As Americans pause to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, they should not overlook the other fateful assassination that took place that same month. On November 2, 1963, South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered in Saigon in a coup carried out by a group of generals operating with the tacit approval of the U.S. government.
Historians agree that the coup marked a turning point in America’s involvement in Vietnam. The coup was the hinge by which U.S. policy swung from nation building to military intervention, from limited support for the Diem regime to a new role of propping up weak military governments, and from an advisory role to a more active one that eventually led to a U.S. takeover of the war.
The importance of the coup as a turning point in Vietnam has provoked a long-running debate about who on the American side was responsible for it and why U.S. leaders thought it was a risk worth taking to topple the established government in that country. Some still view it as a standard Cold War coup undertaken independently by the CIA. Others blame President Kennedy for allowing it to go forward, while still others place the blame on subordinates in Saigon who pressed the military to eliminate Diem without consulting the White House. Like other important events of that era, the assassination of Diem remains shrouded in controversy.
Tapes of White House conversations now available through the Kennedy library in Boston and recently released documents from the State Department provide the information needed to answer most of these questions. The assassination and overthrow of Diem was the culmination of a two-year clash within the Kennedy administration between officials who thought the war could be won with conventional tactics (supporters of Diem) and those who advocated a coup as an opening for a new strategy of counterinsurgency. Kennedy followed developments in Saigon until the eleventh hour and chose not to oppose the coup. The episode foreshadowed a strategic debate that would continue within the U.S. government throughout the Vietnam conflict and in some respects continues to this day.
In 1961, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department, led by Roger Hilsman with the support of senior officials George Ball and Averell Harriman, began to issue reports that called Diem’s leadership into question. These reports claimed that Diem was too unpopular and autocratic to head a government whose mission was to win the support of the people of South Vietnam. By early 1962, these advisers were pressing for a counterinsurgency strategy in opposition to the conventional strategy supported by the Pentagon.
The conventional strategy focused on blocking infiltration routes and supply lines and protecting key assets, such as major cities, military bases, and transportation routes. The counterinsurgency strategy emphasized intelligence operations to identify Communist infrastructure and the use of American advisers to help the Diem government win support among the peasants through “strategic hamlets,” a program designed to deliver services to peasants while isolating them from Communist insurgents.
The clash between the two approaches was rooted in different conceptions of the war. The proponents of conventional tactics, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and head of the CIA John McCone, saw it as an invasion supported and supplied by North Vietnam. Diem, agreeing with this assessment, wanted to attack North Vietnam while delaying political reform until the war was won. The proponents of counter-insurgency saw the conflict as a domestic insurrection caused by the unpopularity and lack of inclusiveness of the Diem government. The only way to defeat the insurgency, they argued, was to win the “hearts and minds” of the peasants by creating a government they could support. Diem was both ineffective and unpopular—and thus they concluded that he had to go.
Kennedy supported the alliance with Diem because he saw no popular alternative. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, though reluctant to join the debate, was also in this camp. Diem had been something of a hero to the nationalist cause in South Vietnam because of his role in opposing the French and establishing an independent national government. Though corrupt and authoritarian in his methods and a Catholic in a country with a majority Buddhist population, Diem had standing that no other potential leader could claim. For this reason, Kennedy was reluctant to throw him over for an untested alternative.