In South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base consisted of Catholics, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the military’s officer corps (which was also heavily Catholic), landlords, the country’s business elite, and the urban middle class. In a sense, the American Catholic Church, as well as the presidential administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy represented another important segment of Diem’s base. Without the backing of those groups, he risked losing his hold on power. Because his political influence did not derive from the peasantry, and never had, Diem, during his nine years as the leader of South Vietnam, largely ignored the interests and aspirations of South Vietnam’s rural population. He did not believe he needed the rural populace in order to remain in office. Another factor that contributed to his neglect of the peasantry related to the perceived military threat by the Communist North. Up until at least 1959, neither Diem nor the Americans believed the Communists would conduct a large-scale, rural-based insurgency in the South. The American Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon concluded that the northern-based Communists, if they did seek to topple the Saigon regime, would launch a conventional cross-border invasion. MAAG advised Diem that he should train and equip the ARVN to confront North Vietnamese regulars rather than peasant guerrillas. If an insurgency should emerge in the South, MAAG believed conventional ARVN forces could handle it. Continue Reading »
In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier. He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.
To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning. Even though he spent much of his day in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif. He particularly enjoyed tennis. When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally caught a game together. Westmoreland never displayed unpredictable or reckless behavior. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse. The most foul words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.” Continue Reading »