America’s One Man Democracy in Vietnam

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 2

“America ignored the Geneva Accords and propped up the government of Ngo Dinh Diem in order to promote democracy and to oppose tyranny.” Ironically, American efforts actually worked in opposing directions.�� This is a very true statement.� America wanted to prevent the spread of communism by ensuring that Ho Chi Minh did not extend communism to all of Vietnam.� To do this, America sought to establish a stable non-communist government based on popular support in South Vietnam.�

After being defeated at Dien Bien Phu, the French were forced to leave Vietnam after a hundred years of colonial rule.� The Geneva Peace Accords[1], signed in 1954, temporarily divided Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel until national elections, designed to reunify the country, would be held in 1956.� The United States like most anti-communists, however, did not support the Accords.� Secretary of State John Foster Dulles believed that the Accords gave the communists in Vietnam too much power.� The United States wanted to ensure that Ho Chi Minh did not establish authority south of the seventeenth parallel.� The American government believed that a communist regime in South Vietnam would pose a direct threat to national security and so they sought a counter-revolutionary alternative.� To avert this, American government convinced Emperor Bao Dai to name Ngo Dinh Diem as premier of South Vietnam in spring of 1955.� Diem was selected because he was a steadfast anti-communist and he had never joined forces with the French or the Japanese.� They believed that he would unify South Vietnam and later North Vietnam under his control.� America’s primary objective for Diem from 1954 to 1956 was to create a stable government rooted in popular support.� They, however, neglected to note that Diem was also ardently nationalist which meant that he would be wiling to listen to but then disregard American advice.� The United States also established the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization[2] (SEATO) in which was included the new U.S.-supported, Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN), or South Vietnam.�

Also in the spring of 1955, Ho Chi Minh, in accordance with the Geneva Accords, withdrew 100,000 Vietminh troops from the seventeenth parallel in anticipation of the 1956 election which he was confident he would win.� Lacking such confidence, Ngo Dinh Diem violated the Geneva Accords by sending between 15,000 and 50,000 Southern Vietnamese civilians to concentration camps in mid-1955.� This included workers for the Vietminh, who were preparing for the election and whose actions were protected by the Geneva Accords, as well as non-communist Buddhists who opposed the Diem regime.� Then in July of 1955, Diem refused to hold elections until Ho Chi Minh’s northern regime adopted democratic institutions.� It should be noted that at this point, the SEATO allies separated themselves from the United States and from Diem.� They hardly considered Diem’s government democratic and they argued that the Geneva Accords did not make democratic institutions pre-requisites for national elections as long as the elections were held in a democratic manner.� As a result of this, SEATO would not aid Diem in the case of an attack from the North.� This, however, did not faze Diem.� In October of 1955, with apparent American backing, Diem usurped Bao Dai’s position of emperor.� Then, in a carefully controlled election, Diem received 98.2% of the South Vietnamese vote.� On October 26, 1955, Diem was formally proclaimed president of the Republic of South Vietnam.�

Once in power, however, Diem faced much opposition and so he solicited the United States for support for his counter-revolutionary alternative arguing that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), or North Vietnam, was planning to take South Vietnam by force.� In 1957, with aid from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Diem identified and arrested thousands of people suspected of plotting to bring down his government.� In 1959, Diem passed Law 10/59, which was a series of acts that allowed the use of political prison camps and the imprisonment of anyone suspected of being communist without bringing formal charges.� It also stated that military courts would replace the civilian courts, that the penalty for crimes against the state would be punishable by death, that there were not to be demonstrations of more than seven people and that the destruction of farm equipment would be considered treason punishable by death.�

Despite Diem’s seemingly undemocratic rule, he had the full backing from the United States.� In order to justify its support, the United States sent several people to South Vietnam from the University of Michigan on a fact-finding mission.� However, because of the mentality of the United States during the cold war, they failed to see the truth of the situation in South Vietnam.� They went in looking for evidence of a democracy and came back proclaiming Diem as a “one man democratic ruler” — seemingly a contradiction in terms.� The United States, however, did not really care what kind of democracy Diem’s government was, as long as it was stable and rooted in popular support.� The fact-finders only reported the positive aspects of Diem�s rule and neglected everything else.� This report legitimized the rule of Diem and made the protection of South Vietnam a national interest for the United States.�

In essence, Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule was tyrannical and undemocratic in that it unjustly subjected laws upon people who had no say in their creation.� If this was America’s intent when it promoted Diem’s government, then it failed miserably.� By 1961, it became clear to the United States that Diem had failed to create a government rooted in popular support[3].� Diem’s only supporters were the Catholics and the military and he faced extreme opposition from the Viet Cong, which was determined to overthrow his regime.� At this time, America changed its policy towards South Vietnam, no longer relying on Diem.�


[1] The Geneva Peace Accords are available online at�
[2] Similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO signatories agreed to regard any attack on any of the member countries as an attack on all of them.
[3] 1961 was the year when it became obvious to the United States that Diem�s regime was not popularly supported; Diem had been unpopular since he came to power.

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