- With Friends Like These . . .
The Vietnam Lobby was first “exposed” by the journalists Robert Scheer and Warren Hinckle in a celebrated 1965 article for Ramparts, a formerly Catholic San Francisco magazine that had turned radical after Hinckle wrested the editorship from its financially troubled founder. In “The Vietnam Lobby,” Scheer and Hinckle alleged that a mid-1950s unholy alliance of Madison Avenue publicists, professional humanitarians, ex-leftists, and New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman had tricked the American public if not the State Department into supporting their client, the Vietnamese Catholic mandarin, Ngo Dinh Diem. The Scheer-Hinckle essay quickly became a New Left muckraking classic that brashly mixed conspiracy theory, intergenerational warfare, and hostility to organized religion into a nearly irresistible tale of corruption and intrigue.
Accounts of early U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia that focused on the Vietnam Lobby proved highly durable for critics of the war, including numerous historians who merely repeated versions of the Scheer-Hinckle treatise. While some scholars, including George Herring in America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (1986), expressed doubts as to the influence of this interest group on American foreign policy, Joseph G. Morgan’s study of the American Friends of Vietnam represents the first sustained effort to define the Lobby and assess its work.
In the spring of 1955 Joseph Buttinger, a former leader of the Austrian Revolutionary Socialists who came to the United States with his American heiress wife in 1940, “made the decision to form a private organization supporting the Diem regime, the American Friends of Vietnam, during the weeks the Eisenhower administration was reconsidering its support for Diem” (p. 24). Buttinger was working in Saigon on behalf of the International Rescue Committee, a liberal anticommunist relief organization with roots in the socialist, anti-Stalinist political movements of the 1930s. Central figures at [End Page 709] the IRC who shared Buttinger’s passionate commitment to the fledgling Diem regime included Leo Cherne, an entrepreneur of international business intelligence and a “renaissance man” with strong humanitarian credentials; the patrician diplomat Angier Biddle Duke; and Harold Oram, a leading publicist of liberal causes.
Morgan painstakingly traces the evolution of Diem’s relationship with these and other key American patrons, challenging along the way some of the most cherished myths concerning the mandarin’s period of exile in the United States between 1950 and 1952. “Several accounts have made much of Diem’s relationship with Spellman,” writes Morgan in a characteristic understatement, “claiming that the cardinal played a key role in introducing Diem to a number of influential Americans. It is nevertheless difficult to determine the importance of Spellman’s contacts with Diem. He apparently made arrangements for Diem’s stay at the Maryknoll seminaries (in New York and New Jersey), but the correspondence of Diem’s American supporters in the early 1950s contains no references to Spellman, and access to Spellman’s personal papers is restricted” (p. 5). Morgan does convincingly establish the early links between Diem and a network of American liberals, including Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (who introduced him to Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy), academics Wesley Fishel and I. Milton Sacks, and human rights advocate Christopher Emmet, who helped bring Diem into the orbit of the International Rescue Committee.
At a meeting in Paris in June 1954—in the wake of the French defeat by the communist Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu—Vietnamese emperor Bao Dai appointed Diem prime minister of the new State of Vietnam. “While the American role in Bao Dai’s decision to give Diem power is unclear,” writes Morgan, “there can be no doubt about Diem’s success in attracting supporters during the years he stayed in America—people ready to back him once he gained power” (p. 11). Diem’s vociferous anticommunism placed him squarely in the mainstream of the Cold War consensus, but he was particularly appealing to liberals and social democrats, Morgan argues, because he...