Nhật ký Yale: Ed Miller on Ngô Đình Diệm
This week, Ed Miller, a young historian from Darthmouth gave a talk about president Ngo Dinh Diem. Apparently, this was timed to match the 50 anniversary of the 1963 coup.
This was the first time I attended a non-math seminar at Yale. So here is the impression. The talk took place in Luce Hall, the council on South East Asia at Yale. This is on the same street as the math department, but a much newer building with state-of-the-art facilities. The couches are all new, bright, and comfortable. It should be fun to sit on these and reading those hundred year old documents. To compare, at the math department we sit on hundred year old couches to study the science of future. Wow !!
They also had tea and cookies inside the seminar room, which was to be a splendid idea. Why didn’t we, mathematicians, think of this ? Well, most math seminars do not have any cookies, in or out, so problem solved. In most coll., cookies are served outside before the talk, so one can just happily come, takes his favorite and walks away. No free lunch here.
OK, now the talk. This talk is based on (or an advertisement of) Ed’s new book: Misalliance. Ed started with a picture of Ngo Dinh Diem in his (only) visit to the US in 1957. President Eisenhower went to the airport to meet him. According to Ed, this was a high honor at the time, as Eisenhower went to the airport to greet a visiting head of state only twice under his presidency.
The next picture was less pleasant. It was the picture of Diem’s body taken after his assassination in the coup endorsed by, well, the US government, 6 years after. Inevitably, the question: what went wrong in those 6 years ?
Ed’s answer was, roughly speaking, buy the book and read it :=)) (which I will not do). However, he offered some details. First, he started to discuss two “popular” images of Diem by american people. The first was the image of a puppet president controlled by the US government, and the second was the image of an old mandarin ruling in a modern era he did not really understand. Both were wrong; Ed tried to argue that Diem was a capable politician, with his own ideas, agendas, methods, and mistakes.
The “commercial” period then kicked in, in which the speaker talked about his method of research and writing (he seemed to labor a lot on old archives in Vietnam, trying to learn from the source). Then came comparison with other authors and books in the field. Since I did not know any of them, my focus was briefly shifted towards the cookies (which were quality cookies, by the way).
Luckily, Ed came back and continued with one main point of his book. He tried to discuss Diem’s role in state and nation building, arguing that this is the main point in the “misalliance”. Beside what happened in the battle fields, the huge difference between Diem’s and the US government’s in this issue was an important factor that led to the coup. When Kennedy became US president, he increased the support to South Vietnam significantly, with the condition that Diem’s government have to go through certain reforms. Diem strongly opposed Kennedy’s vision, and at the end the US president had to back down, continuing the support, with the hope that Diem would change his view gradually. He didn’t.
Ed then went to discuss one example, the “Hamlet” program, started in 1962. This, he said, was the most ambitious plan by Diem’s government. The US approved and funded the first steps of the program. However, they had very different idea about how to run a hamlet. US advisors wanted each hamlet to become a small democracy, where the people can choose their leaders and organize their life. Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu had a very different vision. Ed said the program was more or less created by Nhu, whose role become stronger and stronger towards the end of Diem’s era.
To the US, the Hamlet program was not a success, but Diem and Nhu hung on to it, strongly believing in their method. According to Ed, they in fact became so confident in their power that led them to ruthless decisions against the buddhist uprising, which turned out to be a final and fatal mistake.
Well, now Ed run out of time and stopped. There were lots of questions from the audience, but I had to head back to our cookie-free, hundred year old couches for some other meeting.