Ngo Dinh Diem
South Vietnamese president

Ngo Dinh Diem was the scion of a noble family whose ancestors in the 17th century were among the first Vietnamese to convert to Roman Catholicism. In 1933 he served Emperor Bao Dai as interior minister but resigned in the face of French resistance to his reforms. He lived in Hue until 1945 when he was captured by Viet Minh operatives who invited him to join them to garner Catholic support. Diem refused and went into exile abroad until 1954 when he returned as prime minister of Bao Dai's U.S.-backed South Vietnam regime. After an October 1955 referendum declared a republic in the south, Diem ousted Bao Dai and made himself president.

The 1954 Geneva Accords, which ended French control and partitioned Vietnam, called for free elections to be held in 1956 to establish a single government. In the face of political and social unrest, however, Diem refused to hold the elections, constructed an authoritarian government and installed members of his family to run it. With U.S. help Diem resettled hundreds of thousands of refugees from North Vietnam, but his blatant favoritism of Catholics angered the Buddhist majority. This, along with his failure to produce land reforms, sent many South Vietnamese into the ranks of the Communist Viet Cong, and guerrilla attacks increased. Diem's ruthless tactics against the insurgents further alienated his regime from the people.

U.S. officials lost their patience with Diem in 1963 when Americans were startled by news images of Buddhist monks protesting Diem's persecution of Buddhists by setting themselves aflame in public suicides. With the tacit blessing of the Kennedy administration, Diem's own generals staged a coup d'etat on November 1-2, 1963, in which Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated.

A series of military regimes followed Diem that were marked by coups and counter-coups. In 1965 three generals, Nguyen Van Thieu, Duong Van Minh and Nguyen Cao Ky, took charge of the government. Ky was the leader for awhile, but in 1967, after much internal opposition to the regime's repressive policies, he and others agreed to stage an election in which Thieu became president and Ky vice president. Ky soon parted ways with Thieu over the latter's administration and eventually returned to his command of the air force. Thieu continued as president and was re-elected in 1971 without opposition. He resisted the Paris cease-fire in 1973 but soldiered on in the wake of the U.S. pullout. In April 1975 he resigned in the hope his exit might lead to a negotiated settlement with the Communists. Thieu fled the country soon after and eventually settled in England. Ky also fled and now lives in the United States.