After World War II the United States took on a role of world rebuilding, taking the shattered fragments of countries and governments and turning them into working democratic nations. The U.S., fearful of spreading communism in Eastern Europe, adopted George Kennan's policy of containment to keep communism confined to its current regions and ensuring nations remain democratic. In Vietnam, communists were taking more and more control of the government and France not being able to hold them off, requested that action be taken. Enter Ngo Dinh Diem. The Diem Regime was the ruling faction in Southern Vietnam during the late 1950's through the early 1970's. Its name comes from its prime minister and leading man, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem was an eager young nationalist from Vietnam looking to crush the Communist movement that had ignited during its struggle for freedom against its former ruling nation of France. Diem, a Catholic man, was minority of sorts not only in religion (Buddhism being the majority) but his sense of nationalism as well. After being educated in Catholic schools he had a few small political duties, never having any significant roles due to his often radical and anti-French colonialist ic ideas. He always tried to muster support for himself but just couldnt compete with the Vietminh. Not being able to tolerate the Communist hero and leader, Ho Chi Minh, he spent a number of years in exile in the United States, making contacts with important Senators such as Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. He gained strong support from Cardinal Spellman of New York that eventually led to the U.S. supporting his efforts to combat the Communists of Vietnam, as part of the U.S.'s containment policy, and bring the country into the free world.
Bao Dai, head of Vietnam, appointed Diem to the position of Prime Minister where he immediately began to run the country exactly how he wanted to, not taking the advice of U.S. officials, nor crumbling under their pressure. The U.S. was then drug into a period of some of the most violent combat ever seen, never coming out victorious. From very early on the executive branch of the government conceded that Diem was the only man they had for the job. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told foreign correspondent Stanley Karnow, that they chose Diem because they had no other alternatives- he was the best that they could find.
The U.S. did not know how they would contain communism in South East Asia since Diem was considered weak and hopeless. Dulles figured that denying Diem help would have a far worse effect and that if anything it would buy them some time. Eisenhower promised Diem aid in a letter to him on October 23, 1954 to help the country undertake needed reforms. The first time-buying aid package was worth $325 million. Foreign aid over the next 10 years totaled to almost $2.4 billion. In addition to money the U.S. sent Advisors to Vietnam to keep an eye on the happenings of Vietnam and also train the Vietnamese army to use new equipment received and also to better their fighting tactics and capabilities.
Many U.S. officials became easily frustrated with Diems constant ignorance of their suggestions. General J. Lawton Collins, Eisenhower's personal emissary, complained that Diem would pay more attention to his brothers Archbishop Thus and Nhu. Diem wouldnt even listen to his fellow government officers and simply worked with his family alone rather than do what the people of South Vietnam wanted. It was an authoritarian rule with deeply rooted nationalistic pride that was impossible to change. This appeared to be a puppet that backfired, having a puppet exterior but a stubborn, nationalistic will inside. President John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to Diem on December 14, 1961 assuring him that the U.S. still held its view on maintaining support for the South Vietnam government as it was being assaulted by North Vietnam.
Kennedy pledged to offer Diem more aid in order to protect its [Vietnam] people and to preserver its independence. In 1961, Lyndon Johnson, then vice-president, said, President Diem is the Churchill of the decade... in the vanguard of those leaders who stand for freedom. Karnow later asked Johnson if he meant what he had said earlier Johnson replied Shit, Diems the only boy we got out there, a statement that perfectly sums up Johnson and many other White House officials view of Diem. There were many effects that came out of these officials decisions to back the Diem regime in its fight to maintain freedom and quell the communists. As far as short-term effects, the amount of aid to Vietnam increased year by year. Kennedy felt Vietnam was an important country to keep in the Free World and continually added more and more troops to Vietnam throughout his presidency.
This resulted in a brutal and long war killing thousands of U.S. soldiers and accomplishing nothing in the end. Some long-term effects that came out of U.S. interest in Vietnam were the quickly paced arms race and the rapidly escalating Cold War. It became a war between the Free World represented by the United States and the Communists represented by Russia. A puppet war that let the two countries fight each other without officially fighting and also staying off their homelands.
Another effect was the psychological effects on U.S. soldiers that fought in Vietnam. Many men never returned the same, having violent flashbacks and temperament changes. The war also left us with a large number of handicapped and disabled veterans finding it hard to return to what they left. Public opinion of Diem varied in the early days of the Diem regime. People in the U.S. seemed very satisfied that they were stopping the spread of communism in South East Asia. Most Americans could not find Vietnam on a world map but since it was being threatened by the spread of communism they were all for sending U.S. aid, whether it be money, machinery, or manpower.
It was an operation obviously fully supported by the public with almost unanimous votes in the House. In these early days Congress gave the president full support in funding foreign aid to Diem. They classified it as support to counteract the revolutionary movement underway in Vietnam. Votes in the House would pass with only 15-20 representatives voting against the aid packages. It was seen as a great way to show the Soviets we were ready to fight and that we wouldnt let their infectious disease spread into South East Asia. In retrospect, the United States support for Vietnam was needed.
The Presidents had to be strong against the Communists in order to show them that the U.S. was willing to stand up to them, as well as for keeping up the morale of the U.S. citizens. American citizens didnt want to back down and appear inferior to the Russians. But, I am not saying that by supporting Diem all good came out of it. Thousands of American men died on the foreign soil of a remote jungle country often not knowing what they were fighting for, and having no choice whether or not to fight with government conscription enacted.
The idea of combating these nasty communists was realistic and idealistic at the same time. It was an idealistic cause to save the oppressed nation of Vietnam from being bullied by the stronger and more dangerous communist movement. We had to preserve democracy in the Free World and stop the spread of Communism. The notion of realism was that the Communists would quickly conquer the weak Vietnam and then possibly spread into Laos, Cambodia, and possibly further.
We couldnt let the Communists have the opportunity to control South East Asia and the possibility of taking control of Hong Kong, the Philippines, and other U.S. interests. The communists had to be stopped, no matter how you viewed the problem. The only plausible and safe way to deal with it was to support Diem in his struggle against the Communists and hope the socialist ideas would spread no further.
Department of State Bulletin, November 15, 1954 Department of State Bulletin, January 1, 1962 The USA Since 1945 by Galley / Lyons/Seawall 1993 Longman Publishing Group Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream by Doris Kerns 1976 Harper & Row Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger 1994 Simon & Schuster Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow 1983 WGBH Educational Foundation Vietnam: A Television History - 1983 WGBH Educational Foundation National Geographic Magazine October, 1961-1961 National Geographic Society.