Bao Dai, then living in France, called on nationalist and Catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diem to head a government. Bao Dai needed Diem's support and that of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who had set up the influential Front for National Salvation in Saigon as an alternative to the Viet Minh. Another factor influencing Bao Dai was his belief that Washington backed Diem. On June 18, 1954, Bao Dai appointed Diem as prime minister. Diem returned to Saigon on June 26, and on July 7 officially formed his new government, which technically embraced all Vietnam.
The United States did back Diem and supplied increasing amounts of aid to his government, the power base of which was quite narrow: Catholics, the landed gentry, and fervent anti-Communist nationalists. Many of the rich and powerful and Francophiles opposed him. This soon included most of the nationalist parties and religious sects. Many observers believed that Diem would not last long in power, but he proved to be an adroit political manipulator. Certainly a key in this was that Washington channeled all aid directly to his government. This U.S. decision, effective in October 1954, undercut remaining French authority in the South.
At the same time, Washington pressured Paris to withdraw its remaining forces, and the last left the country in April 1956. American officers, meanwhile, arrived to train the South Vietnamese armed forces. This angered Army commander General Nguyen Van Hinh, a naturalized Frenchman, and led to a test of wills between him and Diem. When Diem ordered Hinh to leave the country, Hinh refused to go and for a time there was talk of a coup. This ended when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent General J. Lawton Collins to South Vietnam as special ambassador. He informed Saigon officials that Washington would deal only with Diem. Hinh then went into exile in France.
Internationally, the United States supported Diem by taking the lead in the September 1954 creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which extended protection to South Vietnam. President Eisenhower sent high-ranking U.S. officials to Vietnam, including both Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Vice-President Richard Nixon. In May 1957 Diem traveled to the United States and spoke to a joint session of Congress.
Meanwhile Diem moved quickly to consolidate power in South Vietnam. By this time, a number of opposition groups were carrying out armed resistance to the government, including the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao religious sects and the Dai Viet Party.
In 1955, using Army units loyal to him and money bribes from Washington, Diem defeated the Binh Xuyen—Saigon-based gangsters who had their own well-organized militia. He also moved against the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao, which also had armed support.
In 1955 Diem defied an effort by Bao Dai to remove him from office. He turned the tables by calling for a referendum in which the people would choose between them. Diem would easily have won any honest contest, but he ignored appeals of U.S. officials and falsified the results so that the announced vote was 98.2 percent in his favor.
On October 26, 1955, using the results of the referendum as justification, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) with himself as president. Washington recognized him in this position, and its aid was vital in his growing strength. U.S. assistance jumped from $100,000 in 1954 to $325 million in 1955; from 1955 to 1966 Washington provided economic assistance totaling almost $2 billion, not including military equipment. Such aid enabled Diem to reject talks with Hanoi over the elections called for by the Geneva Accords, which the Viet Minh, confident of electoral victory, so ardently sought.
Diem spent the vast bulk of Washington's aid on the military. Perhaps three-quarters of U.S. assistance went into the military budget and the remainder into the bureaucracy and transportation. Only modest amounts were set aside for education, health, housing, and community development. Also, most non-military aid stayed in the cities, which held only a minority of the population. U.S. financial assistance freed Diem from the necessity of carrying out economic reforms or income taxes that would have brought real reform and benefits to the impoverished classes in the cities or in the countryside.
Diem was out of touch with the peasants in the countryside, and little was done to carry out much-needed land reform. In 1961, 75 percent of the land was owned by 15 percent of the population; by 1962, although slightly more than a million acres of land had been transferred to the peasants, this was less than a quarter of the acreage eligible for expropriation and purchase. Between 1955 and 1960, less than 2 percent of Washington's aid to Saigon went for agrarian reform.
In 1956 Diem launched his To Cong (denunciation of Communists) campaign to locate arms caches in the South as well as to arrest hundreds of those in Viet Minh political cadres who had remained in the South to prepare for the planned national elections, a violation of the Geneva Agreements. But in part, this campaign was retaliation against DRV policies regarding landowners and opposition leaders. Diem also imprisoned many non-Communist patriots, and he estranged South Vietnam's ethnic minorities. His effort to impose Vietnamese culture on the Montagnards reversed longstanding French policy. The Montagnards also suffered heavily in Diem's efforts to relocate rural populations into government-controlled areas in the Strategic Hamlet program. This led dissident Montagnards to form the ethno-nationalistic movement of FULRO (Le Front Unifie de Lutte des Races Opprimees, or United Struggle Front for Oppressed Races).
Diem refused to enter into economic talks with the DRV or to hold the elections called for in the Geneva Accords. He announced that his government was not a party to the agreements and thus not bound by them, and the U.S. government supported Diem in that stand. Both Washington and Saigon claimed that no elections could be held until there was a democratic government in Hanoi, although this was not a part of the 1954 agreements.
On March 4, 1956 the South Vietnamese elected a 123-member national legislative assembly. A new constitution, heavily weighted toward control by the executive, came into effect on October 26, 1956. The country was divided into 41 provinces, which were subdivided into districts and villages.
These apparent reforms were largely a sham, as Diem increasingly subjected the South to authoritarian rule. Diem completely dominated the National Assembly. The government was also highly centralized. The central administration appointed officials, even those at the local level. Diem oversaw administrative appointees, and most province chiefs were military officers loyal to him. The Catholic Diem installed Catholics in key positions; many of them were Catholics from central Vietnam and northerners who had recently come south. Other posts went to his supporters and his friends. Political loyalty rather than ability was the test for positions of leadership in both the government and the military.
The aloof and arrogant Diem proved an adroit practitioner of the divide-and-rule concept. Rarely did he reach out for advice beyond his immediate family circle (perhaps his closest advisor was his older brother, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc). Diem also delegated authority to his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who controlled the secret police and was the organizer of the Personalist Labor Party (Can Lao Party).
By 1960 opposition within South Vietnam against Diem was growing, even in the cities that had benefited most under his regime. In April 1960, 18 prominent South Vietnamese issued a manifesto protesting governmental abuses. They were promptly arrested. On November 11-12 1960 there was a near-coup when paratroop units surrounded the presidential palace and demanded that Diem purge his administration of certain individuals, including his brother Nhu. Although Diem outmaneuvered the protesters, clearly time was running out for his regime. On February 27, 1962 there was another coup attempt when two Vietnamese Air Force pilots tried to kill Diem and his brother Nhu by bombing and strafing the presidential palace.
Dozens of Diem's political opponents disappeared and thousands more languished in prison camps. Then, in December 1960 the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam was officially established with Hanoi's blessing. It came to be completely dominated by the Lao Dong Party (the renamed Communist Party) Central Committee of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Washington was now having second thoughts about Diem. When President John F. Kennedy took office, he demanded that Diem institute domestic reforms. But there seemed to be no alternative to Diem's rule, and Kennedy expanded the U.S. Special Forces presence in that country. In May 1961 Kennedy sent Vice-President Lyndon Johnson to the RVN on a fact-finding mission. Although Johnson had private reservations concerning Diem, he publicly hailed him as the "Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia." Less than a week after Johnson's return to Washington, Kennedy agreed to increase the size of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from 170,000 to 270,000 men. These troops tended to be poorly trained in guerrilla warfare, indifferently led, and inadequately provided for.
With ARVN generally performing poorly in the field, in 1962 Washington dramatically increased the U.S. military presence in the RVN. Only belatedly did U.S. officials seek to address problems through a counterinsurgency program. In 1961, with strong U.S. backing, Diem began the Strategic Hamlet program. Run by Nhu, it forcibly resettled peasants into new fenced and armed compounds, supposedly to provide health and education advantages as well as protection from the Viet Cong. Riddled with corruption, the program was a vast and expensive failure and soon alienated much of the peasantry from the regime.
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, who acted as the first lady of the state (Diem was celibate), embarked on her own bizarre puritanical campaign that outlawed divorce, dancing, beauty contests, boxing, gambling, fortune-telling, prostitution, adultery, and even certain music. The harsh punishments for violations of these new rules further antagonized elements of the population.
In January 1963 ARVN suffered a stinging military defeat in the Battle of Ap Bac. That summer, Buddhist protests and rallies became more frequent and intense. On May 8, Buddha's 2,527th birthday, in Hue thousands demonstrated against a ban imposed on flying their multicolored flag. Riot police killed nine demonstrators, and this led to Buddhist demonstrations throughout the country. In June, elderly Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc publicly burned himself alive in protest. By November six more monks had emulated Thich Quang Duc. Madame Nhu exacerbated the crisis by referring to these self-immolations as "barbecues."
Many Americans now came to believe that Diem should be ousted. Nhu was particularly embarrassing to Washington. He was responsible for the August 1963 raids on Buddhist pagodas that damaged many of them and led to the arrest of over 1,400 Buddhists.
In August 1963 Henry Cabot Lodge replaced Frederick Nolting as U.S. ambassador to Saigon. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had already reported that an influential faction of South Vietnamese generals wanted to overthrow Diem. Lodge gave this new credence. Washington was initially opposed to a coup, preferring that Diem purge his entourage, especially the Nhus. But it was clear that to insist on this would alert Nhu and probably result in a bloodbath, since Nhu had troops loyal to him in the capital. At the end of August Washington assured the generals of its support and President Kennedy, in the course of a television interview, publicly criticized Diem. Following some of the worst government outrages against the Buddhists, on October 2 Washington suspended economic subsidies for RVN commercial imports, froze loans for developmental projects, and cut off financial support of Nhus 2,000-man Vietnamese Special Forces. This action was a clear signal to the dissidents.
Shortly after midnight on November 1, 1963 Major Generals Duong Van Minh, Ton That Dinh, and Tran Van Don began a takeover of power. In the coup, both Diem and Nhu, whom Washington assumed would be given safe passage out of the country, were murdered.
Diem's death began a period of political instability in the RVN government. Washington never could find a worthy successor to him. No subsequent leader of the RVN had his air of legitimacy or as much respect from the general public, and economically and socially, except for the confusion at the beginning of his rule, life had never been better for the South Vietnamese than under Diem. He was a fervent patriot who strongly defended morality and social order. He was also greatly interested in improving the economy and did succeed in reforming the bureaucracy.
U.S. leaders, who had seen in Diem a nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh and means to stop Communist expansion, soon found themselves taking direct control of the war in Vietnam. The United States, which could not win the war with Diem, also could not win the war without him.
Diem was followed by a military junta led by General Duong Van Minh as chief of state. The new regime was no more responsive to the people of South Vietnam and indeed brought political instability. Members of the new 12-member Military Revolutionary Council fell to quarreling among themselves. Minh had boasted that the collective leadership would ensure that no one else would have Diem's power. But Minh, the nominal leader, showed no inclination to govern, preferring to play tennis, tend to his orchids, and pursue an interest in exotic birds.
On January 30, 1964, there was another coup, this time against Minh, led by 37-year-old Major General Nguyen Khanh. U.S. officials, caught by surprise, promptly hailed Khanh as the new leader because he promised to rule with a strong hand. However, although shrewd and energetic, Khanh showed no more aptitude for governing than had Minh. Khanh's own history of changing sides hardly engendered trust.
Khanh purged some generals, although he allowed Minh to remain on as titular head of state. Khanh's aides also arranged the execution of Major Nguyen Van Nhung, who had worked for Minh and was one of those responsible for the murder of Diem. Militant Buddhists, alarmed that Khanh's victory might lead to a return to power of Catholics and those faithful to Diem, were again active. To increase their influence, the heads of various Buddhist sects agreed to form a political alliance. Many ARVN officers also turned against Khanh for his attempt to try rival Generals Tran Van Don and Le Vao Kim on fabricated charges.
Khanh sought to resurrect the Dai Viet Quoc Gia Lien Minh nationalist party and manipulate it to his advantage. He persuaded Dai Viet leader and Catholic physician Dr. Nguyen Ton Hoan to return from exile in Paris to serve as premier. Khanh hoped to play the Dai Viet against other parties. When it was clear that the Dai Viet was hopelessly splintered, Khanh named himself as premier with Hoan as his deputy. Hoan then began to conspire with the Buddhists and other opposition groups against Khanh. Political instability in the RVN was now rampant, and that year there were seven changes of government. As RVN governments rose and fell, nothing alarmed the Americans as much as the possibility that one of them might enter into accommodation with the Communists.
Hanoi, meanwhile, followed the political instability in the South with keen interest. At the end of 1963 the DRV leadership decided that the time was ripe to escalate sharply its support for the war in the South. In a major shift in policy requiring considerable economic sacrifices, the DRV decided to send native northerners south to fight, to introduce the latest models of Communist small arms, and to authorize direct attacks against Americans in the South.
The war was escalating. In March 1964 U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara visited the RVN and vowed U.S. support for Khanh. McNamara barnstormed the country, describing Khanh in memorized Vietnamese as the country's "best possible leader." On his return to the United States, McNamara publicly pronounced improvement in the RVN, but privately he told President Johnson that conditions had deteriorated since his last visit there and that 40 percent of the countryside was now under Viet Cong control or influence. Washington agreed to furnish Khanh with additional aid. But although more than $2 million a day was arriving in the country, little of it went to public works projects or reached the peasants. Khanh, despite promises to McNamara to put the country on "a war footing," steadfastly refused to do so, fearful of antagonizing wealthy and middle-class city dwellers, whose sons would be inducted into the army. In August 1964 came the Tonkin Gulf incidents with the U.S. Congress giving President Johnson special powers to wage war in Southeast Asia.
By summer 1964 Khanh was in serious difficulty and pleading for major action against the DRV as a distraction from his domestic political difficulties. U.S. air strikes following the Tonkin Gulf incidents seem to have energized him. He announced a state of emergency and imposed censorship and other controls. He also hastily put together a new constitution for the RVN, promoting himself to the presidency and dismissing former figurehead chief of state Duong Van Minh.
Saigon responded with protests. In August students took to the streets and were soon joined by Buddhists, who complained that too many Diem supporters were in key positions. Khanh met with Buddhist leaders, but revealed his real strength by telling them that he would discuss their complaints with U.S. Ambassador Maxwell Taylor. Taylor in turn urged Khanh not to yield to minority pressure. On August 25 when thousands of demonstrators gathered outside his office to demand his resignation, Khanh bravely appeared before them and announced he did not plan to establish a dictatorship. That afternoon, however, he quit and the Military Revolutionary Council met to choose a new head of state.
After lengthy political maneuvering, a triumvirate emerged of Generals Khanh, Minh, and Tran Thien Khiem. Khanh retained the premiership, but flew off to Da Lat as chaos took over in the capital. Order was restored only after two days of rioting. Khanh, meanwhile, named Harvard-educated economist Nguyen Xuan Oanh to be prime minister in his absence. Turbulence continued as the government was threatened by dissident army units in the Mekong Delta and militant Buddhists from Hue Buddhist demands had grown to include a veto over government decisions.
In November there were new riots in Saigon protesting Khanh's rule, and Ambassador Taylor urged him to leave the country. By this time, a faction of younger military officers had come to the fore. Known as the "Young Turks," they were headed by Nguyen Cao Ky, one of the younger officers in the coup against Diem, who had been promoted to major general and given charge of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF). The faction also included army Major General Nguyen Van Thieu. Disillusioned by the ineffective national government, in mid-December 1964 the Young Turks overthrew the Military Revolutionary Council of older officers.
In late January 1965 a new Armed Forces Council decided that Premier Tran Van Huong should be ousted. Khanh replaced him as premier, but in February General Lam Van Phat ousted Khanh. On February 17 Dr. Phan Huy Quat became premier with Phan Khac Suu as chief of state. Quat, a physician with considerable governmental experience, appointed a broadly representative cabinet. The Armed Forces Council also announced the formation of a 20-member National Legislative Council. That same month, after Communist attacks that specifically targeted U.S. military personnel, President Johnson authorized retaliatory bombings of the DRV. Operation ROLLING THUNDER, the sustained bombing of North Vietnam, began on February 24.
On June 11, 1965 the RVN government collapsed and the Armed Forces Council chose a military government with Ky as premier and Nguyen Van Thieu in the relatively powerless position of chief of state. It was the ninth government in less than two years. Ky took steps to strengthen the armed forces. He also instituted needed land reforms, programs for the construction of schools and hospitals, and price controls. His government also launched a much-touted campaign to remove corrupt officials. At the same time, however, Ky instituted a number of unpopular repressive actions, including a ban on newspapers.
In March 1965 U.S. Marine battalions—the first U.S. combat troops—had arrived in South Vietnam to defend the Da Nang airfield. U.S. Army divisions soon followed. By the end of 1965 there were nearly 200,000 U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam.
The new government was soon embroiled in controversy with the Buddhists and powerful ARVN I Corps commander General Nguyen Chanh Thi, one of the members of the ten-member National Leadership Committee; the other nine members sought to remove him from his post. In March 1966 workers in Da Nang began a general strike, and Buddhist students in Hue also began protests. Soon Thi's removal was no longer the central issue as Buddhist leaders pushed for a complete change of government. With it evident that there was growing sympathy for the movement among the civil service and many ARVN units, in early April Ky announced that the Communists had "taken over" in Da Nang. In fact, it is unclear what role, if any, they played.
On April 10, 1966, Ky appointed General Ton That Dinh as the new commander of I Corps, but Dinh could not assert his authority with Thi still in Hue. After a significant military operation to suppress the Buddhists and rebel ARVN units, Thi accepted his dismissal on May 24 and went into exile in the United States. Tensions also eased with Buddhist leaders when Ky agreed to dissolve the junta and hold elections for an assembly with constituent powers. In June, supported by U.S. forces, Ky's troops ended opposition in Hue.
Ky's popularity and political clout had also been enhanced by a February 1966 meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in Hawaii. The two delegations agreed on the need for social and economic reforms in the RVN and national elections. In May a government decree set up a committee to draft election laws and procedures. In September 1966, a 117-member constituent assembly was elected. It met in Saigon the next month to begin drafting a constitution, which was completed in March 1967. The new constitution provided for a president who had wide powers and a premier and cabinet responsible to a bicameral legislature (the new upper house was commonly referred to as the Senate) with strengthened authority. The judiciary was also to be coequal to the executive and legislative branches. The president would serve a four-year term and could stand for reelection once. The president still had wide powers, including command of the armed forces and the ability to promulgate laws and initiate legislation. The two-house legislature was to be chosen by universal suffrage and secret ballot.
Local elections were held in May 1967 with elections for the Lower House in October. The constitution allowed for political parties, but it specifically forbade those promoting communism "in any form." Unfortunately, the complex electoral law involved the use of ten-member lists, and voters in 1967 had to choose from 48 such slates, a process that favored well-organized voting blocks.
Tensions were high between Ky and Thieu. At first the two men got along fairly well, but then both openly vied for control of the government. Ky was later sharply critical of Thieu, who he said "wanted power and glory but not to have to do the dirty work." Although the more senior Thieu had stepped aside in 1965 to allow Ky to take the premier's post, his determination to challenge Ky for the highest office in the September 3, 1967 elections led the Armed Forces Council to force the two men onto a joint ticket, giving the presidential nomination to Thieu and the vice-presidential nomination to Ky simply on the basis of military seniority. The Thieu-Ky ticket won the election with only 34.8 percent of the vote; the remaining vote was split among ten other slates.
Thieu gradually consolidated power. As with his predecessors, he ruled in authoritarian fashion. He was, however, more responsive to the Buddhists, Montagnards, and peasants. He arranged for distribution of land to some 50,000 families, and by 1968 he had secured passage of laws that froze rents and forbade landowners from evicting tenants. Thieu also restored local elections. By 1969, 95 percent of villages under RVN control had elected chiefs and councils. Village chiefs also received control over the local Popular Forces (PFs) and some central government financial support.
After the United States began the withdrawal of its forces in 1969, Thieu was faced with the challenge of replacing U.S. military units. In 1970 he mobilized many high school and college students for the war effort. This brought considerable opposition, which in turn led to arrests and trials. Increases in the numbers of draftees and in taxes produced a surge of support for the Communists.
On March 26, 1971 Thieu presented land to 20,000 people in an impressive ceremony in accordance with passage of the Land-to-Tiller Act, which turned over land to those who worked it. This reduced tenancy to only 7 percent. The government took responsibility to compensate former landowners for the confiscated land.
In 1971 Thieu pushed through a new election law that had the practical effect of disqualifying his major opponents, Ky and Duong Van Minh. It required that candidates obtain the support of at least 40 national assembly members or 100 provincial/municipal councilors. Opposition groups argued that the purpose of the new law was to exclude them from political power. The Senate rejected the law, but it was reinstated by the Lower House, the result of bribery and intimidation. Although the Supreme Court ruled that Ky, who had charged Thieu's government with corruption, might run, he chose not to do so. Duong Van Minh, the other chief candidate, also dropped out. Thieu's reelection in October 1971 made one-man rule a reality and did serious injury to the RVN government's image abroad.
In October 1972 Thieu announced his opposition to the agreement negotiated in Paris by the DRV and the United States and torpedoed it. Following massive bombing of the North, in January 1973 Hanoi and Washington then concluded a new agreement, which was this time imposed on Saigon. The last American combat troops left South Vietnam at the end of March. Vietnamization imposed severe hardships on the RVN. Although the United States turned over massive amounts of equipment to the RVN, Congress curtailed funding. This severely reduced the ability of South Vietnamese forces to fight the high-technology war for which they had been trained.
In January 1974 Thieu announced the renewal of the war. In August under increasing pressure over Watergate and his handling of the war, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and the RVN lost its most ardent supporter. In January 1975 the Communists began a major offensive in the Central Highlands. Years of warfare and corruption and the loss of U.S. support all sapped the will of the South Vietnamese to resist. Thieu's response to this was at best poor, and his precipitous abandonment of the Central Highlands was a disaster. Ky later charged that Thieu turned a tactical withdrawal into a rout that led to the eventual disintegration of the entire RVN military. ARVN resistance now collapsed, and, with Communist forces closing in the capital, on April 25 Thieu departed the country for Taiwan. Three days later, Vice-President Tran Van Huong transferred authority as chief of state to General Duong Van Minh. On April 30, Communist forces captured Saigon. Minh formally surrendered to Colonel Bai Tin, the highest-ranking officer of the Communist forces. The Communists now occupied Doc Lap Palace, and the Republic of Vietnam came to an end.