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Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam

 by Edward Miller, Harvard University Press, 2013

On Nov. 2, 1963, the president of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother and closest adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were assassinated during a coup staged by the leading generals of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Historians to this day debate the degree of American complicity. In the months before the coup, the ARVN generals had confided their intentions to various representatives of the U.S. government in Saigon. Many of those generals believed that the Kennedy administration not only approved of the overthrow of Diem, but actually encouraged it. Regardless, the overthrow and murder of the Ngo brothers was the tipping point of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. From that moment on, the United States owned the war, and America started its long, slow slide down the slippery slope to hell.

In his book Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, Edward Miller examines the stormy political career of Diem, from his 1954 appointment as prime minister under Emperor Bao Dai until that final day when the Ngo brothers were loaded into an ARVN M-113 armored personnel carrier with their hands tied behind their backs. Miller’s analysis mainly focuses on the political and cultural disconnects between Diem’s government and the United States, as the two parties spent almost nine years continually talking past each other on such vital issues as nation-building, counterinsurgency and democracy.

Over the last 50 years there have been several different approaches to analyzing the ill-fated U.S.-Diem alliance. One interpretation depicts it as the product of American Cold War geostrategic calculus. Another approach defines it as purely a function of U.S. economic objectives. Yet a third approach focuses on American ideological and cultural currents of the period. The problem with all of these approaches is that they are American-centric. Through a thorough and methodical examination of all the available U.S. and Vietnamese sources, Miller comes to the conclusion that none of these models provides a satisfactory answer.

As Miller writes, “…both the rise and the fall of the U.S.-Diem relationship turned on the agency of particular American and Vietnamese individuals.” And while many of the key turning points were triggered by decisions made in Washington, many of the most consequential actions were undertaken by Vietnamese leaders. “Insofar as there is blame to be assigned in these pages,” says the author, “it will fall upon the heads of American and Vietnamese leaders alike.” The powerful Nhu and his flamboyant and erratic wife, Madame Nhu, were in the front rank of those key players in Saigon. Thus, Miller presents a far more nuanced, shades-of-gray but more plausible analysis than the simplistic explanations that have held sway for so long.

While it is now clear that both allies were culturally and politically tone-deaf during the Vietnam War, recent history seems to indicate that the United States hasn’t learned much from the experience. Change a few of the names around, and almost identical scenarios of cultural blindness and misunderstandings about nation-building and counterinsurgency have played out in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10 years.

Professor Miller tackles a complex historical question, and one that is very relevant to the present. He takes the time to lay the groundwork necessary for the reader to develop a better understanding to the lingering question of what really happened in Vietnam…and why.


Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.