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A Turning Point for South Vietnam?

Members of the South Vietnamese Constituent Assembly voting in 1967 to confirm the election of Nguyen Van Thieu as president. Credit Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Members of the South Vietnamese Constituent Assembly voting in 1967 to confirm the election of Nguyen Van Thieu as president. Credit Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Vietnam’s most democratic election.

Admittedly, this is a low bar. And to be sure, though the 1967 South Vietnamese presidential election was conducted with more propriety than Saigon’s previous debacles, which were typically won with 98 percent of the vote, or than the North’s one-party, pro forma affairs, it was an event likewise riddled with vote-rigging and intimidation. The result, a modest victory for the military slate, was certain even before campaigning began.

But if its administration was less than impartial, it was still one of the most important moments in the short life of the Republic of South Vietnam, and an underappreciated moment in the history of the Vietnam War.

A response to years of military coups, regional uprisings and sectarian unrest, the vote helped restore legal and political order, providing a forum where warring anti-Communist factions could deliberate peacefully. Accompanied by a redrawn Constitution and a new bicameral assembly, it represented an olive branch intended to win back disaffected Vietnamese voters who might otherwise side with the Communists, and to stem flagging support in the American Congress. And against the backdrop of a brutal ongoing war, it introduced a range of novel features, from nationwide barnstorming and candidates’ debates to subsidized television airtime for all contenders.

Perhaps the most unappreciated, and most important, event in the election was the sudden rise of Truong Dinh Dzu, a radical peace candidate championed by the South’s war-weary rural poor. Dzu’s rapid ascent, and the state’s punitive response, is a tantalizing “what if,” and a clear demonstration of why the government ultimately failed to win public support.

Once featured daily in global press coverage of the war, the election has since been dismissed as a farce or reduced to a footnote in English-language scholarship on Vietnam. Today, it remains obscure even to most experts of the war. Yet the southern state’s failure to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of Vietnamese anti-Communists, or to attract a rural base capable of countering the Viet Cong, was central to the outcome of the war. Far more than on any battlefield, Saigon’s fate was sealed in the murky, turbulent realm of its domestic politics by competing Vietnamese protagonists now mostly unknown outside expatriate communities.

South Vietnam was subsumed by chaos after the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963. Within three months, the generals who toppled Diem were themselves deposed, ushering in a period of cascading military coups and religious violence. All the while, Communist forces advanced unchecked across the countryside. The breaking point came when Buddhist groups, which had once hailed Diem’s killers as liberators, turned against their erstwhile allies of convenience. A 1966 Buddhist uprising saw much of Central Vietnam lost to government control. The revolt was quelled only by weeks of street-to-street combat.

With civilians incensed by the junta’s harsh ineptitude, and the American hands holding its purse strings starting to tremble, Saigon’s military regime was compelled to dangle carrots in addition to brandishing sticks. And so, the military acceded, allowing a provisional parliament to draft a new Constitution and to oversee elections for president and a restored National Assembly.

For the South’s beleaguered anti-Communist civilians, returning to constitutional rule promised a more transparent military regime, responsive to constituent concerns and bound by the rule of law. Aware of their own urban aloofness, Saigon intellectuals also saw a chance to reconnect with the countryside, using the election to showcase the liberal multiparty system that they hoped would emerge. “The next two or three years will be crucial for the Vietnamese and American people,” exhorted Phan Quang Dan, a candidate esteemed for past bravery in enduring torture by President Diem’s henchmen. “The new government must have wide popular support, so it can undertake necessary reforms and introduce new programs.”

But from the outset, these aspirations were undermined by military infighting and skulduggery.

Feuding between the two leading generals, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, threatened to tear the country apart. And even as the generals quarreled, they schemed behind the scenes to maintain the throne, for whoever might emerge triumphant.

Flush with funds from the C.I.A., or from its own competing drug-trafficking rings, the military employed systematic bribery to procure a pliant bloc of parliamentarians. When lavish inducements were insufficient, they opted for force. Throughout the countryside in the spring of 1967, reports were rife of opposition campaign staff surveilled, threatened, assaulted and, in extreme cases, beaten to death.

Even assemblymen were targets of the generals’ wrath, receiving menacing phone calls, or bullets and dud grenades dispatched through the mail. Reinforcing the point, the military’s enforcer and National police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, took to pacing the parliamentary gallery, conspicuously displaying his revolver while imbibing six-packs of beer. On one occasion, a pro-military Catholic mob was permitted to storm the Assembly floor, smashing windows, destroying furniture and forcing parliamentarians to flee.

All the while press censorship, proscribed by the Constitution, continued uninterrupted through the spring of 1967.

Convinced that Washington called the shots, the opposition implored the American Embassy to intervene. Yet far from pulling the strings, as many have since presumed, the United States often struggled to comprehend, much less choreograph, its purported proxies. Worried that intervention would only inflame things, Washington stood aside while the generals stacked the deck for its preferred candidates.

Next, calculating — correctly — that the remaining civilian contestants would be too busy bickering to unite, the generals spurned American-backed opposition demands for a runoff. Instead, wielding their encroaching influence over the Assembly, they pursued a divide-and-conquer approach, ramming through an election law that allowed all civilian comers to cast their hats into the ring. Finally, imposing peace between Thieu and Ky, the top brass ignored Washington’s pleas for a civilian-military slate, instead assigning both men to a joint all-military ticket, as president and vice president respectively.

Then, in July, the campaign officially commenced. Supported by state-sponsored air travel and security, candidates toured the nation, fielding questions, delivering speeches and staging debates — and, in a novel innovation for South Vietnam, enjoying equal airtime on the radio.

Truong Dinh Dzu, an obscure lawyer with a shady past, emerged as a master of oratory on the airwaves. Biding his time until his candidacy was approved, Dzu then released an otherwise disqualifying peace agenda, calling for an unconditional cease-fire and immediate negotiations with Hanoi.

The other 10 candidates could be just as striking in their candor, condemning the government on a range of issues, including corruption, inequality, inflation, urban squalor, the destruction of the countryside and the devastating impact of American influence on Vietnamese society. With the candidates representing a range of policies and backgrounds, from dovish southern liberals to militant northern Catholics pledging to forcibly “liberate” the North, the election remains unique in the history of Vietnamese politics.

Generals Thieu and Ky were expected to win 50 percent of the ballot — a clear mandate, though modest enough to dispel vote-rigging accusations. The remaining votes would be harmlessly diffused among the 10 civilians, exactly as the military had planned. For all his rhetorical skill, Dzu was projected to take just 4 percent of the vote.

Then, on Sept. 3, voters took to the polls, and counting began.

When the dust settled, an 83 percent turnout was virtually the only unsurprising result. Decades-old anticolonial parties like the Vietnamese Nationalists were obliterated, their clandestine traditions, designed to evade colonial police, proving ill-suited to competing for first-time voters. Likewise, two presumed civilian front-runners, Tran Van Huong and Phan Khac Suu, suffered disappointing results, save in Saigon. Even the victorious generals were rebuked, with a winning share of just 34 percent despite their enormous administrative advantages.

The generals polled best in the remote Central Highlands, where ethnic minorities were marched single-file to the polls, commanded to cast their votes for Thieu and Ky, and sent on their way. But elsewhere, South Vietnam’s customary clientelism broke down, especially in the vote-rich Mekong Delta. Here, feuding among leaders of the Hoa Hao, the region’s largest religious sect, left followers free to vote their conscience.

And when they did, like hundreds of thousands nationwide, they voted for the peace candidate, Dzu. He came in second place, with 17 percent.

In Saigon, observers were aghast at seeing their esteemed stalwarts eclipsed by an unknown radical. Ky threatened to imprison him in a cage on the palace lawn should he ever win an election. Rumors that Dzu was a French spy or a Communist agent abounded, though a thorough report by the United States Embassy found no substantive evidence.

Dzu’s success suggested an alternative to the politics of cronyism and horse-trading, demonstrating the potential to mobilize popular support through political ideals. His campaign inspired successor parties, likewise looking to build grass-roots networks through calls for peace. And years later, politicians of all stripes still mimicked his white dove emblem.

Much as civilian campaigners had hoped, the election helped reconnect city and countryside. But the revelation that rural citizens preferred ending the violence to vanquishing Communism went beyond what Saigon officials were willing to entertain.

Dzu’s rise, however, was brief. Regarded with skepticism at best in Saigon circles, and widely considered arrogant and intemperate, he soon fell out with the more radical student and Buddhist groups. More serious still, Dzu had no political organization behind him, and, after the campaign, no access to radio broadcasting, his sole means of communicating with his rural base.

Detained days after the vote on trumped-up charges, he spent much of the remaining war in a military prison, his plight attracting more attention overseas than at home. Behind the scenes, administrators of the districts he had carried were demoted, dismissed, or worse still, reassigned to Communist-controlled regions.

Beyond Dzu’s unfortunate fate, a sense of gloom pervaded the capital. Crowds assembled to condemn the military’s election fraud, and even conservative loyalists regretted that its clumsiness had further tarnished Saigon’s image abroad.

Upon reflection, several commenters conceded that modest progress had been made. Tran Van Tuyen, a well-known political moderate, perhaps best captured the prevailing mood: “I am not optimistic like those who say that if we have a constitution and an assembly, we can have democracy, and if we have a popularly elected regime, we can have peace.” “But,” he acknowledged, “in the midst of the current political chaos, having something in hand is better than void and nothingness.”

Tuyen’s remarks were borne out when, during the 1968 Communist Tet offensive, the new constitutional order withstood its first test of fire. “Had it not been there and had we in its stead a fragile military junta such as existed in other years,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled, “the government would have been much more vulnerable.”

Critically, with Tet underlining the urgency of overcoming deep-seeded anti-communist divisions, the Constitution and Assembly served as both a forum and a symbol to rally behind. And with Communist forces on the defensive after devastating American counterattacks, Tet offered a rare chance for South Vietnamese constitutionalists to win back rural constituents, building on foundations set during the 1967 campaign.

And then the generals threw it away.

Frustrated by Assembly constraints and paranoid of yet another military coup, incoming President Thieu pursued repressive stability at the expense of the admittedly chaotic constitutional system. Filling appointed positions with subordinates, he then turned against the Assembly, imprisoning its most outspoken critics on flimsy pretexts.

The point of no return came with his bid for re-election in 1971, a debacle that stands in stark contrast to the measured optimism inspired by the 1967 campaign.

Determined to consolidate power, Thieu ordered his henchmen to administer a victory. When his written vote-rigging orders inevitably leaked, the other contestants all withdrew in protest. Undeterred, he proceeded to run unopposed, reframing the contest as a referendum on his leadership.

Then, following his inexorable re-election, Thieu seized the pretext of renewed Communist attacks to crush independent parties and the press, drawing a curtain on the experiment in limited democracy. These rash acts undermined the entire basis of irreplaceable American funding, and intensified pressure on the White House to withdraw from the war. Even Saigon’s staunchest anti-Communists turned against him.

Looking back, the 1967 election stands out as a moment of contingency, a point from which a different future path appeared possible, had critical political choices gone the other way. It also suggests that the decisions driving events were made more often in Saigon or Hanoi than in Washington, and that Vietnamese actors were always the principle players in their own drama.

Though in itself insufficient to save South Vietnam, the election and its accompanying constitutional order represented a necessary first step toward reform, a blueprint for how a workable republican polity might have evolved, and perhaps the sole means of uniting the South’s implacable factions, save their shared mutual aversion to the Communists’ much more capable authoritarianism.

But when the state betrayed even its most faithful adherents, the blow to determination and morale was devastating — and imperative to understanding how the bigger and better equipped South Vietnamese military startled Communist strategists with the speed of its ultimate collapse.

Sean Fear is a lecturer in modern international history at the University of Leeds.

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