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Vietnam: Cauldron of resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam.


Cauldron of resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam


Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 276. Maps, Plates,

Notes, Bibliography, Index.

Around the turn of this century, historians, mainly American, rediscovered the first non-communist Vietnamese leader with whom the United States worked to prevent the establishment of a communist state in a unified Vietnam. But scholars such as Philip Catton, Seth Jacobs, and Mark Moyar tackled the historical experience, influence and impact of Ngo Dinh Diem and his government by placing it in the same familiar context: the apparently permanent internal American arguments--hand-wringing, soul-searching?--over the wisdom, justification, and effects of American intervention in Vietnam. I wrote in a review of an earlier study that the typical take-away from reading yet another book on the 'Vietnam War' by an American author is to learn at least as much about where they stand on the old domestic arguments about what happened then, and the bitter controversies about legacies for and applications to now, as about the historical experience of the war itself. In other words, it all too often winds up being either condemnation or defence of American intervention in Vietnam in order to opine on how the United States should formulate strategic foreign policy today. Jessica Chapman does not get us beyond this tired discourse. Her conclusion eventually focuses on it, and the subtitle of her book indicates where her line of argument takes the reader. However. This book is worth reading, not just because it is an intelligent and energetic scholarly analysis, but because it does add some things to what we know about what happened in Vietnam during the Cold War.

Chapman argues that the United States government did not do enough at the time to learn just how complicated the politics of southern Vietnam were, that this omission was then reflected in 'American-centred' scholarship, and that this leaves a gap which needs to be addressed. She is right, and tries to correct this. Diligent archival work in France and Vietnam adds something to the familiar strip-mining of NARA RG59 documents--spiced with CIA material--that does allow us, for at least part of the book, to look more closely and critically at something too often brushed off glibly. Chapman posits that the southernmost regions of Vietnam were politically fractious, volatile and contested for a generation before the onset of the French war, and by turning her attention to the local political forces that contended for dominance between the start of that war, and Hanoi's formation of the National Liberation Front in 1960, she will shed light on how and why a hyperopic American Cold War focus turned an already difficult problem into an explosive confrontation. Four principals emerge: Ngo Dinh Diem and the regime he built from 1954, and the two politico-religious organisations, the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai, and one organised crime organisation, the Binh Xuyen, he smashed in order to do so. Chapman argues that these groups all had genuine agency, strength and ambitions in regional and thus national politics, and that Ngo Dinh Diem shaped his policies more to destroy them, and eliminate all local rivals to his government building project, than to block communist efforts, directed from Hanoi, to terminate the administration of southern Vietnam and unify the country under their rule. It is a persuasive thesis, and Chapman's account of the roots, growth, nature and behaviour of these organisations makes some important points.

The thesis does not quite complete the task she sets, however, due partly to the limitations of available sources. Despite Chapman's efforts to keep the sub-state organisations as much in focus as possible, the sources steer her strongly into a more detailed evaluation of how and why Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother formulated the policies they did, and--especially--why the American government concluded that Ngo represented their only viable local partner in a Cold War challenge. This exposes an awkward aspect of any such study. Granted that the State Department and its men on the spot may well have too hastily dismissed these organisations as feudal warlord gangs Diem should pulverise. Also granted that this aborted any effort to try to build a broader more inclusive government and state in Saigon, with serious consequences, although Chapman argues that Diem did not want to do that in any case. The core problem remains: how could this have been done in a way that produced a viable administration able to defeat the challenge that sooner or later was going to emanate from Hanoi? It is at least as likely that building a coalition including at least the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai in any such government would have made it too weak to endure even to 1963. Identifying them as genuinely rooted local political forces is one thing; suggesting that the abstract formula of 'building a broad based inclusive administration as a basis for unity' could have worked at this time, in this place, is quite another.

There is no doubt that Diem ran roughshod over all opposition and built far too narrow an administration, and that case is made again here; but the question of what else might have worked is something that Chapman herself acknowledges cannot really be answered. Indeed, the driving force to the thesis ultimately becomes to condemn Diem, and thus American policy--thereby joining the argument noted at the start of this review--by trying to explain the zig and zags of local politics on the ground after 1955. This leads to mixed results. On the one hand Ho Chi Minh is allowed the dignity of being communist and nationalist at the same time; Diem, on the other hand, is rebuked for trying both to contain communism and build his own administration. And again, that seems to stem from stale 'made in America' arguments. But in the end Chapman does put across one crucial point. These sub-state organisations understandably focused on their own survival, reacted to the course of events and made choices accordingly, and those choices, when examined, do tell us important things about the politics that shaped the failed effort to preserve a non-communist state in Vietnam. Chapman does not quite escape 'American-centred' analysis, but at least she directs our critical attention to things Vietnamese that we should indeed have been paying more attention to all along.


National University of Singapore

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Author:Farrell, Brian P.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2019
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