The United States of America has always attracted people with the belief that within its borders, anyone can become someone, that even the most outrageous rags to riches stories are possible. This hope, The American Dream, has very often proved to be false; a fool’s gold. In the case of Mike Mansfield, it would be fair to say that it all came true in the most fascinating manner imaginable.
The son of Irish immigrants, Mansfield had a tumultuous upbringing. Born in Brooklyn, he was sent to Montana following the death of his mother, where he would periodically disappear entirely, once living for an entire year in a state orphanage.
Aged 14, he dropped out of school and joined the US Navy. Upon finding out his real age, the Navy discharged him, and so Mansfield enlisted in the Army instead. Returning to Montana, he then worked in a copper mine for eight years.
It was at this point that Mansfield met Maureen Hayes, a local schoolteacher who convinced him to further his education and married him. She then promptly cashed in her life insurance and took on a job as a social worker to see him through high school courses and two University degrees.
In 1943, Mansfield was elected to the House of Representatives and proved so popular that he was re-elected four consecutive times. In 1952 a seat in the Senate called, and in 1961, when one Lyndon B. Johnson was promoted from Senate Majority Chair to Vice President of the United States, Mansfield was unanimously elected as his replacement.
On December 1st 1962, the Senate Majority Leader found himself being escorted with a party of senators to various palaces and meeting rooms in Saigon, South Vietnam. The American Dream was the very reason he was here.
In 1961, 87% of South Vietnam’s population lived in rural settlements. This level of under-development, coupled with the nation’s proximity to China and the influence of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong to the North, made the region ripe for a full-scale communist revolution.
In 1955, a referendum was held in which the Vietnamese people were asked to determine the future of the country by picking either President Bao Dai or Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem to be their leader. Riding the tide of public feeling against both the communists and Vietnam’s French colonialists, Diem swept to victory.
Voting figures also suggest that the referendum was hideously rigged. 98.2% of voters chose Diem, a percentage so implausibly high that it is not surprising the total number of votes exceeded the number of registered voters in many areas. Elections that were due to decide on the reunification of Vietnam were duly cancelled and a new constitution gave Diem absolute power in South Vietnam.
Diem sought to secure American dollars to shore himself up against the threat of the Viet Cong. In turn, the US grew steadily impressed with how assuredly the new president was able to put his political enemies away.
On December 1st, Mansfield was meeting Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s influential brother. Nhu technically held no official position within the government but his Can Lao party, organised into local cells, had been extremely influential in rigging the election which brought his brother to power.
Nhu was renowned for long, confusing speeches, and for outrageous public statements, including a threat to kill his own father-in-law, who happened to be the country’s ambassador to the United States.
The setting for Mansfield’s meeting with Nhu was the suitably unhinged Gia Long Palace. Built by the French in 1885, the entire front face of the building’s roof was adorned with grotesque chickens, owls, plants, lizards and birds and embossed with Greek mythological symbols. Gia Long was currently serving as President Diem’s residence, after two pilots from the Vietnam Air Force turned rebel earlier that year and bombed the Norodom Palace instead of the communists. The entire left wing was destroyed, and instead of renovating, Diem demanded the entire building be demolished and had already commissioned a new palace in its stead. Mansfield and the Senators no doubt wondered where the funds for such a project were coming from.
The topic of conversation was the Strategic Hamlet Program, a project aimed at relocating the country’s rural population into fortified villages. Nhu and Diem saw it as the solution to a host of problems ranging from the threat of the Viet Cong to rural poverty, and predicted that the program’s success would spill over into neighbouring Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
The project was being overseen by Colonel Thao, who recognised that South Vietnam’s peasants resented being uprooted from their homes and placed inside rudimentary forts they were forced to build themselves. Unbeknownst to Nhu, Thao was a communist double agent, and advised that Saigon build as many of these hamlets as possible, as fast as they could.
Nhu claimed that in order to be victorious, South Vietnam needed to achieve prosperity and freedom itself. His own extraordinary words to Mansfield were ‘The freedom which one acquires oneself is more precious than the freedom that is given by Santa Claus’. However, in order to accomplish this, Nhu claimed the regime would require substantial amounts of US aid.
Upon leaving the meeting, Mansfield thanked Nhu for his frankness. The next day, he contacted President Kennedy, advising him in no uncertain terms that US money was being squandered in Vietnam and that ties should be cut with the regime. In doing so, he became the first government official to comment negatively on US involvement in the country. Mansfield would remain one of the most critical voices of US operations in Vietnam throughout the next decade.
Unsurprisingly, the Strategic Hamlet Program failed catastrophically, alienating Vietnam’s rural population, and solidifying support for the Viet Cong. Santa Claus could not deliver the American Dream to Vietnam. For Nhu and Diem, the nightmare had only just begun.