America′s Miracle Man in Vietnam

Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia

America′s Miracle Man in Vietnam

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 28 b&w photos Published: January 2005

Author: Seth Jacobs

History > Asian History, U.S. History, Religious Studies

America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam rethinks the motivations behind one of the most ruinous foreign-policy decisions of the postwar era: America’s commitment to preserve an independent South Vietnam under the premiership of Ngo Dinh Diem. The so-called Diem experiment is usually ascribed to U.S. anticommunism and an absence of other candidates for South Vietnam’s highest office. Challenging those explanations, Seth Jacobs utilizes religion and race as categories of analysis to argue that the alliance with Diem cannot be understood apart from America’s mid-century religious revival and policymakers’ perceptions of Asians. Jacobs contends that Diem’s Catholicism and the extent to which he violated American notions of “Oriental” passivity and moral laxity made him a more attractive ally to Washington than many non-Christian South Vietnamese with greater administrative experience and popular support.

A diplomatic and cultural history, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam draws on government archives, presidential libraries, private papers, novels, newspapers, magazines, movies, and television and radio broadcasts. Jacobs shows in detail how, in the 1950s, U.S. policymakers conceived of Cold War anticommunism as a crusade in which Americans needed to combine with fellow Judeo-Christians against an adversary dangerous as much for its atheism as for its military might. He describes how racist assumptions that Asians were culturally unready for democratic self-government predisposed Americans to excuse Diem’s dictatorship as necessary in “the Orient.” By focusing attention on the role of American religious and racial ideologies, Jacobs makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the disastrous commitment of the United States to “sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.”


“[R]ichly detailed, engagingly written. . . . America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam . . . unquestionably merits the careful attention of historians in various fields.” — Mark Atwood Lawrence , Journal of American History

“Any scholar interested in the origins of America’s involvement in Vietnam should warmly welcome Seth Jacobs’ America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam. Emphasizing the importance of religion and race in explaining why the United States backed Ngo Dinh Diem in the early 1950s. Jacobs breathes new life into a topic that many scholars probably thought had been fully explored. Written in a lively, engaging style that will appeal to both specialists and general reasons. . .” — James McAllister , Pacific Historical Review

“In this innovative and lucid treatment, Jacobs recaptures a moment when religion had an unusual and influential hold on public life, and tragically, on foreign affairs.” — Nick Cullather , Diplomatic History

“In this thoughtprovoking and engaging book, Seth Jacobs takes a fresh look at the origins of Washington’s decision to ‘sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem.’ . . . This book offers new and important insights into the making of US policy. . . .” — Philip E. Catton , Journal of Vietnamese Studies

“Jacobs’ book is highly readable; he writes with verve, even passion, as he takes us on a tour through the ‘Vietnam lobby. . .’. [T]here is much here that will be of interest to scholars and other readers. — Robert Edwin Herzstein , American Historical Review

“Jacobs’s volume is a worthy addition to an abundant collection of diplomatic and cultural history of America in the 1950s. His angle of religious of ideology and racism brings fresh perspectives to the study of the Vietnam War.” — Peter Phan , Journal of Religion

“Masterfully weaving together issues of race, religion, and domestic and foreign politics. . . Jacobs has produced a first-rate work of scholarship certain to deepen our understanding of the origins of the U.S. commitment to the Republic of Vietnam. Must reading for scholars of the American wars in Southeast Asia, Jacobs’s book deserves the widest possible audience. . .” — Scott Laderman , Reviews in American History

“Seth Jacobs has provided the most authoritative and persuasive account of the invention of Diem as America’s ‘miracle man.’ . . . America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam is the one book that I wish had existed when I was conducting my own research! Now that it is here, historians of the Vietnam era and postwar American religion will find their work greatly enriched by this provocative, wonderfully well-written book.” — James Fisher , American Catholic Studies

“Well researched and written, America’s Miracle Man in Vietnam is a welcome addition to the Diem debate. Jacobs demonstrates an excellent command of the secondary literature on nation building and effectively draws upon a wide range of archival resources . . . .” — John Ernst , Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"America's Miracle Man in Vietnam is . . . a valuable contribution to the story of America's fateful commitment to the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and provides a thought-provoking analysis as to why that commitment was made." — Joseph G. Morgan , Catholic Historical Review

"[A]n excellent choice for readers who want to understand why the U.S. remained committed to Diem for almost a decade." — Judith R. Johnson , History: Reviews of New Books

"[O]utstanding. . . . [A]n excellent book that is highly recommended to students of the Vietnam War, Cold War America and the history of American foreign relations." — Robert K. Brigham, International Affairs

"Excellent. . . .Vietnamese politics . . . are . . . presented here with unusual clarity. Jacobs' style is notably vivid and forceful, while nowhere evading the convolutions of the actual situation on the ground. . . .This is a fine book. . . .The inevitable conclusion you reach after reading this fascinating book is that while so much has changed in the world, some things have not changed at all." — Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

"The author offers an interesting interpretation in his re-examination of Diem. . . ." — Ronald Frankum , Journal of Church and State

"The book is that rarest of breeds, a superb work of scholarly history that is as compellingly written and imaginatively conceived as it is deeply researched. . . . Jacobs presents a persuasive and innovative thesis that will surely become one of the benchmarks on Dwight D. Eisenhower's foreign policy in general and the United States' descent into Vietnam in particular." — Andrew Preston, International History Review

“Seth Jacobs makes a seminal contribution to the study of the origins of American involvement in Vietnam. Combining prodigious research in a rich variety of primary sources, a sophisticated conceptual framework that illuminates the intersection of high politics and popular culture, and an especially engaging writing style, Jacobs fundamentally recasts how we view this critical period in the history of the Vietnam wars and the Cold War.” — Mark Bradley, author of Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919–1950

“Seth Jacobs’s interesting and provocative argument adds a new interpretation to the massive literature on the United States and the path toward full deployment in Vietnam. Jacobs writes with a lively, punchy style that makes his work both entertaining and instructive.” — Michael Latham, author of Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation Building’ in the Kennedy Era


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Seth Jacobs is Assistant Professor of History at Boston College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. "Colonialism, Communism, or Catholicism?": Mr. Diem Goes to Washington 25

2. "Our System Demands the Supreme Being": America's Third Great Awakening 60

3. "These People Aren't Complicated": America's "Asia" at Midcentury 88

4. "Christ Crucified in Indo-China": Tom Dooley and the North Vietnamese Refugees 127

5. "The Sects and the Gangs Mean to Get Rid of the Saint": "Lightning Joe" Collins and the Battle for Saigon 172

6. "This God-Fearing Anti-Communist": The Vietnam Lobby and the Selling of Ngo Dinh Diem 217

Conclusion 263

Notes 277

Bibliography 339

Index 367
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3440-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3429-3
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