1960-1969 | Backing dictatorships | VIetnam

British ambassador to South Vietnam defends the Diem Dictatorship

Douglas-Home (Dutch National Archives via Wikimedia) and South Vietnamese tyrant Ngo Din Diem (US Air Force via Wikimedia.)

20 December 1961

Today in 1961, the British ambassador in Saigon, Henry Hohler, wrote to Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, advising that ‘we should not be too greatly moved by complaints that the Vietnamese authorities are holding large numbers of individuals in detention camps.’ He reminded the foreign secretary that ‘At the worst period in Malaya we had over 10,000 people in detention without trial.’1 

The South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem had rigged elections the previous April to retain power, despite its lack of public support. Much of the population increasingly favoured the insurgents of the People’s Liberation Army, referred to derisively in Western press reports as the Viet Cong. During the sham elections, the Daily Herald had reported that ‘anyone who has ever stood a chance of challenging the present dictatorship is either dead, in jail or fighting alongside the communists.’

The only opposition candidates. standing for the sake of appearances, were ‘a doddering old rubber planter and a dispenser of quack medicines.’ Meanwhile, it noted that the economy was starved of investment while ‘widespread corruption had become a scandal.’2 By July 1961, even the Foreign Office had recognised that the Diem government was ‘a clumsy and heavy-handed dictatorship which is conspicuously lacking in popular appeal.’  It maintained its position with a combination of massive US military aid and brutal repression, having already murdered an estimated 66,000 dissidents and suspect insurgents during the previous four years.3

( see also 7 May 1962 – Harold Macmillan writes letter of support to dictator Diem)


  1. Correspondence cited in Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage, London, 2004. pp. 203-204.
  2. Russell Spurr, ‘Saigon’s Unloved One: The Little Dictator,’ The Daily Herald, 8 April 1961, p. 2.
  3. Mark Curtis, op. cit..

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