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In the 1950s, most Americans viewed the Cold War as a battle between freedom and tyranny. There was just one problem: how to explain alliances with anti-communist authoritarians like Ngo Dinh Diem. In this episode, we’ll explore how American politicians, lobbyists, and one very enterprising Navy doctor imagined the new Republic of Vietnam as a bastion of democracy and freedom led by “a mandarin in a sharkskin suit who’s upsetting the Red timetable.”
Inward Empire music by Stephen Spencer.
Thomas Dooley, Deliver Us From Evil (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1956)
Wesley Fishel, “Vietnam’s Democratic One-Man Rule,” New Leader, November 2, 1959 pp 10-13.
Christopher Goscha, Vietnam: A New History (New York: Basic Books, 2016)
Graham Greene, The Quiet American (New York: Viking Press, 1956)
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)
Seth Jacobs, “Fighting Words,” Boston College Magazine, summer 2002, http://bcm.bc.edu/issues/summer_2002/ll_fighting.html, accessed August 2019.
Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983)
Edward Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia (Fordham University Press, 1972)
Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013)
John Prados, “The Numbers Game: How Many Vietnamese Fled South in 1954?” The VVA Veteran, January/February 2005, http://archive.vva.org/archive/TheVeteran/2005_01/feature_numbersGame.htm, accessed August 2019.
“Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God?” As the director’s intro to The Ten Commandments (1956) shows, American culture was saturated with Cold War parables — many of which used religion as a lens for understanding a frightening new world.
Tom Dooley, “Dr America,” was a Navy corpsman who played a key role in shaping a new narrative of saving Vietnam through the power of love.
Deliver Us From Evil (1956) was Tom Dooley’s bestselling memoir of his work as a Navy doctor during Operation Passage to Freedom. Later revelations showed that Dooley falsified many of the Viet Minh atrocities he described.
The Geneva Accords gave Vietnamese 300 days to move between the northern and southern military zones. The US Navy launched Operation Passage to Freedom to help refugees escape the north.
Refugees clog Haiphong harbor during Passage to Freedom.
US Navy personnel with northern refugees during Passage to Freedom.
Before partition, most Vietnamese Catholics lived in northern Vietnam. After partition, most Catholics ended up in the south, where they became staunch supporters of fellow Catholic President Diem.
“I took my American beliefs with me into these Asian struggles, as Tom Paine would have.” CIA officer Edward Lansdale helped orchestrate a massive propaganda campaign during Passage to Freedom aimed at scaring northern Vietnamese into fleeing south.
“Go South to Avoid Communism.” Northern Vietnamese were bombarded with propaganda during Passage to Freedom — but in the end, it’s hard to say how many fled because of messages like this one.
Lansdale became a personal adviser and friend of President Diem.
Diem’s reputation among Americans skyrocketed during his visit to the US in 1957. In Washington, President Eisenhower personally greeted him upon arrival.
Diem got a ticket-tape parade in New York City. An estimated 100,000 New Yorkers turned out on Broadway to watch the parade.
The American Friends of Vietnam formed in the mid 1950s to support US involvement in South Vietnam. It included some of the most powerful media moguls of the day, including Time Inc’s Henry Luce.
Diem also visited Michigan State University, which provided an advisory group that trained South Vietnamese police, farmers, and more. Governor Mennen Williams declared May 15 as Ngo Dinh Diem Day.
Diem with Wesley Fishel, the MSU academic who wrote the Orwellian piece “Vietnam’s Democratic One-Man Rule.” Fishel asked Americans to reconsider the values they attached to words like “democracy” and “dictatorship.”
“Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell…” Graham Greene’s book The Quiet American offered a more cynical (and, in hindsight, more prescient) look at what America was doing in Vietnam.
Foreshadowing: on July 8, 1959, Vietnamese guerillas killed two American military advisers at Bien Hoa air base. The attack was a sign of America’s deepening involvement in the country.