In 1955, Ngo Dinh Diem organized an election to depose
chief-of-state Bao Dai, after which he proclaimed himself the first
president of the newly created Republic of Vietnam. The United
States sanctioned the results of this election, which was widely
condemned as fraudulent, and provided substantial economic aid and
advice to the RVN. Because of this, Diem is often viewed as a mere
puppet of the United States, in service of its Cold War
geopolitical strategy. That narrative, Jessica M. Chapman contends
in Cauldron of Resistance, grossly oversimplifies the
complexity of South Vietnam's domestic politics and, indeed, Diem's
own political savvy.
Based on extensive work in Vietnamese, French, and American
archives, Chapman offers a detailed account of three crucial years,
1953-1956, during which a new Vietnamese political order was
established in the south. It is, in large part, a history of Diem's
political ascent as he managed to subdue the former Emperor Bao
Dai, the armed Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious organizations, and the
Binh Xuyen crime organization. It is also an unparalleled account
of these same outcast political powers, forces that would reemerge
as destabilizing political and military actors in the late 1950s
and early 1960s.
Chapman shows Diem to be an engaged leader whose personalist
ideology influenced his vision for the new South Vietnamese state,
but also shaped the policies that would spell his demise.
Washington's support for Diem because of his staunch anticommunism
encouraged him to employ oppressive measures to suppress dissent,
thereby contributing to the alienation of his constituency, and
helped inspire the organized opposition to his government that
would emerge by the late 1950s and eventually lead to the Vietnam
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