In Philip Catton’s Diem’s Final Failure, the author examines the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam from 1954 – 1963 and argues that the conflict between the United States and the Diem government resulted from a “clash of visions” on the methods of modernization and nation building (Catton 2). Catton develops this thesis by broadly examining U.S. military and government documents, newspapers, private journals, and also delving deep into the South Vietnamese archives where he accessed documents produced by Diem’s government, the South Vietnamese military, and Vietnamese newspapers. Using these documents, Catton focuses his interpretation heavily on Diem and how he reacted to American plans, objectives, and aid. This narrative challenges standard depictions of Diem and attempts to rationalize his actions.
Catton, like others before him, describes the relationship between Diem and the United States as a marriage of convenience with each party relying on the other in order to fulfill objectives. Though both parties were heavily reliant upon one another, Catton convincingly shows that Diem and the United States failed to communicate on the same level. The United States expected the Diem government to establish order, promote democracy, aid the rural peasants, and to improve central administration to prevent excessive power. These objectives, however, clashed with Diem who believed he knew what was best for his country and he ignored American advice aggravating the Americans. This clash, argues Catton, developed out of Diem’s uncompromising nationalism which runs contrary to previous depictions of Diem which instead characterize Diem as a monk-like mandarin unreceptive to advice. (Herring 75) By revealing Diem as hard line nationalist, Catton shows that Diem rejected the advice of U.S. advisors because he believed that he knew what was best for his nation and feared that U.S. interference would portray him as an American puppet which would discredit him in the eyes of the people. Moreover, by examining Diem as nationalist, Catton places him within the cultural context of Vietnam. This approach reveals that Diem’s governing style and objectives developed out of Vietnamese traditions and that his disregard of U.S. advice was not mere ignorance or self-interest but rather based on Diem’s cultural understanding of Vietnam.
Another challenge to the earlier historiography put forth by Catton is his understanding of Diem’s policies towards rural peasants. In George Herring’s study America’s Longest War, the author contends that Diem’s approach to the rural villages was “a singular lack of concern and near-callous irresponsibility.” (Herring 77) This interpretation suggests that Diem cared little for the improvement of rural life and that his policies towards the peasants created great unrest and anger which led to their tacit support of the NLF. Catton attempts to challenge this interpretation and instead argues that the Diem regime, though conservative in many aspects, sought modernize the rural regions of South Vietnam. Though the outcomes of these programs were at times disastrous, Catton suggests that this was a result of implementation rather than a genuine disregard for rural Vietnam as Diem sincerely hoped that these plans would facilitate modernization in Vietnam. Thus, Catton demonstrates that Diem’s policies towards rural Vietnam were not unenlightened but were rather paternalistic and showed much planning and deliberation.
Ultimately, Catton’s depiction of Diem challenges the conventional interpretations by using the new source material gathered from the Vietnamese archives. He argues that the conflict between the United States and Diem developed from different understandings of modernization and objectives of modernization. While Diem attempted to modernize Vietnam based on the nations traditions, the United States demanded that Diem follow their models and aim for their objects. The United States’ hands-on approach infuriated Diem who wished the Americans to be a silent partner in the nation as he believed he understood his people. Catton also successfully demonstrates that Diem was not an isolated mandarin but rather a fervent nationalist that sought to modernize his nation by basing modernization within the nation’s traditions. Catton here shows that Diem did seek a third way between the liberal democracy of the Americans and the coercive policies of North Vietnam, however, Diem’s third way ultimately relied on coercion as well because the rural Vietnamese people did not want to participate in Diem’s nation-building policies. Thus, by placing Diem within the context of Vietnam and its traditions, Catton is able demonstrate that the traditional depictions of Diem have been inaccurate; however, Catton’s image of Diem also appears to swing too far in the other direction and fails to fault Diem for his ignorance of village life and the catastrophic polices which destroyed the lives of the peasants.