Diem’s Failing Popularity

This essay was written for the Cold War World Mid-Term 0 while I was in 11th grade at Winchester Thurston School for American History with Dr. Michael Naragon.

Carlos Macasaet
April 10, 2000
Mid-Term Essay 5

From the time the United States secured his position as the political leader of South Vietnam, in 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem never commanded much support. �As he continued to his popularity declined while simultaneously popularity for the National Liberation Front (NLF) increased.� There are several explanations for this.

Diem’s policies while he was in power caused him to be hated by many people.� In 1955, one year after coming to power, Diem sent thousands of Vietnamese civilians to concentration camps.� Then, in a carefully controlled election, he ensured that he received a majority vote to become president of the Republic of South Vietnam.� In 1959, he passed Law 10/59, which allowed the use of political prison camps and the arrest of those deemed to be dangerous to the state.� It also declared that military courts would replace civilian courts.� The penalty for crimes against the state was to be death — breaking farm equipment was considered treason and therefore also punishable by death.� It also stated that there were to be no demonstrations of more than seven people.� His rule was so tyrannical and corrupt that he actually alienated himself from his people as well as from the other members of SEATO.

The National Liberation Front was created by the Communist Party of Vietnam.� The Party’s original intent, in 1956, was to reunify the country through politics.� When they failed to bring down Diem’s Regime, however, they were convinced that political pressure was not enough.� They eventually resolved to use a combination of political and violent methods to achieve their goals.� This resulted in the creation of a united front that on December 20, 1960, became the National Liberation Front.

The main aim of the NLF as articulated in the “Program of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam” was to overthrow America’s colonial rule and establish a national democratic government.� They believed that they had the best interests of Vietnam in mind.� Their goals, however, seemed to oppose Diem’s government in every way.� They wanted a liberal and democratic regime, something that Diem claimed to offer while the actual government more closely resembled a tyranny.� When the NLF was first established, it was open to communists and non-communists alike as long as they opposed Diem.� It therefore amassed much support as many people opposed Diem.

The floundering regime, however, lost even more popularity when the United States tried to help stabilize it.� In order to aid Diem, the Kennedy administration sent advisors to assess the situation.� When they returned, one of the programs suggested was the Strategic Hamlet Program.� This program was used successfully by the British in Malaysia to suppress communist insurgencies.� It called for the creation of hamlets, which were small, fortified autonomous communities.� However, aside from discouraging entry into the hamlets, the fortifications also seemingly imprisoned those inside.� The Strategic Hamlet Program, however, had a detrimental effect on the popularity of the Diem regime in the rural areas of South Vietnam.� In the past, Diem’s policies didn’t directly affect those who were not in the cities.� This program uprooted many villagers from their ancestral land, thus extending the South Vietnamese political arena to the countryside.� As a result of this, NLF ranks increased.

The event that contributed the most to the simultaneous decrease in popularity for Diem and the increased popularity for the NLF occurred in the summer of 1963.� By this point, the NLF had forced the struggling Diem government to the edge of political breakdown.� In response to this, Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu raided Buddhist installations in South Vietnam on the basis that they were granting asylum to communists who were causing the nation’s political instability.� In the protests that ensued, one Buddhist monk publicly set himself on fire.� Most Vietnamese saw this as a sign that the “will of heaven[1]” had shifted away from Diem and that therefore, it was time for revolution.� A military coup soon followed in which Diem’s own generals turned their tanks at the palace.� Diem managed to escape but he was later assassinated.

Footnotes:

[1] Traditionally, the Vietnamese believed that a leader has the authority to rule because he is backed by the will of heaven.� When it becomes clear that a leader is no longer backed by the will of heaven, it is time for revolution.

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