Usually reading history I feel rather detached from it. The skill of the writer can bring it more to life to me or at least make me interested in the people and events. The usual detachment is not what I felt at all reading The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam by Geoffrey Shaw. While the events detailed in this book happened when I was a young kid, the after effects of the Vietnam war were front and center as I was growing up.
One of the things I have heard the most is that it was not our military that lost the war, but our politicians. This might even be true, but not in the context usually meant. This book I think fairly well shows that our government effectively lost the war even before the major involvement of our troops. Another common thing you hear is how the American media undermined our effort there. This also appears to be true to some extent, but that this also happened very early on. The book gives some quite egregious examples of this.
This book relays a kind of history that can break your heart in more than the usual “what might have been” way. Projecting what might have happened is always fraught with problems. Especially since we rarely project what does happen.
The story of Ngo Dinh Diem along with his brother is pure tragedy. Raised in an affluent Catholic family as one of six sons along with three sisters. He slowly rose in his bureaucratic career and was known for his incorruptibility and his support of nationalism. His career might have grown even faster, but he would not be used by the French as he continually supported the cause of Vietnam as its own country. This aim for a time led him to live in the United States after he got some advice on how best to put forward this cause. While living at a Maryknoll Mission Society seminaries he developed political ties with Cardinal Spellman, various senators, then-Congressman John F. Kennedy, and others. While at the same time performing the same menial household chores as the seminarians. He obviously impressed many with his firm stand against both French Colonialism and Communism. He had studied both Marxism and Communism and what it meant for Vietnam.
Throughout you get the portrait of a man who was a devout Catholic and a man who saw himself as a servant with his involvement in government as a means to serve others. That he did indeed have leadership abilities and was resistant to falling to the pursuit of power over others. In a later crisis that precipitated the coup against him his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu shouted that he should have been a monk and not a president.
His time as president of South Vietnam was fraught with difficulties as he tried to steer his country towards democracy in the midst of Communist insurrections and every attempt to undermine any advancements. This was going on along with the sniping of some elites in Saigon. A very unstable political situation and one devastating to a fledgling democracy trying to find its way forward.
As bad as this situation was, American involvement pretty much made it worse. Having to deflect the charges of just being a puppet government to the U.S. along with getting the support it needed. This included the pressure for democratic reforms at a very quick pace as if nothing else was going on.
The real heartbreaking part of the book is what was going on in the Kennedy administration along with the various factions in the state department. So many competing plans were put into operation with no understanding of the Vietnamese culture and no real attempt to understand the situation on the ground for the most part. Although there were certainly people in the government, including the State Department, that were really trying to learn. Frederick Nolting who became an Ambassador to South Vietnam was certainly one of them, but he was later betrayed himself (in one of histories ironies by a man named Trueheart).
The factions in the State Department especially as led by ambassador-at-large W. Averell Harriman make for some frustrating reading. Administrations often have groups running with their own agenda and there were several cases here where they were in direct opposition to President Kennedy’s wishes. Still Averell plans for negotiating an agreement for neutrality with Laos was supported. This agreement as Frederick Nolting predicted was totally worthless other than to help the Communists continue to use Laos. This group was certainly responsible for the betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem and the setting up of a coup where he and his brother were savagely murdered. This was pretty much the intended outcome of supporting a coup and working with a general who had a grudge against Diem.
Also detailed in the book was how the American press undermined President Ngo Dinh Diem. Not surprisingly they had little understanding of the actual situation and were jumping on stories later discredited. The pinnacle event leading up to the eventual coup was the Buddhist crisis of 1963 and the iconic photos of monks immolating themselves. This book really sets the record straight regarding Ngo Dinh Diem and his actual record regarding religious freedom. Still the reporting in the U.S. put the blame totally on him especially after a battle between Buddhists and policeman that turned bloody. The United Nations eventually investigated whether the government was at fault, but as is usually with them by the time the report was completed the President had already been murdered. They did not find the Ngo Dinh Diem adminstration at fault, but since he was already dead – did not publish the report.
I could probably go on and on about this book, but this summary only scratches the surface. Mostly the lessons learned is that we never learn our lessons. Still as difficult as this book was to read from an emotional standpoint, I am really glad I did. Just learning about the man Ngo Dinh Diem was a good enough reason. Despite some of the villains of the story there are also some real heroes. The book makes the case that Ngo Dinh Diem plans did have a very good chance of succeeding and in fact were making progress. That the extent of the American military involvement would have been much smaller and there was a true path forward for Vietnam.
Interesting to me was a story when Ngo Dinh Diem was captured by Ho Chi Minh, who tried to convert him to the cause of Communism. He refused, but must have impressed Ho Chi Minh with his courage that he was released. This story was more interesting to me since after reading Church of Spies: The Popes Secret War Against Hitler regarding Josef Müller who had also been captured by a top Nazi official and released after showing his courage in resisting him.