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.
Also in 1960, in an effort to present a united front, southern Communists formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the North Vietnamese government officially recognized and sanctioned. Immediately, the NLF began a program to both train and arm guerrilla soldiers. Over the course of the next few years, the terms “NLF” and “Viet Cong” began to be used interchangeably, and ultimately the once-derisive “Viet Cong” became common parlance that was used throughout the war, especially by the U.S. military.
Although the Ngo family was universally hated in South Vietnam, Diem, despite his Catholic faith and dictatorial tendencies, had been widely respected as a sincere nationalist in the years before he came to power. Indeed, he was in many respects just as nationalistic as Ho Chi Minh. It was for these reasons that the United States felt that Diem represented the best hope for a strong South Vietnamese government that could resist Communist influence.
As it turned out, Diem’s regime was undemocratic, corrupt, and extreme from the beginning, and, as evidenced by the formation of ARVN, dependent on U.S. strength. Though Diem was popular among Catholics and had some influence in South Vietnam’s cities, his regime was universally hated in rural areas, which proved a perfect hiding and training ground for Communist forces. And in a nation as undeveloped as Vietnam was at the time, power in the cities meant far less than it would have in a developed country.
Indeed, though the United States established Diem as leader to halt Communist expansion, his repressive techniques, corrupt government, and inept public relations—such as his decision to grant his hated sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, a public stage—had the opposite effect. Under Diem, the number of active southern Communists increased dramatically. To the United States, operating under the domino theory, this Communist expansion posed a massive threat.