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March 2005

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Rehabilitating Diem Through Dim Saigon Eyes
Review by Paul D. Mayle
Lifetime in the Eye of the Storm: Triumphant Odyssey: The Story of the NGO Dinh FamilyA Lifetime in the Eye of the Storm. Triumphant Odyssey: The Story of the Ngo Dinh Family. By André Nguyen Van Chau. (Salt Lake City, UT: American Book Classics, 2000. Pp. 328. $29.95 paper.)

"According to Van Chau, Diem's only fault was the failure to win the civil war against the Communists quickly enough, and such shortcoming prompted the Kennedy administration to seek a change of government."

Students of modern Asian history have been deluged in recent years by accounts of the American experience in Indochina, and most of those works written in English have predictably focused on the American perspective. André Nguyen Van Chau offers a "Vietnamese insight" in this tribute to the Ngo Dinh family's critical role in Vietnam's transition from colonial status to independence. A native of Hue with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, Van Chau spent over a decade as a professor in South Vietnam until 1975 when he joined the flood of exiles and began twenty-five years of service in the international effort to address refugee issues. By means of a fictionalized biography of a lesser known daughter, Ngo Dinh Thi Hiep, the author tantalizes the reader with the prospect of a new perspective.

The historical context of the book begins with the formative relationship of the nine children sired by Ngo Dinh Kha and emphasizes the family's staunch Roman Catholic heritage, their fervent support for Vietnam's emperor system, and their commitment to the uneven struggle for national self-determination, initially against the French colonial administrators who are depicted as universally conniving and evil. Hiep emerges as the strongest member of the family and favorite child, who takes her father's place after his death as the family's moral compass. At that point, the story begins to focus on Hiep's more famous brothers—Diem, South Vietnam's first president, and Nhu, Commissioner of Police.

Ngo Dinh Diem
Madame Nhu
Vietnam's unfortunate role as pawn in the messy process of decolonization, the subsequent civil war, and eventual American involvement serve as the backdrop for the martyrdom of Diem and Nhu. Regretfully, in this otherwise insightful and well-crafted volume, the author fails to recognize Diem's responsibility for the myriad of problems that beset his corrupt administration and led to public distrust of the Saigon regime. While acknowledging nepotism as a source of Diem's unpopularity, Van Chau neglects the more serious flaws of his government, namely the unpopular land reform program, the failed strategic hamlet project, the widespread official corruption, as well as Diem's aloof, austere, rigid, imperial, despotic, repressive public persona. Downplaying the historic enmity between the country's Catholic minority and its Buddhist majority, he even excuses the inflammatory, anti-Buddhist rhetoric of the notorious "Dragon Lady," Madame Nhu. The almost benevolent Diem portrayed by the author paid the ultimate price for his single fault: reluctance to use force against numerous political opponents, most notably the Communists and traitorous members of the coup conspiracy.

American complicity in the assassination of the Ngo brothers is almost universally acknowledged, but Van Chau's treatment is surprisingly forgiving. If Washington did not actually organize the coup and the brothers' assassinations, it certainly encouraged the coup plotters and endorsed the outcome. According to the author, the Kennedy administration wanted Diem removed from power because he failed to defeat the Viet Cong quickly enough.

Its shortcomings aside, this work of fiction is still a useful counterbalance to the American-centric works that constitute the majority of extant literature on the Vietnam War. The war might have turned out differently if Americans had possessed a better understanding of Vietnam's leaders—especially the Ngo brothers—and its culture. Echoing the Napoleonic Age, Van Chau wrote that the "Vietnam War was worse than a crime. It was a mistake." Yet it was both. American ignorance, exacerbated by hubris, was aptly illustrated by Washington's stubborn insistence that it could succeed where France had failed. The author perceptively ascribes to Hiep the observation that Vietnam learned the hard way that small countries must be wary of being overly dependent on world powers or risk being abandoned. Perhaps the ultimate irony and tragedy for both Vietnam and America is that the Ngo family was not so much in the eye of the storm as it was in the path of the storm's full fury.

As historical fiction goes, this work serves a useful purpose in pointing out that the most traumatic event of recent American history should be studied from many perspectives. If nothing else, Van Chau suggests a corrective for American diplomats and political leaders who might substitute tact and knowledge for bluster and force to the mutual advantage of themselves as well as their allies.

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Copyright © 2004 American Diplomacy Publishers Chapel Hill NC

Paul D. Mayle, a U.S. Marine veteran, is Professor of History, Chairman of the Division of Social Sciences, and Director of the MVNU Semester in Hungary at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Author of Eureka Summit, Dr. Mayle's research and teaching have concentrated on the Second World War, Eastern Europe (especially Hungary), and the Vietnam War.

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