Seth Jacobs. Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam, 1950-1963. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. 208 pp. $76.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-4447-5; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-4448-2.
Reviewed by Deborah Kidwell (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Ft. Leavenworth)
Published on H-War (September, 2007)
In his latest work, Seth Jacobs maintains that the American commitment to support Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam in 1954 was a fateful decision with far-reaching consequences. "The commitment to Diem," he argues, "was the most fundamental decision of America's lengthy involvement in Vietnam, the prerequisite to the subsequent incremental steps that culminated in defeat and disgrace" (p. 10). Although Jacobs portrays Diem as an ill-suited ally, he criticizes the policy decisions more than the man, and situates his discussion squarely within the context of the Cold War. For the United States, this context included the intense anticommunist sentiment that developed in the early post-World War II years, NSC 68, and the Korean War.
In the opening chapters, Jacobs provides a biography of Diem and examines the details of his rise to power--first as an appointed Premier, and later as a president elected through a dubious process. Diem established his anti-communist credentials under French colonialism and as he became more familiar to American politicians, many supported Diem as a viable leader of the "third force" they sought to lead a non-communist Vietnam. His appointment by Emperor Bao Dai shortly after the Geneva Accords confirmed American preferences, although Jacobs maintains that the failure of the Government of Vietnam (GVN) to assimilate refugees fleeing southward foreshadowed problems that plagued the new regime.
Once established as the leader of South Vietnam, Diem began the process of consolidating his power. Jacobs explains how Diem faced the dilemma of either building consensus, or eliminating the opposition. Jacobs believes that Diem chose the latter--with devastating consequences. Diem's harsh persecution of enemies merely increased popular resentment toward his government. However, Jacobs evenhandedly explains the difficult position the international community had helped to create for the new government of South Vietnam. As the country's chief executive, Diem did not control the army because the French had relinquished this institution to the criminal leader Binh Xuyen and his 40,000 heavily armed thugs. In addition, Diem faced two powerful, armed religious sects. Many American politicians continued to support Diem, even though a study conducted by Gen. J. Lawton Collins suggested that Diem be replaced.
Diem continued to maintain order through force, Jacobs argues, and his reliance on repressive measures set an ominous tone. Diem's failure to broaden political participation as well as his reliance on nepotism, lack of understanding of village politics, personal demeanor, and destructive public policies contributed to his downward spiral. Jacobs notes a curious irony, however; as Diem became ever more unpopular at home, his actions seemed to impress American politicians and media outlets. The strength of their support encouraged a public malaise regarding U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam. Dissatisfaction with the agroville program, mismanagement of the U.S. supported Commercial Import Program, open domestic criticism against Diem by the "Caravelle Group," and the formal organization of the National Liberation Force in 1960, sharply contrasted with a May, 1957 Life Magazine article that referred to Diem as "The Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam" (p.102). Other American publications echoed this glowing praise.
The last two chapters of Jacobs's work chronicle the decline and collapse of the regime. Jacobs points to the Taylor-Rostow report, the creation of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, the telling battle of Ap Bac in 1963, and the Buddhist protests and immolations as events that could have been key turning points in American support. The change of Ambassadors from Frederick E. Nolting Jr. to Henry Cabot Lodge, according to Jacobs, was highly significant and signaled the beginning of the end of Diem's American support. Jacobs concludes that Diem did more damage to U.S. power and reputation than any other Cold War ally. His police state "never cultivated a base of popular support, refused to delegate authority, and favored his fellow Catholics in a nation 90 percent Buddhist." Moreover, Diem's death left Vietnam "more susceptible to communist takeover than it had been a decade ago" (p. 185). However, Jacobs maintains that Diem's failing did not stem from malevolent or self-serving motives; he refused to be a U.S. "puppet," remained a fervent nationalist, and was willing to dedicate "his life for the good of his country" (p. 188). Jacobs observes that Diem did not lack certain virtues, among them "courage, patriotism, diligence, and, most significant, selflessness" (p. 186). Jacobs notes that few traces of Diem's regime remained after his execution in 1963, even as U.S. support for his ill-fated regime sealed American participation in the "ordeal" to come for the American military (p. 189).
Jacobs's work is a well-written, well-researched, and considered discussion of the failures of Diem's regime. However, Jacobs's assertion that Diem's over reliance on force was ultimately responsible for his demise leaves the reader to wonder what Diem might have done differently. For example, while it may be stating the obvious to suggest that a broad power base would have served Diem better, it is also difficult to see how he might have created that power base given his initial lack of authority over the army, the rival (and heavily armed) religious sects, and Buddhist immolations. Jacobs occasionally indulges in a bit of purple prose, as in "Power with a capital P belonged to Diem" (p. 86); moreover, his dismissal of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam is sometimes over generalized and trite--"whose officers were incompetent and whose troops were unwilling to fight" (p. 140)--especially given recent scholarship. Moreover, Jacobs makes light of the concessions inherent on Diem's part in the June 16 "joint communiqué" agreement, and criticizes policy initiatives as unpopular, when the communist alternatives were even less sustainable over the long term, either in theory or practice (pp. 149-150).
As all good research does, Jacobs's account leaves the reader with additional questions. Was Diem's lack of credibility primarily due to early U.S. criticisms expressed in the Collins mission report, or was it more a reflection of Diem's personal and professional character? Similarly, was Diem's dependence on family a result of a dearth of competent and prepared Vietnamese leaders (an effect of long years of French colonialism that appears to have continued even after Diem's death), or shortcomings of Diem's administration? Jacobs leaves one wondering if anyone else could have done better given the effects of colonialism and repression under the French, the tenuous lack of authority given to the GVN and its leader, the involvement of greater powers in Southeast Asia, and the pessimistic assessments of early U.S. policymakers.
Minor criticisms and questions aside, Jacobs's account is balanced, informative, and convincing. He outlines the negative effects of Diem's regime without an overly critical view of his motives or capabilities as a public administrator. Jacobs's work certainly sheds light on the international and U.S. political context of Cold War events, Diem's personal and political background, his actions and administrative policy, and the collapse of his government. Jacobs's work is persuasive in establishing that support for Diem's failed administration had grave consequences for the United States, and precipitated the long and bloody struggle for a viable foreign policy in Southeast Asia.
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Deborah Kidwell. Review of Jacobs, Seth, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam, 1950-1963.
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