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The Other Assassination

Saigon, November 1963.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By WILLIAM PIERESON
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The situation changed markedly in 1963 with a series of military reverses in the Mekong Delta early in the year and an uprising by Buddhist opponents of the regime beginning in April and May and continuing through the summer months. The military reverses showed the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to be ineffective, even with the aid of U.S. advisers and equipment, while the Buddhist uprising indicated that support for the Diem government was collapsing. The crisis fed into the political debate within the Kennedy administration and led to a succession of reports about what might happen in the case of resignation, assassination, or a coup against the Diem government. In June, Kennedy appointed Henry Cabot Lodge, his old political adversary from Massachusetts, as the new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, with instructions to take a tougher line with the Diem regime.

Diem may have sealed his fate by launching a series of brutal raids on Buddhist pagodas on August 21, just before Lodge’s arrival. Those raids resulted in the arrests of more than 1,400 Buddhist opponents of the regime, with several score more missing or presumed dead. The raids coincided with new reports pointing to a deteriorating military situation. 

At this point, the lines were drawn between Hilsman, Ball, and Harriman (with Lodge on the ground in Saigon) urging removal of Diem and McNamara, McCone, and Gen. Maxwell Taylor (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) doubting the wisdom of a coup and the ability of the generals in Saigon to pull it off. Kennedy, seeking to break the impasse, sent McNamara and Taylor to Saigon. The two men returned with a gloomy assessment of the war and a recommendation to exert pressure on Diem through gradual reductions in U.S. aid. As Lodge began to impose these cuts, word spread in Vietnam that the U.S. support for the Diem government was being withdrawn. With these steps the United States moved into the final phase of its nine-year partnership with Diem.

Kennedy loyalists over the years have claimed that the president was unaware of plans for a coup and never authorized it. But the documentary sources and tapes of White House conversations show that the president was informed about plans for the coup and participated in discussions and debates with advisers until the last minute. At a White House meeting on October 29, with all key advisers present, Kennedy said, “We have been rather more negative for a coup, but it is clear from [Lodge’s] answers that he is for a coup for what he thinks are very good reasons. He is playing a stronger part there than we are playing here, and I admire his nerve but not his prudence.” Later in that meeting, when discussing last-minute instructions for Lodge, the president said, “Let’s see what we can get [from Lodge]. Let’s put it all on Cabot.” Kennedy seemed willing to let Lodge make the call, which the ambassador was more than willing to do.

On November 1, the South Vietnamese Army moved; Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were shot the next morning after surrendering. Though dismayed by the deaths of Diem and Nhu and no doubt harboring doubts about the wisdom of the coup, Kennedy nevertheless sent a congratulatory cable to Lodge: “Your own leadership in pulling together and directing the whole American operation in South Vietnam in recent months has been of the greatest importance, and you should know that this achievement is recognized here throughout the Government.”

The overthrow of Diem did not work out as planned. The anti-Diem coup was the first of many, as one military faction replaced another. Between 1963 and 1965, there were 12 different military governments in Saigon. If the purpose was to create a popular government capable of implementing a counterinsurgency strategy, then the coup was a manifest failure.  

 

No one could have foreseen on November 1 that President Kennedy would be assassinated three weeks later and replaced by a vice president who had been outspoken in opposition to the coup. Johnson saw it as the outcome of an undisciplined decision-making process in which junior figures in the administration maneuvered to bring about a change in policy. As president, he moved quickly to centralize in the White House all decisions about the war; the State Department faction was immediately cut out of that process. Johnson placed his trust in senior figures, like McNamara and McCone, who had opposed the coup and viewed the conflict within a conventional framework.

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