Ngo Dinh Diem – First President of the Republic of Vietnam
Asia History

Research Report
Web Resources


Ngo Dinh Diem,a devout Roman Catholic, became Vietnam's First President of the Republic of Vietnam. His nationalism and drive to end communism made him a prominent figure in Vietnam.  However, his favoritism of Catholicism and discontentment with Buddhists made him a target of generals from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. The Army planned a coup d'etat against him and his brother Nhu. America, now humilated at Diem's dictatorship and bad decisions, did not want to help Diem and his government. On November 2, 1963, Diem and his brother were assasinated.

Historical Background

    On January 3, 1901 in Hue, Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Kha, a high-ranking mandarin (civil servant of the Annamese Emperors who ruled Indo-China), became father of the third of six sons he would have.  To the family name of Ngo were added the middle name of Dinh and the given name Diem, which means burning jade in Vietnamese. The Ngo family comes from a clan of leaders who for 1,000 years defended the Vietnamese against Chinese invaders. In the early seventeenth century, the Ngo family converted to Catholicism; holding on to their faith.
     Ngo Dinh Kha developed a deep resentment against the French when they deposed his sovereign as Minister of Rites and Grand Chamberlain to Emperor Than-Thai. Thus, he resigned his position, cut himself off from all unessential contacts with the French, and started supporting Vietnamese nationalist reformers such as Phan Boi Chau, who was the equivalent of China’s Sun Yat-sen. Due to Kha’s beliefs, Diem began adopting his father’s rigid antagonism toward the foreign occupiers of his country.
     At the age of fifteen, Diem spent a few months in a monastery.  However he came to realize that priesthood was not for him.  Yet when he reached the age of sixteen he was ready to take the competitive examinations for the equivalent of a high school diploma.  He scored so well that the French Government offered him a scholarship in Paris, but he declined. Even at a young age, “he had a burning ambition to work for Vietnamese independence, and he did not want to lose his chance (Bouscaren 15).”  Following in the footsteps of his older brother, Khoi, who had enrolled in the civil service, Diem entered the School of Law and Administration, a French institution for training native bureaucrats.  After graduating, he became a provincial governor at the age of twenty-five.

Research Report

    Around the year 1925, Diem became one of the first Vietnamese officials to learn of the Communists’ designs on the country at Quang Tri (city sixty miles north of Hue); he came across evidence of underground activity on the part of Ho Chi Minh. He tried to retaliate against the Communist ideas by producing his own propaganda to improve peasant conditions and eliminate corruption. In 1933, Diem became Emperor Bao Dai’s minister of interior.  He resigned after three months insisting that “the French invested real influence in a Vietnamese legislature (Karnow 215).”  Over the next ten years, Diem returned home to Hue and devoted his time to reading and studying. While at home, he still maintained close relations with nationalist comrades.  However, the French still kept Diem and his family under surveillance and even harassed his family by dismissing his oldest brother, Khoi, from the post of governor of Quangnam province—eventually killing Khoi and his son.
     After the Communist-led Viet Minh seized power from the Japanese in August 1945, Diem was offered a position in the government of Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh. Diem refused, seeing the Communists as a threat to his Catholic values and to his vision of an independent Vietnam.  As a result, the Vietminh had condemned him to death in absentia, where the agents were set out to kill him. In 1950, Diem and his brother, Archbishop Thuc, left Vietnam and eventually went o the United States, where he spent two years at the Maryknoll Seminary in Lakewood, New Jersey, “washing dishes, scrubbing floors, and praying, like any novice (Karnow 217).”  He appealed his opposition to Communist domination and French colonialism when he was introduced to people such as Francis Cardinal Spellman and Senators John F. Kennedy and Mike Mansfield.  He received the attention of Cardinal Spellman, who later became one of his active promoters.  The brothers them moved to Rome, followed by stops to Switzerland, France, and Belgium, where Diem created contacts with Vietnamese exile groups. During Diem’s absence in Vietnam, Bao Dai extended the offer of Premiership to him three times.  He rejected the first two times before accepting the offer the third time.

Geneva Conference

     At the beginning of 1954, people began to understand the struggles of Vietnam.  “When the French government discovered that the United States was not prepared to intervene to save the situation, it decided to beat a retreat (Bouscaren 31).”  The Geneva Conference opened on April 26, 1954 attended by the entire major powers and some smaller ones too.  The purpose of the Geneva Accords was the expectation of elections to unify the country by July 1956.  On July 21, the government of Mendes-France signed the agreement, “which ended the war in Indochina, partitioned Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to their fate (Zinn 39). With the support of the United States, Diem violated the regulations in the accord and refused to hold national elections. In October 1955, Bao Dai was ousted in a referendum that gave Diem the “unlikely majority of 98.2 percent of the popular vote and proclaimed him the first president of the Republic of Vietnam (Hammer 75).
    Under the Geneva agreement, the Communists were allowed to remain in certain parts of South Vietnam for ten months out of the year, in which they were supposed to assemble and evacuate their forces; however, they were spreading suspicion and dissatisfaction with the peasants.  Although the French authorities anticipated that the Bao Dai regime would not remain in Tongking, “the possibility of a massive exodus was discounted (Bouscaren 34).”  In the beginning of August, people from the north were already scurrying to South Vietnam. Diem then asked President Dwight Eisenhower for his assistance in evacuating the citizens and issued an appeal to gracious nations and organizations to help relieve the impoverished refugees who were arriving in large quantities to South Vietnam.  Of course, the American responded immediately. The Communists saw the action of the peasants moving to South Vietnam as a violation of the Geneva accords.  However, this movement exhibited the repression that the people, especially the peasants felt about Communist.
     Although Diem had the support of Americans, his Catholicism and favoritism for the Roman Catholics was unacceptable to the predominant Buddhist population in South Vietnam. Diem’s tough handling of the Buddhist troublemakers led to the United States disapproval. In May 1963, Diem banned the flying of the Buddhist flag and his brother, Nhu, was planning a raid on the Buddhist pagodas. On June 11 1963, in front of followers and the world press, Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest at policies of the then US-backed Diem regime of South Vietnam.  As a result, Diem felt that any sort of opposition was an act of communism.
    He never implemented his promise of land reforms, and during his rule, Communist influence and appeal grew among southerners, as the Viet Cong launched a gruesome guerrilla war against his Diem and his government. Diem began to carve a reputation for himself as a tyrant and evil. At this point in time, the United States President, John F. Kennedy felt really humiliated. Thereafter, some generals from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam were forming a coup d’etat aimed at Diem. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge told the generals that the United States would not oblige this time.
On November 2, 1963, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Nhu were assassinated as they were trying to flee Saigon (present day Ho Chi Minh City).  Diem’s successor was Nguyen Van Thieu.

Historical Significance

By not signing the Geneva Accords, the United States government was not bound to respect or honor anything that was stated in the accord. The American government decided that a Communist regime in South Vietnam could endanger the national security of the United States. Nonetheless, President Eisenhower and his administration decided to show support to the government in South Vietnam so that Ho Chi Minh could not establish his rule south of the 17th parallel. In July, 1955 Diem violated the Geneva Accords and stated that there would be no elections held until Minh's administration became democratic. Due to Diem taking his authority for granted, the United States refused to aid Diem when Ho Chi Minh's regime attacked Diem and his administration. According to Colonel William Wilson, "South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem believed, like the former emperors of China, that he possessed a "mandate from heaven," and he expected the people to follow him as a leader by divine right." In addition to Diem being a corrupt leader, his regime fell apart due to his strict Catholic views and upbringings which contradicted the traditional Buddhist citizens of Vietnam.


Bouscaren, Anthony Tarwick. The Last of the Mandarins: Diem of Vietnam. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh. 1965.
Fall, Bernard. Vietnam Witness (1953-66). Frederick A. Praeger, New York. 1966.
Hammer, Ellen J. A Death in November (America in Vietnam, 1963). E.P. Dutton, New York. 1987.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Viking Press, New York. 1983.
Zinn, Howard. Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. Beacon Press, Boston. 1967.

Web Resources "Vietnam War: The Causes" "Vietnam Falls: It Is Time to Establish Responsibility" "The Diem Myth" "Ngo Dinh Diem"  "U.S Complicity in the Overthrow of South Vietnam's
    President Made It Impossible to Stay Uninvolved In The War"