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SOUTH VIET NAM: The Beleaguered Man

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The beleaguered man sat in Freedom Palace, small, chunky, tan-tinted and surrounded by a few intimate possessions—a wooden crucifix, a picture of the Virgin, a slide projector, a gaudy spittoon, books entitled Social Justice and Thought of Gandhi. Before him on a shabby desk lay an ultimatum, a blunt threat to tear down the government of South Viet Nam. An odd procession passed in and out of the palace doors for hours on end to deal with the crisis—three of the man’s brothers, one in the cloth of a Roman Catholic bishop; his beautiful, politics-minded sister-in-law; U.S. diplomats and U.S. military officers in mufti; eye-rubbing ministers of state summoned from their sleep for emergency consultations.

The ultimatum came from the leaders of three religious-political sects*of South Viet Nam, an exotic consortium of religious fanatics, feudal warlords, uniformed hoodlums and racket bosses bound loosely behind an ambitious general who keeps pet crocodiles. Together, the sects have private armies of some 40,000 men. Their leaders, now losing the subsidies and prerogatives accorded to them by the French colonials, are dangerous. “Reorganize your government within five days,” said their ultimatum. “Replace it with one that is suitable.” The man at the desk bristled with stubborn irritation. “While we permit ourselves foolishness like this,” he snapped, “there is a monolith against us.”

But his advisers—including those from the U.S.—cautioned him to go slowly. You are too weak to fight now, they counseled. Invite negotiations; play for time. The advice was accepted. While soldiers and tanks moved through the tense streets of Saigon, the weanling government of the weanling state of South Viet Nam dickered and maneuvered to avert civil war and whittle down the warlords of the sects.

Communists & Calendar. The man who has to do the job is Premier Ngo Dinh Diem,† a resilient, deeply religious Vietnamese nationalist who is burdened with the terrible but challenging task of leading the 10.5 million people of South Viet Nam from the brink of Communism into their long-sought state of sovereign independence. No man in troubled Asia is confronted by more obstacles on the road to order and justice. The sects, in control of a third of the southern portion of the country, threaten not only his control but his life. The refugees from the Communist half of Viet Nam, now exceeding 500,000 and still pouring south at the rate of 10,000 a week, are pleading for food, housing and jobs. Inexperience—his own and his people’s—make leaders hard to find, ideas scarce, and decisions difficult to make. (“This government,” said one of the U.S. officials anxiously trying to help, “is stuck together by Scotch tape, bits of string and putty.”) The French, striving to maintain by fair means and by sly means a remnant of influence and profit in the land they have exploited for seven decades, obstruct him with the wily rearguard maneuvers of colonialism.

But, above all, Diem’s enemy is a coalition of Communists and the calendar. With no personal political organization, a civil service that is amateur and an army still in training, the Premier of South Viet Nam is charged with building a government and a popularity strong enough to overcome the strength and skill of Ho Chi Minh’s Communist regime in North Viet Nam. Under the Geneva pact, which sliced the country in two, the South Vietnamese have only 15 months to prepare to meet Ho’s Communists in a nationwide test at the polls, winner take all.

Neither mathematically nor politically is free Viet Nam remotely ready for the contest and, with Ho assured of a population edge over the South, it may never be. Unless the Communists agree to open the north to full and free campaigning and voting, the contest may never come off.

The question of South Viet Nam’s survival will then press even more harshly. Less than six months ago, Western diplomats were gloomily pronouncing South Viet Nam a sure-to-be-lost cause; a quick survey in the hinterlands showed that Diem’s nationalist regime could count on the electoral support of no more than a fourth of the villages. The rest leaned for Communism, or at least leaned against the unknown, unproved regime in Saigon. But by last week, the song of surrender was fainter and there were many who had ceased to sing it. A fresh survey showed that Premier Ngo Dinh Diem’s nationalists are picking up, that they now stand about 50-50 with the Communists in the minds of the people of South Viet Nam. They are still gaining.

The progress, slow but clearly discernible, represents an almost personal triumph for single-minded Nationalist Diem. It also represents a tentative endorsement of the judgment of the U.S., the voluntary heir to the disorder left by France and the pledged defender of what remains of Indo-China. Though Washington did not choose him, it has invested its hopes, its experts, and some $400 million a year of its money in South Viet Nam. The U.S. is convinced that Ngo Dinh Diem, a man with his share of imperfections, is the best fitted to lead Vietnamese to true independence.

No Room for Both. Ngo Dinh Diem seems at first glance an improbable man for a fight against Ho Chi Minh, the wispy, twisting onetime chef’s assistant who is so resolutely Communist, yet so clever that much of Asia still toys with the notion that he is really just a Vietnamese patriot. Diem’s career has grown mostly out of negative decisions. He is a sparsely gifted administrator, and of politics he says: “Clever maneuvers only betray, demoralize and divide the people.” To some of the more sophisticated in the game, he rates as a marginal man.

Yet such is Viet Nam, disgusted with colonialism and its vices, frustrated in its yearning for freedom, that a leader’s integrity is more important than his ability. Communist Ho has built popular support not altogether with wiliness and Communist doctrine, but also with incorruptibility and his undeviating enmity for French colonial rule. Ngo Dinh Diem brings into the battle an incorruptibility even greater and his own record of a lifetime’s opposition to French rule and influence. “There are only two real leaders in Viet Nam,” Ho’s chief of staff, General Vo Nguyen Giap, recognized some time ago. “One is Ho Chi Minh. The other is Ngo Dinh Diem. There is no room in the country for both.”

Chastity & Stuffed Cabbage. Diem is a stocky (5 ft. 4 in., 143 Ibs.), young-looking man of 54, with thick black hair and a penchant for white Western-style sharkskin suits. His eyes peer out distantly from beneath heavy lids. He is a lonely man, unused to self-expression, who lets others bring up the subject and then blurts, interminably and at random, not always expressively. He is a man of contrasts. Monkish and inward-looking, fascinated by Gandhi, the Christian saints and by books (he assembled a personal library of 10,000), he long ago pledged himself to chastity; he is so uncomfortable around women that he has none on his personal staff and he once put a sign outside his office: WOMEN FORBIDDEN. Yet Diem is also— indulgent and demonstrative, downs huge breakfasts of such dishes as stuffed cabbage, and sometimes at formal receptions he handles his chopsticks like a coolie, shoving bowl to mouth and shoveling. He likes to hunt (duck and tiger). He may erupt into sudden violence. Considering someone he dislikes, he will sometimes spit across the room and snarl, “dirty type!”

Though Diem was born in a straw hut on his father’s estate near Hue (where his ailing, 87-year-old mother still lives behind a wall to keep off evil spirits), he is of the upper class, and he talks without self-consciousness of “the little people.” He is proud of his Vietnamese heritage: “We are a country of principles, an old country, a country built village by village. Viet Nam is a solid thing . . .” And he is reluctant to change it, but: “Sometimes I think we Asians are too reserved, talk too much by nuance. We ought to learn to be rude in our talk like the Americans, and get things done.” Diem rarely speaks harshly of fellow Vietnamese who are Communists, because he hopes to convert them; he intends to oppose the twisted dialectic of Ho Chi Minh with the lotus of morality. Yet he recognizes that Communists are not creatures to be toyed with. “You must be sure to kill when you hunt tigers,” he once said. “A wounded tiger becomes a mankiller to get food …”

Fingernails & Farmers. Ngo Dinh Diem comes from a clan of leaders who for 1,000 years defended the Vietnamese against invaders from China. In the zyth century, the Ngo Dinh clan was converted to Roman Catholicism, and they held to their faith at a grisly price: as recently as 1870, no fewer than 100 of the Ngo Dinh were surrounded in their church and burned alive. (Today Viet Nam, essentially Buddhist, has about 2,000,000 Catholics.)

Ngo Dinh Diem’s father, one of the clan’s few survivors, was a mandarin first class at the court of the old emperor, wearing the traditional silken robes and two-inch fingernails. Among his jobs: commanding the eunuchs of the royal harem. But the father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was also one of Viet Nam’s foremost educators, and’his nine children got the benefit of it. Each morning at 6 o’clock, he would hustle the children off to Mass; in the family rose garden, he would give his third son Diem some extra tuition. He put Diem to work in the paddies with the peasants. “A man must understand the life of a farmer,” father Kha explained.

“Assiduousness.” Diem took to this austerity, prayed a couple of hours every day, got up at 5 a.m. to study, exploding into tantrums if interrupted by his brothers or sisters. At six he won his first school prize for “assiduousness.” “When there were floods,” one of his brothers recalls, “father would make us stay home. The rest of us loved it, but Diem would sneak off along the dikes and go to school just the same.” When he returned home, with no sense that any injustice was being done, Diem would accept his father’s whipping for disobedience.

At 15, Ngo Dinh Diem took the first of his big negative decisions: having begun training for the priesthood, he decided after a few weeks not to go through with it. At 17 he took his second: he decided not to goto college in France. “Those of us who did go to France came back a mixture of many things,” another brother said, “but Diem is pure Vietnamese.” At 20 Diem graduated top of his class from the French-run civil service school at Hanoi, soon made his way up to district chief, administrator of 225 villages.

Undeviatlng Course. These were the days in which Communist Ho Chi Minh was building up his first underground organization. Diem read Communist leaflets, books and periodicals, and he developed his own counterstrategy: he would arrest Ho’s agents, then “reeducate” them. Diem would parade the more arrogant of the Communists in rags and tell the villagers: “They say they stand for poor people . . . Well, let them dress like it.”

More pertinent to the role Diem was to play later as the first leader of free Vietnamese was his persistent opposition to French colonial rule. In 1929, at 28, he became a provincial governor; at 32 he became Minister of the Interior in the puppet government of the French. Three months later, he demanded more independence. The French would not give it. Diem resigned.

Diem spent the next seven years in passive resistance to the French exploitation of his country. While they helped to develop resources and bring treasures of culture to Indo-China, the French missed few chances to turn an extra franc. Small salt workers were compelled to sell to the French, who sold it back to the Vietnamese at higher prices. Each village had its alcohol quota, a specific amount, based on population, to be bought from the French-controlled sources. “I saw the danger from the Communists,” said Ngo Dinh Diem, “and I could see how they would exploit such injustices. We had to have democratic reforms, or it was clear “even then that the Communists would win.”

Triple Negative. During World War II and its aftermath, the Japanese, the French and Ho Chi Minh’s Communists all fought one another for Indo-China (TIME, Nov. 22); all three wanted support from Nationalist Diem but he refused them all because none of them stood for “true independence.”

In 1945, Ho’s Communist troops struck at the nationalist Ngo Dinh clan, raiding the mansion at Hue and burning Diem’s collection of 10,000 books. The Communists arrested Diem; they took hold of Diem’s respected elder brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi and buried him alive. But only four months later Ho Chi Minh, concluding that he needed the backing of some pure nationalists, summoned Ngo Dinh Diem from prison. “Come and live with me at the palace,” Ho put it to him.

Diem: You killed my brother. You are a criminal.

Ho: I know nothing about your brother . . . You are upset and angry. Stay with me. We must all work together against the French.

Diem: I don’t believe you understand the kind of man I am. Look me in the face. Am I a man who fears?

Ho: No.

Diem: Good. Then I will go now.

Ho let him free.

Dilemma in Washington. In December 1946, when Ho and the French broke into the Indo-China war, Diem proclaimed himself against both sides. In April 1947 he started his first positive, political movement, a third-force, nonviolent outfit called the “National Union Front.” The French promptly banned it. Three years later Ngo Dinh Diem turned to the outside for friends of Vietnamese independence, and took off for Europe and the U.S. For the best part of two years (1951-53) he made his home at the Maryknoll Junior Seminary in Lakewood, N.J.. often going down to Washington to buttonhole State Department men and Congressmen and urge them not to support French colonialism. “The French may be fighting the Communists,” Diem argued, “but they are also fighting the people.”

Perhaps, in hindsight, the advice should have been taken more to heart. But the U.S. dilemma was that the French were in charge in Indo-China. A shooting war was on, and the central problem was to save the land from Communist absorption. While the tragedy played toward its climax, disappointed Ngo Dinh Diem sadly took himself off to a monastery, in Belgium, there to live and wait in a cell. “We must continue the search for God’s Kingdom and His justice,” Diem wrote home, “all else will come of itself.”

The Deluge. What came was the crash of Dienbienphu. During that decisive battle, Diem discerned that his time to serve might be at hand. He quit the monastery and moved into a garret in Paris. The French, in part because they needed someone on whom to unload catastrophe, offered Diem the Viet Nam premiership, with their first acceptable promise of independence. On June 15, 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem took the job and headed back to Saigon. “We don’t know where we’re going,” said one of his aides, contemplating chaos, “but the captain is reliable and our boat is clean.”

Diem’s record of nationalist purity did not, at first, get Premier Diem very far. France’s Premier Mendes-France was advocating “concessions . . . large concessions” to end the war, and at Geneva he made them. “We weren’t even consulted,” complained Diem’s Foreign Minister Tran Van Do. Back in Saigon, Diem found that he could not depend on a single Vietnamese battalion; he had nothing in the treasury; he could not make contact with about 85% of his villages. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were coming down from the Communist north, choosing freedom, however chaotic, and needing care.

Diem’s first crisis came from the headquarters of General Nguyen Van Hinh, flamboyant. pro-French commander of the Vietnamese army. General Hinh tried to edge into power by edging his 200,000 men into a gradual, nonviolent kind of mutiny. Diem was cool, but with the resources at his command he could not cope with Hinh. But through U.S. influence, he finally won. “I had only to lift my telephone,” the general explained, “and the coup d’etat was on. But I was told that if it happened, the Americans would cut off all dollar aid.”

Pickup from Disaster. Diem’s victory put General Hinh into exile and his nationalists into forward motion. Those who had waited to see who would win, now began to move over toward the Premier. U.S. aid and advice began to take hold. In the next four months, Diem: ¶Launched a well-received onslaught against corruption and sin, closing down gambling dens and cracking down on the VTPs who were getting rich on graft.

¶Drafted plans for a national assembly —the country’s first democratic institution—and for land reforms that would cut yearly tenant rents from about 50% of their crop to about 15%.

¶Reorganized Hinh’s army so that it could take over South Vietnamese districts abandoned by the Communists under the Geneva evacuation plan. The U.S., in effect, took over its training.

¶Took over from the French the control of currency and launched South Viet Nam into international trade.

Never very close to the people, Diem set out on a grass-roots tour of central Viet Nam and got a welcome that astonished his advisers. “Long live Ngo Dinh Diem!” the people cheered. “I’ve seen so-called ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ all over Asia.” said an American after one demonstration, “but this was different … Fifteen thousand people came charging across the field toward him, screaming, waving straw hats, like the stampede in King Solomon’s Mines.”

Encouraging as they are, Diem’s accomplishments are minor compared to what remains to be done in attaining law and order and building public confidence. Stubborn and negative-minded, Diem disquiets some of his countrymen by his continued withdrawal, and by his tendency to lean for advice more on three of his brothers, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, Ngo Dinh Luyen and Ngo Dinh Nhu, than on his Cabinet. His reluctance to delegate authority has led him to fantastic time-consuming pettiness. Samples: recently he took over himself the granting of all entry and exit visas and the scrutiny of all currency exchange applications. But the U.S. military, diplomatic and technical experts, while noting the shortcomings, have not let them dull the conviction that Diem is Viet Nam’s soundest hope. “After some doubts about Premier Diem,” said one high U.S. official, “I think that they have been resolved in his favor and that he is entitled to full and unqualified support.”

“They Don’t Lie.” An Asian tradition has it that if one saves a man’s life, one is thenceforth responsible for his destiny. The U.S. in a sense is lumping those two missions into one simultaneous undertaking in South Viet Nam. In addition to its millions and its prestige, Washington invested the talents of 1,000 Americans in the country, with the ex-Army chief of staff, General J. Lawton Collins, as the top U.S. emissary. Among them: for land reform, Wolf Ladejinsky, the celebrated Agriculture Department expert who did the land reform job in postwar Japan; for maneuvering against the Communists, Colonel Edward Lansdale, the officer who played such a helpful role in the rise of Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay that Filipinos gave him a post-election title of “General Landslide.”

The Americans are finding Premier Diem increasingly receptive to advice and ideas, and by no means a puppet. He refuses to be pushed or rushed. When Joe Collins proposed recently that General Vy be named army commander, Diem insisted on his own candidate. General Ty. “Sometimes,” Diem confided, “Mr. Collins uses some very rough language.” On other times it has been Collins who complained. “Get your experts out, get them working,” he once prodded the Premier, to which Diem later referred: “It is easy for Mr. Collins to say it. He has experts. We have none.” But out of the occasional buckings and tight moments has come a partnership that shows progress and promises more. Premier Diem admires Americans because “they don’t lie.”

One of the most crucial tests of the partnership will come next July 20, when the Northern and Southern Vietnamese must, under Geneva, set the terms for the 1956 elections. Communist Ho, though he has doubled his army—in violation of Geneva—and is acquiring the beginnings of an air force, is openly confident that he will not need to use them to capture South Viet Nam.

Packed Votes. The vote of Ho’s 12 million northerners, packed by tyranny, outcounts the free but divided vote of the 10¶ million southerners. But Geneva also provided that the elections must be “free” and “by secret ballot.” On July 20, if they feel strong enough to buck Ho Chi Minh, the U.S.-backed nationalists can make a case for postponing the elections, or put them off altogether unless they get ironclad assurance of 1) proper supervision at the polls and 2) the right of nationalists to campaign in the north and try to woo away some of Ho’s votes.

Should such a policy prevail, the U.S. and South Viet Nam would be committing themselves to a policy of partition, two Viet Nams—a strong, aggressive Communist Viet Nam nourished by Moscow and Peking; a weak, divided but free Viet Nam that will need for some time the pledges and help of the U.S.

Haircuts & Chickens. It is one of the discomfiting truths of South Viet Nam that not all are sure they prefer the unfulfilled hopes of non-Communist rule to the confidently touted certainties of Red government. For Premier Ngo Dinh Diem there is a hard shell of resistance to crack. In one characteristic village of the south last week, some of the people demonstrated what the problem is.

“When the French bombed the villages and schools and drove us into the jungle, the Communists were our friends.” The Communists were now replaced by young nationalist soldiers and officials of Premier Diem. How did the villagers like them? The young local barber answered: he was uncertain of them at first, but he was beginning to feel that they were good men and could be trusted. Were things any better since the Communists went away? Some things, the barber replied. “There is peace.” And one can travel (the Communists had required a permit for travel even to the nearest market town), and there is medicine from the U.S., and good days for his trade.

The Communists, he went on, had made him cut a regular quota of heads of hair every day, regardless of whether the customers could pay. The nationalists allow him to charge a fair price, and for that he is pleased. But then, on the other hand, there is the price of chicken. Under the Communists, a chicken cost half as much as it does today. “One does not have occasion to buy a chicken very often.”

As of now, said the barber, he would welcome the Communists back; they were his friends. But he is ready to see what the nationalists can do. Most of all, he said, the villagers want peace.

Thus goes the crucial struggle for men’s devotion in South Viet Nam. With time and ingenuity, the side of freedom can hope to prevail. “If the people can be sure the Communists will not return,” a village elder suggested, “then the people will turn against them. But how can we be sure?” The answer lies in great part beyond the beleaguered man in the Freedom Palace of Saigon. “The Vietnamese people have the will,” said Ngo Dinh Diem’s ambassador to Washington, “but only the U.S. has the might.”

*Two of the sects say they are religious; one is political. Cao Dai is a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism with its own Pope and cardinals, and a Vatican headquarters 55 miles northwest of Saigon. Cao Dai has an expanding pantheon that includes Clemenceau, Victor Hugo and Joan of Arc and, in nomination pending his death, Sir Winston Churchill. Its Pope, Pham Cong Tac, was formerly a Saigon customs clerk. Hoa Hao is a rowdy sect of dissident Buddhists professing its belief in abstinence and prayer. Its founder, the late Huynh Phu So, augmented his fame as a healer when, the story goes, he was sent to a lunatic asylum and converted his psychiatrist. Binh Xuyen is an organization of bandits, in mustard-colored uniforms, who control both the brothels and the police of Saigon under a handy arrangement with the absentee chief of state, Bao Dai. Their commander, General Le Van Vien, was once a river pirate. Pronounced ‘n go (as in come ‘n go)din d’zee-em.

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