Journalism in Action: Beverly Deepe Keever and Her Career

Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

South Vietnamese Politics

by Ross Schroeder

Keever covered South Vietnamese politics extensively from 1962-1968. This page provides a brief background on the  coups, leaders, and frequent political shifts that shaped the Vietnam War and life in South Vietnam.

The Background: World War II (1940-1945)

The story of South Vietnamese politics begins with the Second World War. After the fall of France in 1940, control of French Indochina was passed to the newly created French State in Vichy. Vichy control of French Indochina was fully backed and propped up by the Japanese Empire, in exchange for naval basing rights, the use of French-created infrastructure, and denial of these rights to the Chinese. By 1941, the Japanese occupied the entirety of Indochina.

It is at this time that Hồ Chí Minh returned from his advisory position in the Communist Chinese army to lead the Vietnamese independence movement. In May of 1941, he resurrected the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet: Việt Nam độc lập đồng minh), better known as the Việt Minh, to serve as a united front of various independence movements in Indochina. While the Việt Minh was not explicitly communist and had sizable non-communist elements, it was heavily influenced by the Indochinese Communist Party. The organization quickly became the largest and most influential independence organization in Vietnam, and the largest guerrilla force against the Japanese and Vichy-French forces.

The Việt Minh quickly asserted control over much of the countryside, particularly in the northern and central regions of Vietnam, and began to operate as a “shadow government,” collecting taxes and raising militia from the areas they controlled. This was the situation until 1944, when a massive famine, caused by typhoons and exacerbated by Vichy and Japanese incompetence, ravaged Vietnam. The famine killed a large number of Vietnamese, anywhere from 400,000 to 2,000,000. This failure quickly caused the Việt Minh and Hồ Chí Minh to rise exponentially in popularity.

When the Vichy Regime fell in 1944, the colonial administration was quick to affirm their loyalties both to the new government in Paris and to the Japanese. However, the Japanese feared that they would lose control of the region, and in March of 1945 the Japanese overthrew the French colonial administration and replaced it with a series of puppet states, most notably the Empire of Vietnam (Viet: Đế-quốc Việt-Nam) led by Emperor Bảo Đại. This empire lasted for only six months, before the surrender of Japan and the end of the Second World War.

Emperor Bảo Đại: Emperor Abroad, Fallen at Home (1945-1955)

The Việt Minh took the opportunity provided by the chaos of the overthrow of French authorities and the subsequent defeat of Japan. On September 2, 1945, Hồ Chí Minh formally declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the aftermath of the “August Revolution,” in which the Việt Minh took control of much of the country and forced Emperor Bảo Đại’s abdication. However, this did not last.

After the defeat of both Japan and Vichy France in World War II, the international community began to debate what should happen to Vietnam. Vietnam was first divided into two zones: the Northern Zone was quickly occupied by Chaing Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese government, while the Southern Zone was quickly occupied by British troops who returned control back to the French. While the division was intended to be temporary, the Chinese refused to hand over control of their region to the French, and instead allowed the Provisional Government in Hanoi to exert some control. Eventually the situation became untenable for both sides, and an effort was made to reach some sort of agreement. Under an accord signed between both parties on March 6, 1946, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) became a “free state” within the greater entity of French Indochina, and was afforded some levels of autonomy, including the promise that very few French troops would be allowed within the Northern Zone, and that a referendum would be held concerning reunification of Vietnam under the DRV. The French had no intention of upholding these terms, however, and as such war began in December of that year.

The French, still in many ways reeling from the Second World War, quickly realized that it could not maintain nearly as strong of a hold on its colonies as it once had. As such, they began to create a “State of Vietnam” to administer the region on behalf of the French and reached out to the one man they believed could help run it: the former Emperor, Bảo Đại. While he was initially hesitant to return, Bảo Đại was eventually convinced by a burgeoning “united front” of anti-communist organizations formed in Vietnam and France’s assurances of independence. This culminated in the Élysée Accords of 1949, which declared the creation of the State of Vietnam, which was little more than a puppet state with Bảo Đại at the head. This action failed to satisfy Vietnamese nationalists, who continued to press for full independence, and increasingly saw their newly restored Emperor as a stooge for the French.

Meanwhile, the Việt Minh and the French continued fighting over the fate of Vietnam in the North. With the victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War in October of 1949, Hồ Chí Minh and his government suddenly had a friendly anti-colonial neighbor. Arms and supplies began to flow across the Chinese border and the tide began to turn against the French. As it became increasingly apparent that the French would not win the “First Indochina War”, dissent against Emperor Bảo Đại continued to grow. 

Eventually the losses in Vietnam proved to be more than the French were willing to bear. In 1954, the Geneva Conference split Vietnam into two nations: the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and the State of Vietnam in the South. However, despite finally getting total independence, Emperor Bảo Đại’s new reign did not last long. Just a year after the Partition, the Republic of Vietnam would be declared after a referendum organized by his own Prime Minister: Ngô Đình Diệm.

Ngô Đình Diệm: Personalist Presidency (1955-1963)

It is impossible to discuss this period of Vietnam’s history without discussing its ruler. Ngô Đình Diệm was born on January 3, 1901, in a Catholic village just outside of the Imperial Capital of Huế. Diệm’s father was a devoutly Catholic bureaucrat in the Imperial administration of Vietnam. Diệm decided to follow his eldest brother, Ngô Đình Khôi, and his father into the bureaucracy, becoming a civil servant in 1921. He quickly proved himself to be a competent administrator and rose through the ranks to become provincial chief by 1929. Diệm was a fervent supporter of Vietnam’s autonomy from French rule. In 1933, he became Interior Minister to Emperor Bảo Đại. He sought to use his position to push for a Vietnamese legislature and other modernization efforts, but was stymied by both the French colonial administration and the Emperor. Frustrated, Diệm renounced the Emperor and resigned from his position after three months.

He spent the next decade making connections within the growing Vietnamese Nationalist movement, emerging as a leading figure within its intellectual sphere. When WWII began, Diệm pragmatically supported the Japanese, as he believed that they would liberate Vietnam from French rule. Diệm joined Prince Cường Để’s Association for the Restoration of Great Vietnam, a secret majority-Catholic independence party with the goal of lobbying the Japanese into declaring an independent Vietnamese state with Cường Để as its head. The Association was eventually discovered, leading to the French calling for his arrest. However, the Japanese military intervened and Diệm moved to Saigon under their protection. When the Japanese deposed the French in 1945, they opted to keep the Emperor Bảo Đại in power. As he still believed Bảo Đại to be little more than a puppet, Diệm refused to serve as Prime Minister when asked.

In the fall of 1945 the Việt Minh ambushed and assassinated Ngô Đình Khôi, Diệm’s eldest brother. While Diệm had been an opponent of communism 1925, this incident hardened his opinion. So when Hồ Chí Minh offered Diệm the position of Interior Minister in his government, he refused. Drifting between various organizations that were both anti-French and anti-communist, he gained the ire of both major factions in Vietnam, so he fled the country in 1949. While Diệm was outside of the country, the failures of the French and the Emperor made his views far more popular in Vietnam.  His exile ended in early 1954, when Emperor Bảo Đại offered him the position of Prime Minister. Bảo Đại believed that he was the only man capable of maintaining order and holding back total communist victory. Diệm accepted the position.

The country that Ngô Đình Diệm became Prime Minister of was a country in disarray. Communist forces threatened invasion from the North. South Vietnam was financially and organizationally dependent on the French. Meanwhile, the French were threatening to pull out of Indochina entirely. Various new religious movements, namely Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo, had formed religious militias and had taken control of swaths of the countryside. Most alarmedly, the criminal organization Bình Xuyên effectively controlled Saigon. 

Diệm  started by halting the invasion from the North. On July 14, 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed, splitting North and South Vietnam at a De-Militarized Zone (DMZ) along the 17th Parallel. This was a temporary solution, but it did create a temporary ceasefire between communist forces in the North and South Vietnam, giving a reprieve that Diệm used to stabilize the state.

Internally, Diệm first moved against the Bình Xuyên in the April 1955 Battle for Saigon, before quickly subduing the religious armies in the countryside. Having restored the state from the brink of total collapse, Diệm’s personal popularity and power grew exponentially. Diệm capitalized on this political strength by holding a referendum on the monarchy in October of that year, abolishing the Imperialcy and replacing the now former Emperor Bảo Đại as the first President of the Republic of Vietnam.

With the Emperor gone, Ngô Đình Diệm quickly centralized all power under himself and his close allies, largely consisting of his own family. This sort of nepotism became a hallmark of his regime. Politically, he and his supporters organized into the Cần Lao Party, which was operated by his brother Ngô Đình Nhu. Diệm believed that authoritarian rule was the only way to preserve South Vietnam. His regime frequently banned opposition parties and movements that were suspected of having Northern ties. Due to the nepotism fundamental to Diệm’s government, corruption was rampant.

It was under the auspices of President Diệm that the United States first became invested and involved in the affairs of Vietnam. As the French withdrew, Mao won control in China, and the Korean War ended in a stalemate, the United States began to increasingly believe in Domino Theory, the idea that Communist victories would encourage would-be revolutionaries in neighboring countries to begin turning to Communism into their own states, until the United States was diplomatically and economically expelled by a bloc of Communist nations. While fears of a Third World War prevented direct invasion and overthrow of these regimes, the United States did have a standing policy of “Containment”, that is, preventing more Communist states from emerging.  American policy makers, therefore, began to see Vietnam as the next falling Domino under this framework, and began to work with Diệm to prop up the South Vietnamese state. Almost immediately after taking power, Diệm was offered weapons and training by the Americans. Regardless, the United States began to sour on the Diệm regime, which they saw as insufficiently liberal and democratic, as well as corrupt and nepotistic.

Ultimately, Ngô Đình Diệm also began to lose support of the Vietnamese public. Diệm was deeply Catholic and interwove his religious identity with his governance and politics. Under his regime, Catholics got preferential treatment from the government, being immune from restrictions placed on other religions, particularly Buddhism, in regard to their publicness and practice. This was the root cause of the Buddhist Crisis and would eventually lead to the end of his regime.

The Buddhist Crisis unrest and outcry it created around the world proved too much for the United States to reasonably stomach. It is for this reason, alongside existing doubts of the effectiveness of the Diệm regime to properly fight communism, that the Americans decided to back a coup d’état against Ngô Đình Diệm. On November 1, 1963, Vietnamese troops loyal to anti-Diệm elements stormed the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, and quickly took control of the city. The next day, Ngô Đình Diệm was shot.

Nguyễn Khánh’s Kingdom: Prophecies of the End (1963-1965)

If the coupists and their American backers had hoped that the overthrow of President Ngô Đình Diệm would restore stability to South Vietnam, they were sorely mistaken. The overthrow of Diệm only compounded on the crises faced by South Vietnam at that time. The various officers who had participated in the coup could not agree on a leader going forwards. The first leader of the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) was Dương Văn Minh, who was the closest thing to a leader the coup d’état had. While nominally in charge, each member of the twelve general council had a personal veto on all policy and directives, which created gridlock. Ultimately, this council would be replaced by a different strongman: a sidelined general named Nguyễn Khánh.

General Khánh and his allies first approached the United States with documents, most likely forged, alleging that General Minh and his MRC planned to cease fighting with North Vietnam and adopt a neutral stance in world affairs. This was unacceptable to the Americans, who strongly desired South Vietnam to continue fighting the communists, so Americans began to back a coup d’état against the MRC by General Khánh. This coup was carried out on January 30, 1964, and was extremely successful, with General Khánh and his supporters being able to secure control of the government without firing a single shot.

After overthrowing the MRC, General Khánh quickly set about securing control of the apparatuses of government, punishing those who attempted to resist the coup and launching a series of campaigns against the communist guerrilla Việt Cộng. However, the instability caused by the overthrow of first Diệm and now the MRC proved to be critical. By the middle of 1964, almost half of the country of South Vietnam was under the control of communist insurgents.

Adding to Khánh’s woes, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the ambassador to South Vietnam and primary American supporter of both recent coups, was replaced with Maxwell D. Taylor. Unlike Cabot Lodge, Taylor had a rocky relationship with the South Vietnamese leader. Despite being sent on U.S. President Johnson’s orders to show America’s support for Khánh, Taylor never had a high opinion of the South Vietnamese leader. Meanwhile, General Khánh believed that Taylor was trying to make South Vietnam into a mirror of the United States, which he held as a fool’s errand. This tempestuous relationship was covered extensively by Beverly Keever, who wrote a series of articles for the New York Herald Tribune about the two’s deteriorating diplomacy. In addition, continued instability plagued South Vietnam, with General Khánh dissolving the last vestiges of civilian government in September of 1964. This, combined with his feud with Taylor, spelled the end of American support for Nguyễn Khánh. The Americans turned to South Vietnamese generals to solve the instability in the region. General Khánh was ousted and de-facto exiled from South Vietnam on February 24, 1965. 

Nguyễn Cao Kỳ’s and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s Duopoly: Continued Struggle (1965-1971)

After the ousting of General Nguyễn Khánh, power in the country yet again was transferred to another military junta, the Military Council led by General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. However, Thiệu was not the sole power behind this council, as Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ held equal power behind the scenes. This division of power, where Kỳ exercised most of the powers of state as Prime Minister while Thiệu was simply a figurehead, led to increasing enmity and friction between the two men which would define the next six years.

Even more than its predecessors, the new administration was firmly focused on fighting both the Việt Cộng and the Northern Vietnamese. This was also when American intervention and deployment in the Vietnam War was at its height. In order to combat the guerilla-focused Việt Cộng, anticommunist militias were formed to combat them on the jungle floor and the military as a whole was expanded.

The United States decided that the failure of the previous juntas was that they lacked even a façade of democratic civilian government. As such, they pressured Vietnam into elections in 1967, for the first time since the overthrow of Diệm, with Thiệu becoming President of South Vietnam, a position with actual power and authority, and Kỳ being his Vice-President, a largely powerless post. However, while being de-jure neutered, Kỳ still had significant influence over the military and civil services, meaning that the division between the two men only grew. From this point on, any member of the South Vietnamese government was either aligned with Thiệu’s camp or Kỳ’s.

In early 1968, the Tet Offensive began. This massive, multifaceted campaign by communist forces effected everywhere from Saigon to Huế. During the beginning of the crisis, Thiệu was busy celebrating the Vietnamese New Year with his family, while Kỳ remained in Saigon. As such, Kỳ was the one who rallied both the South Vietnamese and American troops in defense of the capital, and this personal glory only served to deepen the animosity Thiệu had for Kỳ. Anticommunist forces eventually managed to repel the Communist advance, but at great cost, and American commitment to the war was shattered as the public lost trust in America’s ability to win a quick victory.

In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Thiệu launched a concerted campaign to marginalize Kỳ. Under the auspices of a mass anti-corruption campaign, many of those loyal to Kỳ in government and military positions were quietly removed and replaced with those loyal to Thiệu. With Kỳ eventually being sidelined, Thiệu ran unopposed for the presidency in 1971 in an election many decried as unfair.

Nguyễn Văn Thiệu Alone: Sunset for Saigon (1971-1975)

From this point on, while South Vietnam was on paper a democracy, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had near-dictatorial powers, since much of the apparatuses of state were loyal to him. It was primarily under Thiệu that American Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmey Carter began the process of Vietnamization, in which more and more materials and positions were turned over from American troops to South Vietnamese troops, in order to reduce America’s commitment to the war and turn that commitment over to the South Vietnamese. It would be this policy, when compounded with continued corruption and incompetence in South Vietnam as a whole, that would end up being one of the major factors that doomed the nation.

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