America swiftly gave its support to South Vietnam (strictly the Republic of Vietnam) after the Geneva Agreement of 1954. The Domino Theory had come to dominate the foreign policy of America and it quickly became apparent that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem was going to receive support from the Americans in an effort to avoid at all costs the further expansion of communism in Asia. The US established military aid through the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) led by Lieutenant General John O’Daniel. One of the most pressing problems facing Diem was how to govern a country that had so many diverse religious and political groups within it. There was a genuine fear that a civil war might break out and one of MAAG’s first tasks was to create a national army for the South that would give some kind of national cohesion against the ‘natural’ enemy – the North. O’Daniel had about 300 to 400 personnel working on this task. In a relatively short space of time, the South had an army of 150,000 men financed by the US and trained by their men. These men were detailed to guard the demilitarised zone set up between the North and South after the Geneva Agreement. They were trained to fight a conventional war as opposed to a guerrilla one.
Though America supported Diem at military and financial levels, they were faced with a problem that they themselves could do little about in the late 1950’s. Diem had also created his own personal army of about 150,000 men that were answerable to him. This paramilitary force was used to act as a counter-balance to the South Vietnamese Army whose senior officers were known by Diem to have political ambitions. With one being played off against the other by Diem, America faced the problem of neither being able to fully focus their attention to what America assumed was the common enemy.
By the time of Kennedy’s presidency, it was clear in Washington DC that if there was to be a successful campaign against the North, Diem had to go as he was too much of a divisive leader. In September 1963, Kennedy stated that Diem’s government had to make more of an effort to win over those people in South Vietnam who were neither from his background nor Roman Catholic. Kennedy also stated that he thought, “the repressions against the Buddhists in the country were very unwise.”
There was criticism in America itself where the corruption of Diem was well known. By 1963, the US had spent $400,000,000 supporting South Vietnam but had seen little in return for their investment. The money had been meant to modernise the South Vietnamese Army but large sums had been pocketed by Diem, members of his family and his friends. It came as no surprise to the US when senior officers in the South’s army assassinated Diem and his brother. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had maintained contact with the generals involved in the plot for weeks leading up to Diem’s assassination. That they did nothing to stop it is indicative of their desire and support for any attempt to remove Diem from power. However, America’s support of Diem over eight years coincided with the time when the North made great inroads into gaining the support and trust of peasants in large areas in the South. Kennedy himself admitted that over 20% of all villages supported the NLF despite ‘Operation Strategic Hamlet’.