278. Despatch From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Reinhardt) to the Department of State1

No. 146


  • The DiemBao Dai Referendum


The DiemBao Dai referendum of October 23, 1955 has been the subject of various previous Embassy reports.2 The intent of this despatch is to complete the story by giving further details of the government’s anti-Bao Dai campaign, describing the actual conduct of the voting and pointing to some of the conclusions which might be drawn from the results.

Government Preparations for the Referendum

The Ministries of Interior and Information played the major roles in preparing the people of Free Vietnam for the referendum. A referendum committee led by representatives of these two ministries and including a number of political groups took charge of all information and propaganda activities. The political groups on the committee included such government parties as the Association of Functionaries of the National Revolution, the National Revolutionary Movement, the Association for National Restoration (Cao Daist) and the Movement of Struggle for Freedom. The committee carried on the following activities: 1) sent cadres to virtually every house in Saigon, Cholon and all other principal cities on October 16, 22, and 23 to urge the people to be sure to vote and, of course, to vote for Diem; 2) organized meetings in villages and remote country areas to explain the referendum to the people; 3) sent radio cars and film production teams to various village areas to show films on election procedures, 4) sent mobile voting groups to remote areas and hospitals on election day; 5) made provisions to change railway time tables where necessary on October 23 to give travelers time to vote.

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A most intensive propaganda and educational campaign was carried on in Saigon and other cities with the double objective of whipping up hatred of Bao Dai and of urging all citizens to vote. The government radio devoted hours of broadcasts daily to the referendum; radio cars roamed the streets broadcasting Diem propaganda and exhortations to vote; millions of leaflets, pamphlets, posters and banderoles covered walls, buildings, taxis, and buses; dummies of Bao Dai hung on practically every street corner and public square. The most popular dummy caricatured Bao Dai carrying a bag of money on his shoulders, a pack of cards in his hands and pictures of naked women in his pockets. In the square before the central market in the heart of Saigon an enormous twenty foot high dummy of Bao Dai was put up depicting him in his yellow royal robes, carrying money bags and playing cards in one hand, a broken dragon scepter in the other, a woman on his knees. Behind him was a Vietnamese, representing the common people, breaking Bao Dai’s throne with a long pole.

The posters and leaflets which covered all the population centers in Free Vietnam were of two kinds—those intended to show the people how to vote and those intended to inflame them against Bao Dai. An excellently done poster which described in easily understood cartoons each step in the voting procedure was the best example of the first type. The number and variety of anti-Bao Dai and pro-Diem leaflets and posters was virtually limitless. A random sampling of the slogans they contained follows: 1) Beware of the evil king Bao Dai’s preference for gambling, women, wine, milk and butter. Those who vote for him betray their country. 2) Bao Dai, puppet king selling his country. 3) To depose Bao Dai is to save Vietnam. 4) Bao Dai, master keeper of gambling dens and brothels. 5) Bao Dai, head traitor. 6) Drawings of Bao Dai offering a map of Vietnam to colonialists in return for millions of piasters; of Bao Dai receiving money from Binh Xuyen; of Bao Dai embracing French women; of Bao Dai on a leash held by a Frenchman; of Bao Dai with his foot on the neck of a Vietnamese. 7) Revolutionary Ngo Dinh Diem, hero of the people. 8) Ngo Dinh Diem, savior of the people. 9) Let us vote for Diem to build a democratic society. 10) Ngo Dinh Diem, father of all children. 11) Not to go to the polls is a crime toward the fatherland.

Conduct of the Referendum

The conduct of the referendum was observed by Embassy, USOM, and USIS officials in various parts of the country. Their reports unanimously agreed that the referendum was conducted in compliance with the procedures laid down in the government proclamation outlining the method of voting. This was also the view expressed by representatives of the British, French, and Australian missions [Page 591] in Saigon. The secrecy of the ballot was everywhere respected, and no evidence was found of fraud or direct intimidation. The usual procedure was for the voter to present his census registration card as proof of eligibility to vote, pick up a ballot and envelope, enter a curtained voting booth, place the closed envelope in the ballot box and finally have his registration card stamped to show that he had voted.

Some sidelights in connection with the voting may be of interest:

Groups of students went from house to house in Saigon early in the morning of October 23 reminding people to vote.
There were large crowds at all the polling booths when they opened at 7:00 a.m. By 9:00 a.m. most of the booths in Saigon, unprepared for the early rush, had temporarily run out of ballots. Two-thirds of the vote was in by 10:00 a.m., although the polls did not close until 5:00 p.m. The great majority of polling places were efficiently organized and voting was expeditiously carried out. In some instances, however, one narrow door served as both entrance and exit. In these cases, to avoid the crush many voters climbed out of windows after depositing their ballots.
Ballots contained pictures of both Diem and Bao Dai, with a dotted line between them to facilitate separation by the voters. At many booths, those in charge of the voting separated the pictures in advance and handed both pictures to the voters along with an envelope. This was theoretically done to speed up the voting. However, it was noted that care was taken in every instance to see to it that Diem’s picture was on top when the voters received the two pictures.
No mention was made in the voting regulations about absentee voting. Some polling places insisted on the physical presence of every voter, while others permitted one individual to vote for others as long as he was able to present their census registration cards as proof of eligibility.
After placing the picture of one candidate in the envelope, nearly all the voters simply dropped the other picture on the floor. The floors of polling places soon grew inches thick with discarded Bao Dai pictures, with no Diem pictures to be seen. This sight undoubtedly had its psychological effect on any undecided voters. No attempts were made by officials, however, to observe what picture the voter discarded or whether he discarded any at all.
As each voter deposited his ballot, a badge was pinned on his shoulder carrying the legend “I have done my duty as a citizen” as a reminder to those who had not yet voted.

Significance of the Result

The official result of the referendum was announced by Minister of the Interior Bui Van Thinh in a statement made at Saigon City Hall on the morning of October 26. The final voting figures were: Diem—5,721,735 (98.2%); Bao Dai—63,017 (1.1%); invalid—44,155 (.7%); number of eligible voters not participating—131,395 (2.2%). Bui Van Thinh’s statement announcing the result is attached as Enclosure [Page 592] 1 to this despatch.3 The text of the speech made by Ngo Dinh Diem at Saigon City Hall acknowledging the result of the referendum and proclaiming the state of Vietnam to be a republic is attached as Enclosure 2.4

The result of the referendum is difficult to assess with any degree of confidence because of the questions raised in the minds of impartial observers by the overwhelming vote for Diem and especially by the enormous percentage (97.8%) voting of those eligible. A sweeping Diem victory was anticipated, but that virtually every citizen south of the 17th parallel would vote for Diem was not anticipated. Given the high rate of illiteracy, the hundreds of tiny villages without communication facilities and the inevitable factors of ignorance, apathy, and illness, it is difficult to believe that nearly 98% of the eligible population actually cast votes. Other factors working against a virtually unanimous turnout were the instructions issued by various anti-government sect leaders telling their members to abstain from participation in the referendum and the presumed efforts of Vietminh cadres in the South—in line with communist broadcasts from Hanoi—to persuade villagers under their influence to abstain from voting.

A further element of uncertainty is the fact that statistics in Vietnam are notoriously unreliable. The figures of the recent census, which determined the total number of eligible voters, may themselves be questioned in light of the lack of security prevailing in some areas during the census, the feebleness or lack of Government authority in other regions, and the limited machinery available to the Government in carrying out the census.

However, it is by no means impossible that the results announced by the government were approximately correct. The electoral campaign was completely one-sided. No support for Bao Dai or opposition to Diem was permitted, while the government carried out a most intensive and efficient propaganda campaign for Diem and against Bao Dai. There was a genuine upsurge of national pride at this first opportunity to express the people’s will at the polls, accompanied by a desire on the part of the individual citizen to play a personal role on a historical occasion by casting his ballot. Also helping to swell the vote totals was the widespread fear that failure to vote might mean future difficulties—that an individual who could not produce a registration card stamped to show that he had voted in the referendum might be singled out by the government at some future time for reprisals. All of these factors undoubtedly helped to contribute to the enormous turnout of voters.

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Anti-Diem nationalist elements, whose most vocal spokesman is the clandestine Dai Viet Radio, refused to credit the official referendum results announced by the government. The Dai Viet radio made the following allegations of fraud: 1) The government had the ballots printed in different colors—red for Diem, blue for Bao Dai5—so that its agents could easily spot a discarded Diem ballot. This tended to intimidate those who might have voted for Bao Dai. 2) The vote counters, who were supposed to be picked at random from the crowd, were all Diem agents who were chosen by prearranged signals. These agents manipulated the voting results as they pleased. 3) Police and security agents received instructions to vote one hundred times each. All of these allegations are unsupported by evidence. Despite a widespread feeling of skepticism among foreign observers about the near unanimity of the vote, no solid evidence has yet turned up to substantiate charges of fraud.

On the assumption that the announced voting figures are reasonably accurate, they seem to call for a revision of heretofore accepted estimates of the political strength of the Vietminh in South Vietnam. It might be argued that the Vietminh deliberately refrained from attempting either to interfere with the conduct of the referendum or to reduce the margin of Diem’s victory on the ground that Diem’s triumph was a foregone conclusion. It seems more logical to assume, however, that the Vietminh cadres in the South would have wished to weaken and discredit Diem. Reports that the Vietminh campaigned for Bao Dai have not been substantiated, but it is known that the Vietminh radio in Hanoi repeatedly urged the populace in the South to abstain from voting, and it may be assumed that the Vietminh cadres in the South bent their efforts in that direction. In this they failed utterly, and Diem emerged from the referendum with enhanced prestige and a solid vote upon which he could base his claim for backing in carrying out his uncompromising anti-communist policies and his domestic program. Another result of the referendum was to bury Bao Dai so completely under a landslide of votes that it is difficult to see how either his remaining handful of supporters or the Vietminh could or would want to use him as a basis for anti-Diem moves in the future.

It should not be assumed, however, that Diem’s overwhelming victory over Bao Dai is a true measure of his popularity in Vietnam. It must be remembered that the referendum was in one sense a travesty on democratic procedures, since the Diem forces maintained absolute control over all avenues of propaganda and did not permit the opposition to make its case. Furthermore, the referendum questions were so designed that in order to depose Bao Dai it was necessary to [Page 594] vote affirmatively for Diem. Voters who wished to depose Bao Dai without voting for Diem had no way of registering such a vote.

It remains to be seen, therefore, how a Diem-backed slate of candidates will fare in a truly democratic election, in which the opposition is free to oppose and the voters are free to vote for whomever they please. Diem has repeatedly said that he wishes to hold such an election, and it may be assumed that his resounding triumph in the referendum will add strength to his desire. As the first president of the Republic of Vietnam, he is now more firmly in the saddle than ever before.

For the Ambassador:
Daniel V. Anderson
Counselor of Embassy
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/11–2955. Confidential. Drafted by Allen Taylor, a Political Officer at the Embassy.
  2. The early stages of the Diem Government’s press campaign against Bao Dai leading up to the referendum were described in Embtel sent Dept. 1518 dated October 2 and Despatch 123 dated October 18. The proclamation by the Minister of the Interior, giving the rules under which the referendum was to be conducted, was transmitted under Despatch 124 of October 18. Final returns were sent in Embtel sent Dept. 1849, and general comments in Embtel sent Dept. 1846. [Footnote in the source text. Despatches 123 and 124 are both ibid., 751G.00/10–1855. Telegram 1518 was not processed through normal Department of State communications channels. For telegram 1846, see Document 268; concerning telegram 1849, see footnote 2, ibid. The Minister of the Interior was Bui Van Thinh.]
  3. Not printed.
  4. This speech, delivered October 26, is not printed.
  5. Actually the Bao Dai half of the ballot was green. [Footnote in the source text.]