Ngo Dinh Diem (pronounced ZEE-em) was the ruler of America's ally South Vietnam from the founding of the country to his overthrow and murder in a coup in November 1963, just weeks before John F. Kennedy fell to an assassin's bullet. Although Diem's methods of rule met with with consistent opposition from Americans who considered him dictatorial and blind to the need to introduce democratic reform in South Vietnam, his absence proved an even greater curse: his death led to years of chaos in South Vietnam which eventually led the American military to intervene in force in 1965 to prevent the complete collapse of the country and its conquest by Communist North Vietnam. Thus began the bloodiest stage of the Vietnam War.
The personality and actions of men like Diem tend to get ridden roughshod over in standard narratives of the Vietnam War, which depict heroic Communists in straw hats battling the American military and their Vietnamese stooges. But Diem was no stooge, despite his other faults. He was a staunch nationalist and anti-Communist who had his own ideas on how South Vietnam ought to be governed, and one who only reluctantly accepted the help of the Americans and more often than not ignored their advice.
During the war between French colonialists and Vietnamese Communists in the aftermath of World War II - which resulted in Vietnam being split into two parts - he refused to work with either side. When he arrived in South Vietnam in 1954 upon the formation of the new country, he faced complete chaos - a group of gangsters known as the Binh Xuyen owned both the criminal enterprises and the police in the country's capital, Saigon, and armed militias funded by the French controlled large portions of the countryside. The small national army which existed at the time was by no means unquestionably loyal to him. In a remarkably small time, Diem moulded this unlikely material into the beginnings of a new state.
Diem outclassed his political foes in a bafflingly complex process of give-and-take which seemed almost magically to disarm the gangsters and co-opt the militias. Summarizing the early political developments, the U.S. ambassador in the country at the time cabled to Washington begging "please don't expect me to explain this gobble-de-gook!" Gobble-de-gook it was, but it worked; Diem's American advisors had suggested that he try to include other armed groups in the country in his government, but Diem feared the influence of others and worked through a small coterie of close advisors who, like him, were Catholics. He pushed for total power in these early years and largely won it, holding a referendum in 1955 which deposed the titular head of state, the old emperor, and installed him at the head of a republic. He liquidated his enemies skillfully, but stored up resentment for later.
Diem's achievement at extending his rule across South Vietnam was no mean one. Some portions of the American press started lauding him as the "Miracle Man" in Saigon. But his tendency to trust no-one but his close circle of advisors deprived South Vietnam's other politicians and intellectuals of a role in government, and they grumbled accordingly. Nor did it help that Diem relied on the advice and support mainly of his fellow Catholics, in a country which was overwhelmingly not Catholic but an assortment of Buddhists and various millenarian sects. And then there was the matter of the Communists, who were invigorated by the decision in the North to begin sending men and weapons into the South in 1959 to forment an insurgency. In 1960, violence exploded across the country.
Faced with the Communist threat, Diem asked for more American aid and military advisors. But he also set about trying to implent his revolutionary goal to transform South Vietnamese society, and so rob the Communists of much of their appeal. Diem didn't understand democracy as something which came about through civil rights and voting, but as a social and cultural phenomenon which entailed communities working together and using their own resources without outside direction or resources.
He hence set about trying to organize the villagers in South Vietnam into what became known as strategic hamlets, basically fortified settlements which would vote for their own leaders and band together for the common defence. So desirous was Diem of teaching the villagers to look after themselves - and so keen to avoid allowing American aid to flow into the countryside on a large scale, where he believed it would have a corrupting influence and sap self-reliance - that his government even suggested at one point that they would not provide arms for villagers to defend themselves against the Viet Cong, but that they should capture them themselves. This approach softened, but Diem's insistence on using the state to channel grassroots anti-Communism and social development from below continued. The Communists were alarmed about the prospects of the strategic hamlet succeeding, and made destroying them their top priority; they would finally do so after Diem was murdered.
The strategic hamlet programme was not without its faults; it sometimes involved the relocation of villagers, which moved them from their ancestral homes, a place of divinity in Buddhist culture. But Diem's problems in the cities were even greater, where a growing movement of disaffected Buddhists who felt marginalized from the political process were creating more and more disturbances. In June of 1963, a monk called Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in front of specially-invited members of the western media in Saigon. International pressure on Diem to make liberal reforms intensified as a result, but he ignored them - the Americans and others had told him to make reforms before, but he had always succeeded in the end by staring down his enemies. Instead, his army raided Buddhist temples and his wife talked dismissively about "barbecued bonzes".
With unrest in South Vietnam rising, a faction among the Americans in South Vietnam and Washington began to worry that Diem would destroy the whole anti-Communist cause in South Vietnam and lose to the insurgency. They wanted a new leader, although they had no idea who it should be. Signals began to be given, and articles began to appear in newspapers around Saigon saying that the Americans were considering cutting off aid to Diem and leaving the country to its fate. A group of army generals decided to do something about it, and in November of 1963 - encouraged by some Americans - they carried out a coup, captured Diem and his brother, and shot them in the back of an armoured personnel carrier after assuring their safety. John F. Kennedy, who felt certain of his advisors had tricked him into allowing the coup to happen, was furious, and heartbroken. Then within twenty days he was dead himself, and the whole nightmare spiralled on, ever deeper, ever more violent.
Note: For years, Diem was presented by historians as an American puppet who was hopelessly out of touch with his people and ruled by the sword alone, while having no positive ideas for the development of his country. For an example of this view, see books like Vietnam by Stanley Karnow and The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. This view, which was adopted by journalists like Karnow and Halberstam during the war itself, has not met recent historical scrutiny. For a much more nuanced view which also avoids eulogizing, see Diem's Final Failure by Philip Catton and the forthcoming work of Edward Miller.