How Democratic Should Vietnam Be?: Anticommunist Nationalists and the Debate on the Constitutional Transition in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), May-December 1955


In the eyes of many foreign observers, one of the most puzzling aspects of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, or South Vietnam) was the continual in-fighting among anticommunists. Most accounts depict these internal conflicts as simply a struggle for power, but I contend that they also constituted a battle of ideas. Specifically, the presentation examines the debate between Ngô Đình Diệm and rival anticommunist nationalists in the summer and fall of 1955.

Virtually all anticommunists agreed that the regime should become a constitutional republic, and they unanimously called for a democracy. Yet the seeming consensus belied starkly different definitions of democratic government. Diệm’s faction and the political parties associated with the southern sects called for a hybrid regime, that is, a regime that combined elements of authoritarianism and democracy. The sect parties demanded greater pluralism than Diệm, though the difference was of degree rather than of kind. The debate took a decidedly more liberal direction under the influence of the émigré politician Phan Quang Đán. Đán advocated for a militant democracy, that is, a full-fledged democracy that minimally limited liberty only to protect itself from extremist forces seeking to subvert democracy. In the end, Diệm prevailed over his rivals because he and his followers controlled the government. By seriously examining the diversity of political ideas in the RVN, the presentation suggests that the regime’s seeming intractable factionalism arose from substantive disagreements rather than factional squabbling.

NU-ANH TRAN is Assistant Professor in the Department of History, ‘University of Connecticut. Her current project, Contested Identities: Nationalism in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), 1954-1963, examines the origins of South Vietnamese nationalism and conflicts between noncommunist nationalists during Ngô Đình Diệm’s tenure. Her research interests broadly include the political, intellectual, and cultural history of the resistance war (1945-1954) and the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1975).