June 2016

The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam.  By Geoffrey Shaw. Ignatius Press. 314 pages. $24.95.

Canadian military historian Geoffrey Shaw offers a sympathetic portrayal of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who was brutally murdered on November 2, 1963, by the South Vietnamese Army, with the connivance of the U.S. government, during a coup d’état. Shaw’s book is not a biography of Diem but a close look at the machinery and outcomes of U.S. foreign policy in southeast Asia, and how that machinery failed Diem, the Vietnamese people, and Americans committed to the country.

Shaw lays the blame for this failure on less-than-honest news reporting and on individuals within the Department of State, the U.S. military, and the White House who saw Diem as an obstacle to their goals. Diem was protective of Vietnamese independence; he tried to minimize U.S. interference in local policies, such as the Vietnamese government’s attempt to reduce Viet Cong influence in the countryside. He was aware, perhaps more than the Americans, of the Viet Cong’s propaganda that played up U.S. colonialism. Diem tried to limit the U.S. military in South Vietnam, or at least restrain it from expanding its role, but many U.S. officials wanted to interfere more, not less.

Shaw gives the impression that America’s press and government amounted to greater enemies to Diem than did Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong. The American media became the Viet Cong’s unwitting pawn. The communists “were astute enough to realize that the tail wagging the dog of U.S. foreign policy was American public opinion, which is largely shaped by the media.” Newsmen seemed to have had their own agenda for Diem. U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting accused the media of focusing on the failures of the South Vietnamese military and overlooking its triumphs. Reporters never sufficiently engaged with the scene to know the real story, spending most of their time at Saigon’s cafés and the plush Caravelle Hotel instead of gathering information on, for instance, the Diem government’s largely successful work in the villages, a key to preventing Viet Cong encroachment into the South.

Robert Thompson, a British adviser to the U.S. in Vietnam who had experience in Malaya with a similar communist-inspired uprising, could see the power of the American press and its influence on U.S. foreign policy. In 1963, Shaw writes, Thompson believed that “by the end of the year, if the United States stayed the course, it would be able to announce a reduction in its forces in South Vietnam by about one thousand men…. He advised President Kennedy to downplay or ignore the heavy criticism of Diem and American policy in the press.” This would show that Diem was not an American puppet, which was one of the Viet Cong’s most powerful messages. His advice fell on deaf ears.

American reporters were mani­­pulated by a series of self-immolations by Buddhist monks who claimed religious persecution by Diem’s government. Shaw ties those religious figures to the Viet Cong. One of the book’s subthemes follows the communists as skilled propagandists not only within Vietnam and neighboring countries but with the American public. The Soviet Union and other communist countries probably aided this information war, which Shaw only hints at via his sporadic references to Poland’s diplomatic involvement. Elaboration on this would have added to our understanding of the larger picture.

Up until the assassination of Diem (while he was praying in a church), the conflict in Vietnam was winnable, according to Shaw. Diem’s murder led to the unraveling of years of hard work. Ambassador Nolting states in his memoirs that “results on the ground in South Vietnam [in 1962-1963] also seemed to demonstrate the counterinsurgency was working: ‘The pacified area in the country continued to expand, government services to the people continued to increase and improve, and the Strategic Hamlets program appeared to be consolidating these gains. The infiltration rate from North Vietnam was estimated at less than 500 a month.’”

As the assassination indicates, Diem’s second antagonist was the U.S. government. Shaw successfully highlights the great chasm that divided Diem from the Kennedy administration, which reflected a larger issue not seen in the U.S.: “In every meaningful way, traditional Vietnamese society had values that were diametrically opposed to those of modern, secular Western societies, particularly the United States.” This extended to non-Catholics. The pious Diem “was no religious bigot or enemy of Buddhism. He almost single-handedly brought South Vietnamese Buddhism back from near extinction.” Aside from Ambassador Nolting, who appears as one of the book’s heroes however much he failed to alter Washington’s agenda, the Americans did not understand, or even attempt to understand, their Vietnamese allies and their different, traditionally religious worldview.

Shaw’s depiction of the internal divisions in the Kennedy administration, with important figures such as Vice President Lyndon Johnson wanting to side with Diem, remains straightforward despite the maze of names and titles. Those who engineered the assassination did so in an underhanded way. Diem’s primary supporter, Ambassador Nolting, was on vacation and out of Vietnam when the operatives moved to oust the Vietnamese president.

The one serious lack in the book’s narrative concerns John F. Kennedy’s culpability. Throughout the book, Shaw implies, but never outright states, that President Kennedy failed to show leadership, for example by allowing the sidelining of Nolting to the benefit of the warhawks. What is Shaw’s ultimate judgment of Kennedy? How much responsibility should we ascribe directly to the Oval Office? These remain unclear.

A lesser flaw concerns the portrayal of President Diem and his entourage. While Shaw gives enough background on his character and policies for us to follow the story, much that deserves elaboration is passed over quickly, such as the bachelor president’s sister-in-law and effective first lady of Vietnam, Madam Nhu, and her bluntness.

One strength of Shaw’s portrait of Diem is that it directly addresses the myth of the Vietnamese president as a corrupt dictator. Shaw paints an eminently likable Diem, such as when he refers to Diem’s relationship with the Vietnamese people: “He was a rare man in South Vietnam at that time: a genuine, traditional, nationalistic Vietnamese leader with political legitimacy.”

The Lost Mandate of Heaven tries an evenhanded approach by showing both the Vietnamese and U.S. perspectives, instead of simply the latter’s. Shaw’s critical appraisal of the American media, which seemed to care more about manipulating foreign policy than reporting the news, is the book’s primary strength. The press at times acted as another branch of the U.S. government, just as forcefully as it does in 2016. Given the media’s enormous power and frequent bias, one pines for more such books on recent political events.

- Brian Welter





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