BOOK REVIEW: Edward Miller’s Misalliance Ngo Dinh Diem

In Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam, Edward Miller contributes a Vietnam-centric perspective to understand the making of 1950’s and 1960’s South Vietnam. Miller argues that the ‘politics of nation building’ informed the United States and Diem government’s ‘misalliance’ or diplomatic relationship from its beginning to demise. Using Vietnamese and American government documents, newspapers, and the MSUG archives, Miller examines the similarities and differences in US and Diem approaches to political centralization, economic development, counterinsurgency, and suppression of political threats. In this way, Miller demonstrates the complexity of nation building as both a discourse and practice that in fact encompassed debates on democracy, community, security, and social change. (325) Most importantly in his narrative, Miller centers Vietnamese agency and attempts to restore Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu as rational, calculated politicians.

Challenging the standard narrative of the South Vietnamese government as puppets to US military and political interests, Miller brings the discussion of nation building back ‘on the ground’ in South Vietnam. Miller is methodologically successful in demonstrating the “interplay between American and Vietnamese personalities, ideas, and decisions.” (10) For example, Miller’s close reading of governmental reports (especially the MSUG collections) shows the different perspectives and shifting relationship between Diem and Wesley Fishel, Wolf Ladejinsky, and Mike Mansfield. Miller dedicates the bulk of the book to compare the discourse and practice of nation building in various economic, political, and social projects. Miller demonstrates how these strategies overlapped but often conflicted with one another, resulting in hastily executed projects. Economic development strategies such as the Cai San project, land development program and Agrovilles described in Chapter Five “Settlers and Engineers” exemplifies the dizzying patchwork of economic experiments on the Vietnamese landscape.

In an attempt to move beyond the reduction of Diem as a simply conservative autocrat, Catholic, Orientalized mandarin, former colonial administrator, or extension of personalist strategist Ngo Dinh Nhu, Miller considers how Diem’s view on nation building informed his decisions. Yet does the lens of ‘nation building’ provide too broad of a political and social foundation to understand Diem? The flexibility of such an interpretation allows for a more holistic understanding of Diem, from his personal upbringing and political background to his relationships with Nhu and US advisors. Additionally, Miller’s rejection of one simple caricature of Diem speaks to Diem’s third-path, eclectic, and alternative political visions.

By undertaking both a diplomatic and area studies approach to this topic, Miller inevitably falls short with both approaches. His discussion of modernization theory, and high and low modernism is concise, yet lacks the comparative dimension of American foreign policy and elaboration the US ‘National Security State’. Miller’s description of ‘Vietnamese democracy’ also is limited in depth and even treads on the fringes of Orientalizing pre-colonial constructs of moral governance and the mandate of heaven. Finally, Miller’s overall Vietnam-centrism falls apart towards the end of his book when Miller must examine and explain the demise of the Diem government and US support in the 1960s. As an extension of his important article on the Buddhist revival, Chapter 8 “Mixed Signals” situates the Buddhist crisis in the longer history of the Buddhist revival. Miller is thorough in his historical treatment of the events, yet concludes with an abrupt value judgment of the Ngo’s “overwheening optimism and their unshakable conviction.” (278) Rather than cast their response as miscalculated and contrived, Miller presents the Ngo’s as purposeful and convinced of their own victory. In other descriptions of US-Diem relations, Miller often ends with a caveat that Diem was the ultimate decider of his own fate. Miller’s constant revision of Diem’s lack of autonomy is at times distracting and superfluous. In this way, does the onus towards ‘Vietnam-centrism’ ever obstruct or overly determine historical causation arguments in favor of Vietnamese actors?

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