June 4th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gross desserts on the sex-education menu

CANBERRA OBSERVED Suggested parallel less a Murphy than a furphy

EDITORIAL Obama rewards Vietnam: a particularly nasty regime

ENVIRONMENT Land sinkage, not rising sea levels, the real threat

LIFE ISSUES Who am I? Baby's first memoir

SOCIETY Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

LIFE POLICY Queensland abortion bill is out of step with voters

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay 'marriage' and the given in human procreative behaviour (part 1)

RURAL LIFE Some of the reasons why farmers need a new bank

It's a queer theory that says kids can transgender (Part Two of two)

MUSIC Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

CINEMA Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Tragic betrayal

BOOK REVIEW Great reformer or great dictator?

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Tragic betrayal

News Weekly, June 4, 2016


THE LOST MANDATE OF HEAVEN: The American betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam

by Geoffrey D.T. Shaw

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015
Hardback: 314 pages
Price: AUD$38.75


Reviewed by Anthony Staunton


Geoffrey Shaw, a Canadian Associate Professor of History for the American Military University, presents the story of the rise and betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first President of South Vietnam.

Diem was born into one of Vietnam’s “great families” and was a well-educated Catholic who was immersed in Confucian thought and was prepared to guide Vietnam from the colonial and post-war eras into modern society. The author examines the activities of Washington policymakers, with no first-hand knowledge of Vietnam or Diem, who caused his downfall and death.

In 1957, President Diem of South Vietnam became the first foreign head of state to visit Australia. The Official History of Australia’s involvement in South East Asian Conflicts 1948–1975 states that Diem did not have a broad popular support, and that he was brutally efficient, using “classic forms of authoritarianism” for his early successes. Diem’s reaction to the upsurge of assassinations by communists “only made matters worse”.

The Australian government reaction to the “military and sophisticated Buddhist” self-immolation campaign was to disapprove of the “religious discrimination and the way Diem was handling the Buddhist crisis”. The view could be summed up as “Diem’s increasingly dictatorial regime faced a mounting insurgency”.

President Diem was believed by most Americans to be inept, corrupt and unpopular following reporting from journalists such as David Halberstam of The New York Times and Neil Sheehan of UPI. These journalists wrote in 1962 and 1963 that Diem’s corrupt and self-serving government was losing the war in South Vietnam and that the Strategic Hamlet Program was bogus. When Thich Qang Duc burned himself to death, Madame Nhu, the wife of President Diem’s brother, used the word “barbecue”, which offended American journalists.

Shaw describes Madame Nhu as having a “special talent for saying the exact wrong thing at the most inconvenient moment”. The comment was seized by journalists and used against Diem in the court of American public opinion, but no one asked where Madame Nhu picked up such an un-Vietnamese description. Her daughter had told Madame Nhu that this was how American journalists were describing the suicide!

The title of the book expresses the author’s thesis that President Diem “possessed the Confucian Mandate of Heaven, a moral and political authority that was widely recognised by South Vietnamese Buddhist and Catholic alike”. President Diem never lost the mandate of the South Vietnamese, nor the support of the various U.S. officials who went to Vietnam and met him and respected him. However, Diem’s fate would be decided in Washington by policy advisers who had not met him and who were poorly informed.

In Washington was Averell Harriman, who had a long and prestigious career as an influential Democratic politician and diplomat who served President Roosevelt as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, President Truman as Secretary of Commerce and in the Kennedy administration steered American policy in South-East Asia.

Harriman was the architect of the flawed Laotian neutrality agreement, which was signed without oversight and which led to serious security problems for South Vietnam. Some U.S. Department of State opponents would later name the Ho Chi Minh Trail the “Averell Harriman Memorial Highway”.

The CIA, the Department of Defence, some from the Department of State (the U.S. equivalent of our Department of Foreign Affairs) and Vice-President Lyndon Johnson all supported President Diem. However, Washington experts with no first-hand knowledge and misled by the media and other reports contributed to the decision to remove Diem.

President Kennedy was directly involved in the decision to conduct the Bay of Pigs invasion but left the decision to support the coup in South Vietnam to a committee. However, the Kennedy administration encouraged the coup and must take responsibility for the death of President Diem. The coup was ultimately counterproductive since it was undertaken by soldiers, who in Confucian society are near the bottom of the of the social respect pyramid. By overthrowing a scholar, who is at the top of the pyramid, society was upended at a time when order and national unity was a prerequisite for winning the war and stabilising the country.

President Diem was a decent man, respected by the average South Vietnamese farmer. U.S. Vice-President Johnson, who liked President Diem and who argued against the coup, was livid when he heard of the assassination.

In 1996, William Colby, CIA director 1973–76, confided to the author “that after Diem was killed, South Vietnam never got back on track”. Frederick Notling, the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam 1961–63, in his resignation from the U.S. State Department in 1964, quoted his strong disapproval of the coup and the “predictable adverse consequences”.

General Paul Harkins, the U.S. military commander in Vietnam 1962–64 in a handwritten letter to Notling in 1971 listed in descending order those responsible for the coup against President Diem as Harriman, Hilsman, Senator Mansfield and the American Press Corps.

The Lost Mandate of Heaven joins Edward Miller’s 2013 Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam in presenting an alternate to the negative portrayals of President Diem. This well written, well researched volume is an important look at the background to the Vietnam War.

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