In March 1955, the “United Front of the National Forces,” or Mặt Trận Thống Nhứt Toàn Lực Quốc Gia was formed. Caodaist leader Phạm Công Tắc became the chairman of the Front, which included the Hòa Hảo community, the Social-Democratic Party, the Cao Đài, the Bình Xuyên, as well as the Caodaist dissident faction Liên Minh of General Trình Minh Thế.
On March 21, the Front presented Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm with a letter which eventually became known as the ultimatum. The letter suggested a government reshuffle. Ngô Đình Diệm invited the Fronts delegation to the Independence Palace for consultations.
On March 25, the Fronts mission visited the palace. The leaders of the Front were somewhat reluctant to demonstrate their full commitment to the opposition. It was headed by General Lâm Thành Nguyễn of the Hòa Hảo forces and Tây Ninh Holy See representative Lê Thiện Phước, a dignitary of the legislative branch with the high rank of Bảo Thế. The mission also included Trần Văn Ân, the Fronts adviser; Colonel Trần Thái Huệ of the Caodaist armed forces; Nhị Lang, representative of the Liên Minh faction; and the author of this book, Thành Nam, in his capacity as a Hòa Hảo representative.
It should be pointed out that at the time, General Trình Minh Thế was still a member of the Fronts Executive Committee, or Ban Chấp Hành. He had signed the Front documents. Characteristically, behind his signature Trình Minh Thế added a written reservation, stating that though he was the “National Army general and did not have a right to become engaged in politics yet he saw a threat to the nation and therefore approved the document.”
Before the Fronts mission departed on March 25, General Lê Văn Viễn ordered his troops and artillery units to prepare for the shelling of the Independence Palace in the event the delegation would have been detained. Lê Văn Viễns order, which was accurately mentioned in Nhị Langs book, indicated a very tense atmosphere indeed.
However, it should be made clear that two important points in Nhị Langs account were not based in reality, probably because the author forgot the exact details of the past events. Notably, Nhị Lang claimed that the Fronts delegation head, General Lâm Thành Nguyên, did deliver the ultimatum to Ngô Đình Diệm thus causing the Prime Ministers ire. As a matter of fact, Lâm Thành Nguyên just gave Ngô Đình Diệm the official authorization letter signed by the Fronts chairman Phạm Công Tắc. The letter stated that all members of the mission were authorized by the Front to negotiate with the Prime Minister and make decisions. I clearly remembered this detail. Due to the general atmosphere of hostility both sides no confidence in one another, hence, after a special discussion, the Fronts Executive Committee decided that the authorization letter was needed. The letter was specifically designed to forestall a possible refusal by Ngô Đình Diệm to talk with the delegation on the ground that it was not properly empowered. The government could have accused the Front of the negotiations failure. Moreover, in his invitation letter, the Prime Minister specifically suggested the sending of a properly authorized delegation.
Furthermore, the Fronts demands were not even handed to Diệm as disagreements immediately surfaced during the talks. The delegation members had a program about three pages long. They did not show it to Diệm, stating that he would have to accept the principle of changing his government first before they would reveal what their program was.
Trần Văn Ân recalled in his memoirs that the program had intended to cut the number of ministries from 14 down to 9. The sects claimed only three portfolios while Diệm was supposed to fill the remaining six posts. Trần Văn Ân also recommended that Diệm accept a principle of cooperation and the Fronts spokesman, Thành Nam, was supposed to give the premier the program of the Front.
The author of this book did keep the Fronts program during the meeting with Ngô Đình Diệm on March 25. I was named the official spokesman of the Fronts mission and was authorized to decide whether to deliver the Fronts program to the premier or not. The decision was to depend on the negotiations atmosphere. In the event Ngô Đình Diệm would have shown a willingness to cooperate and reach an amicable solution, then the Fronts program would have been submitted to the government. On the contrary, the continued hard-line position and the arrogant attitudes of the government would have made any discussion of the program worthless.
I did decide not to submit the Fronts program to Ngô Đình Diệm because during the session he merely confirmed his hard-line position relative to the integration of the sect armed forces. Notably, Diệm insisted that the sects armed forces should be integrated first, while the political issues were to be settled afterwards. The Front suggested that all political and military issues should have been solved simultaneously, in one package, while the integration process should have been phased.
I knew that many officers of the National Army and civilian advisers of the government also subscribed to the hard-line position relative to the sect forces. I believe their stance was influenced by Edward Lansdale, Ngô Đình Diệms most trusted adviser, who rejected all compromises with the armed minorities. Lansdales views determined Diệms stubborn reluctance to compromise with the armed minorities.
The Front agreed to integrate all armed groups into the National army and discontinue the “private armies” phenomenon. However, the Front insisted that the integration should have been phased, coming as a result of a general consensus between all parties concerned. The Front warned that forceful efforts to cut down the size of the sect armies and dry up their financial resources would have caused troubles.
In practical terms, the Front suggested that 3,000 Hòa Hảo and 3,000 Caodaist soldiers should have been integrated as a first stage. The Front also insisted that the government must compensate demobilized sect soldiers by providing them plots of land and agricultural loans. Demobilization should have been preceded by a propaganda campaign to convince the sect soldiers either to demobilize or join the National Army voluntarily.
We argued that the governments assistance for demobilized sect troops should have been provided on the same terms for the demobilized National Army personnel. Those Hòa Hảo officers who wished to continue their military careers were to receive extra training in military schools and receive ranks according to the number of years spent on active duty.
Moreover, we believed that the peasant mentality of the Hòa Hảo and Cao Đài soldiers was to be respected. In other words, the government had to recognize their contribution to the anti-Communist struggle both in terms of moral and material support. We warned that the governments indifference towards demobilized sect soldiers would cause widespread disillusionment among peasant masses.
The measures to aid troops discharged from sect forces, including land allocation and loans, would not have constituted a really great burden for the state coffers. In fact, these measures were well in line with the government policies of land reform. Moreover, in any post-war society the economic needs of the demobilized soldiers turned peasants were to be met largely by proposed agricultural projects to open up new farmlands and to increase profitable yields of the land owned by these farmers.
Basically, the Front asked the government to implement the decrees 973/QP, 1025/QP, and 1026/QP, which Diệm had signed on November 3, 1954. According to the decrees, the Hòa Hảo troops were to be reorganized as regular army units. They had to wear the uniforms of the national army with the brown Hòa Hảo insignia. During the transitional period, there should have been a special sect department within the defense ministry and the office of general staff. Hòa Hảo military schools in Cái Vồn and Bình Mỹ were to be eventually closed while the Hòa Hảo officers were to be retrained in Thủ Đức and Đà Lạt military colleges. The Hòa Hảo troops were to surrender their weapons and then to be armed by the national army.
In short, the integrated Hòa Hảo troops were temporarily allowed to sustain their special status as a special Hòa Hảo force of the national army, also known in French as “Phalange Hoa-Hao des Forces Armées Vietnamiennes.” The Front believed that with a background of previous mutual mistrust between the armed minorities and the central government, any forced measures to expedite the integration would have been counterproductive.
Besides, there was a recent precedent of a phased integration. In February 1955 the Liên Minh faction of General Trình Minh Thế allied with the government of Ngô Đình Diệm well in line with the principles of the decrees 973/QP, 1025/QP, and 1026/QP. Although the Liên Minh troops were formally integrated and wore the army uniform, they still remained a special force within the National Army. General Trình Minh Thế still served as supreme commander of this special force and the army chief of staff could not issue orders to the Liên Minh troops circumventing General Trình Minh Thế.
It should be pointed out that despite preferential treatment by the government, the integration of the Liên Minh troops was a difficult process. Nhị Lang recalled that Trình Minh Thế was viewed as an outsider by the National Army officers who found it difficult to recognize the general rank of an uneducated Caodaist fighter. Nhị Lang, 1989, pp. 258-259. Notably, subordinates of General Lê Văn Tỵ treated Trình Minh Thế with definite hostility. It happened despite Thếs proven nationalist record. For instance, on August 25, 1945 Trình Minh Thế publicly accused the Việt Minh leader Trần Văn Giàu of treason and threatened him with a handgun at one mass gathering in Saigon. The Caodaist General fought the French for years while most of the National Army officers were trained by the French. Moreover, even when Trình Minh Thế was nearing his final combat engagement near Tân Thuận Bridge he still faced the insubordination of National Army officers as Colonel Dương Văn Minh failed to provide military vehicles to the Liên Minh troops on May 3, 1955.
It might be argued that soon after Trình Minh Thế had left his base on the Bà Đen Mountain he became disgruntled and disagreed with the governments oppressive policies. If he were not killed near Tân Thuận Bridge, soon afterwards Ngô Đình Diệm probably should have launched yet another military operation to wipe out the Liên Minh “sect troops.”
This precedent indicated that the integration of the sect forces could not be achieved overnight and required a special transition period. In late 1954 the armed minorities urged Ngô Đình Diệm to have a 12-18 month transition period. If accepted, the integration of the sect forces could have been achieved peacefully by late 1955 or mid-1956. However, Ngô Đình Diệm rejected a phased integration as a time-wasting process.
Moreover, before the crucial negotiations on March 25 and my subsequent 9-year-long political exile, I had many opportunities to meet with the Prime Minister, including three negotiation sessions, in the capacity of a liaison and negotiation official of the Hòa Hảo community. I was also in constant communication with the Caodaist dignitaries and military leaders, notably the Fronts chairman Phạm Công Tắc.
Once Ngô Đình Diệm met with me inside the Independence Palace from 10 AM to 12.30 to discuss problems of the sect troops integration. Diệm chain smoked, but always spoke quietly and never expressed dissatisfaction though our opinions differed sharply. I was also invited to share Diệms simple lunch, during which I had an opportunity to explain the reasons why I joined Hòa Hảo Buddhism, being a native of North Vietnam. I was keen to explain the Fronts position in an informal atmosphere. Notably, I warned Diệm against indiscriminately viewing all Hòa Hảo soldiers as “bandits.” Despite the presence of certain criminal elements among the Hòa Hảo forces, most Hòa Hảo soldiers lived in poverty and needed government support. Although I managed to explain fully the Fronts position to Ngô Đình Diệm, my efforts seemingly led nowhere.
Aside from the issues of the integration of the sect forces, the Fronts program dealt with institutional reforms. For instance, the Front suggested the formation of an advisory body, the State Council or Hội Đồng Quốc Chánh, which was to include representatives of the mass movements. The Council was due to advise the Prime Minister on domestic affairs in order to avoid biased and dictatorial policies. The Front also suggested that the cabinet should have included able technocrats rather than representatives of political groups.
It should be clarified here that the Front did not demand yet another government reshuffle or Diệms ouster. The program implied reforms of the central government in a way to prevent the undue influence of certain individuals. Furthermore, the Front specifically demanded the removal of Diệms brother Ngô Đình Nhu and his wife, Trần Lệ Xuân, from active politics. This particular demand by the Front arguably was one of the reasons why Diệm declined to cooperate with the Front. However, in retrospect a consensus has emerged that the attitudes and actions of both Ngô Đình Nhu and Trần Lệ Xuân proved extremely detrimental to the interests of South Vietnam and the First Republic.
Nhị Lang also alleged that in March 1955 the head of state Bảo Đại had promised to appoint Lê Văn Viễn as Prime Minister of the future government in the event of Diệms ouster. Nhị Lang, 1989, pp. 282-284. There was no talk whatsoever relative to elevating Lê Văn Viễn to the post of Prime Minister. In fact it was a propaganda ploy by Ngô Đình Diệms government designed to undermine the Fronts image and scare the population. The Fronts leaders and General Lê Văn Viễn himself all acknowledged that the Bình Xuyên leader did not qualify for this important political post.
Moreover, the Front did not intend to suggest any of its leaders as a future head of the government, because the Fronts position could have been misinterpreted as power-seeking political maneuvers. The gist of the Fronts demands was to reform the structure of the central government in order to avoid the undue influence of certain individuals, notably Ngô Đình Nhu. Even in the event of Diệms ouster the Front did not intend to suggest any of its members to fill the post. Contrariwise, the Front planned to support an independent southern politician with the ability to stabilize the situation. I remember that during the Fronts internal discussions, Dr. Hồ Văn Nhựt was specifically mentioned as a potential candidate.
A number of experienced politicians, including Trần Văn Ân, Hồ Hữu Tường, Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh and Dr. Lê Kiều, joined the Front. They and other Front leaders thoroughly discussed the matter and decided not to suggest any member of the Front as a prospective Prime Minister. Therefore, Lê Văn Viễn could not be considered as a potential candidate by the Front.
It was an element of utmost importance relative to the Fronts position. However, since the Fronts collapse in 1955 its activists have had no opportunity to express themselves. On the contrary, only the biased claims of the winning side became available for domestic and international public via the propaganda machine of Ngô Đình Diệms regime. Diệms propaganda apparatus as well as the contemporary press lost no time in depicting the Front as a group closely associated with gambling, robbery, prostitution and all other social evils.
In the aftermath of the Fronts demise, its activists had no freedom of political action, hence, they became derelict in their ability to defend their position and had no access to media outlets to disseminate their views.