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In this Vietnamese name, the family name is Nguyễn. According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to by the given name Thơ.
Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ

US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (centre) and Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ (far right) review ARVN marines at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam
In office
November 6, 1963 – January 30, 1964
Preceded by none
Succeeded by Nguyễn Khánh

Born 26 May 1908 (1908-05-26) (age 101)
Long Xuyên

Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ (born May 26, 1908) is a Vietnamese politician who was the first Prime Minister of South Vietnam, serving from November 1963 to late January 1964. Thơ was appointed to head a civilian cabinet by the military junta of General Dương Văn Minh, which came to power after overthrowing and assassinating Ngô Đình Diệm, the nation’s first president. Thơ’s rule was marked by a period of confusion and weak government, as the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) and the civilian cabinet vied for power. Thơ lost his job and retired from politics when Minh’s junta was deposed in a January 1964 coup by General Nguyễn Khánh.

The son of a wealthy landowner, Thơ rose through the ranks as a low-profile provincial chief under French colonial rule. Following World War II, he became the Interior Minister in the French-backed State of Vietnam. After the establishment of the Republic of Vietnam following the partition of Vietnam, Thơ helped to dismantle the private armies of the Hòa Hảo religious sect. This earned him the vice presidential role, which was given in order to widen the popular appeal of Diệm’s nepotistic regime. Thơ was not allowed to take part in policy decisions and had little meaningful power, as Diệm’s brothers, Ngô Ðình Nhu and Ngô Đình Cẩn, commanded their own private armies and secret police, and ruled arbitrarily. Thơ oversaw South Vietnam’s failed land reform policy, and was accused of lacking vigour in implementing the program because he was a large landowner. He was noted for his faithful support of Diệm during the Buddhist crisis that ended the rule of the Ngô family. Despite being a Buddhist, Thơ staunchly defended the regime’s pro-Roman Catholic policies and its violent actions against the Buddhist majority.


Early career

The son of a wealthy southern landowner, Thơ was born in the province of Long Xuyên in the Mekong Delta. He began his bureaucratic career in 1930,[1] serving the French colonial authorities as a low-profile provincial chief.[2] During World War II, Thơ rose to become the first secretary of the Resident Superior of Annam, the French governor of the central region of Vietnam. During this time, he crossed paths with Ngô Đình Diệm, a former Interior Minister under the French regime in the 1930s. The French thought that Diệm was working with Imperial Japan and tried to have him arrested, but Thơ tipped off Diệm and the Kempeitai, resulting in their escape.[3] In March 1945, Japan, which had invaded and occupied French Indochina in 1941 during World War II, decided to take direct control and overthrew the French colonial regime. Thơ was thrown into a crowded cell with several other prisoners that had no light or toilet and filled with their own excrement.[1] One of his cellmates was Dương Văn Minh, then a junior officer in the French military forces with whom he would work over the next two decades. Thơ was released first and lobbied to have Minh released as well and the pair remained close friends.[1]

Following World War II, Thơ became Interior Minister in the French-backed State of Vietnam under the puppet Emperor Bảo Đại. Following the withdrawal of France from Indochina after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, Vietnam was partitioned into a communist north and anti-communist south. Following the proclamation of the Republic of Vietnam—commonly known as South Vietnam—by President Ngô Đình Diệm, who had dethroned Bảo Đại in a fraudulent referendum, Thơ was appointed the inaugural ambassador to Japan. Despite spending most of his time in Tokyo confined to his bed by a fractured hip, Thơ secured reparations from Japan for its imperial occupation of Vietnam during World War II.[4]

In 1956, Diệm recalled him to Saigon to help deal with the Hòa Hảo, a religious sect equipped with a private army. The Hòa Hảo was effectively an autonomous entity in the Mekong Delta, as its private army enforced a parallel administration and refused to integrate into the Saigon administration. While the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) General Dương Văn Minh led the military effort against the Hòa Hảo, Thơ helped to weaken the sect by buying off its warlords.[4]

However, one fanatical Hòa Hảo commander, Ba Cụt, continued to fight, and had a personal history of bad blood with Thơ's family. The orphaned and illiterate Ba Cụt's adopted father's rice paddies were confiscated by Thơ's father.[5] This imbued Ba Cụt with a permanent hatred towards the landowning class.[5][6]

Eventually, Ba Cụt was surrounded, and sought to make a peace deal, so he sent a message to Thơ, asking for negotiations so that his men could be integrated into mainstream society and the nation's armed forces. Thơ agreed to meet Ba Cụt alone in the jungle, and despite fears that the meeting was a Hòa Hảo trap, he was not ambushed. However, Ba Cụt began asking for additional concessions and the meeting ended in a stalemate.[7] According to historian Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Ba Cụt’s lifelong antipathy towards Thơ’s family influenced his brinkmanship during his last stand.[6] Ba Cụt was captured on April 13, 1956, and guillotined after a brief trial,[8] and his remaining forces were defeated in battle.[8][9]

During this period, Thơ was the Secretary of State for the National Economy.[4] In November, Diệm appointed Thơ as vice president in an effort to widen the regime's popular appeal. The appointment was endorsed by the National Assembly in December 1956, in accordance with the constitution.[10] The move was widely seen as attempt to use Thơ's Mekong Delta roots to increase the government’s popular appeal among southern peasants, because Diệm's regime was dominated by family members, who were minority Roman Catholics from central Vietnam.[4]

Diệm era

A portrait of a middle-aged man, looking to the left in a half-portrait/profile. He has chubby cheeks, parts his hair to the side and wears a suit and tie.
Ngô Đình Diệm (pictured), the President of South Vietnam.

Despite the importance of his title, Thơ rarely appeared with Diệm in public and was a figurehead with little influence. The real power lay with Diệm's brothers, Ngô Ðình Nhu and Ngô Đình Cẩn, who commanded private armies and secret police, as well as giving orders directly to ARVN generals. Nhu once ordered a bodyguard to slap Thơ because he felt the vice president showed him a lack of respect.[4] Diệm held Thơ in contempt and did not allow him to take part in major policy decisions, despite theoretically being the second most powerful man in the country.[11] Thơ had a rapport with the military officers, having befriended Minh years earlier.[4] He was regarded as a genial and affable administrator with a reputation for making compromises.[1]

Thơ was charged with overseeing South Vietnam’s land reform program, because the minister of agrarian reform, Nguyễn Van Thoi, answered to him. As both men were wealthy landowners, they had little incentive for the program to succeed.[12] The U.S. embassy received angry criticism of Thoi's lack of enthusiasm towards implementing the policy, stating, "he is most certainly not interested in land distribution which would divest him of much of his property".[12]

Thơ also retained a degree of influence over domestic economic policies, which ran far behind Diệm's priorities of absolute control over the military and other apparatus through which he maintained his rule. Despite never having been trained in economic matters, Thơ had a prominent hand in the administration of the Commodity Import Program, an American initiative akin to the Marshall Plan, whereby aid was funnelled into the economy through importing licenses rather than money, in order to avoid inflation. However, Thơ's administration of the program led to the vast majority of the imports being consumer goods for the upper classes, rather than capital goods to develop South Vietnam's economic capacity. Under Thơ’s watch, the foreign trade deficit hovered between 150 and 200%, and the gap between the urban elite and the peasant majority grew. American advisers thought Thơ and the Ngô brothers continually went against their counsel because they were either incompetent or simply distrustful and thus did the opposite of what was recommended.[13] Thơ also clashed with Interior Minister Nguyen Huu Chau over economic strategy. While Chau was the married to Madame Nhu's sister and was appointed due to nepotism, he was later driven out by the family for his dissent.[14] The American economic advisers said that Thơ, who was trained in public security, "knew more about political control than the 'basic laws of the market place'".[14] In mid-1961, after a visit by U.S. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson and pressure from leading American officials, Diệm relieved Thơ of his economic duties.[15]

Thơ then began to put try to put pressure on the Americans to influence Diệm. During a fact-finding mission by General Maxwell Taylor, the chief of the U.S. military, and Walt Rostow, Thơ and Minh complained of Diệm’s autocratic ways and religious favouritism towards Roman Catholics.[16] In 1962, he told senior U.S. Embassy official Joseph Mendenhall that Diệm's military subordinates invented arbitrary and falsely inflated figures of Vietcong fighters.[17]

Role in Buddhist crisis

Despite being a Buddhist, Thơ had a reputation for heaping praise on Diệm's Roman Catholic government. On Diệm's 62nd birthday, Thơ paid tribute, saying, "thanks to the Almighty for having given the country a leader whose genius was outweighed only by his virtue".[18] (Buddhism is a Dharmic religion which does not recognise a supreme being in a theistic sense.) Thơ later accompanied Diệm to the Roman Catholic Redemptorist Church to pray for the President. Thơ had little public following, with American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor calling him "unimpressive",[18][19] while prominent State Department official Paul Kattenberg derided Thơ as a "nonentity".[18][19]

In another project, the village of La Vang in Quảng Trị Province near the border with North Vietnam, was the scene of a female apparition in the late 19th century.[20] Buddhists claimed that the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (also known as Kuanyin; Vietnamese: Quan Âm) performed the miracle. Diệm's brother, Ngô Đình Thục, was the Archbishop of Huế and the foremost religious figure in South Vietnam's nepotistic regime. Thục declared that the apparition was the Virgin Mary, and ordered that a Roman Catholic cathedral be built in place of the makeshift Buddhist pagoda that occupied the site. Thơ made notable financial donations to the project for political reasons.[21]

In June, as the Buddhist crisis escalated, Diệm appointed Thơ to lead a government committee to deal with grievances raised by the Buddhist community following the Huế Vesak shootings,[22] in which eight Buddhists were killed by government forces while protesting a ban on the flying of Buddhist flags.[22][23] The committee concluded that the Vietcong were responsible for the deaths, despite all eyewitness reports and amateur video showing that the government fired directly at protesters. The committee's whitewashing caused Buddhist protests to escalate.[24] When de facto First Lady Madame Ngô Ðình Nhu mockingly described the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc as a "barbecue",[25] Thơ refused to condemn her remarks, saying that they were "personal opinions".[25]

Thơ was part of an Interministerial Committee, a group of government officials that negotiated a Joint Communique with the Buddhists to end the civil disobedience. An agreement was signed, but never implemented. Thơ was later criticised by the Nhus through their English language mouthpiece, the Times of Vietnam, for the deal.[26] Despite the general amnesty granted to arrested Buddhist activists, on August 13, Thơ gave a press conference during which he vowed to prosecute the Buddhist victims of the Huế Vesak shootings, and revoking the amnesty and vowing to jail Buddhist demonstrators.[27]

At a farewell dinner for U.S. ambassador Frederick Nolting in July, Thơ called for the Buddhists to be "crushed without pity".[28][29] He derisively said that Buddhism was not a religion and further claimed that although anybody could become a Buddhist monk, it took years of training to become a Catholic priest. When the Thai ambassador disagreed, citing his own previous monastic training, Thơ taunted him in front of other diplomats.[28]

With the pressure on the Diệm regime increasing during the Buddhist crisis, Nhu and Diệm began to shun their cabinet members because they presented arguments contrary to the thinking of the Ngô family. Many ministers attempted to resign, but Thơ was credited with persuading them to stay in office. Finding the situation increasingly intolerable, Thơ also considered resigning but the dissident generals urged him to remain. They were worried that mass resignations would arouse suspicion of a coup plot.[30]

Prime minister

Middle-aged black-haired man lies face half-down on the floor, covered on his face and dark suit and trousers with blood. His hands are behind his back.
The body of Diệm after his assassination

In private, Thơ expressed his displeasure with Diệm’s rule to U.S. officials. He complained of Diệm's reliance on Nhu in the running of the country, Nhu's attempt to run a police state through his secret Cần Lao Party and the lack of success against the Vietcong.[18] During the McNamara Taylor mission to South Vietnam, Thơ confided his belief that the country was heading in the wrong direction to the American delegation, imploring them to pressure Diệm to reform his policies.[31] He privately revealed his belief that of the thousands of fortified settlements built under Nhu's Strategic Hamlet Program, fewer than thirty were functional.[32]

Joseph Mendenhall, a senior Vietnam adviser in the US State Department, advocated the removal of Diệm in a military coup and his replacement with Thơ.[33] Thơ was privately aware that he was the choice of the generals to run the government after the planned overthrow of Diệm.[34]

By this time, Diệm and Nhu knew that there was a plot against them, but did not know that General Tôn Thất Đính, a palace favourite.[35] Nhu ordered Đính and Colonel Lê Quang Tung, the ARVN Special Forces commander,[36] to plan a fake coup against the Ngô family. One of Nhu’s objectives was to trick dissidents into joining the false uprising so that they could be identified and eliminated.[37] Another objective of the public relations stunt was to give a false impression of the strength of the regime.[35] The first stage of the scheme would involve loyalist soldiers, disguised as insurgents, faking a coup and vandalising the capital.[38] A "revolutionary government" consisting of opposition activists who had not consented to being named in the regime would be announced, while Diệm and Nhu would pretend to be on the run. During the orchestrated chaos of the first coup, the loyalists and Nhu's underworld contacts would kill the leading plotting generals and their assistants, such as Thơ, CIA agent Lucien Conein, and U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr..[39] A fake "counter-coup" was to follow, whereupon the loyalists would triumphantly re-enter Saigon to restore the Diệm regime. However, the plot failed because Đính was part of the coup plot and sent the loyalist forces out of the capital to open the door for the rebels.[38][40]

After the coup on November 1, 1963, in which Diệm and Nhu were killed, Thơ was appointed Prime Minister by Minh's military junta on November 6. He was the leading civilian in the provisional government overseen by the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC).[41] Minh had earlier promised to U.S. officials that the civilians would be above the generals in the hierarchy.[42] In addition, he was minister for finance and the economy.[43] Thơ's appointment was not universally popular, with some leading figures privately lobbying for a clean break from the Diệm era.[44]


Relationship with junta

Thơ's civilian government was plagued by infighting. According to Thơ's assistant, Nguyen Ngoc Huy, the presence of Generals Trần Văn Đôn and Tôn Thất Đính in both the civilian cabinet and the MRC paralysed the governance process. Đính and Đôn were subordinate to Thơ in the civilian government, but as members of the MRC they were superior to him. Whenever Thơ gave an order in the civilian hierarchy with which the generals disagreed, they would go into the MRC and give a counter-order.[43]

Saigon newspapers, which had re-opened following the end of Diệm’s censorship, reported that the junta was paralysed because all twelve generals in the MRC had equal power. Each member of the MRC had the power of veto, enabling them to stonewall policy decisions.[45] The press, which was liberalised following the downfall of Diệm,[46] strongly attacked Thơ, accusing his government of being "tools" of the MRC.[47] Thơ's record under Diệm's presidency was also called into question, with allegations circulating in the media that he had supported the repression of the Buddhists by Diệm and Nhu. Thơ claimed that he had countenanced Nhu's Xá Lợi Pagoda raids, attempting to prove that he would have resigned were it not for Minh's pleas to stay. The media further derided Thơ for the personal benefits that he gained from the Diệm administration's land policy. Minh defended Thơ's anti-Diệm credentials by declaring that Thơ had taken part in the planning of the coup "from the very outset" and that he enjoyed the "full confidence" of the junta.[47] At one point in December, Thơ could no longer withstand what the free media were publishing about him and called around 100 journalists into his office. An angry Thơ shouted at the writers and banged his first on the table, assailing them for what he regarded as inaccurate, irresponsible and disloyal reporting.[46] Thơ said that the media were lying in saying that he and his civilian cabinet were puppets of the generals, and claimed that one of the journalists was a communist while another was a drug addict.[46] He said that his administration would “take steps to meet the situation” if the media did not behave responsibly. Having already had his Information Minister, General Ðỗ Mậu, circulate a list of topics that were not to be reported on, Thơ had Mậu close down three newspapers for “disloyalty” on the following day.[46]

On January 1, 1964, a Council of Notables, comprising sixty leading citizens, met for the first time, having been selected by Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo. Its job was to advise the military and civilian wings of the government with a view towards reforming human rights, the constitution and the legal system. Thơ publicly stated that he expected a "rational attitude" coupled with "impartial and realistic judgments" and said that it was part of the provisional government’s quest to "clear the way for a permanent regime, which our people are longing for".[48] The council consisted almost entirely of professionals and academic leaders, with no representatives from the agricultural or labour movements. It soon became engaged in endless debate and never achieved its initial task of drafting a new constitution. Thơ later admitted that the Council was unrepresentative of South Vietnamese society and had been a failure. He claimed that the council's desire to move away from the rubber stamp model of Diệm's National Assembly had caused it to degenerate into a debating society.[48]


With the fall of Diệm, various American sanctions that were implemented against South Vietnam in response to the repression of the Buddhist crisis and the attacks by Nhu's Special Forces on Xá Lợi Pagoda were lifted. The freeze on U.S. economic aid, the suspension of the Commercial Import Program and various capital works initiatives were lifted. The United States quickly moved to recognise Thơ and Minh.[49]

Thơ’s government halted Nhu’s Strategic Hamlet Program. Nhu had trumpeted the program as the solution to South Vietnam’s difficulties with Vietcong insurgents, believing that the mass relocation of peasants into fortified villages would isolate the Vietcong from their peasant support base. Thơ contradicted Nhu's earlier reports on the success of the program, claiming that only 20% of the 8,600 existing strategic hamlets were under Saigon's control, with the rest having been taken over by the communists. Those hamlets that were deemed to be tenable were consolidated, while the remainder were dismantled and their inhabitants returned to their ancestral land.[50]

Thơ's approach to removing Diệm supporters from positions of influence drew criticism from both supporters and opponents of the deposed president. Some felt that he was not vigorous enough in removing pro-Diệm elements from authority, whereas others felt that the magnitude of the turnover of public servants was excessive and bordering on vengeance.[45] A number of officials suspected of having engaged in corruption or Diệmist oppression were indiscriminately arrested without charge, most of whom were later released. Đính and the new national police chief, General Mai Hữu Xuân, were given control of the interior ministry. The pair were accused of arresting people en masse, before releasing them in return for bribes and pledges of loyalty.[45] Not all officials under Diệm could automatically be considered pro-Diệm, yet there were calls for further removals of the old guard. The government was criticised for firing large numbers of district and provincial chiefs directly appointed by Diệm, causing a breakdown in law and order during the abrupt transition of power. One high profile and heavily criticised non-removal was that of General Đỗ Cao Trí, the commander of the ARVN I Corps who gained prominence for his particularly stringent anti-Buddhist crackdown in the central region around Huế. Trí was simply transferred to the II Corps in the central highlands directly south of the I Corps region.[45]

Thơ and the leading generals in the MRC also had a secret plan to end the communist insurgency, which called itself the National Liberation Front (NLF) and claimed to be independent of the communist government of North Vietnam. They claimed that most of them were first and foremost southern nationalists opposed to foreign military intervention and U.S. involvement and support of Diệm. The MRC and Thơ thought that an agreement to end the war within South Vietnam was possible.[51]

Thơ recalled in later years that his government’s plan was to generate support among the Cao Đài, Hòa Hảo and ethnic Cambodian minorities, elements of which were in the NLF and bring them back into the mainstream fold out of the insurgency into a non-communist pro-West political system.[52] He thought that it was possible to sideline the communists as he described them as “still having no dominance and only a minor position” within the NLF.[53] The government also rebuffed American proposals to bomb North Vietnam on the grounds that such actions would cede the moral high ground, which they claimed on the basis of fighting purely for self-defense. However, these plans were never implemented to any degree before the government was deposed.[54]


The provisional government lacked direction in policy and planning, resulting in its quick collapse.[55] The number of rural attacks instigated by the Vietcong surged in the wake of Diem’s deposal, due to the displacement of troops into urban areas for the coup. The increasingly free discussion generated from the surfacing of new and accurate data following the coup revealed that the military situation was far worse than what was reported by Diệm. The incidence of Vietcong attacks continued to increase as it had done during the summer of 1963, the weapons loss ratio worsened and the rate of Vietcong defections fell. The units that participated in the coup were returned to the field to guard against a possible major communist offensive in the countryside. The falsification of military statistics by Diệm’s officials had led to miscalculations, which manifested themselves in military setbacks after Diệm’s death.[49]

On January 29, General Nguyễn Khánh ousted Minh's MRC in a bloodless pre-dawn coup. The civilian arm of the government was disbanded, and thus Thơ retired, having personally enriched himself during his period in government.[56] His activities after leaving politics were not recorded, but he was alive as of 1992.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d "South Viet Nam: Revolution in the Afternoon". Time. 1963-11-08.,9171,897000,00.html. Retrieved 2009-10-28. 
  2. ^ a b Lentz, p. 831.
  3. ^ Dommen, p. 56.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Jones, p. 258.
  5. ^ a b Tai, p. 130.
  6. ^ a b Tai, p. 196.
  7. ^ Lansdale, p. 322.
  8. ^ a b Doyle, p. 131.
  9. ^ Moyar, p. 65
  10. ^ Buttinger, p. 944.
  11. ^ Buttinger, p. 954.
  12. ^ a b Jacobs, p. 95.
  13. ^ Jinkins, pp. 156–157.
  14. ^ a b Jinkins, p. 169.
  15. ^ Kaiser, pp. 74–75.
  16. ^ Kaiser, p. 103.
  17. ^ Kaiser, p. 157.
  18. ^ a b c d Hammer, pp. 20–21.
  19. ^ a b Jones, p. 276.
  20. ^ Hammer, p. 103.
  21. ^ Hammer, p. 104.
  22. ^ a b Hammer, p. 136.
  23. ^ Jones, p. 264.
  24. ^ Jacobs, p. 152.
  25. ^ a b Jones, p. 294.
  26. ^ Kaiser, pp. 215–217.
  27. ^ Kaiser, p. 223.
  28. ^ a b Warner, pp. 230–231.
  29. ^ Moyar, p. 231.
  30. ^ Shaplen, p. 190.
  31. ^ Hammer, p. 219.
  32. ^ Hammer, p. 373.
  33. ^ Hammer, p. 193.
  34. ^ Jones, p. 325.
  35. ^ a b Karnow, p. 318.
  36. ^ Karnow, p. 317.
  37. ^ Jones, pp. 398–399.
  38. ^ a b Hatcher, p. 149.
  39. ^ Sheehan, p. 368.
  40. ^ Karnow, p. 319.
  41. ^ Hammer, pp. 300–301.
  42. ^ Moyar, p. 276.
  43. ^ a b Jones, p. 437.
  44. ^ Diem, p. 107.
  45. ^ a b c d Shaplen, p. 221.
  46. ^ a b c d Moyar, p. 280.
  47. ^ a b Shaplen, p. 223.
  48. ^ a b Shaplen, p. 225.
  49. ^ a b "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963". The Pentagon Papers. pp. 266–276. Retrieved 2007-11-02. 
  50. ^ Shaplen, p. 220.
  51. ^ Kahin, pp. 648–650.
  52. ^ Kahin, pp. 649–650.
  53. ^ Kahin, p. 650.
  54. ^ Kahin, p. 653.
  55. ^ Shaplen, p. 213.
  56. ^ Shaplen, p. 145.


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Preceded by
Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam
Succeeded by
Nguyễn Khánh


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