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 Paul Clemans (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Cold War Mandarin considers the US commitment to Ngo Dinh Diem from his first US tour to gain US support in 1950 through his presidency and death in 1963. Seth Jacobs believes this relationship holds the key to understanding the origins of the Vietnam War and the subsequent development of the conflict. He reasons Diem’s failure to establish a strong, inclusive democratic South Vietnamese government required an increased American military presence to bolster the regime. As this presence increased, the Vietnamese people started to perceive America as a new “colonial” power who had come to replace the French. This anti-American sentiment was stoked throughout the conflict with the US- driven delay of the Vietnamese unification elections promised by the Geneva Accords in 1954. It was an election their man, Ngo Dinh Diem, could not win. Taken together, these factors provided a strong impetus for continued indigenous support of the Viet Minh in the protracted conflict. For these reasons, Jacobs argues American commitment to Diem was the “most fundamental” decision of US involvement and the “most ruinous” US foreign policy decision (pp. 8-10).
Diem began his career with promise in the late 1920s as a highly effective, anticommunist law enforcement official who rose to Vietnam’s highest police post of minister of the interior. However, he possessed an inability to negotiate and collaborate, which led to his resignation from the post when the French refused to accept his proposed policy reforms. After World War II, he returned to the public eye when he turned down a prominent position in the French-sponsored Bao Dai government. Instead, he campaigned for a Vietnamese government independent of both the French colonial power and the communist Viet Minh. Diem stood out as a nationalist leader in the developing world who was neither colonialist nor communist. He was just the kind of leader Professor Wesley Fishel was looking for to implement his “third force” theory (p. 25). Fishel started Diem on the road to garnering US support from such prominent figures such as Senator Mike Mansfield, publishing tycoon Henry Luce, and various American academics, left-wing political activists, and numerous journalists. His rise to popularity was timed perfectly with the “red scare” peak so that he was the only anticommunist Vietnamese political figure widely recognized in America in the early 1950s. His popularity coincided with the French departure from Vietnam, and opportunity met with preparation. In 1954, the Bao Dai government offered Diem the premiership with sweeping powers in order to gain US sponsorship.
Unfortunately, Diem alienated nearly all of South Vietnam as he eliminated potential political rivals in his attempt to consolidate power. In April 1955, Diem fought and destroyed the criminal organization running Saigon, Binh Xuyen. He then lost the support of over one million followers of the Hoa Hoa Buddhists when he captured, falsely tried, and executed their leading military figure. Next, he held a fixed referendum on who should lead South Vietnam and sent Emperor Bao Dai into exile. In numerous other cases, Diem continually disenfranchised the Vietnamese, such as the two million Cao Dai religious followers near the Mekong Delta, over thirty Montagnard tribes living in the Central Highlands, hundreds of village elders, and large land owners. In the end, he completely destroyed the base of political support he needed for a stable government.
A completely different narrative appeared in the United States throughout the 1950s. Prominent political and media figures formed an organization called, American Friends of Vietnam (AFV) to promote Diem and his fight against atheistic communism. They portrayed him as America’s only hope to stem the tide of the communist Viet Minh. Evidence to the contrary was squelched or ignored, such as Gen J. Lawton Collins’s report to President Eisenhower and journalist Albert Colegrove’s news stories. Anticommunist rhetoric had wholly vested America in Diem’s regime to the point where deposing him could not be accomplished without a significant loss of national prestige.
Three events in 1960 marked the beginning of the end of Diem’s grip on political power. First, he arrested a highly respected physician, Dr. Pham Quang Dan, to prevent him from taking his seat in Parliament. This action produced an outcry and eighteen prominent political figures, named the Caravelle Group, produced a manifesto calling for specific social reforms. Secondly, a highly trusted Army of Vietnam (ARVN) paratrooper battalion attempted a coup and would have succeeded had not two divisions from outside of Saigon came to the rescue.The significance of the event lies in the fact the unit consisted of decidedly anticommunist members. Lastly, Ho Chi Minh established the National Liberation Front political party in South Vietnam for the purposes of political subversion. Most of its members were notably not communist; however, it was still controlled by the Communist Party.
While domestic Vietnamese support had eroded, the US support for Diem remained until late 1962 to mid-1963. However, in-country American reporters continued to provide accounts of discrepancies between the democratic rights of the Vietnamese people and their government’s treatment. The stories generated enough interest in Washington, DC for Senator Mansfield to visit the country in late 1962. He turned to these reporters after receiving whitewashed reports from both Diem and the US embassy. These reporters convinced Senator Mansfield of the validity of their claims and he, in turn, convinced President Kennedy it was time for a change of leadership in Vietnam. At nearly the same time, Diem lost significant credibility as an anticommunist fighter when the ARVN lost the battle at Ap Bac due to gross incompetence. The last straw came with the Buddhist crisis in which a monk immolated himself. The press broadcast the image around the word so that even the staunchest Diem supporters questioned his leadership, and the US leadership withdrew its support. On November 1, 1963, the United States allowed the ARVN to stage a coup in which Diem and his brother were executed by a disgruntled soldier.
Cold War Mandarin provides a scholarly investigation of the reasons why the US support for Diem endured despite his poor leadership. Whereas other recent biographies such as Edward Miller’s Misalliance (2013) or Geoffrey Shaw’s Lost Mandate of Heaven (2015) examine how we might interpret Diem and his actions, Seth Jacobs focuses on Diem’s relationship with US leadership. He pulls Vietnamese and American perceptions to the forefront to give rich insights into the dynamics of US support to Diem and the subsequent foundation it provided to the Vietnam War.
I found Jacobs’s depth of analysis and rationale satisfying. His argument is well grounded in a mix of primary and reliable secondary sources, such as Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983), Robert Randle’s Geneva 1954 (1969), and David L. Anderson’s Trapped by Success (1993). As he progresses through the narrative, he injects appropriate outside events to support his points. For example, he integrates both American and Vietnamese perceptions of the 1954 southern migration while describing Diem’s mishandling of the situation. In the end, I believe readers will find themselves agreeing with Jacobs’s conclusions and will recommend it as a starting point for anyone wishing to undertake an in-depth study of Vietnam.
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Paul Clemans. 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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