Interview with Ngo Dinh Luyen
Brother of Ngo Dinh Diem, Ngo Dinh Luyen was appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. Ngo Dinh Luyen recounts why Bao Dai chose Ngo Dinh Diem to be the first president of South Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Luyen describes the panic in South Vietnam around August 1954 due to the advancing Communist forces. He talks about United States politics in regards to Vietnam, and that while it was driven by good intentions, in the beginning, the United States did not do anything different from the French. Ngo Dinh Luyen also talks about the 1963 coup and that he does not know who was responsible but suggests that it may have been helped by the Americans.
Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Gangs, International development issues, Corruption, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d'etat, 1963, Prime ministers--Assassination, Generals, Refugees--Vietnam, Political corruption, Morale, Military training, United States--History--1945-, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, Vietnamese, United States--Politics and government, Vietnam--Politics and government
Bao Dai's selection of Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister
Ngo Dinh Luyen
Mr. Luyen, the first question is the issue of why Bao Dai chose your brother and how he chose him.
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Yes, to answer, there are several...One must remember several events in order to make the answer intelligible. Good. You have to know that Bao Dai needed someone with authority. Bao Dai no longer conferred authority, right. What Vietnam in that era needed, right, was someone with authority over Vietnam, over the Vietnamese people.
Well, the...in all the countries once colonized by the French, the French policy, (because France desired assimilation), started out with very liberal ideas, if you like, right, eh? But that resulted in this, which is that in no country dominated, protected, or colonized by France were there any personalities who came forth susceptible to...prepared, if you like, under circumstances which permitted that his influence could extend over...over his people, over the nation...over the country itself. Right. Their own country. So as a result, right, it's the situation at the time [inaudible].
One of the reasons why Bao Dai chose my brother is that my brother came from exceptional circumstances. This meant that very young, right, at thirty-two, he was known in Vietnam on a national scale. An extremely favorable situation because he was known by one of the commissions [inaudible], right, because he'd obtained a very important position in Vietnam. And it's this fact, right, along with the fact that my family was always very established, if you like; my father had already resigned because they'd dethroned Emperor Thanh Thai, right.
And, if you like, after that, one of his sons – still very young and already having achieved, if you like, the peak of his career – resigned after six months, right. That's it. It's this circumstance which determined that my brother's authority was discovered suddenly, if you like, and his influence was created suddenly on a national scale, if you like. All the Vietnamese were quite struck with this extraordinary situation, right: a young man who had renounced everything. And so, that's what made Bao Dai, right, chose to put him back in Vietnam, which he didn't want to come back to.
He left...he left for Europe in '52, '53, right, and he didn't want to come back to Vietnam. Right. So he didn't want either to leave all of his potential interests: his throne, his dynasty, and everything, right? As a result, he would have wished to have an advantageous replacement. Right. Good. He could have named anyone else, but nobody else would have had the authority to do anything, because the little authority they would have had...[inaudible.] Bao Dai hadn't any more; he'd lost all authority. So, it's this that made, if you like, right, Bao Dai chose my brother. To replace him, right. And to hold the place for him in some way.
Because I am, I was in the middle of Bao Dai's maneuvers. Because in fact he had not only chosen my brother, right, but because he had resigned right at the beginning of Bao Dai's effective reign in Vietnam. Relations, he knew, weren't very good between himself and my brother. Right? So it was necessary that someone was a go-between to find because I had been sent to France when I was only twelve, right, and by chance I had...The person who took care of me in France was also his tutor, the person who took care of him, who took care of Bao Dai, who directed, if you like, his studies, his life. It was the old tutor General Charles, right, from Indochina. Good.
Which made that, good, because he was nine months older than I, at twelve years, you see it's an age where in spite of everything one's still relaxed, very young, completely direct. And so, we spent several years like that together during vacations, and this made pretty strong ties between him and me, right. And so it's this childhood friendship that determined his coming to me to try to make my brother, if you like, accept. And so...to...the...position of Prime Minister, and to replace him in Vietnam.
Cut. It's too long.
We're asking why Bao Dai chose your brother and how he chose him.
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Bao Dai chose my brother because he found that my brother, not only because of his personal merit perhaps, but also because of circumstances which meant that he'd become known, right, on a national level. While no other personality in Vietnam had had that luck. So.
And my brother...because my brother, who was called to the highest ranks of Vietnamese government at the age of only thirty-two, right, had resigned after six months, right, which was....good. Now, Bao Dai made his choice, but when things were really arranged, if you like, contact was made between him and Bao Dai in '53 and '54, right. Bao Dai used me, right, because we had been children together in France, and we'd spent several holidays together because his tutor was also mine. He took care of me, too.
So it was through me that Bao Dai sought to take up contact with my brother again, because the resignation of my brother had created somewhat strained relations between them. And it was this way that things were arranged, right, at the end of '53, beginning of '54.
Chaos in Saigon
We won't cut anytime.
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Are you going to ask the question again? No?
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
The easiest way to tell you about the situation in Vietnam is perhaps to tell you my impressions of the first time I cam back to Vietnam, right. It was the end of August 1954. Therefore, one and a half months after my brother had come back to power I arrived in Saigon to find that my brother couldn't count on his civil administration because everybody was so panicked, completely convinced that the end was near, that the advance, the conquest of the Communists would be soon.
So that the administrators had no intention of working, and everybody tried to figure out how they were going to escape from this hornet's nest. From the military perspective it was very simple: the army was under orders from a general of French nationality who was in open rebellion. The first night I spent in Saigon in his palace, and this was a common occurrence, but the first time I'd heard it...The whole night, command cars and machine-gun carriers and army, armored cars drove around the palace of the government at the same time with megaphones as well as on the army radio station broadcasting a campaign, and all the anti-government slogans.
So the army was rebelling openly, not only openly but ostentatiously, you see, good. What am I saying? We didn't have a penny. The treasury was empty and several months later when France reopened the exchange office – that's to say, foreign exchange – the foreign currency belonging to countries, the balance sheet wasn't just zero, it wasn't even positive because there was a hole of several billion francs in foreign currency from the French administration...
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
And it was at this moment too that the refugees were being rehabilitated – I mean reinstalled; because we didn't have guaranteed security to install them in virgin territory. So at the same time, in the Saigon-Cholon region, about 100,000 refugees were being temporarily put in uninhabited areas further out, but still in the Saigon suburbs.
And all these people were there...Then they couldn't work, they didn't have land to cultivate, and so it was this mixture of people searching among themselves to try to find their friends, which made such a confusion, which certainly didn't help the morale, if you lie, of Saigon's citizens. Everybody was in this kind of anarchy, fear, worry, and naturally with the army's open rebellion, all these radios, these megaphones everywhere in the city that the army, critics of the army, opposition to the arm, to the head of the government – none of this helped the situation.
General Hinh's rebellion
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Here's a fairly amusing example, or several: I remember when my brother was giving a reception for the new ICC following the Geneva agreement. And General Hinh, the rebel general, was invited. And at the moment when he was introduced I still remember the Indian General's face when they said, "My dear general, let me introduce our rebel general." It's Hinh. It's fairly funny, right. Surprising, but at the same time noting out of the ordinary because everybody knew it. It's just that I made the introduction.
I'll give another example that will show not only the chaos but the difficulty my brother had to find a way not to worsen the disorder. Because before the rebellion of their commander, the chef d'état, Major General Hinh, the Vietnamese officers under his command started a rebellion against him. And I remember that there was a battalion which left for the underground, proclaiming that they were rebelling not against their commander, but to support their government. Well, it's a strange thing.
So my brother had to ask me, because it was an officer I knew personally from when he came to officers' school in France – at that time, he was called Commander Huynh. So, knowing me, my brother said, "Go to his hideout and tell him to surrender to Hinh," because he had to give an example. Since it wasn't the superiors giving an example to their subordinates, but the subordinates who had to make an example for their general to surrender.
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
So my brother told me that I absolutely had to go, "first, because you have the time and I don't, and then second, you know him and somebody has to go." So I went to find the Commander Huynh. It was epic, because he couldn't understand – and I can see why – how the President for whom, because of whom, in support of whom, he'd rebelled. And it was this president who was now asking him to surrender! But you can see things weren't so simple.
In any case, that gave an idea, if you like, of the absolutely universal conviction that Vietnam was lost. He could even say that my own "vennu" [incomprehensible] who everyone knew how much of a patriot and anti-communist, and all that one would want, and so even he thought it was lost. And so it was when he learned that my brother had accepted Bao Dai's offer of the delegation, with full civilian power, to come back to the country.
My brother had written, right, that Confucian belief, right, from a younger brother to an older brother; wrote him in very harsh terms that that was the last thing to do. Since his convictions not only all the people of Vietnam but all the governments involved – whether the French government, the American government, etc. were absolutely convinced, and I think even that it's thanks to these general convictions that things were, couldn't get any worse. It's thanks to this that my brother was able to turn the situation around.
Bay Vien: mobster and Minister of the Interior
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
So on one side we had the army that was in open rebellion, and on the other side the police were in the hands of pirates. It's very simple, the Binh Xuyen, right. So the Binh Xuyen then had made a whole district of brothels, in the Saigon area. It's really extravagant.
I still can't understand why Bao Dai put up with the Binh Xuyen and gave them the city police, not only that – first the French government, and then the American government not only wouldn't let us do anything to take police rights away from these Binh Xuyen pirates, but to the contrary, we gave their head, Bay Vien, the post of Minister of the Interior. It's incredible. It's as if in the US somebody asked the White House to name Al Capone chief of all the police, even Minister of the Interior, then gave his lieutenants the responsibility for order and security not just in Chicago but in every American city. It's on that order.
And still, these things were accomplished not just through discussion, but in writing. Well, I remember one day my brother really enjoyed getting advice from different people on all kinds of issues. So he was...I was in his office, and he was talking about relationships when all of a sudden he said to me, "You've go to go, because I have to meet with the Good Sisters." I didn't understand. I know well, he's a charitable man, he's a good Christian, but after all, receiving nuns, that's completely unheard of. And I asked him why. He said, "No, it's France's High Commissioner, General Ely, the US Ambassador General Collins.
I said, why did you call them the Good Sisters? "Well, it's obvious. All they do, both of them, is push Bay Vien for Minister of the Interior. And to show that they're completely in agreement, the French and Americans not only write me identical texts – one in French, one in English – but they come afterward to give me verbal confirmation, not one after the other, but together, like our nuns, who never go out except in Paris; and that's astonishing, but I call them the Good Sisters." That's the situation, see, it's funny – politics in Vietnam.
Luyen comments on American aid
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Politics in the US has changed, has evolved with the changing opinions of the US concerning the viability of Vietnam and my brother's regime. In the beginning, like everybody, the Americans thought that the situation in Vietnam had no future; it was over. And as a result relations with the Vietnamese government, although driven by good intentions.
The US, as we've seen, followed exactly the same political route as France, see, the story of the Good Sisters. And American aid consisted for the most part of humanitarian assistance – a kind of remorse, of sympathy, saying, "these poor people, we can't do anything for them." Finally, it was unfortunate.
The situation was too bad and it explains why, see, that only the French had a certain political way. They didn't want to disturb this politics because they saw no future in doing things differently. Following the defeat, the crushing of the religious sects, everyone who participated in this kind of tribalism organized by the French system, at that point the defeat was already resounding.
The US had begun to charge their point of view without even saying maybe, and that there was a little big hope, and in conditions like that maybe we could help, and actually we had helped by commercial aid in having missions of experts for our administrations, the police, administrative organizations for the country. So they would send by Michigan State, which we gratefully accepted, lots of experts. Finally from a military point of view...
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
And then success naturally accentuated American collaboration, more and more aid – administrative, military, and lots of advisors, more and more experts came to Vietnam. The hard part was not so much in the commonly-held point of view – everybody wanted to extricate Vietnam, to assist them against communist control. Only the difficulty for an aide, in fact, that American saw more the...from the military point of view, they saw primarily the importance of ornaments, the way to use them, while for the Vietnamese, we concentrated more on what could motivate the person using the rifle.
Naturally we were absolutely persuaded the Americans were right to teach our men how to use their weapons, but when this use of weapons resulted in battle formations and combat methods that had less and less rapport with the conditions of guerrilla war, then that started the first difficulties, the first disagreements.
From another side, from the civil point of view, from the citizen's standpoint, the Americans thought that the best way to build the people's morale was to bring...was to make as they said, a window, like a store window, thousands of enormous purchases and better stocked, much more seductive, and the people would have reasons, many reasons to want to live. So do what we do. It was sort of to give people really not a death wish, but the desire to risk their lives, and that was the price if they wanted to free the country from communism.
It was in this way that [inaudible]...As always, it was given that it was necessary to have a justification for the American aide, and that the Americans saw the justification in employing the heads of the counterparts in commercial aide, which is to say currency which brought a return, they didn't let this currency go, they didn't release the goods until they themselves were persuaded. So it was necessary that all our programs, any action involved a bigger and bigger proportion, if you wish, of what the Americans thought was indispensable.
And it was this, I think, this was the [incomprehensible] of success, as much because one mis-estimated the importance, one ignored the possible efficiency. We had much freer hands on the day when hope came to the Americans that the future wasn't so black. From that moment the Americans became increasingly interested; they applied their own visions, if you like, as to how to regain the country, how to regain opinion. And the examples, if you like, it's for example...
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
No, no examples, because that...
Communication between North and South during the war
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Yes, but finally we had some contacts with the communist authorities in the north. Naturally, we kept it a secret so as not to have a detrimental effect on the morale of our troops because who wanted to be the last one killed, right, before an armistice. And if we had tried to advertise it, naturally no one would have wanted to fight. So nobody would've been able to fight with the same spirit.
But it is very clear that when one wages war, it's because on seeks peace, and when one wages war to obtain peace, it's necessary that at all times during that war one have the best contacts, I mean, the most certain contacts with the enemy. That's the way to be because a war, like a peace is the result of what? Of dissatisfaction or of satisfaction, more or less acceptable, of desiderata on each side.
It's necessary to have these contacts so that on one side as in the other, one understands better what level the other considers reasonable. It's only in this way that one can arrive at a peace. I don't understand how people could have the illusion that two armies or two coalitions of armies could fight, while refusing any contact with their adversary, without wanting war for war's sake, because that's the only way to be in a war that never ends, to refuse to have contact with you adversary.
And of course we're talking not only about knowing but about not letting him know what are your reciprocal positions, one from another, and therefore, the politics of the two bodies to try to see at which moment an equilibrium of mutual satisfactions or of dissatisfactions might be obtained, and it's at this moment only that the peace process can start.
So what was the position of the North at this time?
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
I wasn't precisely tuned in to the progress, if you like, of the negotiators but it's perfect that these two sides had started already to estimate the position of the other, the others. The Communists were sure that the worm in our fruit was the Americans, and as a result they'd investigated [incomprehensible], but that's a declaration [incomprehensible], not only because without the Americans we would've been less strong, certainly they didn't forget that point.
But I think there was something real, if you like, in this kind of visceral fear, if you like, right. That a presence close to the friendship of the Americans with us could represent terrible things to them. And you had to try to make them understand the other side too, that what we feared were their methods and it was the effect that it could have on the life of our people and on the future of our nation that communism, with all its international applications from one side as from the other.
So there was a certain common way in, if you like, the search for a Vietnamization quite unlike that offered by Mr. Nixon, but in the sense of, little by little, the two sides, if foreign influence could have diminished without touching the resistance force.
Luyen blames the coup on America
Who was responsible for the coup?
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
It's not possible to give a name, first because I wasn't there, and even being there, it would've been very difficult to pick out individual responsibility. One thing's for sure, that's that everything that was done by means furnished by America and its government. And it's quite evident that if the real generals had had in themselves the strength, the capacity themselves without the real possibility of the US being implicated, they would have made much better figures afterwards, which is to say, if they'd had the power to overturn the government [incomprehensible] not a [incomprehensible] massacre.
There would have been at least a minimum of cohesion and power for what was to come. Except what did we see? We saw every mouth, one general after another rise and fall like puppets, right, good. It's the proof that there was no autonomy, if you like. The Americans who were the source of the coup, of force, of the execution, because if they were capable of making...of overthrowing a government, they would at least have been capable of supporting it between them, because the primary force, it's cohesion, but if we're talking about just several generals.
But these generals have enough cohesion, a minimum to demolish a going government. And then they are unable to maintain the least cohesion. [incomprehensible] but to last in a government. I'm not talking about creating anything particular, but simply existing. In fact, they were incapable of blowing their own noses. Therefore, they had nothing.
Ngo Dinh Luyen describes his siblings
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
My family, family education. It's a mixture. My family, on the one hand, was attracted by the idea of social order, Confucianism – we were Confucian. At the same time, we were Catholics because we were drawn by this idea of justice, equality of everyone, if you like and it seemed a pretty astonishing mixture, but in fact it seemed pretty satisfactory to us, one counterbalancing the other. And it's in this atmosphere that we were raised.
My older brother Khoi and his only son were buried alive by the Communists in September, '45. Then my brother, Thuc, who later became bishop, archbishop, got the religious vocation very young. He left his family at about eight years old, to enter the little seminary and then he studied in Rome, etc. Good. He completely retreated from any political idea, he wouldn't let himself think about it. It's too bad, but that's the way it was. So he didn't play, participate in any role, if you like, right, in Vietnamese politics in the years '54 to '63 which absorbed the rest of the family.
My brother Diem, when he was very young, wanted to go into religion also, but that didn't last too long because he felt in himself some other thing, very strong, that prevented him from completely bending to a discipline, to the religious discipline. Because he had another kind of vocation, which was to secure his country. And it's pretty strong because my brother had an extremely acute sense of duty in relation to his country. But you know, the sense of duty is a little gratuitous. The kind [incomprehensible] needs to hope in order to undertake, and succeed in order to persevere, you see.
My brother was always someone extremely, how do I say, fixé, determined on this path of service for the country. And the fact that he had to leave not only the manderinship but all the vousvouyains, if you like, to be able...to follow his vocation of saving his country, meant that to come back to power, he stayed a kind of functionary, a servant of the people outside of the administration, a functionary placed in the administration and he had, and for him to return to power was a long-awaited event, to finally be able to do something.
So it's that which explains why he who felt very little, he lived the life of a hermit, but was nevertheless, how do I say, very up to date, very open, exactly to what was going on, if you like, in the hearts of the people. The reactions of the people, how they could act to this, how they'll act to that, and I think that that was an important factor which helped him a lot to be able to do what he did in the small amount of time he had to devote to the service of the people.
My brother Nhu also started to enter the seminary and wanted to be a priest. And he had...he fought extremely had to realize his vocation, but his ecclesiastical superiors always refused. That was how he came back into civilian life, if I can say, lay life. My brother Nhu was a very cultivated man, very intellectual in that sense, analytical, very profound. But he had, if you like, that kind of blasé feeling. Not cynicism, but a kind of, how do I put it, coarse feeling. We came through a certain number of things concerning people, and he was never astonished very much, he ever became indignant when he saw weaknesses or errors in people. And it served him badly. It wasn't good because he was less rigorous in the choice of people, while not expecting very much from people.
My brother Can was a great original in the sense that he always refused to study, which was really...it provoked indignation in the family. Nobody understood. But finally you know the obsession Vietnamese families have with education, instruction for their children. In a family like ours, where precisely these feelings were far from absent, well my brother Can, when [incomprehensible].
And so it's a fact also that as I'd lost my father at the age of eight, he helped a little bit, if you like, and as an older brother, was in the service of religious institutions. Really he had the reigns a little loose. Good.
Well, he was extremely original in this way; he developed a sort of instinct himself different from my brother Diem; but an instinct equally that made him understand people well, which is very curious, and certainly a heartbreak for him which is that he, who did so much for the Buddhists, knowing that there was there the possibility, a reservoir, that was susceptible, given their beliefs and given their feelings of seeing their beliefs threatened by the communists. So there was there a reservoir very likely to form resistance.
Ngo Dinh Luyen:
Yes, my brother Can was very, very close to the people. He instinctively knew how thinking evolves, men’s reactions, his own also, and he also really knew how to organize mass movements as a result of his intimate contact with the people. And I think that all his maneuvers which involved using the Buddhists as a means of pressure against my brother Diem’s government, that created a lot of heartbreak for him because he had done a lot for the Buddhists – he had helped them financially, but it was he and my brother Diem, the President, who did not cease from advising them, aiding them financially and advising their advisors to say to the Buddhist, "Try to do something to reorganize your religion."
Anyone can say now they are a Buddhist monk. It is sufficient to wear, to shave your skull and eyebrows and to wear a robe. How would you like it that in these situations you risk not only penetration by the Commmunists, but what is much more serious for us and for the religion would be that any crook could pass for a bonze and scandalize the population.
It is therefore necessary to try to organize a course of religious study, as we do, we the Catholics, so that one can enter the seminaries. Why not organize these sorts of exams and ordinations as we do for our priests?
And it is because of that that the Buddhists started this, because up until this point, even for the authentic Buddhists they did not all know that the pagodas were absolutely autonomous, separated one from the other, and everything that happened in one pagoda was not the practice for the neighboring pagoda. It was this which allowed Buddhism to restructure itself and to unfortunately become exactly the tool which the American political system used when they wanted to bring down the administration of my brother.
Enter the timecode: