President Ngo Dinh Diem: Address to US Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ngo Dinh Diem had been president of South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) for two years at the time of this speech. During the previous year, 1956, an election was to have been held to unify the nation—North and South—under one government, and virtually everyone expected the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, to win that electoral contest. In line with US wishes, the election was cancelled, and communist leaders in the North therefore began agitating for change in the South. Since the United States had been the main supporter of South Vietnam, President Diem went to the US Congress to seek America's continued support. He knew that without the help of the United States, he would not stay in power, and most likely, the government of the North would take control of all of Vietnam. Using terms that he expected would resonate with members of Congress, Diem sought to cement the relationship between the two countries and solidify his position as an anticommunist leader in postcolonial Indochina.

Summary Overview

Ngo Dinh Diem had been president of South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam) for two years at the time of this speech. During the previous year, 1956, an election was to have been held to unify the nation—North and South—under one government, and virtually everyone expected the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, to win that electoral contest. In line with US wishes, the election was cancelled, and communist leaders in the North therefore began agitating for change in the South. Since the United States had been the main supporter of South Vietnam, President Diem went to the US Congress to seek America's continued support. He knew that without the help of the United States, he would not stay in power, and most likely, the government of the North would take control of all of Vietnam. Using terms that he expected would resonate with members of Congress, Diem sought to cement the relationship between the two countries and solidify his position as an anticommunist leader in postcolonial Indochina.

Defining Moment

With the defeat of French forces by a communist-commanded army in 1954, negotiations led to the Geneva Accords of that year. The accords established a timeline for the withdrawal of French forces, temporarily divided of the country into two sections (North and South), and set elections for 1956 to bring about a united government at the national level. The French were able to install Emperor Bao Dai, with whom they had worked for decades, in the South, leaving the communists their stronghold in the North. When Diem challenged Bao Dai for power in the South in 1955, he was untainted by cooperation with the French and was also able to steer the election process and control the press. Winning the premiership with over 98 percent of the vote, and consequently refusing to hold the 1956 unification election, Diem had tested the limits of the political system and was in need of outside support. Viewing Vietnam as a strategic location in which to stop communist expansion, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to support Diem by sending a small number of military advisers and significant amounts of financial aid. In order for this aid to continue, the US Congress would need to authorize funding for it. Thus, it was vital that Diem's speech before a joint session of Congress be well received.

Diem was not seeking active participation by American military forces, despite the fact that various small uprisings against his regime were then taking place in South Vietnam. While some of these uprisings were communist-inspired, most were the result of local disenchantment with Diem's policies. They did not present a unified front, as was essentially the case in later years. Knowing his American audience, however, Diem sought to garner support by presenting Vietnam as a focal point for US anticommunist efforts. He depicted his administration as similar to that of any Western democracy and as holding the same values as the United States. While a realistic examination of Diem's government and its activities would not uphold such claims, it was nevertheless clear that the South Vietnamese president was willing to confront the communists opposing him. For most members of Congress, that was enough. During the 1950s, few US allies were asked to document their efforts to uphold human rights. Diem sold his regime to Congress as staunchly anticommunist—a proven method of gaining American support.

Author Biography

Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) was born into a Catholic family that was part of the nobility in north-central Vietnam. Completing his education in 1921, he was appointed a provincial governor. In 1933, he served briefly as minister of the interior for the Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, within a figurehead government installed by the French. During World War II, Diem participated in efforts toward independence. He rejected an offer from the French to participate in a postwar government and also rejected an offer from Ho Chi Minh. In 1954, he was appointed prime minister by the emperor (who ruled only South Vietnam). The two had disputes and Diem organized an election in 1955 designed to allow people to choose between himself and the emperor. Under questionable conditions, Diem won the election and named himself president. He ruled until November 1963, when he was killed during a coup that overthrew his government.

Historical Document

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, distinguished Members of the Congress of the United States, it is a rare privilege for me to have this opportunity to address you today.

To address you in the Halls of this Congress—where there has been forged the destiny of one of the great countries of the world.

I am proud to bring to the distinguished representatives of the noble Republic of the United States—the fraternal best wishes of the Vietnamese people. I bring as well the expression of their profound gratitude for the moral and material aid given by the people of the United States. My people appreciate both its great import and its profound significance.

Since the end of the last war, when Asia broke her chains, the conscience of the world has at last awakened to a profound and inevitable development, the birth of Asian independence. This realization has brought about a condemnation in the most concrete terms of the old system of exploitation which governed, in the past, the relationship between East and West. In its place firm efforts are being made to establish a new formula of international cooperation, more adapted to the real needs of the world and to the new Asian philosophy. It is the battle for independence, the growing awareness of the colonial peoples that the origin of their poverty has been the systematic withholding of technical development, coupled with the growing nationalist and social sentiment, that have combined to bring about a profound transformation in the Asian state of mind and given to its masses an irresistible dynamism.

The Asian people—long humiliated in their national aspirations, their human dignity injured—are no longer, as in the past, resigned and passive. They are impatient. They are eager to reduce their immense technical backwardness. They clamor for a rapid and immediate economic development, the only sound base for democratic political independence.

The leaders of Asia—whatever their ideologies—are all faced with the tragic urgency of the economic and social problems of their countries. Under the strong pressure of their peoples, they are compelled to adopt economic planning. Such planning is bound to cause serious political repercussions. It is for this reason that the main theme of domestic political debates in Asian countries centers around the extent of planning indispensable method required to bring urgent practical results. Should everything be planned? Or should planning be restricted to essential sectors? Should democratic or should ruthless totalitarian methods be adopted?

It is in this debate—unfortunately influenced in many countries by the false but seductive promises of fascism and communism—that the efforts being made to safeguard liberal democracy through aid given by the industrial countries of the West, play a vital role. For the honor of humanity, the United States has made the most important contribution to this end.

These, gentlemen of the Congress, in outline and general summary, are some of the problems facing the countries of Asia. These are the goals to be realized and the methods proposed. These are also the internal pressures and temptations facing Asian leaders.

In the great Asian land mass, Vietnam finds itself in the most sensitive area. Although Vietnam faces the same general problems of other Asian countries, because of her sensitive geopolitical position her problems are greatly intensified.

Placed at one of the strategic points of access for the important raw materials of Southeast Asia, the possession of which is decisive in the world, held back in her development by 100 years of foreign domination, exhausted by 15 years of war and destruction, the northern half of her territory given to the Communists, free Vietnam is in a more menaced and critical position than other Asian countries.

At great human sacrifice—and thanks to the aid given by the generous American people—free Vietnam has succeeded, in record time, to overcome the chaos brought about by war and the Geneva accords. The national rehabilitation and stability which have been achieved, have permitted the integration of over 860,000 refugees into the economy of the other 11 million people in free Vietnam, and have permitted the adoption of important economic and political reforms.

Nevertheless, at the time all Asia is passing from one civilization to another, at the moment when all the important problems come up at once to the leaders and seem to call for immediate solution, at a time when all must be done in a climate of increasing revolutionary tension, it has become necessary for Vietnam, more than for other countries, to adopt a certain number of principles, guide lines for action, not only to protect her from the totalitarian temptations but, above all, to assist her to attain independence instead of anarchy—to safeguard peace without sacrificing independence—to attain economic progress without sacrificing essential human liberties.

It was for these reasons—basing myself on fundamental sources of Asiatic culture, and within our own Vietnamese democratic tradition - that I had the honor to define this doctrine in the message of April 17, 1956, delivered to the National Constituent Assembly of Vietnam. I take the liberty of citing from it the most significant passages, for they constitute the basis of our constitution. I quote:

In the face of the massive forces of material and political oppression which constantly menace us, we feel, more than other people—the essential need to base our political life on a solid foundation and—rigorously to hasten the successive steps of our actions along lines which, without hesitation, will bring about the largest measure of democratic progress.

This can only be spiritualist—that line followed by human beings in their intimate reality as in their community life—in their vocation as in the free pursuit of intellectual, moral and spiritual perfection.

We affirm, therefore, our faith in the absolute value of the human being—whose dignity antedates society and whose destiny is greater than time.

We affirm that the sole legitimate object of the state is to protect the fundamental rights of human beings to existence—to the free development of their intellectual, moral, and spiritual life.

We affirm that democracy is neither material happiness nor the supremacy of numbers. Democracy is essentially a permanent effort to find the right political means in order to assure to all citizens the right of free development and of maximum initiative, responsibility, and spiritual life.

We are convinced that with these guiding principles as the central theme for the development of our political institutions, Vietnam will be able to make its political and economic regime—not a closed one—but an open system, broader with each passing day until it reaches the broad dimensions of man.

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, gentlemen of the Congress, the Republic of Vietnam, the youngest Republic in Asia, soon will be two years old. Our Republic was born among great suffering. She is courageously facing up to economic competition with the Communists, despite heavy and difficult conditions, which become daily more complex. Vietnam nevertheless has good reason for confidence and hope. Her people are intelligent, have imagination and courage. They also draw strength from the moral and material aid they receive from the free world, particularly that given by the American people.

In the face of increased international tension and Communist pressure in Southeast Asia, I could not repeat too often how much the Vietnamese people are grateful for American aid, and how much they are conscious of its importance, profound significance, and amount.

In actual fact, at any other moment of history, the conflicts between peoples have never been posed in such immediate terms of civilization as they are today. It is by having made timely contributions in sufficient quantities for the rehabilitation of our economic and technical life, which permitted a higher standard of living, that the free world, under the leadership of the United States, is assuring the success of the new system of international cooperation. This action has contributed to the defense of Southeast Asia and prevented the raw materials of this area from falling into Communist hands.

Although our economy has suffered greatly from war, destruction and colonialism, the people of Vietnam are now increasing their contribution to their country. A few months ago the National Assembly voted new and higher taxes to bring in needed revenues for the national budget. A national conscription ordinance was recently promulgated, and a comprehensive declaration of policy was issued two months ago for the purpose of encouraging foreign private investment.

It is on this high moral plane that we pay tribute to the generous and unselfish assistance we have received from the people of the United States. It is on the same plane that the interests of Vietnam are identical with the interests of the people of the free world. It is on this plane that your and our fight are one and the same. We too will continue to fight Communism.

It is in this conviction and in the ardent and always present remembrance of the strong sympathetic comprehension with which the American people and Government have followed our efforts, that I close, thanking you once again, Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, and gentlemen of the Congress, for the honor you have bestowed on me and for your kind attention.

Glossary

extent of planning: reference to the competition between communist, centrally planned economies/countries and capitalist, free-enterprise economies/countries

free Vietnam: South Vietnam, i.e., the Republic of Vietnam

Document Analysis

When the communists took control of the Chinese mainland in 1949, Western nations were confronted with the possibility that communism might spread even further across the continent. Even though some communist organizations, such as those in Vietnam, predated the communist Chinese victory, this victory symbolized new possibilities for communism. With this as the background, Diem focuses his comments on Asia as well as on Vietnam. He wants support for his country, and in order to obtain it, he emphasizes the key role that Vietnam might play in Asia. He depicts the new Vietnamese republic as a twin of the United States, slightly different in external features, but the same at heart. Diem hoped to communicate that South Vietnam and the United States share a mutual desire to stop communism, noting the superiority of the democratic system, which he claims the two countries also share.

Diem states correctly that Asia is different from other parts of the world. However, like leaders of other emerging countries around the world, he blames all his country's economic and social ills upon the colonial system. This is the first reason he gives to support the idea that the United States should help South Vietnam; economic support would assist the country to overcome a variety of problems. Moving on to a topic of more direct concern to the United States, Diem discusses the idea of a planned economy—a codeword for communism. For Diem, extensive economic planning is bad and symptomatic of a totalitarian state. A freer economy, close to capitalism, Diem claims, meant that the country was a democracy. This latter description, Diem asserts, described South Vietnam and was exactly what America wanted. Thanking Congress for previous economic aid, while claiming to be very similar to the United States, Diem recognizes that South Vietnam has adopted “guide lines for action,” which he asserts were to “safeguard peace without sacrificing independence.” He states that the people of South Vietnam have “good reason for confidence and hope.” Diem is implying that it would not take long for South Vietnam to be stable and prosperous.

He closes with the reason for his speech, namely, the receiving of American foreign aid. Having cut ties with France, the United States was now the closest ally of South Vietnam. Diem makes reference to what support has been given to South Vietnam since 1954, going on to outline the benefits the United States had reaped from this. Economic stability in South Vietnam, keeping communists from making economic or political gains, and a strong partner among the nations of the “free world” are the past benefits. However, Diem notes that the struggle is not yet over, and he therefore states that his government needed “timely contributions” to continue the struggle. Having “identical” interests with the United States, Diem proposes that the two nations fight together against communism. He refers to South Vietnam's contribution to the cause, implying that the Americans would need to continue its support if it wanted to defeat the communists.

Essential Themes

In this speech, Diem reiterates a common theme of the time, that communism must be stopped and that Vietnam is the key location in which to accomplish this. While he may not have envisioned the military campaign growing as large as it would a decade later, he understood that the rivalry between the countries of North and South Vietnam encompassed all aspects of life. Diem reinforces the position that many American leaders held, namely, that keeping South Vietnam strong and independent remains vital to the United States' interests. Although keeping foreign aid flowing to South Vietnam was the reason for Diem's visit to Washington, the theme of stopping communism in Vietnam was the most important aspect of the speech. This is where the interests of the United States and South Vietnam were seen to be most closely aligned.

Related to this theme is the fact that, at the time, South Vietnam could continue to exist only with assistance from the United States. While Diem does not state this directly, it is clear in his speech that only American assistance has made it possible for South Vietnam to become stable. Having been established by the French to thwart the communists, the country had little reason to exist separately from the North. The earlier political turmoil between Diem and Bao Dai added to the instability, as did Diem's assistance of his fellow Catholics in Vietnam at the expense of the Buddhist majority. American aid would give Diem the ability to survive.

The speech Diem had given to the Vietnamese assembly in 1956, quoted in the present speech, was basically a listing of the values that had guided the founders of the United States and other Western democracies. This is how he wanted the world to see South Vietnam and himself as its leader. However, as it was pointed out by some of his critics, here was Diem proclaiming the values of the American founders even while he had managed to take office by receiving almost 400,000 more votes than there were registered voters in all of South Vietnam. This lack of integrity eventually cost him the support of many in Congress and earned him many enemies in Vietnam. Nevertheless, with this speech he carried the day and succeeded in receiving continued American support for the government of South Vietnam.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • 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. Print.
  • “The United States and Ngo Dinh Diem, 1954–1963.” The Vietnam Era. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1999. Web.
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