Historical Dictionary



One of Vietnam’s best-known non-commun-ist nationalist leaders. Born in Quang Binh province in central Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem grew up in a patriotic and influential Catholic family. His father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was the mandarin former minister of rituals in the court of Thanh Thai and close confidant of Nguyen Huu Bai, an influential mandarin in the service of King Khai Dinh and his son, Bao Dai. Ngo Dinh Diem started his career as a provincial chief in central Vietnam. When the French sidelined Nguyen Huu Bai in an imperial “reform” in 1933, his protégé Ngo Dinh Diem was named minister of the Interior in an attempt to appease his mentor and lend nationalist legitimacy to Governor General Pierre Pasquier’s attempt to energize the monarchy against internal and external threats. This first Bao Dai Solution failed. Diem resigned with great fanfare a few months later, though he remained involved in Catholic intrigues at the court.

When a number of Catholic priests in upper central Vietnam and ranking mandarins began to support a possible “Diem solution” as Vichy tried to hold on in Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux had Bao Dai sign an “order of expulsion” against Ngo Dinh Diem. Apprised secretly of the news, Diem fled to Saigon and took refuge in the offices of the Japanese General Staff until the Japanese coup de force of 9 March 1945. During the war, he secretly worked with Cao Dai leaders and dispatched an envoy to Cuong De concerning possible collaboration. However, when the Japanese offered him the premiership after overthrowing the French, Ngo Dinh Diem declined. He also refused to support the newly born Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) following the Japanese capitulation and local Viet Minh forces arrested him in mid-1945. However, Ho Chi Minh personally ordered Ngo Dinh Diem to be released in light of his impeccable nationalist credentials. Executing him would have alienated important parts of the fragile nationalist coalition Ho hoped to turn against the French.

Following the outbreak of war in late 1946, French authorities and Ngo Dinh Diem remained in touch; however, Ngo Dinh Diem balked at supporting the French revival of the Bao Dai solution, unless the French granted Vietnam real independence. Following a brief stay in the St-Paul Clinic in Hanoi, Ngo Dinh Diem moved into the Redemptorist mission in northern Vietnam. In 1947 and 1948, he made a number of trips to southern and central Vietnam, as well as to Hong Kong where he visited Bao Dai. In May 1949, Bao Dai asked him to form a government, but Ngo Dinh Diem declined again on grounds that French concessions in the Accords of 8 March 1949 remained insufficient. Diem insisted on real and total independence. The French refused to budge. During this time, Ngo Dinh Diem continued to travel around the country meeting nationalists of all ideological colors, called upon the international community to pressure the French to give up their colonial obsession in Indochina, and yet kept channels open to the French and the DRV in the hope that his attentisme could win him concessions by playing one side against the other.

In early 1950, however, Ngo Dinh Diem realized that, with the arrival of the Cold War and the Americans on the scene, he could no longer sit; he had to act. In late June 1950, he formed a nationalist grouping called the Extremist Nationalist Movement (Phong Trao Quoc Gia Qua Khich) to struggle against Vietnamese communism. The DRV responded in kind to his shift in tack in July 1950 by condemning him to death in absentia. In August 1950, Ngo Dinh Diem left for Japan where he renewed contacts with Prince Cuong De concerning the need to create an anti-communist nationalist government in Vietnam (apparently hoping to tap into the legitimist branch of the Nguyen dynasty that Cuong De represented). Ngo Dinh Diem then left for the United States in September in a bid to win over American support for his plans and meet with influential American leaders of the time. He would continue to network inside and outside Vietnam with his brothers in order to realize a non-communist and fully independent Vietnam. As he wrote in a letter to his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in 1953: “L’attentisme qui était légitime autrefois est devenu maintenant criminel”. In the fall of 1953, Ngo Dinh Nhu organized an anti-communist congress in Saigon and launched an intense propaganda drive in his brother’s favor among non-communist groups.

On 16 June 1954, the Associated State of Vietnam issued Decree no. 38-CT authorizing Ngo Dinh Diem to create a new government to take over from Prince Buu Loc. While many in Washington were happy to learn of this change of leadership as American diplomats adopted a hard-line position at the Geneva Conference, this does not mean that they masterminded Ngo Dinh Diem’s rise to power. Internal, local dynamics were also at work. On 19 June 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem became president of Council thanks to ordinance no. 15 and created his cabinet on 6 July 1954. He held the presidency of Council and served as minister of the Interior and of Defense. Like Bao Dai and others, he opposed the Geneva Accord’s division of Vietnam into two halves and refused to sign the accords as prime minister of the Associated State of Vietnam, implement them in 1955 as president of the Republic of Vietnam, or organize elections to be held in 1956 to reunite the country. He was determined to create a fully independent, modern, and anti-communist nation-state, and not just in what became known as “South Vietnam”. However, his detractors became increasingly numerous, and not just among the communists. Ngo Dinh Diem perished in a coup d’état on 2 November 1963, which had the support of the Americans. See also BINH XUYEN; CAO DAI; HOA HAO.