Ngô Đình Diệm was born on January 3, 1901 in Quảng Bình, French Indochina. He was a mandarin of the Nguyễn dynasty during the 1920s until his resignation in the 1930s due to disagreements with Emperor Bảo Đại, calling the emperor “nothing but an instrument in the hands of the French”. He then lived as a private citizen but formed secret alliances with the Japanese during the Second World War, persuading them to support Vietnam’s independence from French colonialism. After the Japanese withdrawal from Vietnam, Hồ Chí Minh asked Ngô Đình Diệm to join him in the fight against the French. Ngô Đình Diệm refused to join the communists because they had previously murdered his brother Ngô Đình Khôi. In 1954 Bảo Đại named him Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam. Through electoral fraud, a heavily rigged referendum and a successful smear campaign against Head of State Bảo Đại, Ngô Đình Diệm became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955. He established the Personalist Revolution Party of Vietnam, simply known as Cần Lao. It was a combination of Western and Asian values, with an emphasis on Catholicism and Confucianism, and giving special privileges to Catholics while being abusive towards Buddhists. The Buddhist crisis led to his and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu’s assassination on November 2, 1963 by Captain Nguyễn Văn Nhung. The coup d’état was a joint effort between Vietnamese generals and the American government.
Aside from being a dictator under the guise of a kind, religious man, he deserves credit for modernizing South Vietnam with improvements to the economy and the educational system, stabilizing it in spite of his dislike of the Geneva Accords, helping to relocate refugees fleeing from the north into the south with American aid, and allowing citizens more freedom than the communists in the north. (Citizens who fled the south to enter the north received little to no assistance from the communist government.)
South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm in Washington on May 8, 1957
Photo credit: Department of Defense. Department of the Air Force. NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-342-AF-18302USAF (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ngo_Dinh_Diem_-_Thumbnail_-_ARC_542189.png)