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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.
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)
Partition, 1954. The Geneva Agreement created two military regroupment zones (not countries!) separated at the 17th parallel. Elections in 1956 would reunite Vietnam.
Southern Vietnam was deeply divided by religion, language, ethnicity, and culture. In the southernmost parts of the country, the Vietnamese presence was only a few decades older than the French one.
An aerial view of Saigon, capital of the State of Vietnam (and, after 1955, the Republic of Vietnam.)
Street scene in 1950s Saigon.
The Gia Long Palace, where Diem began his tenure as Prime Minister in 1954. The French Commissioner still occupied the larger Independence Palace.
Huynh Phu So, founder of the Hoa Hao — one of the polito-religious groups that carved out its own domain in southern Vietnam during the war against France. The Viet Minh captured and executed So in 1947, damaging the group’s unity.
The spectacular Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh. The Cao Dai were perhaps the most powerful faction in southern Vietnam in 1954, with 25,000 soldiers and over a million followers.
A group of Cao Dai soldiers. While parts of the religious militias fought against Diem’s government, many ended up joining the ranks of the Vietnamese National Army.
Le Van Vien, leader of the Binh Xuyen crime syndicate. In 1954 the syndicate controlled most government functions in Saigon and had an estimated 40,000 men under arms.
Le Grande Monde casino in Saigon. A sprawling, seedy complex, the casino burned to the ground during the fighting in 1955.
VNA Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Hinh, one of Diem’s rivals in 1954-55. For Hinh, France was the “motherland.”
US Ambassador Donald Heath (left) with the Mayor of Saigon. Heath, a career diplomat from Topeka, found himself at the center of the intrigue in Saigon during his tenure.
Map from the New York Times showing major sites of fighting during the Battle of Saigon in 1955.
VNA soldiers during the fighting in Saigon. Both the VNA and the Binh Xuyen used mortars and incendiary weapons indiscriminately during the fighting, setting neighborhoods ablaze.
VNA soldiers move to attack the Binh Xuyen.
VNA soldiers pose with the body of a Binh Xuyen foot soldier.
“Lightning Joe” Collins, legendary WW2 general and Presidential Envoy to the State of Vietnam. Collins secured direct US aid to Diem’s regime but did everything in his power to remove the premier, doubting his ability to effectively lead the country.
With his victory over the Binh Xuyen and the religious groups, Diem launched a campaign to depose Chief of State Bao Dai.
The anti-Bao Dai campaign assaulted the ex-emperor’s moral reputation while championing Diem’s. Above, a political cartoon showing Bao Dai’s sexual exploits in France.
One of the 20-foot-tall effigies of Bao Dai that popped up around Paris.
Diem rigged the referendum, “winning” 98.2% of the vote. He used the results to claim a popular mandate for his policies.
“Long live the Republic!” The premier casts his vote during the 1955 referendum.