Dartmouth Historian Revisits Vietnam War

Friday, May 10, 2013
Like the Civil War, whose origins, outcome and meaning are still vigorously debated, how we remember the Vietnam War is inextricably tangled with what our political views of it are.

If you believe that the war shouldn’t have been fought and couldn’t have been won, you probably come down on the side of what Edward Miller calls the orthodoxy, a group of Vietnam-era journalists and historians who viewed it as a military and political disaster, a fatal misreading of the uses of American power by this country’s best and brightest, and a neo-colonialist misadventure doomed to failure.

If, however, you believe that U.S. intentions in Vietnam were not entirely benighted, and that the U.S. came closer to winning than opponents of the war will admit, you probably fall into the category of what Miller, a history professor at Dartmouth, calls the revisionists, a post-Vietnam-generation cadre of historians who tried to demythologize the prevailing thinking on the war.

But Miller, author of Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, published by Harvard University Press, doesn’t count himself among the orthodoxy or the revisionists. Call him a post-revisionist, or a revisionist of the revisionists, positing a third way of understanding a war that had a devastating effect on both countries.

In his view, American histories of the war omit perhaps the most critical element in understanding the war’s complex beginnings and tragic end — the Vietnamese themselves. “The Vietnam War was a hugely important event in U.S. history, but it has been written about and studied overwhelmingly from the American side,” said Miller. “I’m trying to reframe that debate.”

The question to ask, he said in an interview in his office at the college, is “not what the Americans were going to do, but the Vietnamese.”

Misalliance examines the war through the lens of Vietnamese history and politics, and offers a more nuanced portrait of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Vietnam, than Americans are accustomed to. “He has this remarkable transition from a loyal ally of the U.S. to someone who is the object of regime change, and is ousted and killed with U.S. connivance,” Miller said.

At 44, Miller is just a little too young to remember living through the nightly television broadcasts from “in country.” But in college at Swarthmore, and then at graduate school at the University of Michigan and Harvard, Miller began to focus on the war that has become the inescapable reference point for America’s conflicts since the late 1970s. Will the next war (Grenada, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan) be another Vietnam, or will it be different?

Miller, who grew up in East Lansing, Mich., remembers his father’s brother, who had served in Vietnam with the Army Corps of Engineers, getting up at a family meal in the early 1980s and, to everyone’s surprise, because he had never before discussed it, begin to talk about his experience there. The thrust of the speech was that while his uncle valued his service of one year and one day there, the tour of duty had been about a year too long, Miller said.

Tall, with a boyish demeanor, Miller talks in the manner of someone fired up by a subject of intense interest to him. At the beginning of the interview, he referred to typed notes, but then dropped them as he returned to his points with the conviction and persistence of a preacher.

During and after Vietnam, Miller said, the standard view of Diem, who served from 1955 until his assassination in 1963 during an American-sponsored coup, was that he was our puppet, a wily, if weak, surrogate for American power, and a reactionary mandarin who didn’t understand the will or the desires of the people he served.

The problem with that image, apart from how it plays into dated racial caricatures, Miller said, is that it neglects Diem’s history as an ardent nationalist who continually maneuvered to put Vietnamese interests ahead of American aims. The stereotype of the submissive, inept Diem, in thrall to the Americans, also strips him of his own considerable powers of agency.

“My goal is to try to explain Diem and where he came from,” Miller said.

Born in what was then the imperial capital of Hue, in the French colony of Indochina, Diem came from an affluent, educated family. The four sons, who included Ngo Dinh Diem and his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, who became Diem’s most trusted confidant and, some said, the man most to blame for his brother’s failures, were expected to go far and wield influence in their chosen fields.

The country then was still a monarchy, albeit under French rule, and their father, Ngo Dinh Kha was a high ranking official in the court bureaucracy. The family was staunchly Catholic and anti-Communist, with nationalist and reformist leanings. Diem was ambitious from a young age, and after his education rose rapidly in politics.

The Vietnamese began to agitate for independence from France in the early 1900s, but resistance intensified during the 1930s with general strikes and demonstrations, according to Miller’s book. During World War II, the country was occupied by the Japanese: Ho Chi Minh and the party he led, called the Viet Minh, fought against the Japanese, while Diem saw a Japanese occupation as preferable to a French one.

After the war, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh began to wage a guerrilla war against the French, who wanted to resume control of the colony. After eight years of bitter conflict in the Indochina War, the Viet Minh decisively defeated the French at the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Although the country was not yet partitioned into north and south, the Viet Minh held sway over the North and the anti-Communist Vietnamese and French were in the South, which was called, for a brief time, the State of Vietnam. In 1954, Diem became premier of the State of Vietnam, and following the division of the country into North and South Vietnam, became the first president of South Vietnam in 1955.

Hopes were great for Diem at the start of his presidency, both among the Vietnamese and the Americans, who’d maintained an uneasy distance from the Indochina War at the advice of President Eisenhower. The American government, anxious that the country not fall to Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, began to pour money, advisers and resources into Vietnam. With them they brought a very American philosophy about how land should be worked, and government run.

Nation-building in the American mold, said Miller, was “something that Americans tried to impose on Vietnam but that leaves out this clash of nation building agendas. Diem had his own ideas about nation building.”

He was more interested in agricultural land reform, and divesting the large landowners of their property, than many historians give him credit for, Miller said. Diem and his brother were also instrumental in moving farmers onto communal “agrovilles.”

He tried to confront a sclerotic bureaucracy, and he survived coup attempts with both a deft ability to negotiate his way out of tight spots, and blunt military force. But as Diem consolidated power, and the South Vietnamese became increasingly unhappy with the authoritarian nature of his rule, the gap widened between him and the Americans.

After Diem, at Nhu’s urging, put down the revolt of Buddhist monks in 1963 with brutal efficiency, a stratagem that shocked international opinion, his fate was, in a sense, sealed. Although there was considerable argument within the American government whether to stick with Diem, he was now seen as a “liability.” But who would replace him?

The assessment of President Kennedy, Miller writes, was that there were no brilliant solutions to the South Vietnam problem: “We’re up to our hips in mud out there.”

On Nov. 1, when the coup began, Diem and Nhu tried to escape but were seized by some of the plotters and put into an armored personnel carrier that was allegedly taking them to safety. The carrier stopped at a railroad crossing, where the two brothers were shot and stabbed.

Their bodies were buried in Saigon in an unmarked grave, and later exhumed by the Communist government and moved to a different site. But people learned where he’d been interred, a headstone was erected, and memorials to him began to appear at the grave. The Vietnamese government allows it, within limits.

Miller does not depict the assassination in the book, but leaves it at the moment just before the execution. He decided on the omission for two reasons: first, the execution has been written about so often he didn’t want to repeat it, and second, rather like Kennedy’s assassination, there are numerous conspiracy theories in Vietnam about what really happened to Diem, a proverbial hornet’s nest that Miller wasn’t eager to prod open.

Miller has mixed feelings about Diem. “I think he had good intentions, and was genuinely concerned about the fate of ordinary citizens in South Vietnam. He thought he would uplift peoples’ lives for the better, but he also suffered from profound arrogance. He and his brother knew better than anyone else; they believed they could win the war in 1963, put down the Buddhists, and outlast the Americans. They were absolutely convinced they could do it.”

Much of the material in the book came from Miller’s extensive research at the Vietnamese National Archives II in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and from interviews he conducted with former officials in Diem’s administration. (Miller speaks and reads both French and Vietnamese.)

What has struck Miller on his trips to Vietnam is “how open they were to talking about the war, and about the current status of the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.” That included historians, bureaucrats, taxi drivers and a desk clerk at a hotel. “The war is not a taboo subject.”

The country is a study in dramatic contrasts, Miller said. Vietnam has thrown itself headlong into the global economy, with a thriving entrepreneurial spirit and all the accessories of modern capitalism: high rises, electronics, Starbucks. But, he said, visitors also have “a sense of the unevenness of that process, the inequality. You can see signs of increased prosperity and signs of stark poverty.”

In addition, anybody who was affiliated or even slightly associated with the government and institutions of South Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975, is on the bottom rung of society. “They suffer from all kinds of discrimination,” said Miller, citing lack of pensions and access to education, among other inequities.

It’s been nearly 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, but in some ways, said Miller, it is still a war without end. “The politics of memory of the war are so heavily contested,” he said. “It’s a flashpoint for how Americans thought about this country and its conflicts. I don’t think it’s likely that you’ll see any consensus on Vietnam soon.”

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.


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