50th Anniversary of Diem’s Assassination

Heather Marie Stur, associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi, is a Fulbright Scholar in Vietnam, where she is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a visiting professor in the international relations department at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.  She received a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in history from Marquette.

lens2218281_1234864960Diem_timeThe 50th anniversary of the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem came and went quietly here in Vietnam.  On November 1, 1963, a group of South Vietnamese generals launched a coup against Diem, the president of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam as it is more commonly known in the U.S.  Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were assassinated the following day.  The U.S. government had backed Diem since his installation as president of South Vietnam in 1956, considering him a solid anticommunist alternative to Ho Chi Minh, president of the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the northern half of the country.  But relations between John F. Kennedy’s administration and Diem had soured by 1963, and although historians continue to debate the role the U.S. played in the coup, most agree that American advisers and the CIA knew it was going to happen, even if they did not expect assassinations to be involved.  About 16 months after Diem’s death, U.S. combat troops arrived in Vietnam, starting a conflict that is known here as the “American War.”

I checked several of the newspapers here, including Nhan Dan and Tuoi Tre, on November 1 and 2, but I found no mention of the anniversary.  The BBC reported on a memorial Mass that was held at Diem’s gravesite, which drew about 60 participants, mostly Catholics, as Diem was.  The lack of coverage of the anniversary of Diem’s assassination, especially when compared to the attention paid to the passing of Vo Nguyen Giap a month ago, got me thinking about winners and losers in civil wars.  What we Americans call the “Vietnam War” divided not just a nation, but also families and communities, and the scars from those divisions remain even though the country was reunified nearly 40 years ago.  One of the challenges in reunion after a civil war is figuring out how the nation will remember the winners and the losers.  This is easier in the aftermath of a war between nations; the enemy often serves as an “other” against which a nation can craft an identity aimed at uniting the citizenry.  But this is much more difficult to do in a civil war where individuals who share ethnic backgrounds, bloodlines, culture, history, and surnames end up on opposite sides of the battlefield.  In Vietnam, the solution seems to be to ignore South Vietnam and to emphasize the role of the U.S. in the war.  Casting the conflict as a fight between Vietnamese and Americans rather than as a civil war likely has had some sort of unifying effect, and the portrayal is not entirely untrue.  American men, money, and materiel were major components of the war and certainly prolonged it.  The U.S. made bad policy decisions, and the Vietnam War remains an example of the hubris and short-sightedness that has guided U.S. foreign policy at various points since 1945.

Yet this approach also means that the history of a significant portion of the Vietnamese population gets left out of the historical record.  South Vietnamese veterans and their families, Saigon civil servants, anticommunists, and antiwar activists are not part of the story here.  They were on the losing side, some would say the “wrong” side, of the war.  Should a nation acknowledge the losing side of its civil war?  The U.S. is still trying to figure out how to do this, and its civil war occurred 150 years ago.  The reasons for and consequences of Vietnam’s civil war are entirely different than the U.S. case, but both nations are still trying to reconstruct their national identities and shape the national memory of their respective civil wars.  In Vietnam, the silence on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Diem was a deafening indication of the absence of South Vietnam in the nation’s historical narrative.

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