The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 2

Chapter 4, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)


Section 1, pp. 201-232


Summary and Analysis

The Diem coup was one of those critical events in the history of U.S. policy that could have altered our commitment. The choices were there: (1) continue to plod along in a limited fashion with Diem--despite his and Nhu's growing unpopularity; (2) encourage or tacitly support the overthrow of Diem, taking the risk that the GVN might crumble and/or acommodate to the VC; and (3) grasp the opportunity--with the obvious risks--of the political instability in South Vietnam to disengage. The first option was rejected because of the belief that we could not win with Diem-Nhu. The third was very seriously considered a policy alternative because of the assumption that an independent, non-communist SVN was too important a strategic interest to abandon-and because the situation was not sufficiently drastic to call into question so basic an assumption. The second course was chosen mainly for the reasons the first was rejected-Vietnam was thought too important; we wanted to win; and the rebellious generals seemed to offer that prospect.

In making the choice to do nothing to prevent the coup and to tacitly support it, the U.S. inadvertently deepened its involvement. The inadvertence is the key factor. It was a situation without good alternatives. While Diem's government offered some semblance of stability and authority, its repressive actions against the Buddhists had permanently alientated popular support, with a high probability of victory for the Viet Cong. As efficient as the military coup leaders appeared, they were without a manageable base of political support. When they came to power and when the lid was taken off the Diem-Nhu reporting system, the GVN position was revealed as weak and deteriorating. And, by virtue of its interference in internal Vietnamese affairs, the U.S. had assumed a significant responsibility for the new regime, a responsibility which heightened our commitment and deepened our involvement.

The catalytic event that precipitated the protracted crisis which ended in the downfall of the Diem regime was a badly handled Buddhist religious protest in Hue on May 8, 1963. In and of itself the incident was hardly something to shake the foundations of power of most modern rulers, but the manner in which Diem responded to it, and the subsequent protests which it generated, was precisely the one most likely to aggravate not alleviate the situation. At stake, of course, was far more than a religious issue. The Buddhist protest had a profoundly political character from the beginning. It sprang and fed upon the feelings of political frustration and repression Diem's autocratic rule had engendered.

The beginning of the end for Diem can, then, be traced through events to the regime's violent suppression of a Buddhist protest demonstration in Hue on Buddha's birthday, May 8, in which nine people were killed and another fourteen injured. Although Buddhists had theretofore been wholly quiescent politically, in subsequent weeks, a full-blown Buddhist "struggle" movement demonstrated a sophisticated command of public protest techniques by a cohesive and disciplined organization, somewhat belying the notion that the movement was an outraged, spontaneous response to religious repression and discrimination. Nonetheless, by June it was clear that the regime was confronted not with a dissident religious minority, but with a grave crisis of public confidence. The Buddhist protest had become a vehicle for mobilizing the widespread popular resentment of an arbitrary and often oppressive rule. It had become the focal point of political opposition to Diem. Under strong U.S. pressure and in the face of an outraged world opinion, the regime reached ostensible agreement with the Buddhists on June 16. But the agreement merely papered over the crisis, without any serious concessions by Diem. This intransigence was reinforced by Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his wife, who bitterly attacked the Buddhists throughout the summer. By mid-August the crisis was reaching a breaking point.

The Buddhists' demonstrations and protest created a crisis for American policy as well. The U.S. policy of support for South Vietnam's struggle against the Hanoi-supported Viet Cong insurgency was founded on unequivocal support of Diem, whom the U.S. had long regarded as the only national leader capable of unifying his people for their internal war. When the Buddhist protest revealed widespread public disaffection, the U.S. made repeated attempts to persuade Diem to redress the Buddhist grievances, to repair his public image, and to win back public support. But the Ngos were unwilling to bend. Diem, in true mandarin style, was preoccupied with questions of face and survival-not popular support. He did not understand the profound changes his country had experienced under stress, nor did he understand the requirement for popular support that the new sense of nationalism had created. The U.S. Ambassador, Frederick Nolting, had conducted a low-key diplomacy toward Diem, designed to bring him to the American way of thinking through reason and persuasion. He approached the regime during the first weeks of the Buddhist crisis in the same manner, but got no results. When he left on vacation at the end of May, his DCM, William Truehart, abandoned the soft sell for a tough line. He took U.S. views to Diem not as expressions of opinion, but as demands for action. Diem, however, remained as obdurate and evasive as ever. Not even the U.S. threat to dissociate itself from GVN actions in the Buddhist crisis brought movement.

In late June, with Nolting still on leave, President Kennedy announced the appointment of Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador to Vietnam to replace Nolting in September. In the policy deliberations then taking place in Washington, consideration was being given for the first time to what effect a coup against Diem would have. But Nolting returned, first to Washington and then to Saigon, to argue that the only alternative to Diem was chaos. The U.S. military too, convinced that the war effort was going well, felt that nothing should be done to upset the apple cart. So Nolting was given another chance to talk Diem into conciliating the Buddhists. The Ambassador worked assiduously at the task through July and the first part of August, but Diem would agree only to gestures and half-measures that could not stop the grave deterioration of the political situation. Nolting left Vietnam permanently in mid-August with vague assurances from Diem that he would seek to improve the climate of relations with the Buddhists. Less than a week later, Nolting was betrayed by Nhu's dramatic August 21 midnight raids on Buddhist pagodas throughout Vietnam.

One of the important lessons of the American involvement in South Vietnam in support of Diem was that a policy of unreserved commitment to a
particular leadership placed us in a weak and manipulable position on important internal issues. The view that there were "no alternatives" to Diem greatly limited the extent of our influence over the regime and ruled out over the years a number of kinds of leverage that we might usefully have employed or threatened to employ. Furthermore, it placed the U.S. in the unfortunate role of suitor to a fickle lover. Aware of our fundamental commitment to him, Diem could with relative impunity ignore our wishes. It reversed the real power relationship between the two countries. Coupled with Diem's persistent and ruthless elimination of all potential political opposition, it left us with rather stark alternatives indeed when a crisis on which we could not allow delay and equivocation finally occurred. For better or worse, the August 12 pagoda raids decided the issue for us.

The raids, themselves, were carefully timed by Nhu to be carried out when the U.S. was without an Ambassador, and only after a decree placing the country under military martial law had been issued. They were conducted by combat police and special forces units taking orders directly from Nhu, not through the Army chain of command. The sweeping attacks resulted in the wounding of about 30 monks, the arrest of over 1,400 Buddhists and the closing of the pagodas (after they had been damaged and looted in the raids). In their brutality and their blunt repudiation of Diem's solemn word to Nolting, they were a direct, impudent slap in the face for the U.S. Nhu expected that in crushing the Buddhists he could confront the new U.S. Ambassador with a fait accompli in which the U.S. would complainingly acquiesce, as we had in so many of the regime's actions which we opposed. Moreover, he attempted to fix blame for the raids on the senior Army generals. Getting word of the attacks in Honolulu, where he was conferring with Nolting and Hilsman, Lodge flew directly to Saigon. He immediately let it be known that the U.S. completely dissociated itself from the raids and could not tolerate such behavior. In Washington the morning after, while much confusion reigned about who was responsible for the raids, a statement repudiating them was promptly released. Only after several days did the U.S. finally establish Nhu's culpability in the attacks and publicly exonerate the Army.

On August 23, the first contact with a U.S. representative was made by generals who had begun to plan a coup against Diem. The generals wanted a clear indication of where the U.S. stood. State in its subsequently controversial reply, drafted and cleared on a weekend when several of the principal Presidential advisors were absent from Washington, affirmed that Nhu's continuation in a power position within the regime was intolerable (words missing) and did not, "then, we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved." This message was to be communicated to the generals, and Diem was to be warned that Nhu must go. Lodge agreed with the approach to the generals, but felt it was futile to present Diem with an ultimatum he would only ignore and one that might tip off the palace to the coup plans. Lodge proceeded to inform only the generals. They were told that the U.S. could no longer support a regime which included Nhu, but that keeping Diem was entirely up to them. This was communicated to the generals on August 27. The President and some of his advisors, however, had begun to have second thoughts abought switching horses so suddenly, and with so little information on whether the coup could succeed, and if it did, what kind of government it would bring to power. As it turned out, Washington's anxiety was for naught, the plot was premature, and after several uncertain days, its demise was finally recognized on August 31.

Thus by the end of August, we found ourselves without a leadership to support and without a policy to follow in our relations with the GVN. In this context a month-long policy review took place in Washington and in Vietnam. It was fundamentally a search for alternatives. In both places the issue was joined between those who saw no realistic alternatives to Diem and felt that his policies were having only a marginal effect on the war effort, which they wanted to get on with by renewing our support and communication with Diem; and those who felt that the war against the VC would not possibly be won with Diem in power and preferred therefore to push for a coup of some kind. The first view was primarily supported by the military and the CIA both in Saigon and in Washington, while the latter was held by the U.S. Mission, the State Department and members of the White House staff. In the end, a third alternative was selected, namely to use pressure on Diem to get him to remove Nhu from the scene and to end his repressive policies. Through September, however, the debate continued with growing intensity. Tactical considerations, such as another Lodge approach to Diem about removing the Nhus and the effect of Senator Church's resolution calling for an aid suspension, focused the discussion at times, but the issue of whether to renew our support for Diem remained. The decision hinged on the assessment of how seriously the political deterioration was affecting the war effort.

In the course of these policy debates, several participants pursued the logical but painful conclusion that if the war could not be won with Diem, and if his removal would lead to political chaos and also jeopardize the war effort, then the war was probably unwinnable. If that were the case, the argument went, then the U.S. should really be facing a more basic decision on either an orderly disengagement from an irretrievable situation, or a major escalation of the U.S. involvement, including the use of U.S. combat troops. These prophetic minority voices were, however, raising an unpleasant prospect that the Administration was unprepared to face at that time. In hindsight, however, it is clear that this was one of the times in the history of our Vietnam involvement when we were making fundamental choices. The option to disengage honorably at that time now appears an attractively low-cost one. But for the Kennedy Administration then, the costs no doubt appeared much higher. In any event, it proved to be unwilling to accept the implications of predictions for a bleak future. The Administration hewed to the belief that if the U.S. be but willing to exercise its power, it could ultimately always have its way in world affairs.

Nonetheless, in view of the widely divergent views of the principals in Saigon, the Administration sought independent judgments with two successive fact-finding missions. The first of these whirlwind inspections, by General Victor Krulak, JCS SACSA, and a State Department Vietnam expert, Joseph Mendenhall, from September 7-10, resulted in diametrically opposing reports to the President on the conditions and situation and was, as a result, futile. The Krulak-Mendenhall divergence was significant because it typifies the deficient analysis of both the U.S. civilian and military missions in Vietnam with respect to the overall political situation in the country. The U.S. civilian observers, for their part, failed to fully appreciate the impact Diem had had in preventing the emergence of any other political forces. The Buddhists, while a cohesive and effective minority protest movement, lacked a program or the means to achieve power. The labor unions were entirely urban-based and appealed to only a small segment of the population. The clandestine political parties were small, urban, and usually elitist. The religious sects had a narrow appeal and were based on ethnic minorities. Only the Viet Cong had any real support and influence on a broad base in the countryside. The only real alternative source of political power was the Army since it had a large, disciplined organization spanning the country, with an independent communications and transportation system and a strong superiority to any other group in coercive power. In its reports on the Army, however, General Harkins and the U.S. military had failed to appreciate the deeply corrosive effect on internal allegiance and discipline in the Army that Diem's loyalty based promotion and assignment policies had had. They did not foresee that in the wake of a coup senior officers would lack the cohesiveness to hang together and that the temptations of power would promote a devisive internal competition among ambitious men at the expense of the war against the Viet Cong.

Two weeks after the fruitless Krulak-Mendenhall mission, with the Washington discussions still stalemated, it was the turn of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor, the Chairman of the JCS, to assess the problem. They left for Vietnam on September 23 with the Presidential instruction to appraise the condition of the war effort and the impact on it of the Buddhist political turmoil and to recommend a course of action for the GVN and the U.S. They returned to Washington on October 2. Their report was a somewhat contradictory compromise between the views of the civilian and military staffs. It affirmed that the war was being won, and that it would be successfully concluded in the first three corps areas by the end of 1964, and in the Delta by 1965, thereby permitting the withdrawal of American advisors, although it noted that the political tensions were starting to have an adverse effect on it. But, more importantly, it recommended a series of measures to coerce Diem into compliance with American wishes that included a selective suspension of U.S. economic aid, an end to aid for the special forces units used in the August 21 raids unless they were subordinated to the Joint General Staff, and the continuation of Lodge's cool official aloofness from the regime. It recommended the public announcement of the U.S. intention to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of the year, but suggested that the aid suspensions not be announced in order to give Diem a chance to respond without a public loss of face. It concluded by recommending against active U.S. encouragement of a coup, in spite of the fact that an aid suspension was the one step the generals had asked for in August as a sign of U.S. condemnation of Diem and support for a change of government. The report was quickly adopted by Kennedy in the NSC and a brief, and subsequently much rued, statement was released to the press on October 2, announcing the planned withdrawal of 1,000 troops by year's end.

The McNamara-Taylor mission, like the Krulak-Mendenhall mission before and the Honolulu Conference in November after the coup, points up the great difficulty encountered by high level fact-finding missions and conferences in getting at the "facts" of a complex policy problem like Vietnam in a short time. It is hard to believe that hasty visits by harried high level officials with overloaded itineraries really add much in the way of additional data or lucid insight. And because they become a focal point of worldwide press coverage, they often raise public expectations or anxieties that may only create additional problems for the President. There were many such high level conferences over Vietnam.

Of the recommendations of the McNamara-Taylor mission, the proposal for selective suspension of economic aid, in particular the suspension of the commercial import program, was the most significant both in terms of its effect, as an example of the adroit use or denial of American assistance to achieve foreign policy objectives. In this instance economic sanctions, in the form selected aid suspensions in those programs to which the regime would be most sensitive but that would have no immediate adverse effect on the war effort, were used constructively to influence events rather than negatively to punish those who had violated our wishes, our usual reaction to coups in Latin America. The proposal itself had been under consideration since the abortive coup plot of August. At that time, Lodge had been authorized to suspend aid if he thought it would enhance the likelihood of the success of a coup. Later in September he was again given specific control over the delay or suspension of any of the pending aid programs. On both occasions, however, he had expressed doubt about the utility of such a step. In fact, renewal of the commercial import program had been pending since early in September, so that the adoption of the McNamara-Taylor proposal merely formalized the existing situation into policy. As might have been expected (although the record leaves ambiguous whether this was a conscious aim of the Administration), the Vietnamese generals interpreted the suspension as a green light to proceed with a coup.

While this policy was being applied in October, Lodge shunned all contact with the regime that did not come at Diem's initiative. He wanted it clearly understood that they must come to him prepared to adopt our advice before he would recommend to Washington a change in U.S. policy. Lodge performed with great skill, but inevitably frictions developed within the Mission as different viewpoints and proposals came forward. In particular, Lodge's disagreements and disputes with General Harkins during October when the coup plot was maturing and later were to be of considerable embarrassment to Washington when they leaked to the press. Lodge had carefully cultivated the press, and when the stories of friction appeared, it was invariably Harkins or Richardson or someone else who was the villian.
No sooner had the McNamara-Taylor mission returned to Washington and reported its recommendations than the generals reopened contact with the Mission indicating that once again they were preparing to strike against the regime. Washington's immediate reaction on October 5 was to reiterate the decision of the NSC on the McNamara-Taylor report, i.e., no U.S. encouragement of a coup. Lodge was instructed, however, to maintain contact with the generals and to monitor their plans as they emerged. These periodic contacts continued and by October 25, Lodge had come to believe that Diem was unlikely to respond to our pressure and that we should therefore not thwart the coup forces. Harkins disagreed, believing that we still had not given Diem a real chance to rid himself of Nhu and that we should present him with such an ultimatum and test his response before going ahead with a coup. He, furthermore, had reservations about the strength of the coup forces when compared with those likely to remain loyal to the regime. All this left Washington anxious and doubtful. Lodge was cautioned to seek fuller information on the coup plot, including a line-up of forces and the proposed plan of action. The U.S. could not base its policy on support for a coup attempt that did not offer a strong prospect of success. Lodge was counseled to consider ways of delaying or preventing the coup if he doubted its prospects for success. By this juncture, however, Lodge felt committed and, furthermore, felt the matter was no longer in our hands. The generals were taking the action on their own initiative and we could only prevent it now by denouncing them to Diem. While this debate was still going on, the generals struck.

Shortly after Ambassador Lodge and Admiral Felt had called on Diem on November 1, the generals made their move, culminating a summer and fall of complex intrigue. The coup was led by General Minh, the most respected of the senior generals, together with Generals Don, Kim and Khiem. They convoked a meeting of all but a few senior officers at JGS headquarters at noon on the day of the coup, announced their plans and got the support of their compatriots. The coup itself was executed with skill and swiftness. They had devoted special attention to ensuring that the major potentially loyal forces were isolated and their leaders neutralized at the outset of the operation. By the late afternoon of November 1, only the palace guard remained to defend the two brothers. At 4:30 p.m., Diem called Lodge to ask where the U.S. stood. Lodge was noncommital and confined himself to concern for Diem's physical safety. The conversation ended inconclusively. The generals made repeated calls to the palace offering the brothers safe conduct out of the country if they surrendered, but the two held out hope until the very end. Sometime that evening they secretly slipped out of the palace through an underground escape passage and went to a hide-away in Cholon. There they were captured the following morning after their whereabouts was learned when the palace fell. Shortly the two brothers were murdered in the back of an armored personnel carrier en route to JGS headquarters.

Having successfully carried off their coup, the generals began to make arrangements for a civilian government. Vice President Tho was named to head a largely civilian cabinet, but General Minh became President and Chairman of the shadow Military Revolutionary Council. After having delayed an appropriate period, the U.S. recognized the new government on November 8. As the euphoria of the first days of liberation from the heavy hand of the Diem regime wore off, however, the real gravity of the economic situation and the lack of expertise in the new government became apparent to both Vietnamese and American officials. The deterioration of the military situation and the strategic hamlet program also came more and more clearly into perspective.

These topics dominated the discussions at the Honolulu Conference on November 20 when Lodge and the country team met with Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, Bell, and Bundy. But the meeting ended inconclusively. After Lodge had conferred with the President a few days later in Washington, the White House tried to pull together some conclusions and offer some guidance for our continuing and now deeper involvement in Vietnam. The instructions contained in NSAM 273, however, did not reflect the truly dire situation as it was to come to light in succeeding weeks. The reappraisals forced by the new information would swiftly make it irrelevant as it was "overtaken by events."

For the military coup d'etat against Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S. must accept its full share of responsibility. Beginning in August of 1963 we variously authorized, sanctioned and encouraged the coup efforts of the Vietnamese generals and offered full support for a successor government. In October we cut off aid to Diem in a direct rebuff, giving a green light to the generals. We maintained clandestine contact with them throughout the planning and execution of the coup and sought to review their operational plans and proposed new government. Thus, as the nine-year rule of Diem came to a bloody end, our complicity in his overthrow heightened our responsibilities and our commitment in an essentially leaderless Vietnam.

End of Summary and Analysis

CHRONOLOGY

8 May 1963 Hue incident

Government troops fire on a Buddhist protest demonstration, killing nine and wounding fourteen. The incident triggers a nationwide Buddhisst protest and a crisis of popular confidence for the Diem regime. GVN maintains the incident was an act of VC terrorism.

10 May 1963 Manifesto of Buddhist clergy

A five point demand by the Buddhist clergy is transmitted to the Government. It calls for freedom to fly the Buddhist flag, legal qaulity with the Catholic Church, an end of arrests, punishment of the perpetrators of the May 8 incident, and indemnification of its victims.

18 May 1963 Nolting meeting with Diem: Embassy Saigon message 1038

U.S. Ambassador Nolting meets with Diem and outlines the steps the U.S. wants Diem to take to refress the Buddhist grievances and recapture public confidence. These include an admission of responsibility for the Hue incident, compensation of the victims, and a reaffirmation of religious equality and non-discrimination.

30 May 1963 Buddhist demonstrations

350 Buddhist monks demonstrate in front of the National Assmebly and announce a 48-hour hunger strike.

4 Jun 1963 Truehart meeting with Thuan

With Nolting on leave, charge d'affaires Truehart meets with Secretary of State Tuan and on insruction from the State Department, warns that U.S. support for the GVN could not be maintained if there were another bloody suppression of Buddhists.

4 Jun 1963 Tho Committee appointed

Later that day the Government announces the appointment of an inter-ministerial committee headed by Vice President Tho to resolve the religious issue.

5 Jun 1963 The committee meets Buddhists

The first meeting between the Tho committee and the Buddhist leadership takes place, after which each side publicly questions the other's good faith in the negotiations.

8 Jun 1963 Madame Nhu atacks Buddhists

Madame Nhu, wife of Diem's powerful brother, publicly accuses the Buddhists of being infiltrated with communist agents

Later on the same day, Truehart protests Mme. Nhu's remarks to Diem and threatens to dissociate the U.S. from any future repressive measures against the Buddhists.

11 Jun 1963 First Buddhist suicide by fire

At noon in the middle of a downtown intersection, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, is immersed in gasoline and sets himself afire. His fiery protest is photographed and is front page material in the world's newspapers. Shock and indignation are universal. Mme. Nhu subsequently refers to it as a "barbecue."

12 Jun 1963 Truehart repeats U.S. dissociation threat

Truehart sees Diem again to protest his lack of action on the Buddhist problem and says that Quang Duc's suicide has shocked the world. If Diem does not act, the U.S. will be forced to dissociate itself from him.

14 Jun 1963 Tho committee meets again with Buddhists

Under U.S. pressure, negotiations between Vice President Tho's committee and the Buddhist leadership reopen in apparent earnest.

16 Jun 1963 GVN-Buddhist communique

A joint GVN-Buddhist communique is released as a product of the negotiations that outlines the elements of a settlement, but affixes no responsibility for the May 8 Hue incident.

Late June- July Buddhist protest intensifies

Buddhists protest activities intensify as leadership passes from the discredited moderate, older leaders to younger militants. The Saigon press corps is actively cultivated.

27 June 1963 Kennedy announces Lodge appointment

President Kennedy, visiting in Ireland, announces the appointment of Henry Cabot Lodge as the new U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, effective in September.

3 Jul 1963 Tho committee absolves regime

Vice President Tho's committee announces that a preliminary investigation of the May 8 incident has confirmed that the deaths were the result of an act of VC terrorism.

4 Jul 1963 White House meeting on Vietnamese situation

At a State Department briefing for the President it is generally agreed that Diem will not voluntarily remove Nhu. A discussion of the likely consequences of a coup reveals divergent views.

5 Jul 1963 Nolting in Washington

Having cut short his vacation to return to Washington for consultations, Nolting confers with Under Secretary of State George Ball and voices the fear that an attempt to overthrow Diem would result in a protracted religious civil war that would open the door to the Viet Cong. We should not abandon Diem yet. While in Washington he also sees Secretary McNamara.

10 Jul 1963 SNIE 53-2-63

This special intelligence estimate notes coup rumors in Vietnam and warns that a coup would disrupt the war effort and perhaps give the Viet Cong the opportunity for gains they had been hoping for. It concludes, however, that if Diem does nothing to implement the June 16 agreements, Buddhist unrest will continue through the summer and increase the likelihood of a coup attempt.

11 Jul 1963 Nolting's return to Saigon

Nolting returns to Vietnam with Washington's blessing to make one last attempt to persuade Diem to conciliate the Buddhists. The hope is to draw on the good will that Nolting has built up in his two years of service.

11 Jul 1963 Nhu squelches coup plotting

At a special meeting for all senior generals, Nhu attacks their loyalty to the regime for not having thwarted the numerous coup plots that had been reported. The meeting apparently forestalls any immediae threat to the family.

15 Jul 1963 Embassy Saigon message 85

Deeply resentful of Truehart's tough pressure tactics, Nolting meets with Diem and attempts to mollify him. He convinces Diem to make a nationwide radio address with concessions to the Buddhists.

19 Jul 1963 Diem speaks on radio

Complying with the letter but not the spirit of Nolting's request, Diem delivers a brief cold radio address that makes only very minor concessions to the Buddhists and asks for harmony and support of the Government.

McNamara press conference

At a press conference, Secretary McNamara says the war is progressing well and the Buddhist crisis has not yet affected it.

5 Aug 1963 Second Buddhist suicide

A second Buddhist monk commits suicide by burning himself to death in the continuing protest against the Diem regime.

14 Aug 1963 Nolting-Diem meeting

In their final meeting before Nolting's departure from Vietnam, Diem promises to make a public statement repudiating Mme Nhu's inflammatory denunciations of the Buddhists. Nolting left the next day.

15 Aug 1963 New York Herald Tribune article by Marguerite Higgins

Diem's promised public statement takes the form of an interview with Marguerite Higgins, conservative correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune. Diem asserts that conciliation has been his policy toward the Buddhists all along and the family is pleased with Lodge's appointment.

18 Aug 1963 Generals decide on martial law

Ten senior Army generals meet and decide that in view of the deteriorating political situation, they will ask Diem for a declaration of martial law to permit them to return monks from outside Saigon to their own provinces and pagodas and thus reduce tensions in the capital.

20 Aug 1963 Generals propose martial law to Nhu and Diem

A small group of generals meets first with Nhu and then with Diem to propose that martial law be decreed forthwith. Diem approves the proposal and the decree takes effect at midnight.

21 Aug 1963 Nhu's forces attack pagodas

Under the cover of the military martial law, shortly after midnight, forces loyal to Nhu and under his orders attack pagodas throughout Vietnam, arresting monks and sacking the sacred buildings. Over 30 Buddhists are injured and over 1400 arrested. The attack is a shattering repudiation of Diem's promises to Nolting. The Embassy is taken by surprise.

Lodge confers with Nolting and Hilsman

First news of the attacks reaches Lodge in Honolulu where he is conferring with Nolting and Assistant Secretary of State Hilsman. He is dispatched immediately to Vietnam.

Washington reaction

At 9:30 a.m. a stiff statement is released by State deploring the raids as a direct violation of Diem's assurances to the U.S. But first intelligence places the blame for them on the Army, not Nhu.

22 Aug 1963 Lodge arrives in Saigon

After a brief stop in Tokyo, Lodge arrives in Saigon at 9:30 p.m. The situation still remains confused.

23 Aug 1963 CIA information Report TDCS DB-3/656,252

General Don, armed forces commander under the martial law decree, has contacted a CAS officer and asked why the U.S. was broadcasting the erroneous story that the Army had conducted the pagoda raids. Nhu's special forces were responsible. The U.S. should make its position known. A separate contact by another general with a member of the mission had brought another inquiry as to the U.S. position. The query is clear. Would we support the Army if it acted against Nhu and/or Diem?

Student demonstrations

Large student protest demonstrations on behalf of the imprisoned Buddhists take place at the faculties of medicine and pharmacy at the University of Saigon. They are a dramatic break with the tradition of student apathy to politics in Vietnam. The regime reacts with massive arrests.

24 Aug 1963 Embassy Saigon message 316, Lodge to Hilsman

Lodge lays the blame for the raids at Nhu's feet and states that his influence is significantly increased. But, in view of the loyalty of Saigon area commanders, a coup attempt would be a "shot in the dark."

State message 243, State to Lodge

Subsequently known as the "Aug 24 cable," this controversial message acknowledges Nhu's responsibility for the raids and says that U.S. can no longer tolerate his continuation in power. If Diem is unable or unwilling to remove him, the generals are to be told that the U.S. will be prepared to discontinue economic and military support, accept the obvious implication and will promise assistance to them in any period of interim breakdown of the GVN. Lodge's permission is requested for a VOA broadcast exonerating the Army of responsibility for the Aug 21 raids.

25 Aug 1963 Embassy Saigon message

Lodge approves the proposed course of action but sees no reason to approach Diem first. Diem will not remove the Nhus and it would merely tip off the palace to the impending military action.

CAS Saigon message 0292

Lodge, Harkins, and Richardson meet and agree on an approach to the generals with the information in State's 243.


26 Aug 1963 VOA broadcast

Early on this Monday morning, VOA in South Vietnam broadcasts the press stories placing blame for the Aug 21 raids on Nhu and absolving the Army. It also broadcast press speculation that the U.S. is contemplating an aid suspension.

Lodge presents credentials to Diem

Later the same morning, Lodge presents his credentials to Diem, after an early morning meeting with Harkins and Richardson, at which they agree on the details of the approach to the generals.

NSC meeting

The Aug 24 cable of instructions had been drafted, cleared and sent on a weekend with McNamara, McCone, Rusk and the President all out of town. The NSC meeting on Monday morning reveals that these top advisors have reservations about proceeding hastily with a coup when we lack so much basic information about its leadership and chances. Lodge is asked for more details.

27 Aug 1963 CAS agents meet generals

CAS agents Conein and Spera meet with Generals Khiem and Khanh respectively. Khiem tells Conein that other participants are Generals Minh, Kim, Thieu and Le, and that General Don was aware of the plot and approved, but was too exposed to participate.

Embassy Saigon message 364

Lodge gives an optimistic appraisal of the balance of forces for a coup and expresses confidence in the identified leaders.

NSC meeting

At the now daily NSC meeting in Washington, the State Department participants generally favor going ahead with the coup, while the Defense Department, both civilian and military, prefers another try with Diem.

28 Aug 1963 MACV message 1557

Harkins goes on record with doubts about the line-up of forces for the coup and sees no reason for our "rush approval."

State message 269, President to Lodge; and JCS message 3385, Taylor to Harkins

Concerned by the differing views of Lodge and Harkins, as well as the division of opinion in Washington, the President asks the Ambassador and MACV for their separate appraisals.

29 Aug 1963 CAS agents meet Minh

At this meeting, arranged by Minh, he asks for clear evidence that the U.S. will not betray them to Nhu. He is unwilling to discuss the details of his plan. When asked what would constitute a sign of U.S. support, he replies that the U.S. should suspend economic aid to the regime.

Embassy Saigon message 375

Lodge replies to the Presidential query that the U.S. is irrevocably committed to the generals. He recommends showing the CAS messages to them to establish our good faith and if that is insufficient, he recommends a suspension of economic aid as they requested.

MACV message 1566

Harkins reply to Taylor suggests that one last effort be made with Diem in the form of an ultimatum demanding Nhu's removal. Such a move he feels will strengthen the hand of the generals, not imperil them.

NSC meeting

Another inconclusive meeting is held with the division of opinion on a U.S. course of action still strong. The result is to leave policy making in Lodge's hands.

State message 272

Lodge is authorized to have Harkins show the CAS messages to the generals in exchange for a look at their detailed plans. He is further authorized to suspend U.S. aid at his discretion.

31 Aug 1963 MACV message 1583; Embassy Saigon message 391; and CAS Saigon message 0499

Harkins meets with Khiem who tells him that Minh has called off the coup. Military was unable to achieve a favorable balance of forces in the Saigon area and doubts about whether the U.S. had leaked their plans to Nhu were the deciding factors. A future attempt is not ruled out.

NSC meeting; MGen Victor C. Krulak, Memo for the Record, Vietnam Meeting at the State Dept.

With the demise of the coup plot confirmed, the NSC (without the President) meets to try to chart a new policy for Vietnam. The discussion reveals the divergence between the military desire to get on with the war and repair relations with Diem, and the State Department view that continued support for Diem will eventually mean a loss of the war as more and more of the South Vietnamese are alienated from it. No decisions are taken.

2 Sep 1963 Kennedy TV interview

The President, in a TV interview with CBS News' Walter Cronkite, expresses his disappointment with Diem's handling of the Buddhist crisis and concern that a greater effort is needed by the GVN to win popular support. This can be done, he feels, "with change in policy and perhaps with personnel . . ."

Lodge meets with Nhu

Avoiding any contact with Diem, Lodge nonetheless meets with Nhu who announces his intention to quit the Government as a sign of the progress of the campaign against the VC. Mme Nhu and Archbishop Thuc, another of Diem's brothers, are to leave the country on extended trips shortly.

6 Sep 1963 NSC meeting

The NSC decides to instruct Lodge to reopen "tough" negotiations with Diem and to start by clarifying to him the U.S. position. Robert Kennedy speculates that if the war can be won neither with Diem nor in the event of a disruptive coup, we should perhaps be considering a U.S. disengagement. Secretary McNamara proposes a fact-finding trip by General Krulak, and State suggests including Joseph Mendenhall, a senior FSO with Vietnam experience. They leave later the same day.

7 Sep 1963 Archbishop Thuc leaves Vietnam

With the intercession of the Vatican and the Papal Delegate in Saigon, Archbishop Thuc leaves the country for Rome on an extended visit.

8 Sep 1963 AID Director Bell TV interview

In a televised interview, AID Director Bell expresses concern that Congress might cut aid to South Vietnam if the Diem Government does not change its repressive policies.

9 Sep 1963 Mme Nhu leaves Vietnam

Mme Nhu departs from Saigon to attend the World Parliamentarians Conference in Belgrade and then to take an extendedtrip through Europe and possibly the U.S.

Kennedy TV interview

Appearing on the inaugural program of the NBC Huntley-Brinkley News, the President says he does not believe an aid cut-off would be helpful in achieving American purposes in Vietnam at present.

10 Sep 1963 NSC meeting

Krulak and Mendenhall return from Vietnam after a whirlwind four day trip and make their report to the NSC. With them are John Mecklin, USIS Director in Saigon, and Rufus Phillips, USOM's Director of Rural Programs. Krulak's report stresses that the war is being won and, while there is some dissatisfaction in the military with Diem, no one would risk his neck to remove him. A continuation of present policies under Diem will yield victory. Mendenhall presents a completely contradictory view of the situation. A breakdown of civil administration was possible and a religious civil war could not be excluded if Diem was not replaced. The war certainly could not be won with Diem. Phillips and Mecklin support Mendenhall with variations. Nolting agrees with Krulak. All the disagreement prompts the President to ask the two emissaries, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?"

11 Sep 1963 Embassy Saigon message 478

Lodge reverses himself in suggesting a complete study of kinds of economic aid suspension that might be used to topple the regime.

White House meeting

White House decides to hold economic aid renewal in abeyance pending a complete examination of how it might be used to pressure Diem.
tion in the Senate condemning the South Vietnamese Government for its repressive handling of the Buddhist problem and calling for an end to U.S. aid unless the repressions are abandoned.

12 Sep 1963 Senator Church's Resolution

With White House approval, Senator Church introduces a resolution in the Senate condemning the South Vietnamese Government for its repressive handling of the Buddhist problem and calling for an end to U.S. aid unless the repressions are abandoned.

14 Sep 1963 State message 411

Lodge is informed that approval of the $18.5 million commercial import program is deferred until basic policy decisions on Vietnam have been made.

16 Sep 1963 Martial law ends

Martial law is ended throughout the country.

17 Sep 1963 NSC meeting

Two alternative proposals for dealing with Diem are considered. The first would use an escalatory set of pressures to get him to do our bidding. The second would involve acquiescence in recent GVN actions, recognition that Diem and Nhu are inseparable, and an attempt to salvage as much as possible from a bad situation. A decision is taken to adopt the first as policy, and also to send Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on a fact-gathering mission.

21 Sep 1963 White House press release

The forthcoming McNamara-Taylor mission is announced to the press by the White House.

White House instructions to McNamara-Taylor

The White House instructions for the mission ask the two men to (1) appraise the status of the military effort; (2) assess the impact on the war effort of the Buddhist crisis; (3) recommend a course of action for the GVN to redress the problem and for the US. to get them to do it; and (4) examine how our aid can further no. 3.

23 Sep 1963 McNamara-Taylor mission departs

The McNamara-Taylor party leaves Washington for its ten day trip to Vietnam.

25 Sep 1963 Opening meeting of McNamara-Taylor with country team

The disagreement between Harkins and Lodge about the situation in-country and the progress of the war surfaces immediately in this first conference. McNamara spends several subsequent days touring various parts of Vietnam to appraise the war first hand and talk with U.S. and Vietnamese officers.

27 Sep 1963 National Assembly elections

As announced earlier, and at the end of a pro forma one week campaign, the GVN holds nation-wide elections for the National Assembly with predictably high turnouts and majorities for Government candidates.

Embassy Saigon messages 602 and 608

Aware that McNamara and Taylor are tasked to recommend uses of the aid program to pressure Diem, both Lodge and Brent, the USOM Director, go on record against them.

29 Sep 1963 McNamara, Taylor and Lodge see Diem

In their protocol call on Diem, and after his two-hour monologue, McNamara is able to pointedly stress that the political unrest and Government repressive measures against the Buddhists were undermining the U.S. war effort. Diem seems unimpressed, but does ask Taylor for his appraisal, as a military man, of the progress of the war.

30 Sep 1963 McNamara, Taylor and Lodge meet Vice President Tho

Tho stresses to the two visitors the gravity of the political deterioration and the negative effect it was having on war. He questions the success of the strategic hamlet program. Later that day, the McNamara-Taylor party leaves South Vietnam for Honolulu.

2 Oct 1963 SecDef Memo for the President: Report of the McNamara-Taylor mission

After a day in Honolulu to prepare a report, McNamara and Taylor return to Washington and present their findings and recommendations to a morning NSC meeting. Their long report represents a compromise between the military and the civilian views. It confirms the progress of the war, but warns of the dangers inherent in the current political turmoil and recommends pressures against Diem to bring changes. Militarily, it calls for greater GVN effort, especially in the Delta and in clear and hold operations, and a consolidation of the strategic hamlet program. It proposes the announcement of the plans to withdraw 1,000 American troops by year's end. To put political pressure on Diem to institute the reforms we want, it recommends a selective aid suspension, an end of support for the special forces responsible for the pagoda raids, and a continuation of Lodge's aloofness from the regime. It recommends against a coup, but qualifies this by suggesting that an alternative leadership be identified and cultivated. The recommendations are promptly approved by the President.

White House press release

A statement following the meeting is released as recommended by McNamara and Taylor that reiterates the U.S. commitment to the struggle against the VC, announces the 1,000 man troop withdrawal, and dissociates the U.S. from Diem's repressive policies. It does not, however, announce the aid suspensions.

CAS Saigon message 1385

CAS agent Conein "accidentally" meets General Don at Tan Son Nhut. Don asks him to come to Nha Trang that evening. With Embassy approval Conein keeps the appointment. Don states that there is an active plot among the generals for a coup, and that General Minh wants to see Conein on Oct 5 to discuss details. The key to the plan, according to Don, is the conversion of III Corps Commander, General Dinh.

5 Oct 1963 NSC meeting

The President approves detailed recommendations of the McNamara-Taylor mission for transmission to Lodge.

CAP message 63560

President today approved recommendation that no initiative should now be taken to give any active covert encouragement to a coup. There should, however, be urgent covert effort . . . to identify and build contacts with possible alternative leadership as and when it appears."

CAS Saigon message 1445

With Lodge's approval, and probably before receipt of foregoing message, Conein meets with General Minh. Minh says he must know the U.S. position on a coup in the near future. The GVN's loss of popular support is endangering the whole war effort. Three possible plans are mentioned, one involving assassination. Conein is noncommital.

CAS Saigon message 34026

Lodge recommends that when Conein is contacted again, he be authorized to say that the U.S. will not thwart a coup, that we are willing to review plans, and that we will continue support to a successor regime.

Richardson recalled

His identity having been compromised in recent press stories about internal policy struggles in the U.S. mission, CIA Chief of Station, John Richardson, is recalled to Washington.

6 Oct 1963 CAP message 63560

Washington clarifies its views on a coup by stating that the U.S. will not thwart such a move if it offers prospects of a more effective fight against the VC. Security and deniability of all contacts is paramount.

7 Oct 1963 National Assembly convenes

The newly elected National Assembly convenes to hear Diem's State of the Union address. Diem speaks mainly of Vietnam's past progress under his rule, playing down the current political crisis and making only scant reference to U.S. aid.

Mme Nhu arrives in U.S.

Mme Nhu arrives in the U.S. from Europe for a three-week speaking tour. She immediately launches into vituperative attacks on the U.S. and its role in Vietnam.

Oct 1963 UN General Assembly vote

The UN General Assembly, after a strong debate with many voices denouncing Diem's anti-Buddhist policy, votes to send a fact-finding team to Saigon to investigate the charges of repression.

Oct 1963 CAS officer meets Minh

A CAS officer reportedly meets with Minh and conveys the U.S. position that it will neither encourage nor thwart a coup attempt, but would hope to be informed about it.

17 Oct 1963 GVN informed of aid cut-off to special forces

Acting for the Ambassador, General Stillwell, MACV J-3, informs Secretary Thuan that U.S. aid for the special forces units responsible for the Aug 21 raids is being suspended until they are transferred to the field and placed under JGS command.

22 Oct 1963 Department of State, JNR Research Memo RFE9O

The State Department publishes a controversial research memorandum which takes issue with the Pentagon's optimistic reading of the statistical indicators on the progress of the war. The memo states that certain definitely negative and ominous trends can be identified.

Harkins sees Don

General Harkins sees General Don, and in a conversation whose interpretation is subsequently disputed, tells him that U.S. officers should not be approached about a coup as it distracts them from their job, fighting the VC. Don takes it as U.S. discouragement
of a coup.

23 Oct 1963 CAS agent meets Don

General Don renews contact with Conein to ask for clarification of U.S. policy after Harkins' statement to him of the previous day. Conein repeats Washington guidance, which relieves Don. Conein asks for proof of the existence of the coup and its plan; Don promises to provide politi

[material missing]

24 Oct 1963 Diem invites Lodge to Dalat

Diem extends an invitation to Lodge and his wife to spend Sunday, Oct 27, with him at his villa in Dalat. Lodge is pleased, Diem has come to him.

1st CAS agent meeting with Don

Conein meets with Don in the morning and the latter reports that Harkins had corrected his previous remarks and apologized for any misunderstanding. The coup is set to take place before Nov 2 and he will meet Conein later that day to review the plans.

2nd CAS agent meeting with Don

In the evening, Don tells Conein that the coup committee voted not to reveal any plans because of concern about security leaks. He promises to turn over to Conein for Lodge's Eyes Only the operation plan two days before the coup occurs.

UN fact-finding team arrives in Saigon

The UN fact-finding team arrives in Saigon and begins its investigation.

25 Oct 1963 CAS Saigon message 1964

Lodge argues that the time has come to go ahead with a coup and we should not thwart the maturing plot. He takes strong exception to Harkins reservations about the determination and ability of the plotters to carry off the coup.

CAP message 63590

Bundy, replying for the White House, is concerned about the dangers of U.S. support for a coup that fails. We must be in a position to judge the prospects for the coup plan and discourage any effort with likelihood of failure.

26 Oct 1963 Vietnamese National Day

Diem reviews the troops in the National Day parade before scant crowds with Lodge and all other diplomatic personnel in attendance. The coup had originally been scheduled for this day.

27 Oct 1963 Lodge-Diem meeting

As planned, Lodge travels to Dalat with Diem and engages in a day-long conversation that produces little results. Diem makes his standard complaints against the U.S., and whenever Lodge asks what he is planning to do about specific U.S. requests, he changes the subject. At one point, he does inquire, however, about resumption of the commercial import program. Lodge asks what movement he will make on our requests. Diem changes the subject. Lodge's feelings of frustration confirm his conviction that we cannot work with Diem.

Buddhist suicide

A seventh Buddhist monk commits suicide by fire.

28 Oct 1963 Don contacts Lodge

At the airport in the morning prior to departing for the dedication of an atomic energy facility in Dalat, General Don approaches Lodge and asks if Conein is authorized to speak for the U.S. Lodge says yes. Don then affirms the need for the coup to be completely Vietnamese. Lodge agrees, but when he asks about timing, Don replies that the generals are not yet ready.

CAS agent meets Don

That evening Conein meets Don again and the latter says that the plans may be available for Lodge only four hours before the coup. Lodge should not change his plans to go to Washington on Oct 31 as this would tip off the palace. Some details of the organization of the coup committee are discussed.

29 Oct 1963 CJNCPAC alerts task force

CINCPAC alerts a naval and air task force to stand off Vietnam for possible evacuation of American dependents and civilians if required.

NSC meeting

A decision is made at the NSC meeting to have Lodge fully inform Harkins on the coup plotting and arrangements, since if Lodge leaves, Harkins will be in charge. Concern is also registered at the differing views of the two men toward a coup.

Special forces transferred from Saigon

In the first preparatory act of the coup, General Dinh orders Colonel Tung's special forces out of Saigon for maneuvers. It is unclear whether the action came as a part of the generals' coup or Nhu's psuedo coup.

30 Oct 1963 MACV messages 2028, 2033, and 2034

Belatedly apprised of the continuing contacts with the generals and the U.S. role in the coup plotting, General Harkins dispatches three angry cables to Taylor in which he disagrees with Lodge's interpretation of the U.S. policy. He understands it to be no active covert encouragement. He opposes personally a coup and doesn't think the generals have the forces to pull one off.

CAS Washington message 79109

The White House is now genuinely concerned at the Saigon dispute and tells Lodge it believes we still have the power to call off the coup if we choose to.

CAS Saigon message 2063

Lodge replies to Washington that he is powerless to stop the coup, the matter is entirely in Vietnamese hands. Harkins does not concur.

CAS Washington message 79407

To clear the air and redefine U.S. policy, Washington sent another cable to Lodge. The U.S. cannot accept as a policy position that it has no power to prevent the coup. If the coup does not have high prospects of success, Lodge should intercede with the generals to have it delayed or called off. More detailed information on the plans is urgently requested. Specific instructions to guide U.S. action during a coup are issued. They prescribe strict noninvolvement and somewhat less strict neutrality.

31 Oct 1963 Lodge defers departure

Lodge, who had been scheduled to leave for Washington for high-level conferences, defers his departure because of the tense atmosphere and the apparent immenence of the coup.

1 Nov 1963 Lodge and Felt meet with Diem

10:00 a.m. Admiral Felt, who is visiting, and Lodge call on Diem, who reiterates many of the points he made to McNamara a month earlier. At the end of the meeting, Diem takes Lodge aside and indicates he is ready to talk about what the U.S. wants him to do. Felt leaves Saigon after the meeting.

Late morning Coup units begin to deploy

The first coup units begin to deploy in and around Saigon.

12:00 a.m. Officers meet at JGS

The coup committee has convened a meeting of all senior Vietnamese officers except Generals Dinh and Cao at JGS. There they are informed of the coup and asked to support it. All except Colonel Tung do. Their pledges of support are taped. Tung is taken into custody later to be executed. The CNO was killed en route by an escort. A CAS officer is invited to the JGS and maintains telephone contact with the Embassy throughout the coup.

1:45 p.m. U.S. notified

General Don calls General Stillwell, J-3 to General Harkins, and informs him that the coup is under way.

2:00 p.m. Key installations taken

About his time coup forces are seizing the key installations in Saigon, including the post office, police headquarters, radio stations, airport, naval headquarters, etc. They were also deploying for attacks on the palace and the palace guard barracks and to block any counter-attack from outside the city.

4:00 p.m. First skirmishes, Diem told to surrender

By about this time the first skirmish was taking place at the palace and guard barracks. Failing to reach General Dinh, Diem and Nhu realize the coup is serious. The generals called shortly after this and told the two brothers to surrender. They refused.

4:30 p.m. Coup broadcast, Diem calls Lodge

The generals go on radio, announce the coup and demand the resignation of Diem and Nhu. At the same time, Diem is calling Lodge. He asks Lodge where the U.S. stands. Lodge replies that the U.S. cannot yet have a view. He exprsses concern for Diem's safety, and the conversation ends there.

5:00 p.m. Generals again call Diem to demand surrender

Repeated calls are now made to the palace to get Diem to surrender. All the generals try. Colonel Tung is put on the phone and tells Diem he is a captive. Tung is then taken outside and executed. Diem and Nhu now frantically call all unit commanders but can find none loyal. Outside sporadic firing continues.

8:00 p.m. Diem and Nhu flee

Sometime in the early evening, probably about eight o'clock, the two brothers escape from the palace through one of the secret underground passages constructed for just such emergencies. They are met by a Chinese friend who takes them to a previously prepared hideaway in Cholon. There they spend the night in telephone contact with the palace.

9:00 p.m. Palace bombarded

At about nine o'clock, the attackers launch an artillery and armored barrage on the palace and its defenders which lasts through the night.

2 Nov 1963 3:30 a.m. Assault on the palace begins

The tank and infantry assault on the Gia Long palace begins.

6: 20 a.m. Diem calls generals to surrender

Diem calls General Don from the Cholon hideout to surrender, but does not tell his location.

6:30 a.m. Palace falls

Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, Diem issues a cease fire order to the palace guard and the palace falls to the insurgents. Colonel Thao, the commander of the attacking forces, learns of Diem's whereabouts and with JGS permission goes to arrest him.

6: 45 a.m. Diem and Nhu again escape

Arriving at the Cholon house, Thao calls JGS and is overheard by the brothers who escape to a nearby Catholic church.

6:50 a.m. Diem and Nhu are captured

Diem again calls General Don and surrenders, this time unconditionally. He and Nhu are taken prisoner shortly thereafter and are murdered in the back of an armored personnel carrier en route to JGS.

afternoon Vice President Tho confers on new government

Vice President Tho enters into intensive conferences and negotiations with the coup committee on the composition of a new interim government which he will head.

3 Nov 1963 Lodge meets with Generals Don and Kim

Generals Don and Kim call on Lodge at the Embassy and apologize for the absence of Minh who is closeted with Tho working on the composition of the new government. A two-tiered government is expected. A military committee chaired by General Minh will supervise a largely civilian cabinet under Tho's Prime Ministership. Lodge promises the immediate restoration of aid programs and assures the generals of forthcoming U.S. recognition.

4 Nov 1963 Lodge meets with General Minh

On instructions from Washington, Lodge meets with Minh and Don and urges them to make a clarifying statement on the deaths of Diem and Nhu to allay anxieties about the new leaders. Minh promises to do so and to announce the new government soon.

5 Nov 1963 New government announced

The new government is announced with Minh as President and Chief of the Military Committee. Tho is Premier, Minister of Economy and Minister of Finance. Don is Minister of Defense and Dinh is Minister of Security. Most other posts are filled by civilians, but there is a noticeable absence of well-known opponents to Diem. A later announcement suspends the 1956 constitution, and outlines the structure and functions of the new interim government.

6 Nov 1963 Composition of the Military Revolutionary Council announced

Saigon Radio announces the composition of the new Military Revolutionary Council with Minh as Chairman and including all important generals except Khanh.

7 Nov 1963 NLF makes post-coup policy statement

In a post-coup policy statement, the NLF lists eight demands of the new regime, all but one of which the Minh-Tho Government was going to do anyway.

Brent meets with Tho on U.S. aid

USOM Director Brent meets with Tho who indicated that all economic aid questions would be handled directly by his office. It was further agreed that a high-level Vietnamese commission would work with a similar group in the U.S. mission to establish economic and aid policies and levels.

8 Nov 1963 U.S. recognizes new government

Lodge calls on the new Foreign Minister, Pham Dang Lam, and presents a note of U.S. recognition. The new government will be heavily dependent on the U.S. in all areas.

9 Nov 1963 Embassy Saigon message 986

In the weekly progress report, the mission notes the greatly increased VC activity in the week following the coup. The return of coup units to the field will reverse this trend, it is hoped.

12 Nov 1963 CJNCPAC message to JCS 120604Z 63

CINCPAC takes note that the statistical indicators for the war (VC attacks, weapons loss ratio, VC defections) show deterioration dating back to the summer.

17 Nov 1963 NLF releases stronger set of demands

Its first set of demands having been effectively preempted by the new Minh Government, the NLF release a new and stronger set of demands including that the U.S. influence be eliminated, the fighting be halted and that a coalition government be established. For the first time the NLF states that reunification of Vietnam is an objective.

20 Nov 1963 Honolulu Conference

The entire country team meets with Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, Bundy, and Bell to review the current situation. Lodge voices optimism about the new government, but notes the inexperience of the new leaders. We should not press them too hard. We should secondly pledge aid to them in at least the amounts we were giving it to Diem. Brent notes the economic naivety of the generals and indicates the need for greater U.S. technical assistance to the government. Harkins' assessment is guardedly optimistic, taking note of the higher than average VC activity in the week after the coup. The determination of the new leaders impressed him, but he was concerned about the disruptions that wholesale replacements of province and district chiefs might have.

Press release after Honolulu Conference

The press release gives few details but does reiterate the U.S. intention to withdraw 1,000 troops by the end of the year.

22 Nov 1963 Lodge confers with the President

Having flown to Washington the day after the conference, Lodge meets with the President and presumably continues the kind of report given in Honolulu.

23 Nov 1963 NSAM 273

Drawing together the results of the Honolulu Conference and Lodge's meeting with the President, NSAM 273 reaffirms the U.S. commitment to defeat the VC in South Vietnam. It reiterates the plan to withdraw 1,000 troops by year's end and to end the war in the first three corps areas by the end of 1964 and in the Delta by the end of 1965. U.S. support for the new regime is confirmed and aid in at least the amounts given to Diem is guaranteed. The Delta is to be the area of concentration for all military, political, economic and social efforts. And clandestine operations against the North and into Laos are authorized.

I. INTRODUCTION

In the spring of 1963, the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem seemed to exhibit no more signs of advanced decay or imminent demise than might have been discerned since 1958 or 1959. Only in hindsight can certain developments be identified as salient. Of these, certainly the steadily increasing influence of the Nhus was the most ominous. Nhu came more and more to dominate Diem in the last year of the Diem rule. But as his power increased, Nhu's grip on reality seems to have slipped and he was reported in that last year to have been smoking opium and to have been mentally ill. Meanwhile, Mrne. Nhu was developing a power obsession of her own. The catastrophic effect of their influence during the ensuing crisis, however, was impossible to have predicted. As one perceptive observer noted, the Ngo family "had come to power with a well-developed persecution complex and had subsequently developed a positive mania for survival."

Another source of concern should have been the regime's self-imposed isolation from the populace. It had left the peasants apathetic, a cause for real concern in a struggle with the zealous, doctrinaire Viet Cong; but, more importantly, it had alienated large portions of the restive urban population who felt most directly the impact of the regime's arbitrary rule. The regime, in fact, had no real base of political support and relied on the loyalty of a handful of key military commanders to keep it in power by forestalling any overthrow. The loyalty of these men was bought with promotions and favors. Graft and corruption should also have drawn concern, even if governmental dishonesty was endemic in Asia, and probably not disproportionate at that time in South Vietnam.

It was not, however, the strains that these problems had placed on the Vietnamese political structure that were ultimately decisive. The fundamental weakness of the Diem regime was the curious rigidity and political insensitivity of its mandarin style in the face of a dramatic crisis of popular confidence.

With regard to the war, the consensus of the U.S. military mission and the U.S. intelligence community in the spring of 1963 was that the military situation in South Vietnam was steadily improving and the war was beginning to be won. A National Intelligence Estimate in April 1963 concluded that the infusion of U.S. advisors had begun to have the desired effect of strengthening the ARVN and increasing its aggressiveness. [Doc. 121] The Viet Cong retained good strength, but could be contained by the ARVN if they did not receive a great increase in external support. Statistical indices showed a decline in Viet Cong attacks from the previous year, increased ARVN offensive activity, and improvement in the weapons loss ratio. Continuing problems were Diem's loyalty-based officer promotion policy, ARVN desertions and AWOL's, poor intelligence, and low grade NCO's and company grade officers. Nonetheless, the overall outlook was sanguine. Particular reason for encouragement was the adoption in February 1963 of the National Campaign Plan urged by the U.S. The hopeful prospects were summarized for Secretary McNamara in a briefing paper for the Honolulu Conference of May 6:

The over-all situation in Vietnam is improving. In the military sector of the counterinsurgency, we are winning. Evidences of improvement are clearly visible, as the combined impact of the programs which involve a long lead time begin to have effect on the Viet Cong.

Even as seasoned an observer of insurgency as Sir Robert Thompson, Chief of the British Advisory Mission, was able to report that, "Now, in March 1963, I can say, and in this I am supported by all members of the mission, that the Government is beginning to win the shooting war against the Viet Cong."

One reason for the optimism of these appraisals was the vigor with which the government, under the direction of Nhu, was pushing the Strategic Hamlet Program. Nhu had been initially cool to the idea, but once he established the U.S. willingness to fund the program, he focused on it as the principal vehicle of the counterinsurgency campaign and as an excellent means of extending the oligarchy's control into the countryside. In April the GVN claimed it had completed 5,000 strategic hamlets and had another 2,000 under construction. There was already official U.S. misgiving, however, about the quality of many of the hamlets and about overextension of the country's limited human resources in the program's frantic rate of expansion. Nevertheless, field reports seemed to support the success of the program which was seen as the key to the struggle against the Viet Cong.

U.S.-GVN relations in the spring of 1963 were beginning to show signs of accumulating stress. As the U.S. commitment and involvement deepened, frictions between American advisors and Vietnamese counterparts at all levels increased. Diem, under the influence of Nhu, complained about the quantity and zeal of U.S. advisors. They were creating a colonial impression among the people, he said. Diem chose to dramatize his complaint by delaying agreement on the commitment of South Vietnamese funds for joint counterinsurgency projects. The issue was eventually resolved, but the sensitivity to the growing U.S. presence remained and as the long crisis summer wore on, it gradually became a deep-seated suspicion of U.S. motives.

The report of the Mansfield mission, published in March, further exacerbated relations between the two countries. Diem and Nhu were particularly incensed by its praise of Cambodian neutralism and criticism of their regime. Coup rumors began to circulate again that spring, and the prevailing palace state of mind hearkened back to suspicions of U.S. complicity in the abortive 1960 coup. Mme. Nhu's ascorbic public criticism of the United States was a further source of friction. By May 1963, these problems in U.S.-GVN relations were already substantial enough to preoccupy officials of both governments. Within a matter of weeks, however, events thrust them into the background of a far more serious crisis.

II. THE BUDDHIST CRISIS: MAY 8-AUGUST 21

A. THE CRISIS ERUPTS

The incident in Hue on May 8, 1963, that precipitated what came to be called the Buddhist crisis, and that started the chain of events that ultimately led to the overthrow of the Diem regime and the murder of the Ngo brothers, happened both inadvertently and unexpectedly. No one then foresaw that it would generate a national opposition movement capable of rallying virtually all non-communist dissidence in South Vietnam. More importantly, no one then appreciated the degree of alienation of Vietnam's people from their government, nor the extent of the political decay within the regime, a regime no longer capable of coping with popular discontent.

The religious origins of the incident are traceable to the massive flight of Catholic refugees from North Vietnam after the French defeat in 1954. An estimated one million Catholics fled the North and resettled in the South. Diem, animated, no doubt, by religious as well as humanitarian sympathy, and with an eye to recruiting political support from his coreligionists, accorded these Catholic refugees preferential treatment in land redistribution, relief and assistance, commercial and export-import licenses, government employment, and other GVN largess. Because Diem could rely on their loyalty, they came to fill almost all important civilian and military positions. As an institution, the Catholic Church enjoyed a special legal status. The Catholic primate, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was Diem's brother and advisor. But prior to 1962, there had been no outright discrimination against Buddhists. However, among South Vietnam's 3-4 million practicing Buddhists and the 80% of the population who were nominal Buddhists, the regime's favoritism, authoritarianism, and discrimination created a smoldering resentment.

In April 1963, the government ordered provincial officials to enforce a longstanding but generally ignored ban on the public display of religious flags. The order came just after the officially encouraged celebrations in Hue commemorating the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Ngo Dinh Thuc, the Archbishop of Hue, during which Papal flags had been prominently flown. The order also came, as it happened, just prior to Buddha's birthday (May 8)-a major Buddhist festival. Hue, an old provincial capital of Vietnam, was the only real center of Buddhist learning and scholarship in Vietnam and its university had long been a center of left-wing dissidence. Not surprisingly, then, the Buddhists in Hue defiantly flew their flags in spite of the order and, when the local administration appeared to have backed down on the ban, were emboldened to hold a previously scheduled mass meeting on May 8 to commemorate Buddha's birthday. Seeing the demonstration as a challenge to family prestige (Hue was also the capital of the political fief of another Diem brother, Ngo Dinh Can) and to government authority, local officials tried to disperse the crowds. When preliminary efforts produced no results, the Catholic deputy province chief ordered his troops to fire. In the ensuing melee, nine persons were killed, including some children, and fourteen were injured. Armored vehicles allegedly crushed some of the victims. The Diem government subsequently put out a story that a Viet Cong agent had thrown a grenade into the crowd and that the victims had been crushed in a stampede. It steadfastly refused to admit responsibility even when neutral observers produced films showing government troops firing on the crowd.

Diem's mandarin character would not permit him to handle this crisis with the kind of flexibility and finesse it required. He was incapable of publicly acknowledging responsibility for the tragedy and seeking to conciliate the angry Buddhists. He was convinced that such a public loss of face would undermine his authority to rule, oblivious to the fact that no modern ruler can long ignore massive popular disaffection whatever his own particular personal virtues may be. So the government clung tenaciously to its version of what had occurred.

The following day in Hue over 10,000 people demonstrated in protest of the killings. It was the first of the long series of protest activities with which the Buddhists were to pressure the regime in the next four months. The Buddhists rapidly organized themselves, and on May 10, a manifesto of the Buddhist clergy was transmitted to the government demanding freedom to fly their flag, legal equality with the Catholic Church, an end of arrests and freedom to practice their beliefs, and indemnification of the victims of the May 8th incident with punishment for its perpetrators. These five demands were officially presented to President Diem on May 15, and the Buddhists held their first press conference after the meeting. Publicized hunger strikes and meetings continued throughout May, but Diem continued to drag his feet on placating the dissenters or settling issues. On May 30, about 350 Buddhist monks demonstrated in front of the National Assembly in Saigon, and a 48-hour hunger strike was announced. On June 3, a demonstration in Hue was broken up with tear gas and several people were burned, prompting charges that the troops had used mustard gas. On June 4, the government announced the appointment of an interministerial committee headed by Vice President Tho to resolve the religious issue, but by this time such gestures were probably too late. Large portions of the urban population had rallied to the Buddhist protest, recognizing in it the beginnings of genuine political opposition to Diem. On June 8, Mme. Nhu exacerbated the problem by announcing that the Buddhists were infiltrated by communists.

Throughout the early days of the crisis, the U.S. press had closely covered the events and brought them to the attention of the world. On June 11, the press was tipped off to be at a downtown intersection at noon. Expecting another protest demonstration, they were horrified to witness the first burning suicide by a Buddhist monk. Thich Quang Duc's fiery death shocked the world and electrified South Vietnam.

Negotiations had been taking place between Vice President Tho's committee and the Buddhists since June 5, with considerable acrimonious public questioning of good faith by both sides. After the suicide, the U.S. intensified its already considerable pressure on the government to mollify the Buddhists, and to bring the deteriorating political situation under control. Finally, on June 16, a joint GVN-Buddhist communique was released outlining the elements of a settlement, but affixing no responsibility for the May 8 incident. Violent suppression by the GVN of rioting the next day, however, abrogated the spirit of the agreement. The Nhus, for their part, immediately undertook to sabotage the agreement by secretly calling on the GVN-sponsored youth organizations to denounce it. By late June, it was apparent that the agreement was not meant as a genuine gesture of conciliation by Diem, but was only an effort to appease the U.S. and paper over a steadily widening fissure in internal politics.

The evident lack of faith on the part of the government in the June 16 agreement discredited the conciliatory policy of moderation that the older Buddhist leadership had followed until that time. In late June, leadership of the Buddhist movement passed to a younger, more radical set of monks, with more far-reaching political objectives. They made intelligent and skillful political use of a rising tide of popular support. Carefully planned mass meetings and demonstrations were accompanied with an aggressive press campaign of opposition to the regime. Seizing on the importance of American news media, they cultivated U.S. newsmen, tipped them off to demonstrations and rallies, and carefully timed their activities to get maximum press coverage. Not surprisingly, the Ngo family reacted with ever more severe suppression to the Buddhist activists, and with acrimonious criticism and even threats to the American newsmen.

Early in July, Vice President Tho's committee announced that a preliminary investigation of the May 8 incident had confirmed that the deaths were the result of an act of Viet Cong terrorism. Outraged, the Buddhists denounced the findings and intensified their protest activities. On July 19, under U.S. pressure, Diem made a brief two-minute radio address, ostensibly an expression of conciliation to the Buddhists, but so written and coldly delivered as to destroy in advance any effect its announced minor concessions might have had.

Within the regime, Nhu and his wife were severely criticizing Diem for caving in under Buddhist pressure. Mme. Nhu publicly ridiculed the Buddhist suicide as a "barbecue," accused the Buddhist leaders of being infiltrated with communists, and construed the protest movement as Viet Cong inspired. Both Nhu and his wife worked publicly and privately to undermine Diem's feeble efforts at compromise with the Buddhists, and rumors that Nhu was considering a coup against his brother began to circulate in July.

A U.S. Special National Intelligence Estimate on July 10 concluded with the perceptive prediction that if the Diem regime did nothing to implement the June 16 agreement and to appease the Buddhists, the likelihood of a summer of demonstrations was great, with the strong possibility of a non-communist coup attempt. [Doc. 21] By mid-August a week before Nhu launched general raids on Buddhist pagodas in Saigon and elsewhere, the CIA had begun to note malaise in the bureaucracy and the army:

Since the Buddhist dispute with the Diem government erupted on 8 May, there have been a series of reports indicating not only intensified plotting and grumbling among Diem's traditional non-Communist critics, but renewed restiveness and growing disaffection in official civilian and military circles over Diem's handling of the dispute.

This estimate went on to detail numerous rumors of coup plots in existence since at least late June. But Nhu, in a bold move designed to frighten coup plotters, and to throw them off guard, had called in the senior generals on July 11, reprimanded them for not having taken action to squelch revolt, and questioned their loyalty to the regime. Nhu's move seemed to have temporarily set back all plans for an overthrow. CIA also reported rumors that Nhu himself was planning a "false coup" to draw out and then crush the Buddhists.

In August, Buddhist militancy reached new intensity; monks burned themselves to death on the 5th, 15th, and 18th. The taut political atmosphere in Saigon in mid-August should have suggested to U.S. observers that a showdown was on the way. When the showdown came, however, in the August 21 raids on the pagodas, the U.S. mission was apparently caught almost completely off guard.

B. THE U.S. "NO ALTERNATIVES TO DIEM" POLICY

The explanation of how the U.S. mission became detached from the realities of the political situation in Saigon in August 1963, is among the most ironic and tragic of our entire involvement in Vietnam. In dealing with Diem over the years, the U.S. had tried two radically different but ultimately equally unsuccessful approaches. Under Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow from the late '50s until 1961, we had used tough pressure tactics to bring Diem to implement programs and ideas we felt necessary to win the war against the Viet Cong. But Diem soon learned that the U.S. was committed to him as the only Vietnamese leader capable of rallying his country to defeat the communists. Armed with this knowledge he could defer action or ignore the Ambassador with relative impunity. He became adept at playing the role of offended lover. Thus by 1961, Durbrow was cut off from the palace, with little information about what was going on and even less influence over events. Under Frederick Nolting as U.S. Ambassador, the U.S. pursued a very different tactic. Forewarned not to allow himself to be isolated, Nolting set out through the patient cultivation of Diem's friendship and trust to secure a role for himself as Diem's close and confidential advisor. But there had been no basic change in the American belief that there was no alternative to Diem, and Diem must have quickly sensed this, for he continued to respond primarily to family interest, at best only listening impatiently to Nolting's carefully put complaints, secure in the knowledge that ultimately the U.S. would not abandon him no matter what he did. Both tactics failed because of American commitment. No amount of pressure or suasion was likely to be effective in getting Diem to adopt ideas or policies which he did not find to his liking, since we had communicated our unwillingness to consider the ultimate sanction--withdrawal of support for his regime. We had ensnared ourselves in a powerless, no alternatives policy.

The denouement of this policy, the ultimate failure of all our efforts to coerce, cajole and coax Diem to be something other than the mandarin that he was, came in the midnight attack on the pagodas on August 21. And it created a fundamental dilemma for U.S. policy with respect to Diem. On the one hand, withdrawal of support for his regime was the only lever likely to force Diem to redress the Buddhist grievances and to make the political reforms prerequisite for popular support in the common fight against the Viet Cong. On the other hand, withdrawal of U.S. support for Diem would be signal U.S. approval for an anti-Diem coup, with all its potential for political instability and erosion of the war effort. We found ourselves in this predicament not entirely unexpectedly.

In May 1963, though it had failed to anticipate the Buddhist upheaval, the U.S. mission nevertheless quickly recognized the gravity of the threat to Diem and reported it to Washington. Nolting met with Diem on May 18 and outlined the steps he felt were necessary to retrieve the situation. These included a government acknowledgment of responsibility for the Hue incident, an offer to compensate the families of the victims, and a reaffirmation of religious equality and nondiscrimination. As an alternative, he suggested an investigatory commission. Diem's noncommittal response led the Ambassador to think that Diem really believed the Viet Cong had caused the deaths and that the Buddhists had provoked the incident. Diem felt the U.S. was over-reacting to the events. Thus, at a critical time Nolting, in spite of his two years of careful groundwork, was unable to exercise any real influence over Diem. Nolting left on a well-deserved holiday and home leave shortly after this frustrating meeting.

By the end of May, Washington had become concerned at Diem's failure to act, and at the widening Buddhist protest. The Chargé d'Affaires, William True-hart, was instructed to press the GVN for action. Working with Secretary of State for Defense Thuan, Truehart tried to move the government toward negotiations with the Buddhists. After the demonstrations in Hue on June 3, the State Department instructed Truehart to tell Diem or Thuan that the U.S. also had a stake in an amicable settlement with the Buddhists. On the following day, True-hart met with Thuan and told him that U.S. support of South Vietnam could not be maintained if there was bloody repressive action in Hue. This seemed to get action. Later that day, Truehart was informed that Nolting's second suggestion had been adopted and a high-level commission had been named to settle the problem. The commission, headed by Vice President Tho, met belatedly with the Buddhists on June 5.

On June 8, Truehart had an interview with Diem to protest Mme. Nhu's public criticism of the Buddhists, which was poisoning the atmosphere for a settlement. When Diem refused to disavow her statements, Truehart threatened a U.S. "dissociation" from any future repressive measures to suppress demonstrations. Truehart left the meeting with the impression that Diem was more preoccupied with security measures than with negotiations. Nolting's low-key policy had by now been abandoned, both in Washington and in Saigon, in favor of a new tough line.

The situation was dramatically altered by the first Buddhist suicide on June 11. Alarmed, the State Department authorized Truehart to tell Diem that un'ess drastic action was taken to meet the Buddhist demands promptly, the U.S. would be forced to state publicly its dissociation from the GVN on the Buddhist issue. Truehart made his demarche on June 12. Diem replied that any such U.S. announcement would have a disastrous effect on the GVN-Buddhist negotiations. The negotiations finally got under way in earnest June 14 and the joint communique was issued June 16.

Truehart made repeated calls on Diem in late June and early July, urging him in the strongest language to take some action indicating the government's intention to abide in good faith by the June 16 agreement. His effort's were unavailing. Diem was either noncommittal, or talked in generalities about the difficulties of the problem.

On June 27, President Kennedy named Henry Cabot Lodge to replace Ambassador Nolting effective in September. After a brief stop in Washington, Nolting was hurried back to Saigon on July 11 to make one last effort to get Diem to conciliate the Buddhists. Nolting, evidently resenting the pressure tactics used by Truehart, met immediately with Diem and tried to mollify him. He succeeded only in convincing Diem to make the shallow gesture of the July 19 radio speech. Otherwise, Diem merely persisted in appeals for public harmony and support of the government, without any real attempt to deal with the Buddhist grievances.

Nolting spent his last month in Vietnam trying to repair U.S.-GVN relations and to move Diem to resolve the Buddhist crisis, but his attempts were continually undercut by the Nhus both publicly and privately. They had grown increasingly belligerent about the Buddhists during the summer, and by August spoke often of "crushing" them. Washington asked Nolting to protest such inflammatory remarks, and began to suspect Diem's capacity to conciliate the Buddhists in the face of Nhu sabotage. Nolting was instructed to suggest to Diem that Mme. Nhu be removed from the scene. Nolting asked Diem for a public declaration repudiating her remarks but after initially agreeing, Diem then demurred and postponed it. Finally, as a parting gesture to Nolting, he agreed on August 14 to make a statement. It came in the form of an interview with Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune. Diem asserted that conciliation had been his policy all along and that it was "irreversible." He further said, in direct contradiction of a previous remark by Mme. Nhu, that the family was pleased with Lodge's appointment. Washington was apparently satisfied by this statement, which Diem viewed merely as a going-away present for Nolting. Less than a week later, Nolting's two years of careful work and an American policy would be in a shambles, betrayed by Nhu's midnight raid on the pagodas.

Underlying the prevailing U.S. view that there was no alternative to Diem was the belief that the disruptive effect of a coup on the war effort, and the disorganization that would follow such a coup, could only benefit the VC, perhaps decisively. Military estimates and reports emanating from MACV through the summer of 1963 continued to reflect an optimistic outlook, indicating good reason to continue our support of Diem even in the face of his inept handling of the Buddhist crisis. In retrospect, it can be seen that by July the GVN position in the war had begun to seriously deteriorate. At the time, however, this weakening was not yet apparent. The then prevailing view also held that the Buddhist crisis had not yet detracted from the war effort, although its potential to do so was recognized. Secretary McNamara on July 19 told a press conference that the war was progressing well and that the Buddhist crisis had thus far not affected it. The intelligence community, however, had already begun to note depressing effects of the crisis on military and civilian morale.

Meanwhile, the U.S. press corps was reporting a far different view of both the war and the Buddhist crisis, one which was, in retrospect, nearer the reality. In particular, they were reporting serious failures in the Delta in both military operations and the Strategic Hamlet Program. Typical of this reporting was an August 15 story in the New York Times by David Halberstam presenting a very negative appraisal of the war in the Delta. Such reports were vehemently refuted within the Administration, most notably by General Krulak, the JCS Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency. At the lower echelons in the field, however, there were many U.S. advisors who did not share Krulak's sanguine view of the war's progress.

Within the Administration, no real low-risk alternative to Diem had ever been identified, and we had continued our support for his troublesome regime because Diem was regarded as the only Vietnamese figure capable of rallying national support in the struggle against the Viet Cong. The Buddhist crisis shattered our illusions about him, and increased the domestic U.S. political price to Kennedy of supporting Diem. But the only other option for us seemed a coup, with highly uncertain prospects for post-coup political stability. At a briefing for the President on July 4, the possibilities and prospects for a coup were discussed. [Doc. 123] It was the consensus that the Nhus could not be removed, but that there would surely be coup attempts in the next four months. Nolting's reported view, with which then Assistant Secretary of State, Roger Hilsman, did not entirely agree, was that a coup would most likely produce a civil war. Hilsman felt that the likelihood of general chaos in the wake of a coup was less than it had been the preceding year. (Notes on this briefing, reproduced in the Appendix, provide the first documentary evidence of highest level consideration of the ramifications of a coup.)

In a meeting at State the following day, July 5, Ambassador Nolting, who had cut short his vacation to return to Washington in the wake of the Buddhist crisis, told Under Secretary of State George Ball:

In his view if a revolution occurred in Viet-Nam which grew out of the Buddhist situation, the country would be split between feuding factions and the Americans would have to withdraw and the country might be lost to the Communists. This led to the question of how much pressure we could exert on Diem. Mr. Nolting replied that if we repudiated him on this issue his government would fall. The Ambassador believed that Diem would live up to the agreement (June 16) unless he believed that he was dealing with a political attempt to cause his overthrow. [Doc. 124]

Earlier in the same interview he had said:

....that although interference by the Nhus was serious, he believed that the GVN would be able to come through this one slowly. As to tactics, the more Diem was prodded the slower he went. While Nhu was troublesome he was chiefly responsible for gains which had been made in the provincial pacification program. [Doc. 124]


Nolting, no doubt, expressed similar views when he met with Secretary McNamara before returning to Saigon.

In spite of the mounting political pressure on the President in Congress and in the press because of the Buddhist repressions, the Administration decided to send Nolting back for another try at getting Diem to settle the dispute with the Buddhists. Anxiety in Washington mounted as the summer wore on, and Nolting's efforts with Diem produced evident progress. By the time of the August 21 raids, Washington's patience with Diem was all but exhausted.


Go Forward to the next Section of Volume 2, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November 1963"


Glossary of Acronyms and Terms


Go to Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "Background to the Conflict, 1940-1950." pp. 1-52

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954," pp. 53-107

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954," pp. 108-178.

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56," pp. 179-241

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960," pp. 242-314

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,"pp. 1-127

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," pp. 160-200.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "US-GVN Relations, 1964-1967," pp. 277-407.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 6 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Advisory Build-up, 1961-67," pp. 408-514

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 7 of the Pentagon Papers, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, Nov. 1963-Apr. 1965," pp. 1-105.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "Military Pressures Against North Vietnam, February 1964-January 1965," pp. 106-268.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "American Troops Enter the Ground War, March-July 1965," pp. 389-485

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 1, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968," pp. 1-276.

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 2, of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1968," pp. 277-604.


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