The Furtive War by Wilfred Burchett
Early in the morning of February 27, 1962, a single-engined American AD-6 Skyraider fighter made an unannounced and spectacular belly-landing at Cambodia's Phnom Penh airport. Hardly had the dust from the propeller's contact with the tarmac cleared away when a jeep with three uniformed Americans appeared. They grabbed the slightly dazed Vietnamese pilot as he eased himself out of the cockpit, removed his pistol and communication's code. They were about to hustle him into the jeep, probably for transfer to an American plane which was warming up its engines further down the airstrip, when another jeep, laden with indignant Cambodian police appeared. After all, its was a Cambodian airport and the United States has no extra-territorial rights in Cambodia! After some heated exchanges the Cambodians left with the young Vietnamese.
An hour previously, pilot Nguyen Van Cu had been dive-bombing the Presidential palace of dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. His plane bore the white star of the U.S. Air Force, plus three yellow stripes for South Vietnam. Near the tail was a big red devil with a pitchfork—doubtless a symbol of Diem's hopes of consigning all his enemies to the infernal regions.
When I landed at Phnom Penh airport a few weeks later, the plane with its propeller twisted up at the ends had been parked alongside another white-starred U.S. Dakota transport plane which 18 months earlier had also made an unannounced landing at Phnom Penh. It had aboard a group of officers who had staged a military coup against Diem which had come within an ace of success.
Pilot Nguyen Van Cu, brave as a lion, had hit his target but missed his man. So great was Diem's confidence in his own Air Force that he fled for his air-raid shelter at the mere sound of an approaching plane. His sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, could not wait for Diem to get down the stairs. She cleared them in one jump from the first to ground floor and hurt her arm, the only family casualty.
"The only thing I regret," said Nguyen Van Cu, "is that I didn't release my bombs with the first dive. I wanted to be absolutely sure of my target and as it was slightly cloudy, I made one 'free' run to line up my primary target. On the second dive I dropped a bomb straight into Diem's apartment. It didn't explode. Only on the three successive dives did everything go off all right. But by that time the devil was in his hide-out."
Saigon radio had said that the two pilots—a second one had been shot down and captured—were "Viet Cong." Was this correct?
"No," replied Nguyen Van Cu. "I am not a Communist at all. But I am an ardent nationalist. I object most strongly to what is being done to my country. I detest the Diem dictatorship." He was reluctant to reveal the full implications of his attack but made it fairly clear that Diem's death was to have been the signal for further, more important action. He revealed that the anti-aircraft guns from Diem's palace were the only ones that fired at the planes. "The rest just fired up in the air," he said. "And the fighters sent up to shoot me down never made much effort. After all, my plane was limping badly, nearly crippled with ack-ack bursts." He also said he had circled for some time after the attack, hoping for a message agreed previously that would tell him where to land at a "friendly" field in South Vietnam. The message never arrived.
In the palace at the time were three of the Ngo brothers as well as Madame Nhu—Diem himself, Ngo Dinh Nhu and Ngo Dinh Thuc. In a despatch to the New York Times the following day, Homer Bigart reported from Saigon as the reason for the attack that the two brothers—Nhu and Thuc—had been accused of "helping the President operate a family dictatorship over the country." Bigart went on to note that the two pilots were believed to have been "thoroughly loyal" to the regime. "They belonged to the most westernized of Vietnam's military services. They had been trained by American military advisers in the techniques of dropping napalm, or jellied gasoline and other explosives on guerilla-occupied villages and other points of Communist concentrations." The correspondent also revealed that Diem's spokesmen denied that napalm had been dropped, in order to conceal the fact that it is being used on a large scale to wipe out Vietnamese villages. "There is some sensitivity here on the subject of napalm which was used against Vietnam by the French."
Another "chilling" fact noted by Saigon correspondents was that Pham Phu Quoc, the downed-pilot who led the attack, was not some "irresponsible youth" as Diem's official spokesmen described him, but a squadron operations officer and one of the best pilots in the South Vietnam Air Force. For days after the attack all planes were grounded. The main air base at Bien Hoa was surrounded by tanks while a great "loyalty check" or purge went on among the pilots. From that time on, it was reported, the only "South Vietnamese" planes that could carry bombs or rockets were those piloted by U.S. "instructors."
At a demonstrative public appearance staged by Diem in Saigon a few days later, the New York Times (March 5, 1962) reported, "Ordinary citizens, who were not allowed within a block of the Presidential stand, gave Mr. Ngo Dinh Diem a mild cheer when he drove past with a heavy military escort." As the Western world is being invited with ever-increasing urgency by the U.S. government to internationalize the fight to preserve "freedom"—in the form of the Diem regime—in South Vietnam, a closer glance at the reasons why people have to be kept a blocks-length from their President, why the latter is the object of attacks from those considered "most loyal" and "most Westernized," is not out of place.
It is not easy to have accurate information as to just what the regime is and how it works. The Americans, who are the best-informed outsiders—their chief military, security, and political advisers breakfast daily with Diem and the Nhu couple—are the least interested in revealing what really goes on. Any Vietnamese close enough to the regime to be well informed and imprudent enough to reveal what he knows, quickly finds himself behind iron bars, or often enough without his head. Some rare facts however were brought out of the country by some of the officers who staged the coup of November 11, 1960, and who now live in exile in Cambodia. Different officers had different motives for making the coup, ranging from those who wanted to prosecute the war against the "Viet Cong" more efficiently to those who wanted to stop the war and set up a neutral government. The thing that united them was their hatred and contempt for the Diem regime. The coup failed because those who carried it out had no clear line. They made no appeal for popular support. They believed in the "sincerity" of American mediation attempts, which prevented them from using the 48 hours in which they had control of Saigon to act in a decisive way to seize complete power. Instead they gave Diem and the U.S. advisers time to bring units loyal to Diem to the city. As with the pilots, the air-borne unit which carried out the coup was one of the most "Westernized," more properly "Americanized," in the Diem army.
I have a memorandum from some of those who took part in the coup and then fled to Cambodia. They include Nguyen Van Loc, ex-battalion commander and chief of staff of Diem's elite Air-Borne Brigade; Phan Lac Tuyen, vice-commander of the Saigon garrison Commando troops and editor of Diem's weekly military review Sink Luc; Tran Trong Nghia, ex-commander of the 5th Marine Commando group. This is a revealing document from officers in key positions to know what was going on.
They speak, for instance, of the "Three D" principle on which all appointments of any consequence had to be based. "All provincial and district chiefs, regimental, battalion or company, commanders, etc.," were chosen from those who completely met the "Three D requirements." These were Dang for political party, Dao for religion, and Dia Phuong for region of origin. As further spelled out, it meant one had to be a member of one of the two political parties formed by the Ngo brothers: the "Can Lao Nhan Vi" (Labor and Personalism) party formed by Nhu, or the "Phong Trao Cach Mang Quec Gia" (National Revolutionary Movement) founded by Diem. As for "Dao," the requirement was that one must be of Diem's Catholic religious faith. "Dia Phuong" meant that one had to come from Central Vietnam, place of origin of the Diem family. As for the two political parties, the statement says, these are:
organs for recruiting those faithful to the Diem family. Ngo Dinh Nhu was the "Fuhrer" of these two political clubs, the members of which were simply spies. A great number of officials and officers were dismissed or simply liquidated on the basis of reports made by their colleagues, members of these two parties....
Under the dictatorial, oligarchic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, morality, behavior, professional capacity, knowledge and educational standards have become useless and superfluous as regards official appointments or any appreciation of the value of officials and officers.
The statement goes on to summarize some characteristics of the Diem family—presenting facts which are well enough known in Saigon, and can be amplified.
The political history of Diem is that of a zero. Under the French Protectorate, during those long years when our compatriots waged a bitter struggle to smash the yoke of French colonialism, Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Khoi (condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal in 1945) drenched their hands in the blood of the patriotic population. His deeds of those days are recorded for history.
Since he was put into power by outside forces after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, Ngo Dinh Diem aided by his family sought only to consolidate his dictatorial and oligarchic regime, to enrich himself and satisfy the economic, political, and financial whims of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu.
All the brothers of Diem have been entrusted with important key posts. Ngo Dinh Nhu, nominated Diem's political adviser, is the uncontested real political master of South Vietnam, at the same time the head of the two Diemist political clubs. He has been dubbed the eminence grise because of his insatiable ambition to be a "leader." Ngo Dinh Can, also political adviser, is the "viceroy" of Central Vietnam, where he is notorious for his dictatorship and his taste for blood. Non-Diemist officials, officers, and political leaders have been liquidated and imprisoned purely and simply on his personal orders. Ngo Dinh Luyen, Ambassador to London, is the most obscure of the brothers. Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc has profited from and abused his religious functions by also playing politics in order to consolidate the dictatorial powers of his brother. No one has forgotten the crude blunder Diem committed in his relations with the Vatican by putting political pressure on South Vietnam priests making them address a memorandum to the Pope, asking him to nominate Ngo Dinh Thuc a cardinal. This shady affair, exposed by some of the priests, complicated relations between the Vatican and Diem for quite a while.
Diem set up a General Office of military chaplains for the Army. In fact this was only another secret police organization to carry out a purge of non-Diemists officers and soldiers. Churches were built in all garrison units, wasting military credits while soldiers' families including those of officers, lacked lodging, clinics, and schools. All military personnel were forced to take part in Catholic religious services. At the same time, Diem fomented dissension between Catholics and non-Catholics in order to divide the army into small opposing blocs.
The officers then refer to the official "philosophy of Personalism" which U.S. tanks and bombers seem committed to uphold, a doctrine about which Mme. Nhu waxes eloquent in her frequent public appearances.
In order to consolidate his regime, Diem has launched a sort of doctrine, the so-called "philosophy of Personalism." Works hastily and arbitrarily edited by opportunist and highly-paid priests can not hide the odious, lying face of this doctrine... Diem has ordered that his "personalist philosophy" be accepted as official doctrine taught in schools and universities, considered as the "way of life" of the "Ngo Dinh Diem century," as he himself termed it in his pompous speeches.
The officers reveal little of the content of this doctrine, so aptly named for a regime as "personal" as that of Diem, except to say that it is "a bastard offspring" of a Christian humanist doctrine preached by the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain.
If the doctrine is vague, the outer manifestations of Personalism are less so:
Diem has ordered that statues and portraits of himself should be displayed at all military units, administrative services, public places. The cost is deducted from officers' and officials' salaries. Before each "salute the flag" ceremony in the barracks, or in theater or cinemas, everyone must salute Diem's portrait to the music of "Leader Ngo." One is reminded bitterly of a sort of Trujillo of the Far East, who wants to drag the history of Vietnam back for centuries.
A little more background on the Diem family and its ramifications—not from the officers' document—confirms and amplifies everything they have recorded. It rounds out Homer Bigart's comment in the New York Times that "South Vietnam is tightly run by the President and a small family circle." A list of immediate members, together with the background, of the family, follows:
Ngo Dinh Kha, father of the present Ngo brothers, was a Court mandarin, guardian of the eunuchs in the royal harem of Emperor Khao Dinh, the first of the Annamite (Central Vietnam) emperors to submit completely to the French invaders. He continued as a mandarin under French rule.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the President-dictator himself, first came into prominence as a sort of Minister of the Interior under the French at the time they were repressing the independence movement. After the Japanese invasion and then the French reoccupation of Vietnam, Diem tried to counter the real resistance movement by forming a "non-violent" movement. When this received no support, he fled to Hong Kong and then to the United States. Rejected by a Catholic seminary, because he failed to qualify, he was picked up by Cardinal Spellman and the State Department to be groomed as "their man in Saigon."
As far back as 1950, when the State Department was juggling to improve its position vis-a-vis the French in Indo-China, it tried to get a government formed under Diem. But this failed. Four more years had to pass, by which time the United States was footing 80 percent of the French bill for the Indo-China war. Meanwhile Diem was being groomed by Senator Mike Mansfield and Cardinal Spellman for his future job. After Dien Bien Phu, in July 1954, as the French disaster in Indo-China was rushing to its climax, the Americans finally manipulated the overthrow of the pro-French government of Bu Loc and set up one under Ngo Dinh Diem. This was done with great haste, as by that time it was clear to the late John Foster Dulles that he was not able to block an Indo-China ceasefire. The next best thing was to have a government that would at least refuse to implement the Geneva Agreements, especially the key clauses concerning reunification. Ngo Dinh Diem was the ideal man and became the well-chosen instrument of U.S. policies in South Vietnam.
On November 23, 1955, he organized a referendum by which he replaced Emperor Bao Dai as Chief of State, and in April 1956, under strong U.S. pressure, the rest of the French expeditionary force withdrew from South Vietnam leaving the field wide open for U.S. intervention. By withdrawing their forces, the French government of the day also withdrew from their obligations under the Geneva Agreements to arrange nation-wide elections to unify the country by July 1956.
By one of those queer quirks of fate, Diem's life was once spared by the direct intervention of Ho Chi Minh, president of North Vietnam. Diem had been arrested in 1945 as a collaborator of the French and the Japanese in turn, responsible for the death of many resistance workers, as was his elder brother Khoi. The latter was executed, but as a gesture of clemency, Ho personally signed an order amnestying Diem. 
Ngo Dinh Nhu, the so-called eminence grise, is regarded as the real power in the country. In his earlier days he worked as an expert on police dossiers in Paris. Later when he had to flee from Hue, former capital of the Annamite Emperors, and make his way by foot to Saigon, the main thing he insisted on taking with him was a case of dossiers the French police had compiled on his own compatriots. Those who have been intimate with him say that compilation of dossiers is one of the ruling passions of his life and accounts for much of his power in the land. Apart from running the two "political clubs," as the officers and many Western correspondents refer to the parties mentioned earlier, Nhu heads the Security Service of the Presidency and in fact the threads of all the country's security services come together in his hands.
Tran Thi Le Xuan or Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu became a converted Catholic at the age of 16 in order to marry brother Nhu. Her father is Tran Van Chuong, Diem's Ambassador in Washington. American correspondents usually refer to her as the "influential First Lady of Vietnam." The officers in their memorandum are less kind:
Tran Thi Le Xuan [they write] is a sort of South Vietnamese Messalina. Officially she is a deputy of the National Assembly. Unofficially she holds in her hands the complete economic, financial, and political powers of the Diem government. She leads an extremely riotous and questionable life with the handsome young colonels and generals whose names are the subject of endless gossip among the population.
Extremely capricious, she has surrounded herself with a coterie of courtiers and courtesans, rewarding their services with her economic and political favors. Every time that Ha Di, the official family photographer, succeeds in catching a pose which expresses her sex appeal or her beauty, Mme. Nhu gives him a special bonus of 2,000 piastres.
Despising all the ministers and high Diemist officials, Mme. Nhu dared on one occasion to smack the face of Nguyen Ngo Tho, Vice-President of the Republic, in public. The Exchange Control Office, as other official services, serve only as personal facilities for her fraudulent transactions.
It is common knowledge that apart from what Mme. Nhu is pleased to farm out among her brothers-in-law and Court favorites, she controls the economic affairs of the country. U.S. dollar aid passes directly through her hands, and the proportion that sticks to her fingers is known to be fabulous. It is she who allots the all-important military contracts which eat up by far the major part of U.S. aid. The Exchange Control Office is merely an extension of her personal bank account. She runs the lucrative "dollar traffic," the scale of which makes the "piastre traffic" scandals, in which French generals and ministers were involved in the early 1950's, look like very small business. (After all, the French never had $400,000,000 in one year—the American contribution for 1962—to play with.)
One of the more spectacular and vulgar stunts of the "First Lady" is on March 18 each year—a day that commemorates a victory over Chinese invaders in the first century a.d. by the Trung sisters, national heroines who raised and headed an army against the invaders. Mme. Nhu, dressed up in armor similar to that of the sisters, parades the streets of Saigon, astride an elephant, exhorting taxi-girls and others to "emulate the Trung sisters and fight the Viet Cong."
Ngo Dinh Can has no official functions, but is the real power in Central Vietnam—that part of Annam which now lies south of the 17th parallel. His headquarters are at Hue. He is regarded as rough and uncouth by his more sophisticated elder brothers. By those who have suffered at his hands, he is described as a bloodthirsty tyrant who personally participates in the torture and execution of those he considers opponents. There is said to be bad blood between Can and his brothers. Can taunts Nhu and the others with not having been as successful in their repression of "Viet Cong" in the South as he has been in the Center, also of salting their money away abroad for future flight, while he intends to "fight it out in the jungle." Those who know him best, and my sources range from Western diplomats to Vietnamese functionaries who served under him and fled, say he is an illiterate who refuses to have any contact with foreigners, even including Americans.
Ngo Dinh Can controls all appointments in his fief—after the preliminary "Three D" qualifications have been checked. He runs the security services—too well for the peace of mind of brother Nhu, who does not like to share the monopoly.
Can has his own system of dossiers that do not always appear in, or coincide with, Nhu's own files. Brother Nhu, it is reported on impeccable authority, has several times tried to bring Can to Saigon and keep him under closer control. When all else failed, he created a Ministry of National Security and offered Can the post as Minister. But Can, with his jungle cunning, saw this as a trap. He refused. The Center is his personal fief which he does not intend to abandon, or share, with anyone.
Ngo Thi Thoan or Ca Le, sister of Diem, until she died in 1957, was the other feminine element in the Ngo "dynasty." She also lived in Hue. Her husband was a wealthy compradore businessman. Ca Le and brother Can controlled the allocation of military contracts in the Center; they had a complete monopoly on rice purchases and transport. Their economic interests and activities sometimes brought them into conflict with the family's Saigon branch. In some fields the Can-Ca Le combination found itself in rivalry with the Diem-Nhu-Le Xuan combination—a situation not unknown in feudal Europe between brother princelings.
Ngo Dinh Thuc is archbishop and apostolic vicar of Vinh Long, about 60 miles south of Saigon, and a center for Southwest Vietnam. Like brother Can, he has no official post, but no government or military appointments are made in his fief without his approval; he controls the work of all appointees, reporting back directly to brother Nhu. Thuc's religious activities do not inhibit him from joining the rest of the family in dipping his fingers deep into the economic pie. He has monopoly rights on exploiting the timber riches of the Southwest; rubber plantations demagogically confiscated from the French to prove Diem's "anti-colonialism" are run now by Thuc and—perhaps more directly in his line —he has the monopoly on the import and sale of sacramental wine.
Ngo Dinh Luyen is Diem's ambassador in London, whose wife died in circumstances so mysterious that the police may well reopen the case one day. Luyen promptly married her sister. He has been accused of pocketing 100,000 pounds in a scandal involving the liquidation of the Banque de l'Indochine in Saigon, but seems less involved in financial dealings than the rest of his family. Very mild criticism uttered during a Saigon visit in 1961, under the influence of liberals who had caught his ear in London, infuriated brothers Diem and Nhu, and Luyen considered himself lucky to escape back to his London post unscathed.
Among the prominent personages connected by marriage is Tran Van Chuong, Ambassador in Washington and father of Mme. Nhu. Another is Tran Trung Dong, son of a former wealthy North Vietnamese landlord, son-in-law of Ca Le, and ex-vice-minister of National Defense. Also there is Nguyen Huu Chau, married to Mme. Nhu's sister, and ex-Minister of Internal Affairs.
A revealing detail is worth mentioning. When Mme. Nhu's sister, Tran Le Chi, became involved in a Parisian morality scandal of such proportions that her husband could not overlook it and demanded a divorce, Mme. Nhu sprang to the defense. At a time when the Diem police machine was trying to force wives of VPA soldiers and resistance workers who had regrouped to the North (in accordance with the Geneva Agreements), to divorce their husbands, Mme. Nhu forced through the National Assembly a "Law for the Protection of Families" to ban divorce in South Vietnam except at the discretion of the President. At first there was considerable opposition, but after Mme. Nhu had assailed deputies as "cowards who did not know their jobs" and threatened those who voted against it with severe punishment, including exile, the law was passed. Sister Tran Le Chi was saved from public disgrace, but there was no let-up of police pressures for forced divorces by the wives of the regroupees.
It is a tight little family dictatorship which entirely justifies the term "oligarchic," so often used in the officers' memorandum. Shuffling around the names of ministers to aid U.S. public relations officers present a better picture to the West does not help. Nothing can cover up the camouflaged family appointments like those of Can and Thuc, not publicly announced but functioning in practice. The most expert of public relations officers cannot cover up the real state of affairs.
The question in many observers' minds is why U.S. pressures to avoid too monstrous a manifestation of the Ngo family dictatorship have been applied with such delicacy, with such restraint. Why, after U.S. experiences with the dictatorship of the Chiang-Soong-Kung families in Kuomintang China, the catastrophic results of which are periodically presented in State Department documents, does the U.S. government back an almost identical set-up in South Vietnam today?
The short answer seems to be that in Asia at least it is only such anti-national elements that can be relied on to serve U.S. interests. An unholy bargain seems to be made in which the price exacted by collaborators for unlimited subservience to U.S. policies is an unlimited free hand to suck the last drop of blood out of their own people. This drives American policies into fatal contradictions. Instead of pushing ahead with their own aims, which are usually suspect enough these days, the U.S. government is constantly bogged down in trying to keep its instruments of policy in office. Enormous quantities of dollars and arms—and eventually men—are invested in this. And this is precisely what is happening in South Vietnam. That part of it is of course their problem. The other aspect is the blood and tears of tens of thousands of innocent people who are on the receiving end.
As to how the deal pays off for the local collaborationists, in this case the Ngo family, there are documents available which show that Ngo Dinh Diem personally had invested 830,000,000 piastres (equivalent to over $11,500,000) in various industries in South Vietnam, apart from money loaned to local banks. His capital in French, Swiss, and American banks, totalled 980,000,000 piastres by early 1962, most of it deposited at 35 piastres to the dollar (about half the official exchange rate). Among properties acquired by Diem in his personal name are 65 rubber plantations confiscated from the French—most of them now, however, are in areas administered by the National Liberation Front.
Archbishop Thuc's investments include the purchase in June, 1959, of the Charner department store, the biggest in Saigon, from its French owners for the equivalent of U.S. $4,000,000, and a big fleet of transport vehicles for exploiting the timber resources of the Southwest over which he has monopoly rights.
The economic activities of Mme. Nhu and her husband run parallel with those of the whole country, but the most lucrative has probably been the "dollar traffic," that is, buying unlimited quantities of dollars at the official rate, selling them on the black market for piastres at anything up to five times that rate, and reconverting the piastres back into dollars at the official rate, and so on ad infinitum. Rake-offs on selling import-export licenses, allocations of military contracts, sale of gold, and dozens of other rackets are useful sidelines. But the "dollar traffic" is the real money-spinner of the Nhu couple, aided by everything from military credits, to father Tran Van Chuong's diplomatic immunity as ambassador in Washington. Mme. Chuong is said to take a plane every month of Saigon.
Brother Can's economic activities are also specialized. He inherited from his sister the monopoly on rice purchases over the whole country. In a normal season, he buys, for instance, at a fixed price of 3,500 piastres per ton with immediate resale at 6,500 piastres. An average of 200 tons per month transported from the Mekong Delta regions to Central Vietnam— obviously in Can's own transport fleet—is distributed through a ring of 16 merchants linked with Can, for 10,000 piastres a ton. In famine years the profits are even higher. Under the guise of setting up an Economic Department of the "National Revolutionary Movement," Can carved out monopoly rights for himself on the sale of all forest products from the 17th parallel down to Saigon. (South of Saigon it is brother Thuc who takes over.)
Most of these facts are known to Western diplomats in Saigon and occasional little snippets creep into the Western press. But in general there is a conspiracy of silence to hide these facts and to present the image of a gallant, little democratic regime fighting for its life against overwhelming odds, a romantic, beautiful "First Lady" in the vanguard.
Madame Nhu's vulgarity and hypocrisy occasionally won her reproaches from unsuspected sources. She was quoted, with obvious disapproval in the New York Times on June 13, 1962, for urging that U.S. troops that had been sent to Thailand because of the Laos crisis "should have been rushed to Laos to apply against the Communists, not the Talionic law of an 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' but a doctrine of 'two eyes for one, two teeth for one.' " She accused the West of "cowardice" in accepting a neutral regime for Laos, and at a special press conference she announced that Americans had come to South Vietnam "to help us and not to dance." This was one of the reasons she gave for closing down all dance halls and banning dancing in general. As for the "taxi-girls," the professional dancing partners whom Madame Nhu had been trying to force into armed women's units, she said that "hunger would force them to mend their ways and perhaps take up nursing or teaching." In general, South Vietnam was to be put on an "austerity regime." This brought a sharp retort from someone in a position to know. He was Robert S. Browne, assistant program director of the U.S. foreign aid mission to South Vietnam in 1958-61.
What really galls, however [he wrote in an angry letter to the New York Times] is for a member of the ruling family to speak of "austerity" in South Vietnam. Nothing could be a greater travesty on the word.
Although the French may complain that Saigon isn't like the good old days, the fact of the matter is that one can dine sumptuously in a different restaurant every night in the week, complete with superb wines and delicious cheeses—all imported of course... Everything from out-board motors to fine perfumes may be purchased in Saigon shops. One must step carefully or risk being run down by one of the new sports cars which are now becoming so fashionable and so common on Saigon's boulevards. ...
One finds austerity only among the poor and I daresay in Hanoi which may reveal something about the reasons for the Viet Cong's continuing success.
As for the dance-hall girls becoming teachers—I'd like to ask Mme. Nhu what schools she suggests they attend. The thirst for education is already widespread among the Vietnamese; it's the means for quenching this thirst which is lacking. Saigon's public schools are so inadequate that every year they are obliged to turn away more pupils than they accept. Vietnam, in its peculiar type of austerity, devotes less than 3 per cent of its budget to education as compared with neighboring Cambodia's 22 per cent for the same item. (New York Times, June 20, 1962.)
In their memorandum, the officers of the November coup summed up economic affairs in the 'austerity' regime as follows:
The national economy has been the personal affair of the Ngo family, completely in the hands of Mme. Nhu. Import-export transactions were used to acquire a secret fund to subsidize their political parties, to buy farms and properties in Brazil, in France, and to build up bank accounts abroad...
American and other foreign economic aid are only "means of production" to enrich themselves. No one is surprised when the western press refers to Mme. Nhu as the "world's fourth multi-millionaire." Everyone in Saigon can name the big buildings, hotels and villas that now belong to the Ngo Dinh Diem family.
Corruption is one of the grave incurable ills of the Diem regime. The construction of the market in Dalat [hill station about 150 miles Northeast of Saigon, where Diem maintains a summer capital], for instance, cost 60 million piastres according to the official price. In fact, half this sum miraculously disappeared into the pockets of the contractor—one of Mme. Nhu's relatives...
Big industrial and commercial enterprises such as the Nong Son coal mines, the Paracel Islands Phosphate Co., the Vineteco Weaving Mills, the Saigon Bus Co., the Hiep Hoa Sugar Refinery, the Tru Ong Mari-time Transport Co., rubber plantations, etc. have now become the out-right property of the Ngo family. In other industrial and commercial companies, capital of the Ngo family reaches up to 60 or 90 per cent of total investments.
The Diemist economic oligarchy has brought ruin to many of our handicraft workers, has given rise to black marketing and fraud on a large scale, has increased corruption and unemployment.
The officers had some interesting observations on the various espionage and "thought control" agencies which function under brother Nhu.
Apart from the "political parties" which are only secret services with academic and innocent-sounding names, Diem set up also the "Service for Political, Cultural and Social Studies" attached to the presidency [and directly under Nhu] for overall control. The Central Military Committee of the "Labor and Personalism" party casts its heavy shadow over the army, taking over all decisions on promotions, nominations, changes, punishment and liquidation of officers and troops.
The services of Military Security and "Observation and Liaison Group" handle espionage and purges in the army and subversive activities abroad and in North Vietnam.
Numerous other quasi-political and social organizations are listed with the observation that these "are only different branches of the Diemist secret services camouflaged under attractive labels." As for "thought control," this is exercised by the director-general of the "Military Chaplains' Office." The memorandum refers to a re-education camp called, appropriately enough, "Education Center for Personalism," set up under the eyes and nose of brother Thuc, at his Vinh Long headquarters. Here "priest-professors handle indoctrination in 'personalist philosophy' for officers, NCO's, officials, writers, artists—anyone forced to follow a "re-education course."
Finally, after a detailed and well-documented account of the crimes and corruption of the Ngo family dictatorship, the officers came to the real heart of the matter—the reason that pushed most of them into supporting the coup:
In open violation of the Geneva Agreements, Ngo Dinh Diem by accepting SEATO bloc intervention has transformed half of our country into an American military base, directly threatening world peace. At the same time Ngo Dinh Diem is employing American arms to massacre the population. Ngo Dinh Diem has also followed an "interventionist" policy towards our fraternal neighbor countries, carrying out subversive activities in those countries. This belligerent policy, contrary to the wishes of the Vietnamese people, is directly threatening peace in Asia...
At the same time U.S. military advisers, whose number increases every day, display their racist and arrogant attitude towards Vietnamese officers and troops. This has led to disaffection among all ranks of the Diemist army.
Confronted with the crimes that Diem and his clique perpetrated against the South Vietnamese people and army, a certain number of patriotic officers took part in the coup d'etat of November 11, 1960. Others have crossed over to the ranks of the people's patriotic forces to continue the fight for democracy, peace, and unification of our country. For those who still remain in the Diemist army, the appeal of history and patriotism is tucked away in a corner of their heart. One can expect storms which will gather in due time and unleash a powerful, irresistible force finally to smash the oligarchic dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem and U.S. imperialism.
These are not the words of the "Viet Cong" propagandists, nor were the people that carried out the coup connected in any way with those who are labelled "Viet Cong." (Had they been, the coup would almost certainly have been successful.) They are officers who held key positions in the most trusted units of Diem's army, with access to impeccably accurate, primary sources of information. The reasons that prompted them to the desperate, dangerous act of a military uprising are in themselves the greatest indictment of the Diem regime.
The November coup and the bombing of Diem's palace incidentally expose the fallacy of U.S. arguments that Diem's troubles spring from "subversion" and "aggression" from North Vietnam. The greatest dangers to which the Saigon dictator has so far been exposed came from units trained by the Americans themselves and installed by them in the capital as the most trusted instruments of their policies.
1. A parallel case was Chou En-lai's intervention to save the life of Chiang Kai-shek, in December 1936, after the latter had been arrested by Chang Hsueh-liang, the "Young Marshal" of Manchuria, in what is known as the "Sian Incident."