Ngo Dinh Diem was born in Vietnam in 1901. His ancestors had been converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries in the 17th Century. Diem, like previous generations of his family, was educated in French Catholic schools. After he graduated he was trained as an administrator for the French authorities in Vietnam. At the age of twenty-five he became a provincial governor.
During the French-Indochina War, Diem left Vietnam for the United States. While there he met influential Catholics like John F. Kennedy. He told them that he opposed both communism and French colonialism and argued that he would make a good leader of Vietnam if the French decided to withdraw.
When the Geneva conference took place in 1954, the United States delegation proposed Diem's name as the new ruler of South Vietnam. The French argued against this claiming that Diem was "not only incapable but mad". However, eventually it was decided that Diem presented the best opportunity to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism.
Once in power, the Americans discovered that Diem was unwilling to be a 'puppet' ruler. He constantly rejected their advice and made decisions that upset the South Vietnamese people. Several attempts were made to overthrow Diem but although the Americans were unhappy with his performance as president, they felt they had no choice but to support him.
In October, 1955, the South Vietnamese people were asked to choose between Bo Dai, the former Emperor of Vietnam, and Diem for the leadership of the country. Colonel Edward Lansdale suggested that Diem should provide two ballot papers, red for Diem and green for Bao Dai. Lansdale hoped that the Vietnamese belief that red signified good luck whilst green indicated bad fortune, would help influence the result.
When the voters arrived at the polling stations they found Diem's supporters in attendance. One voter complained afterwards: "They told us to put the red ballot into envelopes and to throw the green ones into the wastebasket. A few people, faithful to Bao Dai, disobeyed. As soon as they left, the agents went after them, and roughed them up... They beat one of my relatives to pulp."
After the election Diem informed his American advisers that he had achieved 98.2 per cent of the vote. They warned him that these figures would not be believed and suggested that he published a figure of around 70 per cent. Diem refused and as the Americans predicted, the election undermined his authority.
The North Vietnamese government reminded Diem that a General Election for the whole of the country was due in July, 1956. Diem refused to accept this and instead began arresting his opponents. In a short period of time, approximately 100,000 people were put in prison camps. Communists and socialists were his main targets but journalists, trade-unionists and leaders of religious groups were also arrested. Even children found writing anti-Diem messages on walls were put in prison.
When it became clear that Diem had no intention of holding elections for a united Vietnam, his political opponents began to consider alternative ways of obtaining their objectives. Some came to the conclusion that violence was the only way to persuade Diem to agree to the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conference. The year following the cancelled elections saw a large increase in the number of people leaving their homes to form armed groups in the forests of Vietnam. At first they were not in a position to take on the South Vietnamese Army and instead concentrated on what became known as 'soft targets'. In 1959, an estimated 1,200 of Diem's government officials were murdered.
Roman Catholics made up only just over 10% of the population in South Vietnam. As a reward for adopting the religion of their French masters. Catholics had always held a privileged position in Vietnam. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and most of the officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics.
The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism. Surveys carried out in the 1960s suggest that around 70% of the population were followers of Buddha. The French, aware of the potential threat of Buddhism to their authority, passed laws to discourage its growth.
After the French left Vietnam the Catholics managed to hold onto their power in the country. Deim was a devout Catholic and tended to appoint people to positions of authority who shared his religious beliefs. This angered Buddhists, especially when the new government refused to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws passed by the French.
On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2527th birthday of the Buddha. Attempts were made by the police to disperse the crowds by opening fire on them. One woman and eight children were killed in their attempts to flee from the police.
The Buddhists were furious and began a series of demonstrations against the Diem government. In an attempt to let the world know how strongly they felt about the South Vietnamese government, it was decided to ask for volunteers to commit suicide.
On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Due, a sixty-six year old monk, sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon road. He was then surrounded by a group of Buddhist monks and nuns who poured petrol over his head and then set fire to him. One eyewitness later commented: "As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." While Thich Quang Due was burning to death, the monks and nuns gave out leaflets calling for Diem's government to show "charity and compassion " to all religions.
The government's response to this suicide was to arrest thousands of Buddhist monks. Many disappeared and were never seen again. By August another five monks had committed suicide by setting fire to themselves. One member of the South Vietnamese government responded to these self-immolations by telling a newspaper reporter: "Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands." Another offered to supply Buddhists who wanted to commit suicide with the necessary petrol.
These events convinced President John F. Kennedy that Diem would never be able to unite the South Vietnamese against communism. Several attempts had already been made to overthrow Diem but Kennedy had always instructed the CIA and the US military forces in Vietnam to protect him. In order to obtain a more popular leader of South Vietnam, Kennedy agreed that the role of the CIA should change. Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem.
At the beginning of November, 1963, President Diem was overthrown by a military coup. After the generals had promised Diem that he would be allowed to leave the country they changed their mind and killed him. He was replaced by Nguyen Van Thieu, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of South Vietnam.