Republic of Vietnam

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The Republic of Vietnam (RVN) (1954-1975; commonly called South Vietnam (SVN)) is the political entity created by the Geneva Accords of 1954 that partitioned French Indochina. The Republic of Vietnam ended in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.


This article needs a description of the political geography of South Vietnam.


While the government of the Republic of Vietnam could be characterized as republican, it was more definitively "anti-communistist." Despite being called a republic, the nation was initially led by an "emperor" (Bao Dai). Following the removable of the emperor, the nation was led by a Confucianist authoritarian Ngo Dinh Diem, who gave preference to a Catholic minority (of which he was a part). Following the assassination of Ngo, the government was led by a series of military governments. Widespread democratic institutions never evolved and there remained, regardless of the leadership, an endemic problem with government corruption. It is not clear, despite its name, that the national government ever gave sovereignty to its people.

History of the Government of South Vietnam

<this section needs a re-write>

Vietnamese (not necessarily South Vietnamese) and American goals were not always in concert. The principal U.S. goal was the global containment of Communism. There was a Vietnamese nationalist goal of interest both to the North and South; the issue was how this nationalism was to be implemented.

For the South Vietnamese approach to nationalism to prevail, or at least for South Vietnam to present a unified defense as did South Korea, there needed to be stable South Vietnamese government, with adequate legitimacy to the populace. Legitimacy, however, did not necessarily equate to U.S. ideas of democracy. While public American statements pushed the democratic ideal, these were often for U.S. domestic political ears and did not necessarily reflect the internal discussions of U.S. decisionmakers.

One of the challenges for South Vietnam was that a government seen as too much of a client of the United States would have trouble with its own legitimacy, but, at least in 1964-1965, needed U.S. military support if it was going to continue to exist. Another aspect of legitimacy, however, involved perception of the government as helpful to the people, which was incompatible with some leaders' desires for personal power and enrichment. Filipinos are not culturally Vietnamese and Vietnamese are not culturally Filipino, but large-scale elimination of corruption, as implemented in the Philippines by Ramon Magsaysay, with the assistance of Edward Lansdale, would almost certainly have improved the legitimacy and popular support of the Southern government. The Philippines, as it dealt with its Communist problem, was not also dealing with frequent internal coups and political crises.

The Diem period

Ngo Dinh Diem was a Vietnamese who, while he had worked as a civil servant in French Indochina, had strong credentials both as a nationalist and anti-communist. Indeed, he left Vietnam between 1950 and 1954, in part, due to credible Communist threats on his life. [1]. He also distrusted the Bao Dai proto-state relationship with France, although returned to become Premier in the last parts of the Bao Dai government.

Diem moved into control, first through appointment and balancing of power groups, then through a questionable election, but in a country where there was no tradition of national democratic elections.

While Diem was not a charismatic leader, charisma is not necessarily the first requisite for a Vietnamese leader. As with Ho Chi Minh, organizational ability is important, as well as a perception of moral authority. Since he was not a leader by national consensus, he had considerable conflict with South Vietnamese non-communist power blocs. He was a Catholic in a country with a Buddhist majority and a number of important sects. He was also from Central Vietnam (i.e., Annam), where the power blocs had tended to be northern or southern.

He directed the resettlement of refugees from the North in 1954-1955, including a land reform program. Land reform, and the later Strategic Hamlet Program, was run by his brother and closest adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu was especially conspiratorial, and, while charismatic in his way, also engendered enmity. Nhu directed a semisecret political movement, the Can Lao, and the broader "Blue Shirts" or National Revolutionary Movement.

Diem did want the support of well-to-do farmers and landowners, although he broke up some of the largest holdings, some French-owned. He never found an ideal balance between developing broad peasant support and keeping his landlord supporters; the traditional balance between the peasantry and the smaller landlords was, indeed, complex.

In 1955, he cracked down on the Binh Xuyen, which had some aspects of being a sect but was more of an organized crime syndicate. This was one of the aspects in which, without elegance, he tried to create something of a national identity. Under the French administration, the Montagnard tribal groups of the Central Highlands had been fairly autonomous; his land reform programs, to some extent, forcibly integrated Montagnards with lowland Vietnamese.

A year later, he ordered that approximately 1,000,000 Chinese-identified people of Vietnam, who dominated much of the economy, including half-million Vietnamese-born men known as "uncles", "Vietnamize", including changing their names to a Vietnamese form. [2] The order barred "foreigners", including Chinese, from 11 kinds of businesses. His vice-president, Nguyen Ngoc Tho, had the operational responsibility for the Chinese.

Diem faced constant coup plotting, and several attempted ones, until the one that removed and killed him in 1963.

Post-Diem struggles for power

After the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, a first military government, the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) lasted until January 1964; the military council, led by Duong Van Minh, oversaw a Provisional Government under Diem's Vice President, Nguyen Ngoc Tho. On January 29, 1964, Nguyen Khanh ousted Minh's MRC in a second military, but violence-free coup; Tho was allowed to retire.

"Big" Minh was bloodlessly overthrown by Nguyễn Khánh on January 31, 1964. Khanh, at first, presented his government as more aggressive against the VC. At the time his government fell, the American embassy applauded the takeover, believing Minh had been too weak against the VC. The Pentagon Papers quote Douglas Pike's puzzlement:

Had the NLF leadership wished to do so, it could have used its impressive struggle machine to launch in the name of the Buddha a nation-wide struggle movement that conceivably could have ended with its long-pursued General Uprising...Knowledgeable Vietnamese attributed its refusal to act an unwillingness to involve itself in an alien struggle movement. The NLF and the communists, ran the argument, avoid activities over which they do not exercise total control.... The Buddhist leadership made it clear it did not seek NLF help since it wished at all costs to avoid the Communist stigma. Another popular explanation for the NLF's "sit-tight" policy during the Buddhist troubles was that the NLF was going to allow the bourgeois revolutionary forces to succeed in toppling Diem, after which it would capture the Revolution as the Kerensky Government was captured in the Russian Revolution. ... A slanderous but widely bandied explanation among Vietnamese at the time was that the NLF did not want Diem removed, that he and his brothers and sister-in-law were far more valuable to the NLF in office than out. In truth, the NLF posture during this period remains something of a mystery.[3]

According to Robert McNamara, however, the Minh group had been following a strategy, but underestimated the insistence on the U.S. of having an anticommunist government. Minh described his group as noncommunist rather than anticommunist, which Minh described as an important distinction. They apparently sought incremental political improvements with the NLF, but this appears to have been the last chance, as coup after coup followed, of a neutralist solution.[4] McNamara saw Ho Chi Minh also in favor of a neutral solution.[5]

A coup against Khanh failed in early February 1964, but he left the country within a few weeks, with the Armed Forces Council back in charge. Just before Khanh left, the Council did set up a new civilian government headed by Phan Huy Quat. INR saw the Quat government as evidence of a temporary stability between the military and the Buddhist, but one that could be broken by a power play of factions on either side.[6]

In August, after a controversial call to "go north", Khanh removed Minh and assumed the presidency, resigning it two weeks later. Khanh, Minh and Tran Thien Khiem formed a triumvirate, althugh Khanh was reported "ill" a week later. Nguyen Xuan Oanh, an economist, was then named to run a subordinate civilian government, over Buddhist calls for all-civilian government.

High Legislative Council

Under Khanh, the start of a civilian government, called the High Legislative Council, started in September, with Pham Khac Suu as head of state and Tran Van Huong as Premier and head of government. This Buddhist-dominated government may have wanted a neutral Vietnam as a solution. [7] INR, however, did not believe this council would gain traction unless it was perceived as representative by both the populace and the military. Phan Quang Dan was ousted from the cabinet, and arrested, for suggesting more negotiation. A coup against the Council was attempted on September 13, 1964 but put down by Nguyen Cao Ky, Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) commander.

Khanh dissolved the council in December, in the face of new demonstrations, although he temporarily retained Suu and Huong, dismissing them in December. Khanh, according to INR, created a new tension with the Buddhists that Huong had not, and also may have been approaching Hanoi much as he had accused Minh. On January 27, 1965, Khanh took effective control of the government, removing Premier Tran Van Huong and replacing him with Oanh.

Oanh lasted a little more than two weeks, being replaced by Phan Huy Quat became Premier on February 15, replacing Oanh. Quat had been Minister of Education and Minister of Defense under Bao Dai, and was strongly affiliated with Buddhist political leader Tri Quang. Quat stayed in office until June 11, under protests from Catholics, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. There were also accusations that the military forced them out for entertaining a neutralist solution. [8]

While they stayed in office as "caretakers", power returned to the military on June 12, 1965. Air Force Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was named by Prime Minister by a military National Leadership Committee under Nguyen Van Thieu. Attractive to the U.S. leadership, he was able to obtain substantial American support. When they met at the February 1966 Honolulu Conference, Lyndon Johnson liked and encouraged Ky, who returned to Vietnam with a sense of increased U.S. backing. [9]

On January 15, 1966 Premier Ky announced, at the 2nd Armed Forces Congress in Saigon:

  • There will be a national constitutional referendum in October
  • General elections will be held in 1967

Ky's success in office came, in part, from being able to walk a delicate line between being able to work with the U.S., but also not to interfere with the powerful Corps commanders and province chiefs. Prior to the Honolulu meeting, it was understood he would resign in favor of an elected government, but deferred doing so.

Buddhist crisis of 1966

This triggered opposition, including from the Buddhist activist Tri Quang, who was allied with Gen. Nguyen Chanh Thi, II Corps tactical zone commander. In March, Ky fired Thi, triggering the Buddhist crisis of 1966.

The September 11, 1966 elections took place, with a 80.8 percent turnout. INR interpreted this not so much as support for the GVN, but more of the absence of a serious challenger to Ky, a situation that changed in 1967.[10]

Phan Khac Suu was elected Speaker of the GVN Constituent Assembly on October 26. The GVN Constituent Assembly approved, on December 23, the first three articles of the new constitution, providing for popularly-elected President, and a Prime Minister and Cabinet appointed by the President. The NLF failed to disrupt the national legislative election of 1966, or the presidential elections of 1967, which consolidated Thieu-ARVN control over the GVN.

Nguyen Van Thieu, a Catholic military officer, became president (in office 1967-75). He and Ky did not always have the same personal objectives, but could be effective as a team. Pike saw them as complementary: Ky ha the charisma, while Thieu projected an

"indifference to power. He gave the indications that he didn't care that much by threatening to resign constantly--which was a very good gambit, because you can't believe a guy is really trying to grab power if he keeps talking about quitting, offers to quit, has to be talked into not quitting...[Thieu had] considerable skills as an organizer. He was no Ho Chi

Minh but he did have many of the characteristics needed. Unfortunately he lacked vision. He was shortsighted in vision . He was also very flat in terms of charisma. He wasn't a person that engendered loyalty and great admiration.[11]

He forced Ky out of office at the wns October 1967, replacing him, successively, with Nguyen Van Loc, and then Tran Van Huong again, into 1969.

The Revolutionary Council, on September 26, named Phan Khac Suu as Chief of State, with Tran Van Huong, who had been mayor of Saigon, as Premier. Khanh retained control of the military.

Huong was Prime Minister until January 1965, although he later held the role in May–August 1969, and was President for one week before turning over to Duong Van Minh, who was head of state at the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

Military control returned, when President Phan Khac Suu ended Premier Phan Huy Quat's government. The Quat government was replaced, on June 17, 1965. by a National Leadership Council. The chairman of the Council was Nguyen Van Thieu, who also acted as Chief of State. Nguyen Cao Ky, vice-chairman of the Council, became Prime Minister on June 19.

More stability in 1967

Thieu held elections in 1967, which he won with Ky (as the Armed Forces Council) was formed after initially trying to ban Ky from an election;[12] internal U.S. documents emphasized the need to include opposition. Phan Quang Dan, Tran Van Huong, and Nguyen Luu Vien were specifically mentioned. [13] Thieu, however, failed to eliminate the systematic internal inefficiencies and corruption the ARVN.

Huong, who had been the ill Thieu's vice president, became Prime Minister in 1968. Dan became the minister dealing with defectors.[14] Four weeks later, he was stripped of the post for an allegedly treasonous statement. He had told a U.S. audience, that the Saigon government should be more liberal in agreeing to talks with the Vietcong. "Either you kill them all or you talk to them, and killing all of them is impossible." [15]



The main ground force of the RVN was commonly called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). There were smaller separate Air Force and Navy branches. Airborne, Ranger, and Marine units served as strategic reserves and as "fire brigades" without clear identities as services. To varying extents, the leadership of the ARVN came from officers trained in the French colonial military or from those that resisted the World War II Japanese invasion. Vietnamese Special Forces did have a conceptual politico-military and village-oriented function similar to United States Army Special Forces, but, especially under Diem, they acted as a political police and not as a nation-building organization. Even so, there were competent individuals that improved specific situations.

Sectarian or private groups

Throughout the republic's existence, there were a number of factions that maintained light military forces of their own. In contrast to the anti-government forces (discussed below) these groups often acted in concert with the government or along parallel lines. Most prominent of these factions were the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, which were essentially religious groups. The Binh Xuyen were ofter described as pirates who would sometimes enter into tactical alliances with other sectarian groups or the government itself. The Montagnards, or tribal groups of the Central Highlands, were often described as technologically primitive with a strong warrior culture. With guidance and leadership, such as by the United States Army Special Forces, they could be excellent light infantry within missions suited to their skills. Last, were the Nungs of Chinese origin who were often called "mercenaries". They provided good and loyal service when fairly and promptly paid but did not have the long history with as specific national employer as, for example, the Gurkhas of India.

Anti-government groups

In addition to the government and sectarian military forces, there were other forces, either Communist or communist-dominated, that operated in opposition to the government. These forces were formed as opponents to both the French or Japanese colonial occupation and were known collectively as the Viet Minh. Some Viet Minh later became regular members of the Northern or Southern militaries. In the Republic of Vietnam, the Viet Minh organized popular resistance to the government eventually transforming itself into the military wing of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (better known as the National Liberation Front). By the late 1950s, these anti-government forces were generally called the Viet Cong. During the 1960s, Central Office for South Vietnam operated anti-government military forces in South Vietnam.


  1. Moyar, Mark (2006), Triumph Forsaken, Cambridge University Press, p. 33
  2. "500,000 Uncles", Time, May 13, 1957
  3. , Chapter 4, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963, Section 2, pp. 232-276, The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 2
  4. Robert S. McNamara (1995), In Retrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Times Books division of Random House, McNamara, pp. 113-114
  5. McNamara, p. 119
  6. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, IV. Time of Decision: November 1963-March 1965, Vietnam 1961-1968 as interpreted in INR's Production, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 121, INR-VN4
  7. Topmiller, Robert J., The Lotus Unleashed: The Buddhist Peace Movement in South Vietnam, 1964-1966, University Press of Kentucky p. 28
  8. Topmiller, p. 28
  9. Karnow, Stanley (1983), Vietnam, a History, Viking Press, pp. 444-446
  10. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, VI - A Massive Effort to Turn the Tide: February 1966-April 1968, Vietnam 1961-1968 as interpreted in INR's Production, vol. George Washington University National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 121, INR-VN-VI, pp. 10-12
  11. Douglas Pike (June 4, 1981), pp. I-11 to I-12
  12. "South Viet Nam: No Longer a Choice", Time, September 13, 1971
  13. William J. Jorden (National Security Staff), [Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam 1967 Memorandum to Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Walt Rostow, "Priorities in Viet Nam under a New Government], Document 304
  14. "Some Old, Some New", Time, May 31, 1968
  15. Purnell, Karl M. (August 26, 1968), "Operation Self-Destruction: Planes Over Saigon", The Nation