I got to know Ngo Dinh Diem shortly after he came to Vietnam, returned to it in 1954 as the appointed Prime Minister for Emperor Bao Dai. And I became very close to him in sort of an accidental way and was never his official advisor. We became very close friends, and I'd give him advice on many many subjects with considerable guidance and discussions beforehand with U.S. officials, I might add.
But I had never heard of Diem before I went to Vietnam and he wasn't there when I was serving there in the earlier parts of '54. But word came that this man was coming in as Prime Minister and I recall our Ambassador at the time asking me what I knew about him. I told him I'd never heard of him and he said he knew practically nothing about him, he'd just had a few brief notes on his biography.
And I went off to find out about him from Vietnamese I knew. A number of them knew a great deal about him and they either liked him fully and no holds barred, a hundred percent for him or a hundred percent against him. He was a man of controversy. Those who were for him said that he was a very honest person, very acceptable to them as being a person of intensely high morality.
Those who didn't like him said he's stupid. So they wouldn't fault him for anything other than they felt he didn't know enough. They felt that he wouldn't be corrupt, that he wouldn't condone graft, that he was a stickler, morally. But they all knew him. There wasn't a person that I talked to that didn't know a great deal about him.
And (cough) they also told me that he had been an administrator in the provinces before and had made a name for himself by the very strict but very thorough administration of problems for the Vietnamese who then had a court at Hue
. He was due in at the airport, Tan Son Nhut Airport
one day and I was invited as part of the diplomatic group to go out and receive him.
As I started out towards the airport the streets were just lined with mobs of people and I got a sudden impulse to go off to the side and watch his arrival from the streets among the people rather than out with the diplomatic crowd out at the airport. So I pulled in and I parked my car and got out and stood with the mobs on the sidewalks.
And we waited and waited and waited for something to happen and nothing did and his flight apparently had been delayed and the diplomatic reception out at the airport took a long time, but all of a sudden down the street we could hear a noise of motorcycles coming and everybody said "he's coming." So they were hoisting kids up on their shoulders, and everybody crowding up to see him, I along with them, and suddenly past us at about sixty miles an hour came a motorcycle escort and a closed car. You couldn't see anybody in it.
And it went by and everybody started asking, "Was that him?" "Did he come in?" And tremendous disappointment at not seeing him. Here was a tremendously enthusiastic, friendly crowd of people who didn't get to see the show that they wanted to, or to cheer the man. I felt that this had been a terrible mistake on somebody's part, of letting a man come in at a very dark hour in his country's history, and doing it in a sort of secretively and very security-minded, as though he didn't want to get close to the people at all, and stay away.
So I went down afterwards to our embassy and talked to the Ambassador and also talked to the chief of MAAG, General O'Daniel
, and told them that I felt he had made a tremendous mistake and if somebody was advising him about the people, why to make that sort of mistake, he must be making mistakes on other things.
And I had been traveling all over the country talking with all sorts of Vietnamese and I knew what they wanted to see this man do, and if our American officials wouldn't mind I'd like to write down some very short notes in outline for this man and go up and give them to him. They told me that they wanted to see what I was going to say first so I went to work and stayed up all night writing a very short paper, four or five pages, of notions on economics, on administration out in the countryside, of agricultural needs and some reforms that could be made, and all of the things that the Vietnamese had been telling me of what they wanted this man to do.
So I showed it to our officials, they told me go ahead, that I couldn't do as an official US document, but if I wanted to present it on my own, and make sure that he knew it was on my own, go ahead with it. I didn't speak French so I got the head of USIA, the US Information Agency, George Hellyer to come along with me and act as an interpreter for me.
So we went over to the Government Palace where the Prime Minister was and the building was almost deserted, there were a few people wandering around in the halls, but I couldn't see anything that said "The Prime Minister's Office" or any guards on the door to ask questions of. But one person hurrying along, I stopped and asked for the Prime Minister and he said, "He's upstairs."
So we climbed up stairs and there was nobody in the hall up there but there was a door ajar and I stuck my head in and there was a small-statured roly-poly person sitting there and the first thing I noticed was that his feet weren't touching the floor when he was sitting and he was pulled up at a table, and I asked him where the Prime Minister's office was, and he said that he was the Prime Minister. This was the way I met Diem.
And I told him about being with the crowds, watching his arrival, and I felt that some advisor of his was making a terrible mistake of keeping him away from the people, and that I had had the good fortune of being able to travel around the country and talk to a lot of Vietnamese and I'd put together some notes on my own that more or less said in outline what the people expected of him, and would he mind if I gave them to him.
And I explained I was doing this strictly on my own, as an American who had done this unofficially. So he took the paper and then he was reading and I said, well, I brought my friend here, with me George Hellyer who can read it to you in French and translate it. So George reached over and took this document and he held it like this to read it and then he held it way on out and George said "I forgot my glasses, see, and I can't see the typing on this thing." So Diem took off his glasses and put them on George and George then read it.
And this was the start of a relationship that brought me in to see a part of him that I have never heard from anybody else, of a friendship that showed a character who was extremely different from journalists' views, from diplomatic views, of the man. I saw a family man, because I was invited to dine at times with the family, in which he wasn't the oldest brother and he wasn't the boss of the country or anything, he was just one of the members of the family who you'd reach over if you wanted to grab a piece of food across his place and so on.
A man with a delightful sense of humor. Here had been pictured all along as a remote mandarin type and he had a delightful wit. His humor was so dry that you'd have to look at him sometimes to catch whether he was pulling your leg or being sort of stupid about something, and I'd catch that little glint in his eye and...
Which reminds me, the man had a tremendous look of intelligence and spark of life in his eyes, they were the most important part of his features. There was always a sparkle and little gleam there and he'd catch the humor and so forth when he'd find something very funny and was holding himself in and sort of laughing inside at something. To an otherwise sort of roly-poly type of a person this distinguished him from others of the same stature and in any walk of life.