Readable narrative of the Nov. 2, 1963, assassination of Catholic president of Vietnam
October 17th, 2016
By Robert Graffio
“The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam” by Dr. Geoffrey DT Shaw. Ignatius Press (San Francisco, 2015), $24.95.
“[W]e killed him. We all got together and got a g–d–- bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him.” So said President Lyndon Johnson in a recorded telephone conversation with a U.S. senator about President John F. Kennedy’s decision directly to put in motion the recommendation of various advisors to remove, by coup d’état, the devoutly Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem.
In “The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam,” military historian Geoffrey Shaw challenges the American historical narrative of President Diem as a corrupt dictator, and in an extensively footnoted narrative contends that it was a calculated smear campaign by members of the Kennedy administration and the American media, most notably The New York Times. Shaw is himself not a Catholic, but brought the book to Ignatius Press, a Catholic publisher.
The “Lost Mandate of Heaven” is a copiously footnoted and impressive work of scholarship with an extensive bibliography, yet is quite accessible to the general reader.
On Nov. 2, 1963, President Diem and his brother and chief political advisor Ngo Dinh Nhu went to morning Mass, stayed to pray, and were captured by military men while standing in the grotto of the Virgin Mary, according to a priest who was an eyewitness. Diem and Nhu were taken by armored personnel carrier a short ways down the road, and, while alive, had their gallbladders cut out and were then each shot in the head. “It’s very savage…trés savage!” said General Nguyen Khanh, visibly distraught even decades later, to the book’s author.
France, the Philippines, Australia, and Great Britain all opposed the coup – as did Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and ambassador to Vietnam Frederick Nolting.
As Jesuit Father James V. Schall noted in his foreword to the book: “It is not a happy story except in the sense that here we finally have a clear picture of the events and personages surrounding this assassination….This book is not an account of the perfidy of the Communists. It recognizes that they are ruthless, powerful, and out to win. But they are not the focus of the text. They are, rather, the recipients of the tragedy. The ones left to follow in its wake.”
Madame Nhu, the widow of Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s younger brother and chief political advisor who was assassinated with Diem, stated at a Nov. 5 press conference, three days after the murders: “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies.” Ironically, within the month on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy, also Catholic, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, who had traveled to the Soviet Union and joined the Communist Party.
Shaw recounts the story of the American alliance with President Diem and the American betrayal led by W. Averell Harriman, assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern Affairs, who hated Diem, accusing him of being authoritarian and anti-Democratic. While it’s true that Diem closed some newspapers and suspended elections, Harriman and others in Washington failed to recognize a key principle of British success in its Malaya campaign over the prior decade: In a Communist insurrection, it is far more important for people to feel protected by their national government than for them to feel that they have a say in their government, Shaw wrote.
Diem was a rare man in South Vietnam at that time. Sen. Mike Mansfield, the U.S. Senate majority leader, described Diem to President Dwight D. Eisenhower as honest, incorruptible, and a devoutly dedicated nationalist. Nguyen Khanh, a retired Vietnamese general, who participated in the coup against Diem, told the book’s author in a 1994 interview that, among the Vietnamese, there still, to this day, is a deep reverence, bordering on awe, when they talk of the former president. Shaw recounts that Diem encouraged the Viet Cong to switch sides and return to their villages; a desire to avoid bloodshed whenever possible that sprang from the Ngo Dinh brothers’ Catholic faith.
Acknowledging Diem’s effectiveness and competence in resisting the Communist insurgency, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Communist North, upon learning of Diem’s assassination, was quoted as saying: “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.”
Using original sources, including declassified U.S. government documents, this book is for anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of American diplomacy and foreign policy, or who wants to more fully understand the build-up to the Vietnam War.
Graffio is vice-chancellor and manager of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.
From October 20, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.