Viet-Nam: The First Five Years: An International Symposium

By Richard W. Lindholm | Go to book overview

IV. The Political Background of Ngo Dinh Diem

ELLEN J. HAMMER

THE YEAR 1931 was a time of despair and unrest in Viet-Nam. A nationalist uprising was put down by the French colonial administration at the cost of much blood and suffering among the Vietnamese population; thirteen nationalist leaders were beheaded at Yen Bay, with the forbidden name of "Viet-Nam" on their lips before they died.15 The throne had been virtually empty since 1925, with the death of the unpopular Khai Dinh, who had been named emperor by the French colonial administration in 1916 after nationalist uprising had been repressed and its leader, the Emperor Duy Tan, sent to join two other Vietnamese emperors in exile.

In 1932 a new optimism swept the country when Bao Dai, Khai Dinh's son, arrived from France to actively succeed his father. In view of his education in France, the Vietnamese expected Bao Dai to bring home the modern ideas of the West, to strengthen and renovate the ancient system inherited from their ancestors.

To his side in 1933 was summoned a thirty-two-year-old man, a member of one of the great families of the country, who had been rigorously trained in the mandarinal system. As Minister of Interior, he stood ready to safeguard the rights and practices of the Vietnamese against the encroachments of the colonial system. His name was Ngo Dinh Diem.

It took only a few months for the optimism that the new regime had generated to collapse in disillusionment. Not only were Diem's plans for a nationalist revival and a limited monarchy rejected by the French Governor General, but the young minister himself was forced to resign by the Emperor, who went so far as to strip him of all his decorations. In the Emperor's abject surrender to the French colonials, Bao Dai was also to surrender his nationalist leadership. But the status that Bao Dai lost would be regained in the future by the other person in this incident. Ngo Dinh Diem spent some twenty years in voluntary retirement, part of it in selfimposed exile. In 1954 he returned to power as Prime Minister, to preside over the first independent state which had existed in Viet-Nam in some seventy years. Becoming President a year later, he, more than anyone else, links the old Viet-Nam with new.

The dramatic experiences of the Vietnamese in recent years have received such publicity as to obscure this political background which shaped the struggle against both colonialism and communism. This background is of far more than merely academic interest; it explains many of the key political problems confronting the Viet-Nam republic in its formative

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15
Under the colonial regime, the country was divided into three parts, the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin, and the colony of Cochinchina. The historic designation of "Viet-Nam" was used by nationalists to symbolize national unity and independence.

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