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Ngo Dinh Diem, First President of South Vietnam

Ngo Dinh Diem was born on January 3rd in 1901 in Hue, Vietnam as the son of a minister. His family was Roman Catholic and his father was a counselor to the Vietnamese emperor. Diem went to the School of Law and Administration in Hanoi and graduated in 1921. That same year, he was made governor of the Phan-Thiet province, which led to his increase in popularity since he made land reforms and helped the poor. In 1933, Diem was chosen to be the interior minister by Emperor Bao Dai for the Commission for Administrative Reforms. However, he learned the position was powerless, so he resigned. This caused his reputation as a nationalist to grow. Once he left his position, he went into seclusion for the next ten years. While the Japanese were in Vietnam during World War II, Diem was offered invitations to serve as premier, or the leader. However, he refused and tried to convince the Japanese to let Vietnam have their independence from the French.

In September 1945, Diem traveled to Hue to stop Bao Dai from joining forces with Ho Chi Minh. Along the way, he was kidnapped by Viet Minh agents and taken to see Ho Chi Minh after six months. While there, Ho Chi Minh offered Diem a position in his government, but Diem refused. After being kidnapped and almost killed, Diem traveled the United States. In 1953, he left for Belgium and returned to Vietnam in 1954 since he was called upon by Bao Dai. Once there, Bao Dai appointed him as prime minister and Diem accepted. Since Bao Dai tried to remove him from office, Diem put together an election for the Vietnamese to choose between them. Diem declared himself President of the Republic of Vietnam on October 26, 1956. At first, Diem was a good president by building new schools and helping the economy. However, the number of people who didn’t like him grew. Since Diem was a Catholic, he didn’t agree with the Buddhists so they became oppressed since he ignored them. While President, Diem threw many political opponents into prison camps where they were tortured and killed. By 1959, over half the country was against him.

Diem’s reign was short lived since the country was made up of mostly Buddhists. The uprisings grew and became more frequent and Buddhists were soon lighting themselves on fire in protest. In August of 1963, the Americans realized they could not back Diem anymore since he was an ineffective leader. There was a coup set up to overthrown him but Diem learned about it. Diem and his brother fled to Cho Lon through a tunnel. After spending a day in the tunnel, they agreed to surrender to the generals. The generals said they would have a safe passage out of the country; but, on their way to get out of the country, they were discovered by troops who were commanded by a foe of Diem. Because of this, Diem and his brother were assassinated in the rear of a personnel carrier.

Research by Kelsey Leonard
Cosby High School
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum


Head, William. “Ngo Dinh Diem.” United States at War: Understanding Conflict and Society. 2008. ABC-CLIO. 29 Apr. 2008

“Ngo Dinh Diem.” Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.

“Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam, 1954--1963.” The Cold War, 1945-1991. 3 vols. Edited by Benjamin Frankel. Gale Research, 1992.

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