Do you know how the Vietnam War started? Until last month, I hadn’t really thought about it. I knew the French were there before World War II; I knew (vaguely) about Ho Chi Minh in the North; and I knew that the Soviet Union and the United States were playing a game of Cold War chess by proxy.
The rest I “learned” from Oliver Stone, and from the endless stream of movies about troubled (invariably anti-War) Vietnam vets.
None of this prepared me for The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngô Đình Diệm, President of Vietnam (Ignatius: 2015) by Canadian military historian Dr. Geoffrey Shaw.
Who was Ngô Đình Diệm (pronounced roughly NO DIN YIM)? President Diệm was passionately anti-Communist, highly educated, and he venerated the traditions of the mainly Buddhist and Confucian Vietnam. Diệm was not perfect, and (yes, it’s complicated) his enemies in the Kennedy Administration’s State Department plotted with increasing zeal to have him removed as they fed a media narrative that painted Diệm as (at best) a tyrannical dictator. Eventually the cabal convinced a vacillating John F. Kennedy to authorize a coup to remove Diệm by force.
What the American press and many historians leave out was: Diệm’s intense Catholic faith.
Shaw’s riveting account is a heavily foot-noted wrecking ball against the anti-Diệm propaganda and a corrective that has ignored or denied the man’s Catholic formation and the daily practice of faith, which, in the end, explain his reputation for fairness and non-violence under near-impossible political conditions.
The U.S.-backed coup went down on November 2, 1963, when Diệm and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu were abducted after early morning Mass on the Solemnity of All Souls. Within minutes, they were disemboweled by Army assassins in a military vehicle before being shot to death. I get angry just repeating what happened to them — all of it, ultimately, stemming from the say-so of the ostensibly Catholic President Kennedy and those who pressured him to oust a fellow head of state who was unwilling to play the puppet role for the American government.
This allegedly brutal dictator (whose older brother Ngô Đình Thục was the archbishop of Huế) began each day with 6:30AM Mass and to this day, Catholics of Vietnamese extraction speak his name with reverent tones.
Even Diệm’s enemies were shocked at how stupid the decision was to execute this ascetic, almost monastic, intellectual leader. (Most photographs of the late president show an almost beatific child-like man, per above.) The All Soul’s Day murders were the point of no return for the country. Nine years of excruciating diplomatic efforts vanished, plunging Vietnam into the downward death spiral that became the Vietnam conflict.
Barely three weeks later, under a noonday Dallas sun on November 23, for John Fitzgerald Kennedy, what went around came around.
HERE is my interview with author Geoff Shaw on Catholic Answers Focus about the complex, absorbing true story of this devoutly Catholic visionary of democratic statecraft.
Ngô Đình Diệm, ora pro nobis.