Images for Episode 11: The Diem Experiment (Part Two)


Episode 11: The Diem Experiment (Part Two)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

Back in Saigon in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem becomes premier of a country shattered by war and partition. With reunification elections looming, Diem barely controls the grounds of his own palace. Hostile Frenchmen, religious militias, a crime syndicate, ex-emperor Bao Dai, and Diem’s own military conspire to end his rule before it can begin. Baffled American diplomats do political triage to avert a coup, urging Diem to bring his rivals to the table. But the new premier has other plans…

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Battle of Saigon 1955


J Lawton Collins, Lightning Joe: An Autobiography (New York: Presidio Press, 1979)

Jessica Chapman, Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018)

Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam(Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2013)

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)

Thoughts on Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, by Stephen Platt

I had a history prof who once suggested that US history would have turned out for the better if, at the end of the Civil War, the federal government had wiped out the entire leadership class of the Confederacy – “like the end of the Taiping Rebellion,” she added.

The what? Leaving US history aside, the Taiping rebellion (or Taiping Uprising, or Taiping Civil War) is something that never pops up in most westerners’ history education. But it should. Not only was it the bloodiest civil war in human history; western nations, as historian Stephen Platt makes clear in this book, played a major role shaping the course of the bloodshed.

Image result for autumn in the heavenly kingdom

I’m ignorant about the historiography for this event, so I can’t really comment on Platt’s argument. What I can comment on is his craft as a writer of historical narrative.

Platt has two keys to telling the story of the Taiping Rebellion well. First, Platt focuses his narrative of this massive bloodletting on a concise cast of characters. The two big ones are Taiping policymaker Hong Rengan and the Confucian-scholar-turned-general Zeng Guofan. Fascinating minor characters round out the cast: arrogant British diplomats, conniving American mercenaries, and delusional missionaries from everywhere. Platt’s good at connecting the sweeping themes and events with the first-hand observations of the poor bastards who had to actually slog through the misery.

His introduction of Zeng Guofan is Exhibit A for How To Introduce A Character. Watch Kurt Vonnegut’s video on the shape of stories on Youtube. Characters’ stories need shapes. They need to start somewhere and go somewhere, up or down. Zeng’s story has a crystal clear shape. He starts low: he’s old, suicidal, sick (puking, in fact), holed up in the mountains. Yet this old Confucian nerd ends up becoming the Chinese Ulysses Grant, saving a corrupt, collapsing dynasty before getting the cold shoulder and suffering a sad, obscure retirement. Make a graph for that and you have a nice clear shape.

Platt’s second key is sensory detail. Like the shapes of characters’ stories, historians aren’t always great at this, even though it’s a fundamental writing skill … remember all your English teachers who harped about “show, don’t tell?” When historians do sensory detail, it’s usually a throwaway. The weather was nice when President X took the oath of office. The eccentric inventor has unkempt hair and a twirly mustache. The historian will mention it once, in a couple of throwaway lines at the start of the book or the first time a character pops up and never mention it again. Novelists don’t do this. They know your  ape brain won’t remember a few pages later which character had a hooked nose and muttonchops, or that there was green ivy on the walls of Lady Whatever’s estate. They weave that stuff into the text, repeatedly. Readers need that. We like it.

Platt does this, and he’s good at it. (Check the author’s bio, and you’ll see he has an English degree.) Go read his description of the Anglo-French expedition up the river to Beijing. It’s awesome, and it’s because of his rich use of sensory details pulled from primary sources. The mud sucking at the marines’ boots as they storm the forts at Taku, the sparks from cooking fires illuminating the steamships’ rigging at dusk, the churning fog offshore … it’s all there, and it’s enthralling. It turns a “they went from x to y to z” narrative into a Heart of Darkness journey. Every historian should print this passage out and post it on their wall.

My one minor complaint is that Platt is sometimes a bit too enamored with dissecting articles in the British and American press. I love close reading, but these sections crop up a bit too often and go on a bit too long, gumming up the works and slowing down the narrative. It takes us out of the character-driven stories that make the rest of the book so compelling.

Image result for taiping civil war

So yes, you should read this book if you’re interested in Chinese history, the global history of the 19th century, western involvement in Asia … But (for me anyway) the best thing about this book is that it’s an example of a kind of historical writing that few can do well. Like Barbara Tuchman, Platt cares about what these experiences looked, tasted, and smelled like. He cares about characters. He cares about tone. Books like this one make the case for writing history with a novelist’s eye.

Inward Empire summer reading list, 2019

For the curious, here’s what I’m (aspiring to) read this summer. I’ll be posting reflections on these as I go.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States

Walter Lafeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America

Stephen R. Platt, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War

Clay Risen, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century

Daniel Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present

and, just for kicks…

Stephen King, 11/22/63

Gaming the domino theory in Twilight Struggle

“… a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France …” – Dean Acheson

“If Southeast Asia is also swept by Communism, we shall have suffered a major political rout the repercussions of which will be felt throughout the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East and in a then critically exposed Australia.” – NSC 48/1

“Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” – President Eisenhower

Image result for twilight struggle

Recently I’ve become totally addicted to Twilight Struggle, a Cold War-themed board game (also available in an excellent digital version). The more I play, the more impressed I am with how the game models the domino theory, one of the fundamental ideas in US foreign policy during our half-decade struggle with the Soviet Union.

American statesmen developed the domino theory in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a time when communist movements were spreading rapidly around the world. As the quotations above make clear, these statesmen believed that communists in places like Greece or China would try to spread their movements to neighboring countries and regions. A communist regime, even in a tiny country that posed no direct threat to America, could destabilize an entire region if left unchecked. Therefore, it was vital for the US to contain communism wherever it popped up.

The mechanics of Twilight Struggle simulate this theory beautifully. It’s a two-player game (one player is the US, one is the USSR), and the board is divided into nations and regions. Players take turns placing influence around the board, and can win the game by scoring points based on controlling different regions (there are other paths to victory, too, like winning the space race).

So where’s the domino theory? It comes with a brilliantly simple twist: players can only place influence in a nation where they already have it, or in neighboring nations. Just like Acheson and Ike said, influence spreads in a linear fashion from one country to the next, and players who ignore enemy moves will find an entire region slipping swiftly into their opponent’s camp.

The one exception to the linear spread of influence comes with cards, which the US and USSR take turns playing. Each card represents a real-life event from 1945-89: Nasser taking power in Egypt, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the OPEC embargo, Kruschev declaring “We Will Bury You!”, and so on. Cards allow players to break the rules of how influence spreads by suddenly opening up new fronts around the world. The USSR, for example, starts the game with no influence in Latin America or the Caribbean, but playing the “Fidel” card allows them to take control of Cuba.

The cards make for fantastic and nail-biting twists and turns in each game of TS, but they also contribute to the game’s simulation of American ideas in the era of the domino theory.  For much of the Cold War, US policy-makers tended to view communist movements in the “Third World” as fronts of a single global movement led by Moscow. This is exactly the way it is in TS: it’s the USSR that decides when Vietnam revolts, when Nasser or Fidel take power, or when communist agitation sweeps South Africa. The same goes for events that favor the US. It’s up to the players when pro-democracy agitation breaks out in Eastern Europe, for example.                                 Image result for twilight struggle fidel

The card mechanic sacrifices historical accuracy while hewing more closely to the imagined dynamics of the domino theory. As the game’s creators say in their design notes:
Twilight Struggle basically accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false. Therefore, the only relationships that matter in this game are those between a nation and the superpowers. The world provides a convenient chess board for US and Soviet ambitions, but all other nations are mere pawns (with perhaps the occasional bishop) in that game. Even China is abstracted down to a card that is passed between the two countries. Furthermore, not only does the domino theory work, it is a prerequisite for extending influence into a region. Historians would rightly dispute all of these assumptions, but in keeping with the design philosophy, we think they make a better game.”

In reality, Soviet and American leaders struggled to control movements around the world. Leaders from Venezuela to Vietnam had their own agendas, and popular movements (even massive ones, like the revolutions of 1989) often caught American and Soviet leaders off-guard. TS simulates this lack of total control to an extent by randomizing the cards players hold each round. It also frequently forces players into situations where they have to play a card that favors their opponent. Still, it’s the superpowers that decide when, and sometimes if, these events take place.

So while TS isn’t a great simulation of the dynamics of the real Cold War, it is stone-cold brilliant at depicting the way US policy-makers imagined the conflict. On top of that, it’s a phenomenal strategy game. A glance at the Twilight Strategy fan page shows its daunting depth. If you have even a passing interest in the Cold War or in historical strategy titles, I strongly recommend picking up a copy. And if you don’t mind dealing with a neophyte player, let me know — I’m hungry for some competition online!

Images for Episode 10: The Diem Experiment (Part One)

Episode 10: The Diem Experiment (Part One)

Stream or download it for free on iTunesStitcher, or Podomatic.

For nine years at the height of the Cold War, America’s global crusade against communism rested on the shoulders of Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Hailed as a “miracle man” who brought the blessings of democracy and development to South Vietnam, Diem became a celebrity. But his miracles had a steep price. As his regime soaked up millions of dollars in American aid and military support, it ruthlessly suppressed its enemies, devastated villages, and failed to cope with a rising communist insurgency. As the Diem experiment began to absorb US prestige, money, and lives, Americans began to question whether their adventure in Southeast Asia was worth the cost…

Part one of this series explores Diem’s rise to power and the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam. Diem tries to chart a “third way” between the rocks of communism and empire; French, Japanese, and Americans vie for influence; and Vietnamese factions battle for the future of their country as a hapless emperor watches.

Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.

Image result for ngo dinh diem


Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)

Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Harper, 2018)

George Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014)

Seth Jacobs, Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950-1963 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)

Mark Lawrence, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2013)

Edward Miller, “Vision, Power, and Agency: The Ascent of Ngo Dinh Diem, 1945-54,” in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35 (3), pp 433-458

Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991)