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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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

That Diem closing still elusive

It seems simple enough: to track down exactly when, why and how USG decided to greenlight our friend Ngo Dinh Diem as leader of SVN. I noted on January 10 that Seth Jacobs' book on Diem says the papers on the decision are not yet declassified. But that's no necessary bar to there being decent steers on the record (Uncle Bob Woodward fills shelves-full of books with that sort of stuff!).

It's not, of course, enough to point to the goodly number of important friends that Diem had garnered during his sojourn in the US from 1950 on (Spellman, Mansfield, Kennedy, etc); these folks had nuisance value, but, so long as the Eisenhower administration found a puppet with staunch anticommunist credentials [1], it could surely have fought the Diem groupies off (the leading lights of the AFV, if that's any guide, were mostly (?) liberals and Democrats).

Or to the fact that Diem was top of the list of sixteen discussed at the May 10 1954 State Department analysts meeting (January 10 piece mentioned above).

Morgan in his Vietnam Lobby (earlier pieces - via Google Books) gives the initiative in the choice of Diem as that of Bao Dai, of all people (p9):
He instructed his representatives in Europe to contact American diplomats, and he decided to appoint Diem as the SVN's prime minister since "Washington would not spare him its support."

He goes on to say,
[State Department] records make no mention of direct American involvement in Diem's selection until May 1954. At that time, Ngo Dinh Luyen, a brother of Diem who claimed he was acting on behalf of Bao Dai, told American diplomats in Geneva of the emperor's intention to appoint Diem as premier if the United States supported Bao Dai's decision.

Following this approach, Douglas Dillon, ambassador in Paris,
...met with Diem in the following weeks and told Washington that Diem's "apparent sincerity, patriotic fervor and honesty are refreshing." He nevertheless expressed doubts about Diem's abilities, calling Diem a "yogi-like mystic" who "may have little to offer other than to reiterate that the solution to the Vietnamese problem depends on the assumption of increased responsibilities by [the] US."

Quite how well placed Dillon was to make an assessment of Diem's abilities I know not. I tend to doubt whether he had the materials by which to compare Diem with the other candidates for the job! An evaluation in the abstract might be thought less than useful - unless it was merely to give cover for a decision already made.

He goes on,
Members of the Eisenhower administration nonetheless favored Diem's candidacy. A military cable in early June reported that "Diem has received support and encouragement from American official quarters and this may be a reason why Bao Dai is considering him for the post."

Pretty thin.

There is some anecdotage in support of Dulles as Diem's main champion:
John W Hanes, one of Dulles's assistant, later claimed that the secretary of state's support for Diem was "rammed through single-handedly, through our intelligence and military communities." In his memoirs, Bao Dai mentioned a conversation he had with Dulles before asking Diem to act as premier, and in The Lost Crusade, Chester Cooper writes of a meeting between Dulles and Bao Dai that dealt with the role Diem would play in preventing a Viet Minh takeover of Vietnam.

And some more fingering the CIA:
Robert Amory, who served as the CIA's deputy director of intelligence in the 1950s, asserted that Justice Douglas had initially sparked the agency's interest in Diem. Another senior CIA officer, Richard Dissell, later recalled that the VIA was "deeply involved" in winning support for Diem. A few accounts have noted that Ambassador William J Donovan, the founder of the OSS, and Lieutenant Colonel Edward G Landsdale, a CIA operative, appeared in Saigon shortly after Ngo Dinh Nhu, another of Diem's brothers, organized the Front for National Salvation [2], a group that promoted Diem's candidacy.

Nhu as another of Diem's brothers indeed!

All in all, barely more than gossip.

The striking thing is how late, according to what I'm reading, the US started to contemplate a Plan B to deal with a French withdrawal from Indochina. The stuff that I've seen - the Pentagon Papers commentary, for instance - on the discussions (mostly in April 1954) within USG of possible US military intervention in support of Dien Bien Phu does not suggest that a twin track approach was then in operation. I find that hard to believe.

The May 10 meeting at State supports the idea that, whether or not a Plan B was in contemplation during the DBP discussions, actual decisions assuming a French loss had been put off [3].

The altogether weak and unsatisfactory treatment of question in Vietnam Lobby [4] suggests the Who chose Diem? question is currently beyond answering. I rather doubt that - but I think, for the moment, I'll leave it there.

  1. Someone who had actually fought against the Viet Minh, for example!

  2. No sign online of this organisation; or National Salvation Front or Front de salut national either, as relevant to Vietnam in 1954.

  3. It's interesting to note that NSC 5405, United States Objectives and Courses of Action with respect to Southeast Asia dated January 16 1954, contemplates the possibility of the French suing for peace, but (so far as I can see) suggests no action to take if US persuasion against that course chanced to fail. I'm not clear at what date NSC 5405 ceased to be operative.

  4. The Jacobs may have better information on the subject, but GB deems I've seen too much of the book already, and has barred me from looking at it!

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