In 1950 the French gave up their effort to maintain direct control over Vietnam and transferred power to Bao Dai. The US recognized Bao Dai, but the Vietnamese people did not; he was generally a puppet of the French.
In 1954 President Eisenhower wrote:
I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held at the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather then Chief of State Bao Dai.
In 1953 President Eisenhower proclaimed at the Governor's conference in Seattle:
Now let us assume that we lose Indochina. If Indochina goes, several things happen right away. The Malayan peninsula would be scarcely defensible- and tin and tungsten we so greatly value from that area would cease coming… All of that weakening position around there is very ominous for the United States, because finally if we lost all that, how would the free world hold the rich empire of Indonesia? So you see, somewhere along the line, this must be blocked. That is what the French are doing…
So, when the United States votes $400 million to help that war, we are not voting for a giveaway program. We are voting for the cheapest way that we can to prevent the occurrence of something that would be of the most terrible significance for the United States of America- our security, our power and ability to get certain things from the riches of South East Asia.
This is one of my favorite quotes because it so eloquently illustrates the reality of the geopolitical situation. "…how would the 'free world' 'hold' the rich empire of Indonesia?" Indeed. This gets to the crux of not only the Vietnamese situation but the global situation, and obviously the Iraqi situation. The free world is free because it does "hold" control over the "other" parts of the world. The world that is not "free" is not free precisely because it is "held" by the "free world", and the freedom that is possible in the "free world" is only possible because of these holdings.
The Vietnamese people never accepted the rule of Bao Dai. Ho Chi Minh and his forces continued to fight for true independence and the establishment of a communist government that would be free from foreign intervention.
In 1954 Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam and Bao Dai and his French advisors attempted to take control of South Vietnam. At this point America had enough of dealing with the French, who had so far been losing their hold on the region, so the US backed Ngo Dinh Diem who American leaders felt would be agreeable to American authority in Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem, who lived in the United States during the French-Indochina war, was the first "democratically" elected president of South Vietnam. The election was coerced however. The only choices were between Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem, both leaders that were favored by Western powers. Voters complained that they were told who to vote for, to vote for Diem, some of those that did not were beaten by CIA supported Vietnamese forces.
The result of the election was 98.2% for Diem. Diem's American advisors told him to change the vote count and release a number no larger then 70% or else the vote would not be believable. As one of his first acts of non-cooperation he refused and claimed a 98.2% victory. The world immediately knew that the election had been rigged and his authority was undermined.
It's easy to see why the first experiences that the Vietnamese had with "Western democracy" left a bad taste in their mouth and resulted in a high level of distrust in American and Western involvement and systems.
In 1956 Diem cancelled a national election between the North and South that were called for in the peace accord with American assistance knowing that Ho Chi Minh would easily win open elections.
Shortly after canceling the elections he had over a hundred thousand citizens put into prison camps, mostly communists, but generally anyone who opposed his rule, including journalists and intellectuals, and even children.
During Diem's term American forces protected the leader against attempts to overthrow him. Under Kennedy the CIA and US military protected Diem as well as took action against oppositional forces. Money was given to Diem as "foreign aid" to help Diem establish a militant system of government to control opposition to his rule as well as to enforce the laws that he was passing, laws that for bayed freedom of religion and kept many Vietnamese in poverty. This was done in the hopes that Diem would be able to suppress Communist groups in Vietnam and unite South and North Vietnam. All that these actions really did was cause the Communist opposition to grow and caused Communist leaders to believe that violence would be the only way to free the country from tyranny. This led to growing militarism of the Communist forces in Vietnam.
In 1961 Vice President Lyndon Johnson wrote:
President Diem is the Churchill of the decade… He will fight Communism in the streets and alleys, and when his hands are torn he will fight it with his feet… President Ngo Dinh Diem is in the vanguard of those leaders who stand for freedom.
Approximately 70% of Vietnam was Buddhist, however the under the rule of the French and Diem there was significant favoritism shown to Christian followers, particularly Catholics. Vietnamese were encouraged to convert in order to get jobs or avoid harassment from government officials. A well known Vietnamese proverb of the time was "Turn Catholic and have rice to eat." Oppressive laws were passed against non-Christian religious practices. Monks were sent into exile and those that attempted to practice their Buddhism in spite of laws against it were harassed and even killed. In 1963 American backed Vietnamese forces opened fire on South Vietnamese demonstrators that were demonstrating for religious freedom. Nine people were killed.
"Of particular propaganda value to Diem was the exodus of almost 1 million Catholics from north to south who were said to have 'voted with their feet' for freedom. Encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy and organized by Lansdale and his team, entire parishes were carried south in American ships following priests who told them Christ had moved south, as well as making promises of land and livelihood. The usefulness of this refugee population did not end with their much-photographed arrival in the South. In effect they were an imported political resource for Diem, a substantial and dependent bloc of loyal supporters.
One of the more effective rumor campaigns Lansdale developed was that the United States would back a new war, one in which atomic weapons would certainly be used. Widely believed, this added to the flow of refugees south. ...Lansdale reported these triumphs, all of them in direct violation of the Geneva Accords, to the CIA."
"...For almost a decade, the Catholic Diem and his family had given favors and patronage to Vietnam's Catholic minority (southern born as well as those arrived from the North in 1954), alienating the Buddhist majority. In the villages and towns around Hue, whose Buddhist organizations had begun to speak out politically against Diem's favoritism, government troops conducted sweeps each spring at the time of Buddha's birthday, 'to show the V.C. that the government was strong,' a Catholic priest in the district told an American, 'and to make the opponents of the government afraid."
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