South Vietnam and I Corps
Beginning with the French-Viet Minh struggle following World War II, Vietnam had been at war for more than 20 years except for a brief respite during the mid-1950s. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords in 1954 resulted in the breakup of what had been French Indochina and divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. The Viet Minh leader, Ho Chi Minh, established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the rule of the Communist Lao Dong Party in the north. South of the 17th Parallel, Ngo Dinh Diem, a strong anti-Communist Vietnamese nationalist, became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam, displacing Bao Dai, the former Vietnamese Emperor under the French.
Through the 1950s and into 1960, Diem consolidated his power in the south against what many considered insurmountable odds. He defeated various sectarian armies, suppressed his political enemies, and created a seemingly viable government. Assisted initially by French and American military advisory groups. Diem strengthened his armed forces to meet any armed thrust from the north. South Vietnam appeared to represent a force for stability against what American policy makers perceived as a Communist drive for domination of Southeast Asia.
These relatively halcyon days were soon over. By the early 1960s, Diem and his regime were under heavy pressure in both the political and military arenas. Frustrated by Diem's refusal to hold joint elections as called for by the Geneva Accords that would have unified the two Viernams, the North Vietnamese began as early as 1959 the sub-rosa campaign to bring down the southern government. By 1961, the South Vietnamese were fully engaged in counter-guerrilla operations against the Viet Cong (VC), a deprecatory name given to the southern Communists. With the introduction of U.S. helicopter units and the expansion of the American advisory effort in 1962, the South Vietnamese started to make measurable gains against the Communist forces. Surviving an aborted coup by a group of "Young Turk" officers in 1960, Diem progressively alienated important segments of South Vietnamese society. In 1963, South Vietnamese Buddhists, led by their clergy, took to the streets in increasingly violent demonstrations against restrictive measures of the Catholic-dominated Diem government. By November, the South Vietnamese military, with American knowledge if not consent, threw over Diem. South Vietnamese officers killed the deposed president the day after the coup.
Photo courtesy of Col. Edwin S. Schick, USMC (Ret)
South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. wearing his aviator's scarf, is seen greeting Marine officers on a visit to l Corps. President Nguyen Van Thieu, a South Vietnamese Army general, eventually overshadowed the more flamboyant Ky in the inner circles of the Vietnamese military who ran the nation.
The period after the death of Diem was one of turmoil and disintegration. Military leaders and politicians jockeyed for position with one leader emerging and then another. Simultaneously, the Communists reinforced their forces in the south with regular units from the north. The war was going badly and South Vietnam appeared ripe for the plucking.
It was not until 1965 that the situation stabilized. The infusion of U.S. troops staved off defeat at the hands of the North Vietnamese. In June, the South Vietnamese military ended the political chaos by assuming full control of the reins of government. A military council, headed by Army General Nguyen Van Thieu and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, directed South Vietnamese affairs for the next few years.
By the end of 1967, the South Vietnamese government had established a constitutional claim to legitimacy. Overcoming renewed Buddhist agitation in the spring of 1966, the ruling military council held elections for a constitutional convention in September 1966. Following the promulgation of the new constitution, the South Vietnamese, in September 1967, elected Thieu and Ky, heading a military slate of candidates, as President and Vice-President respectively of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).15
The South Vietnamese military establishment was still the dominant factor in South Vietnam. By January 1968, government decrees, although not yet imple-