SAIGON (1954-1960)/ 4. Foreign Support

Without the assistance of the United States government, the power of President Diem would be fragile during such an important time frame after First Indochina War where Vietnam is split into the North and South. As the power of French colony begins to weaken, Diem, who already had prominent connections within the United States, was appointed as the Prime Minister of the State in 1954.

As the execution of the three-hundred-day period of border crossing begins, Diem formally requested assistance from the United States government through the United States Overseas Mission (USOM) on July 26, 19541. The presence of USOM was proven to be crucial where it was the main channel for the US government to assist refugee resettlement and relief in the Republic of Vietnam in terms of funding. USOM spent a total of $55.8 million2 including the Navy’s transportation of refugees to the South. Yet the core role of USOM began to shift from logistics to the resettlement of refugees through additional funds from the US government. They placed emphasis on resettlement projects in places like Cai San and Central Highlands by not only planning but also providing building materials, agriculture equipments and vehicles. Review teams from the Michigan State University (MSU) also participated in line with USOM and were commissioned directly by Diem who formed relationships with a MSU political science professor Wesley Fishel. These review teams reported not only the progress of refugee resettlement but also other aspects of government administration.

MSU Professor Wesley Fishel together was a good friend with South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. Source: Vietnam Project Archives.” Vietnam Project Archives, MSU,
MSU Professor Wesley Fishel together was a good friend with South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm. Vietnam Project Archives.” Vietnam Project Archives, MSU,

However such review teams were often critical upon COMIGAL, and acted as blockages of the free flow of funds from USOM to resettlement projects and resulted in frustration from the USOM since they were unable to implement their own plans and administration within resettlement projects3. The Republic of Vietnam on the contrary also perceives efforts by USOM intervening with the state power and autonomy of themselves to a point where Diem’s office responded to USOM regarding the import of technical advisors from Japan:

“We only want them in aspects where they are really necessary…But they are only to advise, no authority, actual drawing up of the plans must be done by Vietnamese staff.”4

This tension eventually led to a distant relationship between Diem’s office from MSU and USOM where the office wanted less unhelpful criticism that did not help to progress the resettlement progress and saw their operations as a type of national salvation to their state.

The aftermath of these conflicts were not as apparent due to non-government organizations channelling funds into South Vietnam in oppose to the communists. The Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is one of such organizations, which is also an agency of the United States Catholic Bishops Conference. It receives funding from the U.S. government to undertake post war relief work but not for religious purposes. On August 11, 1954, Diem issued a call to the War Relief Services Office to assist in the resettlement of the refugees and immediately after the director of CRS, Edward Swanstrom established an office which would later be known as the center of Vietnam operations of the CRS. In its first 10 months of operation, it provided relief supplies which totaled more than $4.5 million in which 45% went to non-refugee local poor of all religion where expenditures and value of shipments rose incrementally to $12 million in 19665.

The CRS saw Catholic refugees as strugglers between religious faith and Communism thereby viewed its mission with a religious context rather than imposing utilitarian or political concerns, as Swanstrom also made it clear that the mission of the CRS is to assist refugees disregarding their religion. While forming a network of regional offices with representatives from USOM and COMIGAL for project design and implementation, it became a substantial contributor of funds to the resettlement progress and sponsored projects that a government organization could not, namely churches that might bring arise political implications. CRS implements a framework where the it provides necessary resources such as clearing the lands and making it ready to plant for the village then people contribute in terms of personal labour, engaging 7500 families in places such as Bien Hoa to boost agriculture production, approaching the resettlement progress from a bottom-up approach contradictory to the USOM.



1. Hansen, Peter. “Bắc Đi Cú: Catholic Refugees from the North of Vietnam, and Their Role in the Southern Republic, 1954–1959.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2009), pp. 172

2. Hansen, 2009, pp. 173

3. Fishel, Wesley. “Field Administration Record of a Meeting With president Ngo Dinh Diem.” MSU Archives and Historical Collections, 1956, pp. 1-6

4. Hansen, 2009, pp. 177

5. The American Council of Voluntary Agencies for Foreign Service. “South Vietnam.” Assistance Programs of U.S. Non-Profit Organizations, 1967, pp. 7–8.

1 Comment on “SAIGON (1954-1960)/ 4. Foreign Support

  1. This piece and a few others are well written and annotated. They are more historical in nature, which is useful to set the context clearly, but they also have potential to manifest in architectural/urban terms, if you wish to discuss urban forms other than resettlement camps. For example, are new districts / buildings built to accommodate these foreign aid — hospitals, embassies, hotels and the like? What about churches or religious buildings?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.