[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Clemans on Jacobs, 'Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam, 1950-1963'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Nov 6 13:41:39 MST 2016

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Sun, Nov 6, 2016 at 10:57 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Clemans on Jacobs, 'Cold War Mandarin: Ngo
Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam, 1950-1963'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Seth Jacobs.  Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of
America's War in Vietnam, 1950-1963.  Lanham  Rowman &
Littlefield Publishers, 2006.  208 pp.  $76.00 (cloth), ISBN
978-0-7425-4447-5; $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-4448-2.

Reviewed by Paul Clemans (Air University, Air Command and Staff
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

_Cold War Mandarin_ considers the US commitment to Ngo Dinh Diem from
his first US tour to gain US support in 1950 through his presidency
and death in 1963. Seth Jacobs believes this relationship holds the
key to understanding the origins of the Vietnam War and the
subsequent development of the conflict. He reasons Diem's failure to
establish a strong, inclusive democratic South Vietnamese government
required an increased American military presence to bolster the
regime. As this presence increased, the Vietnamese people started to
perceive America as a new "colonial" power who had come to replace
the French. This anti-American sentiment was stoked throughout the
conflict with the US- driven delay of the Vietnamese unification
elections promised by the Geneva Accords in 1954. It was an election
their man, Ngo Dinh Diem, could not win. Taken together, these
factors provided a strong impetus for continued indigenous support of
the Viet Minh in the protracted conflict. For these reasons, Jacobs
argues American commitment to Diem was the "most fundamental"
decision of US involvement and the "most ruinous" US foreign policy
decision (pp. 8-10).

Diem began his career with promise in the late 1920s as a highly
effective, anticommunist law enforcement official who rose to
Vietnam's highest police post of minister of the interior. However,
he possessed an inability to negotiate and collaborate, which led to
his resignation from the post when the French refused to accept his
proposed policy reforms. After World War II, he returned to the
public eye when he turned down a prominent position in the
French-sponsored Bao Dai government. Instead, he campaigned for a
Vietnamese government independent of both the French colonial power
and the communist Viet Minh. Diem stood out as a nationalist leader
in the developing world who was neither colonialist nor communist. He
was just the kind of leader Professor Wesley Fishel was looking for
to implement his "third force" theory (p. 25). Fishel started Diem on
the road to garnering US support from such prominent figures such as
Senator Mike Mansfield, publishing tycoon Henry Luce, and various
American academics, left-wing political activists, and numerous
journalists. His rise to popularity was timed perfectly with the "red
scare" peak so that he was the only anticommunist Vietnamese
political figure widely recognized in America in the early 1950s. His
popularity coincided with the French departure from Vietnam, and
opportunity met with preparation. In 1954, the Bao Dai government
offered Diem the premiership with sweeping powers in order to gain US

Unfortunately, Diem alienated nearly all of South Vietnam as he
eliminated potential political rivals in his attempt to consolidate
power. In April 1955, Diem fought and destroyed the criminal
organization running Saigon, Binh Xuyen. He then lost the support of
over one million followers of the Hoa Hoa Buddhists when he captured,
falsely tried, and executed their leading military figure. Next, he
held a fixed referendum on who should lead South Vietnam and sent
Emperor Bao Dai into exile. In numerous other cases, Diem continually
disenfranchised the Vietnamese, such as the two million Cao Dai
religious followers near the Mekong Delta, over thirty Montagnard
tribes living in the Central Highlands, hundreds of village elders,
and large land owners. In the end, he completely destroyed the base
of political support he needed for a stable government.

A completely different narrative appeared in the United States
throughout the 1950s. Prominent political and media figures formed an
organization called, American Friends of Vietnam (AFV) to promote
Diem and his fight against atheistic communism. They portrayed him as
America's only hope to stem the tide of the communist Viet Minh.
Evidence to the contrary was squelched or ignored, such as Gen J.
Lawton Collins's report to President Eisenhower and journalist Albert
Colegrove's news stories. Anticommunist rhetoric had wholly vested
America in Diem's regime to the point where deposing him could not be
accomplished without a significant loss of national prestige.

Three events in 1960 marked the beginning of the end of Diem's grip
on political power. First, he arrested a highly respected physician,
Dr. Pham Quang Dan, to prevent him from taking his seat in
Parliament. This action produced an outcry and eighteen prominent
political figures, named the Caravelle Group, produced a manifesto
calling for specific social reforms. Secondly, a highly trusted Army
of Vietnam (ARVN) paratrooper battalion attempted a coup and would
have succeeded had not two divisions from outside of Saigon came to
the rescue.The significance of the event lies in the fact the unit
consisted of decidedly anticommunist members. Lastly, Ho Chi Minh
established the National Liberation Front political party in South
Vietnam for the purposes of political subversion. Most of its members
were notably not communist; however, it was still controlled by the
Communist Party.

While domestic Vietnamese support had eroded, the US support for Diem
remained until late 1962 to mid-1963. However, in-country American
reporters continued to provide accounts of discrepancies between the
democratic rights of the Vietnamese people and their government's
treatment. The stories generated enough interest in Washington, DC
for Senator Mansfield to visit the country in late 1962. He turned to
these reporters after receiving whitewashed reports from both Diem
and the US embassy. These reporters convinced Senator Mansfield of
the validity of their claims and he, in turn, convinced President
Kennedy it was time for a change of leadership in Vietnam. At nearly
the same time, Diem lost significant credibility as an anticommunist
fighter when the ARVN lost the battle at Ap Bac due to gross
incompetence. The last straw came with the Buddhist crisis in which a
monk immolated himself. The press broadcast the image around the word
so that even the staunchest Diem supporters questioned his
leadership, and the US leadership withdrew its support. On November
1, 1963, the United States allowed the ARVN to stage a coup in which
Diem and his brother were executed by a disgruntled soldier.

_Cold War Mandarin_ provides a scholarly investigation of the reasons
why the US support for Diem endured despite his poor leadership.
Whereas other recent biographies such as Edward Miller's
_Misalliance_ (2013) or Geoffrey Shaw's _Lost Mandate of Heaven_
(2015) examine how we might interpret Diem and his actions, Seth
Jacobs focuses on Diem's relationship with US leadership. He pulls
Vietnamese and American perceptions to the forefront to give rich
insights into the dynamics of US support to Diem and the subsequent
foundation it provided to the Vietnam War.

I found Jacobs's depth of analysis and rationale satisfying. His
argument is well grounded in a mix of primary and reliable secondary
sources, such as Stanley Karnow's _Vietnam: A History _(1983), Robert
Randle's _Geneva 1954_ (1969), and David L. Anderson's _Trapped by
Success _(1993). As he progresses through the narrative, he injects
appropriate outside events to support his points. For example, he
integrates both American and Vietnamese perceptions of the 1954
southern migration while describing Diem's mishandling of the
situation. In the end, I believe readers will find themselves
agreeing with Jacobs's conclusions and will recommend it as a
starting point for anyone wishing to undertake an in-depth study of

Citation: Paul Clemans. Review of Jacobs, Seth, _Cold War Mandarin:
Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America's War in Vietnam,
1950-1963_. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45933

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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