The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, December 31, 2005

That strange love for Diem

Previously, in my delving into the history of the Vietnam War, I've worked outward from the Tonkin Gulf Incidents of 1964, back to the start of the breakthrough into public consciousness of the flakiness of the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem [1] starting with the Buddhist Crisis (notably, the self-immolation of Quang Duc; and forward to LBJ's 1965 decision to go big (without anyone noticing till it was way too late).

Without the great time-eater that is online, I've had the leisure to delve further back via the dead tree.

The French war is thoroughly depressing, and mostly hippogriff country to me [2]. But the emergence of Diem as Uncle Sam's favourite has caught my imagination.

It was, it seems, a left-footer thing.

The idea that a Catholic politician ipso facto could not offer an undivided allegiance to the US had long been a bar to the presidency. In JFK, the idea lost its power; but the fact he still had to address it [3] is striking.

In Diem, we find enough evidence of Catholic interference in US politics to give a KKK plenty of straw to build bricks with!

Most of South Vietnam was Buddhist. (Or animist. Not Catholic, at least.) Diem, though, as with many in the elite, was Catholic. And hated the French - which pressed the anti-colonial buttons of certain liberal(ish) US pols such as - the afore-mentioned JFK.

Diem chose to sit out the French war in the US, in a seminary of the Maryknoll mission [4]. There was, it seems, much fraternisation with Cardinal Spellman, generalissimo of American Catholics [5], and hobnobbing with some Catholic pols - including JFK - under the aegis of the International Rescue Committee and the American Friends of Vietnam.

Where, in their minds, the need to defend against Soviet hegemony ended and that to protect Catholicism in Vietnam began, I know not. The religion was, certainly, one of the few features that the average American Catholic would have with that land far away.

The suggestion in some quarters is that Diem was groomed by a cabal of leading American Catholics as a puppet successor (with Uncle Sam pulling the strings) to the fast-crumbling colonial regime.

A reason (not, perhaps, a very important one) for US loyalty to Diem in the face of the evidence. (More important, I suspect, was the persisent low salience of Vietna m, compared to Hungary, Suez, Quemoy and Matsu, Berlin, etc.)

Much more to tease out there.

There is also the question of media coverage. The general imperative was the Cold War Consensus. No need, by and large, to tell the media to Get on the team. They were on the team [6].

Usually. One exception was Albert M Colegrove [7]. I first came across the guy (mispelled as Colegrave) in a useful but colourful piece of journalism, Livre Jaune du Viet-Nam by Hélène Tournaire (1966 p 307), as the author of a series of articles for the Scripps-Howard chain unveiling the misappropriation of US aid on a vast scale [8].

Why the low impact? One can guess: the low salience of Vietnam, the Consensus, the stenography of objective journalism (no statement, no story). But this is clearly no substitute for actual facts.

In delving into the Eisenhower years, one is hampered by the fact that the Vietnam FRUS volumes for the period are not online at the State Department site. (The Kennedy and Johnson volumes are - go figure.)

There is an alternative site at the University of Wisconsin which has 200 odd volumes of FRUS (1861-1960) and is hoping to complete its set. (Inconveniently, it's in image form - but beggars can't be choosers.) None of the Eisenhower Vietnam volumes have made it yet, though.

Also on the list of things to investigate is the strange case of the Michigan State University Group (MSUG), whose dabbling in South Vietnam in the 1950s (in partnership with the CIA - who else?) seems utterly bizarre at a distance [9].

  1. Homer Bigart's Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem was the reality of US policy almost up to the end.

  2. There are interesting interludes - the advent of General Gracey and his Indian Army contingent (one of the final adventures of that outfit before Partition), for instance; or the drutherful period of the March 6 1946 agreement and Voice of Reason Jean Sainteny - but nothing to have got me into the detail yet. (Sainteny, by the way, spoke in the BBC series transcribed in the book Many Reasons Why.)

  3. There's a speech; help yourself to the link!

  4. How many other knolls with a JFK connection, I wonder?

    The full text of a Time article is available - for how long? - dated April 4 1955, under hed The Beleagured Man.

    The seminary was at Lakehurst, NJ, location of the loss of the airship Hindenburg. Another not-so-good omen.

  5. An iron grip, it seems, to match that of John Charles McQuaid in Ireland.

  6. Just like the New York Times and the bugging story.

  7. Who I had not heard of before. He doesn't appear in Hallin's Uncensored War, for instance.

  8. Eisenhower was at his Heep-ish worst in a letter to Diem dated August 26 1959. The notes to the letter don't identify Colegrove, but do place the dates of the series as July 20-25 1959, as well as giving information on the (perfunctory) Congressional investigations of Colegrove's allegations.
  9. A 1966 Ramparts article to be getting on with.

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