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Ngo Dinh Diem is a polarizing figure. To some, he was an effective and forward-thinking strategist whose shameful betrayal by his patrons in Washington—the Kennedy administration assented to the 1963 coup that deposed him—ordained America’s defeat in Vietnam. To others, he was an abstruse and authoritarian despot whom the United States unwisely supported for nearly a decade. In Misalliance, Edward Miller manages to transcend these views, offering a remarkably nuanced and insightful analysis of the fateful relationship between Washington and the first president of the Republic of Vietnam.
For years, Ngo Dinh Diem was something of an enigmatic figure. In considerable part this was because of the dearth of archival materials available to historians. Most of what was accessible originated with Americans, whose inevitable biases colored their recollections and the written materials they produced. With the increasing opening of the [End Page 711] Vietnamese archives to Western scholars, there has been, in recent years, a flowering of multilingual research that has rounded out, and at times significantly revised, our understanding of the American war. Works by Mark Bradley, Robert Brigham, Phillip Catton, Jessica Chapman, Matt Masur, Lien-Hang Nguyen, and others point to a movement away from wholly America-centric studies of the Vietnam War and toward the “Vietnamization” of scholarship on the conflict. Misalliance, which is the most deeply researched, comprehensive, and important work thus far on the full arc of Diem’s political rule, makes a major contribution to this recent literature.
Ngo Dinh Diem was not, as Miller convincingly argues, a creature of America’s making. Fiercely and at times stubbornly independent, his ascent to power was in fact rooted in his family’s shrewd political maneuvering, such that Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, found it advantageous to appoint him premier of the struggling State of Vietnam. Misalliance traces Diem’s ambitious rise, showing how he cunningly ingratiated himself with Bao Dai before ultimately engineering the emperor’s removal in the October referendum of 1955. With his power consolidated, particularly following his marginalization of the political-religious groups, Diem set about to enact his vision of a postcolonial Vietnamese nation.
This is one of the major arguments of Miller’s book. Nation building in Vietnam has often been understood as an American enterprise. In its effort to combat the communist-led Vietnamese revolution, Washington expended untold energy and resources into creating a functional, anticommunist state south of the seventeenth parallel. But as Miller convincingly shows, not only were there competing American visions for South Vietnamese nation building, with its high- and low-modernist variants, but there was also a crucial and much overlooked Vietnamese campaign pursued by Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. From personalism to the Cai San project, agrovilles, and the strategic hamlets, Diem was nothing if not persistent in attempting to define the contours of what Miller calls “Vietnam’s postcolonial destiny” (p. 326). [End Page 712]
Misalliance does raise a few questions. Miller cogently addresses Diem’s hostility to French colonialism and his unease with the growing number of American military advisers in his country. But what about the Japanese occupation during the Second World War? How did Diem reconcile his collusion with the Japanese and the brutality of their occupation? In considering the coup that overthrew Diem, is leaving the details of the plot to the Vietnamese generals as significant as Misalliance suggests? Although Miller maintains that as a “political event” the coup “remained largely a Vietnamese affair” he makes it clear that the effective green light given by the United States was “crucial” to its execution (p. 312). One thus wonders whether too much credit is ascribed to the Vietnamese conspirators. And, as a stylistic matter, why end the account of the coup with Diem and Nhu’s detention rather than execution? Is it because of uncertainty about responsibility for their deaths?
These minor questions aside, Misalliance is an essential book. Engagingly and accessibly written, it will appeal...