New documentary tells startling story of Ngo Dinh Diem’s life and assasination

Liberator of Asia, based on The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey Shaw, depicts a patriot of “unwavering Catholic faith” who “strove to defend his country from Communism while fighting off Western attempts to undermine his governing authority.”

Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963), was a devout Catholic and the first president of South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) from 1955 until he was assassinated in 1963. (Image: Ignatius Press)

“They started with me on Diem, you remember: ‘He was corrupt, he ought to be killed,’ and so we killed him. We all got together and got a ***-damn bunch of thugs and assassinated him. Now we [have] really had no political stability since then.” – President Lyndon Johnson

The American invasion of Iraq was largely motivated by misinformation; experts misled the public about the Afghanistan occupation, almost up until the moment the US embassy in Kabul had to be evacuated; Twitter really did censor the Hunter Biden laptop story at the behest of US government officials.

Such stories of governmental malfeasance and dishonesty are not so new, according to the recent Ignatius Press film Liberator of Asia: The True Story of Ngo Dinh Diem. While it is commonplace for armchair and professional historians to censure the US government’s mismanagement of the Vietnam War, Liberator of Asia carries this critique of Washington to a whole new level: The loss in Vietnam can be blamed upon a foreign policy “deep state,” which had manipulated President Kennedy into signing off on its own destructive agenda.

Based on the book The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffrey Shaw, the 60-minute film relates how Washington refused to support Vietnam’s most prominent anti-communist, and went so far as to encourage a clique of Vietnamese generals to overthrow their own government. Up to now, the unchallenged conventional narrative was that Ngo Dinh Diem’s dictatorship had not only been been brutal, especially toward Buddhists, but also so ineffective and corrupt that he had to be “terminated with extreme prejudice,” as the saying goes.

From the idealistic point of view, Ngo was tyrannical and repressive; from the realist standpoint, an America locked in the Cold War could not afford to indulge a corrupt nepotist and the erratic, heavy-handed family members to whom he had entrusted rule of the country.

Yet even his enemies at the time admitted that Diem had long since proven himself a sincere nationalist, a man committed to freeing his people and culture from French colonial rule. As depicted in the documentary, Diem was neither more nor less than a patriot of “unwavering Catholic faith” who “strove to defend his country from Communism while fighting off Western attempts to undermine his governing authority.”

Far from dithering or distracted, he had a plan for countering Communist subversion through a web of fortified country villages – the “Strategic Hamlet Program.” His widely-decried abuse of Vietnamese Buddhists has been exaggerated, and Diem’s advocates also contend that accusations of corruption have less to do with the record than with a propaganda campaign orchestrated by Communists and abetted by liberal American journalists.

After all, Diem was waging a counter-insurgency campaign, and such an activity hardly lends itself to delicacy. He was neither the first nor last leader to employ martial law in a time of crisis, and the crisis posed by Communist subversion and terrorism was most assuredly real. While the New York Times and Washington Post settled upon the plight of Vietnamese Buddhism as a human rights cause du jour, a United Nations fact-finding mission concluded that Communists had indeed infiltrated the Buddhist protest movement, as Diem’s government claimed.

In addition to UN investigators, famed CIA spymaster William Colby likewise suspected a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary hand in the Buddhist movement. To use just one item cited in the film, one of the leading Buddhist figures at the time had a brother actively working with Communists in Hanoi, and had himself once been involved in Ho Chi Minh’s organization.

These subjects may still be debated, of course, and no doubt some may deem the film in question too much a hagiography. Yet even if Liberator is one-sided in favor of Diem, it is merely providing the other side of the story regarding someone who has been offhandedly vilified for decades. In fashionable leftist circles, certainly, it has long been taken for granted that “everything the Vietnamese soldiers did was wrong, while everything the Communists did was right,” points out Vietnamese history scholar Andre Van Chau.

Whatever we make of Diem’s character or strategy, there remains the cold, hard verdict of historical realpolitik. One hardly need be a geopolitical genius to see why a coup might not be the best way to restore stability in a country already under siege. And practical or not, the Strategic Hamlet Program does have certain obvious advantages over bringing in wave after wave of American forces.

“I still remember when the United States wanted to bring troops into Vietnam,” reminisces Lee Trong Quat, chairman of the Defense Committee in Diem’s government. “Diem did not seem to agree […] if he allowed foreigners to enter, the Communists would run propaganda and say that Vietnam was subservient to the United States.” If the point of replacing Diem was to keep Vietnam from falling to the Communists, then the coup and its attendant bloodshed were quite simply pointless; Vietnam did fall to the Communists.

To his credit, President Kennedy expressed remorse for the resultant murder of Diem and Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu: “I was shocked by the deaths of Diem and Nhu; I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it.” Whether this admission on its own exonerates him of his own culpability in his co-religionist’s death, no one can deny that Kennedy’s remark has a certain ironic poignancy, for when he made it the US president himself had less than a month to live. For America, a trauma even worse than his assassination would unfold during the years after Kennedy’s murder.

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About Jerry Salyer 55 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.


  1. Given what we now know about the activities of the Democrat Party, the media, and Deep State Washington, D.C. over the past 30 years, we have no reason to believe that our involvement in Viet Nam was ever honorable. FIFTY THOUSAND young men’s lives were sacrificed for nothing. What we did in Viet Nam, what we did in Iraq and Kuwait, what we did in Afghanistan, and what we are doing in Ukraine is an abomination and a disgrace. It won’t be long before young American lives are ended on Ukrainian soil.

    • You have all of that right — up to and including your take on the Ukraine/US/NATO schweinerei. At least the Germans tried to keep their Leopards (Panzers) out of the fray — they’ve been there before.

    • I served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and I am very sure that what WE did–my colleagues and I, those who survived and those who didn’t come home–was not an abomination and disgrace. Thousands of Afghans are alive today because of what we did, babies and mothers who benefitted from the security and medical assistance we provided. Thousands of girls received an education and are literate now because of what we did. And if other political decisions had been made, WE would still be working alongside our Afghan and NATO allies to secure our security interests in South Asia, and WE would probably not have to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine because Putin & Co. would know that WE are strong in that region. Don’t you think, Deacon, that my colleagues and I, and our families who endured sacrifice for the sake of U.S. security and prosperity, deserve better than to have OUR efforts and accomplishments called an abomination and disgrace by somebody who didn’t even serve?

      • Thank you. Your comment is perfect and saved me from having to respond at length. I served 21 years, my son served in Afghanistan, and my father served in both Korea and Vietnam. Poor political decisions and political cowardice do not imply shameful military service.

        • I am not disparaging the motivation to serve and the sacrifices made by those in the military – not in the least. I am stating that our government’s sending young men and women into armed conflicts without clearly defined national interests in mind and with a specific intention to be victorious, dishonors the lives of those who so willingly served. Our government disgraced the lives of our soldiers. The shame is on our government and NOT on those who answered the call.

      • I very much respect the response to a call of service and respect the sacrifices made for honorable causes. But, that said, we sent young men into war in Viet Nam with no clear mission and end goal in mind. We gained nothing by being there but lost plenty. We should never enter an armed conflict with anything less than an intention to be victorious at all cost. Human lives mean too much to do otherwise. As far as Iraq and Afghanistan are concerned the pretext for our getting involved were never very clear and based on lies regarding WMDs. And, if you are telling me that we sent young men and women into Afghanistan to die and be maimed for life so that young Afghani girls could get an education, I’d invite you to examine the mission of our military.

        I’m sorry, but I no longer respect our government and the bureaucracy in Washington. I don’t trust their motives and can no longer count on any of the to tell the truth and do the right thing. The lives of our military men and women mean far too much.

        • CIA has been been the secret branch of the government. Allen Dulles made sure he was the unchallenged director / dictator.
          The power and unlimited and unchallenged control has grown through the decades.
          JFK tried to curtail the CIA but lost his life in that battle.
          Truma envisioned the CIA to collect data only. After Kennedy died he acknowledged the CIA was out of control.
          SECRET TEAM by Flectcher Prouty explains how the CIA uses and abuses the military.

      • I believe Deacon Peitler’s censure was aimed at the politicians & flag officers involved, not at the ordinary soldier doing his job.

    • I think our involvement in other country’s affairs often as not makes a bad situation worse. But that’s not to say that our armed forces personnel didn’t serve honorably. Or that no good was accomplished. I suppose the question is: at what cost?

  2. Jerry Saylor’s ‘expose’ is correct. Some of us were quite aware of the reality at the time. With the emergence of American power and wealth, self righteous corruption took hold. Today our Justice Dept is a result. While Catholics in Vietnam suffered lies and unfair defamation by US government and the prejudice of Buddhist bongs, we suffer today in our own nation the unfair defamation of government, the Justice Department in particular, and the prejudice of homosexual orgs.

    • The book is excellent. The State Department is revealed as the real culprit in convincing Kennedy to overthrow Diem. The principal miscreant was Averill Harriman. Also, the book makes the point that Kennedy’s weak decision to treat Laos And Cambodia as ‘neutral’ thus protecting the Ho Chi Minh trail doomed the war effort to failure.
      It was 58,000+ of my peers who were killed in VN and countless tens of thousands of Vietnamese. I mourn for them and their families. Their sacrifice was disgraced by the odious Ted Kennedy blocking support to south VN as Hanoi invaded with tanks. Then the draft dodger Bill Clinton urinated on the graves of our war dead by recognizing Commie VietNam which encamped and murdered many of its own people and which persecutes Christianity to this day.
      War is serious. It should never be a political play thing for grasping pols.
      The Ho Chi Minh trail should have been terminated.
      At over a million bucks per enemy killed we could have purchased the whole place.
      Nations that ceaselessly war destroy all their good men and grow weaker with each conflict. Only the sleazy cowards and schemers survive and their progeny have no inheritance of duty and honor. War destroys the warring eventually unless it is a defense of home and family.
      DaNang 70-71

  3. I would give you a 1000 upticks if I could.Yes indeed only the sleazy cowards survive. The irony, outbursts of angst over the killing of a terrorist and the green light to slaughter the unborn. What a crazy world.

  4. According to another account I have read, Neil Sheehan, who from his perch at UPI was one of the most Diem’s most vociferous and influential enemies, pushed hard for the former’s removal from behind the scenes. His Wikipedia pages even states that one of Sheehan’s most important sources was a Communist agent. Sheehan later became one of the most self-righteous critics of America’s involvement in the war. Funny how it works – help create a catastrophe then later position yourself as a crusader against it without apologizing or even acknowledging your own responsibility. If anything, things are even worse today.

  5. In the context of the Cold War, preventing a Communist takeover of South Vietnam was a legitimate goal of US foreign policy. The coup against Diem was one of the worst things that could have been taken at the time to accomplish it. The malfeasance and incompetence of the US foreign establishment helped to get millions killed while at the same failing to keep Indochina from falling to the Reds.

  6. Some other information about the Viet Nam war should be considered. The Geneva Accords of 1954 provided for the governing and uniting of the two Viet Nams. The Accords provided for a unification of Viet Nam by holding free elections to determine who would govern a united Viet Nam. The elections were to be monitored by an international committee of various countries headed by an official of the government of India. The U.S. and South Viet Nam never signed this agreement. The Eisenhower Administration was afraid that free elections would result in a victory for Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh party. Eisenhower knew how popular Ho Chi Minh and his Viet party were to the Vietnamese people because they drove the French out of their country and gave Viet Nam the opportunity to be independent. Ho Chi Minh was the ” George Washington ” of the Vietnamese people. They didn’t care about his politics or what kind of government he would establish. They wanted him to rule the country. The Eisenhower Administration thwarted democracy by not supporting the elections. Diem was told if he didn’t submit to the elections, the U.S. would back him in a war with the North. The coup against Diem would not have happened if he and the U.S. would have honored the Geneva Accords. We thought we were fighting against communist aggression, but the Viet Minh had no intention of becoming puppets of Russia and China. Remember the Domino Theory put forth by the Eisenhower Administration. If Viet Nam fell, then all of Southeast Asia would fall and we would be fighting the communists in San Francisco. Well, it never happened. The premise of the Domino Theory was flawed and helped to cause the deaths of many American soldiers. Eisenhower started the war and Johnson escalated it.

    • I am sorry Robert but as a South Vietnamese, I do think you do not understand the full significance of why Ngo Dinh Diem did not accept having the elections. One would be very naive to think that elections would be truly ‘free’ in North Vietnam… the fact is that any sympathetic North Vietnamese (to Ngo Dinh Diem) would have been coerced either directly / indirectly to vote for Ho Chi Minh, whilst in the South, a truly free election would occur with a sizeable minority voting for the communists. By any scenario, the communists would win unfairly – it was the right decision to call if off as it would not have been democratic at all. The Communists had already tried all sorts of tactics to stymie the mass exodus of Northerners into the South, despite this, a million still made it (mind you, even this was around 10% of the North’s population in 1954). They then carried out an absolutely savage land reform programme immediately after to purge the middle / high-class and intelligentsia / nationalists / Christians etc. With a murderous regime such as this, do you really think they would have allowed free and fair elections? Perhaps my President, Ngo Dinh Diem, summed it up best in his speech dated July 16th 1955:


      The National Government has emphasised time and time again the price it has paid for the defence of the unity of the country and of true democracy. We did not sign the Geneva Agreements. We are not bound in any way by these agreements, signed against the will of the Vietnamese people. Our policy is a policy of peace, but nothing will lead us astray from our goal: the unity of our country — a unity in freedom and not in slavery. Serving the cause of our nation more than ever, we will struggle for the reunification of our homeland.

      We do not reject the principle of free elections as peaceful and democratic means to achieve that unity. Although elections constitute one of the bases of true democracy, they will be meaningful only on the condition that they are absolutely free.

      Faced now with a regime of oppression as practiced by the Viet Minh, we remain sceptical concerning the possibility of fulfilling the conditions of free elections in the North. We shall not miss any opportunity which would permit the unification of our homeland in freedom, but it is out of the question for us to consider any proposal from the Viet Minh if proof is not given that they put the superior interests of the National Community above those of communism, if they do not cease violating their obligations as they have done by preventing our countrymen of the North from going South or by recently attacking, together with the communist Pathet Lao, the friendly state of Laos.

      The mission falls to us, the Nationalists, to accomplish the reunification of our country in conditions that are most democratic and most effective to guarantee our independence. The Free World is with us. Of this we are certain. I am confident that I am a faithful interpreter of our state of mind when 1 affirm solemnly our will to resist communism. To those who live above the 17th parallel, I ask them to have confidence. With the agreement and the backing of the Free World, the National Government will bring you independence in freedom.”

  7. A very good book on the subject published in 1965 was by the US journalist, Margarite Higgins, “Our Vietnam Nightmare.” As i recall, she completely refuted most of the nonsense published by the NYTimes, and David Hablestrom about the corruption of the Diem brothers. Higgins proved among other things, that the Buddihst monastaries in Saigon had been infiltrated by Communists masquerading as monks; the most famous was the community organizer Tri Quang. Higgins also proved that US involvement in the war was greatly complicated by the assassination of Diem and his brother. I believe the assassination of Diem should be put directly at the feet of Henry Cabot Lodge, US ambassador at the time. I also suspect the JFK was aware of Lodge’s intentions to murder Diem and perhaps the assassination of Kennedy was among other things an act of divine justice for the murder of Diem. As is often the case of the treacherous, both Lodge and Quang died quietly as old men in the respective homes.

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