Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese Peasantry, Part I: The Modern Mandarin

Ngo Dinh Diem’s political base consisted of South Vietnam’s minority Catholic population, 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 very real sense, the American Catholic Church, as well as the presidential administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, represented another important segment of Diem’s base. Without the backing of these groups, he risked losing his hold on power. Because his political influence did not derive from the peasantry, 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 peasantry to remain in office.

Another factor that contributed to Diem’s neglect of South Vietnam’s peasants related to the perceived military threat posed by Communist North Vietnam. Up until 1959, neither Diem nor the Americans assigned to the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon reckoned that North Vietnam would sponsor a large-scale, rural-based insurgency in South Vietnam. Tasked with training and providing strategic guidance to the South Vietnamese regime, MAAG concluded that the northern Communists, if they did seek to topple the Diem, would launch a conventional cross-border invasion to do it. Officials at MAAG advised Diem that he should train and equip the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to confront North Vietnamese main forces rather than peasant guerrillas. If an insurgency did emerge across South Vietnam, MAAG assumed conventional ARVN forces could handle it.

Because he did not need the peasantry politically and because during the 1950s he did not deem the rural population a military threat to his regime, Diem did little to redress the social, economic, and political ills that beset the countryside. He did not implement an effective program of land redistribution, nor did he lessen the onerous land rental rates paid by millions of tenant farmers. He failed to grant greater autonomy to village governments. As a matter of fact, he did just the opposite. He abolished the traditional system of village administration, with its council of village elders, and replaced it with one more responsive to the Presidential Palace. Against the wishes of President John F. Kennedy, and the U.S. embassy staff in Saigon, the South Vietnamese leader refused to grant the Buddhists a larger role in his government and within the military establishment. Fearful of losing the political support of the landed elite and the Church, Diem did not introduce democratic and economic reform to rural South Vietnamese society. Instead, out beyond the cities, he worked to strengthen Vietnam’s old order against the revolutionary elements organizing against it. In the end, his neglect of South Vietnam’s peasant class proved his undoing.

Diem revealed his attitudes towards governance, and the peasantry in particular, in small, but illustrative ways. When he became head of state in 1955, (he acquired the less influential premiership in 1954), he moved into the residence in Saigon of the former French colonial administrator for Cochinchina. The governor general’s residence, later renamed the Presidential Palace, had been a symbol of French colonial power as recently as the early 1950s, when France still held sway in Vietnam. The building had been designed and built as a structural representation of French colonial dominance, architectural sophistication, and superior French culture. The building could not have been further, physically, from the primitive dwellings occupied by millions of Vietnamese peasants. Diem took up residence in the building to send a message to his compatriots that he, a Vietnamese nationalist, had supplanted the French governor general atop the social order. In choosing to live in such a palatial home, Diem signaled that his government would maintain that order, rather than deconstruct it. Vietnamese would replace the French in South Vietnam’s political and economic hierarchy, but the hierarchy itself would remain unchanged.

Diem’s official residence contrasted sharply with that of Ho Chi Minh. When the Vietminh triumphantly marched into Hanoi in October 1954, after having spent eight years in the hills and jungles of Tonkin, Ho refused to reside in the former governor general’s mansion in the northern capital. Eventually, in 1958, he moved into a traditional Montagnard stilt house built behind the governor general’s residence. In choosing to live in such a simple hut, Ho conveyed to the people of North Vietnam that he had no intention of upholding the old order. Rather, he and the Vietnamese Communist Party stood for revolutionary change. In Vietnam in the 1950s, the place of residence of Diem and Ho spoke volumes about each man’s political leanings.

The clothing worn by Diem and Ho also said much about each man. Throughout Vietnam, the peasantry wore a basic style of clothing designed for utility rather than fashion. In the 1960s, American GIs referred to peasant attire as “pajamas” because of its resemblance to American sleep wear. Rural folk commonly donned collarless, long-sleeve, lightweight cotton shirts that they buttoned down the front. Pants were made with the same lightweight cotton. Black and blue-gray were the colors of choice. The clothing hung loosely over the body, protecting the arms and legs from the sun’s penetrating rays while cooling the body in the mid-day heat. Pantaloons did not extend downward to the tops of the shoes in the manner of Western-style slacks. Rather, Vietnamese farmers wore their pants high – in a style that Americans called “high waters.” In fact, the reason peasants wore their pants above their ankles had to do with water. Long pants, worn low to the ground, collected mud – an ever-present feature of the Vietnamese landscape.

Diem never wore peasant clothing because he did not want to project the image of a commoner. He sought to portray himself, through his wardrobe, as both an old-style mandarin, and a modern, Westernized Vietnamese. Occasionally, he dressed in the hat and long frock of a traditional Vietnamese mandarin. But more often than not, he wore Western attire, which included a white shirt and tie, a double-breasted suit, long pants, and fine leather shoes. His clothing marked him as educated, urbane, and as a member of the upper class – everything the rural peasant was not. On the off chance that he visited the countryside, he still dressed in formal wear. Standing next to impoverished peasants, the visible contrast between Diem and his rural countrymen could not have been greater. It was readily apparent Diem had little in common with those living in the South’s paddy country. And to the chagrin of American embassy staff, the South Vietnamese president made no effort to hide the vast differences between his world and that of the peasantry. In the early 1960s, Roger Hilsman, who worked for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence, remarked on the South Vietnamese president’s lack of connection with the rural populace. He stated, “Diem has never had widespread popular appeal and support, even during his period of greatest achievement, 1955-58…he has not attempted to identify himself intimately with the peasants. Relatively few peasants have ever seen Diem or heard him speak, and there are probably many others who are not aware that he is head of the government.”[1]

Ho Chi Minh, on the other hand, dressed in simple peasant garb. He often wore rubber sandals on his feet, a simple pair of pants, and a military-style shirt over his thin frame. During the chilly winter months, when temperatures in Hanoi could dip down into the 40s Fahrenheit, Ho dressed in an unfashionable quilted cotton coat known as a “Mao” jacket, made famous by Chinese troops during the Korean Conflict. Through his clothing, Ho projected the image of a man of the people, while Diem came across as an elitist.

It was in public policy, especially in his advocacy of rural resettlement, that Diem’s attitudes toward the South Vietnamese peasantry became most apparent. Diem viewed rural resettlement as the means of not only curbing the rising influence of the Vietcong in the countryside, but also as a way of strengthening the established order’s influence beyond South Vietnam’s urban centers. Consequently, during his reign, Diem instituted a series of resettlement programs, including the Agroville Program and the far-larger and more socially-disruptive Strategic Hamlet Program.


[1] The Senate Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers, The Defense Department History of United States Decisionmaking on Vietnam, Volume II, “Document 119, Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, The Situation and Short-Term Prospects in South Vietnam, December 3, 1962,” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 708.

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