Edward Miller, Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 419; maps, photographs, notes, index.

Reviewed by Keith Weller Taylor.

This book addresses events, issues, and personalities that have remained controversial for over half a century. It develops an interpretation that is complex, nuanced, and judicious. It is a major advance in scholarship on the first Republic of Vietnam (1955-63) that opens a new perspective on the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations. What gives it particular explanatory power is how it draws away from the simplistic and partisan interpretations based on ideology that have dominated writings on the topic and instead focuses attention upon the divergent thoughts, motivations, aims, and actions of Vietnamese and Americans during the ascendancy of Ngo Dinh Diem.

Nearly every interpretation of the Vietnam War rests in some way upon a particular understanding of Ngo Dinh Diem. For the most part, these interpretations need Ngo Dinh Diem to perform a role that is essential for exonerating the Hanoi government of responsibility for the war that broke out in the late 1950s; to accomplish this, Ngo Dinh Diem is usually described as the architect of his own demise, and, by extension, of the demise of a non-communist South Vietnam. Edward Miller also gives lip service to this perspective (pages 200-202), which helps to draw attention away from one aspect of the story that is missing in this book: the policies of the government in Hanoi toward South Vietnam. The force of Miller’s overall analysis minimizes Ngo Dinh Diem’s problems with communists and instead focuses upon his problems with Americans. The Hanoi side of the story is not part of Miller’s agenda.

Miller makes the troubled “misalliance” between Ngo Dinh Diem and the U.S. the center of his attention, but, unlike nearly everyone else who has written about this, he takes seriously the Saigon side of the story. At the same time he complicates the American side of the story. The result is a book brimming with information and fresh thought. It is a welcome addition to scholarship about Ngo Dinh Diem and U.S.-Vietnamese relations during the First Republic, and it can potentially alter the direction of scholarship on the Vietnam War by documenting how Vietnamese and American officials were at cross purposes in the early years of Hanoi’s efforts to overthrow the Saigon government.

The greatest value of this book is how it develops an analysis of rival American ideas about nation-building and how competing views among Americans failed to correlate with Ngo Dinh Diem’s idea of nation-building. The greatest interpretive weakness of the book is how it repeatedly resorts to a fixed idea about Ngo Dinh Diem’s triumphal faith in his nation-building policies as a deus ex machine for explaining his behavior in 1963. The problem that surely weighed on the minds of Saigon leaders at least as much as nation-building and troubled relations with Americans was that the neighboring Vietnamese state was determined to overthrow by force the nation they were trying to build. The book’s theme of the Ngo Dinh brothers’ delusional confidence in their own policies fills an analytical gap for Miller, but it is without plausible non-circumstantial evidence and is the one aspect of Miller’s analysis that lacks nuance.

Miller’s focus on comparative theories about nation-building is an excellent way to open up a topic that has long been little more than a shouting match between those for whom Cold War strategic imperatives explain all and those who explain all by affirming Saigon incompetence and American imperialism, if not by romanticizing Hanoi as riding upon the cusp of history. Miller writes: “ … the contests and clashes that I call the politics of nation building [Miller’s italics] shaped the entire history of the U.S.-Diem alliance, from its creation to its demise” (page 17). I like very much Miller’s discussion of American modernization theories of the “high” and “low” varieties in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and how they ran in two directions upon encountering Vietnam: a racial/cultural determinism that mandated American tutelage or a universalist belief that Vietnamese had a potential to successfully build their own nation in their own way. The particular turn that this struggle among Americans took during the second half of 1963 proved fatal to Ngo Dinh Diem, but it remained unresolved and continued to roil American policy thereafter.

Miller admirably develops the themes of his analysis, but some elements of the story are neglected, for example Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow’s idea about enforcing “linkage” between U.S. aid and political reform and the influence this had on Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnamese critics who signed the Caravelle Manifesto in April 1960. Likewise, Durbrow’s “demarche” of October 1960 and the attempted coup one month later occurred at a time of policy drift in the final year of Eisenhower’s presidency, after the death of John Foster Dulles, and when there were expectations in Saigon of a change in American policy after the election of a new American president. The mounting criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem on the part of American officials and newspapers, as would be the case three years later, was a fundamental aspect of the calculations of Diem’s Vietnamese critics in 1960. Furthermore, all of this took place in the year that Hanoi began to implement a more active policy of overthrowing the Saigon government, sending men and weapons into South Vietnam and organizing what became known as the National Liberation Front to, among other things, mobilize political disaffection in Saigon. Miller’s focus on nation-building agendas leaves aside the larger context of events that gathered momentum with the South Vietnamese parliamentary elections of 1959, which alienated Diem’s political opponents in Saigon, and the decision in Hanoi to solve the so-called “southern question” by armed force.

Although Miller does not give much attention to the political ferment in Saigon during the late 1950s and early 1960s and its connection to perceptions of American disenchantment with the Saigon government, he provides a good study of the Ngo Dinh brothers: their aims, achievements, and failures. He portrays them as modernizers with a vision for bringing revolutionary change to their society while avoiding both the violence and communal discipline of the communists and the relatively undisciplined individualism of American-style democracy. In his book, Diem’s Final Failure, Philip Catton opened up this line of thought with his analysis of what has been called the Ngo Dinh brothers’ philosophy of Personalism. Here, Miller gives a detailed appreciation of how this way of thinking led to the Ngo Dinh policy for rural development. With a comprehensive and lucid discussion of American nation-building ideas, Miller creates an analysis for how American and Vietnamese ideas about nation-building overlapped and were in contention. This enables Miller to develop a more complex and more plausible explanation than other writers have done for how the Diem-U.S. alliance ended in a fatal rupture. It’s not that Diem and/or the Americans were acting stupidly or corruptly, as has so often been asserted, but rather that they were at cross purposes. Ultimately, under the pressures of a growing war, the “high modernism” of Americans confident that they knew what was best for the Vietnamese overwhelmed the “low modernism” of Americans who were more alert to the possibilities for Vietnamese initiative.

The Ngo Dinh brothers had a vision of how a poor country emerging from colonial rule and prolonged war and lacking democratic traditions could become a modern and Vietnamese version of a democratic country. They were unsuccessful in communicating this vision to either their Vietnamese critics or the Americans. At the same time, it might be useful to observe that their vision of nation-building, based on their idea of Personalism, was no more obscure and mystifying to ordinary people than was Marxism-Leninism. Unlike their enemy in Hanoi, however, the Ngo Dinh brothers lacked patrons who did not baulk at ruthless, homicidal policies to enforce compliance. Unlike the U.S.S.R. and the P.R.C. in the north, the U.S. faced no rival power in the Vietnamese situation and consequently found it difficult to resist the temptation to be in charge.

Miller contextualizes the activities of Americans within the Vietnamese situation; this is generally missing from nearly all accounts of this time and place. Most books written by Americans place Americans and American policy in the center of attention, but Miller helps us see how the American input into Vietnamese affairs was with rare exceptions not the main force that drove Vietnamese events. This is true of how Ngo Dinh Diem obtained his appointment as prime minister in 1954 and how he outwitted his many enemies to master the conspiratorial violence of Saigon politics in early 1955. While his success has been attributed to and claimed by Americans who were active in South Vietnam at that time, Miller provides a good description of the dynamic rivalries and relationships among the Vietnamese groups and personalities that drove Saigon politics during the year that followed the signing of the Geneva Accords.

This book also provides a good study of rivalry among the Ngo Dinh brothers and of factionalism in their Can Lao Party, both of which changed dramatically during the few years of the First Republic. One of the important achievements of this book is that it explores the dilemma of a nationalist leader seeking to instill democratic habits in a population under the stress created by war and by an ally that was both imperious and fickle. Apparently because of his focus on the theme of nation-building, Miller explains the downhill slide of the Ngo Dinh government in 1963 as an irrational clinging to faith in a particular nation-building agenda. Consequently, his explanation of events leading to the downfall of the brothers is more simplistic than a more comprehensive account of events is likely to support.

There are two noticeable absences in this book. Whether or not they should be considered weaknesses or simply as matters being legitimately outside of the author’s focus will be a matter of opinion. One absence is an appreciation of how American criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem and Diem’s frustration with the Americans was related to the fermentation of dissenting voices in Saigon.

Despite the relative weakness of the legislature, parliamentary elections revealed domestic criticism not simply of Ngo Dinh Diem but also of the American alliance. Relatively open dissent broke to the surface during the election of 1959, the year when Hanoi’s new policy of overthrowing Saigon by force first became discernible. In this election, Dr Phan Quang Dan campaigned, among other issues, against the Commercial Import Program by which the U.S. was supplying financial support to the Saigon government. He was elected but not allowed to take his seat. His criticism of the CIP was close to Ngo Dinh Diem’s worries about the program: that it created an institutional dependency of the South Vietnamese government upon the U.S. that squelched the local economy and made plausible the threat of Ambassador Durbrow’s “linkage” as a mechanism to enforce compliance with American “advice.” It was one thing to speak publicly about the negative aspects of the American alliance and another thing to be caught in the grip of its contradictions. Ngo Dinh Diem was not inclined to think that he had anything to learn from his Vietnamese critics when his American critics were so much more difficult to deal with.

The Caravelle Manifesto, produced by Ngo Dinh Diem’s Vietnamese critics in April 1960, specifically mentions the election of 1959 and the hopes and disappointments aroused by it; it was also closely related to and in some ways echoed the emergence of American criticism of Ngo Dinh Diem both by Ambassador Durbrow and in the American press. The resonance between Vietnamese perceptions of American disenchantment with Diem and Vietnamese daring to openly dissent was a large part of the context for not only the Caravelle Manifesto but also for the 1960 coup attempt.

The election of 1963, scheduled for late August, was postponed because of the imposition of martial law in mid-August. What is never mentioned in accounts of 1963 is that martial law was lifted in mid-September and the legislative elections were held at the end of September without the degree of heavy-handed intervention by the government that had characterized the election of 1959; the results were discernibly less favorable to Ngo Dinh Diem than had been the case in 1959.

The book also makes no mention of the scientist and South Vietnamese diplomat Buu Hoi’s mission to the United Nations in autumn 1963, which resulted in a seven-nation U.N. delegation to investigate the “pagoda raids” of August 1963. The delegation arrived in Saigon on October 24, and Ngo Dinh Diem allowed it to go anywhere and to speak with anyone; its report was generally favorable to the Saigon government’s handling of the Buddhist “crisis.” However, the U.S. government opposed the sending of this delegation, fearing that it might support Ngo Dinh Diem at the very moment that it was itself endeavoring to have him overthrown. Scholars have tended to ignore the U.N. mission, perhaps because it did not figure into any serious American policy calculations.

Probably the most fundamental absence in this book is any indication of how the policies of the government in Hanoi were producing effects in South Vietnam. Although this is not part of Miller’s agenda, without it the pressures pushing a misalliance into rupture are not fully apparent. Parts of this book read like the silence of “one hand clapping”; Saigon’s efforts to defeat communist insurgents are described but without any clear indication of the threat these efforts were designed to thwart. There is no indication of the shifts in Hanoi’s policy that affected insurgency in the south. This important lacuna conveys the impression that the problem was a purely South Vietnamese phenomenon with no connection to the line of command and supply from Hanoi, and it seems to allow the author to attribute the insurgency primarily to errors in Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership.

Miller’s emphasis on the U.S.-Vietnamese misalliance misses early efforts on the part of the U.S. to respond to Hanoi’s initiation of a new war by shifting toward a strategy of counterinsurgency in mid-1960; this was before the presidency of John Kennedy, with whom counterinsurgency is conventionally associated, and before the formation of the National Liberation Front, which Miller tends to describe as if it were in some way disconnected from, and not a front organization for, the government in Hanoi. Lionel C. McGarr replaced Samuel T. Williams as commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in late summer 1960. McGarr was known for expertise in counterinsurgency and his appointment reflected the alacrity of the U.S. response to the changing situation even in the final months of the Eisenhower administration.

A subsidiary silence in this book is the role of Averill Harriman in crafting the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos in 1962. Ngo Dinh Diem opposed this agreement because it effectively opened South Vietnam’s border with Laos to the North Vietnamese and made Laos a relatively safe haven for the communists. The apparent American abandonment of Laos and lack of appreciation for the connection between Laos and South Vietnamese security alerted the Ngo Dinh brothers to the possibility that the U.S. could easily abandon South Vietnam, too. Harriman’s efforts to discredit Ngo Dinh Diem and to initiate a policy to overthrow him began from this time. Miller mentions that U.S. policy in Laos produced a “psychological shock” to leaders in Saigon (p. 230), but events in Laos and the “shock” are not explained and the significance of Hanoi having unrestricted access to South Vietnam’s border with Laos is ignored.

Miller’s conclusion is ironic: he writes that Ngo Dinh Diem’s greatest weakness was his unwillingness “to grapple with the range of nationalist imaginings within South Vietnam–especially those espoused by other noncommunist leaders and groups” and that both his and American nation-building “designs” were “undermined” by “failures to accommodate the diverse revolutionary aspirations that existed within South Vietnam and that resisted subordination to a single ideological formulation” (p. 326). To what extent this is a fair evaluation will depend upon the horizon of comparison. Compared with his enemy in Hanoi, Ngo Dinh Diem countenanced a much greater diversity of aspirations and of ideological formulations. However, scholars never describe Hanoi’s totalitarian style as a “weakness.” To be consistent, Miller might have stayed with his theme of misalliance, a theme that has not, to my knowledge, been attributed to Hanoi and its allies. Rather than veering off to join Ngo Dinh Diem’s American critics, as this conclusion does, a conclusion that would appear to have been more resonant with this book might have observed that an alliance between unequal partners without a counterbalancing power is dangerous for the weaker one.

All of this aside, Miller has written a fine book that reorients the study of Ngo Dinh Diem to see the First Republic of Vietnam as a Vietnamese experiment in wartime nation-building that ran afoul of ideas about nation-building espoused by its powerful American ally. The book is thoughtful, lucid, original, analytical, and readable.

Keith Weller Taylor is Professor of Vietnamese Studies, Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University.


Philip E. Catton. Diem’s Final Failure: Prelude to America’s War in Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.