When he checked into the Farragut Hotel at the corner of Gay and Clinch 48 years ago this week, the short man in the homburg and gray double-breasted suit didn't say much. He was at the head of a more talkative entourage who were speaking mostly in French.
The leader of the party had thick black hair. He was 56, but could have passed for 20 years younger. His name was Ngo Dinh Diem, and he was president of South Vietnam. He called himself the democratic leader, but he owed a lot to the CIA. He was, at least, an enemy of Communism.
An editorial in the Knoxville Journal praised Diem extravagantly, comparing him to George Washington. The editor counseled Knoxvillians to address Diem as "your excellency."
He was in America looking for help. Knoxville, headquarters of TVA, was Diem's last overnight stop in a two-week tour of America that had taken him to Washington and New York.
Along with Diem in the Farragut lobby were several countrymen: Tran Van Chuong, the South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington, and Madame Chuong; Tran Le Quang, the young minister of public works; and Major General Tran Van Don, the army chief of staff.
The city's young law director, John Duncan, met President Diem at the airport, along with all three TVA directors, led by the chairman, Brig. General Herbert Vogel; they drove in a motorcade to the Farragut for a fried-chicken lunch. Because he spoke English better and was more outgoing than President Diem, General Don became a favorite of reporters. Asked about the lunch, he was polite. "I liked the Southern fried chicken," he said. "But it had no sauce! I like America sauces, especially Tabasco."
TVA had a busy day planned. They toured TVA's Kingston steam plant, then went to Fort Loudoun Dam, where TVA engineers let Diem take a turn at the controls. For 45 minutes, President Diem was in charge of the dam. A Lenoir City pharmacist was heading downstream in his cabin cruiser; President Diem of South Vietnam pulled the handles that let him through. Suddenly the leader who'd been described as "impassive" grinned like a kid, and ran to the railing to watch the boat descend.
General Don shrugged. "He's always energetic," he said.
Diem hardly spoke any English in Knoxville, but to the 9-year-old daughter of a journalist, he said, "You want to go to Vietnam?"
Don provided reporters more quotes. He said he always had his servants mow his lawn until his wife shamed him into it. "Husbands in America cut the grass. So I cut the grass. It's terrible!"
He joked about his boss. President Diem was single, and it was rumored that he didn't like women.
"He is a little bit shy with them, but he does not hate women," Don claimed. "We hope for him to get married. Maybe then he would not walk so much at night and keep everybody so busy!"
As the motorcade returned, a group of schoolchildren at Eaton's Crossroads stood by the road and cheered. Back in Knoxville, Diem remarked on the greenery of the area, and said he wanted to see some of the nicer homes. The motorcade took a detour, driving slowly down Lyons View. As they drove along Cherokee Boulevard, General Don said, "I only wish I could take an American house back...with all its machinery."
One thing bothered Don about America. "You have such wonderful roads, such fine cars.... Why do you have so many people killed every year on the highways?" Safety Director Johnny Russell couldn't field that one.
As they returned downtown, Don had an urgent request. "Do you suppose I would have time to buy my wife a pair of shoes in Knoxville?" he said. "Everywhere we go so fast. She will be most unhappy if I do not bring her the shoes she wants." Size 4 1/2, he said, narrow, silver, with "very high heels."
Aides found some from Rich's, the large department store between Henley and Locust. His other request was probably easier in 1957. "My youngest son, he is 9," General Don said. "I must get him a Davy Crockett hat and suit. He talks all the time of Davy Crockett." General Don would leave with two coonskin caps. One, perhaps, for himself.
That evening, there was a "stag dinner" of roast beef and apple pie at the hotel's Volunteer Ballroom. The women, including Madame Chuong, a former diplomat herself, retired to a private suite to "talk about clothes."
At the men's dinner, Gov. Frank Clement called Diem "the president of a great country and the symbol of a great cause.... This is a grand hour in the state of Tennessee."
TVA Chairman Vogel offered a toast to President Diem, "whom we all love." He apologized for the water toast, explaining that strong drinks were illegal here—but that given TVA's mission, there was "no more appropriate substitute than water."
Raising his own water glass, Diem responded in English, "To the President of the United States."
In French, through an interpreter, Diem said, "We in Vietnam are on the front line fighting Communism. And we must be superior to the Communists both from an economic and a military point of view.... I am very impressed with what I have seen today...." He praised TVA's work, "both for the welfare of the people here, and for the defense of the free world."
That night, if President Diem had bored of the TVA film at the Farragut, he could have slipped a couple of doors down the same block, to the Riviera, to see the movie Fighting Trouble . "Guys, Dolls, & Gags!" promised the handbills. "It's the NUT-MOST in FUN!" It was on a double feature with Yaqui Drums "Booming with the lust for blood! Yaqui Half Breeds...screaming wild with hate!"
As they left the next morning for another area tour, they barely missed the Armed Forces Day Parade. It was a Soviet-style patriotic procession down Gay Street, troops from all divisions, with 12 martial bands, and large artillery towed in trailers, and fighter jets, both mounted in the parade and booming overhead. The theme was "Power for Peace."
Diem missed all that. Dressed in a white sharkskin suit, seated in a lawn chair under an elm tree in the front yard of Karns farmer Wade Smith, President Diem listened as speakers like Louis Birdwell, president of the Karns Community Club, described TVA's innovations in farming. Diem went home with a 25-pound sack of diamonium phosphate, a fertilizer TVA had suggested he try in his garden in Saigon.
How well it worked isn't recorded. But things in general didn't go well for President Diem over the next few years. Reports of political prisoners, torture, and murder under the Diem regime mounted. Some Buddhists found Diem so intolerable that they went to the streets of Saigon to burn themselves to death.
In 1963, General Don, who had made fun of Diem here six years earlier, was one of the leaders of a military coup—supported by the CIA—that toppled Diem. Just after agreeing to give up power, Diem and his brother Nhu were murdered while under arrest. Don professed to be shocked to see the bloody bodies. By then, the chicken dinner they shared at the Farragut Hotel must have seemed a very long time ago.