Memo from Ambassador Durbrow to Diem

The year 1960 was a time of deteriorating conditions for South Vietnam and its president, Ngo Dinh Diem. It began with the first major successful attacks by the Viet Cong, or communist forces in the south, as they took control of extensive parts of the Mekong Delta. Although the South Vietnamese army eventually took back the territory, throughout that year, the Viet Cong would capture areas and then fade away rather than take large casualties. Publically, Diem gave optimistic reports of successful operations, generally with altered casualty reports.

Summary Overview

The year 1960 was a time of deteriorating conditions for South Vietnam and its president, Ngo Dinh Diem. It began with the first major successful attacks by the Viet Cong, or communist forces in the south, as they took control of extensive parts of the Mekong Delta. Although the South Vietnamese army eventually took back the territory, throughout that year, the Viet Cong would capture areas and then fade away rather than take large casualties. Publically, Diem gave optimistic reports of successful operations, generally with altered casualty reports.

Much of the non-communist population of South Vietnam was losing faith in Diem. In September, Durbrow had reported that this had created a two-fold threat against Diem, one communist and the other non-communists. As early as April 1960, Durbrow had asked permission to confront Diem regarding his treatment of the South Vietnamese people. Finally, in October, Durbrow was given permission to confront Diem with a series of suggestions that he and the Eisenhower administration hoped would create a better government, help unify the country, and strengthen its fight against the communists. Essentially, Durbrow was reminding Diem that, in 1954, Eisenhower had promised to support him (Diem) only if he worked to create a democracy in South Vietnam.

Defining Moment

Even though the Viet Cong did not organize nationally until December 1960, since the beginning of the year, regional groups had begun successfully pressing a guerilla-style military campaign against Diem’s government. At that time, the Viet Cong never had more than 15,000 soldiers, compared to the South Vietnamese army of almost 150,000 regular and 100,000 reserve troops. Given this disparity, the Viet Cong were doing much better than would have been expected. Diem tried to reorganize his forces, including establishing his own commando units. However, officers were still appointed based on political rather than military considerations.

Similarly, Diem’s administration was composed of relatives, friends, and allies, without regard to their skills in running a government. Domestically, Diem failed to understand the needs of the people. In trying to control rural areas, Diem alienated many people by forcing them to construct and move to “agrovilles”—hastily organized villages—with no compensation. This was supposed to be a means of protecting them, but in reality, it was primarily intended as a way to more effectively control the people. The operation proved so unpopular that Diem eventually was forced to discontinue it. Watching events unfold, President Eisenhower stated in May 1960 that Diem was “blind” to the needs of the people of South Vietnam. American aid was neither helping the general population nor being effectively used to combat the communists.

As the official witnessing this ongoing catastrophe, Ambassador Durbrow was greatly concerned. A career foreign service diplomat, he understood that criticizing the domestic policy of another country placed him on shaky ground. However, his concern for the people, as well as his desire not to waste American resources, drove him to request permission to confront Diem regarding the situation in South Vietnam. In mid-September, he requested permission to have a “frank and friendly” discussion with Diem regarding changes that needed to be made. The document reprinted here is the official message that Durbrow delivered to Diem. After this discussion, Durbrow reported to the State Department that Diem had listened intently, but made very few comments. Indeed, it seems that this initial confrontation caused alienation between the Diem regime and the United States. A few days later, in a meeting with Durbrow and visiting diplomats, Durbrow mentioned the “snide” comments that Diem had made on some of these issues. When some junior offices attempted a coup in November, Diem falsely accused Durbrow of supporting them. As a result of Durbrow’s presenting his list of issues to Diem, what had been a close relationship came to an end.

Author Biography

Elbridge Durbrow (1903–1997) was a career diplomat serving from 1930 to 1968. He was born in San Francisco, California, and earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale University. He had further studies at five schools, two in the United States (Stanford University, University of Chicago), two in France, and one in the Netherlands. From 1930 until 1941, he served in Europe. From 1941 until 1946, he was in Washington in the Eastern European division. He then spent two years in Moscow and two years at the National War College before being posted to Italy. In March 1957, he was appointed ambassador to Vietnam, serving until April 1961. He then was appointed to serve with NATO, followed by a return to the National War College. After retirement, he served as chairman of the American Foreign Policy Institute and other organizations.

Historical Document

Mr. President, in your struggle for survival against the Viet Cong, you have taken many wise steps with respect to the security forces of the Government, and I understand that you are in the process of setting up a national Internal Security Council and a centralized intelligence agency as important and necessary additional steps toward giving effective guidance to and making maximum use of the security forces. We have recognized the increased security threat to your Government and the additional needs of your security forces. We have shown this recognition by the comprehensive program for training, equipping and arming the Civil Guard which I have just explained, by our furnishing special forces personnel needs of ARVN for the war against the guerrillas.

Our serious concern about the present situation is based, however, not only on the security threat posed by the Viet Cong, but also on what to us seems to be a decline in the popular political support of your Government brought on in part, of course, by Viet Cong intimidation. As your friend and supporter, Mr. President, I would like to have a frank and friendly talk with you on what seems to be the serious political situation confronting your Government. While I am aware that the matters I am raising deal primarily with internal affairs and, therefore, in ordinary circumstances would be no concern of mine, I would like with your permission and indulgence to talk to you frankly as a friend and try to be as helpful as I can by giving you the considered judgment of myself and some of my friends and your friends in Washington on what we hope would be appropriate measures to assist you in this present crucial situation.

I believe that your speech to the National Assembly on October 3, in which you stated that your Government has decided to reorganize certain of its institutions and to rationalize and simplify its working methods, indicates that we may be thinking to some extent at least along the same lines.

I would like particularly to stress the desirability of actions to broaden and increase your popular support prior to the 1961 Presidential elections. It would seem to me that some sort of a psychological shock effect would be helpful in order to take the initiative from the Communist propagandists as well as the non-Communist oppositionists, and to convince the population that your Government is taking effective political as well as security measures to deal with the present situation. It would appear that, unless fully effective steps are taken to reverse the present adverse political trend, your Government will face an increasingly difficult internal security situation. It is our carefully considered view that small or gradual moves are not adequate. To attain the desired effect, moves, major in scope and with extensive popular appeal, should be taken at once. Specific actions which we would suggest are as follows:

(1) We suggest that you consider Cabinet changes as a necessary part of the effective moves needed to build up popular interest and support. One Cabinet change that we believe would be helpful would be the appointment of a full-time Minister of National Defense in order to permit you to devote your attention to developing over-all policies. To achieve maximum benefit it is suggested that you issue firm directives to assure that there is adherence to channels of command both up and down and that firm action be taken to eliminate any feeling that favoritism and political considerations enter into the promotion and assignment of personnel in the armed forces. Removal of this latter feeling is of great importance if the morale of the armed forces is not to be adversely affected during their mortal struggle against the Viet Cong.

We suggest that one or two members of the non-Communist opposition be given Cabinet posts in order to demonstrate to the people your desire for the establishment of national unity in the fight against the Viet Cong, and to weaken the criticisms of the opposition which have attracted considerable attention both in Saigon and abroad.

(2) In rationalizing and simplifying the Government’s methods of work, we suggest you seek to find new methods to encourage your Cabinet Members to assume more responsibility rather than frequently submitting relatively minor matters to the Presidency for decision, thus allowing you more time to deal with basic policy matters; that the new national Internal Security Council be so constituted as to be the top level policy-making institution by having it meet frequently under your chairmanship for full discussion of all the major problems confronting the Government and proposed solutions thereto; and that the Government be operated as much as possible through well defined channels of authority from you in direct line to the department and agency heads properly concerned. Under this system Cabinet Ministers and agency heads can be held fully responsible for the operation of their departments and agencies, because of the full authority you have bestowed upon them. If a Cabinet Minister cannot fulfill his responsibilities under this system, we would then suggest that you replace him.

(3) We would suggest that you consider altering the nature of the Can Lao Party from its present secret character to that of a normal political party which operates publicly, or even consider disbanding it. If the first alternative is adopted, various methods of convincing the population that the action has been taken might be used, such as party publication of a list of its members. The purpose of this action would be to eliminate the atmosphere of secrecy and fear and reduce the public suspicion of favoritism and corruption, which the Can Lao Party’s secret status has fostered according to many reports we have heard in and out of the Government.

(4) We suggest that the National Assembly be authorized to investigate any department or agency of the Government. The Assembly should be authorized to conduct its investigations through public hearings and to publish the findings. This investigative authority for the Assembly would have a three-fold purpose: (a) to find some mechanism for dispelling through public investigation the persistent rumors about the Government and its personalities; (b) to provide the people with an avenue of recourse against arbitrary actions by certain Government officials; and (c) to assuage some of the non-Communist opposition to the Government.

We further suggest that the National Assembly be asked to establish requirements for the behavior of public servants.

We also suggest that the National Assembly be encouraged to take wider legislative initiative through the introduction of bills sponsored by individual Deputies or groups of Deputies, as well as to broaden area of public debate on all bills, whether Government-sponsored or introduced on a Deputy’s initiative.

(5) We suggest that you issue a warning that you may require every public official to make a declaration, for possible publication, listing his property and sources of income.

(6) We suggest that you announce that, if the press will take a responsible role in policing itself, the controls exercised over it by the Government would be reduced. In this connection you might wish to consider the appointment of a committee, including representatives of the press and some members of the opposition, to draft a press code which the press would police. Within the framework of such a code the press could be a means of disseminating facts in order to reduce rumor-mongering against the Government, malicious or not, much of which stems from lack of information.

Providing timely and more ample information would also help to reduce anti-Government rumors. Means to accomplish this include freer access for the press to responsible members of the Government, and frequent public statements from the Presidency and fireside chats, transmitted to the people by radio, sound film, tape recordings, and through the press. The more these media are encouraged to reach the provinces, the more effective will they be in bringing the people closer to your Government by providing a means of transmitting ideas from one to the other.

(7) We would like to suggest that you liberalize arrangements for Vietnamese wishing to study abroad, and for this purpose make more foreign exchange available.

We also suggest that you ease restrictions on the entry into and departure from Viet-Nam of Vietnamese nationals, in order to encourage Vietnamese well trained abroad to return and make their contribution to the development of their country.

(8) We suggest that you consider some appropriate means by which villagers could elect at least some of their own officials. Such elections at the village level would be a means of associating the population with the Government and of eliminating arbitrary actions by local government officials by demonstrating to them that they will periodically be judged at the polls.

(9) We suggest prompt adoption of the following measures for the enhancement of the Government’s support in rural areas:

a. Take action which will result in an increase in the price which peasants actually will receive for paddy before the new harvest.

b. Liberalize the terms of credit extended to the small rice farmers.

c. Continue to expand expenditures for agricultural development and diversification, particularly in the Mekong Delta area.

d. Institute a system of modest Government payment for all community development labor whether on agrovilles or on other Government projects.

e. Institute a system of limited subsidies to the inhabitants of agrovilles during the period of their readjustment. While the two situations are not completely comparable, the subsidies helped to bridge the period of adjustment for the settlers in the High Plateau. This should help to develop a favorable popular attitude toward the agrovilles by covering some of the expenses incurred in moving to and getting settled in the agrovilles.

f. Give appropriate and adequate compensation to the 2800 village health workers. These workers can serve as an important arm of the Government in establishing friendly relations with villagers.

g. Increase compensation paid to the Self Guard Youth.

(10) We suggest that as many of the steps recommended above as possible be announced dramatically to the public in your message to the people on October 26. We would envisage this message as a ringing effort to obtain the support of all non-Communist elements for your Government and to create national unity to win the fight against the Viet Cong.


agrovilles: villages created by the government and on which people were forced to live

ARVN: Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam)

Can Lao Party: political party created by Diem

Mekong Delta: major rice-producing district in southern Vietnam

Saigon: capital of South Vietnam, now Ho Chi Minh City

Viet Cong: South Vietnamese communist opponents of the government

Document Analysis

Ever since Ngo Dinh Diem gained power in 1954, the United States had supported his leadership in South Vietnam. Durbrow begins by reminding Diem that the United States is responsible for providing his military strength. Then Durbrow talks about the failure of the Diem government to be truly open and at least somewhat democratic. His suggestions are an implicit criticism of Diem and his policies, but are presented as a means toward achieving the shared goal of stopping communist advances. Durbrow points out the need to have individuals in positions where they can do the most to help the people, rather than where they or Diem desire them to be. Durbrow discusses the agricultural policies of the South Vietnamese government, including the agroville policy that was widely despised by the rural population. Focusing on South Vietnamese domestic concerns rather than on anti-communist operations, Durbrow moves boldly into areas that the United States had previously been reticent to address. Durbrow believes that if Diem implements these suggestions, he will become a stronger leader and regain the support of the people in the battle against communism.

The containment of communism was the reason the United States was involved in Vietnam. It was a goal about which the government of South Vietnam and the United States were in complete agreement. In his presentation to Diem, however, Durbrow discusses this topic only passingly. His concern is that Diem is losing ground to the communists not just on the battlefield, but in the hearts of the people. By alienating the general population, Diem, says Durbrow, effectively encourages people to be receptive to communist leaders and their ideas. The ambassador points out several areas in which the government is not working effectively. He wants Diem to shuffle his cabinet to get rid of those who are not able to meet the demands of their offices and bring in others who can help key programs to succeed.

Related to creating a better government, Durbrow pushes for some basic democratic reforms. Allowing the newspapers some freedom is one suggestion. Having local leaders elected, rather than appointed by the central government, is an additional step. As a check on the possible abuse of power, he suggests that the legislature actually be given power, including the power to review the actions of the executive branch. Having those in government be open about their sources of income is one way Durbrow hopes to reduce corruption by those in office. While, if followed scrupulously, the suggestions that the ambassador makes would transform Diem’s government, Durbrow is not pushing for South Vietnam to become a full-blown Western democracy; rather, he seeks only to see some movement in that direction.

Point 9 in Durbrow’s memo represents an attempt to help Diem become more popular in the rural areas. This is where the Viet Cong made great inroads. When Diem first came to power, one of his earliest moves was to follow American advice to limit the rent that could be charged tenant farmers. The recommendations that Durbrow delivers to Diem include the idea of helping to improve the standard of living for farmers and others in rural areas. Fair wages for rural government workers, government assistance to those producing rice, and a futures system aimed at stabilizing crop prices are widely accepted ideas elsewhere. These types of policies would, according to Durbrow, increase rural support for Diem, making it harder for the communists to operate in those areas.

Essential Themes

Few people like to hear criticism and then begin working with their critic. At the same time, few people have the ability to raise criticisms with the president of a country. Ambassador Durbrow, however, does take on that responsibility. He believes that the only way communism can be stopped in South Vietnam is by transforming the government. He is not pushing for a change in leadership, but only a change in those around Diem and in some of Diem’s basic policies. Basically, he states that the Diem government is inept and fails to serve the people. He presses for more openness and basic democratic reforms. What seem to be obvious steps for Diem to take, however, are not understood in that way by Diem himself.

Unfortunately for the people of South Vietnam, Durbrow’s criticism of Diem’s government does not end up changing things. It is just the first of a number of confrontations between Diem and American officials regarding the South Vietnamese president’s domestic policies. Diem would not change, and his style of government would remain the norm through the short history of that country. In later years, a major criticism of American policy in Vietnam was that the United States was supporting an oppressive, non-democratic regime. Durbrow knows this and tries to institute change, but winds up merely alienating Diem.

Durbrow continued to press for changes in Diem’s domestic policies and forwarded various plans to the State Department until he was replaced in May 1961. Kennedy’s advisers told Durbrow that if his recommendations were implemented, it would weaken Diem’s government and the communists would take over South Vietnam. This, of course, was just the opposite of Durbrow’s own conclusion. Soon enough, Kennedy’s advisers pushed for a new ambassador. While Diem did stop the construction of agrovilles, he made only token progress on the other suggestions. Durbrow’s confrontation with Diem, authorized by Eisenhower, failed to bring about substantive changes or transform the situation in South Vietnam. It did, nonetheless, put the American government on record as opposing many of the weaknesses of the Diem regime.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • “Interview with Eldridge Durbrow, 1979.” Open Vault. WGBH Educational Foundation, 2015. Web. <>.
  • Jacobs, Seth.Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of America’s War in Vietnam, 1950–1963. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Print.
  • Ladenburg, Thomas. “Sink or Swim, with Ngo Dinh Diem.” Digital History. University of Houston, 2007. Web.
  • Miller, Edward.Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • US Department of State. “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, Vietnam, Volume I.” Office of the Historian. US Department of State, 2015. Web.