1960-1969 | Backing dictatorships | VIetnam

Harold Macmillan praises South Vietnamese dictator Diem

Macmillan (left) – National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia.
Diem (right) – US Department of Defense via Wikimedia.

7 May 1962

On 7 May 1962, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan wrote a personal letter to President Ngô Dình Diệm, the dictator of South Vietnam, lauding his murderous regime. ‘We have viewed with admiration,’ he reassured Diem, ‘the way in which your government and people have resisted’ attempts to ‘overthrow the freely established regime in South Vietnam,’ adding ‘We wish you every success in your struggle.’1

In contrast to Macmillan’s honeyed words, the Diem regime was far from being ‘freely established.’ As Asia analyst Peter Russo, writing in the Daily Herald a month earlier, noted with more than a hint of irony, ‘the president has introduced thought control, speech control, and control of the hundreds of millions of dollars donated by Americans to keep South Vietnam free.’2 Diem had ruthlessly rigged elections in October 1955 and April 1961 to gain and then retain power, while the vast majority of the population increasingly sympathised with the insurgents of the People’s Liberation Army, referred to derisively by officials as the Viet Cong.  By July 1961, even the Foreign Office had recognised that the South Vietnamese government was ‘a clumsy and heavy-handed dictatorship which is conspicuously lacking in popular appeal.’  It maintained its position only through a combination of massive US military aid and brutal repression. By the time of Macmillan’s letter, it had already murdered an estimated 66,000 of its citizens, including communists, non-communist dissidents, Buddhist priests, anti-corruption whistleblowers and suspect insurgents.3

However, British support went far beyond mere personal flattery.  At least six hundred of Diem’s troops were trained in counter insurgency in Malaysia by the British army and Britain established an advisory mission of counter insurgency experts in Saigon in September 1961, known as BRIAM (the British Advisory Administrative Mission ) which championed the brutal method of building ‘strategic hamlets.’ A policy which necessitated forcing farmers to abandon their homes and live in fortified villages, as well as giving up their labour to the construction of a defensive perimeter.4


  1. Correspondence cited in Mark Curtis, Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Vintage, London, 2004, p. 207.
  2. Peter Russo, ‘As I See It,’ The Daily Herald, 7 April 1962, p. 2
  3. Statistics cited in Mark Curtis, op. cit., p. 203.
  4. Ibid., pp. 211-213.

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