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Vietnam War Overview Part 3: 1955-1963
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Ngo Dinh Diem and his family
Ngo Dinh Diem and his family
Ngo Dinh Diem
The South Vietnamese government championed and defended by the United States was corrupt and oppressive. Diem’s most trusted official was his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, an opium addict and admirer of Adolf Hitler who modeled the marching style and torture techniques of his secret police on the Nazis. Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Can was put in charge of the former Imperial City of Hue. These two brothers ruled their regions of South Vietnam with private armies and secret police, and used the regular army as manual labor on the family’s private timber and rubber plantations. Other brothers and family members were installed in high places. The family is widely believed to have been involved in illegal smuggling of rice to North Vietnam; they were involved in the opium trade, and they
monopolized the cinnamon trade. Diem’s family used the power of the Catholic Church to acquire farms, businesses, real estate, and rubber plantations. Meanwhile, Madame Nhu, the wife of Diem's brother Nhu, was South Vietnam's First Lady (Diem was a bachelor), and she spearheaded social reforms in Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, in accordance with their Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed; divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws were strengthened.  The Eisenhower administration privately admitted Diem’s corruption and tried to influence him by attaching financial aid to positive social reforms. But no real change occurred, and the aid kept rolling in.  Why? The administration was reluctant to withdraw support from such an aggressive anti-communist.  But they also believed that  Diem’s oppressiveness was necessary for his survival.

But even as the very first American boots stepped onto Vietnamese soil, no one in the Eisenhower administration bothered to reflect on how a peasant army had been able to defeat a major Western power, and they attacked anyone who raised the question as being soft on communism.  Vietnam, they said, was part of the larger struggle with China. Two months later, in the same Life magazine interview mentioned in part 2, Secretary Dulles argued that the Indochina war was over, that Vietnamese nationalism was on Diem’s side, and that the American presence in South Vietnam was free from the taint of colonialism.  He could not have been more wrong on all three counts. The Viet Minh emerged from the First Indochina War as a modern, confident force.  It was commanded by men who had been promoted up through the ranks based on ability, regardless of their origins (Unlike the South Vietnamese military being built by the Americans, which reflected class and privilege), and who viewed the nationalist struggle as only half over. The North Vietnamese were fueled by nationalism and had earned the reputation of a nationalist army.  The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was nationalist only because the Americans said they were.

When Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva accords, the Vietnamese people had been encouraged to migrate either north or south, to the side of their preference.  Some did (many Catholics moved from the north to the south), but Vietnamese communists had been urged by their northern comrades to remain in the South to vote in the unification election. To eliminate them as a threat, Diem instituted the Denunciation of Communists campaign in which thousands of these “stay behinds” were executed or sent to concentration camps.  In response, South Vietnamese communists began a low-level insurgency against the Diem regime.  Although it is unclear how much these South Vietnamese communists were directed from North Vietnam, evidence indicated they acted on their own, but with the approval of North Vietnam, which was using the time to rebuild its military forces after the long war with the French. They began a land reform program based on the Chinese model, but it went too far and resulted in the execution of some 50,000 small-scale “landlords”.

The goal of the insurgency was twofold.  First, they wanted to completely destroy Diem’s influence in the countryside and to replace it with a shadow government. Second, they wanted to win the hearts and minds of the rural peasant population in South Vietnam by offering a contrast to the Diem regime. To that end, insurgents were instructed to not take land from peasants, to emphasize nationalism rather than communism, and to use selective violence. Peasants should know why a political assassination had been necessary. Four hundred government officials were assassinated in 1957 alone, and the terror campaign soon escalated to include other symbols of the status quo, such as schoolteachers, health workers, and agricultural officials.
Village chiefs, corrupt outsiders (often Catholic) appointed by Diem (at the urging of U.S. officials), were favorite targets. Seventeen civilians were killed by machine gun fire at a bar in Chau Doc in July 1957, and in September a district chief was killed with his entire family on a main highway in broad daylight. In October a series of bombs exploded in Saigon and left 13 Americans wounded.

Despite these conditions, Diem was warmly received during a state visit to the United States in May 1957. He was met personally at Washington National Airport by President Eisenhower. Diem's motorcade was greeted by 50,000 well-wishers and his address to the U.S. Congress and his policies were heartily endorsed by both political parties. During his time in the U.S. capital, Diem also attended receptions, and had private meetings with both Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles. Diem was trumpeted as a champion of democracy and anything controversial about his regime was avoided.
Diem is met at the airport by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, 5/8/57
Diem is met at the airport by President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, 5/8/57
Sometime in late 1957 or 1958, North Vietnam began organizing to support the communist struggle against Diem being waged by Southern communists. Economic improvements in North Vietnam allowed Ho to begin focusing more attention on the South. By 1959, the time was ripe for Hanoi to take the military offensive. In May 1959 a resolution was adopted in North Vietnam
identifying the United States as the main obstacle to Vietnamese nationalism and as an enemy of peace.  The resolution called for a strong North Vietnam as a base for helping the South Vietnamese to overthrow Diem and eject the United States.  From here on out North Vietnam assumed ownership of the revolution in the South, and they escalated both military and political activity.

To facilitate movement of men and materials from north to south, a specialized North Vietnamese Army unit, Group 559, was formed to create a supply route from North Vietnam to insurgent forces in South Vietnam. With the approval of Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, Group 559 developed a primitive route along the Vietnamese/Cambodian border, with offshoots into Vietnam along its entire length. This eventually became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Map: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
Map: The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The first American deaths at the hands of the enemy occurred on July 8 1959.  Two military advisors, Army Master Sergeant Chester M. Ovnand and Major Dale R. Buis, were killed at Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, when the Viet Minh attacked a mess hall where a movie was being shown. Despite these deaths the Eisenhower administration continuously underestimated the seriousness of the threat against Diem. Evidence shows that it wasn’t until March 1960 when they realized that despite the impressive outpouring of treasure, material, and advice, South Vietnamese communists were making significant headway against Diem. The Defense and State Departments disagreed on to what extent Diem was to blame.  They felt the need to both reassure Diem of continued U.S. support and to put pressure on him to reform. Military advisor strategy was changed to increase the use of Special Forces trained in counter-insurgency tactics.

The Viet Cong
But even as U.S. strategy was adapting, North Vietnamese strategy took another key step. On December 20, 1960, a month before John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, North Vietnam reorganized communists in South Vietnam into the National Liberation Front, a political organization. The military wing of the NLF was called the People’s Liberation Army. Americans called them the Viet Cong (VC).  The existence of this organized, South Vietnamese enemy eventually caused much political strife in the United States. Throughout the Vietnam War, U.S. officials would insist that the Viet Cong were controlled exclusively by North Vietnam; while anti-war activists insisted they were an insurgency indigenous to the South (and thus were evidence of the fruitlessness of U.S. policy there). In reality, Viet Cong membership was more complex. Some were native to the North. Some came down from the North but had originally been from the South, having relocated after the partitioning. Many were indigenous to the South. The Viet Cong formed both regular army and guerilla units and were supplied via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Not all of them were communists, but they were all nationalists.
 
President Kennedy discusses Vietnam at a press conference
President Kennedy discusses Vietnam at a press conference
President Kennedy’s Decision
Within days of taking office in January 1961, President Kennedy agreed to the new counter-insurgency strategy that had been in the works for months, authorizing funds to increase the ARVN from 150,000 to 170,000 troops.  In exchange the president called for modest, common-sense political reforms. But although President Diem indicated he would cooperate with the new military strategy, he balked at reform. Diem would not change.  And yet once again the aid rolled in. On December 22, 1961, Army Specialist 4 James T. Davis became the first U.S. battlefield fatality. As a member of the 3rd Radio Research Unit, Davis provided technical advice to ARVN units on locating enemy signals, and provided valuable training and guidance on ways to get a "fix" on the insurgents' locations. While en
route to a suspected VC area of operations, he was killed in a firefight when his vehicle was forced off the road from striking a land mine.

Throughout much of 1961, Kennedy was preoccupied with the Berlin crisis and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  Vietnam only came up during a crisis over neighboring Laos. He finally turned his attention to Vietnam in the fall of 1961, after increased Viet Cong operations caused the situation there to deteriorate dramatically. As evidence of the seriousness of the situation, President Diem proposed a treaty with the U.S. to guarantee South Vietnam’s existence (meaning the U.S. would have to send in troops).  Kennedy declined the treaty and put off the issue of direct military involvement, but he did make more changes.  Along with another increase in funding, 3,000 more U.S. "military advisors" were sent. And in a new development, American military helicopters flown by U.S. pilots were shipped over.  Although U.S. troops were not technically engaged in warfare, now they transported South Vietnamese troops to the battlefield. The first such mission, Operation Chopper, began on January 12, 1962. U.S. pilots transported 1,000 South Vietnamese soldiers to sweep a Viet Cong stronghold near Saigon. American pilots also conducted
Herblock
In 1961-1962, Herblock advocated for a strong response to increased VC activity (4 images)
American C-123 aircraft spray Agent Orange, 9/30/62
American C-123 aircraft spray Agent Orange, 9/30/62
Operation Ranchhand, designed to clear vegetation alongside highways to make it more difficult for the Viet Cong to set up ambushes. As the operation expanded, vast tracts of forest were sprayed with Agent Orange, an herbicide produced by Monsanto Corporation and Dow Chemical that contained the deadly chemical Dioxin. Guerrilla trails and base areas were exposed, and civilian crops that could potentially be used to feed Viet Cong units were destroyed.   Agent Orange had long-term negative health consequences for both Americans and Vietnamese. Vietnam estimates 400,000 people were killed or maimed, and 500,000 children have been born with birth defects. Studies showed that veterans who served in the South during the war have increased rates of nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders, and well as higher rates of various cancers, including throat cancer, acute/chronic leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer.
The Strategic Hamlet Program
To isolate the Vietnamese peasants from contact with the Viet Cong, the Kennedy administration supported the Strategic Hamlet Program, where villages were consolidated and reshaped into a networked perimeter defended by trained, armed peasants. To win the hearts and minds of the peasants, reforms were supposed to improve their lives—economically, politically, socially, and culturally. Unfortunately the program was implemented at an unsustainable speed. The government of South Vietnam was unable to fully support or protect the hamlets or their residents, especially at night. The Viet Cong easily sabotaged and overran the poorly defended communities. Those villagers who
Strategic Hamlet Program
Strategic Hamlet Program
supported Diem dared not inform the authorities about Viet Cong infiltration for fear of reprisal. The program had many other difficulties. U.S. officials did not understand the role of the village in the very identity of the Vietnamese peasant. Some villagers were forced to relocate in order to create a defensible perimeter, and their old homes were often burned right in front of them. Villagers were expected to pay their own relocation costs, and financial compensation for burned homes often was siphoned off by corruption. The government refused to undertake land reform, which left farmers paying high rents to a few wealthy landlords. And well-intentioned U.S. shipments of food aid to South Vietnam only served to impoverish the peasants, whose livelihood depended on stable rice prices, further alienating them from Diem. The policy failed.
sound President Kennedy interviewed by Walter Cronkite, 9/2/62
 
A Buddhist monk commits self-immolation, 10/5/63
A Buddhist monk commits self-immolation, 10/5/63 (2 views)
Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu
sound Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu on Meet the Press, 10/13/63
Buddhist Protests, 1963
Diem's policies in the cities favored Catholics over Buddhists (the majority in Vietnam), further alienating the South Vietnamese people. Eventually, Diem began to persecute Buddhists. On May 8, 1963 in the City of Hue, nine unarmed Buddhists peacefully protesting a ban on the Buddhist flag were shot and killed by Diem security forces. Diem refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take responsibility for the deaths. In the summer and fall, several Buddhist monks committed suicide by self-immolation in protest of Diem's regime. One of the more controversial figures during the Buddhist crisis was President Diem's sister-in-law, the First Lady of Vietnam, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. She accused the Buddhists of being communists, called the self-immolation of one monk a "barbecue," and stated, "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands." On August 21, 1963, ARVN Special Forces raided pagodas across
Vietnam, causing widespread damage and destruction and leaving a death toll estimated in the hundreds. A few days later, Madame Nhu described the attacks as "the happiest day in my life." She called on government troops to invade the American embassy and capture Thích Trí Quang, a Buddhist monk who had been given asylum, saying that the government must arrest "all key Buddhists."

Fearing that the U.S. would cut off economic aid to South Vietnam, Diem and Nhu sent Madame Nhu to the United States on a goodwill tour. She arrived on October 7, 1963, where she refused all pleas from U.S. officials, including one from Vice President Johnson, to tone down her rhetoric. She accused the Americans of undermining South Vietnam through "briberies, threats and other means," and of trying to destroy her family. She mocked Kennedy's staff, denounced American liberals as "worse than communists,” and Buddhists as "hooligans in robes.”

She publicly claimed that the United States was responsible for the coup, saying, "Whoever has the
Herblock
Herblock was extremely critical of the Diem regime over the Buddhist crisis (5 images)
Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem murdered, 11/2/63
Republic of Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem murdered, 11/2/63
Americans as allies does not need enemies."U.S. officials secretly discussed the possibility of a regime change, and a proposal was conveyed to the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  As it turned out the CIA was already in contact with ARVN generals who were planning a coup against Diem. A CIA agent told these generals the United States would not oppose a coup nor punish the generals by cutting off aid. When rebels surrounded the presidential palace, Diem phoned U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and requested help.  Lodge declined, but offered Diem asylum at the U.S. Embassy. Diem refused and instead fled with his brother Nhu to a church in a nearby suburb.  They were caught the next morning and executed in the back of a personnel carrier that was supposed to bring them to Saigon.  President Kennedy was shocked at the murder of Diem, but accepted that a change in leadership had been necessary. Madame Nhu was still in the United States when news broke of the murders of her
husband and Diem. She went on to predict a bleak future for Vietnam and said that by being involved in the coup the troubles of the United States in Vietnam were just beginning. After Diem's assassination, a series of coups brought rapid changes in leadership in South Vietnam, with one general or politician after another quickly replaced by the next in line.  Finally in mid-1965, Prime Minister Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and figurehead Chief of State General Nguyen Van Thieu came to power at the head of a military junta.  They consolidated power in 1967 via rigged elections, but eventually Thieu outmaneuvered Ky and became the sole South Vietnamese leader, a position he maintained until 1975.  
From mid-1962 until President Kennedy’s death in November 1963, the administration formed a plan to disengage from direct, large-scale military involvement in Vietnam, but found it difficult to implement. U.S. funds had created a large South Vietnamese army, but despite the training provided by U.S. advisors, the ARVN remained of poor quality. On January 2, 1963, at the Battle of Ap Bac, a small band of Viet Cong beat off a much larger and better equipped South Vietnamese force. Many of the latter's officers were reluctant even to engage in combat. Almost 400 South Vietnamese were killed or wounded and three American advisors died. President Kennedy continued to increase the number of U.S. advisors. At the time of his death there were 16,000 American military personnel in South Vietnam, compared to 900 when he took office.
Vietnamese soldiers guard VC prisoners, 11/62Vietnamese soldiers guard VC prisoners, 11/62
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