Seth Jacobs has done an inimitable study on the American role in the rise of Diem in South Vietnam. The main question that the book deals with is why the United States selected such a deeply flawed leader like Ngo Dinh Diem and stood by him. Seth Jacobs tries to bring out the critical domestic pressure that is brought to bear on the American policymaker. Jacobs presents the culture of the United States of America, the foreign policy, and domestic considerations in a combination of thought-provoking arguments. Seth attributes the sudden acceptance of Diem in Washington to the religious revival of the 1950s. Seth Jacobs readily concedes that his book is completely American Centric. In addition, he communicates these things admirably too.
The support that America gave to the regime of Diem in South Vietnam has been the study material of many a writer. Seth Jacobs has done an inimitable study on the American role in the rise of Diem in South Vietnam. Beginning with the brutal manslaughter of Diem and his brother, the book deals with how President Eisenhower, Secretary of State and US foreign policymakers believed or were made to believe that Diem had qualities that made him the unique choice of the USA (Jacobs. p2). The main question that the book deals with is why the United States selected such a deeply flawed leader like Ngo Dinh Diem and stood by him.
For several years, Eisenhower’s administration stood by him and expected him to create a robust state. Other authors have asked the question previously. Nevertheless, Jacobs is drawing up the curtains on the in-house politics of Eisenhower’s administration (Book Review). The book tries to dispel the common notion of how the USA was trying to find a suitable answer to Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam under the pressure of the cold war (Maddux). In simple words, this book is not about Diem or his country. It is about American proclivities that made the Vietnam episode a tragic one, in America’s history (Maddux).
Seth Jacobs tries to bring out the critical domestic pressure that is brought to bear on the American policymaker. He reiterates the views of people like Alex De Tocqueville about the nexus between domestic politics and foreign policy. Seth goes beyond the usual repetitive trend. His virulent anti-communist attitude is not the only reason for the choice of a flawed Diem. The cultural analysis incorporated by Seth shows how the book “historicizes a connection between the domestic culture and the prevalent foreign policy” (Pg. 17). The common view of the cold war, between communism and democracy, has only played a partial role.
The undercurrent of religious and domestic politics has played a major role. Diem’s ‘non-oriental’ disposition and Catholicism were the two decisive factors that tilted the table in his favor. When weighing these factors against popular support and greater leadership qualities of others, the decision-makers thought that Diem was the right candidate to lead the fight against the red regime. This was due to the good vs. evil attitude prevalent at the time due to the existence of the cold war (Maddux).
Jacobs presents the culture of the United States of America, the foreign policy, and domestic considerations in a combination of thought-provoking arguments. Two factors of culture, mainly Racism and religious Chauvinism, shaped the foreign policy towards the country, Vietnam. Influential Congress Members interfered directly with Diem in order to keep him as the President. Senator Mansfield, Cardinal Spellman, and William O’ Douglas are but a few who moved the chips in favor of Diem. He argues that whatever was considered in the United States of America as viable in the Asian scenario was at fault. The actual conditions in Asia were very far from what was believed by the American policymaker and this proved catastrophic for the United States (Maddux).
He says that the ordinary American policymaker believed that a puppet Catholic was better than a non-Christian native was. Moreover, they believed that Asian’s were malleable naïf (Book Review). Racism played the role covertly. The policymakers believed that Vietnamese being so primitive and “childlike” needed someone stronger to decide for them.
Seth attributes the sudden acceptance of Diem in Washington to the religious revival of the 1950s. Even when Diem was to be deposed from his throne, the strong pressure from people like Senator Mansfield opposed it in favor of the dictator. The sudden revival helped Diem in that Catholicism was strongly opposed to the godless Communism. Therefore, religion was the strongest weapon against communism. Diem used this attitude of Washington to his advantage. This led to the ungodly partnership of Diem and Washington (Maddux). Seth Jacobs blames the US policymaker behind the critical failure of the World’s most powerful military because they “brought themselves”. Their very presence and bad direction lead to the classic failure (Jacobs. p4).
However, later in an answer to objections raised he concedes that the Cardinal and representative Zablocki were absent during the crucial meeting on 7 May 1953 (Maddux). The argument that the premiere’s regime was a puppet regime in the hands of the Eisenhower administration is refuted by Miller. He says that the evidence connected with the ousting of Diem and the incidents connected with his death proved that he was not at all a puppet in the hands of the US. He had often refuted the opinion of the US administrators and the ouster of Diem was indeed supported by the US. The Bao Dai and Dulles discussed Diem during their meeting cannot be proved by Jacobs, says Miller. Nevertheless, Miller concedes that there could have been an American link in the ascension of Diem. It might not have been sufficient to put Diem in power. He says that Diem himself had met and talked with the ex-monarch Bao Dai in France.
Another point of dispute for Miller is the glorification of Lawton Collins by Jacobs, saying that he was the only exception among the policymakers. He was the only one who went against religious bigotry. Miller provides that he was at least as evil as others were. He uses the racist ideology to deploy his arguments against Diem. Also says Miller, if some of the American policymakers were invoking backing for Diem, others were using the same method to go against the Vietnamese premiere. So often, Jacobs has faltered in carrying his ideas across.
Seth Jacobs readily concedes that his book is completely American Centric. All the main heroes, or villains, of the book, are Americans. Its sources are completely American. Moreover, Jacobs agrees that he could not read Vietnamese. But he argues that this is not a flaw while writing the book as he intended. What he wanted to write was about American Ideology at that time. About how it converted a baffling challenge that was geologically and politically complicated into a very simple equation, believing it would be solved so very easily. Jacobs is trying to present before us how the United States of America perceived or underestimated Diem and his country. America’s policies, especially the ones that are racist and religious ones caused Eisenhower and his administrators to conclude that Diem was their miracle man to prevent the spread of the red empire. The United States of America had deluded itself into failure (Maddux).
While analyzing the sources of Seth Jacobs we come across Government publications like intelligence reports, newspapers like New York Herald Tribune. They vary from Broadway musicals to American novels (Maddux). For him, such sources are a method to prove how the culture of those times influenced directly the foreign relations of those times and especially the Vietnam War. He has several papers and files as his primary sources because he thought that these cultural artifacts unfold how events unfold in the conditions of the 1950s.
In addition, he communicates these things admirably too. Even though much of what he states are attitudes, he is able to communicate across the pressures and the ‘why’s of things turning out as they did.
The author himself accepts the insufficiency of evidence and solid proof. While answering the criticism of the book by people like Johns and Miller, He says that often it is “hard to connect attitudes to evidence”. Nevertheless, the reader feels it convincing. It is a scholarly study to understand the assumption of an ineligible Diem and the undercurrents of domestic cultural undercurrents (Maddux).
Book Review. 2004. Web.
Jacobs, Seth. America’s miracle man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, religion, race, and U.S.. Durham: Duke University press. 2004.p1-10.
Maddux, Thomas.2007. America’s miracle man in Vietnam: roundtable review. 14. 2009. Web.