Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963) was South Vietnam's first premier and president. Leader of South Vietnam after the 1954 partition, he initially provided inspiring leadership but later became dictatorial when pressed by the Vietcong assault against his government.
The son of a minister and councilor to a former Vietnamese emperor, Ngo Dinh Diem was born Jan. 3, 1901, near Hue. In the 17th century his ancestors had been converted to Catholicism by missionaries to their Buddhist homeland, subsequently suffering much persecution.
Graduating from the government's school of administration at Hue, Diem rose to be governor of Phan Thiet province at the age of 28. Four years later he was named minister of interior in Emperor Bao Dai's central administration of the protectorate of Annam at Hue. Diem soon resigned his post, however, because neither the French nor Bao Dai would support reforms he advocated. For 21 years, from 1933 to 1954, Diem played no role of importance in Vietnam. His reputation as a nationalist grew nonetheless, largely based on his abandonment of high position in protest of French colonial rule.
Twice during the wartime Japanese occupation, Diem refused invitations to serve as premier. Held captive by Ho Chi Minh's Communist Viet Minh at the war's end, he was offered the post of interior minister in Ho's government but refused. He also declined to participate in Bao Dai's pro-French government of limited "independence" in 1949.
Diem traveled to the United States in 1950, the first year of American aid to still French-ruled Vietnam. He returned after a brief stay in France and lobbied for American support of full independence for Vietnam. He left the United States a year later and took up residence in a Belgian monastery.
Following the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Diem returned to Vietnam to accept the premiership, which he assumed on July 7, two weeks before the Geneva Accords divided the country. Long opposed to Emperor Bao Dai, Diem defeated him in a noncontested election in 1955, declaring South Vietnam a republic and becoming its first president.
Diem at first displayed outstanding leadership, building new schools and roads and surprisingly quickly rehabilitating a badly shattered economy. He refused to acquiesce in the 1956 reunification elections set by the Geneva Accords, however. The Communists subsequently inaugurated a strategy of armed revolt.
Diem became more autocratic as the war years progressed. His family had always been clannish, and he became increasingly dependent on the advice of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, whose attractive and assertive wife also played a major role in his government. Diem's lack of judgment was particularly evident in 1963, when government forces fired on Buddhist demonstrators in Hue, killing eight and precipitating a crisis in which several monks subsequently burned themselves to death. The Americans, who had heretofore strongly supported Diem, gave evidence of wavering, and this was all that a group of soldiers needed to depose him. Diem was overthrown and murdered on Nov. 2, 1963.
Probably the most accurate, although unsympathetic, portrait of Diem is in Willard A. Hanna, Eight Nation Makers (1964), which is a volume of portraits of major Southeast Asian leaders of the late 1950s and early 1960s. A longer and too laudatory treatment is Anthony T. Bouscaren, The Last of the Mandarins: Diem of Vietnam (1965). A more balanced account is in Denis Warner, The Last Confucian (1963; rev. ed. 1964). Robert Shaplen's excellent The Lost Revolution: The U.S. in Vietnam, 1946-1966 (1965; rev. ed. 1966) contains a perceptive study of Diem. □