JFK’s Other Assassination

Ngo Dinh Diem, the first President of South Vietnam, and JFK were both Catholics, though Catholics of very different persuasions.

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[Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a multi-part series on the unsung heroes of Christendom.]

The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was one of the landmark moments and one of the most remembered events in twentieth-century history. The assassination of President Diem of Vietnam on All Souls’ Day 1963, only twenty days earlier, is probably more important as a landmark moment but is largely forgotten. Intriguingly, there is a creepy and uncanny connection between these two events which represents one of the darkest moments in a history replete with dark moments. 

Ngo Dinh Diem would become the final Prime Minister of Vietnam in 1954 and the first President of South Vietnam a year later. Prior to his rise to power, Diem spent two years in the United States, during which time he became friends with John F. Kennedy, a young and aspiring politician. Diem and JFK were both Catholics, though Catholics of very different persuasions. Diem was devout. He attended Mass daily. Torn between his attraction to the religious life and his desire to help his country free itself from the strangling grip of communism, he embraced the latter as a sense of duty, a cross he must bear.

During his time in the United States in the early 1950s, Diem stayed at the Maryknoll Mission society seminaries in upstate New York and New Jersey. Although he was an internationally known political figure, he shared the chores with the seminarians. High profile politicians who visited him were stunned to see him taking out the rubbish, cleaning the floors, and doing other menial work. He was befriended by Francis Cardinal Spellman, archbishop of New York. It was Cardinal Spellman who introduced Diem to John F. Kennedy, who was then a young member of Congress.

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Diem left the United States in May 1953 and spent some time in a Benedictine monastery in Belgium, praying for discernment. On January 12, 1954, he joined the third order of the Benedictines, committing himself to a life of observant prayer and practice in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict. Later that year, he became the final Prime Minister of the short-lived state of Vietnam, prior to Vietnam’s division into North Vietnam, ruled by the communists, and South Vietnam, of which Diem became the first president.

Diem’s strategy in defeating communist guerilla insurgency in South Vietnam was the implementation of Catholic social teaching in the form of the Strategic Hamlet Program. This amounted to a localist response to the communist terrorism. Local police forces were established and armed so that villages were able to protect themselves without relying on centralized military intervention. The protected village communities could then continue to farm and sustain the local economy without fear of communist intrusion into their lives and without the need of the central government for economic or military support. This was what would now be called sustainable development, achieved by the implementation of the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, the two pillars of Catholic social teaching, as outlined by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931).     

Compare Diem’s Catholic approach to land reform with the Marxist approach of Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam. Following the example of Stalinist collectivization in the Soviet Union, the communists in North Vietnam confiscated land from the peasants, placing it into the hands of the government. This led, in 1956, to a massive peasants’ revolt, or people’s rebellion, against communist rule. Following the lead of communist rulers in other countries, Ho Chi Minh responded by sending in the army. At least ten thousand peasants were murdered and perhaps as many as 50,000.  

Ironically, Diem’s biggest enemy in the following years would not be his sworn political enemies in North Vietnam but his purported allies in the United States. By the beginning of the 1960s, the media in the United States was adopting a radical liberal agenda, which was antagonistic toward Diem’s Catholicism and was suspicious of his anti-communism. In addition, certain high-profile politicians in the United States were antagonistic to Diem for not acquiescing in American neo-conservative imperialism. This unholy alliance between the liberal media and U.S. imperialism would prove ultimately deadly for Diem and hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen.

The media and the U.S. government accused Diem of discriminating against non-Catholics and demanded that he desist from choosing more Catholics to work in the government. In truth, however, Catholics were being selected on merit and not because of their religious affiliation. The best schools in Vietnam were run by the Catholic Church, a benign consequence of French colonialism, and so many of the best-educated Vietnamese were Catholics. In addition, the Catholics, which included almost a million refugees from the anti-Catholic persecution in North Vietnam, were united in their opposition to communism. They were natural allies in Diem’s efforts to build a just and sustainable alternative to communism in Vietnam.

Even though Diem’s Catholic approach was bearing positive results through the success of the Strategic Hamlet Program and other localist initiatives against Marxist insurgency, the American government was growing increasingly antagonistic to Diem’s rule. President Kennedy based his perception of Diem and the situation in Vietnam on reports from his friends and from the biased spin of the news media, ignoring the reports on the ground from Vietnam charting Diem’s successes. The tragic reality is that the Vietnam War and U.S. military involvement might have been avoided if Diem’s strategy had been supported by President Kennedy and his administration.

Between 1961 and 1962, American policy toward Diem and the situation in Vietnam switched from “sink or swim with Diem” to what would prove to be “sinking without him” into the disaster of a war that could and should have been avoided. In 1963, heeding the advice of his anti-Diem associates, President Kennedy informed the South Vietnamese generals that they would continue to receive his support were they to overthrow the elected president of their own country in a military coup. Ironically, President Kennedy’s betrayal of Diem came at a time when Diem’s strategy was proving successful in the war against Marxist insurgency. 

In March 1963, Robert Thompson, an expert on guerilla warfare, reported that he could say, “and in this I am supported by all members of the mission, that the Government is beginning to win the shooting war against the Viet Cong.” Two months later, Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, reported that the war against communism was being won by the South Vietnamese government: “In the military sector of the counter-insurgency, we are winning.”

Tragically, however, President Kennedy was more concerned about winning the following year’s presidential election and was mindful of the impact that his support for Diem might have on the election campaign. The media’s increasingly hostile reporting of Diem’s “autocratic” government meant that support for Diem was now a political liability.

The crucial importance of the liberal media in laying the foundations for the Vietnam War cannot be overstated. Mindful of the role of the media in facilitating the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, the Catholic-convert writer Clare Boothe Luce played the prophet with remarkable prescience: “Is the history of the Liberal Press…going to repeat itself? The evidence is that it is.”

In a telegram sent on August 29, 1963, marked “Top Secret, Eyes Only,” President Kennedy authorized the violent overthrow of Diem’s civilian government, officially an ally of the United States, by the South Vietnamese military. This is surely one of the greatest acts of treachery by any American president.

The coup took place on All Saints’ Day, 1963. Having fled to the house of a friend, Diem and his brother attended Mass at the local church on the morning of All Souls’ Day. They then spent some time in prayer. They were in the Grotto of the Virgin Mary, outside the church, when the soldiers arrived with a couple of American jeeps and an armored personnel carrier. Once Diem and his brother were secured in the hold of the personnel carrier, the order to murder them was carried out immediately as the vehicle drove away. Their gallbladders were cut out while they were still alive, and then they were shot.

According to General Minh, the leader of the coup, the Americans expected and wanted Diem to be murdered. Ironically, this was due to his popularity with the people of South Vietnam. “Diem could not be allowed to live,” Minh insisted, “because he was too much respected among simple, gullible people in the countryside, especially the Catholics and the refugees.” 

Three days after the murders, Madame Nhu, the widowed wife of Diem’s brother, foresaw that the murder of her husband and brother-in-law would have catastrophic consequences. “Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need any enemies,” she said. “I can predict to you all that the story in Vietnam is only at its beginning.” 

A little over two years later, in February 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson was candid about the role of the American government in the coup and the murder of Diem: “[W]e killed him. We all got together and got a…bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him. Now, we’ve really had no political stability since then.” 

This was an understatement. The war would drag on for almost a decade longer. By its end, almost 60,000 members of the U.S. military were killed, as well as around 300,000 South Vietnamese combatants and a similar number of South Vietnamese civilians. When the deaths of North Vietnamese troops and civilians are added, the final body count is likely to have been more than a million people. 

Three weeks after the assassination which he had ordered, President Kennedy would also be assassinated. Death, like a thief in the night, had visited him when he and the rest of the world had least expected it. It would not be appropriate to pass judgment on his eternal soul, but there’s no denying that he died with the blood of two innocent men on his hands.  

As the catastrophic consequences of Diem’s murder unfolded, even his political enemies in Vietnam came to see his assassination as a mistake of unparalleled proportions. As for the Catholics of Vietnam, they continue to venerate Diem as a martyr. Perhaps the Church should do so also. As Josef Cardinal Frings affirmed in 1965: “The greater part of the world has not given just recognition of this noble man.”

The primary source for this essay is Geoffrey Shaw’s excellent book, The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam (Ignatius Press).

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