The government of Ngô Đình Diệm declined the plan for a phased integration of the sect troops on the grounds that it was a time-wasting scheme. Personally, I had a feeling that Ngô Đình Diệm was strongly influenced by the July 1956 general election deadline which was stipulated by the Geneva agreements. According to the agreements, the South and the North were to negotiate a settlement and hold a nationwide general election within two years from July 20, 1954. Moreover, when talking to Ngô Đình Diệm, government officials and independent politicians in early 1955, I did observe a general feeling of apprehension relative to the upcoming election deadline. At the time, very few - if any - people suggested a radical solution such as refuting the Geneva agreements, including the general election clause.
In retrospect, it became clear that the July 1956 election deadline was of little importance in terms of contemporary politics in the South because the deadline could have been easily changed or rejected, as eventually happened. However, in late 1954 and early 1955, Ngô Đình Diệm presumably cited deadline-related pressures as a pretext and rejected the proposed phased integration of the sect troops.
Furthermore, Ngô Đình Diệms views relative to the armed religious minorities were influenced and colored by the opinions of his trusted aid, Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ. Son of Huyện Chơn, a rich landowner from Long Xuyên, Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ clearly belonged to the privileged few of colonial society as he served as a secretary of Indochina Governor General Decoux and subsequently was named the province chief of Long Xuyên. Since many Hòa Hảo followers refused to recognize his authority as head of the provincial administration, Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ later viewed the Hòa Hảo community in predominantly negative terms.
On the other hand, high-ranking officers of the Chief of Staffs office of the national army and Ngô Đình Diệms advisers, notably Edward Lansdale, also played an important role in rejecting the plan for a phased integration of the sect troops. They were eager to engage the sect troops in combat relying on their position of power. Yet they ignored the importance and complexity of the sect problem as well as its long-term political implications.
Therefore, only a military solution of the problem remained feasible because the sects also did not accept the governments hard-line position, which was seen as stubborn and unreasonable by the armed minorities. Hence, inevitable developments ensued as the government launched a military operation in Saigon to destroy the Bình Xuyên forces. Subsequently, Hòa Hảo units were attacked and eliminated in the western provinces of the Mekong Delta.
It should be pointed out that the units of the national army were created and trained by the French in order to combat Việt Minh fighters throughout vast terrain, notably in the North. They had modern US weapons and, in the wake of the evacuation to the South, army units took over the military facilities, which had been previously used by the outgoing French Expeditionary Corps. Therefore, since the National Army no longer faced its traditional foe, the Communist unit, the army retained unprecedented combat capabilities in terms of personnel and weaponry.
Moreover, in the wake of the Geneva Agreements, many officers of the national army were evacuated from the North and became displaced. They, their dependents and other northern refugees supported Ngô Đình Diệm since they viewed him as a fellow asylum seeker. Under the concrete social and political circumstances in the South in 1954, the government of Ngô Đình Diệm seemed a perfect representation for Northern refugees. Therefore, most of the refugees and military officers backed Ngô Đình Diệm and opposed the sects.
In addition, due to a variety of historical and political reasons, many National Army officers tended to view the sect forces as armed bands without proper military discipline and uniforms, who were led by uneducated leaders and oppressed the people. When the armed minorities challenged the authority of Ngô Đình Diệm, the national army commanders perceived it as a personal affront.
On the other hand, in early 1955, the Vietnamese armed forces, formerly auxiliary troops of the French military machine in Indochina, were in the process of emancipation. Therefore the Vietnamese army considered the destruction of the sect forces as a perfect opportunity to establish itself as an army of an independent state, capable of carrying out large-scale military operations. The “Extraordinary” success of Generals Đỗ Cao Trí, Dương Văn Đức, and Dương Văn Minh was achieved in the course of the operation to destroy the sect forces. Paradoxically, the National Army accomplished probably its most significant military victory not in action against the Communists but against fellow nationalist forces.
The US representatives viewed the sects in predominantly negative terms. Coming from a developed democratic society and with a limited experience of direct involvement in Vietnamese affairs, they did not understand why the religious armed minorities had emerged in South Vietnam. The Americans just scratched the surface of the sect problem and decided to destroy the sect forces immediately so as to strengthen the authority of Ngô Đình Diệm, who was supposed to confront the Communist threat from the North.
The French understood better the sect phenomenon, on the eve of their final departure from Indochina, the French were no longer in position to effectively help the armed minorities. In fact, from mid-1954 on, the French cut financial subsidies and military supplies to the sect forces. On February 10, 1955 all assistance to the armed minorities was halted completely.
Subsequently, after early 1955 the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài troops experienced an acute financial crisis as well as a shortage of ammunition. Only the Bình Xuyên forces still possessed considerable financial resources, mainly due to huge profits from the Grand Monde and Kim Chung gambling centers. Although General Lê Văn Viễn provided some limited financial assistance to his Hòa Hảo and Caodaist allies, the armed minorities faced increasing financial deficits. Notably, the Hòa Hảo army of some 30,000 men was suddenly deprived of the French assistance, while its own reserves could have kept it afloat for just two or three months. The Caodaist forces were in an equally difficult position.
From its inception in early March 1955, the United Front of the National Forces included the Hòa Hảo forces, the Social-Democratic Party, the Cao Đài army, the Bình Xuyên, as well as the Caodaist faction Liên Minh of General Trình Minh Thế. However, the Front failed to sustain its internal unity. Due to the lobbying of Colonel Lansdale, the Liên Minh of General Trình Minh Thế and the Caodaist armed forces of General Nguyễn Thành Phương soon defected from the Front and rallied to the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. The defection of General Nguyễn Thành Phương on March 31, 1955 dealt the Front a particularly hard blow as the Fronts armed forces lost nearly 40 percent of its troops. Correspondingly, the defection of two Caodaist generals came as a serious political and psychological setback for the Front.
Although the Fronts chairman and Caodaist leader Phạm Công Tắc appointed a former Caodaist commander-in-chief, General Nguyễn Văn Thành, to replace Nguyễn Thành Phương in the capacity of the Fronts leadership member, the move failed to improve the situation. Although General Nguyễn Văn Thành was capable of raising a new Caodaist army, the task could not be achieved overnight. In April 1955 he did not have any troops at his immediate disposal.
In the immediate aftermath of March 25 futile talks between Ngô Đình Diệm and the delegation of the Front, my personal perspectives became predominantly pessimistic. I was convinced that a civil war was inevitable due to Ngô Đình Diệms obduracy and hard-line position, which was supported by the US Embassy in Saigon. Moreover, although US Special Envoy General Lawton Collins was not so keen to support Ngô Đình Diệm, the views of Edward Lansdale eventually prevailed.
It has been understood that Collins and Lansdale disagreed over proposed schemes to settle conflicts between the Front and Ngô Đình Diệm. The US Ambassador tried to forestall an escalation of the crisis and bloodshed. Collins aimed at dealing with the sects peacefully and tried to convince Ngô Đình Diệm to follow a path of prudence.
Moreover, in his memoirs General Lansdale acknowledged his disagreements with Collins who had been keen to avoid bloodshed in Saigon. According to Lansdale, Ambassador Collins believed that the Franco-American plan of dealing with the sect crisis was feasible. The plan involved the immediate removal of Diệms brothers Nhu and Luyện from Vietnam, and the inclusion of opposition leaders into the government. According to the plan, a Temporary Council was to be convened on May 15 to pick a candidate for the office of Prime Minister. The Council would have included 60 representatives of the sects, 16 representatives of Northern refugees and 10 supporters of Diệm. Not surprisingly, Ngô Đình Diệm rejected the plan while Lansdale described it as a provocation rather than a solution. Lansdale, Edward G. Tôi làm Quân sư cho Tổng Thống Ngô Đình Diệm. /I Was Military Adviser of President Ngô Đình Diệm/. Saigon: Văn Học, 1973, pp. 168-170.
As the most trusted adviser of Ngô Đình Diệm who freely entered the Independence Palace, Lansdale resolutely rejected any compromises with the sects. He personally convinced Ngô Đình Diệm that military action was a viable solution to the sect problem. Ngô Đình Diệm came to believe that Lansdales was the official US position despite the fact that Collins, special envoy of President Eisenhower, remained hesitant and did not believe in Ngô Đình Diệm.
Lansdale enlisted high-ranking officers of the national army to fulfil the plan designed to eliminate the Front by force. Moreover, Lansdale lobbied in Washington to have his point of view accepted. This is how the pendulum swung in Diệms favor. On the contrary, a more balanced position by the US Embassy would have forced Ngô Đình Diệm to pursue flexible policies and look for non-violent solutions.
A question of responsibility for the initial violent incident in Saigon remains a matter of debate as it was not certain that the Bình Xuyên had attacked first. No perpetrators responsible for the initial incident were determined. However, Trần Văn Ân later argued, quoting the US Embassy sources, that it had been Colonel Lansdale who had arranged a provocative grenade attack and pushed the Front into armed combat around midnight on the 29th of March 1955.
Lansdale was in position to pride himself with a victorious elimination of the “private armies,” yet the bitter truth eventually materialized. In retrospect, the military victories of Dương Văn Minh and the execution of “Hòa Hảo warlord” Lê Quang Vinh proved to be the regimes failures as these events alienated the masses of rural population. The generals loyal to Ngô Đình Diệm succeeded in destroying the armed minorities yet the regime failed to deal with the growing discontent among some four million Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài followers. The temporary military success of 1955 eventually caused the downfall of Ngô Đình Diệms regime in 1963 and the subsequent total collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.