- Cauldron of Misalliances
Just after midday on November 1, 1963, soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, also called South Vietnam, filled the streets of Saigon. They surrounded the post office, the police headquarters, and other government buildings. A coup was under way. Ngô Đình Diệm, the president of the republic, and Ngô Đình Nhu, his brother and closest adviser, retreated to a bunker beneath the presidential palace. As events unfolded, Nhu became increasingly agitated, but Diệm calmly smoked and drank tea. He had survived an abortive coup three years earlier and an attempt on his life in 1957. But as afternoon became evening, Diệm was unable to reestablish order in Saigon. At around eight o’clock, he and his brother left the bunker through a side door and climbed into a waiting Citroën “Deux Chevaux.” The unassuming vehicle took the pair to a government-run youth activity center, where Diệm met the deputy mayor of Saigon, and then to the home of Ma Tuyen, a Chinese businessman and ally. When mutinous soldiers finally stormed the presidential palace on the following dawn, Diệm and Nhu were nowhere to be found. Hoping to secure safe passage out of Vietnam, Diệm [End Page 513] revealed to the leaders of the coup that he and his brother were at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in Chợ Lớn. A convoy of military vehicles went to escort Diệm and Nhu to the headquarters of the Joint General Staff. But as they traveled through the streets of Saigon in the rear of an M113 armored personnel carrier, the soldiers transporting the pair shot and stabbed them.
For nine years, Diệm had led South Vietnam, aided and advised by his brother. With the assistance of the United States, he had tried to fashion a southern Vietnamese nation that was modern, democratic, and free. American presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had both supported him. Edward Lansdale, Wesley Fishel, Wolf Ladejinsky, and thousands of other American diplomats, soldiers, intelligence officers, social scientists, and aid experts provided Diệm’s government with technical assistance. And South Vietnam received billions of dollars of military and economic assistance from the United States. But by November 1963, Diệm had lost the support of many of his people, crucial members of his own government, and the United States of America. Why?
In Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, Edward Miller argues that “nation-building ideas and agendas played central roles in the formation, evolution, and eventual undoing of Washington’s relationship with Diệm” (12). Nation building involved transforming South Vietnam into a “strong, stable, and prosperous society” (12). American and Vietnamese “ideas about nation building crucially affected the day-to-day functioning of the alliance” (12–13). But that alliance was never easy. The “Americans who went to South Vietnam after 1954 all too frequently found themselves adjusting, adapting, or discarding the nation-building plans and theories they had brought with them” (13). Such changes had to be made because Vietnamese social and political realities failed to conform to American plans and expectations. But very often, America’s South Vietnamese allies confounded such plans themselves. They “had their own ideas about how nation building should proceed” (13). Nation building in South Vietnam, Miller argues, was “a field of contest involving multiple American and Vietnamese agendas” (13). Modernization theory and positivist social science guided American nation-building agendas, while personalism, an opaque doctrine both antiliberal and anticommunist, guided Diệm.
Diệm and his American advisers diverged on many issues. They disagreed particularly sharply about how best to pursue development in the [End Page 514] countryside. At the beginning of Diệm’s premiership, landholdings in the countryside were concentrated in the hands of a small number...