Soviet disinformation & Ngô Đình Diệm: How Diệm first came to be known as an American ‘puppet’

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While recent coverage of Russian disinformation published by its state-sponsored organizations has cast it as a new phenomenon, it is certainly not. Indeed, some Soviet disinformation was ingrained in historical scholarship during the Cold War. One concept, in particular, is that South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm was an American ‘puppet’ hand-picked by Washington in the 1950s.

During the anti-war movement in the United States, writers and scholars cast President Ngộ Đình Diệm and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) as American ‘puppets’. Authors drew upon the propagandistic statements of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and its Soviet ally to construct a more powerful argument against the American war effort. Rather than simply argue against the conduct of the war and its importance to U.S. interests, these authors sought to undermine the entire premise of the war — that South Vietnam was an ally worthy of assistance.

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Protestors in Kansas, circa 1967. NARA.

To do so, they argued that the entire state was illegitimate, no more than a “puppet” of the United States. North Vietnam and the communist-led insurgents, rather, were the sole legitimate authority. Ergo, there was no reason for the United States to assist the South Vietnamese nor to fight in Vietnam. This was the dominant theory of Frances FitzGerald’s Pulitzer-winning Fire in the Lake (1972). More recently this theory was modified by Seth Jacobs, who not only argued Diệm was a puppet, but that Diệm being a Catholic endeared him to US policymakers. And just this year, Ben Kiernan falsely argued that the CIA “chose” Diệm.

The problem with this theory was always that Diệm and the South Vietnamese pursued their own policies, even when opposed by Washington. Historians Ed Miller and Philip Catton have detailed this dynamic well in their respective books. Yet the myth endures today.

So where did this “puppet” theory originate? Its first appearance comes in a Russian disinformation campaign in 1950.

In July 1950, the Moscow office of the official Soviet news agency, TASS (in Russian: ТАСС), broadcast a report on the events in Indochina. Just a few months prior, the USSR and China had recognized Hồ Chí Minh’s insurgent, communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as the country’s official government. Meanwhile, the United States had just thrown its support behind France and the newly inaugurated, non-communist State of Vietnam (which would be truncated below the 17th parallel in 1954 and transformed into South Vietnam).

Thus, like the DRV, Moscow now framed the war in Indochina as a battle between the invidious forces of “American imperialism” and and the peace-minded assistance of the Soviet Union to the DRV.

A French summary of the 1950 TASS report notes that:

In a transmission from Moscow and broadcast in the Far East, the TASS agency announced that Mr. Melby, head of the American military mission, had (declared) that the presence of Bao Dai (at the head of the State of Vietnam government was) however considered by the Americans as undesirable. The same broadcast claims that the Americans have chosen the Catholic nationalist leader Ngo Dinh Diem as the successor to Bao Dai.

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[Telegram n. 4657, Haussaire Saigon to Paris, 24 July 1950, États Associés, series 174QO, box 166, Ministère des Affaires Étrangère]
The report has clear errors. First, John F. Melby was a diplomat. He was then in Vietnam as part of a joint State Department and Defense Department mission (known as the ‘Melby-Erskine mission’) to assess the capabilities of Asian countries to resist the potential advances of communist-led insurgencies. Melby did not declare that America would not support Bảo Đại (former emperor and chief of state to the State of Vietnam), nor did he say that Washington supported Diệm — to the contrary, American policymakers had no idea who Diệm was.

So why did this TASS report focus on Diệm and fabricate the United States’ support for him? Diệm was a well-known personality in Vietnam, having served in Bảo Đại’s imperial cabinet in the 1930s before resigning in protest of French colonial restrictions. And just before the TASS report, Bảo Đại had offered Diệm the position of prime minister in the State of Vietnam government. It was one of many times, stretching back to 1947-1949 that Bảo Đại had offered the post to Diệm. He was also known as a principled anti-communist (though one with an authoritarian inclination). Finally, the DRV and Soviets both asserted that American imperialism was the dominant dynamic in Southeast Asia, the real force controlling the French and State of Vietnam war effort against the DRV.

Yet Diệm was well-known to his foes in the DRV, who were eager to discredit or do away with him and his potential opposition to their government. At the beginning of 1950, Diệm learned that the DRV had authorized his assassination. A month after the TASS report aired, he moved abroad.

More than sixty years later, the characterization of Ngô Đình Diệm as an American puppet endures. However, we should take note that it began as a Russian disinformation campaign to discredit Diệm and the State of Vietnam.