When the U.S. Abandoned a Catholic President | Kevin Schmiesing | CWR
An Interview with Geoffrey Shaw, author of The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam
On November 2, 1963, shortly after they attended Mass in the city of Cholon, Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were taken from a nearby Marian grotto and executed. They had fled Saigon in the face of a military coup, a revolution encouraged by the United States government, which had repeatedly pledged its support for Diem. In retrospect, Diem’s fall was a pivotal moment in the Vietnam conflict, a significant cause of the “quagmire” that so divided Americans during the 1960s and 1970s and cost the lives of more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers.
During the Cold War, Vietnam was seen as a key battleground between the free world and Communism. As the United States became more deeply involved in the early 1960s, one critical question was whether and how the U.S. should partner with President Diem. Diem, the scion of a prominent Catholic family, was not a proponent of liberal democracy in the Western vein, but he was staunchly anti-Communist and enjoyed widespread popular support.
He was, according to diplomatic and military historian Geoffrey Shaw, the best leader that could be hoped for in the Vietnam of the 1960s, and the U.S. was wrong to abandon him. In The Lost Mandate Of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, Dr. Shaw investigates the person and regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and finds that conventional histories have obscured the truth about him and his government. CWR spoke with Dr. Shaw about his research, focusing on how and why so much misinformation has clouded the historical record on this point.
CWR: The last Americans fled Saigon in 1975, more than forty years ago. It seems that this country is finally healing from the civil strife and rancorous disagreement that characterized that period in our nation’s politics and culture. Why revisit that poisonous time and reignite one of the contentious debates: the character of President Diem and the wisdom of American policy toward his regime?
Shaw: The foremost reason for revisiting this terrible time is that the truth must be honored and, in so doing, yes, an unhealthy, festering scab may be torn off the old wound in the process, but the purpose here is not to re-injure but to heal, and only the truth can bring about real healing. Perhaps Confucius held the best perspective on this (as did the early Doctors of the Church): When a society starts to fail, it is because it has failed to call things by their right name (i.e., tell the truth) and the only way to go back from the precipice of catastrophic failure, where all is lost, is to start calling things by their right name again; in short, tell the truth again!
Related directly to this is the fact that U.S. foreign policy, in the post-1945 era in general and post-1963 Vietnam in specific, has careened from disaster to disaster because its very foundations have been built on an erroneous view of the world that has emanated from activist liberal humanists within the U.S. Department of State. Dr. Robert Hickson has called these folks Liberal Imperialists and they seem driven to recreate the world in their own liberal image via strenuous social engineering. (Remember, in more recent times, their claims that they were going to make Iraq “the aircraft carrier of democracy in the Persian Gulf?” To paraphrase old ‘Winnie’ Churchill: “some aircraft carrier; some democracy!”).
This, of course, is idolatry and it has led America’s good intentions by the hand down some very dark paths. The murders of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, on All Souls Day, 1963, became one of those critical ‘hinges’ of history upon which everything that follows swings. Rather than face up to what had been done via these murders—nothing short of the murder of South Vietnam—the perpetrators, and those of like liberal/humanist mind, have dug in and re-victimized the victims, Diem and Nhu, by blaming them for what their killers have brought down on the heads of all Vietnamese and, indeed, all Americans who suffered and died or were left wounded or scarred for life by what followed.
And how they have ‘dug in’! They have worked quite literally like demons (and, in my estimation, were inspired by the cadres of the evil one) to make the lie, their narrative, the ‘truth’ about the history of that conflict and, conversely, they have ‘moved mountains,’ via their infernal zeal, to make the factual truth appear as a lie. But they are undone because the truth, like water, does not like to be compressed and squished into some dark, small corner; inevitably, it bursts out and breaks the bonds of the lie. Darkness cannot extinguish the light, though it strives mightily to do so. The release of all the U.S. Government documents, held classified for over three decades, has brought a devastating light upon the lie that the liberal news media and U.S. Department of State activists tried to maintain; indeed, all they can do in reaction is call the messengers of these facts by various derogatory names, such as ‘revisionist’ (always, a pejorative amongst the left who hold sway in academe).
Perhaps, their greatest tactic is to simply ignore the truth; for example, two of the finest and most truthful accounts written about Ngo Dinh Diem and the unholy alliance between apparatchiks within the State Department and mutinous South Vietnamese military men have been generally ‘panned’ in academe. I am referring here to Ellen Hammer’s A Death in November and Maggie Higgins’ Our Vietnam Nightmare. Both of these authors, expert in their own particular ways on Vietnam, with much more experience under their belts than the celebrated liberal press journalists, David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, were deliberately ignored in academe’s history departments from coast to coast while Halberstam and Sheehan’s ‘histories’ (and I use that term advisedly) were hailed as ‘compelling.’
I hope the point is well made that, starting with this rotten foundation of lies that led to Diem’s persecution and death, the superstructure of U.S. foreign policy built upon said shoddy foundation, has been crumbling ever since. And this is because it has no truthful basis upon which to stand and reality, from Kosovo, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, back to Iraq, Benghazi and on to Ukraine, has made this so manifest that only the truly delusional can continue to cling to this failed superstructure as if all were just fine in the world. In short, the liberal/left/humanist worldview has been exposed as the same complete deceit that Communism was revealed to be with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only thing that keeps it going in the west, ironically, is that capitalism has given our dishonest and idolatrous view deeper pockets upon which it can draw than Communism permitted the Soviets. But to be absolutely clear, both ideologies have been exposed as frauds and, in many ways, are remarkably similar in spirit and effect.
CWR: Much of the story revolves around the conflict between the views and actions of two key American figures: US ambassador to Vietnam, Frederick Nolting, and Assistant Secretary of State Averell Harriman. In sum, Nolting had a favorable view of Diem and was committed to building a positive relationship with him, while Harriman lost faith in Diem and sought to undermine and eventually replace him. In your view, what are the most important factors that account for this radical difference of opinion about the best way forward in Vietnam, circa 1963?