Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How the CIA Makes a Puppet

An excerpt from the book by

Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.,  


Downloadable as a free pdf file at above link


Colonial Indochina

The US decision to replace the French as the guarantor of a non-Communist Vietnam represented the end of a tortuous path that first ran in the opposite direction. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's generic hostility to European colonialism and specific antipathy for Charles de Gaulle led him, during early planning for the postwar period, to suggest a United Nations trusteeship for Indochina. He later retreated from this, partly to avoid further demoralizing an already prostrate France, and partly to avoid weakening the basis for retaining the Pacific islands that the US had taken from Japan. But Roosevelt never yielded on his insistence that the French accept the principle of eventual independence for Indochina....


In February 1950, the French National Assembly ratified the agreement establishing Emperor Bao Dai as the head of a nominally independent Vietnam. This pro forma gesture sufficed, in the circumstances, to assuage Washington's anticolonial bias, and the door opened to a program of direct US support to the French Expeditionary Corps....

As the Viet Minh wore down the French defenders at Dien Bien Phu, both Washington and Paris had started looking for indigenous candidates to govern whatever Vietnamese territory might be saved from the Communists. American and French objectives in Indochina were quite different, as they had been from the beginning. The Eisenhower administration was preoccupied with the containment of Communism while the French were almost equally single-minded in trying to preserve their own economic privileges. Both, however, were looking for an anti-Communist politician receptive to Western guidance and possessing nationalist credentials strong enough to make him a plausible competitor to Ho Chi Minh.... 
Emperor Bao Dai in rare appearance in Vietnam

Ngo Dinh Diem had established his nationalist credentials in the early 1930s by quitting as the puppet emperor's Interior Minister when the French obstructed his proposed reforms. In the early 1950s, living in the United States, he came to be seen by some influential legislators as the best hope for an anti-Communist leadership in Vietnam. He had many weaknesses, including the lack of any organized following, but in the end emerged almost by default as the joint Franco-American candidate. On 18 June 1954, Emperor Bao Dai invited Diem to form a government to replace that of the Francophile courtier Prince Buu Loc....
Diem's Rule
Diem's rule was authoritarian and corrupt. His most trusted official was his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, leader of the pro-Diem Can Lao political party, who was an opium addict and admirer of Adolf Hitler. He modeled the Can Lao secret police's marching style and torture styles on the Nazis. Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Can was put in charge of the former Imperial City of Hue. These two brothers ruled their regions of South Vietnam with private armies and secret police. Another brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom. His elder brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was the archbishop of Hue. The family is widely believed to have been involved in illegal smuggling of rice to North Vietnam, and in the opium trade, and they monopolized the cinnamon trade. They used the power of the Catholic Church to acquire farms, businesses, real estate, and rubber plantations. Thuc used the army as manual labor on his timber and rubber plantations. Meanwhile, Madame Nhu, the wife of Diem's brother Nhu, was South Vietnam's First Lady (Diem was a bachelor), and she spearheaded social reforms in Saigon in accordance with their Catholic values. Brothels and opium dens were closed, divorce and abortion made illegal, and adultery laws were strengthened. In April 1956, the last of the French military forces left their former colony. Though U.S. officials soon recognized Diem's corruption, the United States was now stuck with him. They tried to influence Diem by attaching financial aid to positive social reforms. Change, however, was very slow in coming, but the aid kept rolling in. 

Covert Action as an Instrument of Nation-Building
Lansdale's Cold War

What Joseph Alsop several years later called the "miracle" of the Agency's success in Vietnam was the product of CIA's close relationships with Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and confidant Ngo Dinh Nhu. CIA's energy and self-confidence in managing these relationships contrasted sharply with State Department caution and reflected an institutional ethos inherited from the Office of Strategic Services. This aggressive, enterprising spirit was encouraged by the Eisenhower Administration's confidence in covert operations as a means of containing Soviet expansion. As a result, by mid-1954 there was ample precedent for the Agency to take a lead role in Vietnam. CIA had restored the Shah of Iran to his throne in 1953 and in March 1954, just before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, had sponsored a successful military coup against the leftist government in Guatemala. Earlier, CIA's support to the Christian Democrats in the 1948 Italian elections helped ensure the survival of democratic government there. In the Philippines, the Agency's close relationship with Ramon Magsaysay beginning in1 950 was perceived as a major factor in the defeat of the Huk rebellion.

In all these cases the purpose was the same, to establish a viable anti-Communist regime in a country seen as threatened with absorption into the Soviet Bloc. But although the goal in Indochina was the same, Vietnam presented CIA, and the US Government as a whole, with a fundamentally different problem. In the other cases the task was to find and install acceptable leadership in a functioning, if perhaps undeveloped, nation-state. This might be done by sponsoring individual leaders in Iran and the Philippines, or by supporting a political party, as in Italy.

Installing a suitable leader

Vietnam was different. In the territory south of the 17th parallel, which Americans at first called Free Vietnam, there existed neither a sense of nationhood nor an indigenous administration. Cochin China, comprised of Saigon and the Mekong Delta, had had only a tenuous connection with the imperial authority in Hue before becoming a French colony. Annam, in the center, was now cut in half. And the Geneva Accords did not even in theory create a new state. The 17th parallel designated a truce line, not an international boundary, and the entirely provisional entity lying south of it was supposed to disappear after national elections in 1956.

Free Vietnam lacked not only an administrative apparatus but also a cadre of indigenous politicians accustomed to the exercise of power. All of this meant that with the decision to support Ngo Dinh Diem the United States was undertaking not only to establish a leader but to create a country. This formidable assignment was complicated from the very start by fundamental disagreements with Diem--mutual incomprehension might be more accurate--over the kind of leadership required and the kind of polity to be built....The CIA presence in Saigon also worked at cross purposes, not just with the Department of State, but with itself. As noted earlier, the Agency maintained two independent elements during the first two years of Diem's rule. Although they cooperated to help Diem deal with immediate threats to his survival in office. they developed conflicting approaches to the long-term issue of constructing for him a base of mass political support. The result was that CIA advisors to Diem and Nhu contradicted each other, usually unwittingly, on this fundamental issue until unitary command was established in late 1956....

Catholic in Buddhist Vietnam

Diem's religion did not necessarily recommend him to every American influential in Indochina matters, but it helped win the favor of such prominent figures as Francis Cardinal Spellman, and Senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. And even non-Catholics could see his religious affiliation as confirming his anti- Communism. Diem's access to official Americans was also the product of his competence in English, rare in Vietnamese of that period, which he acquired while living with the Maryknoll missionaries in New Jersey and New York between 1951 and 1953. Residence in the US also gave him a platform for the vigorous lobbying that made him an early frontrunner when the United States began looking for indigenous leaders for Vietnam....

Diem lived as a ward of Cardinal Spellman's diocese in the Maryknoll seminaries during his exile from Vietnam (1950-52). Lakewood, N.J. and Ossining, N.Y.

Eleven years younger than Diem, Nhu had been educated in France as an archivist and paleographer. Unlike his brother, Nhu was in Vietnam in the years just preceding the French collapse and was active in the party politics that Diem ignored. Around 1948, he founded the Parti Travailliste (Workers Party), which despite its small size--it was hardly more than a semi-clandestine discussion group--kept the colonial authorities aware of his anti-French convictions. During the first year of Diem's rule, the French developed an unreasoning aversion to Nhu that they effectively communicated to the US Embassy in Saigon. ...

Nhu did, however, have an intense interest in the theory of political organization. He was also the only member of the family other than Ngo Dinh Thuc, a third brother who was the Catholic bishop of a diocese in the Mekong Delta, to have a circle of political contacts in Saigon. Nhu's style, formed in the days of his anti-French agitation, was essentially conspiratorial and anti-establishment. He tended to see government institutions as a colonial legacy to be manipulated or, failing that, obstructed or neutralized. Nhu's contempt for the urban elite, whose values he saw as "more foreign than Vietnamese," had as a corollary the need to build an entirely new national leadership, capable of imbuing the population of the South with Diem's brand of anti-Communist nationalism.

By the time of Diem's inauguration in early July 1954, the CIA had been active in Vietnam for four years, primarily in efforts to strengthen French unconventional warfare operations against the Viet Minh. When the French agreed late in 1953 to negotiate the conflict in Indochina, the prospect suddenly loomed of their abandoning the struggle. In early 1954, as the Eisenhower administration began to anticipate stepping in for the French, the Agency started trying to identify Vietnamese leaders with whom it might work directly to resist further Viet Minh expansion....

CIA in Saigon was to resume the direct assessment of nationalist politicians there. To revitalize the program, Headquarters chose Paul Harwood, then a newly promoted GS-12, who had a degree in Asian studies and had just completed a tour of duty inl IHe arrived in Saigon in April 1954 and began working out of the Embassy on behalf of the Chief of Station (COS), Emmett McCarthy. The second approach was launched at a January 1954 meeting of the National Security Council when someone suggested that Colonel Edward
Lansdale, USAF, renowned for his work as "kingmaker" in the Philippines, be commissioned to find a Vietnamese equivalent of Ramon Magsaysay. The NSC approved the assignment at about the time that Harwood arrived in Saigon, and Colonel Lansdale followed him in June, assigned to the Embassy
as Assistant Air Attache.

Although he had worked briefly for the OSS in San Francisco during World War II, Lansdale was never a CIA employee. For the Manila assignment, he had been detailed to the Agency from the Air Force; this arrangement was now extended for his service in Vietnam. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and
his brother Allen, the Director of Central Intelligence, directly participated in creating the assignment. Their participation resulted in Lansdale's being sent out as chief of a second Station, reporting neither to McCarthy in Saigon nor to the chief of the Far East Division, but directly to Allen Dulles.

McCarthy's unit, to be called here the regular Station, [            REDACTED                                             ]
[                                                                 REDACTED                                                                         ]
[            REDACTED                                        ] Although Lansdale began his tour of duty as Assistant Air Attache at the Embassy, his staff, all in uniform, worked out of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Eventually, Lansdale's unit acquired overt status as the core of the MAAG's National Security Division, responsible for civic action and rural pacification....

Headquarters left both Stations, McCarthy's and Lansdale's, largely to their own devices in the development of new programs. Beyond occasional resistance to what he saw as intrusions on his turf, McCarthy made no effort to influence Lansdale's program. Nor did he seek to ensure coordination between Lansdale and Harwood, even in the sensitive area of their respective relationships with the Palace. Lansdale, although dependent on McCarthy's communications facilities, seldom coordinated any correspondence with him, and Harwood seems not to have seen this de facto compartmentation as creating any risk or inconvenience....

Lansdale made no secret with Diem of his direct communication with policy-level Washington. This link completed the chain of relationships that made the Agency's role in Vietnam so crucial. The key element in this was Lansdale's standing with the Dulles brothers, which gave him more influence over policymakers in Washington than he exercised over the Vietnamese Government in Saigon....

The MAAG and the US Information Service (USIS) were both inclined to favor Diem, even at the price of difficulties with the French. The MAAG was an important CIA ally in dealings with the Vietnamese inilitary, both die national army and the sect forces." But the MAAG and USIS saw their charters in narrower terms than the CIA stations viewed their own; Lansdale and Harwood would discuss and try to help solve almost any problem that Diem or Nhu might raise. The result was that, during most of the first year, real communication with the Vietnamese on political issues took place in CIA channels.
Just a few minor redactions.


Harwood set out in May to help Nhu build a covert political action organization. Again, the shortage of qualified people inhibited progress. An example was Tran Van Do, an uncle of Nhu's wife. Nhu thought
him deficient in energy and courage and could think of no more active role for him than that of safehouse keeper, exploiting the immunity conferred by his social position from unannounced visits by French security. But the scarcity of loyal talent was such that a few months later he became Diem's foreign minister....


As Diem's appointment came to look more probable, the CIA role grew more active. Harwood, as noted earlier, asked his superiors for the terms on which he could commit covert assistance through Nhu. At the end of May, getting no response, Harwood made up his own terms and delegated Spence to take them to Nhu. These conditions, to which Nhu agreed, called for prosecuting the war against the Viet Minh and opposition to "coalition and partition." The US would train the Army even over French objections, and the Vietnamese would take particular care in selecting commanders for the internal security organs and the military. The terms also included a requirement for CIA access to Bao Dai in order to prevent him from dismissing a Diem government "on a whim," and for the continued secrecy of the liaison with CIA.

Harwood's unilateral action in this episode not only dispensed with Headquarters guidance, as already noted, but took CIA quite outside its charter into the area of policy. Whether Headquarters eventually sought State Department endorsement of his program is not recorded; any departure from what became US policy after Diem's nomination was apparently minor enough to attract no attention. In May, CIA wanted to know not only Diem's intentions but what ambitions Nhu might be harboring for himself. Nhu insisted that he would accept no position in his brother's Cabinet, and Spence believed he had "worked so long covertly he couldn't bear to do otherwise. But he anticipated working closely with Diem and declared his willingness to serve as intermediary. Hoping to use the connection for covert action as well as collection purposes, the Station pressed Nhu to describe his influence over Diem, Nhu replied, probably with tongue in cheek, that he could "direct" his brother....

Lansdale's Propaganda Team

Edward Lansdale had come to Saigon in June and was waiting for Diem when he returned from France. Lansdale later described in his memoirs having walked in on him unannounced the day after Diem took office on 7 July 1954. Lansdale had enlisted George Hellyer, the Mission's public information officer, to make the introduction, and Hellyer also interpreted as Lansdale spoke no French. Although Diem had studied English while living in the US, he apparently never volunteered to use it with Lansdale; for two and half years of continuous association they communicated through an interpreter. Lucien Conein, one of Lansdale's men, said later that, "I think Lansdale surprised the hell out of him... .I don't believe Diem thought he was going to last very long. What could he lose by talking to this man? [Fn: Conein's perception may well have been accurate, although it ignores Diem's perennial habit of cultivating unofficial American connections. Three others, during this period, were Joseph Buttinger of the International Rescue Committee, land reform expert Wolf Ladejinski, and Wesley Fishel, head of the Michigan State University public administration team in Saigon.]
"Sharing the same desk, Lansdale and Hellyer forged documents indicating impending Viet Minh property seizures and anti-Christian atrocities. Most audaciously, the psychological warriors dropped leaflets out of airplanes with fake bombing targets in an attempt to spread rumours that the US military planned to launch atomic attacks above the 17th parallel, and spread rumours that the Virgin Mary had abandoned Vietnam. For good measure the American Government offered refugees $89 if they relocated to the South—a handsome sum in a country where the average income was only $85 per year." Selling America, Ignoring Vietnam: The United States Information Agency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960 by Brendan D‟Arcy Wright


Lansdale's success in the Philippines encouraged him to believe that he had discovered the key to defeating Communist-led insurgencies. Exuding confidence when Harwood and others saw imminent defeat, Lansdale quickly came up with a formula for Vietnam. On 11 July, he announced to DCI Dulles that his goal was nothing less than to build a
"political base" in Indochina which, if successful, would "give CIA control [of the] government and change [the] whole atmosphere." 
Diem was an "unworldly dreamer but seeking help," and Lansdale had just written a three-year plan which, he told Dulles, Ambassador Heath was going to help him sell to the Prime Minister.If all went well, CIA would have advisers in all key areas, and Lucien Conein would conduct liaison with the Armed Forces if General Nguyen Van Vy, a friend since Conein's OSS service in Vietnam, became chief of staff. ...

On 26 July, Lansdale predicted that many thousands would refuse to leave the North; they asked only for rice and ammunition, which he wanted CIA to provide forthwith, along with exfiltration of leaders for training, But Harwood had reported four days earlier that the Ngo brothers had-abandoned any notion of a "suicidal defense [of] Hanoi." They now intended to leave behind only small stay-behind units with specific missions against the Viet Minh, who were scheduled to take over Hanoi on 10 October.

But if Diem was resigned to a Communist assumption of power in Hanoi, Lansdale was not. Complaining to Dulles about Diem's indifference to unified command for stay-behind units in the North, he scornfully dismissed any need to accede to loss of the North. Saying that he suspected the French of trying to
manipulate the South into accommodation with the North, he demanded,
"Will the US Government stop playing [the] French parlor game in IC [Indochina]?"
If so, he asserted, he could quickly form an effective resistance movement. Apparently believing that a change of government in France would somehow obviate the need for such a resistance program, he suggested as an alternative a
"military coup in Paris to make [a] lady out of [a] slut." 
It would require, he thought, no more than a "handful [of] strong-minded US officials to change [the] entire complexion [of the] world picture.
~~~~~~~~~~~~

See also these files by Thomas L. Ahern, Jr.:

Vietnam Histories

This release consists of six declassified histories volumes and describes the CIA's role in Indochina during the Vietnam War. These histories written by Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., are based on extensive research in CIA records and on oral history interviews of participants. The release totals some 1,600 pages and represents the largest amount of Vietnam-era CIA documents yet declassified.

Document List


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