Book Review: Lost Mandate of Heaven

Leaders are also readers, and when I travel I use the time to catch up on my reading and writing. Ignatius Press recently sent me The Lost Mandate of Heaven by Geoffery D. T. Shaw to review, and it was time well spent!

Shaw tells the story of the rise and betrayal of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. The book is extremely well researched, footnoted, and written–worthwhile for students of history, politics, or leadership.

Ngo Dinh Diem, the man who would become the President of South Vietnam, was actually born in what was once the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South to a politically connected Catholic family. His father’s political connections to the French colonial authorities and his Catholic faith meant he was well-educated in Western thought, and his membership in one of Vietnam’s “great families” meant he was immersed in Confucian thought. Diem even considered the priesthood briefly, but in the end his duty to his country ruled his heart. In short, in both education and temperament, no one was better prepared than Diem to guide Vietnam during the transition from colonial and post-war society into the modern family of nations. Unfortunately, due in no small part to meddling from Washington by people who had no first hand knowledge of Vietnam or Diem, this was not to be.

Post-World War II Vietnam suffered from the same political and societal chaos as the rest of the world. Communists and opportunists used the vacuum created by retreating and defeated empires to attempt to install regimes friendly to their own agendas. At the conclusion of the Pacific War in 1945, just as in Korea, Japanese forces surrendered to separate Allied nations in different parts of the country. In the South, the British forces accepted the Japanese surrender while in the North, it was the Chinese. When the French installed Emperor Bao Dai, the Communist Viet Minh (later: Viet Cong) led by Ho Chi Minh began the First Indochina war to overthrow the French-supported post-colonial regime and install a Communist government. With considerable support of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic, the Viet Minh defeated the French-Vietnamese National Army at Dien Bien Phu. It was then the Great Powers partitioned Vietnam with a promise of UN-supervised elections that never came. Ngo Dinh Diem had risen through the ranks of colonial government, became president of South Vietnam in 1955. Due to his social status and his occupation as a scholar, many Vietnamese saw Diem as the leader with the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven” to rule. After reflection, it seems to me the crux of the conflict between North and South Vietnam was not so much between Communism and Capitalism, or between Buddhism, Christianity, and Confucianism. Rather, it was a battle in the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam about who had the Mandate of Heaven: Ngo Dinh Diem or Ho Chi Minh.

Many elites on the Left in the USA saw Diem very differently than the people of Vietnam. It was telling to me that the men who actually went to Vietnam and spoke with Diem respected and supported him, while policy wonks inside the Beltway who had done neither plotted his removal. Vice President Johnson argued forcefully against Diem’s removal, as did Ambassador Colby, Chief of Mission in Saigon. Both men had met with Diem personally, and both had been to Vietnam themselves. The Viet Cong did a masterful job of playing up the slightest mistakes and even twisting events to appear to be what they were not. An American press anxious for stories that sell magazines, sometimes printed poorly researched stories then stuck with their line when the facts on the ground didn’t match. Finally, while the author doesn’t explicitly say it in the book, reading the quotes from senior leaders and policymakers at the time makes it clear there was considerable willingness to believe the worst of Diem, and few who were willing to allow facts to rule their judgement when those facts contradicted their preconceived notions.

Ultimately, the Kennedy Administration encouraged, either passively or actively, the removal and killing of of Diem in Saigon. In Confucian society, the scholar is at the top of the social respect pyramid, and the soldier is near the bottom. In encouraging the coup, Kennedy Administration demonstrated not only an appalling lack of understanding of the facts on the ground, but a complete disregard for the culture we were meddling in. By replacing a scholar-monk like Diem with a junta made up of soldiers, we effectively upended and “un-ordered” society at precisely the moment when order and national unity was a prerequisite for winning the war against the North and stabilizing the country. The results were predictable: chaos and a lack of national will to fight the Viet Cong and the North.


The ouster of Diem was not America’s finest hour, and was a result of ideology in Washington trumping solid leadership and sober decision-making. The Lost Mandate of Heaven is well-written and thoroughly researched. Shaw does an excellent job of laying out the facts, and I particularly appreciated the heavy use of primary sources. Quotes from the major decision makers’ own personal writings, official records, and direct-cited official communications all lay out a clear and unemotional case of at best malfeasance by the Kennedy Administration, and at worse criminal behavior for planning the unlawful coup of an ally. It’s a book worthy of any reading list on history, organizational dynamics, or leadership. I recommend this book highly.

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