Vietnam: From Geneva Agreements to the Start of War (1954-1960)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

Ngo Dinh Diem

At the Far Eastern Conference in Geneva, a new Vietnamese politician emerged on the international scene. Ngo Dinh Diem was a politician from central Vietnam who had been appointed prime minister of South Vietnam, a new entity created at Geneva that included the city of Hue where he had grown up. He faced many problems—many of the South Vietnamese politicians had fought alongside the French and viewed the new country as a betrayal of the sacrifice of the French soldiers and their Vietnamese allies. They saw that the promise of a referendum in two years on reunification as a proverbial “sword of Damocles” hanging over them, and many left the country, or made plans to do so. For the Vietnamese Communists who lived south of the new boundary, some decided to leave for the north, but others decided to stay and organize for the referendum they felt sure they would win.

The United States undertook, privately and publicly, to help South Vietnam and immediately organized a flotilla of boats to assist 900,000 North Vietnamese, mainly Catholics, to resettle in the south. These people, the United States thought, would be loyal to the new South Vietnamese government and allow it, backed by the United States, to become a bastion against communism.

This commitment coincided with the signing of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, which was organized by the United States to help with its new policy of containment of communism. Drawing together France, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and Pakistan, member states, unlike those in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were not automatically obliged to mount a mutual defense if any one of them was attacked. It did allow the United States, however, to send advisors to South Vietnam.

Born in 1901 in Hue, Ngo Dinh Diem was a devout Roman Catholic, but was influenced by Confucianism. He attended the Quoc Hoc school where his father was headmaster and declined a scholarship to study in France, briefly considering becoming a monk, or at any rate joining the priesthood as had his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc. He had then entered the civil service as had his oldest brother Ngo Dinh Khoi, which led to his appointment as minister of the interior in 1932. However he had resigned after two months in a protest against French interference in what he felt was his area of responsibility. Diem then spent the decade from 1933 until 1945 living with his mother in Hue, and in 1945 was traveling from Saigon to Hue to urge Bao Dai not to form an alliance with Ho Chi Minh when he was captured by the Viet Minh and taken to a highland village near the Chinese border. There he learned that Ngo Dinh Khoi and his son had been murdered by the Viet Minh. Six months later Diem met Ho Chi Minh who denied having any part in the killing of Khoi. Diem then returned to Hue and, in 1950, left Vietnam. He had stated that he planned to attend the Holy Year celebration at the Vatican, but instead he went to the United States and spent two years in New Jersey at the Maryknoll Seminary at Lakewood where he started training for the monkhood. While in the United States he made important connections with U.S. Roman Catholic political figures such as Cardinal Spellman of New York and John F. Kennedy.

In May 1953, Diem moved to a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, which served as his base for frequent visits to the French capital. In Paris his youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, was urging the Vietnamese community there to endorse Diem as their leader, and on June 18, 1954, Bao Dai had placed a crucifix before Diem and made him pledge to defend Vietnam against the Communists. After leaving Bao Dai’s chateau, Diem returned to Paris and from there flew to Saigon, arriving on June 26, 1954. He was greeted by about 500 mainly Roman Catholics who had gathered to support him.

In the true Confucian mold, Diem was to rely on his family who were his most loyal supporters. His older brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, a priest, became archbishop of Hue and the dean of the Catholic Episcopacy of Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Nhu became Diem’s “Supreme Advisor” and was minister of the interior, controlling the police. Ngo Dinh Can was later appointed governor of central Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Luyen was sent to London as ambassador to the Court of St. James. Nhu’s father-in-law, Tran Van Chuong, became ambassador to Washington, D.C., and his brother, Tran Van Do, served as foreign minister between 1954 and 1955.

When Diem arrived in Saigon he faced a major political battle with General Nguyen Van Hinh, the chief of staff of the armed forces who insisted he should control the country—Bao Dai initially felt it was unsafe to return, and then Diem refused to let him come back. Diem persuaded Bao Dai to invite Hinh to France for consultations. Hinh, a French citizen, then went into exile. In this move, as in so many others in the next few years, Diem had the help of the U.S. government. The Americans were eager to see a strong anticommunist government established in a viable South Vietnam with a popular government.

The Consolidation of the Diem Government

Although the United States had sent advisers to Vietnam to assist the French, a few weeks before Diem arrived in Saigon, Edward Lansdale, an agent with the Office of Strategic Services, moved to Saigon and established the Saigon Military Mission. Lansdale was the model for the character of Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) and for Colonel Edwin Hillendale in The Ugly American (1958) by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. His aim was to assist the new South Vietnamese government and used in this endeavor Major Lucien E. Conein, an American who had been born in Paris, France. Conein had grown up in Kansas, returning to France to fight alongside the French resistance during World War 11. Lansdale and Conein formed groups of Vietnamese “stay-behind” agents who remained in North Vietnam and sabotaged the Communist efforts. At the same time Lansdale organized the transportation of the 900,000 northerners who were settled in South Vietnam from whom the new Diem government could recruit soldiers.

After winning the confrontation with General Hinh, Diem then moved against the Binh Xuyen gangsters who controlled the Saigon police. Diem ordered them out of his capital on April 27, 1955; the Binh Xuyen responded by shelling the presidential palace. By the end of May, Diem was victorious and Bay Vien, the gangster leader, went into exile in France. In a curious twist, some of the Bin Xuyen supporters ended up allied to the Communists. He also moved against the Hoa Hao, a millenarian sect; and their leader, Ba Cut, was finally captured in 1956, tried, and publicly guillotined soon afterwards.

Deciding to test his popularity, Diem held a referendum on October 23, 1955 on whether he should run the country, or whether Bao Dai should remain in charge. The ballot papers for Diem showed him in a suit and were red, signifying good luck. Those for Bao Dai were green, the Vietnamese color for misfortune, and Bao Dai was in imperial regalia, which he had not worn for nearly 10 years. Official returns showed that Diem had won with 98.2 percent of the vote. There was certainly intimidation of Bao Dai supporters at the polling stations even though it was unnecessary. Diem would have clearly won a free vote, but his U.S. advisers had come to realize that he was becoming intolerant of dissent. On October 26, 1955, the Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed, with a new flag—yellow with three red stripes. These signified the three parts of Vietnam: Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina, as well as the three rivers of Vietnam, the Red River in the north, the Perfume River in central Vietnam, and the Mekong River in the south, with yellow representing the soil of the country.

Other symbolic changes were made in Saigon. Many streets were renamed: Rue De Gaulle was renamed Duong Ngo Dinh Khoi, after Diem’s older brother who had been killed by the Viet Minh; and Boulevard de la Somme was renamed Dai Lo Ham Nghi after the emperor who fought the French. Armand Rousseau, a street named for the French governor-general of Indochina in 1895–1896, was renamed Jean-Jacques Rousseau, after the French philosopher, in an attempt to keep much of the name, while also illustrating the French influence on the Diem government. The Boulevard named after Lord Kitchener, the British World War I soldier and statesman, was renamed after Nguyen Thai Hoc, the man who had founded the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, the VNQDD. The street named for the French Commander de Lattre de Tassigny did not change.

Diem started a series of highly publicized tours of the countryside where he met with many villagers who, for the first time in their lives, were able to see the leader of their country. Rallies staged to show support for Diem were probably unnecessary, as the villagers appreciated his visits and his popularity grew. A massive land reform program was undertaken, which the U.S. government supported and financed. The aim was to break up the landholdings of the landlords and allow the peasant farmers to own their own land. It was a system that had worked well in Taiwan and Japan, and would have been successfully implemented in South Vietnam had Diem not insisted on raising the size of land that landlords could keep and exempting land that had been used for family burials. With many wealthy families having grave sites around their properties, the real redistribution of land to the peasants slowly ground to a halt with less and less land available for redistribution. Diem also insisted that the peasants pay for the land they had seized during the war against the French.

It was not long before Diem started moving against the Communist movement itself. The Communists had expected a referendum to be held in 1956, but with neither the South Vietnamese government nor the U.S. government having signed that part of the Geneva Agreement, it was clear by early 1956 that Diem had no intention of holding the referendum. He argued that not only had he not signed any undertaking to hold a referendum, but that any referendum that was held would be unfair. Communists had been able to organize in South Vietnam, certainly up until the start of 1956, but the non-Communists were not allowed to campaign in North Vietnam, and a referendum where nearly half the population would be used as a bloc vote by the Communists would deliver an inevitable Communist victory.

Diem’s security forces drew up lists of Communists and suspected Communists—or to be more precise they updated already existing French lists. They identified people who had relatives who had gone north or who had fought alongside the Communists and earmarked them for arrest and interrogation. By the end of 1956, it was clear that no referendum was going to be held in South Vietnam, and there were, curiously, only muted protests from North Vietnam.

It was also necessary to move against the Cao Dai (High Tower) sect. It had been founded in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant in the colonial government whose ideas merged the philosophical concepts of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Daoism, and Christianity, gaining much support in Cochinchina. The religion involved the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, with a focus also on Joan of Arc, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare (who had not been mentioned in mainstream Cao Dai literature since 1935), Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, and V. I. Lenin. From its headquarters at Tay Ninh, the main church of the Cao Dai, the sect managed to avoid a direct confrontation with the Diem government, reluctantly supporting the South Vietnamese government against the Communists.

The Creation of North Vietnam

During the establishment of Communist rule over North Vietnam in 1954, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh returned to Hanoi, which they had left nine years earlier. Some of the Communist leadership assumed that the referendum in 1956 would easily deliver them the south of the country, or that the South would collapse of its own accord, and they set about turning North Vietnam into a communist economy.

Unlike Diem, Ho Chi Minh never had any sects or army dissidents to challenge his rule, and the French left the north in an orderly fashion, although they did take with them many prefabricated buildings and the contents of post offices, schools, libraries, and hospitals. They even took their dead from the Hanoi Military Cemetery. The first problem faced by Ho Chi Minh was feeding the people of the north, and the Soviet Union paid for emergency rice shipments from Burma.

Many of the Communist Party leaders did not fit in well with their new role as leaders of the government of a country. They had been leading a resistance war against the French for nine years, and many had been fighting the French for a great deal longer than that. They now had to set up and operate a health service and schools, repair roads and bridges that were destroyed in the war or had simply worn out, and build up the infrastructure of the country. The first postage stamps were issued in October 1954, showing Ho Chi Minh with the Soviet Prime Minister Malenkov on his left and Mao Zedong on his right. It was not until 1958 that North Vietnam was able to print new banknotes to replace those printed in Czechoslovakia in 1951 that had been the official currency of the country from 1954. Also in 1958 the first North Vietnamese coins were issued.

The first process of turning North Vietnam into a communist country was to categorize all the people into five groups: the landlords; the bourgeoisie; members of religious groups; and workers and peasants. The “landlord” class represented 5 percent of the population, and the Communists sought to identify them and, in many cases, execute them out of hand. Tribunals had to achieve their quotas, with some peasants manufacturing evidence against rivals either to settle old scores, or to be able to seize their land when the family that they had denounced had been executed. According to several accounts, tribunals were unable to find enough landlords to meet their quotas and chose people at random. Anybody who had a family member who worked for the French was suspect, and suspicions often led to denunciations, which could, in turn, lead to execution.

By August 1956, the land reform program in North Vietnam had gone horribly wrong with, tens of thousands of people held in forced labor camps. Even Ho Chi Minh was forced to publicly admit to errors having been made. This situation led to more chaos, as prisoners were then quickly released, and perpetrators of the “errors” were denounced and arrested. On November 2, 1956, a peasant uprising took place in Nghe An province, Ho Chi Minh’s home area, with peasants protesting to members of the International Control Commission. Ho Chi Minh urged for moderation, and with much of the world focusing on the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in Europe, the specter of international communism looked bad.

Reacting to the situation, the Communist government purged Truong Chinh, the general secretary of the Communist Party, and he was made the scapegoat for the excesses of the government. During 1956, North Vietnam was hardly able to hold its own referendum for the reunification of Vietnam even had it wanted so to do. By 1959, with their currency in tatters, the North Vietnamese were forced to introduce a currency revaluation.

Dissension in South Vietnam

When Ngo Dinh Diem first arrived in Saigon in 1954, the people he most feared were the South Vietnamese elite. By 1958, however, he had shown them that he was capable of restoring and maintaining law and order in the country, and he had the support of the United States. Many had even accepted that Diem would use his family to run the country; after all Vietnam had been a feudal country for much of its history. Reports on the activities in North Vietnam horrified people in South Vietnam, many of whom had a liking for “Uncle Ho,” as Ho Chi Minh was affectionately known, even if they were not Communists.

Gradually, however, resentment grew regarding the high-handed way in which Diem ran his government. Many of the intellectuals in Saigon and Hue were not that concerned about the lack of true democracy. Vietnam, after all, did not have a democratic tradition. Some did resent the promotion of Roman Catholics in the civil service and the army, but they were more troubled by the seeming inflexibility of the new regime. Initially the dissent showed itself in minor ways, with some people not opting to use postage stamps with Diem on them. For the U.S. government, it seems to be an awkward period, but it still did not flinch in its support for Diem.

In 1959, Vietnam celebrated the anniversary of the Trung sisters who had led the rebellion against the Chinese 1,920 years earlier. Diem’s sister-in-law, the vivacious Mme. Nhu, organized the construction of a statue in Saigon to commemorate the sisters, modeling them on her own image and thereby implying she was a reincarnation of them. The statue was unveiled in 1962. When North Vietnam revalued its currency in March 1959, the first postage stamps they issued with the new currency symbolically commemorated the sisters, although the South Vietnamese postal service did not commemorate them until 1974.

Soon after the celebrations for the anniversary of the Trung Sisters, in August 1959, legislative assembly elections were held in South Vietnam. The aim was to introduce a democratic system, and opposition candidates were invited to stand against members of Diem’s Can Lao (Personalist Labor) Party. Although peasants were encouraged to vote, many found themselves pressured into voting for Diem’s candidates, with troops based in Saigon delivering bloc votes for the regime. The official returns showed a turnout of 86 percent, with 460 candidates standing for the 123 seats—333 standing as independents. The results were never in doubt, with all but two seats won by parties or independents who supported Diem.

Not long after the election some South Vietnamese politicians and military figures drew up plans for a coup d’état. The coup centered on Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong, originally from northern Vietnam, who had fought for the French. An anticommunist, he had trained at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and had become angry at the way that Diem interfered with military operations. On the morning of November 11, 1960, the rebel soldiers surrounded the presidential palace. It was certainly a naïve coup attempt. No one had cut the telephone lines from the palace, allowing Diem to call loyal units. In the fighting that resulted, 400 were killed—rebels, loyalists, and civilians who wandered into the line of fire.

The real problems facing South Vietnam, however, were not rebel commanders, but the Communists. In October 1957, Communists in South Vietnam received instructions from Hanoi to start organizing armed groups. Ho Chi Minh still urged the southern Communists as late as 1959 not to engage in armed attacks on the Diem government. With the southern Communists anxious for action, however, the government of North Vietnam was split. Le Duan had come from Quang Tri province, part of South Vietnam, in fact on the southern side of the border, and he constantly urged North Vietnam to support the southern Communists, eventually managing to persuade Truong Chinh and then Ho Chi Minh.

On December 20, 1960, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam was proclaimed at a secret location near the Vietnamese border with Cambodia. Its aim was to mobilize public sentiment against the Diem government by bringing together a range of political groups opposed to Diem. It proclaimed its support for land reform, personal freedoms, and democracy, with no reference to communism. The formation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL), as it became known, marked the start of a civil war between those who saw the NFL as a southern group that received support from the North, or a foreign invasion for those who saw it as a communist “front” organization founded and controlled by Hanoi.