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Upon taking office, Ngo Dinh Diem quickly developed a reputation for using force rather than democratic means to initiate change. Beginning in 1955, he used ARVN troops to reverse Communist land redistribution in South Vietnam and return landholdings to the previous owners. Fearful of Viet Minh popularity and activity in rural areas—which had increased as a result of Diem’s cancellation of the scheduled 1956 elections—Diem uprooted villagers from their lands and moved them to settlements under government or army surveillance. He forcibly drafted many of these peasants into ARVN, increasing his unpopularity in rural areas even further.
Diem’s government was also unpopular because it had an overwhelming Catholic bias and contained several unpopular, key figures who were members of Diem’s own family, the Ngo family. Although Catholics made up less than a tenth of the Vietnamese population, Diem himself was Catholic, as were all his other family members in the government. Diem’s government engaged in often vicious persecution of Buddhists, who made up the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese citizens, particularly peasants. Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Thuc, the influential Catholic archbishop of Hue, in particular came into conflict with Buddhists.
Diem continued his nepotistic trend by installing his youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, as the leader of the government’s secret police organization, the Can Lao. Moreover, because Diem himself was not married, his sister-in-law, Nhu’s wildly unpopular, Francophile wife, Madame Nhu, became South Vietnam’s de facto first lady. In the years that followed, Madame Nhu would emerge as a notorious figure in Vietnam and on the world stage; arrogant, extravagant, and prone to nasty, on-the-record comments, she created one public relations disaster after another for the U.S.-backed Diem government.
In general, Diem’s repressive policies between 1955 and 1959, though designed to root out Communists from South Vietnam, actually increased sympathy for Communists in the South and swelled the ranks of the southern Viet Minh. Although the southern Viet Minh were anxious to revolt against Diem, Viet Minh leaders in the North held back their southern forces because they feared that the United States might get involved in the conflict.
In May 1959, Diem passed Law 10/59 , establishing military tribunals to search out Communists in South Vietnam, whom he derisively referred to as Viet Cong. These tribunals were unconcerned with justice, and Law 10/59 was brutal in its application.
In 1960, a group of Vietnamese intellectuals issued the Caravelle Manifesto, which called for mild reforms to Diem’s corrupt regime. Diem, paranoid, unable to take criticism, and unwilling to negotiate, threw the reformers in jail and refused to diminish the power of his much-hated brother Nhu. A coup against Diem was attempted later that year but failed.
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