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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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Tuesday, January 03, 2006
 

A dedicated Diem book!


I refer to America's Miracle Man In Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention In Southeast Asia 1950-1957 by Seth Jacobs.

On the question of alternatives to Diem, Jacobs denies my suggestion earlier that there were none (p4):
...anticommunism and ignorance of local political realities are insufficient to explain why America opted to sink or swim with Diem rather than some other South Vietnamese. As the record of administrative deliberations in the mid-1950s makes plain, several popular, qualified, and irreproachably anticommunist politicians in Saigon presented attractive alternatives to Diem, and every member of President Dwight Eisenhower's policy -making coterie was aware of their existence; indeed, one aspirant, former defense minister Phan Huy Quat, come close to unseating Diem, as J Lawton Collins, Eisenhower's "special representative" in Vietnam, relentlessly badgered Washington to effect such a change in command. Other suitable candidates included Foreign Affairs Minister Tran Van Do and General Nguyen Van Hinh. These men had all established their anticommunism, and all had greater political experience than Diem. Yet none was able to secure the backing of the Eisenhower administration.

Moreover, the contention that Diem initially governed South Vietnam as a liberal reformer and become an autocrat only in the final months of his reign - a narrative that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations promulgated in the early to mid-1960s - is simply false. Evaluations composed by American observers during Diem's first days in office identified the very same qualities that would bring about his assassination nine years later: discrimination against non-Catholics, refusal to share power, and easy resort to violence to quell dissent. None of these idiosyncrasies ought to have come as a surprise to Eisenhower, his chief advisers or those molders of American public opinion - the press lords Henry Luce and DeWitt Wallace, Senators Mike Mansfield and John F Kennedy, "celebrity saint" Tom Dooley, and others - who championed Diem in the 1950s and helped bankroll his despotism. Diem never pretended to be anything other than what he was, and he never changed.


Jacobs says
I propose to demonstrate how a particular body of ideas about religion and race helped cement the Eisenhower administration's alliance with Diem.

I have a theory...

On p25, he names Rep Walter Judd as one of Diem's groupies. Diem's
...Catholicism endeared him to elite figures in the Eisenhower administration and made him stand out among possible candidates for America's cold war surrogate in Saigon. Moreover, widespread assumptions that Asians were culturally, and perhaps racially, unready for democratic self-government predisposed US policymakers to excuse Diem's overtly dictatorial ambitions as appropriate for Vietnam.

[I'm assuming he checked that Quat, Do and Hinh [1] weren't Catholics!]

On his first days in the Land of the Free:
Diem first set foot on American soil in late August 1950...he came with impressive references. Edmund Gullion of the American embassy in Saigon informed [Acheson] that Diem was "the chief leader of the Vietnamese Catholics" and speculated that his visit might heighten Catholic awareness of "the communist danger to Viet-Nam."

The Ambassador in Tokyo had warm words on Diem's stopover and the State Department's Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs [2] threw a party for him.

He brought his brother, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc [3], who outdid his bro at State:
James Webb, acting secretary of state, cabled the Saigon embassy, "We were impressed that Thuc, through the Catholics, might be [an] important figure in [the] present IC [Indochina] complex...The [i]nfluence of Thuc's clerical background and position[,] with its evident bearing on his thinking[,] was apparent." Diem on the other hand, struck officials as "less precise, realistic, and authoritative...He fits more into [the] mold of [a] present-day Vietnamese politician, steeped in Oriental intrigue."

No facile stereotypes there, my word, no!

There's a flavour of the old Southern voting tests for Negroes in this, perhaps:
[The Ngos] were...incapable of advancing any strategy whereby the United States could displace the French in Indochina without damaging the recently inaugurated [NATO], and proved similarly unable to explain how American forces, nearly expelled from the Korean peninsula just weeks before, could fight two land wars in Asia at the same time. Diem in particular irritated Webb with his "resort to generalities." "Like other prominent Vietnamese," the acting secretary complains, "Diem is...either incapable or unwilling to [sic] offer any constructive solution to [the] current dilemma other than vague and defamatory ref[erence]s to Fr[ance] and implications that only [the] US can solve [the] problem, thru him of course."

The Ngos stayed a month in the US before leaving for Europe. Some contacts with 'lower-level functionaries' in the administration, but
associating primarily with clergymen and other individuals active in Catholic circles.

Dean Rusk wrote to one Father Frederick McGuire, an ex-missionary to Indochina and adviser to State, calling them
valuable allies in our common endeavor to preserve the rights of free men in Indochina.

That is, free in the sense used in the famous expression of the Truman Doctrine!

Rusk said the Ngos had
expressed themselves eager...to remain in touch with the Catholic clergy of the United States.

I bet.

This visit was, it seems, without fanfare:
No American newspaper mentioned Diem's visit...

Later on (p41), we get some more on some
individuals active in Catholic circles
that Diem kept in touch with.

Justice William O Douglas had Diem proofread sections on Vietnam in his war memoirs, in the preface of which he said that Diem was
a hero in Central and North Vietnam, with a considerable following in the South, too...Diem is revered by the Vietnamese because he is honest and independent.

And they say Clarence Thomas is not over-bright! Or - Heaven forefend! - perhaps he was lying...

He gave Diem a big leg-up, though, in introducing him to Mike Mansfield:
Nicknamed "China Mike," Mansfield was Congress's foremost authority on Asia, having been a professor of Far Eastern history before his election to the House of Representatives in 1942. The war in the Pacific generated a demand for individuals with Mansfield's academic background, and he acquired a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee despite his lack seniority. In 1944, [FDR] sent him on a fact-finding trip to India, Burma, and China. Although FDR subsequently showed little interest in Mansfield's report, and despite the fact that Mansfield's criticism of Chiang Kai-shek left him vulnerable to attacks from McCarthyites after the Chinese communists won their civil war, the Montanan gained notoriety from this junketing.

Mansfield's specialisms were Japan and China; he said in 1949:
I do not know too much about the Indochina situation. I do not think that anyone does.

How's that for water's-edge Yankee arrogance! Borah in his prime couldn't have been sniffier [4].

The Livingstone-Stanley moment came
at a luncheon hosted by Douglas at the Supreme Court Building on 7 May 1953 [which] may have been one of the most fateful encounters of the postwar era. Also present at Douglas's luncheon were Senator John F Kennedy, Cardinal Spellman, Gene Gregory of the State Department, and Representative Zablocki, soon to become chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When asked years later about the apparent religious homogeneity of the gathering, Mansfield insisted, "It wasn't a question of religion - the fact that we were all Catholics was just coincidental."

Yup.

Jacobs says China Mike wasn't a bigot. But goes straight on with a strange sentence:
The same, however, could be said for Douglas who followed up his tribute to Diem in North from Malaya with a denunciation of the Buddhist church of Vietnam...
It teaches very little social or community responsibility.

I assume that a not is missing between could and be. And Buddhism is hardly a church - Jacobs, not Douglas speaking.

Plus, as Jacobs said, most Viet Minh were Buddhist. He quotes the case of John Provoo, an American sergeant and Japanese POW accused of aiding the mistreatment of American POWs in the camp he was confined in. He was rumoured to be a Buddhist. And there is some connection with Douglas (on the next page - not available online!) [5].

  1. Vietnamese names are tricky.

  2. Formerly Office of Far Eastern Affairs - both colloquially known as FE - Richard Weigle's oral history interview explains. The post-doctoral grade at Dean Acheson's Cowardly College of Communist Containment; Truman-era witchhunt firings there supposedly explain (in part) the subsequent pisspoor performance of US Vietnam policy.

    Who got at the guys at State even before Diem arrived? The UW list of online FRUS volumes does not include Vol VI of 1950 - East Asia and the Pacific - full list.

  3. The celebrations for whose 25th anniversary of ordination sparked the Buddhist crisis of 1963, as related here.

  4. Jacobs gets in an anachronistic PC jibe at Mansfield:
    ...his greater familiarity with the big powers of Asia did not preclude Mansfield from referring to the Japanese as "these small, myopic, buck-toothed sons of Nippon" or declaring that 'the Chinese smile and mean it; the Japanese smile and do not mean it. The Chinese are reasonable; the Japanese fanatical."
    I'd be fairly certain that this would have been said during or shortly after WW2. Jesus!

    (If his point is that the learned shouldn't stereotype, I'd tend to agree with it. If it is they did, but no longer do, I'd doubt he'd got the evidence.)

  5. Provo is remarkably small of online footprint. This says
    The most famous person to be caught under the sodomy law was John Provoo, a former Army sergeant who had his treason conviction overturned because his homosexuality had been injected into the trial by the prosecution. In 1958, he received three years in a reformatory for a "morals charge" involving an 18-year-old "boy."
    A footnote gives the dead-tree references to the treason cases.

    There is also this (PDF).



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