In 1945, Diem rejected an offer from Ho Chi Minh to join the communist-dominated Viet Minh as premier of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) government because he viewed the communists as a threat to his Catholic values and to his vision of an independent Vietnam and because the North Vietnamese government had executed one of his brothers. Diem left Vietnam in 1950 in self-imposed exile. During the next four years, he traveled extensively in Europe and the United States. He lived in a Catholic seminary in New Jersey for two years, and there he met several prominent American Catholics, including Cardinal Francis Spellman and then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Through his youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, Diem also kept in contact with Dai. As the French negotiated their exit from Indochina at the 1954 Geneva Conference, Dai named Diem prime minister in June 1954.
In October 1955, with the help of his large family, especially his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem staged a referendum that deposed Dai and made Diem president of the newly created South Vietnamese government. Most of the key positions in the new government went to Diem's family and friends or to fellow Catholics, although the latter comprised only 10 percent of the population. Diem's government was characterized by corruption, nepotism, and favoritism. His secret police, directed by brother Nhu, sought to repress all political opposition. With American support, Diem canceled the 1956 elections that had been called for in the Geneva Accords. Discontent in South Vietnam grew into an armed insurgency, which North Vietnam clandestinely helped organize as the National Liberation Front (NLF).
American officials had harbored doubts about Diem's leadership since 1954 but overlooked his liabilities because of his staunch anticommunist stance, trumpeting him as a leader who had triumphed over great obstacles to create an independent South Vietnam. Diem refused to accept American advice to institute domestic reforms to win the support of the South Vietnamese people, and he would not accept American advice on the choice of his army commanders and tactics to win the guerrilla war then raging. As his regime became more oppressive, even forbidding Buddhist religious observances in a country that was 80 percent Buddhist, Diem faced growing challenges not only from Buddhist monks but also from students, peasants, NLF guerrillas, and even members of his own armed forces. As the situation grew more untenable, a group of South Vietnamese generals, tacitly supported by the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), plotted against Diem. The coup began on 1 November 1963, and the next day Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated. Although President Kennedy voiced shock at Diem's murder, his administration was certainly complicit in the coup. After Diem's death, South Vietnam was ruled by a rapid succession of unstable military governments.
James H. Willbanks
Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.; Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.; Mann, Robert. A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam. New York: Perseus, 2001.; Tucker, Spencer C. Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.; Warner, Denis. The Last Confucian. London: Angus and Robertson, 1964.