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Ngo Dinh Diem's father, one of the clan's few survivors, was a mandarin first class at the court of the old emperor, wearing the traditional silken robes and two-inch fingernails. Among his jobs: commanding the eunuchs of the royal harem. But the father, Ngo Dinh Kha, was also one of Viet Nam's foremost educators, and'his nine children got the benefit of it. Each morning at 6 o'clock, he would hustle the children off to Mass; in the family rose garden, he would give his third son Diem some extra tuition. He put Diem to work in the paddies with the peasants. "A man must understand the life of a farmer," father Kha explained.
"Assiduousness." Diem took to this austerity, prayed a couple of hours every day, got up at 5 a.m. to study, exploding into tantrums if interrupted by his brothers or sisters. At six he won his first school prize for "assiduousness." "When there were floods," one of his brothers recalls, "father would make us stay home. The rest of us loved it, but Diem would sneak off along the dikes and go to school just the same." When he returned home, with no sense that any injustice was being done, Diem would accept his father's whipping for disobedience.
At 15, Ngo Dinh Diem took the first of his big negative decisions: having begun training for the priesthood, he decided after a few weeks not to go through with it. At 17 he took his second: he decided not to go to college in France. "Those of us who did go to France came back a mixture of many things," another brother said, "but Diem is pure Vietnamese." At 20 Diem graduated top of his class from the French-run civil service school at Hanoi, soon made his way up to district chief, administrator of 225 villages.
Undeviatlng Course. These were the days in which Communist Ho Chi Minh was building up his first underground organization. Diem read Communist leaflets, books and periodicals, and he developed his own counterstrategy: he would arrest Ho's agents, then "reeducate" them. Diem would parade the more arrogant of the Communists in rags and tell the villagers: "They say they stand for poor people . . . Well, let them dress like it."
More pertinent to the role Diem was to play later as the first leader of free Vietnamese was his persistent opposition to French colonial rule. In 1929, at 28, he became a provincial governor; at 32 he became Minister of the Interior in the puppet government of the French. Three months later, he demanded more independence. The French would not give it. Diem resigned.
Diem spent the next seven years in passive resistance to the French exploitation of his country. While they helped to develop resources and bring treasures of culture to Indo-China, the French missed few chances to turn an extra franc. Small salt workers were compelled to sell to the French, who sold it back to the Vietnamese at higher prices. Each village had its alcohol quota, a specific amount, based on population, to be bought from the French-controlled sources. "I saw the danger from the Communists," said Ngo Dinh Diem, "and I could see how they would exploit such injustices. We had to have democratic reforms, or it was clear "even then that the Communists would win."