While touring an economic fair in Buon Ma Thuot, President of the Republic of Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem was shot pointblank by communist agent Ha Minh Tri. The president was killed immediately, causing an anti-communist uproar in South Vietnam and creating a wave of instability in the young state.
In South Vietnam, however, Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem overthrew Emperor Bao Dai in a 1955 referendum. Even at the time, the election was suspect when he won 98.2% of the vote. From the numbers of votes (which were counted by agents of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu), Diem received more than 100% support in several regions; for example, out of 450,000 registered voters in Saigon, Diem managed 605,025 votes. Diem proclaimed a Republic of Vietnam with himself as head and created a legislature that was simply to give popular support to his actions. Bao Dai warned world powers such as France and the United States not to trust Diem, but they saw this as the opportunity to block the spread of Communism in Asia after China had fallen. With international approval, Diem canceled the 1956 national elections, claiming that had been an agreement made before the existence of the new Republic.
Initially, Diem’s term seemed beneficial. Citing his Catholic upbringing for his policies, he closed opium dens, brothels, and the organized crime of Binh Xuyen. However, his Catholicism proved extreme, and Diem soon turned state forces against the Buddhist Hoa Hao organization. The sweeping executions of potential enemies caused Diem to lose public favor, but he maintained power through public relations, diplomacy with the United States (who shared his fervent anti-Communism), and Nhu’s use of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces. In the midst of the oppression, Diem’s rule was cut short as another photo op allowed Ha Minh Tri to walk up and shoot the president.
Nhu quickly seized power, but, despite his often public self-applause for his intelligence, he was not popular. His ARVN was exposed as a personal army already clashing with locals as well as Cambodians, and hubris led to further exposure of corruption, such as his wife’s extortion schemes. Since Nhu had never been elected, protests called for new elections, and international opinion agreed. Pressure forced Nhu to begin elections in 1958, already planning to move troops, censor papers, and ensure his victory. Nhu did not possess the Teflon class of his brother, however, and even his own ARVN turned against him, leading to his exile in Australia. With open elections in 1959, physician and prominent government critic Phan Quang Dan became president and quickly began to reconstruct the nation along genuine democratic grounds.
Dan’s government proved nationalist as well as anti-communist. Ho Chi Minh, now seventy years old, had conducted mass support of insurgency through the late 1950s, primarily through assassinating local leaders and installing supporters of communism. With a policy of “armed propaganda”, he instructed, “If an assassination is necessary, use a knife, not a rifle or grenade. It is too easy to kill innocent bystanders with guns and bombs, and accidental killing of the innocent bystanders will alienate peasants from the revolution. Once an assassination has taken place, make sure peasants know why the killing occurred." While Diem and Nhu had combated this with violent witch hunts, Dan proved more able to win popular support and show communists as the antagonists. He was friendly with US support, but did not take in luxuries and military aid as the previous presidents had.
Ho Chi Minh stepped down from party leadership as Le Duan rose to power. In 1960, North Vietnam organized the National Liberation Front to unify communists in the South, but by 1963, it had lost much of its support despite Le Duan’s warmongering. Ho worked behind the scenes to motivate the North Vietnamese government into coming into peace with the South, which was readily accepted by Dan. The two Vietnams lived side-by-side, eventually warming to one another as the horrors of the Khmer Rouge were seen across the border in Cambodia. Following the restructuring of communism in 1986, new bids for peaceful reunification grew, and Vietnam was again whole in 1997.
In reality, Ha Minh Tri missed Diem entirely, hitting only the Secretary of Agrarian Reform in the arm before his weapon jammed and he was subdued. Diem and his family would face another assassination attempt by air force officers bombing the palace, but he would remain in power until a coup in 1963 led by General Duong Van Minh. Minh was himself overthrown the next year, and continued turnovers in government along with the spread of the Vietnam War resulted in the fall of Saigon in 1975.