Is Ngo Dinh Diem finally receiving his due from historians? As the anti-communist leader of South Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1963, Diem is a figure of considerable importance in the history of the Vietnam War. He is also more than a little controversial. In the decades since Diem’s ouster and assassination in a U.S.-approved coup, historians and other commentators have divided sharply over how to understand the man and his record. Many authors dismiss Diem either as an American puppet or as an anti-modern autocrat. Others argue for his rehabilitation, portraying him as a just and sagacious ruler who might well have defeated the “Viet Cong” insurgency and won the Vietnam War in its early stages, if only he had not been treacherously abandoned by his U.S. allies. Ironically, both groups have interpreted Diem mainly or exclusively by reference to U.S. archival materials and the testimony of Americans, with little attention to Vietnamese sources and Vietnamese historical perspectives.
In recent years, some scholars have undertaken to shift the terms of debate. The opening of the records of the South Vietnamese state—held at the Vietnam National Archives No. 2 in Ho Chi Minh City—has fueled what one scholar calls a “South Vietnamese turn” in the study of the war. In addition to making use of Vietnamese archives and vernacular sources, the new scholarship also aims to situate Diem and the state he founded within the particular Vietnamese historical, cultural, and social contexts in which he lived and operated. In these studies, Diem appears neither as a puppet, a tradition-minded mandarin, nor a philosopher king. Instead, he was an ambitious postcolonial leader whose vision for Vietnam’s development and social transformation was both grand and grandiose, ambitious and deeply flawed.
One of Shaw’s central claims is that Diem “possessed the Confucian Mandate of Heaven, a moral and political authority that was widely recognized by the South Vietnamese, Buddhist and Catholic alike.” According to this view, Diem lost the mandate in 1963 not because of his own failings, but because of American perfidy and short-sightedness.
The volume under review here stands in marked contrast to these recent efforts to craft new and more historically nuanced interpretations of Diem. In The Lost Mandate of Heaven, Geoffrey Shaw takes an old school approach, offering an unapologetically “revisionist” defense of Diem coupled with a denunciation of the Kennedy administration officials who pushed for his overthrow. In reply to those who have derided Diem’s “traditional” worldview, Shaw celebrates the Vietnamese leader’s embrace of Catholicism and Confucianism. He believes that these two belief systems made Diem a “true conservative” in the sense that “he wanted to conserve the traditional Vietnamese way of life” against the encroaching values of “modern, secular Western societies.” One of Shaw’s central claims is that Diem “possessed the Confucian Mandate of Heaven, a moral and political authority that was widely recognized by the South Vietnamese, Buddhist and Catholic alike.” According to this view, Diem lost the mandate in 1963 not because of his own failings, but because of American perfidy and short-sightedness.
Many of Shaw’s claims and much of his evidence are derived from previous works by American authors sympathetic to Diem. The proposition that Diem was a wise and effective ruler in a traditional mold was elaborated during and after the Vietnam War in books by journalists Marguerite Higgins and Ellen Hammer, and in the memoirs of CIA operatives Edward Lansdale and William Colby. All of these authors and their claims figure prominently in the footnotes of The Lost Mandate of Heaven. However, the single most important source for Shaw is the 1988 memoir of Fredrick Nolting, the American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from 1961 until shortly before the coup that ended Diem’s rule. Since Nolting was among the U.S. officials who admired Diem and who remonstrated strongly against the coup both before and after it took place, his narrative neatly reinforces Shaw’s main claims. Although The Lost Mandate of Heaven paints Diem in sympathetic and tragic colors, the real hero of the book is actually Nolting, whom Shaw depicts as struggling valiantly against the coup advocates within the
U.S. State Department. Nolting’s main antagonist in this internal fight was W. Averell Harriman, the former New York governor, and Kennedy ally, who detested Diem and considered him a barrier to reaching a peace settlement in Vietnam.
Shaw’s preference for pro-Diem American sources leads to a few factual errors. For example, he declares that the South Vietnamese Strategic Hamlet Program of 1961-1962 was designed by British counterinsurgency experts and based on tactics previously used in Malaya. In fact, the architect of the program was Diem’s brother and adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu, who explicitly rejected the Malayan model in favor of ideas derived from French military theorists. Shaw also advances several highly questionable claims about Vietnamese religious identity and practice, such as his assertion that Vietnamese Buddhism “was in such decline that it seemed like a discard from a bygone era” until Diem intervened to bring it back from “near extinction.” (On this point, Shaw seems to have overlooked the Vietnamese Buddhist Revival, a major religious and social movement that began in the early 20th century and that deeply shaped the “Buddhist crisis” of 1963.) More generally, Shaw appears unfamiliar with the Anglophone scholarship published about Diem and South Vietnam during the past 15 years, most of which is absent from the book’s notes and bibliography. Shaw might well disagree with the new interpretations of Diem, but he cannot hope to refute those interpretations if he does not engage critically with them.
Although The Lost Mandate of Heaven paints Diem in sympathetic and tragic colors, the real hero of the book is actually Fredrick Nolting, the American diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam from 1961 until shortly before the coup that ended Diem’s rule, and whom Shaw depicts as struggling valiantly against the coup advocates within the U.S. State Department.
Shaw’s most problematic assertion may be his claim about Diem’s possession of the Mandate of Heaven. Shaw appears to take it for granted that legitimacy in 20th-century Vietnam was defined mainly in Confucian terms. But Vietnamese Studies specialists have questioned the extent to which Vietnam was ever a “Confucianized” society; while elites such as Diem may have been well versed in Confucian thought and practice, there is scant evidence that ordinary Vietnamese conceived of authority or state legitimacy in the same way. Moreover, even if one agrees that South Vietnam’s millions of subsistence farmers were Confucians in thought and deed during the 1950s and 1960s, Shaw neither cites testimony nor otherwise demonstrates that South Vietnamese collectively considered Diem more legitimate than the communists or his many other rivals. Indeed, some of Shaw’s evidence seems to point the other way. In 1961, Shaw notes, the staunchly pro-Diem Nolting reported to Washington that the Vietnamese leader had a legitimacy problem in South Vietnam, due to the “widespread” view that he did not care about the welfare of ordinary people.
As a work of history, The Lost Mandate of Heaven is most reliable in its chronicling of the details of the Kennedy administration’s internal battles over Vietnam policy during 1961-1963. But that story has been told many times before—and in less partisan fashion—in The Pentagon Papers and in accounts by U.S. diplomatic historians. Shaw’s admiring portrayal of Diem is also familiar, in part because it tracks so closely to the writings of his most ardent American admirers. Readers who share Shaw’s “revisionist” desire to understand the American intervention in Vietnam as a “lost victory” (as the CIA’s William Colby described it) will find a lot to like in this book. But those looking for a more historical and contextual reading of Diem and the state he led may have to wait a little longer.