Perhaps the most difficult thing in the current conflict over domestic religious liberty is the pervasive hostility of the press, presenting the requirement that people take actions they believe to be evil as simple justice. This is contrary to well-articulated classical liberal doctrine fundamental to American civilization, common sense, and the viewpoint of a large part of the American population. This is not the first such experience in American history, however. Another such situation occurred at the beginning of the Vietnam War, in the Kennedy Administration, and set the stage for the main part of the war and its disastrous ending.
Canadian author Geoffrey Shaw recounts the tragic beginning of the Vietnam War, and its ending seemingly predestined from the egregious errors at its beginning in the early 1960s, in his 2015 book, The Lost Mandate of Heaven: the American Betrayal of Ngo Din Diem, President of Vietnam. The book focuses on South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Roman Catholic and principled and courageous leader of his country, who, in line with Vietnamese culture, adhered to Confucian principles of duty, order, and justice. Like his communist enemies in the North, Diem also highly valued Vietnamese independence, resisting American efforts to determine military, political, and social policy in his country. His vilification in the prestigious American press (the New York Times in particular) in a horrible inversion of reality, forming public opinion in the United States, and pressuring a vacillating President John Kennedy to acquiesce in a coup d’état, is presented as the essential cause of America’s woes in Vietnam. President Diem’s assassination on November 2, 1963, in a plot ultimately instigated by the Kennedy Administration, foredoomed the subsequent war effort, and may have predestined the communist victory in the end.
Shaw provides thorough background to Diem’s Presidency and American animosity in the years leading up to the crucial period of the Kennedy Administration. Diem’s integrity, resolute opposition to both the French and the Japanese, and his anticommunism appealed to key American leaders in the early 1950s, such as Senator Mike Mansfield and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the latter of whom promoted him as a “miracle man” in the existing situation in Vietnam. While control of South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954 initially went to the Emperor Bao Dai, who had been a puppet of the French, the Presidency of South Vietnam soon went to Ngo Dinh Diem. Shaw observes that Diem was respected by both the communists in the North and the Vietnamese peasants in the South.
Shaw emphasizes Diem’s “virtue and austerity” of personal life, qualities that Ho Chi Minh also tried to emulate, and agrees with historian Ellen Hammer that Diem was the one man in the South who could successfully stand against Ho because of his character and the legitimacy that this gave him with the Vietnamese populace. Diem embarked on an ambitious program for the social rehabilitation of his country, which was devastated after the communist-led war against the French. Under Diem’s leadership, abandoned villages were restored, land reform advanced, schools were built, a civil service developed, and security from communist attack in significant degree realized for villages.
Shaw maintains that the communist position in the North was threatened by animosity resulting from land reform, which led to open revolt, and that the communists would not have prevailed in the reunification elections, called for by the Geneva Accords which ended the first Indochina War with the French, and which were to be held in 1956. The attacks by the Viet Minh (soon to be the Viet Cong) which did occur brought about a situation in which the South – which had not signed the Geneva Accords – found elections “unthinkable,” and cancelled them. This then became a propaganda weapon against the South and its American ally.
Diem’s background as a devout and scrupulous Roman Catholic is reviewed in detail. This, Shaw maintains, was reflected in his domestic policies. Contrary to the American news media, he was not anti-Buddhist, acting only against direct threats to his government by Buddhist agitators in the summer of 1963. His domestic policies of national reconstruction, the Strategic Hamlet Program (so vilified by his American critics) to protect the rural populace against the communists in the latter’s terror campaign which began in the spring of 1959, his preference for police rather than soldiers to protect South Vietnam from communist attack, and his efforts to get communist units to defect (indicative of his desire as a Christian to minimize bloodshed), are all reviewed to show that as the country’s legitimate national leader, his policies were far superior to those wanted by his enemies in the Kennedy Administration, who found him insufficiently progressive.
Not intimately familiar with Vietnam as Diem and his brother and chief advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the Eastern establishment diplomats and political appointees in the State Department were confident that they understood how best the threat instability in Indochina could be addressed, and tended to see Diem’s indigenous and somewhat authoritarian government there as as much of a problem as the communists. They favored “limited” military action under the control of American advisors to overcome the Viet Cong, and were reluctant to support enhancing the police, as this would further strengthen Diem’s regime. They did not understand that the progress toward democratization that they insisted on was incompatible with the absolutely necessary counterinsurgency program against the communists. In this misunderstanding, they were supported by the American news media, in particular David Halberstam of the New York Times. The media both took its cue from the anti-Diem faction in the State Department, and reflected this hostility back in the stories they wrote, thus reinforcing the perception of the American public that Diem was indeed a problem in the situation in Indochina.
Among the Americans, W. Averill Harriman, former governor of New York and top American diplomat, Roger Hilsman, also a high diplomat, and Elbridge Durbrow, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from 1957 to 1961, are among the chief villains of Shaw’s narrative, while Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was appointed as as ambassador in April, 1961 and served until the summer of 1963, is the principle American hero.
Harriman appears indeed as the man largely responsible for the disaster in Vietnam. He negotiated the agreement which was supposed to end the conflict in Laos in 1962. This provided for Laotian neutrality after a phase of civil war there between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao, the communist guerrillas supported by North Vietnam. Despite strong objections of President Diem, Ambassador Nolting, and others in the State Department, the agreement did not provide for at will inspections in Laos by the International Control Commission (ICC), charged with overseeing the implementation of the agreement. This “inherent flaw” of the agreement made possible communist control of eastern Laos, and the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” an infiltration route passing from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam. The agreement’s practicality was to exclude Americans from that area, while de facto allowing communist occupation. Shaw notes that opponents of Harriman’s agreement on Laos “dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail the Averell Harriman Memorial Highway.” Harriman’s animosity for Ngo Dinh Diem, which Shaw shows to be personal, was exacerbated by Diem’s opposition to the Laotian accord, and likely by its quick failure, making obvious to all that it had endangered South Vietnam and Southeast Asia, as President Diem had feared.
The demonization of Ngo Dinh Diem by the American press, which this writer well remembers, having lived through it (and having accepted it as the truth at the time) should serve as a reminder to Christians and conservatives in America today of the power of the press to create an inverted reality – believed by the public and hard to refute at a distance – in which reason and common sense are treated as folly, while pushing disastrous policies as superior wisdom. Among other things, Diem’s Strategic Hamlet Program, which Harriman, his diplomatic allies, and the press vilified as coercive, oppressive, and ineffective, was the lynchpin of Diem’s effort to resist the communists. Shaw counters that it was understood by the populace to be protection from the Viet Cong and together with his other security measures, provided increasing security against insurgent attacks in the early 1960s after the deterioration of the late 1950s. Diem favored a security policy focusing on police action rather than an army, and its inherent advantage of delegitimizing opponents as criminals rather than adversary soldiers to be treated by the rules of war.
Where did the press get its stories? Shaw argues that in part the press was oriented by fellow members of the same Eastern liberal culture in the State Department, partly by the “café culture” of the non-communist opposition in Saigon, in particular the “Caravellists” centered on the Caravelle Hotel and their interest in corruption and intrigue, and partly by the natural desire of young newsmen to find problems and sensational stories. But he quotes American reporter Marguerite Higgins, present in Vietnam at the time, as saying that:
“Thus is history recast. All those Vietnamese-speaking Americans circling the countryside for the purpose of testing Vietnamese opinion; all those American officers gauging the morale of the troops; all those C.I.A. agents tapping their sources (hopefully) everywhere; all those dispatches from Ambassador Nolting – an army of data – collectors in reasonable agreement, had been downgraded in favor of press dispatches stating the opposite conclusions. It was the first time that I began to comprehend, in depth and some sorrow, what was meant by the power of the press.”
It was this impression – of a nepotistic and reactionary regime in South Vietnam – that President Kennedy had to deal with as reality as he considered re-election in 1964. The reality solidified in the mind of the American public with the pictures of the Buddhist monk who burned himself alive in the summer 1963 as part of the Buddhist unrest against Diem at that time. Not wanting to be accused of losing Vietnam to the communists as China had been lost, and, as his Republican opponents would point out, Laos had been lost due to the Laotian Agreement made on his watch, he acquiesced in agreeing to the State Department faction clamoring for Diem’s overthrow. This was accomplished by indicating to Vietnamese generals Washington’s objection to Diem’s policies in the Buddhist crisis, and American support for any subsequent non-communist government. The generals then savagely murdered Diem and his equally devout brother and advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, on Nov. 2, 1963.
There was no stable or viable government in South Vietnam after that time, the military being held in low esteem by traditional Vietnamese culture. The press continued to be hostile to both the South Vietnamese government and the American war effort there, in part because it seemed unwinnable, in part because of continued insistence on democracy as well as counterinsurgency, and in part because the increasing influence of the Left in the American subculture from which reporters were drawn. This influential part of American society saw America’s anticommunist foreign policy as contrary to the natural flow of history.
That same liberal/left subculture today sees traditional Christianity as contrary to the natural flow of history. Yet it is not really a subculture, dominating as it does the news media, the entertainment industry, the academy, and increasingly, the corporate world. It is more accurately described as an “overculture.” It continues to be controlled by the liberationist ideas it reflects back to itself, not the realities family breakdown, suicide, the opioid epidemic, and other signs of cultural collapse it does not wish to see. Like the South Vietnamese President and his brother martyred by unscrupulous men so many years ago, Christians should look first to God’s revelation, and then to the common human values of truth, honesty, justice, duty, and the hard work necessary to attain these. They built both the Confucian civilization of the East, of which Diem and Nhu were a part, and the world’s greatest civilization, Western civilization. But they are really independent of history, and without them, there can be no godly or good life.