WHEN the Geneva Agreement of 1954 terminated the fighting in Indochina on the basis of the partition of Viet Nam along the seventeenth parallel, most observers felt that the Communists had won a striking victory. Their conquest of the North, with somewhat more than half of Viet Nam's 26 million people, most of its mineral deposits and the bulk of its modest industrial establishment, represented the most important Communist territorial advance since the collapse of Nationalist China and posed an ominous challenge to all of Southeast Asia. South Viet Nam, war-weary and desolated, was conceded little chance of survival. Laos and Cambodia would then be outflanked and the whole region placed in imminent danger. This at least was the implication of the famous "domino theory" propounded by President Eisenhower in the spring of 1954, when the United States was still considering active military intervention in Indochina.

To the extent that the theory had validity after Geneva, the key to the salvation of Southeast Asia--with its vast population, incalculable wealth in natural resources and critical strategic position--was South Viet Nam. There the situation could scarcely have been worse. The authority of the local government hardly extended beyond the environs of its capital. Its leadership appeared incapable of constructive action, incapacitated as much by inexperience as by the incubus of the continued presence of the French. Everywhere the population was sullen and resentful, bitterly disillusioned by military defeat after a long, costly and unpopular war. The army could not be counted on. The police were controlled by an organized band of gangsters known as the Binh Xuyen, which ruled Saigon and ran its lucrative vice rackets. Great stretches of the countryside were in the hands of two politico-religious sects, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, which disposed of formidable armed strength and governed their territories as autonomous states within the state.

There were also the Communists. While the Geneva Agreement called for the withdrawal of all Viet Minh forces from the South, in fact several thousand trained political and military cadres were left behind. Besides ubiquitous efforts at infiltration, the Communists dominated many rural districts and also maintained some organized military units in the South. The economy was in chaos. Long years of warfare had disrupted most productive activity, and inflation was rampant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of refugees poured into South Viet Nam from the North, hopelessly overtaxing the inadequate facilities of the Saigon government to cope with them.

It is against this somber background that the record of the two years since Geneva should be judged. The general expectation was that South Viet Nam would quickly succumb to Communist pressures. If the tactics of subversion failed, nation-wide elections scheduled for July 1956 by the Final Declaration at Geneva would surely produce the same result. The efficacy of totalitarian control techniques in the North, where a majority of the population lived, guaranteed a Communist victory at the polls. In any case South Viet Nam, deeply divided within itself, seemed certain to sink into the abyss of bloody internecine strife ending in complete collapse.

Yet none of this came to pass. Far from collapsing, the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, which took office early in July 1954 in the darkest days of Geneva, has made remarkable progress in putting its house in order and establishing the bases of stability and future progress. Today South Viet Nam is very much in business, and barring the catastrophe of a third world war in the foreseeable future, is likely to remain in business. The achievements of Diem's government won international recognition of an impressive sort when the July 1956 elections, which it had adamantly opposed, were indefinitely postponed by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference. The Viet Minh, although it had based its propaganda on the certainty of the elections and its triumph in them, had no alternative but to accept this decision. In short, a wholly unexpected political miracle has occurred in South Viet Nam.

II

How are we to account for this? Certainly the principal credit should be given to President Ngo Dinh Diem himself. Diem has shown himself a man of courage and determination, capable of ruthless decision and forceful action when the occasion called for it. His reputation as an implacable Vietnamese nationalist enabled him to rally enough support to consolidate his position in the face of bitter opposition from the sects, the Communists and even the French. In the early days after Geneva, Diem was often characterized as a bumbling political innocent lost in the labyrinthine mazes of Vietnamese politics. No doubt he often appeared hesitant and indecisive, but in those days there was nothing and no one on whom he could rely, neither the army nor the police, neither the government nor any significant segment of popular opinion. As the record shows, he learned quickly.

History may yet adjudge Diem as one of the great figures of twentieth century Asia. Descended from an old Annamese mandarin family, he was groomed for greatness by his father, who was convinced that the son would one day be the savior of his country. At an early age he rose to an exalted position at the Court of Hué, but resigned while still in his early thirties in protest against continued French domination. Thereafter he wandered in the political wilderness for more than two decades. Since his name was well known and universally respected, his services were sought by both French and Communists in the early postwar years. He declined a place in Ho Chi Minh's government after the war, and several times rejected French offers to head the anti-Communist régime they were sponsoring at Saigon. When in June 1954 the French and Bao Dai again turned to him as the only possible alternative after the débâcle of Dien Bien Phu, he finally accepted on condition of a grant of full powers from the ex-Emperor and the French promise of complete independence.

From the beginning Diem has ruled virtually as a dictator. South Viet Nam is today a quasi-police state characterized by arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, strict censorship of the press and the absence of an effective political opposition. Diem and his colleagues have always insisted that these are temporary measures made necessary by the desperate circumstances in which the régime has had to function. But there is little evidence that they have much understanding or sympathy for real democracy. Diem betrays marked irritation when queried about the abridgment of civil liberties in South Viet Nam. His conversation reflects an archaic, mandarin temperament. While unquestionably devoted to the welfare of his countrymen, whom he usually refers to as the "little people," he envisages the rôle of government as essentially paternalistic.

A devout Christian, Diem is a lonely, austere man. Early vows of celibacy and a strong sense of personal destiny, combined with an iron constitution, have enabled him to give himself to his work with passionate devotion. In personal encounter he can be a charming person. His only known recreation is conversation, and discussions with the President quickly turn into monologues. He is fascinating to listen to. His appraisal of events during the last two years is devoid of the tiresome cloak of false modesty. He knows that he made the difference, and the knowledge has given him confidence in his ability to cope with the future. That future is bound to be difficult, and it is one of the impressive things about Diem that he realizes he has only started on the road.

Despite his undoubted personal qualities, however, and the large element of luck that enters into every successful political enterprise, Diem could never have survived without American support. We cannot claim credit for selecting Diem or having pushed him into office, but we have since been his most ardent and effective champion. American funds have sustained Diem's government from the beginning. Allocations of United States aid totalled $320,300,000 in the fiscal year 1954-55 and $196,500,000 in 1955-56. Estimates for the current fiscal year are of the same general magnitude. American aid equals about 65 percent of South Viet Nam's total budget. We finance most of the military budget and three quarters of the country's imports. Almost the entire program of refugee relief and rehabilitation is being paid for with American funds.

Scarcely less important has been our diplomatic backing. United States support was a decisive factor in keeping Diem afloat during his first year in office. It is true that we played a less distinguished rôle at the time of the showdown with the Binh Xuyen. General J. Lawton Collins, President Eisenhower's special ambassador in Saigon at the time, is known to have wavered in his evaluation of Diem's prospects during that moment of supreme danger. But fortunately the State Department, ignoring French pressure, decided not to alter its course. Since May 1955 our support has been unshakeable. The United States fully endorsed Diem's position in refusing to go through with the nationwide elections on unification scheduled at Geneva; and their indefinite postponement sharply reduced popular fears of an imminent Communist takeover in the South. This whole episode was an important factor in rallying public opinion behind the Diem régime. The mantle of protection afforded by the Manila Pact was also thrown over South Viet Nam (as well as Laos and Cambodia); and American officers, putting to use the experience gained in Korea, are training the South Vietnamese army.

We must also concede the part played by shifts in Communist world strategy. South Viet Nam does not yet have the military capability of defending itself successfully against a determined attack from the North; and despite our commitments under the Manila Pact, it will always be uncertain whether the United States would intervene militarily in Indochina if the Communists renewed open aggression. But they have not done so. Nor have they made a serious attempt to subvert South Viet Nam from within, although in the early months of the Diem government such an effort might well have succeeded.

III

Diem's first task after assuming office was to gain control over the Vietnamese army. A prolonged crisis in the fall of 1954, in which the United States gave Diem decisive support, resulted in the withdrawal of the pro-French Chief of Staff, General Nguyen Van Hinh, and his replacement by Le Van Ty, Diem's own choice for the job. Thereafter the army gave its loyalties increasingly to the Diem government rather than to Bao Dai, the ex-Emperor of Annam who was still titular Chief of State, or to the French, and thus provided Diem with the power essential for the struggle that was already shaping up with the sects.

A showdown was not long in coming. Recognizing the extreme danger of a pitched battle, Diem manœuvred skillfully to divide and destroy the sects one by one. A major break occurred in March 1955 when the Chief of Staff of the Cao Dai army, General Nguyen Thanh Phuong, was induced by bribery and other means to "rally" to the national cause with most of his units. But the Binh Xuyen had to be crushed by force. An initial flurry of skirmishing in Saigon late in March was ended by French intervention. When fighting broke out again at the end of April, Diem this time defied the French and ordered the national army, now almost completely loyal to him, to destroy the bandit sect. In a brief but bloody struggle, which devastated part of central Saigon, the Binh Xuyen were defeated and fled in disorder to the dense swamps south of the city. Subsequent operations eliminated them as a significant factor in Vietnamese politics. At the height of the crisis an attempted coup by General Nguyen Van Vy, acting under orders from Bao Dai, who correctly assessed the trend of events as fatal to his own position in Viet Nam, failed when the national army remained steadfast in its support of Diem.

There remained only the Hoa Hao to be dealt with. While some elements came over to the government side, protracted operations were necessary against their two strongest generals, Tran Van Soai and Le Quang Vinh (alias Ba Cut). The military forces at Diem's disposal were now so overwhelming, however, that the results were a foregone conclusion. Shrewdly accepting the inevitable, General Soai eventually made the best deal he could with the government and "rallied" in March 1956. A month later Ba Cut was captured while fleeing with the remnant of his forces in the extreme southwestern corner of the country. He was quickly brought to trial as a rebel, found guilty and guillotined in July. His death marked the end of the sects as important political forces in South Viet Nam. Their authority over large parts of South Viet Nam has been eliminated and their military power destroyed. Some scattered sect units are still holding out in the maquis, but they no longer constitute a serious threat.

Diem has also contained the menace of Communism. The exact strength of the Communists in South Viet Nam is a matter of speculation. After May 18, 1955, the date on which all Viet Minh forces were supposedly withdrawn from the South, the Communists continued to exercise effective political authority in many rural areas. They had extensively infiltrated the government apparatus, the police and armed forces; and they enjoyed considerable support, or at least acquiescence, among large segments of the rural population. Apparently in keeping with the overriding dictates of Communist world strategy, however, the Communists in South Viet Nam played a fairly passive rôle after Geneva. Although they gave sporadic assistance to the sects, they did not themselves engage in widespread guerrilla operations. Where possible they maintained their positions in the countryside. They carried on persistent clandestine propaganda and made halfhearted efforts to sabotage the two elections held by the Diem government. But otherwise they bided their time.

As the Diem régime waxed in strength and confidence, it gave increasing attention to rooting out the Communist danger. All the techniques of political and psychological warfare, as well as pacification campaigns involving extensive military operations, have been brought to bear against the underground. Some of the methods employed, such as anti-Communist denunciation rallies and self-criticism meetings, smack of practices which the Communists themselves perfected long ago; and it is clear that the usual democratic safeguards have not always been upheld. The consensus is that this all-out effort has been reasonably effective. Infiltration within the various organs of government and armed forces is apparently under control, and real progress has been made in extending the effective authority of the régime in rural districts formerly subject to the Communists. Perhaps the best evidence of this is that the ordinary peasant is beginning to turn against the cadres and give information to the government even in areas long under Communist influence. Today the Communists could still cause a lot of trouble in South Viet Nam. They could isolate extensive if fairly remote areas in the event of a renewed outbreak of civil war. But barring outside aid in the form of an invasion from the North, it is doubtful if they could any longer seriously challenge the authority of the Diem régime over most of its territory.

IV

Diem also got rid of the French. In a sense this was the most critical problem of all, for without the achievement of complete independence his long-run prospects were hopeless. If Diem was ever to rival Ho Chi Minh as an authentic champion of the Vietnamese people he had to end any semblance of French control in the South, as Ho had successfully done in the North. Even after Geneva the French sought to salvage something of their political and military position in South Viet Nam. Their support of Diem was always lukewarm at best. For many months they continued to intrigue with the sects, to which they had given extensive economic and military support in the past; and their covert propaganda against Diem at times reached savage proportions. Doubtless they would have been glad to see his government collapse and replaced by a more tractable régime. At the height of the Binh Xuyen crisis in April 1955 Premier Faure openly tried to torpedo Diem. He gave up only when events in Saigon outran his policy and after the United States, overcoming grave apprehensions of its own, decided to continue its support of Diem.

Thereafter the French were finished. When Diem demanded that France withdraw its armed forces from South Viet Nam in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Agreement, Paris quickly complied. The release of French advisers and other personnel by the Saigon administration was hastened and today only a handful remain. Even the training of the Vietnamese army has been turned over entirely to the Americans. South Viet Nam's present connection with the French Union is obscure. Although the relationship has not been formally terminated, Vietnamese representation has been withdrawn from the High Council of the Union and is not likely to be renewed. The French economic stake in South Viet Nam remains very substantial, of course, despite a considerable net withdrawal of investments since Geneva. An exodus of French nationals has also taken place, and today only about 20,000 remain in the South, of whom fewer than 7,000 are Occidentals. On the other hand, French cultural influence will undoubtedly persist for a long time.

Franco-Vietnamese relations have recently begun to recover somewhat from the nadir they reached at the time of the Binh Xuyen crisis and thereafter. Responsible Vietnamese are slowly coming to realize that France has at last accepted as irrevocable the loss of its political paramountcy in the South. Dramatizing its recognition of the new era, France recently changed the title of its representative in Saigon from high commissioner, a term offensive to Vietnamese sensibilities because of its colonial overtones, to ambassador. Many perplexing problems remain, such as France's continued and inexplicable flirtation with the Viet Minh régime at Hanoi. But the prospect of a future Franco-Vietnamese rapprochement should not be ruled out.

Diem's first year in office was necessarily devoted almost entirely to his tenacious struggle for survival. Correspondingly less attention could be given to economic and social matters, but some important steps were taken none the less. South Viet Nam established its own national bank on January 1, 1955. Direct contacts were inaugurated with the international trading community, and normal political relationships with the outside world were also broadened. A land reform program was promulgated, calling for sweeping rent reductions rather than land redistribution. Tentative steps were also taken toward rehabilitating the war-devastated economy, and inflation was brought under control.

Perhaps the most difficult economic and social problem confronting the harassed Diem government during its first year was the wholly unexpected flood of refugees that streamed into the South after Geneva. A movement of refugees was foreseen and provided for at Geneva, but was not expected to reach very great proportions. As it developed, more than 850,000 individuals, including Vietnamese military personnel, fled the North in the year after Geneva. The reception of this enormous number of destitute persons would have taxed the facilities of any government. Yet after a brief period of confusion, the challenge was met and somehow surmounted. France and the United States provided air and sea transport for the initial movement southward. Makeshift facilities were improvised for preliminary reception of the refugees, who were then redistributed as quickly as possible to hastily built temporary villages. There was no outbreak of epidemic diseases, no starvation and little if any unrest.

The satisfactory emergency handling of the refugee crisis reflected great credit on the struggling Vietnamese government, where failure might have brought about its collapse. Of course, the main problem of permanent resettlement and rehabilitation has still to be met. But even here significant progress has been made during the past year. Despite inevitable mistakes, lassitude and some corruption in the implementation of long-range programs, it is not unreasonable to expect that the whole problem will be substantially liquidated by the end of 1958. The vast influx of refugees may eventually turn out, in fact, to have been a blessing in disguise. Their numbers have added significantly to the total population, and thus helped to redress the unfavorable balance with the Communist North; and their skills and industry, mostly agricultural, could add much to a land that is not suffering from overpopulation.

V

In the last year several important steps have been taken toward reorganizing the constitutional structure of the government and broadening its political base. A popular referendum in October 1955 resulted in the deposition of Bao Dai as Chief of State and the establishment of a republic with Ngo Dinh Diem as first President. Bao Dai had never attracted much support as a nationalist leader; and his equivocal rôle during the first year of Diem's rule, culminating in the abortive Vy coup, sealed his fate. The referendum, which registered a majority of 98 percent against the ex-Emperor, simply formalized a foregone conclusion. But Diem's ability to stage the referendum, and win such a thumping majority without the exercise of undue official coercion, enormously enhanced his prestige both at home and abroad.

Less than six months later, with the sect problem now well in hand, Diem felt strong enough to conduct elections for a Constituent Assembly. The elections of March 4, 1956, have been widely criticized, and certainly many of the practices employed by the government were highly questionable. The whole weight of government support, including its efficient propaganda machine, was thrown behind officially sponsored candidates. Many individual candidacies repugnant to the government were terminated under official pressure. The press remained closely muzzled during the brief campaign period, and opportunities for public rallies and speech-making, especially on the part of non-government candidates, were severely restricted. Most of the principal opposition parties refused to campaign under these circumstances and boycotted the elections.

Criticism of these practices should, however, be placed in the proper political setting. South Viet Nam is not Great Britain or the United States. Its people have no experience of normal democratic processes. After more than a decade of turmoil, which brought to an end a long period of colonial domination, there was a crying need to establish in an orderly fashion a political structure resting on a reasonably convincing popular base. The elections did serve this essential purpose. Where they fell short of customary democratic practice, Diem argued that circumstances did not permit him to risk real electoral freedom. Moreover, while the government won a heavy majority in the new Assembly, a number of candidates lacking the imprimatur of the régime were also successful.

The constitution drawn up by the Constituent Assembly provides for a presidential system of government in which unusually extensive powers are conferred on the chief executive. While these powers could easily be perverted to the uses of dictatorship, the system undoubtedly conforms to present-day political and economic realities in South Viet Nam. The government controlled the deliberations of the Assembly from the beginning. There was nevertheless some lively debate at its sessions, which were open to the public. If the discussions did not often explore fundamentals, at least they reflected a seriousness of purpose on the part of the delegates that was not entirely expected. In July, a provisional draft was submitted to the President. After lengthy consideration Diem proposed a series of modifications to the text, most of which were quickly accepted by the Assembly. The completed document was then returned to Diem for final approval and promulgation, these powers having been entrusted to him rather than the Assembly by the terms of the Bao Dai referendum; and on October 26, 1956, it was proclaimed the supreme law of the land. Diem continues as President for a five-year term, while the Constituent Assembly now becomes the regular legislature for the next three years.

One of Diem's major objectives has been to develop broad popular support for his government. He has directed his appeal primarily at the masses rather than the intelligentsia, who he correctly assumed would be alienated by the dictatorial character of his régime, and on the whole he has had considerable success. While his record accounts for this more than anything else, Diem has also resorted to many of the time-tested techniques of modern totalitarianism. Public adulation of the President, for example, has reached startling proportions; and although Diem professes to be embarrassed by all the fuss, he has done little to stop it. A constant barrage of propaganda is laid down through the controlled press and radio. "Spontaneous" demonstrations are staged with distressing frequency. There is even a strength-through-joy youth movement that stirs unhappy memories of the Nazi past.

The government has also sponsored development of a nationwide political grouping known as the National Revolutionary Movement. Today it is the only effective mass political organization in the country. It claims not to be a political party in the ordinary sense, but rather to transcend all other parties; and one wonders whether its real objective is not to swallow its competitors, however weak and ineffectual they may be. There is no significant legal political opposition in South Viet Nam today, and probably none would be tolerated. The chief figures in the régime have little comprehension of the indispensable function of a loyal opposition in a democratic political system. Thus the honest oppositionist is left with no alternatives but clandestine activity or political quietism.

VI

While the constitutional base was thus being secured, much effort was also devoted to improving the administrative machinery of the state. South Viet Nam inherited a grossly outmoded colonial government and lacked the trained administrators and technicians necessary to make it work. The result was heartbreaking inefficiency in the face of almost overwhelming problems. Fortunately there has been some awareness of the dangers inherent in this situation. Large-scale technical assistance has been accepted from the United States to reorganize the administrative structure from top to bottom. A National Institute of Administration has been established, advantage is being taken of foreign educational opportunities, and as rapidly as possible expert administrators are being trained. Special attention has been given to reorganizing and training the municipal and national police forces. Corruption has also kept within bounds. The technical capacity and perhaps even more important the esprit de corps of the civil service have been gradually improving in consequence of these and other measures. One evidence is that the area of effectiveness of the South Vietnamese government has been steadily expanding both geographically and functionally. It is increasingly turning its attention to the elaboration and implementation of programs of economic and social reconstruction, with greater prospects for success than ever before.

The Diem régime has still to prove itself in these fields. South Viet Nam faces problems of economic backwardness and social upheaval which are common to most of Southeast Asia. They are perhaps no more acute here than elsewhere. But popular expectations of change are already high, and they are rising rapidly. Today only a small minority in the South favors the Communists. But as time goes on comparisons are bound to be made with progress in the North, where the Viet Minh are putting forth tremendous efforts to hasten economic development and social reorganization. Unless the Diem government can successfully meet the fundamental demands of Viet Nam's economic and social revolution, its achievement of political stability and constitutional consolidation in the South may in the long run prove ephemeral.

South Viet Nam thus represents a continuing challenge for American policy in the Far East. Whether we like it or not, this exposed salient of the free world has become a showcase for what American friendship, support and material aid can do in Asia. So far a respite has been gained and a solid basis laid for the future. It is a profound and legitimate interest of the United States that the structure of a stable, prosperous and democratic society be erected on the foundations that have already been prepared.

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  • WILLIAM HENDERSON, Director of Meetings, Council on Foreign Relations; recently on leave in Southeast Asia in connection with a study of Indochina
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