Schell on Stewart, 'Vietnam's Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm's Failure to Build an Independent Nation, 1955-1963'

Geoffrey Stewart
Mark Schell

Geoffrey Stewart. Vietnam's Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm's Failure to Build an Independent Nation, 1955-1963. Cambridge Studies in US Foreign Relations Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Illustrations, maps. 278 pp. $109.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-09788-9

Reviewed by Mark Schell (San Diego State University) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Scholars have given Ngo Dinh Diem a much-needed reevaluation in recent years. The controversial leader of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) reigned from 1954 to 1963 and was initially met with strong condemnation from journalists and historians, who criticized him for being an American pawn and hopelessly inept. However, the trend in current scholarship paints a much different picture. Mark Moyar emphasizes Diem’s notable successes and political acumen in Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954–1965 (2007), and Edward Miller’s book Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (2013) contends that, for all his faults, the South Vietnamese president had a clear and distinct vision for his country that often differed with the wishes of his US patrons. The newest addition to this growing body of literature—Vietnam’s Lost Revolution, by Geoffrey C. Stewart—builds on the foundation established by Moyar, Miller, and others to offer an original perspective on Diem and his efforts to build an independent nation.

Stewart traces Diem’s rise and fall through the lens of the Special Commissariat for Civic Action (CDV), a rural development program implemented in 1955. CDV cadres traveled to villages, lived with the peasants, and enlisted their help in community projects. The CDV thus played a critical role in linking the Saigon government with the historically neglected countryside. Underlying this desire for national unity was Diem’s belief in personalism, a complex humanist philosophy which argued that individuals could achieve spiritual happiness by contributing toward the common good of society. Stewart argues that the CDV and the broader personalist revolution cannot be fully understood within the binary of a Cold War interpretation. Rather, Diem was offering a third way between communism and capitalism, one that he hoped would secure South Vietnam’s place among independent nations but that ultimately failed to resonate with his citizens.

Vietnam’s Lost Revolution develops the story of the CDV over six chapters. The first two examine the program’s origins and early challenges. Diem understood that he suffered from a legitimacy problem. There also remained a sizable number of Viet Minh operatives in South Vietnam, and the Saigon government, an archaic system inherited from the French, was ill-equipped to counter their influence. To address both issues Diem created the CDV, which initially served as “little more than a propaganda wing of the central government” (p. 39). Cadres distributed food, medicine, and gifts to villagers and provided information on the new Saigon regime. Favorable feedback led to the CDV’s permanent establishment in late 1955. Amid battles with Vietnamese monarchs, religious sects, and recalcitrant generals, Diem greatly expanded the purview of Civic Action to include community development, overstretching an already underfunded program.

Stewart provides additional context for the CDV amid its growing importance in chapters 3 and 4. Diem loyalist Kieu Cong Cung led the organization and exercised considerable latitude within his position. While Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, wrestled with American advisors over the future of South Vietnam, Cung addressed his broad mandate of community development by focusing on two primary objectives: “raising the people’s intellectual standards” and improving welfare (p. 54). However, despite localized successes, a lack of funding and suitable personnel hindered these efforts in contested areas. The complexity of the personalist revolution also did not help matters. Cadres found it difficult to explain the tenets of the philosophy, let alone garner support for it among villagers. Personalism may have been an ideal third way for the Ngo brothers, but as Stewart reveals, it was far too complicated to implement effectively.

Chapters 5 and 6 document a shift in Civic Action as the communist-led National Liberation Front (NLF) became the regime’s primary threat. Several of Diem’s programs, most notably, land reform and the communist denunciation campaign, were poorly executed and inadvertently drove peasants into the arms of the insurgents. As the author points out, growing resistance forced the CDV to become “increasingly reactionary, turning away from community development ... toward security and propaganda work, quite possibly increasing the peasantry’s sense of isolation” (p. 163). Disillusioned villagers joined the NLF in droves during the early 1960s, and attacks on governmental officials increased at an alarming rate. As with previous issues, the vicious cycle repeated itself. The Ngo brothers once again looked to the commissariat for a buttress against the growing unrest, but Civic Action was “falling victim to the increasing desperation of the regime, losing its focus on development and becoming ... an extension of the security apparatus of an unpopular government” (p. 192). Its best efforts could not seize the initiative from the NLF.

Vietnam’s Lost Revolution is certainly one of the greatest scholarly works on the Diem period to date. Its academic merits are substantial. The author relies heavily on South Vietnamese sources found in Ho Chi Minh City, the United States, and Canada to craft his arguments and artfully places his work in conversation with other historians. This does, of course, have several drawbacks for the general reader. The book demands a degree of previous knowledge on the subject and avoids romanticizing even its most dramatic events, recounting Diem’s remarkable rise and fall from power with the same crisp, precise, and dispassionate language that characterizes the rest of the book. Stewart’s decision to do so is a wise one, though. What makes Vietnam’s Lost Revolution particularly unique is its consideration of South Vietnamese participants beyond the Ngo family. Officials like Cung and Ngo Trong Hieu can and did play an important role in crafting the personalist revolution but are often neglected or altogether forgotten in conventional narratives. Stewart adeptly addresses this oversight. The overall emphasis on Vietnamese agency is one of the greatest successes in Vietnam’s Lost Revolution. Decentralizing Cold War politics from the narrative reveals the intense nationalist struggles at work in postcolonial Southeast Asia and South Vietnam in particular. Nation building and community development were hotly contested topics, not only between heads of state but also among administrative leaders. The personalist revolution, although ultimately a failure, thus remained a uniquely South Vietnamese endeavor to the bitter end.

When President Diem was overthrown in a coup and assassinated in November 1963 the CDV died alongside him. Inadequate funding, a lack of qualified cadre, and mission creep all plagued Civic Action from its inception, but Stewart pins most of the program’s failure on the flaws in the personalist revolution. The CDV movement failed to resonate with the people of South Vietnam because its philosophical construct was too complex and contradictory. The end of Diem brought an era of increased political instability in Saigon, where the United States played an increasingly activist role in RVN politics and security. Eventually, American troops were assigned nation-building tasks, ones “that already proved impossible for the indigenous cadres of the Special Commissariat for Civic Action to fulfill” (p. 241). If Vietnam’s Lost Revolution is any indication, their efforts were doomed from the start.

Citation: Mark Schell. Review of Stewart, Geoffrey, Vietnam's Lost Revolution: Ngô Đình Diệm's Failure to Build an Independent Nation, 1955-1963. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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