Ls Lâm Lễ Trinh: “Voices from the First Republic of Việt Nam”

03 Tháng Mười Một 20166:27 CH(Xem: 10400)




“Voices from the First Republic of Việt Nam”



VIỆT NAM (1954-1963)






Former Minister of the Interior of the Republic of Việt Nam (1955-1960)

Former RVN Ambassador to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria,

Lebanon and Jordan




In 1955, I left my post as President of the Appeals Court of Saigon, Republic of South Việt Nam, to serve as Interior Minister in the Ngô Đình Diệm administration.  I stayed in this post until my resignation in October 1960. Those five years of relative peace and nation building for a country ravaged by colonialism and war and divided by the Geneva Accords earned President Diệm the moniker of “Asia’s Churchill” and the admiration of other South East Asian leaders.


My first contact with the Ngô Đình family goes back to the 1940’s.  Father Ngô Đình Thục, President Diệm’s older brother, had been my Greek and Latin teacher at the Jesuit Secondary School in Huế in Central Việt Nam.  Diệm was already making a name for himself then, calling for the abolition of the French Protectorate.  Critical of  Bảo Đại’s apathy,  he had resigned in protest from his post as Interior Minister.


When the Japanese withdrew from Việt Nam in 1945 and British troops moved in, I was a law student in Hà Nội. North Việt Nam was in the throes of what became known as the Famine of 1945 which killed an estimated 2 million people.   In the chaos that ensued the end of the war, Hồ Chí Minh declared Viet Nam’s independence from France.  Việt Minh-led demonstrations were held all over Hà Nội and nationalist sympathizers were hunted down and killed. I decided it was time for me to leave Hà Nội.  The Transindochina railway had been destroyed by bombings so I walked and cycled my way to the south. 


I met Diệm and his brother Nhu for the first time in 1953 in Vĩnh Long where I was president of the tribunal. In May of the following year, Bảo Đại offered Diệm the post of Prime Minister, and Diệm said he would accept only if he could have full powers.  Bảo Đại’s indecision and the increased fighting with the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo sects were a drain on Diệm. Every weekend, he drove down to Vĩnh Long to attend mass officiated by his older brother, now Bishop Thục, and to seek his advice and moral support.  Mgr  Thục spoke freely to me  of his brothers’ frustration with Bảo Đại.


As 1954 drew to a close, Diệm, deeply moved by the exodus of a million North Vietnamese Catholics to the South, and bolstered by the support of US Cardinal Spellman and the last minute rallying to his cause of Trình Minh Thế ’s Cao Đài forces, made his move against Bảo Đại.


Ngô Đình Diệm was a monarchist at heart and a mandarin by training and it was not his intention to depose Bảo Đại. However, when Bảo Đại summoned him to Cannes, France, with the intention of replacing him with Lê Văn Viễn, head of the infamous Bình Xuyên, he was left with little choice.  Diệm was also a devout Catholic and the tragic fate of the Catholic refugees from the North weighed heavily on his decision to unseat Bảo Đại. Diệm asked the Revolutionary Committee, composed of Nguyễn Bảo Toàn, Hồ Hán Sơn, and Nhị Lang, to allow General Nguyễn Văn Vỹ, a Bảo Đại faithful who tried to stop him from taking power, to go into exile.   A referendum, held on October 23, 1955, put an end to the monarchy in Việt Nam and established the Republic of South Việt Nam, with a president and vice president elected by universal suffrage, and a National Assembly.  The constitution of the First Republic of Việt Nam was approved on October 26, 1955, a date since commemorated as National Day.


Diệm moved quickly to expel General Nguyễn Văn Hinh from the Army, wipe out the remnants of the Bình Xuyên and neutralize the Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo sects. He then declared that South Việt Nam would not hold the elections that had been scheduled for 1956 by the Geneva Accords (which Saigon had not signed). He never accepted the division of his country and his government chose the name of Republic of Việt Nam to distinguish it from Hồ Chí Minh’s  Socialist Republic of Việt Nam.





As he assumed the leadership of the First Republic, Diệm was faced with daunting challenges.  During the nearly one hundred years of French colonialism, Việt Nam had acquired an extensive administrative, legal and military machinery; these colonial institutions, however, were created and run by the French solely in the interests of the French.  To turn them into genuinely Vietnamese institutions was a hard enough task; it was made even harder by the ongoing communist insurgency and the general instability throughout the country.  The withdrawal of more than 100,000 Việt Cộng troops to the North upon the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords provided Diệm with some breathing room and he wanted to take that opportunity to rebuild his shattered nation morally, politically, militarily and administratively.




In a relatively short time, President Diệm accomplished a great deal. His first task was to establish a functioning government to serve the people and wage a protracted war.


The Geneva Accords of July 20, 1954 divided Việt Nam at the 17th parallel.  The South Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Trần Văn Đổ, refused to sign the Accords. Following the Geneva conference, the Republic of Việt Nam had an army of 150,000,  80,000 of whom had to be demobilized.  The referendum of October 23, 1956 marked the end of the monarchy in Viet Nam and led to the election of Ngô Đình Diệm as the president of the First Republic of Việt Nam. 


In April 1956, the last French soldier left Vietnamese soil.  This was the dawn of a new era, with France being replaced by the United States.  Washington, as the purveyor of funds, also took control of the war.  A new army was born, the largest in South East Asia.  The civil war between the two Việt Nams would last three decades, with China, the Soviet Union and the United States pulling the strings.


Another urgent task was administrative reform: 13 new ministries were created, in addition to four offices of governmental delegates and 16 directorates under the direct control of the President. Administrative reforms included the establishment of a National School of Administration and the repartition of the country into provinces.  The Chiêu Hồi (Open Arms) Program, an initiative encouraging defection by the Việt Cộng to the nationalist cause, was placed under the control of a former Việt Cộng.  Agrarian reforms were also introduced (land redistribution, new agrarian code) to protect and maintain the integrity of village communities, rightly seen as potentially effective barriers against communist infiltration. Hidden behind their hedge of bamboo, Vietnamese villages had always been self-governing and jealously guarded their autonomy. There is a saying that “The Emperor’s edict stops where the village begins.”


In his memoirs, CIA director William Colby criticized Washington for its lack of moral and material support for South Viet Nam’s Strategic Hamlet Program, a plan to fight communist insurgency by pacifying the countryside and reducing communist influence among the rural population.  President Diệm was the mastermind of this strategy inspired in part by Robert Thompson’s experience in Malaysia.  Reinforced by the CIA-led cleanup operation known as the Phoenix Program, the Strategic Hamlet Program identified and neutralized thousands of Việt Cộng infiltrators in the rural South.   Documents declassified after 1975 reveal that cancellation of this program after Diệm’s death was welcomed by  Nguyễn Hữu Thọ, Chairman of the National Liberation Front, as a “gift from heaven”. 




Bảo Đại had left behind a nation in ruins.  President Diệm understood he had to re-establish order and the rule of law.  He put in place a new judicial system, with a court of cassation, 2 appeals courts, 6 tribunals of first instance, 23 tribunals with broad jurisdiction, 13 justice of the peace courts, and 3 tribunals for juvenile delinquents.  There were also 8 labor courts, 1 agrarian tribunal, 1 administrative tribunal, 2 notary offices, and several clerk’s offices. The Ministry of Justice recruited and trained new magistrates and judiciary police officers.


A national campaign coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Ministry of Education was launched to eradicate social ills like theft, gambling, drugs and alcohol.


The education system was entirely revamped, from primary to university level, and four new universities were established. Quốc ngữ was made Viet Nam’s official language, replacing French and Chinese. 


To unify the different systems left behind by the French, new legal codes were introduced: a nationality code, a penal code, a family code, a commercial code, and a civil code. These new codes were in line with the principles of freedom and democracy enshrined in the Constitution.




Fighting communist infiltration and countering agitprop activities by the North were among Diệm’s priorities.  CIA official Edward Lansdale, a friend of Filipino President Magsaysay’s and Diệm’s political advisor, recommended the creation of a political party loyal to the president.  The Cần Lao party, inspired by French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, was thus born, with Diệm’s brother Ngô Đình Nhu as its theoretician and first secretary. Inside the Cần Lao itself, there were many factions (Trần Kim Tuyến, Huỳnh Văn Lang, Dương Văn Hiếu, Trần Văn Trai, Đỗ Mậu….).  The insertion of the Cần Lao into the armed forces was the source of great discontent and unrest.  A few years later, as a result of pressure from the public and from the US, a multiparty system was cautiously tested with the creation of the Revolutionary Patriotic Movement (Phong Trào Cách Mạng Quốc Gia), a pro-government party.  Allowing real political opposition was seen as too much of a risk during a time of war.


Diệm left it to his brothers Thục, Nhu and Cẩn, to handle party affairs.  He himself preferred to focus on the political and professional training of the Federation of Revolutionary Civil Servants (Công Chức Cách Mạng Quốc Gia).  Mme Nhu, Nhu’s wife and a member of the National Assembly, was in charge of the female wing of the civil service. These women received military training and did social work that included hospital, hospice and orphanage visits, and teaching of quốc ngữ.




President Diệm stated in a speech in Tuy Hòa on 17 September 1955 that political independence had to go hand in  hand with economic independence.  At the time, Việt Nam’s economy was dominated by Chinese nationals.  To put an end to this situation, Diệm introduced draconian measures such as land redistribution, a marked decrease in the immigration and naturalization quota, the expulsion of undesirable elements, and a ban on Chinese nationals from taking up a number of professions.  The Taiwanese government protested these measures and threatened to repatriate the Taiwanese-born.  Washington had to intervene.  A compromise was eventually agreed upon by Saigon and Taipei.  Diệm got some of what he wanted but not all. 


Agrarian Reform


A complete overhaul of the agrarian system was a priority for Ngô Đình Diệm, a necessary component of his program to renovate society and combat the Marxist policy of exploitation of the people.  The Ministry of Agrarian Reform was established in 1955 and  Diệm signed a series of decrees (4 June 1953, 8 January 1955 and 5 February 1955) to regulate the rights, responsibilities and relations between landowners and agricultural workers, whose status was defined under the law.   Special contracts were drawn in order to protect the latter.  A national census of land that had been abandoned during the war or was owned by the French was conducted so official archives could be created and titles drawn. Land redistribution by local authorities was carried out under strict control, to prevent abuses, and compensation was scrupulously paid after deduction of the appropriate taxes.  By law, each landowner was limited to a maximum of 100 hectares.  Rural tribunals were established in the main regional centers.  





The Republic of Việt Nam was recognized by 47 nations and was the beneficiary of economic aid from the Free World, the United States and member states of the Colombo Plan.  President Diệm was determined to fully utilize the country’s own resources before resorting to foreign aid.  He liked to say that the best guarantee of political freedom was economic independence.  He therefore created a special office known as General Direction of Planning, answerable to him.  Its main tasks were to draw an inventory of natural and human resources and to come up with a five-year development plan.


After five years of hard work, the government was able to list the following among its achievements: an overhaul of the infrastructure; land clearance in the border areas and the highlands; the creation of a Center of Atomic Study in Dalat; the introduction of electricity to rural areas; and the resumption of rice, coffee and rubber exports. The standard of living improved, the piaster to dollar exchange rate stabilized, and so did the national budget. Compared with its South East Asian neighbors,  Việt Nam was developing reasonably well considering it was in the midst of a civil war.  In short, the five-year plan worked.   Cement, sugar and fabric factories were opened and functioned at full capacity.   Workers’ rights were respected and strikes were rare.  





The US-South Việt Nam alliance was fraught with tension. US military, economic and administrative advisors were everywhere.  Among the staff at the US embassy, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), USOM (U.S. Operations Mission) and DAO (Defense Attache Office) as well as among foreign correspondents, there were countless informants with direct or indirect contact with the CIA. George Carver, Rufus Phillips, Lucien Conein, John Paul Vann were among the better known.  


President Diệm had his own circle of advisors whom he’d met in the 40’s, among them Edward Lansdale, Wesley Fishel, Wolf Landejinsky, Raymond de Jaegher.  Some of these turned into fierce critics of his administration prior to the 1963 coup.


The North Vietnamese claimed to have penetrated South Vietnamese Command, but that was an idle boast. Many North Vietnamese and Việt Cộng infiltrators were intercepted and put on trial in Huế by Ngô Đình Cẩn and in Saigon by the Tổng cuộc Tình báo Trung ương, the South Vietnamese Central Intelligence Agency (cases of Vũ Ngọc Nhạ, Huỳnh Văn Trọng , Dương Quỳnh Hoa; Morin Hotel; Lê Hữu Thúy, Trần Quốc Hương aka Mười Hương; Phạm Bá  Lương; Ca Văn Thỉnh, Trần Ngọc Hiền….)


Among the communists who ultimately joined the South Vietnamese cause and were offered important posts by President Diệm were Kiều Công Cung, Lâm Quang Phòng, Nguyễn Văn Bé , Phạm Ngọc Thảo.




Much has been written about President Diệm, yet he remains something of an enigma.  He was born on January 3, 1901, in the Central Viet Nam province of Quảng Bình, the birthplace of revolutionaries.  He was the third in a Catholic family of 9 children (6 boys, 3 girls).  His father Ngô Đình Khả spoke three languages,  was a mandarin and tutor to Emperor Thành Thái who was known for his hostility to the French, and was the first Vietnamese to be educated at the Catholic seminary in Penang in present day Malaysia. Diệm’s childhood was steeped in Christian, Confucian and Taoist principles. He was nicknamed “Mr No” by his compatriots for steadfastly turning down all offers to cooperate with the French. After his election as president, he moved into the sumptuous Independence Palace but chose for himself a modest apartment with just a couple of chairs, a table, and a bed without a mattress.  This is where he would eat his meals alone and where his ministers and officers would come to submit their reports.  Ceremonial rooms were used only for official occasions like state visits and presentations of diplomatic credentials. 


President Diệm was always dressed in a white sharkskin suit and black tie.  At weekends he would relax and wear a black Vietnamese tunic to go riding on Palace grounds or take pictures with his Rolleiflex or Leica.  He rarely lost his temper, but when he did, he struck fear in his orderly officers’ hearts.  He would occasionally invite them to share his modest meals of soup and vegetables.


He would rise early in the morning and attend alone in his private chapel a mass officiated by his chaplain.  Often he would invite one of his ministers or some expert to come over for talks late into the night.  These would frequently turn into endless, and sometimes incoherent, presidential monologues.  He would take a few quick puffs on a Mitac cigarette before extinguishing it. 


Almost every week, he would go on some trip to the border provinces or the highlands to inspect his Agroville pet program. For the occasion, he would wear his old Mossant felt hat and leather boots. Although a small man, he walked fast and his bodyguards had a hard time keeping up with him. 




Under Ngô Đình Diệm’s leadership, South Việt Nam enjoyed a period of relative peace, reconstruction and prosperity from 1954 to 1960. During that time, North Việt Nam endured the trauma of the agrarian reform and cultural revolution, which caused  starvation and untold misery. All was not well between Saigon and Washington however.  Misunderstandings and disagreements arose over economic aid and the growing US military and civilian presence.  Washington was aware of Diệm’s non-negotiable stand on sovereignty and was in no hurry to help him create an effective armed force.  All paramilitary forces, national security, civilian guard, village guard, police, security, prison administration, espionage and counter-insurgency, were placed under the responsibility of the Interior Ministry at the request of the US. Requests for weaponry were often declined by Ambassador Elbridge Dubrow or granted sparingly or with strict conditions attached. Relations with the US State Department went from bad to worse, with a brief respite during the mandate of Ambassador Nolting.  The arrival of “Proconsul” Henry Cabot Lodge marked the final step of the plot against Diệm and Nhu.   Following the Bay of Pigs Invasion, President Kennedy gave free reins to he virulently anti-Diệm lobby in the State Department led by Averell Harriman, Hillsman et al who set out to isolate, and eventually eliminate Diệm and Nhu.  Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ, Trần Văn Chương, Bửu Hội and even Nguyễn Đình Thuần were openly courted to replace Diệm.


Few families paid a heavier price than the Ngô Đình in the fight against colonialism and communism in Viet Nam.  Ngô Đình Khả, the patriarch, was a devout Catholic and an ardent opponent of the French.  His oldest son, Ngô Đình Khôi, and Khôi’s son, Ngô Đình Huân, were both killed in the early days of the Marxist uprising.  President Diệm and his brothers Nhu and Cẩn were killed during the 1963 coup.  Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục, their older brother, was excommunicated by the Vatican after 1975, then pardoned, and died in a retirement home in Springfield, Missouri in 1984.  Madame Ngô Đình Nhu, née Trần Lệ Xuân, lived in a modest apartment in Paris after 1985 and passed away in 2011.  Tragedy continued to pursue the family.  Madame Nhu’s parents, ambassador Trần Văn Chương and his wife Thân Thị Nam Trân, were killed by their son Trần Văn Khiêm in their home in Washington.  Madame Nhu’s daughters, Ngô Đình Lệ Thủy and Ngô Đình Lệ Quyên both died in automobile accidents in Europe. 


The bond between the five Ngô brothers was sorely tested during Diệm’s presidency.  He ordered Ngô Đình Cẩn’s office in Huế closed.   When I consulted  Diệm on major issues, he would refer me to Nhu, who lost patience one day and exclaimed that “The President is an administrator, not a politician!”  There were rumblings that Diệm should make way for Nhu, the unofficial president.  Bishop Thục and Mme Nhu’s growing intervention in political affairs was criticized by the opposition, exploited by the communists, and  described by the Americans as nepotism.  Ironically, at the same time in the US, President Kennedy’s brother Robert played a prominent role in his administration.  JFK was assassinated in 1963, 11 days after Diệm, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. 


The Americans were Diệm’s real enemy, because they controlled the purse and behind the scenes negotiated with Moscow and Beijing.  Politically, South Việt Nam was disadvantaged by the fact that there was no mutual security treaty and the absence of an effective lobby in the US.  The situation was deteriorating rapidly. Inside the country, the Buddhist crisis was worsening, the Caravelle opposition group was becoming increasingly vocal, the National Liberation Front was getting stronger, and the CIA was infiltrating the army ahead of a coup. Việt Nam’s neighbors got drawn into the conflict in spite of their stated neutrality.  The North Vietnamese started providing logistical support to the National Liberation Front via the Hồ Chí Minh Trail which went through Cambodia and Laos, with the Khmer government providing asylum to the National Liberation Front.


In an attempt to make President Diệm face reality, I teamed up with my three colleagues from Defence, Trần Trung Dung, Information, Trần Chánh Thành, and Justice, Nguyễn Văn Sĩ, to order the arrest of a number of Cần Lao members accused of illegal activities.  This resulted in a reorganization of the Cabinet and the four of us resigned from our respective posts.  Four months later, on November 1, 1960, Vương Văn Đông and  Nguyễn Chánh Thi launched a military coup which failed.


Between the First Republic (Ngô Đình Diệm, 1954-1963) and the Second Republic (Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, 1967-1975) came an interregnum of great instability marked by military coups and counter-coups. Faced with a passive defense strategy, the South Vietnamese Army was not allowed to cross the 17th Parallel and invade the North. 


For  a decade, the US used South Việt Nam as a pawn on the Cold War chessboard. The RVN reluctantly played the game.  This proxy war between the two Việt Nams gave the other South East Asian countries the “decent interval” they needed to rearm. Once its objective was reached, the US abandoned South Việt Nam to its fate. The deaths of Diệm and Nhu will forever be a stain on US history.  Geopolitics often gives rise to unbalanced alliances, and the smaller partner always loses. Without the consent and support of the people, any foreign alliance, however strong, will eventually fall apart.


For General Dương Văn Minh, the coup against Diệm was the golden opportunity to get rid of all remaining evidence of his appropriation of the Bình Xuyên loot, which I had been instructed by Nhu to investigate in late 1957.  In 2011, in a private meeting in Houston, Texas, former president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu told me that the generals involved in the coup of November 1, 1963, made plans to flee to Cambodia when they heard that Diệm had left Gia Long Palace.  Diệm ultimately decided to surrender in order to avoid further fighting and weakening of the army, placing the well-being of the country above his own security.  When the time came for Thiệu to do the same, he chose his own survival. 


In his memoirs “Việt Nam, Our Endless War”, General Trần Văn Đôn admitted to receiving the paltry sum of US$ 42,000 from CIA agent Lucien Conein to share between the coup leaders, most of whom were among Diệm’s trusted officers (“thugs”, Lyndon Johnson called them).




A number of historians argue that the US did not lose the war in Việt Nam.  It got what  it wanted,  which was to loosen the viselike grip of Moscow and Beijing, but at what cost?   The defeat in Việt Nam did not occur on the battlefield, but on political and moral grounds.  The war did not have to be lost.


At the time of Diệm’s death in 1963, the Vietnamese armed forces, trained by the US, were about 255,000 strong.  In 1975, that number was one million. Of these, it is estimated that 259,000 died, 567,000 were injured, 34,000 went missing.  58,200 US troops died, 153,400 were injured, 1,700 went missing. The figures for South Korea were 5,100 dead and 1,000 injured; for Australia 430 dead and 2,900 injured; for Thailand 350 dead and 1,300 injured; and for New Zealand 60 dead and 210 injured.    It is estimated that 3 million Việt Cộng died during this war.  General Nguyễn Hộ, one of the leaders of the Liberation Front, put the total number of casualties in both north and south at 11 million.


To date, the US does not seem to have learned from its experience in Việt Nam.  Its troops are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq and its strategists do not know how to deal with the Taliban.  Its record as the world  policeman  is poor, not to mention controversial.  Democracy cannot be exported.  It has to be chosen freely, customized and in harmony with the prevailing culture.  In the same way that there’s fake currency, there can be fake democracies. 


Diệm and Thiệu underestimated the power and influence of the media on the executive and legislative branches of the US.


As demonstrated by a belated United Nations investigation, accusations of corruption and religious persecution aimed at Diệm have turned out to be false. His case demands to be revisited. He was a true patriot and a die-hard opponent of Marxism.  He made mistakes, certainly, but he was the architect of his country and left behind a series of initiatives that the Vietnamese people can be proud of.  He created a new Việt Nam and the accomplishments of his First Republic made it possible for the establishment of the Second Republic.  


Without the coup of 1 November 1963 which ended with Diệm’s death, the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the ensuing exodus would not have happened.  In 1972, after US troops had withdrawn, South Việt Nam proved it could win on its own when it pushed back a massive communist advance. This victory was negated in 1975.  The US was involved in a war it was not committed to winning, and General Westmoreland publicly recognized that “We betrayed you.” 


The struggle continues today to end Marxist dictatorship. In recent years, this has been made more difficult by China’s growing territorial ambitions. The Free World will never get out of the Vietnamese impasse as long as it does not learn that most important of lessons, that nothing can be accomplished without the power of the people.


Huntington Beach, July 4, 2016







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Thành tích sáu năm hoạt động chính phủ Nam Cộng hòa, Saigon, 1960, Viet Nam Press


Niên Lch Công Dân, Journal Officiel, VNCH, 1960-1961





Born 18 May, 1923 in Cần Thơ, Việt Nam.

Bachelor of Law & Hautes Etudes de Droit, University of Law, Hà Nội, Việt Nam.

JD, Western State University, California.

President of the Court of Appeals, Saigon before being appointed Interior Minister in Ngô Đình Diệm’s cabinet (1957-1960).

Ambassador of the Republic of Việt Nam to Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq & Jordan, Chargé de Mission to the Vatican and Israel (1960-1964).

Attorney at law, Saigon (1965-April 1975).

Professor at the National Institute of Administration, Saigon.

Professor at Faculty of Political Sciences, Dalat University, Việt Nam (1969-1975).

Evacuated to California, April 1975.

Eminence Teaching Credential in California.  Nominated California 1989 Americanization Teacher of the Year (Sacramento Department of Education).

Editor in chief & Publisher of the French-English Human Rights-Droits de l’Homme Quarterly since 1994.

General Delegate of the Alliance Francophone (OIF), USA.

Advisor of the Human Rights Network California & the Institute of Vietnamese Studies, California.

Producer  VN Oral History Series, Little SaigonTV Station, California./

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