Red and Green Ballots: How the CIA Poisoned Vietnam’s 1955 Presidential Elections

Today is National Vietnam War Veteran’s Day, set on March 29th because in 1973 it was the last day American combat troops were in the Republic of Vietnam. The White House in 2012 gave a Presidential Proclamation to create a national day for Vietnam War veterans.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 29, 2012, as Vietnam Veterans Day.

Congress then wrote a “Vietnam War Veterans Day Act” for March 29 recognition, which in 2017 was signed into law.

The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind. The bill passed the Senate last month and the House last week.

In an odd twist the a man who signed it was gifted five deferments from service in the Vietnam War; four were academic and one was lying about his fitness.

“They were spurs,” he said. “You know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint.”

He played football, tennis, squash and golf through his deferments; he even later boasted about his health as “perfection” and “bone spurs” being not an issue, yet somehow he pulled the 1-Y “disability” deferment (qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency) a year before the lottery draft system began.

The 1-Y status kept him out of the draft until 1971 when that classification was abolished generally. He was then given a 4-F “disability” (unable to meet physical, mental or moral standards) and no longer eligible; soon after his business was sued by the Nixon administration for widespread racist practices (violating the Fair Housing Act).

This is the same guy who in 2018 at the Aisne-Marine American cemetery cancelled with no warning because allegedly he didn’t want to be in the rain, instead of paying respects to the 1,000 Marines killed in the important Battle of Belleau Wood.

They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate [long-term walking spur] couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to the Fallen.

Anyway, today got me thinking about presidential election tampering, and in particular reminded me of the corrupted 1955 national referendum in Vietnam that arguably is what set America on a path to war.

A man named Ngo Dinh Diem essentially was chosen by Americans in 1954 to lead the country, and his access to American aid helped position him as Prime Minister under the ruling “French Puppet” Bao Dai, who he then deposed.

Diem was no champion of representative democracy. His political philosophy was a not entirely intelligible blend of personalism (a quasi-spiritual French school of thought), Confucianism, and authoritarianism. He aspired to be a benevolent autocrat…Diem’s idea was to create a cult of himself and the nation. “A sacred respect is due to the person of the sovereign,” he claimed. “He is the mediator between the people and heaven.” […]

To secure his winnings, Diem called for a referendum to determine whether he or Bao Dai, the former Emperor, should be head of state. Diem won, supposedly with 98.2 per cent of the vote. He carried Saigon with 605,025 votes out of 450,000 registered voters. [CIA’s Major General Edward] Lansdale’s main contribution to the campaign was to suggest that the ballots for Diem be printed in red (considered a lucky color) and the ballots for Bao Dai in green (a color associated with cuckolds)… this simplified Nhu’s instructions to his poll watchers: he told them to throw out all the green ballots.

Throw out all the green ballots.

On top of that, Diem used legal threats to prevent Bao Dai from running any campaign material, while his own campaign mostly ran personal attacks and smears including false claims like Bao Dai had a “preference for gambling, women, wine, milk, and butter“.

Just to re-iterate, their 1955 anti-communist campaign platform was that red meant go, green meant stop and… a preference for milk and butter is immoral just like gambling, booze and sex.

If all that isn’t crazy-sounding enough, allegedly hundreds of thousands of more votes were cast in the capital city of Saigon than the actual number of people listed on the electoral roll.

In an election filled with fraud, Diem was proclaimed the winner in October with 98.2 percent of the vote, winning 605,000 votes in Saigon where there were only 405,000 registered voters. The dishonesty in the election was largely ignored by the American press.

Diem declared himself President with much public fanfare as a result of an obviously fraudulent “election”, labelled anyone else claiming rights or power to be a dangerous threat to stability, and slid South Vietnam into a cruel and undeniable totalitarian state.

Thousands of Vietnamese suspected of disloyalty were arrested, tortured, and executed by beheading or disembowelment. Political opponents were imprisoned. For nine years, the Ngo family was the wobbling pivot on which we rested our hopes for a non-Communist South Vietnam.

This election was a crucial turning point as President Eisenhower the following year ordered the first American military advisers into South Vietnam to train Diem’s conventional Army, used in harsh repression of the country, while the French prepared to exit completely by 1956.

Getty Images 4/24/1955-Saigon, South Vietnam: “Troops of American backed Premier Ngo Diem and the rebel Binh Xuyen sect fought a breif street battle with machine guns. A nationalist soldier stands guard over a suspect after the fighting had died down. At least three persons were killed and eight wounded in the short clash. The fighting took place on the opposite side of the European residential district from the boulevard Gallien, meanwhile the general anarchy increased as gangs of thugs roamed the streets of Saigon kidnapping civilians and extorting ransoms.”

Repression by the new government fomented and grew resistance within South Vietnam and eventually a small faction on July 8, 1959 opened fire in an Army mess hall. The first American casualties in South Vietnam were two advisers (Maj. Dale Ruis and Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand) killed while watching a movie at Bien Hoa.

In 1960 JFK narrowly defeated Nixon (Eisenhower’s Vice President) at the polls, and all candidates said they would deliver anti-communism by supporting South Vietnam’s regime.

While Eisenhower of course had been an early proponent of information warfare, given his success in WWII’s North Africa campaigns. JFK’s strategy expanded involvement with Diem further into novel direct military counter-insurgency training, including American boots on the ground working in rural communities.

You can imagine why for Diem that represented a major difference between support from Eisenhower and JFK. The latter was literally enabling South Vietnamese people, especially minority groups, to defend themselves from an oppressor, not simply backing top-down regime tactics.

Thus, despite overall expanding commitments and years of increased aid from America, not to mention escaping multiple prior coup attempts, on 1 November 1963 Diem’s brutally repressive autocratic regime was abruptly deposed by South Vietnam’s own military and he was assassinated.

It was Diem personally losing the support of America, within JFK’s administration but not necessarily including LBJ, that often frames how the South Vietnam regime ended and when and why America threw itself deep into a Vietnam War.

The ultimate effect of United States participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem was to commit Washington to Saigon even more deeply. Having had a hand in the coup America had more responsibility for the South Vietnamese governments that followed Diem. That these military juntas were ineffectual in prosecuting the Vietnam war then required successively greater levels of involvement from the American side. The weakness of the Saigon government thus became a factor in U.S. escalations of the Vietnam war, leading to the major ground war that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson opened in 1965.

It had to be Vice President LBJ who opened the major war, as by that point he had become President. 21 days after Diem’s assassination, JFK himself was assassinated.

The dramatic power shift in both countries escalated American involvement in South Vietnam and brought ever more direct military intervention that eventually accounted for 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties, over 150,000 wounded… before the March 29, 1973 final day of withdrawal.

As a footnote, the Vietnam War very nearly ended five years earlier in 1968. Nixon at that time cruelly campaigned on ending the war, while he also scuttled American peace talks to intentionally increase casualties.

Unclassified tapes have since proven his secret strategy was more Americans should die because it would help him get elected President.

Once in office he escalated the war into Laos and Cambodia, with the loss of an additional 22,000 American lives, before finally settling for a peace agreement in 1973 that was within grasp in 1968.

Election interference is definitely not new territory for the US, whether it be abroad or at home or some combination of the two. This National Vietnam War Veteran’s Day is perhaps a good time to reflect on what that means in the past as well as future.

Update March 30th, 2020: The man in the White House today openly stated that he believes suppression of votes gives him power and will continue to do so:

…admitted on Monday that making it easier to vote in America would hurt the Republican party. …made the comments as he dismissed a Democratic-led push for reforms such as vote-by-mail, same-day registration and early voting as states seek to safely run elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic. …Republicans have long understood voting barriers to be a necessary part of their political self-preservation.

Update July 1st, 2020: Added reference and details on voter fraud numbers in 1955 election.

3 thoughts on “Red and Green Ballots: How the CIA Poisoned Vietnam’s 1955 Presidential Elections”

  1. I am doing research on potential US interference in 1955 South Viet Nam election. Therefore, I am am needing a credible reference, or more, that I can site supporting the information here of the 150,000 votes above the registered voters in Saigon for that election. Can someone provide that or related information?

  2. @J Potential interference? Although it was under-reported in the US, I believe today that interference and fraud is not hard to find. I’ve expanded the voter fraud section above to help, as you asked. It now includes a reference from the Gregory Allen Olson book (Professor of Communications studies at Marquette University) on Senate Majority Leader Mansfield, which examines how Mansfield formulated and executed US policy on Vietnam as an early supporter of Diem.

  3. I remember, from the time, that just months before the Geneva-mandated elections for Vietnam were due the CIA conducted a survey throughout Vietnam which discovered that upwards of 70% of voters intended voting for the communists ~ apparently due to personally admiring HoChiMinh. However, I can find no reference to confirm that. Anyone have any info.?

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