Kennedy knew that Lodge had “gone off the reservation” but felt helpless to recall him lest the “Catholic card” was played against him. It was a very odd, paradoxical playing out of the problem of politically correct reverse discrimination as it would seem; had Lyndon Johnson been at the helm at that critical hour—and we know he was not worried one iota about being accused of bias in favor of Catholics—the coup would have never happened.

Most Americans do not realize just how much Lodge and the Harriman cabal had to push the Vietnamese generals to embark on a coup. I remember reading one report—I think it was from CIA operative Lucien Conein to Lodge—stating that getting the ARVN (South Vietnam army) generals to plot against Diem was like trying to push spaghetti. The would-be Vietnamese coup officers were quite distinctly dragging their heels, and Kennedy’s men were trying to push them on. The only one who truly wanted to get Diem was General Duong Van (“Big”) Minh as he had been disgraced by Nhu many years earlier when Nhu caught him stealing a vast sum from the government. Nhu wanted Minh tried and sent to prison but Diem, always reluctant to be harsh, simply had Minh “kicked upstairs.”

So, with little doubt, Kennedy’s reluctance to even appear to have played the “Catholic card” actually helped, and to a substantial degree, the overthrow and murders of Diem and his brother, Nhu. I also think Harriman was keenly aware that he could bully JFK over the Catholic issue because that is what he most certainly did in their Oval Office meetings concerned with Diem.

CWR: What is Diem’s reputation in Vietnam today and how does it compare with how he is viewed in the United States? Are you optimistic that the truth will win out and that revisions of historical conventional wisdom such as your book will bring about significant change in the way Americans view the major figures of the Vietnam era?

Shaw: I understand that amongst Vietnamese, in Vietnam and around the globe, he has already been ‘canonized’ in their heart-of-hearts. This is so much the case that even the Communist government in Vietnam has had to finally permit public veneration of Diem at the site of his tomb in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). You can now legally honor the memory of Ngo Dinh Diem in Communist Vietnam. To my mind, that speaks volumes about the reality and depth of the veneration for Diem in that country—as no Communist government, anywhere else or at any other time, has permitted the public and legal veneration of one of their most steadfast adversaries.

Think about this carefully, and it should really drive home the point that Diem was an extraordinary historical figure and leader in Vietnam. Throughout the Vietnamese diaspora around the world, and particularly in California (but Europe as well including, of all places, the Netherlands), Vietnamese Roman Catholic churches annually have a day (November 2) whereupon the memory of Diem is venerated as if Rome had already beatified the man. As one Canadian priest said to me a few years back: “I would not be surprised if bonafide miracles had occurred as a direct result of appeals of supplication of prayer from the man.” Only the Vatican will know this for certain but I, too, would not be surprised if there is quite a magnificent file building up on this noble man in Rome.

The truth always wins out, but whether or not my book will be one of our Lord’s instruments for bringing about this re-acquaintance with the truth in American history concerning Vietnam, is something to which I’m not privy. But what I can tell you is that I believe, very firmly, that I was called to witness for this fine man of God, and, no matter how hard I tried to pursue my own professional military-history goals and get away from the rancor surrounding Diem, something or someone (I believe the Holy Spirit) kept steering me back. So, almost reluctantly, I had to submit to this direction. (I say reluctantly because I could tell from the animosity it stirred up in history departments that this was a career breaker.) On the other hand, I also firmly believe that a man is at his best when he does what he was created for in the beginning: i.e., to bring glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost and so, how could I not but follow such Heavenly direction? In setting the record straight on Ngo Dinh Diem, I believe I have born truthful witness to one of Heaven’s great souls and, in so doing, have brought glory to God in my own small way!

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About Kevin Schmiesing 10 Articles
Kevin Schmiesing is director of research at the Freedom & Virtue Institute, co-host of the Catholic History Trek podcast, and the author of many books and articles in the field of Church history, including his most recent: A Catholic Pilgrimage through American History: People and Places that Shaped the Church in the United States.