The Magazine

The Other Assassination

Saigon, November 1963.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By WILLIAM PIERESON
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The weakness of successive military governments in South Vietnam was a key factor that led to the introduction of 500,000 U.S. ground troops, and the sustained air campaign against North Vietnam. The United States would go on to wage a conventional war, relying on firepower and ground operations, the interdiction of infiltration routes and supply lines, the attrition of Communist manpower, body counts, air raids against the North, and other measures inherited from campaigns on battlefields in Europe.

It is impossible to know how Kennedy would have handled the deteriorating situation. One point is certain: Diem, had he not been overthrown, would not have permitted a U.S. intervention on the scale it eventually reached by 1967. In that sense, Diem’s death may have been a more important factor in the broadening U.S. involvement than Kennedy’s. 

The advocates of counterinsurgency in the Kennedy administration failed to consider whether the U.S. Army was capable of implementing such a strategy in the conditions that then prevailed. As Andrew Krepinevich Jr. argues in The Army and Vietnam, conventional modes of military strategy were embedded in Army operations by virtue of the types of wars the United States had waged previously. The U.S. Army fought a conventional war in Vietnam because it was the kind of war it knew how to fight. The advocates of the coup were wrong to think that toppling Diem was the key to implementing a counterinsurgency strategy.

The overthrow of Diem was a prelude to America’s large-scale intervention in Vietnam. The episode was a primer containing lessons that U.S. policymakers would relearn in the decades to follow: that toppling governments in the developing world breeds instability, revolution, and civil war; that it is difficult to promote democratic reform using the carrots and sticks of U.S. aid; and that counterinsurgency, even if it could be capably implemented, is not a sure recipe for military success. After five decades, the “other assassination” in 1963 still contains lessons well worth remembering.

William Piereson works as a private consultant in foreign affairs in Washington.

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