Diem’s Final Failure

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.

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Night Will Fall

Night Will Fall is a 2014 documentary that examines World War II film crews from the three Allied powers who captured the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and killing centers.  The chilling footage captured by these film crews was meant to be part of documentary film overseen by Sidney Berstein, but the contingencies of the Cold War prevented the documentary’s completion, though some of the footage was used by the U.S. Military in a short film titled Death Mills.  Until recently, this footage remained buried in the British archives, but scholars working at the Imperial War Museum pieced together the film using the original script and instructions left by the original staff.

For many, the draw is the fact that legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock was involved in the project, however, as the documentary makes clear, Hitchcock was involved and offered important advice to the staff, but he spent a very limited amount of time working on the project.  The advice Hitchcock provided though seems crucial –   to display long shots rather than short shots in order counter any criticism that might suggest the film was the product of Hollywood film making (Hollywood “magic”).

In presentation, Night Will Fall is documentary about a documentary.  It tells the story of the WWII cameramen, soldiers involved in liberating camps, survivors who can be seen in the original footage, and those at the Imperial War museum who reconstructed the original documentary.  While this story is important and demonstrates the overwhelming inertia of the Cold War, the crucial feature is the original footage. The images are grim.  Footage of former Nazi prison guards dragging the bodies of those they murdered to mass graves is particularity disconcerting.  This documentary is not afraid to show the barbaric results of the Nazi racial state.

Another important feature of the original film footage is the effort made by the British and Americans soldiers to walk German civilians through the camps – to show them the what the Nazi state did and prevent them from ever denying that they did not know what the Nazis were doing.  Yet, even though thousands of German civilians passed through these camps witnessing the criminal actions of the state they supported, it was not until the 1960s, when the youth of German challenged their elders, that Germans finally confronted their Nazi past.  The efforts needed to rebuild a state destroyed by war and the oncoming of the Cold War enabled German civilians to focus on reconstruction rather than Nazi crimes.

The Night Will Fall tells a fascinating story and shows how geopolitics led the American and British governments to quickly sweep the Holocaust under the rug during the Cold War.  In fact, the Holocaust would remain dormant until the 1970s miniseries Holocaust reminded the public of the German crimes.  However, while this story is informative, the horror of the original footage is why this documentary is important.  It once again reminds us of the brutality of not just Nazi Germany but also of humankind.  What people can do to one another based on rigid ideologies that exclude other humans for being different, whether that be religiously, ethnically,  racially, sexually, etc.  The images show us how harsh rhetoric can lead to devastating actions and cautions us to take the language employed by world leaders, politicians, and businessmen seriously as they can have unimaginable outcomes.

For the Soul of Mankind – Review

In Melvin Leffler’s book For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War, the author identifies five key moments of the Cold War and seeks to understand why American and Soviet leaders were unable to bridge their differences. By focusing on individual leaders, Leffler explores the backgrounds and experiences of these individuals and argues that their choices were “strongly influenced by their ideological mind-sets and historical memories.” (7) This suggests that individual personalities and their experiences were far more important to the ebbs and flows of the Cold War than economic, strategic, and domestic politics; moreover, this line argumentation indicates that emotions, rather than cold rationality, played a much more significant role in the perpetuation of the Cold War. To support his argument, Leffler’s study relies on recently released primary sources material from the Cold War International History Project and the National Security Archive which hold documents concerning the Soviet side of the Cold War. The author also relied on documents from Presidential Libraries, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. This multi-archival research allows Leffler to present a narrative that includes both the Soviets and American perspectives of the Cold War and investigate how personalities shaped policy.

Leffler’s first case study examines President Harry Truman and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin in the immediate period after the Second World War. The author asserts that the Cold War was not inevitable, and instead suggests that Truman’s support for self-determination and open elections conflicted with Stalin’s desire for security, particularly in Eastern Europe; moreover, Stalin perceived American economic aid to Western Europe as capitalist encirclement, thus confirming his Marxist-Lenin ideology. These two leaders who initially planned to work together ultimately started a decades long conflict based on personal experience, ideology, and perception of the international system. The other case studies examined by Leffler include Malenkov and Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Johnson, and Brezhnev and Carter. In all of these examples, the author shows how individual leaders were unable to put aside ideological differences to pursue common interests. According to the author, the first individual willing to put aside his ideological blinders was Mikhail Gorbachev. In the final chapter examining Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush, the author asserts that Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union’s geopolitical competition with United States diverted attention and money from the Soviet Union’s rapidly deteriorating domestic problems. This recognition spurred the Soviet leader to reduce tensions with the United States. Although Gorbachev never renounced communism, he was the first leader willing to put aside ideology in order to reach agreements with his American counterparts.

By focusing on personalities, Leffler’s study depicts how ideology and memory played a significant role in prolonging the Cold war throughout the 20th century. Scholars such as Vladislav Zubok agree with this line of analysis, and in his study A Failed Empire, Zubok asserts that Soviet leaders were motivated by a “messianic ideology.” (Zubok, xxiv) However, while Leffler examines the “lost opportunities” of American and Soviet leaders to transcend ideology, Zubok argues that security and power remained the only interest of Soviet leaders – their ideology never permitted them to seek out opportunities to work with their American counterparts. Moreover, Zubok, in stark contrast to Leffler, critiques Gorbachev’s foreign policy pointing his naiveté, lofty ideals, and inability to negotiate from a position of power. Thus, although these two scholars find ideology as a crucial point of analysis, they fail to find common ground. This perhaps arises from their different perspectives during the Cold War.