The Pentagon Papers
Chapter 4, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.
Section 2, pp. 232-276
III. LODGE vs. DIEM: AUGUST 20-OCTOBER 2
A. THE PAGODA RAIDS AND REPERCUSSIONS
Shortly after midnight on August 21, six days after Nolting's frustrated departure, Nhu, shattering any remaining illusions about the GVN's conciliatory approach to the Buddhists, and betraying Diem's parting pledge to Nolting, staged a general assault on Buddhist pagodas. In Saigon, Hue, and other coastal cities, the regime's private shock troops-the U.S.-trained Special Forces-and the combat police invaded the pagodas and arrested hundreds of Buddhist monks, effectively destroying an American policy and marking the beginning of the end of the Diem regime.
On August 18, ten senior generals had met and decided that they would ask Diem for a declaration of martial law to permit them to return Buddhist monks from outside Saigon to their own provinces and pagodas, hopefully reducing tensions in the capital. Among those in attendance at the meeting were General Ton That Dinh, military governor of Saigon and commander of III Corps suirounding it, and General Huynh Van Cao, IV Corps commander, both of whom owed their positions to their loyalty to the regime. Either or both of them probably reported the outcome of this meeting to Diem and Nhu.
In any case, Nhu had decided to eliminate the Buddhist opposition, and to confront the U.S. with a fait accompli on Lodge's arrival; he assumed the U.S. would protestingly acquiesce, as it always had in the past. On the afternoon of the 20th, Nhu met with a small group of generals, including Don, Khiem, and Dinh who presented the martial law proposal to him. Nhu, his own plans for the raids now far advanced, told them to take their proposal to Diem. At a meeting later that evening, Diem acquiesced in the generals' plan and at midnight the decree was published under the signature of General Don, Chief of the Joint General Staff. Meanwhile, unbeknown to the generals, Nhu had already alerted Colonel Tung's Special Forces and the combat police. Once the facade of martial law was in place, so the army would be blamed for the raids, Nhu gave the word and the crackdown began. To further implicate the army, some of the combat police wore paratroop uniforms. Pagodas were ransacked in all the major South Vietnamese cities, and over 1400 Buddhists, primarily monks, were arrested. In the raid on Xa Loi pagoda in Saigon about thirty monks were wounded or injured, and several were subsequently listed as missing; exact casualties were never established. Diem had approved the martial law decree without consulting his cabinet, but it was never established whether he knew of and approved Nhu's plans for the pagoda raids. Significantly, he never subsequently sought to dissociate himself from Nhu or the raids.
While the martial law decree gave General Don command of all troops, in fact, General Dinh and Colonel Tung took their orders directly from the palace. Thus, when the raids came, General Don was at JGS unaware. In a long discussion on August 23 with a CAS officer, he suggested that the martial law decree was only phase one of a larger Generals' plot. They were thrown off balance, however, by the raids and by General Dinh's rapid assumption of local control of martial law in Saigon.
In planning the raids, Nhu had been extremely careful not to have word leak to the U.S. mission (although the Buddhists and the U.S. press corps had been tipped off by their own informants). On the morning after the attack, Richardson, the CIA chief and the senior American civilian in Saigon, emphatically denied to Halberstam any foreknowledge of the plan. To further isolate the U.S. from an accurate assessment during the operation, Nhu had the telephone lines to the Embassy and the homes of all senior U.S. personnel cut shortly after the raids got under way. His efforts had the desired effect. It was several days before the U.S. mission in Saigon and officials in Washington could piece together what happened. In Washington, Harriman and Michael Forrestal, a member of McGeorge Bundy's staff at the White House, drafted a stiff public statement that was released by the State Department at 9:30 the following morning. It deplored the raids as "a direct violation by the Vietnamese Government of assurances that it was pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the Buddhists." But the first U.S. intelligence reports, based on information from Nhu, accepted army responsibility for the raids, and treated their coincidence with the martial law decree as, in effect, a military coup. In an August 21 memorandum for the Secretary of Defense, the Director of DIA, General Carroll, wrote, "Although the military moves are based on an alleged presidential proclamation, the military leaders have, in effect, assumed full control."
When the raids occurred, Lodge, Nolting, and Roger Hilsman, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East, had been conferring in Honolulu. Lodge was immediately instructed to proceed to Saigon. After a brief stop in Tokyo, Lodge touched down in Saigon at 9:30 p.m. on August 22, in an atmosphere charged with tension and official U.S. confusion. Awaiting him was a cable from Hilsman asking for a clarification of the situation. Had the military taken over and retained Diem as a figurehead; had Diem strengthened his own position by calling in the military; or were the Nhus really calling the shots? Within twenty-four hours, Lodge had sent a preliminary reply: there had been no coup, but there seemed also to be no diminution in the roles of the Nhus, although the power roles within the regime were unclear.
That same day, the first military feelers had been put out from the Vietnamese generals to determine what the U.S. reaction would be to a military coup. General Don, the commander of the armed forces under the martial law decree, had a long, rambling conversation with a CAS officer. He first outlined the true role the army had played in the events of August 20-21 and then inquired why the U.S. had blamed the army for the raids on the pagodas:
General Don has heard personally that the military is being blamed by Vietnamese public for the attack on the pagodas. He said that the US Govt is at fault for this misconception because VOA announced that the military took action against the pagodas. Don queried why VOA did not admit that Colonel Tung's Special Forces and the Police carried out the action. Don believes this would help the military at this point. Don stated that the USA should now make its position known.
In a conversation the same day with Rufus Phillips of USOM, General Kim, deputy to General Don, bitterly attacked Nhu, charging him with responsibility for the raids, and deploring his dominant role in the government. He said that unless the popular impression that the army was responsible for the raids were corrected, the army would be handicapped in its fight against the VC. He stated that a firm U.S. stand for the removal of the Nhus would unify the army and permit it to act against them. These two direct and obviously reinforcing requests for U.S. support for military action aimed at Nhu's ouster marked the formal beginning of the U.S. involvement in the protracted plotting against the Diem regime. Two senior civilians in the government, Diem's chef de cabinet, Vo Van Hai, and Secretary of State, Nguyen Dinh Thuan, were simultaneously telling U.S. contacts that Nhu's elimination from the government was vital and that the U.S. should take a strong stand against him.
On August 24, Lodge cabled his appraisal of the situation to Washington, based on these conversations. "Nhu," he reported, "probably with full support of Diem, had a large hand in planning of action against Buddhists, if he did not fully master-mind it. His influence has also been significantly increased." Nhu had simply taken advantage of the concern of certain generals, possibly not fully informing the regular army of the planned action. Nonetheless, none of the important Saigon area troop commanders (Don, Dinh, and Tung) were presently disaffected with the regime. Furthermore, absence of clear-cut military leadership and troop strength in Saigon for a move against the Nhus would make U.S. support of such an action a "shot in the dark."
For the State Department, the problem of clarifying the public record about the raids and affixing responsibility for them had become acute by August 24. The press reports emanating from Saigon had from the outset blamed Nhu for the raids, but VOA, with a large audience in Vietnam, continued to report the official U.S. position that the army was culpable. The accumulating evidence against Nhu and the likelihood of severe damage to army morale if VOA did not broadcast a clarification seemed to call for retractions.
The second issue for Washington was Nhu. The generals had asked, in effect, for a green light to move against him, but Lodge had cautioned against it. Hilsman reports that as he, Harriman, Forrestal, and Ball deliberated over the drafting of a reply on that Saturday morning, the statement of Thuan to Phillips that "under no circumstance should the United States acquiesce in what the Nhus had done," was given great weight. Admiral Felt telephoned Washington from CINCPAC to support a strong U.S. stand against the Nhus. The unanswered question, of course, was whether the Nhus could be removed without also sacrificing Diem, and if not, whether the resulting political instability would not have an even more detrimental effect on the war effort than maintaining Diem.
The August 24 cable of instructions to Lodge resulting from these deliberations outlined an important, and subsequently controversial, new policy approach for the U.S. in South Vietnam. Its opening paragraphs crisply set forth the new American view:
It is now clear that whether military proposed martial law or whether Nhu tricked them into it, Nhu took advantage of its imposition to smash pagodas with police and Tung's Special Forces loyal to him, thus placing onus on military in eyes of world and Vietnamese people. Also clear that Nhu has maneuvered himself into commanding position.
US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available.
If, in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved. [Doc. 126]
Lodge was instructed to tell the GVN the U.S. could not accept the actions against the Buddhists and that prompt dramatic steps to redress the situation must be taken. The key military leaders were to be privately informed that,
....US would find it impossible to continue support GVN militarily and economically unless above steps are taken immediately which we recognize requires removal of Nhus from the scene. We wish give Diem reasonable opportunity to remove Nhus, but if he remains obdurate, then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism. [Doc. 126]
Finally, the message recognized the need to publicly exonerate the army from the raids and asked Lodge to approve a VOA broadcast to that effect. Lodge was requested, as well, to survey urgently for alternative leadership.
Clearance of the draft message was complicated by the coincident week-end absence
from Washington of most of the top level members of the Administration. The
President was in Hyannis Port; Rusk was in New York; and McNamara and McCone
were away on vacation. Both the President and the Secretary of State were reached,
however, and approved the draft. Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric
approved for Defense, and General Taylor for the JCS. Schlesinger, in his account
of the incident, suggests that the cable was hasty and ill-considered, and that
the President immediately began to back away from it.
Lodge replied the following day endorsing the strong position but proposing to forego a futile approach to Diem and to state our position instead only to the generals, thus throwing all our weight behind a coup. The cable stated:
Believe that chances of Diem's meeting our demands are virtually nil. At the same time, by making them we give Nhu chance to forestall or block action by military. Risk, we believe, is not worth taking, with Nhu in control combat forces Saigon. Therefore, propose we go straight to Generals with our demands, without informing Diem. Would tell them we prepared have Diem without Nhus but it is in effect up to them whether to keep him. [Doc. 127]
Hilsman asserts that the cable also reflected Lodge's view that since our disapproval of GVN action was well known, it was not fitting for the U.S. to go to Diem, it was Diem who should come to us.
In a separate CAS cable the same day, Richardson, the CIA Chief of Station in Saigon, reported that at a meeting with Lodge and Harkins it had been agreed that Diem would not remove Nhu and that therefore, assuming State's cable of instructions on 24 August [Doc. 126] represented Washington's basic policy, the consensus was that contact should be immediately made with generals such as Minh and Khanh to assess the degree of unity and determination of senior officers. Minh was considered the best possible interim leader, with Vice President Tho as the most attractive candidate for President among the civilians. The cable concluded with the view that a junta would probably operate behind the scenes in the event of a successful coup, and that the U.S. should leave the specific tactics of a coup up to the generals. There is a hiatus in the available cable traffic at this point, but Hilsman indicates that Washington decided on Sunday, August 25, to defer a direct approach to Diem until more was known about the situation.
In Lodge's reply, he had also apparently approved the proposed VOA broadcast to exonerate the army. Hilsman briefed the press on the basis of a previously approved draft statement on August 25. The statement expressed strong U.S. disapproval of the raids, which were attributed to Nhu. In reporting the story, the press speculated that such a strong statement probably indicated that measures such as aid suspension were being considered. VOA had been instructed to broadcast only the substances of the U.S. statement as provided in the press guidance and nothing more. The instructions somehow got mislaid; and on Monday morning, August 26, just several hours before Lodge was to present his credentials to Diem, VOA broadcast in full a UPI story which flatly asserted that "the US may sharply reduce its aid to Vietnam unless President Diem gets rid of secret police officials responsible for the attacks." Lodge was understandably upset, and sent a testy cable rhetorically inquiring whether he really was in charge of tactics as he had been given to understand. Rusk sent a personal cable of apology to Lodge, and VOA promptly broadcast a denial of U.S. intent to cut aid, but the initial damage had been done.
The Vietnamese reaction to the attack on the pagodas during this time had been dramatic. In the United States, Mme. Nhu's father and mother, respectively the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. and the Vietnamese observer at the UN, had both resigned, making bitter public statements denouncing the raids. In South Vietnam, the Foreign Minister, Vo Van Mau, had resigned and shaved his head like a Buddhist monk in protest. On August 23, students at the faculties of medicine and pharmacy at the University of Saigon turned out to stage mass demonstrations on behalf of the Buddhists. The GVN reacted in the only way it seemed to know, with massive arrests. But the demonstrations continued, and when the university was closed, the protest was taken up by high school and junior high school students. These were dramatic evidences indeed of the degree of disaffection with the regime, since most of these students were from the middle class families that formed the bureaucracy and the army leadership. Students in Vietnam had no substantial record of political activism as was the case with their counterparts in other parts of Asia, like Korea. Furthermore, some of the Buddhist leadership had survived the raids and gone underground and were soon passing out leaflets on the streets again. On the day of the raids, two monks had taken refuge in the USOM building next door to Xa Loi pagoda. The following day, three others, including the militant young leader Tich Tn Quang, took refuge in the U.S. Embassy, where they were warmly received by Lodge and remained until the successful November coup.
Rumors of coup plotting had been a standard part of the Saigon scene under Diem from the very beginning. And there had been several attempts. In 1957, an assassin fired at Diem at an up-country fair. In November 1960, he had narrowly escaped being overthrown by a military coup by negotiating with the dissident officers until loyal reinforcements could be moved into Saigon to restore his control. And in 1962, two disgruntled Air Force pilots had unsuccessfully bombed and strafed the Gia Long Palace. So, when rumors of coup plotting began to gain currency again in the spring of 1963, they were monitored by the U.S. intelligence community, but not given extraordinary prominence or credence. By mid-summer, however, with the Buddhist crisis in full bloom, more serious consideration was given to the growing number of reports identifying plotters and schemes. One plot, identified in late June, was led by Dr. Iran Kim Tuyen, Diem's Director of Political and Social Studies (national intelligence). It involved elements of the Civic Action Ministry, the Information Ministry, the Secret Police, and some junior army officers. A separate plot involving other elements of the army was reported, and on July 8 General Don indicated to a CAS officer that there was support among all but a couple of generals for a coup. Nhu's July 11 meeting with the generals, however, seemed to disorient their efforts temporarily. In an August 14 memorandum, the CIA acknowledged some military support for a coup, but doubted that anyone would risk it unless a deterioration of the political situation threatened a Viet Cong victory. The pagoda attack was just such a deterioration and it precipitated the generals' first approach to the U.S. on August 23 about a coup.
With State's instructions of 24 August as guidance, Lodge met with Harkins, Truehart, Mecklin, and Richardson on the morning of August 26 before presenting his credentials to Diem. They decided that the official U.S. hand should not show--i.e., Harkins should not talk to the generals. It was agreed that Lt. Colonel Conein of the CIA would contact General Khiem, and Mr. Spera (also of CIA) would contact General Khanh, II Corps commander in Pleiku, conveying the following points to each:
a. Solidification of further elaboration of action aspects of present thinking and planning. What should be done?
b. We in agreement Nhus must go.
c. Question of retaining Diem or not up to them.
d. Bonzes and other arrestees must be released immediately and five-point agreement of 16 June be fully carried out.
e. We will provide direct support during any interim period of breakdown of central government mechanism.
f. We cannot be of any help during initial action of assuming power of the state. Entirely their own action, win or lose. Don't expect to be bailed out.
g. If Nhus do not go and if Buddhists' situation is not redressed as indicated, we would find it impossible continue military and economic support.
h. It is hoped bloodshed can be avoided or reduced to absolute minimum.
i. It is hoped that during process and after, developments conducted in such manner as to retain and increase the necessary relations between Vietnamese and Americans which will allow for progress of country and successful prosecution of the war.
Conein met with Khiem on August 27, and after conveying his message learned that Minh was the leader of the cabal, which included also Generals Kim, Khanh, Thieu, and Le. Don was aware of the plot and approved, but was too exposed to participate. General Minh was under surveillance, and had asked not to be contacted by the U.S. Khiem recognized the need to neutralize General Cao, the IV Corps commander, General Dinh, the III Corps and Saigon Area commander, and Colonel Tung. A separate CAS report indicated that General Kim had charge of plans for the provisional successor government which would include both civilians and military, with Minh as President.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, by the time the NSC met on Monday morning, August 26, misgivings about supporting a coup--the policy outlined in State's August 24 message--had developed. Hilsman's account credits McNamara, Taylor, and McCone with second thoughts. Whatever the outcome of Monday's meeting, another was held the next day, after which Lodge was cabled for more details about the coup plans, and an assessment of their chances of success. Reflecting the reservations in Washington, the message asked what effect delaying the coup would have.
Replying the following day, Lodge gave a favorable assessment of coup prospects; expressed confidence in the generals who were to lead it, especially Minh, Khanh, and Kim; and argued, "that chances of success would be diminished by delay." A cable from Harkins to Taylor on the same day is the first documentary indication of Harkins' reservations about supporting the coup attempt. Cryptically, Harkins indicated that he would offer his full support to the Ambassador in implementing State's instructions, but noted that, "Reference b. (CINCPAC 2504562 Aug 1963) advises me that reference a. (State 243) embodies CINCPAC opinion and that my support had been volunteered." He would have preferred one last attempt to persuade Diem to dispense with Nhu. Furthermore, the line-up of forces did not indicate a clear-cut advantage for the coup plotters. Therefore, he stated, "In my opinion as things stand now I don't believe there is sufficient reason for a crash approval on our part at this time." He also had concluded that the coup would not take place until we gave the word. In a separate message, Richardson, however, described the situation as having "reached the point of no return." IlDoc. 1291 Further, he concluded, "Unless the generals are neutralized before being able to launch their operation, we believe they will act and that they have good chance to win." [Doc. 129]
In Washington, State and Defense were divided on the issue. Nolting, who was regularly attending the daily NSC meetings at the President's request, sided with the Pentagon in the view that prospects for the coup were not good, and that another effort should be made with Diem. Hilsman, Harriman, and Ball were convinced the U.S. had to get on with the coup, since Diem offered no prospect of complying the U.S. wishes. The discussions in the NSC, reportedly, were increasingly heated and testy. The division of opinion between Harkins and Lodge concerned the President and upon receipt of their respective messages on August 28, he cabled each of them separately for their "independent judgment" about the prospects for a coup and their personal advice on the course the U.S. should pursue. The President was at pains to reiterate his great confidence in both men, and to assure them that differences of opinion in Washington would not prevent the U.S. government from acting as a unit under his direction. In a separate message, State asked Lodge to indicate the latest point at which the operation could be suspended, and with what consequences; since U.S. prestige would be engaged in the venture, the message stated, once the coup were under way, it had to succeed. Lodge was also asked what actions the U.S. might take to promote the coup.
On August 29, Colonel Conein and Mr. Spera met with Generals Khiem and Minh. Minh bluntly said that the generals had to be cautious until they had clear evidence that the U.S. would not betray them to Nhu. They were unwilling to discuss their plans, and when asked what would constitute a sign of U.S. support, replied that the U.S. should stop economic aid to the regime. In a subsequent separate contact with Rufus Phillips, General Kim asked for verification that the Minh-Conein meeting had Lodge's approval. After checking with Lodge, Phillips assured Kim who then asked for a meeting to discuss planning on the next day. Lodge then authorized CAS to assist in tactical planning.
Stressing the generals' reported lack of confidence in U.S. support, Lodge's reply to Washington asked Presidential permission for Harkins to show CAS messages to the generals to prove our commitment. If that failed, he reluctantly recommended suspension of economic aid as they requested. Typical of the Ambassador's all-out support for the coup is the following summary he gave of the U.S. position:
We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: The overthrow of the Diem Government. There is no turning back in part because US prestige is already publicly committed to this end in large measure and will become more so as facts leak out. In a more fundamental sense, there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration, still less that Diem or any member of the family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, i.e., the educated class in and out of government service, civil and military-not to mention the American people. [Doc. 132]
Harkins, on the other hand, felt that there was still time to make one last approach to Diem, without endangering the plotters, since their plans did not appear fully mature yet. Diem should be handed an ultimatum that the Nhus must go. This, he felt, would strengthen the hand of the generals whose opposition, like ours, was to the Nhus, not Diem. If Diem did not act, there would then be time to back a move by the generals.
These views were all reviewed at the noon meeting of the NSC on August 29. At the meeting, McNamara backed Harkins' view in favor of a final approach to Diem, but the issue was not decided. Rusk took up the question in a subsequent cable to Lodge, asking Lodge's opinion about an approach to Diem, possibly by the generals at a time when they would be ready to act, in which they would insist on the removal of the Nhus, and threaten withdrawal of U.S. support. [Doc. 131] A separate State cable to Lodge and Harkins authorized the latter to show CAS cables to the generals to prove our support. Harkins was instructed to insist on knowing the personnel involved in the coup, and the forces available, and to ask to review the detailed plans, without, however, directly involving himself in the coup planning. Lodge was authorized to suspend aid to Diem, "at a time and under conditions of your choice."
In his response to Rusk's cable, Lodge stoutly opposed any further contact with Diem, even to present an ultimatum. Agreeing that removal of the Nhus was the prime objective, Lodge argued, "This surely cannot be done by working through Diem. In fact, Diem will oppose it. He wishes he had more Nhus, not less. The best chance of doing it is by the generals taking over the government lock, stock and barrel. After this has been done, it can then be decided whether to put Diem back in again or go on without him." [Doc. 134] What genuinely concerned Lodge at that point was the lack of action by the generals, but he was reluctant to use the aid suspension as a lever.
Throughout this period, another CAS officer had been in contact with a Colonel Thao, an inspector of strategic hamlets, who was the leader of an independent junior officer-civilian plot, On August 30, he told the CAS officer that he was in touch with the generals, and would support any move they might make, but that for the moment the plans of his group had stopped because the risk of failure was too great.
With Lodge's anxiety at the generals' failure to act increasing daily, General Harkins met with General Khiem on August 31. He was told that Minh had called off the coup for the time being because of the inability to achieve a favorable balance of forces in the Saigon area, and because of continuing anxiety among the generals about Richardson's close identification with the Nhus. Both Richardson and Lodge confirmed the end of this coup attempt on the same day. Apparently unable to win over General Dinh, the Saigon III Corps area commander, Minh had decided not to risk au indecisive, protracted blood bath with only a slim likelihood of success. Three factors appear to have been important in Minh's decision to abort the coup: (1) the failure to win over Dinh, leaving the coup forces at a tactical disadvantage in the Saigon area; (2) continuing doubts about the firmness of the U.S. commitment to Diem's overthrow and the related concern that the U.S. had wittingly or unwittingly tipped off Nhu to the plot; and (3) uncertainty about the cohesion of the coup group and the firmness of plans. Lodge concluded somewhat bitterly, ". . . there is neither the will nor the organization among the generals to accomplish anything." He did not, however, rule out a future attempt.
C. TOWARD A NEW POLICY
Having at long last decided to seek an alternative to the Diem regime by sanctioning a coup, only to have the attempt fail, the U.S. found itself at the end of August 1963 without a policy and with most of its bridges burned. In both Saigon and Washington, the reappraisal and the search for alternatives began anew. In the cable acknowledging the demise of the coup plot on August 31, Lodge suggested that:
Perhaps an arrangement could be worked out whereby the following could be made to happen: Madame Nhu to leave the country, Mr. Nhu's functions to be limited entirely to strategic hamlets; the office of Prime Minister to be created and Mr. Thuan to become Prime Minister; Archbishop Thuc to leave the country. In addition, the students and Buddhists would be liberated; Decree Law 10 would be repealed; the pagodas would be repaired and conciliatory gestures would be made. All of this, if agreed to, might be announced by President in Washington.
These suggestions became the basis of discussion of a "where do we go from here" NSC meeting on the same day.
In the absence of the President, Secretary Rusk chaired the meeting at the State Department, and called for consideration of the Lodge proposals, but said he felt it was unrealistic to start off by asserting that Nhu must go. Secretary McNamara urged that we "establish quickly and firmly our line of communication between Lodge, Harkins and the GVN." He pointed out that "at the moment our channels of communication are essentially broken" and that "they should be reinstituted at all costs." These considerations were soon submerged, however, in a broader discussion of the negative impact of the regime's actions on the war effort. Hilsman, supported by State's Kattenburg of the Vietnam Working Group, argued that we should not continue our support of a Nhudominated regime because its repressive policies would eventually have a disastrous effect on the war, even if the statistics did not yet reveal their negative impact. Hilsman and Kattenburg pointed to the growing disaffection and restiveness of middle level bureaucrats and military officers as a factor which would steadily erode the military effort. Unconvinced, both Secretary McNamara and General Taylor asked for evidence of this development.
Kattenburg offered his estimate that we would be thrown out of the country in six months if the regime remained in power and that the question the meeting should be considering was "the decision to get out honorably." Taylor and Nolting immediately took exception to these views and Secretary Rusk remarked that they were "largely speculative." He continued, "that it would be far better for us to start on the firm basis of two things--that we will not pull out of Vietnam until the war is won, and that we will not run a coup." Secretary McNamara and Vice President Johnson supported Rusk's views, the Vice President saying he had never really seen an alternative to Diem. The meeting ended inconclusively; the only decision taken was to ask for Lodge's advice. [Doc. 135]
As the only documented meeting during this period of major policy deliberation, the August 31 meeting is significant for the viewpoints it reveals. Rambling inability to focus the problem, indeed to reach common agreement on the nature of the problem, reflects disorientation in the aftermath of the initial failure. More importantly, however, the meeting is the first recorded occasion in which someone followed to its logical conclusion the negative analysis of the situation--i.e., that the war could not be won with the Diem regime, yet its removal would leave such political instability as to foreclose success in the war: for the first time, it was recognized that the U.S. should be considering methods of honorably disengaging itself from an irretrievable situation. The other alternative, not fully appreciated until the year following, was a much greater U.S. involvement in and assumption of responsibility for the war. At this point, however, the negative analysis of the impact of the political situation on the war effort was not shared by McNamara, Taylor, Krulak, nor seemingly by Rusk.
But discussions were overtaken by events. On the following Monday, September 2, the President, appearing on the initial broadcast of the CBS Evening News, was interviewed by Walter Cronkite:
Mr. Cronkite: "Mr. President, the only hot war we've got running at the moment is of course the one in Viet-Nam, and we have our difficulties here, quite obviously."
President Kennedy: "I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the Government to win popular support that the war can be won out there. In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it--the people of Viet-Nam--against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort, and, in my opinion, in the last two months the Government has gotten out of touch with the people.
"The repressions against the Buddhists, we felt, were very unwise. Now all we can do is to make it very clear that we don't think this is the way to win. It is my hope that this will become increasingly obvious to the Government, that they will take steps to try to bring back popular support for this very essential struggle."
Mr. Cronkite: "Do you think this Government has time to regain the support of the people?"
President Kennedy: "I do. With changes in policy and perhaps with personnel, I think it can. If it doesn't make those changes, I would think that the chances of winning it would not be very good."
Confronted by the necessity of public comment, the President had spoken boldly and forthrightly. The President's call for changes of policy and personnel patently conveyed the message that the Buddhist repressions must end, and the Nhus must go. Later in the same interview, however, the President had said, ". . . I don't agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake." As Hilsman summarized it later,
We had embarked on a policy that avoided the extremes both of withdrawing from Vietnam or of actually taking part in direct action to change the Government. The policy was one of trying to discriminate by continuing to support those Vietnamese who were struggling against the Communists but maintaining the tension of our disapproval of Diem's and Nhu's repressive policies.
It was, in effect, the policy Lodge had proposed.
Meanwhile in Saigon, Lodge had gone ahead with his proposals. He continued to avoid any official contact with Diem, but on September 2 he had his second meeting with Nhu (the first on August 27 was an inconclusive statement of positions on each side) in company with the Italian Ambassador and the Papal Delegate. Nhu, perhaps encouraged by a collateral intercession of the French Ambassador, announced he intended to resign from the government for good and retire to Dalat. A GVN announcement would state that the progress of the program against the Viet Cong permitted his departure. Mme. Nhu was to leave Vietnam for a trip to Yugoslavia, Italy, and possibly the U.S. The Papal Delegate would arrange for Archbishop Thuc to leave the country. Some measures to ease Buddhist tensions would he taken and, as a public relations gesture, a prime minister would be appointed. These were all proposals which Lodge had initially advanced. But as the days passed, nothing happened and Lodge grew impatient. Contributing to his concern were the frequent and often contradictory rumors that Nhu was secretly dealing with Hanoi and/or the VC through the French and the Polish Ambassadors, both of whose governments favored a neutralist solution between North and South Vietnam.
For the remainder of the week, the Italian Ambassador and the Papal Delegate urged Nhu to act on his promises to Lodge. On Friday, September 6, after they had stressed the urgency for action created by Senator Church's rumored aid-suspension resolution, Nhu went into a tirade and said he would not consider leaving the country. He did, however, say he would "formally" resign. On the following day, the Papal Delegate, who had condemned Archbishop Thuc's activity to the Vatican and received the Pope's support, got Thuc out of the country. Mme. Nhu left the country for Europe on September 9. The arrests of students by the regime, however, continued and stories of torture and atrocities began to circulate.
In Washington, the NSC met on September 6 and renewed the discussion of reopening "tough negotiations" with Diem. Lodge, of course, opposed this while continuing his dialogue with Nhu. But others at the meeting (presumably including McNamara on the basis of his views at the August 31 meeting) urged that Lodge be instructed to make another approach to Diem. Lodge was accordingly instructed to clarify for Diem the U.S. position and explain the difficult position his policy placed us in with respect to U.S. and world opinion.
Perhaps the most important discussion at the meeting was that engendered by Robert Kennedy over the fundamental purpose of the U.S. involvement. According to Hilsman, Robert Kennedy said:
As he understood it we were there to help the people resisting a Communist take-over. The first question was whether a Communist take-over could be successfully resisted with any government. If it could not, now was the time to get out of Vietnam entirely, rather than waiting. If the answer was that it could, but not with a Diem-Nhu government as it was now constituted, we owed it to the people resisting Communism in Vietnam to give Lodge enough sanctions to bring changes that would permit successful resistance. But the basic question of whether a Communist takeover could be successfully resisted with any government had not been answered, and he was not sure that anyone had enough information to answer it.
Kennedy's trenchant analysis, however, did not generate a searching reappraisal of U.S. policy. It did stimulate further efforts to get more information on the situation. McNamara proposed sending General Krulak on an immediate fact-finding trip. It was agreed that a senior Foreign Service Officer with Vietnam experience, Joseph Mendenhall, would accompany him, and that they would bring John Mecklin, the USIS director, and Rufus Phillips, the director of rural programs for USOM, back with them to report. Krulak and Mendenhall left later that day. State, for its part, sent Saigon a long comprehensive cable of questions on Vietnamese attitudes at all levels of society.
The purpose of the Krulak-Mendenhall mission was to assess, in Krulak's words, "the effect of recent events upon the attitudes of the Vietnamese in general, and upon the war effort against the Viet Cong." In a whirlwind four-day trip, the two men visited throughout Vietnam and returned to Washington to report. Krulak went to ten different locations in all four corps areas and spoke with the Ambassador, General Harkins and his staff, 87 U.S. advisors, and 22 Vietnamese officers. Mendenhall went to Saigon, Hue, Da Nang, and several other provincial cities and talked primarily to old Vietnamese friends. Not surprisingly, their estimates of the situation were almost completely opposite.
The NSC convened on the morning of September 10, immediately after their return, to hear their reports. Krulak gave a very optimistic appraisal of the progress of the war and discounted the effect of the political crisis on the army. The following, in his own words, were his general conclusions:
The shooting war is still going ahead at an impressive pace. It has been affected adversely by the political crisis, but the impact is not great.
There is a lot of war left to fight, particularly in the Delta, where the Viet Cong remain strong.
Vietnamese officers of all ranks are well aware of the Buddhist issue. Most have viewed it in detachment and have not permitted religious differences significantly to affect their internal military relationship.
Vietnamese military commanders, at the various echelons, are obedient and could be expected to execute any order they view as lawful.
The U.S./Vietnamese military relationship has not been damaged by the political crisis, in any significant degree.
There is some dissatisfaction, among Vietnamese officers, with the national administration. It is focused far more on Ngo Dinh Nhu than on President Diem. Nhu's departure would be hailed, but few officers would extend their necks to bring it about.
Excluding the very serious political and military factors external to Vietnam, the Viet Cong war will be won if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued, irrespective of the grave defects in the ruling regime.
Improvements in the quality of the Vietnamese Government are not going to be brought about by leverage applied through the military. They do not have much, and will probably not use what they have.
This sanguine view of the situation was forcefully disputed by Mendenhall. He argued that the disaffection with the regime had reached the point where a breakdown of civil government was threatened, and the possibility of a religious civil war could not be excluded. The war could not be won with the present regime, he concluded. The polar opposition of these two reports prompted Kennedy's now famous query, "You two did visit the same country, didn't you?"
The critical failure of both reports was to understand the fundamental political role that the army was coming to play in Vietnam. It was the only potential force with sufficient power to constitute an alternative to Diem. Diem and Nhu fully understood this fact, and had coped with it by usurping the prerogative of senior officer promotion, and basing those promotions on loyalty to the palace. This had sown deep seeds of distrust among the senior military men, and fragmented their potential power. Krulak failed to see that once the internal political situation deteriorated to the point where massive disaffection with the regime threatened a communist victory, the generals would unite and plunge into politics out of common necessity. But more importantly, neither Krulak nor Mendenhall seemed to anticipate that, if the army achieved power, the divisive effect of Diem's preferential promotion politices would surface in an internal army power struggle. Nor did they fully understand the negative effect on the war effort this preoccupation with politics among the generals would have.
Nolting took issue with Mendenhall's appraisal, noting that Mendenhall had been pessimistic about prospects in Vietnam for several years. But John Mecklin, the USIS director, corroborated Mendenhall's view, and pushed it even further, saying that the U.S. should apply direct pressure, such as suspension of nonmilitary aid, to bring about a change of government. In Mecklin's words:
This would unavoidably be dangerous. There was no way to be sure how events would develop. It was possible, for example, that the Vietnamese forces might fragment into warring factions, or that the new government would be so incompetent and/or unstable that the effort against the Viet Cong would collapse. The US should therefore resolve now to introduce American combat forces if necessary to present a Communist triumph midst the debris of the Diem regime.
Mecklin appreciated the potential for instability inherent in any army successor regime that Krulak and Mendenhall had not seen. But he, nevertheless, concluded that we should proceed to bring about a change of government, accept the consequences, and contemplate the introduction of U.S. combat troops to stave off a Viet Cong victory.
The meeting went on to hear Rufus Phillips' dour report on the situation in the Delta, and his doubts about the validity of Krulak's optimistic outlook on the military situation. Phillips argued that this was primarily a political contest for the allegiance of people, not a military war, and that the Diem regime was losing it. The Strategic Hamlet Program was a shambles in the field, especially in the Delta. The meeting ended on this note and no decisions were made.
One course of action being given increasing consideration in these meetings, as well as in Saigon and on Capitol Hill, was a suspension of non-military aid to Diem. After the erroneous VOA announcement of aid suspension on August 26, Lodge had been authorized on August 29, as already noted, to suspend aid at his discretion if it would facilitate the coup. Lodge had been reluctant to do so. The question had been raised again in a joint State/AID cable to Lodge on September 3 which listed the items currently up for approval or renewal. Lodge was informed that all approval for non-military aid would be temporarily held up but that no suspension was to be announced, since such a policy decision was still pending. Lodge took advantage of this by having the mission, and especially USOM, reply to all GVN inquiries about the status of the aid renewals or approvals that President Diem would have to talk to Lodge about it. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate began to put pressure on the Administration to do something about Diem. Hilsman was badgered by the Senate Subcommittee on the Far East, and there were threats of further cuts in the AID bill if something wasn't done. Senator Church informed the Administration he intended to introduce soon a resolution condemning Diem's represssions against the Budihists and calling for an end of aid to South Vietnam unless they were abandoned. He agreed to delay its introduction temporarily so as not to embarrass the Administration.
The idea of a selective aid suspension to goad Diem into action was actively discussed at State during the Krulak-Mendenhall mission, and later John Mecklin had specifically suggested it to the NSC. On September 8, AID Director David Bell warned in a TV interview that the Congress might cut aid to South Vietnam if the Diem government did not change its policies. On Monday, September 9, however, the President, in a TV interview for the new Huntley-Brinkley News, said, "I don't think we think that (a reduction of U.S. aid to South Vietnam) would be helpful at this time." On September 11, the day after the President received the Krulak-Mendenhall reports, Lodge reversed his previous position, and in a long cable proposed that detailed consideration be given to ways in which non-military aid suspension might be used as a sanction to topple the government. He had concluded we could not get satisfaction from Diem, and had to face up to the unpleasant task of forcing events. This view was reinforced the next day in a long series of cables replying to State's September 7 request for a comprehensive evaluation of South Vietnamese attitudes.
Lodge's proposal, and a proposal by Hilsman for a combined set of public and
private measures to bring pressure on Diem, formed the basis of a White House
meeting on September 11. On the following day, Senator Church was given the green light and introduced his resolution. On September 14, Lodge was informed that approval of the $18.5 million remainder of the commercial import program (the principal piastre support, anti-inflation aid device) was deferred until basic U.S. policy decisions had been made. The decision on aid suspension was now absorbed into the broader consideration of a set of coordinated measures to put pressure on the GVN.
Throughout September, the division of opinion within the U.S. mission in Saigon had grown sharper and sharper. Harkins, Richardson, and to a lesser extent Brent (Director of USOM), did not believe that the Diem government's bungling of the Buddhist crisis and loss of popular support were threatening the war effort, or that the crisis was as serious as Lodge, Mecklin, Mendenhall, et a!., portrayed it. In any case, the situation was not so irretrievable as to require a U.S. abandonment of Diem in a risky venture at coup-making towards an unknown alternative. The opposite view was held by Lodge, Truehart, Meckun, Phillips, and the majority of the junior officers in the mission. By mid-September, the debate had reached a shrill and acrimonious level, as the following excerpt from a Harkins' cable to Taylor indicates:
As everyone else seems to be talking, writing and confusing the issue here in Vietnam, it behooves me to also get into the act: From most of the reports and articles I read, one would say Vietnam and our programs here are falling apart at the seams. Well, I just thoroughly disagree.
The situation was of such concern that CIA dispatched a special officer to reach an independent evaluation. His conclusion was that we had hastily expended our capability to overthrow the regime, that an aid suspension would not guarantee a constructive result, and that to prevent further political fragmentation we should adopt a "business as usual" policy to buy time. Amidst all this internal U.S. dissension, the GVN announced on September 14 that martial law would end on September 16 and that National Assembly elections would be held September 27.
In Washington, the NSC convened again September 17 to consider two alternative proposals for dealing with Diem prepared by Hilsman. The first, which Hilsman and others at State favored, was the "pressures and persuasion track," and involved an escalatory ladder of measures both public and private, including selective aid suspension, to coerce Diem into getting rid of Nhu and taking steps to restore the political situation. The alternative proposal, the "reconciliation with a rehabilitated GVN track," involved a public posture of acquiescence in recent GVN actions, recognition that Diem and Nhu were inseparable, and a decision to salvage as much as possible from a bad situation. This, of course, would have involved a reopening of the dialogue with Diem, to which Lodge was opposed. Both proposals assumed that for the moment a coup was out of the question.
There are no available records of what transpired in the meeting, but two decisions were clearly made. The first was, in effect, to adopt Hilsman's "pressures and persuasion" proposal. The guidance cable to Lodge after the meeting, however, came from the White House. It stated that,
We see no good opportunity for action to remove present government in immediate future; therefore, as your most recent message suggests, we must, for the present, apply such pressures as are available to secure whatever modest improvements on the scene may be possible . . . Such a course, moreover, is consistent with more drastic effort as and when means became available. [Doc. 136]
Lodge was to press for a reduction of Nhu's authority and his departure from Saigon, at least temporarily. The cable included a long list of other measures for the GVN to take to redress the political situation and gave Lodge complete control over the aid program to enhance his bargaining position.
This authorization specifically includes aid actions currently held in abeyance and you are authorized to set those in train or hold them up further in your discretion. We leave entirely in your hands decisions on the degree of privacy or publicity you wish to give to this process. [Doc. 136]
There is no evidence on the degree of consensus of the principals in this decision.
Lodge replied to the new policy guidance on September 19 in a generally negative vein. The proposals for specific actions by the GVN had all been previously suggested to Diem without any results, and Lodge was not optimistic about their adoption now. He specifically felt that he should not be required to make a futile overture to Diem. The Ambassador's aloofness was beginning to cause official concern at the palace, and he felt he should press views on the Ngo family only when they initiated the contact. He did not think a public relations effort was likely to have any effect on the regime, whose appreciation of questions of public support was virtually nil. Withholding aid was another delicate matter that did not offer great prospects of success. Lodge was particularly concerned that such action would impede the war effort or damage the economy, but have no real effect on the regime. No doubt recalling the generals' previous request for an aid suspension as a sign of U.S. support, Lodge expressed his view that any suspension of aid should be timed to coincide with another coup attempt and should be used to facilitate it. He was troubled by the opinion expressed by both General Minh and Secretary Thuan privately within the previous two days that the war was going very badly and the VC were winning. In general, he felt that a patient "let them come to me" tactic was more likely to have results, unless a real coup possibility emerged, which he felt we should back.
D. THE McNAMARA-TAYLOR MISSION
The second decision to come out of the September 17 NSC meeting was to adopt a suggestion of Secretary McNamara for another fact-finding mission, this time by himself and General Taylor, Chairman of the JCS. [Doc. 137]
Lodge reacted immediately to othe proposed McNamara-Taylor mission, pointing
out to the President that such a visit would require a call on Diem that would
be construed by the regime as a return to business as usual. Since he had been
consciously pursuing a policy of official aloofness, he wondered whether such
a high level visit was desirable. Furthermore, it coincided with the proposed
National Assembly elections on September 27, and could not but be construed
as an indication of the lack of importance we attached to them. But the President
was insistent, and Lodge acquiesced, suggesting that the public announcement
state that Lodge had requested the visit. [Doc. 138] After an exchange of alternative
phraseology, it was agreed that the release would say that the President had
decided to send the mission after consultation with Lodge. It was so announced
on September 21.
The President's instructions to McNamara described the purpose of the mission in the following terms:
I am asking you to go because of my desire to have the best possible on-the-spot appraisal of the military and paramilitary effort to defeat the Viet Cong. . . . The events in South Vietnam since May have now raised serious questions both about the present prospects for success against the Viet Cong and still more about the future effectiveness of this effort unless there can be important political improvement in the country. It is in this context that I now need your appraisal of the situation. If the prognosis in your judgment is not hopeful, I would like your views on what action must be taken by the South Vietnamese Government and what stops our Government should take to lead the Vietnamese to that action.
.... I will also expect you to examine with Ambassador Lodge ways and means of fashioning all forms of our assistance to South Vietnam so that it will support our foreign policy objectives more precisely. [Doc. 139]
The purpose, thus, was fourfold: (1) appraise the war effort; (2) assess the impact on that effort of recent political developments; (3) recommend a course of action for the GVN and for the U.S.; and (4) examine with Lodge ways of tailoring our aid to achieve our foreign policy objectives. In a statement to the press at Andrews Air Force Base just before leaving for Vietnam on September 23, Secretary McNamara said that the purpose of the trip was, "....to determine whether that military effort has been adversely affected by the unrest of the past several weeks."
Both Schlesinger and Hilsman, however, contend that Kennedy sent McNamara and Taylor to Vietnam to convince them of the negative effect on the war effort that the protracted political crisis was having, and of the necessity of applying sanctions to the Diem regime to bring about change. According to this argument, the President felt he could not afford a major policy rift in the Administration over applying sanctions, especially the opposition of the powerful JCS, and concluded that only McNamara, if convinced, could bring the military along.
Whatever the exact purpose of the trip, the party left Washington on September 23 and returned ten days later, on October 2, after an exhausting trip and a comprehensive review of the situation.
The divergent views of the members of the U.S. mission about the relative progress of the war, and the effect on it of the political crisis, were exposed immediately in the opening session that McNamara and Taylor held in Saigon with the country team on September 25. General Harkins and the MACV staff generally presented a favorable picture of the war, emphasizing the progress of the strategic hamlet program, and the generally improved ARVN position, in spite of recent rises in VC initiated incidents and declines in ARVN operations related to the political turmoil. McNamara and Taylor prodded the briefers with questions trying to get comparative indicators of the situation over the previous two years. McNamara in particular pressed for details about the Delta. Lodge's and Mecklin's reading of recent events, and their estimate of war progress, differed sharply from that of General Harkins. Lodge stressed the more political and intangible aspects of the conflict and cast doubt on the "hardness" of the statistical data from MACV. With the Mission's division of opinion exposed and the issues joined, McNamara left to tour the country.
His subsequent itinerary took him throughout the country interviewing Americans and Vietnamese both at headquarters, and in the field. In Saigon, in the last few days of the visit, he was given extensive briefings by the civilian side of the Mission and, since he stayed with Lodge, had ample opportunity for discussions with the Ambassador.
On September 29, McNamara, Taylor, Harkins, and Lodge called on Diem, after having previously decided against delivery of a stiff letter from Kennedy. After a two-hour monologue by Diem, McNamara was finally able to stress the U.S. concern that political unrest was undermining the war effort. He stressed the problem that repressions were creating for President Kennedy because of aroused public opinion. But he did not ask for the removal of the Nhus, a matter Washington had left to his and Lodge's discretion. All this seems to have had little impact on Diem, however. Diem had asked Taylor for his appraisal of the war, and with the approval of McNamara, a long letter from Taylor was delivered to Diem on October 2. The letter pointedly outlined the major military problems in the Delta, warned of the danger to the war effort of the political crisis, and listed many of the specific steps needed to improve the military effort that subsequently appeared in the report to the President. The letter summed up with a terse, tough statement of the U.S. view:
In closing, Mr. President, may I give you my most important over-all impression? Up to now, the battle against the Viet Cong has seemed endless; no one has been willing to set a date for its successful conclusion. After talking to scores of officers, Vietnamese and American, I am convinced that the Viet Cong insurgency in the north and center can be reduced to little more than sporadic incidents by the end of 1964. The Delta will take longer but should be completed by the end of 1965. But for these predictions to be valid, certain conditions must be met. Your Government should be prepared to energize all agencies, military and civil, to a higher output of activity than up to now. Ineffective commanders and province officials must be replaced as soon as identified. Finally, there should be a restoration of domestic tranquility on the home front if political tensions are to be allayed and external criticism is to abate. Conditions are needed for the creation of an atmosphere conducive to an effective campaign directed at the objective, vital to both of us, of defeating the Viet Cong and of restoring peace to your community.
On September 30, their last day in Vietnam, McNamara and Taylor, together with Lodge, met with Vice President Tho. Tho said that the U.S., after Taylors report in 1961, had responded to the Vietnam situation promptly and efficiently, but that recently we had failed to use our strength and influence intelligently to prevent the current political deterioration. But he had no methods to suggest. Later he sharply questioned the success of the Strategic Hamlet Program, and said that increased Viet Cong strength had to be attributed to widespread peasant disaffection with the government. These views, from the man most often mentioned in U.S. circles as an alternative to Diem, coming at the end of the visit as they did, must have had an important influence on McNamara's conclusions. Later that day the party left Vietnam to return home.
During the briefings for McNamara, Lodge had raised again his doubts about the efficacy of aid suspension as a lever against Diem, but had also expressed his concern that the foreign aid bill would be penalized in Congress for Diem's repressions. Lodge reiterated in his cables to Washington during the visit his belief that an aid suspension could boomerang and alienate the population as well as the regime. Aware, no doubt, that an aid suspension was a potential recommendation of the mission, Brent went on record against it, too. Both views were important because McNamara and Taylor had been specifically charged by the President with examining ways to make our aid serve our foreign policy goals, and their briefing papers included a program-by-program consideration of the impact of aid suspension prepared by AID-Washington.
After a one-day stop in Honolulu to prepare their report, McNamara and Taylor arrived back in Washington on October 2 and promptly met with the President and the NSC. Their report concluded that the "military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress." But it warned that the serious political tensions in Saigon and the increasing unpopularity of Diem and Nhu could abet the then limited restiveness of some ARVN officers and erode the favorable military trends. They reported no evidence of a successful coup in the making, and felt that U.S. pressure would probably only further harden the regime's attitudes. Nevertheless, "unless such pressures are exerted, they (Diem-Nhu) are almost certain to continue past patterns of behavior." [Doc. 142]
The report's military recommendations were that General Harkins should review the war effort with Diem with a view toward its successful conclusion in I, II, and III Corps by the end of 1964 and in the Delta by the end of 1965. This would necessitate: (a) a shift in military emphasis and strength to the Delta; (b) an increase tempo of military activity throughout the country; (c) an emphasis on "clear and hold operations"; (d) a consolidation of the Strategic Hamlet Program with the emphasis on security; and (e) the fleshing out of combat units and better training and arms for the hamlet militia. It was further proposed that an announcement be made of the planned withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1963 in connection with a program to train Vietnaniese to replace Americans in all essential functions by 1965.
To bring political pressure on the Diem regime to end its repressive policies, the following measures were recommended: (a) a continued withholding of funds in the commodity import program, but without formal announcement; (b) suspension of approval of AID loans for the Saigon-Cholon Waterworks and the Saigon Electric Power Project; (c) suspension of support for Colonel Tung's forces unless they were transferred to the field and placed under JGS authority; (d) maintenance of purely "correct" relations between the Ambassador and Diem (General Harkins' contract with the regime not to be suspended, however). In subsequent evaluations of the success of these sanctions, the report stated:
....the situation must be closely watched to see what steps Diem is taking to reduce repressive practices and to improve the effectiveness of the military effort. We should set no fixed criteria, but recognize that we would have to decide in 2-4 months, whether to move to more drastic action or try to carry on with Diem even if he had not taken significant steps.
Finally, the report recommended against our actively encouraging a coup, although it recommended seeking "urgently to identify and build contacts with an alternative leadership if and when it appears."
The report is a curiously contradictory document. It was, no doubt, a compromise between General Harkins' view of the war's progress as supported by General Taylor, and Secretary McNamara's growing conviction of the gravity of the political crisis and its dire potential for the war effort. Its recommendations for aid suspensions and the announcement of U.S. troop withdrawals were obviously designed as measures, short of a withdrawal of U.S. support, that would create doubt within the Diem regime about U.S. intentions and incentives for policy changes. The fact that these sanctions would be seen by the generals as a signal of our willingness to accept alternative leadership--i.e., a coup--does not seem to have figured in the recommendation, however, because elsewhere the report specifically rules out U.S. encouragement of "a change of government." This is an important lapse in view of the generals' clear statement in August that they would regard an aid suspension as a coup signal.
Nevertheless, the recommendations of the Mission met with swift approval at the NSC on October 2, and later that day Secretary McNamara made the Presidentially approved statement to the press that included the announcement of the 1,000 man troop withdrawal by the end of the year. The statement reiterated the U.S. commitment to the struggle against insurgency and aggression in South Vietnam, noted the progress of the war, announced the troop withdrawal, and dissociated the U.S. from the GVN's repressive policies. It avoided, however, any reference to economic aid suspensions or other sanctions against the regime, thereby giving Diem a chance to come around without a public loss of face.
On October 5, the President approved the specific military recommendations of the McNamara-Taylor report, "but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963." [Doc. 146] The details of how the new policy would be applied were spelled out in a long cable to Lodge following this meeting. The purpose of the new course of action was described at the beginning of the message:
Actions are designed to indicate to Diem Government our displeasure at its political policies and activities and to create significant uncertainty in that government and in key Vietnamese groups as to future intensions of United States. At same time, actions are designed to have at most slight impact on military or counterinsurgency effort against Viet Cong, at least in short term.
The recommendations on negotiations are concerned with what U.S. is after, i.e., GVN action to increase effectiveness of its military effort; to ensure popular support to win war; and to eliminate strains on U.S. Government and public confidence. The negotiating posture is designed not to lay down specific hard and fast demands or to set a deadline, but to produce movement in Vietnamese Government along these lines. In this way we can test and probe effectiveness of any actions the GVN actually takes and, at the same time, maintain sufficient flexibility to permit U.S. to resume full support of Diem regime at any time U.S. Government deems it appropriate.
The cable goes on to acknowledge that the proposed sanctions can only be applied for 2-4 months before they begin to adversely affect the military effort, and therefore when that begins to happen recognizes that, ". . . further major decisions will be required."
The specific actions to be taken included: (1) suspension of the commodity import program without public announcement; (2) selective suspension of PL 480, on an item-by-item, sometimes monthly, basis, after referral to Washington for review; (3) suspension of the loans for the Saigon-Cholon Waterworks and the Saigon Electric Power Project; (4) notification to the GVN that financial support of Colonel Tung's forces would be contingent on their commitment to field operations under JGS control, again without public announcement. Lodge was instructed to maintain his policy of "cool correctness in order to make Diem come to you," but to be prepared to re-establish contact later if it did not work. Specifically he was to seek improvements in the GVN military effort, as outlined in the McNamara-Taylor report; in the GVN's internal policies that would restore popular confidence; and in the GVN's international (particularly American) public image and its attitudes and actions toward the U.S. Once again, however, the discussion of this new program of pressures did not allude to their impact on the military nor how a coup initiative by the generals, stemming from such measures, should be dealt with.
Thus, the Kennedy Administration, after a long month of searching deliberations had made a far-reaching decision on American policy toward South Vietnam. It had chosen to take the difficult and risky path of positive pressures against an ally to obtain from him compliance with our policies. To our good fortune, that policy was to be implemented by an Ambassador who not only supported it, but was uniquely equipped by background and temperament to make it succeed.
IV. THE COUP MATURES--OCTOBER 2-NOVEMBER 1
A. THE SOUTH VIETNAMESE SITUATION IN OCTOBER
Through the month of September the GVN resorted to police state tactics ever more frequently. The regime, now more than ever under Nhu's dominance, lifted martial law September 16, but repressions against the Buddhist clergy continued unabated. Students, down to the grade school level, were arrested and detained for the most minor of protests. Civil servants came under pressure to avoid contact with Americans, and to demonstrate their loyalty to the ruling family. Regime-inspired rumors of impending mob attacks on U.S. facilities, and assassination lists of prominent Americans circulated regularly. Then, on October 5, at noon in the central market place, another Buddhist monk burned himself to death, the first self-immolation since the pagoda raids.
In this tense atmosphere, elections for the National Assembly were held on September 27 after a pro forma one-week campaign. Predictably, GVN candidates won overwhelming victories. The new assembly convened on October 7 to hear President Diem's state of the union message. Diem spoke mainly of South Vietnam's past and present progress, playing down the internal political crisis, and made only scant reference to U.S. assistance. As might have been expected, he threw the blame for the Buddhist crisis on the Communists, foreign adventurers, and the Western press.
On the same day, Mme. Nhu arrived in the U.S. after a month in Europe to begin a three-week speaking tour. She immediately launched into shrill denunciations of the Buddhists and of U.S. policy that progressively alienated U.S. public opinion. She was followed around the country by her father, the former Ambassador to the United States, however, who acted as a one-man truth squad revealing the inaccuracies and distortions of her statements. The Administration's dignified and temperate reaction further discredited her attacks. On October 8, the UN General Assembly voted to send a fact-finding team to South Vietnam to investigate the changes of repressions against Buddhists.
B. THE NEW AMERICAN POLICY
Lodge's immediate reaction to the new policy approach was enthusiastic, "an excellent instruction outlining a course of action which should yield constructive results." With the exception of the aid suspension, his views, in essence, had prevailed with both McNamara and the President, the standard public kudos to military progress notwithstanding. His plan was to allow the suspension of the commodity import program, the largest and most important of the economic sanctions, to become evident without making any mention of it, and, by maintaining his aloofness from official contact, force the regime to come to him. On October 7, however, Lodge expressed some doubts about the real value of the political concessions itemized in State's instructions if our real goal was removal of Nhu, an objective of questionable feasibility under the current circumstances. In view of Nhu's increasing hostility to the U.S. presence and influence, Lodge felt a request from the regime for a U.S. withdrawal was a distinct possibility.
That same day, the regime's reaction to the aid cut-off hit the streets with banner headlines in its mouthpiece, the Times of Vietnam: "USOM Freezes Economic Aid Program." The article accused the U.S. of subverting the war effort, and asserted that the cut-off had been decided in mid-September. Such fantastic pressure for petty reforms would jeopardize the entire revolutionary program of the government, it concluded. Lodge made no comment on the story.
In mid-October, Lodge was requested to provide Washington with a weekly evaluation of the effects, both positive and negative, of the new policy. Lodge's October 16 reply summarized the situation as follows: "So far we appear to be getting virtually no effect from our actions under DEPTEL 534, but we would not have expected effects this early." Other reports indicated that the regime was preparing to take a number of belt-tightening measures, including reductions in civil service salaries; that Chinese businessmen and bankers had begun to get jittery about currency stability; and that the government was planning to draw down its foreign exchange reserves to sustain import levels in the face of the U.S. cut-off of CIP funds. A CIA memorandum concluded that the GVN reaction to the new U.S. policy, particularly the violent anti-U.S. campaign in the Times of Vietnam and the surveillance and harassment of Americans and their employees, indicated that Diem and Nhu were preparing for a long fight and were unmoved by the new policy.
Under Lodge's instructions, General Stillwell (MACV--J-3) met with Secretary Thuan on October 17 and informed him of the impending cut-off of funds for the Special Forces, both MAP and CIA, unless the three CIA-funded companies under Colonel Tung's command were placed under JGS control and transferred to the field. Thuan said he would take the matter up with Diem immediately. Harkins informed Diem directly of this action in a letter on October 18. General Don and Colonel Tung were also personally advised of the action, but again no public announcement was made. On October 26 it was learned that Tung and JGS were working on plans to transfer his Special Forces to the Central Highlands. By then, however, coup plans were well advanced and the significance of this transfer must be understood therein.
Militarily, in October while the GVN had taken some minor steps in line with the McNamara-Taylor recommendations (such as agreeing to realign III and IV Corps boundaries to give added emphasis to the Delta war), the combat situation continued to worsen. The tempo of VC attacks, particularly in the Delta, increased; the weapons-loss ratio and casualty ratios deteriorated; and GVN "missing in action" increased. In Washington, further doubt was cast on the optimism of previous reports by a controversial State Department research study of October 22. The memorandum took issue with encouraging conclusions about the progress of the military campaign derived from statistical trends, pointing out important unfavorable trends revealed by the same statistical data. In Saigon, MACV continued unsuccessfully to press Diem to take further steps to strengthen the war effort.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Mission had been feeling the impact of the new policy in internal strains of its own. Hilsman reports that Lodge decided early in October that the recall of John Richardson, the CIA chief in Saigon, would be a useful additional pressure against Nhu because they had been closely identified during Nolting's ambassadorship, and because Richardson was known to favor a more conciliatory approach to the regime. While there are no cables in the available files to confirm it, Hilsman maintains that Lodge sent a private message to the President and CIA Director McCone requesting Richardson's transfer. The President agreed, McCone acquiesced, and Richardson was returned to Washington on October 5. Whatever other motives may have been involved, Richardson had, in fact, been the specific object of an attack in the U.S. press on October 2 that had accused him of insubordination and had compromised his identity. It is not surprising under such circumstances that he should have been transferred. Whatever the case, the press interpreted his recall as a slap at the regime, as Hilsman suggests Lodge wanted.
This was only an incident in the continuing series of stories by U.S. correspondents on divisions within the mission. Lodge's relations with the press, however, remained excellent throughout his tour. He consciously cultivated the U.S. press corps with private luncheons, "backgrounders," and occasional leaks, and it paid off for him personally. But the press sharply attacked those in the mission, like Richardson and Harkins, with whom they disagreed about U.S. policy. Washington registered its concern that these stories, whatever their origin, were damaging to the official posture of unity the U.S. Government was trying to maintain in the implementation of a difficult policy toward South Vietnam. But the stories continued, even after the coup.
In his weekly evaluation of the impact of the new U.S. policy on October 23, Lodge was not encouraged by the results to date. "Diem/Nhu give every appearance of sitting tight and reacting to U.S. pressure with counter pressure and implying through public statements that they can go it alone." Nevertheless, there were several straws in the wind. Secretary Thuan had reported that Diem was worried and that he had instructed Thuan to ask Lodge if Washington had reached any decisions on commercial imports. Lodge also felt that the regime was being more careful about repressive actions. Furthermore, experienced observers felt the U.S. policy was creating favorable conditions for a coup, although Lodge did not see anyone seriously considering it. The day after this message was sent, Lodge and his wife were invited by Diem to spend the next Sunday (the day after the National Day celebration) with him at his villa in Dalat, after visiting an agricultural station and a strategic hamlet. Lodge promptly accepted. Diem had made the first move.
Washington instructed Lodge to use the occasion of the trip with Diem to test for movement by the GVN on any of the U.S. demands. Lodge was to take advantage of any subject of interest that Diem brought up to determine both the willingness of the government to make concessions and the effect of our selective sanctions. If Diem did not provide such conversational opportunities, Lodge was to assume the initiative. In particular, he was to inquire about changes in the military campaign that had been recommended by the McNamara-Taybr mission and subsequently pressed by General Harkins; he was to suggest that Diem be cooperative to the UN investigatory team that had arrived in the country on October 24, and allow them full access to information and people; and he was to inquire whether Diem did not think it time to end the bitter anti-American campaign of the Times of Vietnam and the Nhus.
Lodge's Sunday with Diem on October 27, the day after the National Day celebration, was frustrating in almost all respects. Diem did bring up several issues of interest, but gave no indication that he had changed his position or his attitude about the Buddhists or the U.S. He did inquire about the suspension of the commercial import program to which Lodge inquired in reply about the release of Buddhists and students from jail, the reopening of the schools, and the elimination of anti-Buddhist discrimination. Diem offered excuses and complaints as usual. Taking the initiative, Lodge complained to Diem of the public opinion pressure that his policies were placing the President under in the U.S. He complained about the physical attacks on U.S. newsmen and about Mme Nhu's inflammatory remarks in the U.S. as examples of the kind of thing Diem could prevent that would enhance his public image in the U.S. and the world. Lodge describes the end of the conversation in this manner:
When it was evident that the conversation was practically over, I said: "Mr. President, every single specific suggestion which I have made, you have rejected. Isn't there some one thing you may think of that is within your capabilities to do and that would favorably impress U.S. opinion?" As on other previous occasions when I asked him similar questions, he gave me a blank look and changed the subject.
While Lodge saw no movement on the basis of the conversation, he nonetheless suggested that consideration be given in Washington to what we would consider adequate response on Diem's part for a resumption of the commercial import program. The following day, after Lodge had related the disappointing results of the conversation to Secretary Thuan over luncheon, the latter observed that the U.S. really wasn't asking much and that perhaps the conversation with Diem had been a beginning. In retrospect, the comment is ironic, for with the coup only five days away, the October 27 conversation was in reality a pathetic ending not a hopeful beginning.
At one level, attention now turned to Lodge's scheduled trip to Washington October 31. The exact purpose of the trip remains a mystery. On October 30, he sent a cable to Washington with some suggestions of steps by the GVN that Washington might consider adequate for resuming the commercial import program under various conditions, steps which he hoped to discuss when he arrived. However, earlier in October, Lodge had sent a private note to McGeorge Bundy, asking that the President make him available for a trip to Vietnam to discuss with Lodge a matter which Lodge did not feel free to enter into through any electronic communication channel. The following cryptic reference suggests that whatever the mysterious subject lodge had in mind, it was the purpose for the planned trip to Washington at the end of October:
Regarding my wire, I appreciate your willingness to send Bundy. Would not have brought this up if I did not have a proposal which I think contains new ideas and which might just change the situation here for the better. It cannot be properly handled by telegram or letter and requires a chance for me to have a dialogue with Rusk and/or Harriman and/or Bundy. I wired Bundy because I cannot leave here immediately, but I could come for one working day to Washington after Vietnamese National Day on October 26 and dedication of Vietnamese Atomic Energy Plant on October 28, returning here immediately thereafter, and would be glad to do it.
In order to shorten Lodge's absence from Saigon and to add flexibility to his departure timing, the President dispatched a military aircraft to Saigon and left it at his disposal. But as the October 31 date arrived, it coincided with the momentary anticipation of a move by the generals. Lodge, no doubt preferred to remain in control of U.S. actions during a coup rather than see Harkins take over, as Washington's instructions for his absence stipulated, and so, he postponed his own departure.
C. RENEWED COUP PLOTTING
While Diem's reaction to the tough new American policy was hostile, the senior South Vietnamese generals, predictably, interpreted the new policy as a green light for a coup. Plotting was reactivated almost immediately, if indeed it had ever been completely dormant.
On October 2, the day the McNamara-Taylor mission reported to the President, General Don "accidentally" encountered Lt Colonel Conein, the CIA contact man in the August plot, at Tan Son Nhut airport and asked him to meet him that night in Nha Trang. Truehart approved the contact, instructing Conein to neither encourage nor discourage a coup but only to get information. At the meeting, General Don said that General Minh wanted to meet with Concm at 8:00 a.m. on October 5 at JGS headquarters at which time Minh would be able to go into the details of the generals' plan. Don emphatically stated that there was a plan, and that essential to it was the conversion of General Dinh, III Corps commander, to the cause.
So, with Lodge's approval, Conein met General Minh on October 5. Getting straight to the point, "General Minh stated that he must know American Government's position with respect to a change in the Government of Vietnam within the very near future." The government's loss of popular support was endangering the whole war effort, which was deteriorating rapidly. He did not except any U.S. support, but needed assurances the U.S. would not thwart the attempt. Also involved, he said, were Generals Don, Khiem and Kim. Of three possible and not mutually exclusive plans mentioned by Minh, two involved military action against loyal units in Saigon, and one was an assassination plot against brothers Nhu and Can, but not Diem. Conein remained noncommittal about both U.S. support and the various plans. Minh then expressed doubt about General Khiem whom he suspected of having played a double role in August, but indicated that the generals would have to act soon to forestall abortive attempts by lower echelon officers. Minh hoped to meet with Conein in the near future to go over the detailed plan of operations. Conein was again noncommittal and Minh said he understood.
Lodge, with Harkins' concurrence, recommended that when Minh, about whom he was now dubious after his August experience, approached Conein again, he be told: (1) that the U.S. would not thwart his plans; (2) that we would be willing to review his plans, except those for assassinations; and (3) "that U.S. aid will be continued to Vietnam under government which gives promise of gaining support of people and winning the war against the Communists." In pressing Minh for details of the planned composition of a successor regime, Lodge felt we should stress the need for a "good proportion of well qualified civilian leaders in key positions."
A message emanating from an NSC meeting was sent to Lodge on the same day and appears to have been dispatched before the arrival of the CAS report on the Conein-Minh meeting and Lodge's comment. In it the President specifically instructed Lodge to avoid encouraging a coup. The message stated:
....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 with closest security under broad guidance of Ambassador to identify and build contacts with possible alternative leadership as and when it appears. Essential that this effort be totally secure and fully deniable and separated entirely from normal political analysis and reporting and other activities of country team. We repeat that this effort is not repeat not to be aimed at active promotion of coup but only at surveillance and readiness. In order to provide plausibility to denial suggest you and no one else in Embassy issue these instruction orally to Acting Station Chief and hold him responsible to you alone for making appropriate contacts and reporting to you alone. [Doc. 143]
Responding the next day, October 6, to the report of the Conein-Minh meeting, Washington referred to the preceding day's cable, but, prompted by Lodge's suggestion, added:
While we do not wish to stimulate coup, we also do not wish to leave impression that U.S. would thwart a change of government or deny economic and military assistance to a new regime if it appeared capable of increasing effectiveness of military effort, ensuring popular support to win war and improving working relations with U.S. We would like to be informed on what is being contemplated but we should avoid being drawn into reviewing or advising on operational plans or any other act which might tend to identify U.S. too closely with change in government. [Doc. 145]
Washington was, further, greatly concerned about the security and deniability of any further contacts and suggested to Lodge that someone could be brought in from outside Vietnam for follow-up contacts if he thought it necessary. Lodge apparently did not.
An important apparent lacuna in the available message traffic occurs at this point. By Shaplen's account, a CAS officer met with Minh on October 10 and conveyed the substance of the U.S. position. Whether or not the date is accurate, it is probable that some such contact took place by mid-October. On October 20 a Colonel Khuong at JGS contacted an American counterpart and reported a coup plot involving Minh, Khiem, Kim, and a fourth unidentified general, plus a number of colonels. He was seeking assurances of U.S. support following a coup.
There were no further reported contacts with the generals until October 23 when Conein again met with Don at the latter's initiative. In a state of agitation, Don stated that the coup had been scheduled to take advantage of the October 26 National Holiday, but that on October 22 Harkins had called on him to report the Khuong contact and to discourage a coup. Don further indicated that the palace had learned of Khuong's overtures, implying that Harkins was responsible, and had taken action to ensure that the vital 5th and 7th Divisions would be away from Saigon. Don demanded to know what the U.S. attitude was toward a coup. Conein reiterated the Washington guidance. Apparently relieved, Don asked Conein to assure Lodge that Khuong was not a member of the coup committee and would be punished. He indicated that the generals had avoided contacting Lodge directly at a party on October 18 because of the presence of members of Harkins' staff. Conein then asked for proof of the existence of the coup group and its plan. Don said that if they could meet the following day, he would give Conein, EYES ONLY for Lodge, the political organization plan.
In a subsequent conversation with Harkins on the matter, Lodge reported that Harkins confirmed his demarche to Don on October 22, and after they had reviewed CAP 74228, said he had misunderstood the policy and hoped he had not upset any delicate arrangements. Harkins added that he would inform Don that his previous statements did not reflect U.S. Government policy.
By Harkins' account, he had not violated Washington's guidance in his conversation with Don. He was merely trying to discourage Vietnamese officers from approaching U.S. counterparts about coup plots which only detracted from the war effort. Furthermore, Don had at no time mentioned coup planning to him. He concluded by commenting about the renewed plotting by the generals that:
Though I am not trying to thwart a change in government, I think we should take a good hard look at the group's proposals to see if we think it would be capable of increasing the effectiveness of the military effort. There are so many coup groups making noises that unless elements of all are included I'm afraid there will be a continuous effort to upset whoever gains control for sometime out and this to me will interfere with the war effort.
This incident once again highlighted the differing outlooks of the Ambassador and MACV and underscored the lack of close coordination between them. Unfortunately, it did not lead to any improvement in the situation. The close identification of Harkins with Diem made the Vietnamese generals mistrust him. Lodge, responsive to their great sensitivity about security, tended to restrict information about the contacts and coup plans to himself.
In response to this contact by Don, Washington reflected mainly concern that he might be acting as an agent of the palace to lead us down the garden path. As he had indicated, Don contacted Conein on the morning of the 24th, but not with the promised plans. He reported that the previous evening Harkins had spoken to him, correcting his earlier statements about the nondesirability of a change of government. Don further said he had a scheduled meeting with Lodge that evening (which Lodge denied) and that plans were now far advanced for a coup sometime before November 2. He asked Conein to meet him later that afternoon to discuss the details of the plan. In a separate cable disputing some of Lodges interpretative description of his statement to Don, Harkins stated that he had repulsed Don's suggestion that they meet again to discuss the coup plans. "I told Don that I would not discuss coups that were not my business though I had heard rumors of many. Taylor replied immediately, stating, "View here is that your actions in disengaging from the coup discussion were correct and that you should continue to avoid any involvement."
At Conein's meeting with Don on the evening of the 24th, the latter indicated he had misunderstood General Harkins and had not seen Lodge. He said that the coup committee had refused to release any plans because of its anxiety about breaches of security. He did promise to turn over to Conein for Lodge's review detailed plans of the operation and the proposed successor government two days before the coup, which he reiterated would take place before November 2.
At this juncture, the nature of the dialogue between Lodge and the White House began to change. On October 25, Lodge sent McGeorge Bundy a long cable taking exception to Harkins' reservations about a coup and arguing for a policy of "not thwarting." No successor government could bungle the war as badly as Diem had, he argued, and, furthermore, for us to prevent a change of government would be "assuming an undue responsibility for keeping the incumbents in office." In his reply, Bundy expressed the White House anxiety about reaping the blame for an unsuccessful coup.
We are particularly concerned about hazard that an unsuccessful coup, however carefully we avoid direct engagement, will be laid at our door by public opinion almost everywhere. Therefore, while sharing your view that we should not be in position of thwarting coup, we would like to have option of judging and warning on any plan with poor prospects of success. We recognize that this is a large order, but President wants you to know of our concern. [Doc. 153]
The discussion of these issues dominated the cable traffic between Lodge and the White House up to the day of the coup, with Washington concerned about detailed plans and prospects for success and Lodge stressing the irrevocability of our involvement.
There were no further contacts with the coup group until the day after the fruitless Lodge-Diem conversations. That Monday, October 28, Lodge and Diem were leaving Saigon for Dalat to dedicate the Vietnamese Atomic Energy Plant. At the airport before their departure, General Don daringly took Lodge aside and asked if Conein was authorized to speak for him. Lodge assured Don that he was. Don said that the coup must be thoroughly Vietnamese and that the U.S. must not interfere. Lodge agreed, adding that the U.S. wanted no satellites but would not thwart a coup. When Lodge asked about the timing of the coup, Don replied that the generals were not yet ready.
Later that evening Conein met Don by prearrangement at the latter's initiative. When Conein called Don's attention to Lodge's scheduled trip to Washington on October 31, indicating that it was important for him to review the coup plans before his departure, Don replied that the plans might not be available until four hours in advance, but urged that the Ambassador not change his plans as this might be a tip-off. Don said that nothing would happen in the next 48 hours, but the implication was that the coup would pre-empt Lodge's departure. When pressed for details of the planning, Don indicated that within the committee, Minh had charge of the military plans for the operation, Kim was doing the political planning, and he, Don, was the liaison with the Americans. They had surrounded General Dinh with coup supporters and he would be neutralized. Generals Tn and Khanh were both involved in the planning. General Khiem was being circumspect because he was under palace suspicion. Minor details of the plan and a list of units supporting the coup were also discussed.
Simultaneous separate contacts had confirmed that several important opposition civilians were in contact with the generals, including Phan Huy Quat, Bui Diem, and Tran Trung Dung, and that they expected to play a role in the post-coup government, which reportedly would be headed by Vice President Tho. In a cable dispatched that same day summarizing the situation, Lodge expressed some concern at the possibility of a premature coup by junior officers, but generally expressed confidence in the generals while regretting their reluctance for security reasons to provide details of their plans. He concluded in these words:
In summary, it would appear that a coup attempt by the Generals' group is imminent; that whether this coup fails or succeeds, the USG must be prepared to accept the fact that we will be blamed, however unjustifiably and finally, that no positive action by the USG can prevent a coup attempt short of informing Diem and Nhu with all the opprobrium that such an action would entail. Note too Don's statement we will only have four hours notice. This rules out my checking with you between time I learn of coup and time that it starts. It means US will not be able significantly to influence course of events.
Lodge's view was clear. We were committed and it was too late for second thoughts. Moreover, when the balloon went up he did not expect to have time to consult Washington. He expected, and probably preferred, to guide events himself.
In view of the deteriorating situation, instructions were given to Admiral Felt, CINCPAC, to have a task force stand off the Vietnamese coast for the possible evacuation of American dependents and civilians if events required. This was a re-enactment of a similar alert during the abortive August coup.
In Washington, McNamara and the JCS had become concerned about the differing views of Lodge and Harkins as to the correct U.S. course of action. More importantly, they were alarmed at the apparent breakdown of communication and coordination between the Ambassador and MACV. The cable traffic tended "to form a picture of a relationship which lacks the depth and continuity required by the complex circumstances in Saigon." Harkins' suggestions for improving their rapport were invited. After the NSC meeting on October 29, the White House was also concerned and instructed Lodge to show Harkins the relevant cables and be sure he was fully aware of the coup arrangements since during Lodge's absence in Washington Harkins would have overall responsibility for the U.S. [Doc. 150]
These two cables triggered a flurry of strong opposing reactions from Lodge and Harkins. Harkins, belatedly apprised of the recent Conein-Don contacts and of Lodge's evaluations and recommendations, took bitter exception to the Ambassador's conclusions in three separate cables on October 30. He particularly resented Lodge's independent, gloomy assessments of how the war was going, which were at direct odds with his own views, views which he had provided Lodge for inclusion in his weekly reports to Washington. [Doc. 1511 As to U.S. policy toward a coup, he was irate at having been excluded by Lodge from information and consultation about the continuing contacts with the generals. [Doc. 152] The heart of the issue, however, was a disagreement about what was, in fact, U.S. policy toward a coup as defined by the Washington guidance cables. Harkins outlined the disagreement in a separate October 30 cable to Taylor:
There is a basic difference apparently between the Ambassador's thinking and mine on the interpretation of the guidance contained in CAP 63560 dated 6 October (see Appendix) and the additional thoughts, I repeat, thoughts expressed in CAS Washington 74228 dated 9 October (Appendix). I interpret CAP 63560 as our basic guidance and that CAS 74228 being additional thoughts did not change the basic guidance in that no initiative should now be taken to give any active covert encouragement to a coup. The Ambassador feels that 74228 does change 63560 and that a change of government is desired and feels as stated in CAS Saigon 1964 (Appendix) that the only way to bring about such a change is by a coup.
I'm not opposed to a change in government, no indeed, but I'm inclined to feel that at this time the change should be in methods of governing rather than complete change of personnel. I have seen no batting order proposed by any of the coup groups. I think we should take a hard look at any proposed list before we make any decisions. In my contacts here I have seen no one with the strength of character of Diem, at least in fighting communists. Certainly there are no Generals qualified to take over in my opinion.
I am not a Diem man per se. I certainly see the faults in his character. I am here to back 14 million SVN people in their leader at this time.
* * *
I would suggest we not try to change horses too quickly. That we continue to take persuasive actions that will make the horses change their course and methods of action. That we win the military effort as quickly as possible, then let them make any and all the changes they want.
After all, rightly or wrongly, we have backed Diem for eight long hard years. To me it seems incongruous now to get him down, kick him around, and get rid of him. The US has been his mother superior and father confessor since he's been in office and he has leaned on us heavily. [Docs. 151 & 152]
The first Washington message to Lodge on October 30 revealed that White House anxiety about the possible failure of a coup attempt, already evident on October 25 in CAP 63590 (see Appendix), had increased. The CIA's evaluation of the balance of forces cast doubt on whether the coup group could pull off a decisive action. With these concerns in mind, Washington could not accept Lodge's judgment "that no positive action by the USG can prevent a coup attempt . . ." The White House view was that:
.... our attitude to coup group can still have decisive effects on its decisions. We believe that what we say to coup group can produce delay of coup and that betrayal of coup plans to Diem is not repeat not our only way of stopping coup.
In a long reply (in which Harkins did not concur), Lodge was at pains to point out his powerlessness to prevent what was fundamentally a Vietnamese affair, short of revealing it to the palace.
We must, of course, get best possible estimate of chance of coup's success and this estimate must color our thinking, but do not think we have the power to delay or discourage a coup. Don has made it clear many times that this is a Vietnamese affair. It is theoretically possible for us to turn over the information which has been given to us in confidence to Diem and this would undoubtedly stop the coup and would make traitors out of us. For practical purposes therefore I would say that we have very little influence on what is essentially a Vietnamese affair. In addition, this would place the heads of the Generals, their civilian supporters, and lower military officers on the spot, thereby sacrificing a significant portion of the civilian and military leadership needed to carry the war against the VC to its successful conclusion. After our efforts not to discourage a coup and this change of heart, we would foreclose any possibility of change of the GVN for the better.
* * *
As regards your paragraph 10 (question of determination and force of character of coup leaders), I do not know what more proof can be offered than the fact these men are obviously prepared to risk their lives and that they want nothing for themselves. If I am any judge of human nature, Don's face expressed sincerity and determination on the morning that I spoke to him. Heartily agree that a miscalculation could jeopardize position in Southeast Asia. We also run tremendous risks by doing nothing. [Doc. 154]
Whether Lodge seriously believed this or merely used it as an argumentative excuse for not entertaining the possibility of intervention to delay or stop an unviable attempt is not clear. His defense of the plotters and his support for their goal in this telegraphic dialogue with Washington, however, clearly show his emotional bias in favor of a coup. Elsewhere in the cable Lodge objected to the designation of Harkins as the Chief of Mission in the event of a coup during his absence.
The tone and content of these parallel messages from Harkins and Lodge only heightened White House anxiety and, no doubt, raised concern about the objectivity of these two principal U.S. observers of the critical Vietnamese situation. In an effort to clear the air, explicitly redefine and restate the policy guidance, and clarify the assignment of roles and responsibilities within the Mission, the White House sent still another cable to Saigon later on October 30. Taking pointed issue with Lodge's view, the message stated:
We do not accept as a basis for US policy that we have no power to delay or discourage a coup. In your paragraph 12 you say that if you were convinced that the coup was going to fail you would of course do everything you could to persuade coup leaders to stop or delay any operation which, in your best judgement, does not clearly give high prospect of success. We have never considered any betrayal of generals to Diem, and our 79109 explicitly rejected that course. We recognize the danger of appearing hostile to generals, but we believe that our own position should be on as firm ground as possible, hence we cannot limit ourselves to proposition implied in your message that only conviction of certain failure justifies intervention. We believe that your standard for intervention should be that stated above.
Therefore, if you should conclude that there is not clearly a high prospect of success, you should communicate this doubt to generals in a way calculated to persuade them to desist at least until chances are better. In such a communication you should use the weight of US best advice and explicitly reject any implication that we oppose the effort of the generals because of preference for present regime. We recognize need to bear in mind generals' interpretation of US role in 1960 coup attempt and your agent should maintain clear distinction between strong and honest advice given as a friend and any opposition to their objectives. [Doc. 155]
Lodge was also urgently requested to obtain more detailed information about the composition of the forces the coup leaders expected to have at their disposal so that we could better assess their prospects.
With regard to Lodge's absence, the instructions placed Truehart in charge unless a coup occurred, in which case Harkins would be Chief of Mission. The desirability of having Lodge on the scene in the event of a coup, however, was stressed and he was encouraged to delay his departure if he thought the coup was imminent. The following four-point standing instructions for U.S. posture in the event of a coup were also given:
a. US authorities will reject appeals for direct intervention from either side, and US-controlled aircraft and other resources will not be committed between the battle lines or in support of either side, without authorization from Washington.
b. In event of indecisive contest, US authorities may in their discretion agree to perform any acts agreeable to both sides, such as removal of key personalities or relay of information. In such actions, however, US authorities will strenuously avoid appearance of pressure on either side. It is not in the interest of USG to be or appear to be either instrument of existing government or instrument of coup.
c. In the event of imminent or actual failure of coup, US authorities may afford asylum in their discretion to those to whom there is any express or implied obligation of this sort. We believe, however, that in such a case it would be in our interest and probably in interest of those seeking asylum that they seek protection of other Embassies in addition to our own. This point should be made strongly if need arises.
d. But once a coup under responsible leadership has begun, and within these restrictions, it is in the interest of the US government that it should succeed.
With respect to instruction d., however, no specific actions to support or
guarantee the success of a coup were authorized. This message was the last guidance
Lodge received from Washington before the coup began.
V. THE COUP AND ITS AFTERMATH--NOVEMBER 1-23
A. THE COUP
The atmosphere of Byzantine intrigue in Saigon in the fall of 1963 made it virtually impossible to keep track of all the plots against the regime. In one of his last messages to Washington before the coup, Lodge identified ten individual dissident groups in addition to the generals' group. These various plots were highly fluid in composition and quixotic in character, quickly appearing, disappearing and/or merging with other groups. There were, however, two groups that came into existence in the summer and retained their identity with some mutation until near the end. The first, chronologically, was variously identified as the Tuyen or Thao group after its successive leaders. It was conceived sometime in June by Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, the Director of Political Studies (national intelligence) under Diem, and involved elements of the Ministries of Civic Action and Information and certain elements of the Army. When Dr. Tuyen was sent out of the country in September, the group was more or less merged with a separate group of middle level officers headed by Lt. Colonel Phamh Goc Thao. Several dates were established by this group for a coup during the summer and fall, but each time critical military units were temporarily transferred by either the palace or the JGS, under General Don, each of whom was somewhat aware of the group's plans and was interested in frustrating them. In the end, it concerted efforts with the generals as the only alternative with prospects of success.
The second group was, of course, composed of the senior generals of the Vietnamese Army. Plotting by this group also began in earnest in June. Initially, its leader was identified as General Khiem and later General Don, but the de facto leader throughout was, no doubt, General Minh who commanded by far the greatest respect and allegiance within the officer corps. The four principal members of the group were Generals Minh, Don, Khiem, and Kim, all of whom were stationed in Saigon without troop command, the latter three at JGS and General Minh as a palace military advisor. Generals Tn and Khanh, I and II Corps commanders respectively, were secondary members of the generals' group, but were also in touch with the Thao group. The abortive attempt by the generals to launch a coup in August has already been described in detail. Important lessons seem to have been learned by these men from that experience, for when they again began to set their plans and make arrangements it was with great attention to detail and with an explicit division of labor.
Among the plotters, General Minh had the overall direction of the coup activities, although the group acted in committee fashion with the members apparently voting at several points on particular actions. He was also responsible for the military operation of the coup itself. General Don was the liaison with the Americans and responsible for wooing General Dinh. General Kim handled planning for the post-coup government and the relations with the civilian groups that were expected to be called on to support the coup. General Khiem was to play a critical role at the end of October as the liaison man with the Thao coup group in working out the details of their support and integration into the actual execution of the coup.
As already noted, the fundamental problem of the plotters was their lack of troop command in the immediate Saigon area. The Ngo family's longstanding fear of military coups, as previously discussed, had been the main factor in all military command assignments and promotion policy. Nowhere was loyalty a more important prerequisite for command than in Saigon, the surrounding III Corps, and the nearby IV Corps, with its headquarters only 40 miles away down Highway 4. In addition to the sizable special forces units in Saigon under Colonel Tung and the various national police and paramilitary units that also took their orders directly from the palace, Diem had appointed the vain, ambitious, and supposedly loyal General Dinh as Commander of III Corps (whose 5th Division was stationed at nearby Bien Hoa) and the Saigon Military District. Furthermore, the IV Corps was commanded by General Cao, who had saved Diem during the 1960 coup by bringing his loyal 7th Division troops up from My Tho. It was on this formidable line-up of forces that the family had staked its survival; and not without reason, as the frustrated coup of August demonstrated.
Saigon, however, was not entirely without dissident elements. With the exception of their commanders, the Marine battalion, the airborne battalion, and the Air Force were all sympathetic to a coup. But the plotters knew that a favorable balance of forces could not be achieved or maintained without either the conversion or neutralization of Generals Dinh and Cao.
During the August pagoda raids, Dinh had been given overall command of the crackdown, although Tung had taken his instructions as always directly from Nhu in carrying out the attacks. Thereafter, Dinh, who was a notorious braggart, boasted that he had saved the country from the Buddhists, Communists, and "foreign adventurers." Carried away with himself, he held a news conference on August 27 in which he was harried and finally humiliated by antagonistic American journalists. The plotting generals decided that they would play on his vanity and egoism to win him over to their side. With his pride injured at the hands of the newsmen, Dinh was easy prey to Don's suggestion that Nhu had played him for a fool, but that he really was a national hero, and that the regime was indebted to him. Don suggested that Dinh go to Diem with a plan to increase military participation in the government, specifically that he, Dinh, be named Minister of Interior. Don rightly expected that Diem would be outraged at such a brazen request, and would reprimand Dinh, further wounding his pride and alienating him from the regime. Diem reacted as expected, and ordered Dinh to take a "vacation" in Dalat for a while. Don at this point began his long effort to woo Dinh to the plotters side against Diem. Dinh, however, lacked self-confidence and vacillated although he does not appear to have played a double roll by revealing the existence of the plot to the palace. While the elaborate stratagems for seducing Dinh were taking place, the plotters had carefully surrounded him with supporters of the coup, including his deputy, Colonel Co, whom they felt they could rely on to neutralize him if he showed signs of rallying to the family once the balloon was up. By the end of the third week in October, the plotters felt reasonably confident that the problem of Dinh had been resolved: he would, as an opportunist, rally to the coup if he felt it was going to succeed; if he did not, he would be eliminated.
At the same time, plans had been under way to neutralize General Cao, the IV Corps commander, since he would certainly betray the plotters to the palace if he got word of the plans, or bring his troops to Diem's aid if the coup started while he was still in control of them. To do this, Colonel Co, Dinh's deputy, was sent to the Delta to win the support of the subordinate commanders in IV Corps. In the ultimate plan, Co would be sent with JGS orders to take command of the 7th Division in My Tho on the day before the coup began; he would order all boats to the Saigon side of the Mekong River; and, thus, act as a blocking force to General Cao who, stranded in Can Tho on the far side of the Mekong, was then be arrested by dissident officers in his own command. Co apparently was successful in getting the support of the great majority of the subordinate officers, but one loyal officer heard of the plans and immediately tipped off Nhu.
Diem and Nhu called in Dinh and revealed what they had learned, attempting to force his hand. Dinh reacted with feigned shock and suggested that Co be executed immediately. This convinced Nhu that Dinh was not involved. They preferred to keep Co alive to get more information from him. Nhu then revealed his own elaborate scheme for a pseudo-coup that would pre-empt the plotters and squelch their plans. His two-part plan was to start with the transfer of Colonel Tung's special forces out of Saigon on maneuvers. The phony coup would then take place with Diem and Nhu escaping to their hideaway at Cap St Jacques. After several days of hooliganism including the murder of several prominent Vietnamese and some Americans, the loyal 5th Division under Dinh and the 7th under Cao would counterattack the city and Diem and Nhu would return as triumphant heroes, more secure than ever. Dinh was the key to Nhu's plan.
Dinh's role becomes confused at this point. He apparently was uncertain about the relative balance of forces and decided to cooperate with both sides until he could decide which he felt was going to gain the upper hand, although he was probably still leaning toward the palace. In any case, if he was trusted by the Nhus, he certainly was not by the generals because they confided in him none of their detailed plans for the operation, and Nhu's plan, in which he would have played the key role, never came to fruition. It was pre-empted by the real coup the generals had been plotting.
By the last week in October, timing had become critical. The Thao group apparently had intended to act on October 24, but were dissuaded by Don and Khiem who argued that they had too few forces to guarantee success. It was at this juncture that Khiem brought the Thao group into the plans and worked out joint arrangements with them for the execution of the coup. Shaplen says that the generals' coup was originally planned for November 4. This conflicts, however, with what Don had told Conein on October 24, namely that it would occur before November 2. By Shaplen's account, Dinh revealed the planned date of the coup to Nhu who instructed him to urge that it be advanced to November 1. Nhu still thought somehow he could carry off his plan by abandoning the phony coup, by letting the real substitute for it in the hope that it would be thrown off balance by the advanced date, and by relying on Dinh's loyal troops as supplemented by Cao's to tip the scale in the family's favor once the chips were down. In allowing the generals to make their move, the principal rebels would all be compromised and Nhu could then act to crush all major dissidence. Whatever the reason, whether by Nhu's intrigue or by their own timetable, the generals set the coup for November 1.
While they had left a worried U.S. officialdom with only sketchy ideas of the
planned operation, the generals had themselves devoted great attention to all
details of their move. When the hour came for execution, the plan was implemented
with hardly a hitch, and the fate of the regime was sealed in the first hours
of the coup.
On October 29, the first preparatory action for a coup was taken. General Dinh ordered Colonel Tung to move his special forces out of the capital for maneuvers, but whether he was acting as the agent of the generals or the palace is still unclear. Simultaneously, the chief of intelligence, who had been a member of the Thao plot and was now participating in the generals' plan, passed phony intelligence of a VC build-up outside Saigon to Diem and Nhu to get them to divert loyal units that could have been used to thwart a coup.
The day of the coup itself began improbably with an official U.S. call on Diem. Admiral Felt, CINCPAC, had been visiting General Harkins to review the situation and prior to his departure at noon, he and Lodge paid a courtesy call on the President. Diem's monologue was little different from what he had said to McNamara and Taylor the month before. As they were leaving, however, he called Lodge aside and they talked privately for twenty minutes. Diem, in a tragically unwitting example of too little too late, indicated that he wanted to talk to Lodge about what it was the U.S. wanted him to do. The atmosphere of this meeting must have been strained in the extreme in view of Lodge's awareness of the imminence of the coup. After the meeting, Felt went straight to the airport and held a press conference, with a nervous General Don at his side, before departing at noon unaware of the drama that was already unfolding.
While Lodge and Felt had been at the palace, coup units had already begun to deploy in and around Saigon. At the same time, nearly all the generals and top officers had been convened for a noon meeting at JGS headquarters at Tan Son Nhut. There the coup committee informed them that the coup had begun and asked for their support. Pledges of support were recorded on tape by all those present who supported the action. They were to be used later over the radio and would implicate the entire senior officer corps of the Army in the event the coup failed. In this way the plotters were able to enlist the support of several wavering officers. The only senior officers not present were Generals Dinh and Cao, who were not informed of the meeting to prevent their revealing the coup prematurely to the palace or taking counter action. Also not present was the South Vietnamese Chief of Naval Operations, who had been assassinated by a trigger-happy escort enroute. Several officers suspected of being loyal to Diem were taken into immediate custody at JGS, including Colonel Tung, and the commanders of the Air Force, the airborne brigade, the Marines, the Civil Guard, and the police force. A CAS officer, presumably Lt Colonel Conein, was also invited to come to JGS and was authorized to maintain telephone contact with the Embassy during the coup. He provided reliable reporting throughout the next two days.
At 1:45 p.m., Don called General Stilwell, Harkins' J-3, and informed him that all the generals were assembled at JGS and that the coup had begun. At the same time, coup forces were seizing the post office with its telecommunications facilities, the police headquarters, the radio stations, the airport, and the naval headquarters, and were deploying in positions to assault the special forces headquarters near Tan Son Nhut, the palace, and the barracks of the palace guard. Other units had been deployed in blocking positions to defend against any loyal counterattack from units outside Saigon. These actions were swift and met with little resistance. The units involved included the Marine and airborne units under the leadership of junior officers, the Air Force under junior officers, and units from the 5th Division under orders from Dinh, who had thrown in his lot when he became aware of the unanimity of the senior officers and their apparent likelihood of success. Later in the day, armor and troops from the 7th Division at My Tho, under the insurgent leadership of Colonel Co, arrived for the assault on the palace.
As is always the case in this kind of crisis, the quantity of cables quickly overwhelmed the communications system, and the incompleteness of the reports meant that no clear picture of what was happening could be pieced together until later. As in all such situations, the Embassy became an island linked to outside events only by tenuous reports from telephone contacts.
In the early afternoon, Colonel Tung, who had been arrested on the morning of November 1, was forced to call his special forces and tell them to surrender to the coup forces. Not long thereafter, the adjacent special forces headquarters fell to the coup units after a brief skirmish. When this occurred, the palace was reduced for its defense to the palace guard, since the remainder of the special forces were outside the city and effectively cut off from it, and all other unit commanders had come under the command of officers involved in the coup. General Cao, the IV Corps commander, pledged his support to the coup in the late afternoon, although it is not clear whether this was opportunistic or whether he thought the coup was really Phase I of Nhu's plan. Not trusting him, however, the generals placed him under guard. At 4:30 p.m., the generals went on the radio to announce the coup and demand the resignation of Diem and Nhu. This was followed by a continuing broadcast of the pledges of support of the senior officers that had been recorded that morning. Meanwhile, Air Force transports were dropping prepared leaflets announcing the coup, and calling on the populace to support it.
At the beginning, Diem and Nhu were apparently fooled by the coup, or had completely miscalculated the extent of its support. At the first indications of coup actions, Nhu reportedly assured an alarmed official that it was all part of a palace plan. When word reached the palace that all key points had fallen, Nhu tried to contact General Dinh. When he could not reach him, he realized that he had been outfoxed and that the coup was genuine. By this time, fighting was going on between the coup forces and the palace guard at the palace and the nearby guard barracks. When the generals called the two brothers and asked them to surrender, promising them safe conduct out of the country, Diem replied by asking them to come to the palace for "consultations," an obvious attempt to repeat the 1960 tactic of delaying the coup long enough for loyal troops to reach the city. The generals, however, were not bargaining--they were demanding.
At 4:30 p.m., Diem called Lodge to ask where he stood and the following conversation ensued:
Diem: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know what is the attitude of the US?
Lodge: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. I have heard the shooting, but am not acquainted with all the facts. Also it is 4:30 a.m. in Washington and the US Government cannot possibly have a view.
Diem: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a Chief of State. I have tried to do my duty. I want to do now what duty and good sense require. I believe in duty above all.
Lodge: You have certainly done your duty. As I told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. No one can take away from you the credit for all you have done. Now I am worried about your physical safety. I have a report that those in charge of the current activity offer you and your brother safe conduct out of the country if you resign. Had you heard this?
Diem: No. (And then after a pause) You have my telephone number.
Lodge: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.
Diem: I am trying to re-establish order.
There is no evidence available as to whether Washington issued further instructions with respect to the personal safety of Diem and Nhu at this time. The above conversation was the last that any American had with DIEM. Lodge, as was his custom, retired that night at about 9:30 p.m.
Shortly after Diem's call to Lodge, the generals called the palace again and put Colonel Tung on the phone. Tung told Nhu he had surrendered. The generals then demanded the immediate surrender of the brothers or they would put the palace under air and ground attack. Each general at JGS, in turn, was put on the phone to assure Diem of safe conduct if he would resign, but Nhu apparently dissuaded him. General Minh himself made a separate telephone call to Diem in a final attempt to get him to surrender, but Diem hung up. The two brothers now began frantically calling unit commanders throughout the country on their private communications system to get them to come to their aid. In most cases they could not get through, and when they did they were told to surrender by officers who now supported the coup. When they could get no help from the regular military, they made a vain effort to enlist the support of paramilitary units and their Republic Youth groups. Sometime in the early evening, probably by eight o'clock, they recognized the hopelessness of the situation and escaped from the palace, unbeknown to its defenders, through one of the secret underground exits connected to the sewer system. They were met by a Chinese friend who took them to his home in Cholon where they had previously set up a communications channel to the palace for just such an emergency. There they spent their last night.
In the face of the brothers' intransigent refusal to surrender and confident that they were now in control of the entire country and that their plans had succeeded, the generals began assembling forces and preparing for the siege of the palace. At about nine o'clock, they opened an artillery barrage of the palace and its defenders. Since the palace was being defended by some tanks, an infantry assault with tank support was required to capture it. This began about 3:30 a.m. on November 2, and lasted until about 6:30 a.m., when the palace fell, after Diem had issued a cease-fire order to the palace guard from his Cholon hideaway.
Throughout the night the brothers had remained in contact with both their loyal supporters at the palace, and periodically with the insurgents. The latter did not learn that the brothers had fled until the rebel forces under Colonel Thao invaded the palace. At 6:20 a.m., Diem called JGS and spoke personally with General Don, offering to surrender in exchange for a guarantee of safe conduct to the airport and departure from Vietnam. Minh agreed to these terms, but Diem did not reveal his whereabouts, still apparently unable to grasp the new realities. Colonel Thao learned of the location of the hideaway from a captured officer of the palace guard and received permission from Minh to go there and get the brothers. When he arrived at the house, he telephoned again to headquarters to report his location and was overheard by the brothers on another extension. They escaped to a nearby Catholic church, where once again Diem called General Don at 6:50 a.m. and surrendered unconditionally. He and Nhu were taken prisoner shortly thereafter by General Mai Huu Xuan, a long time enemy, who according to most accounts ordered or permitted their murder in the back of an armored personnel carrier enroute to JGS headquarters.
The State Department reacted to news of the coup in terms of the recognition problem with respect to the new government. Rusk felt that a delay would be useful to the generals in not appearing to be U.S. agents or stooges and would assist us in our public stance of noncomplicity. He further discouraged any large delegation of the generals from calling on Lodge as if they were "reporting in." A subsequent message stressed the need to underscore publicly the fact that this was not so much a coup as an expression of national will, a fact revealed by the near unanimous support of important military and civilian leaders. It further stressed the importance of Vice President Tho to a quick return to constitutional government and the need, therefore, for the generals to include him in any interim regime. Lodge replied affirmatively to these views, indicating his opinion that we should encourage other friendly countries to recognize the new government first with the assurance that the U.S. would follow suit shortly. Further, we should show our friendly support for the regime and without fanfare resume payments in the commercial import program.
The news of the brutal and seemingly pointless murder of Diem and Nhu, however, was received in Washington with shock and dismay. President Kennedy was reportedly personally stunned at the news, particularly in view of the heavy U.S. involvement in encouraging the coup leaders. Apparently, we had put full confidence in the coup committee's offers of safe conduct to the brothers and, reluctant to intercede on behalf of Diem and Nhu for fear of appearing to offer support to them or of reneging on our pledges of non-interference to the generals, we had not appreciated the degree of hatred of the Ngo family among the generals, nor their fear that if the brothers survived the coup they would somehow, sometime stage a comeback. In their first meeting with Lodge after the coup, however, the generals denied that the assassination had been ordered, and promised to make public their offer of safe conduct to Diem if he would resign.
While the callousness of the murders of Diem and Nhu, their previous repressiveness notwithstanding, horrified the world, the success of the coup and the deaths of the hated brothers were greeted with popular jubilation in South Vietnam. Spontaneous street demonstrations by students in a holiday mood ended in the burning of the offices of the Times of Vietnam and the destruction of a statue modeled after Mme. Nhu. The tension released set off celebrations rivaled only by the annual Tet New Year festivities. Americans were greeted and received with great enthusiasm, and Lodge was widely regarded as the hero of the whole train of events. Vietnamese were heard to remark that if an election for president were held Lodge would win by a landslide.
Thus, the nine-year rule of Ngo Dinh Diem came to a sudden, bloody, and permanent end, and U.S. policy in Vietnam plunged into the unknown, our complicity in the coup only heightening our responsibilities and our commitment in this struggling, leaderless land. We could be certain only that whatever new leadership emerged would be fragile, untried, and untested.
B. ESTABLISHMENT OF AN INTERIM REGIME
Even before the initiation of the coup, the coup committee through General Kim had been in touch with civilian political oppositionists and to some extent with members of Diem's government. Once the success of the coup was certain, negotiations with these civilians by the generals' committee began in earnest. On the night of November 1 and the following day, all ministers of Diem's government were told to submit their resignations and did so, some on U.S. advice. No reprisals were taken against them. Indeed, Vice President Tho entered into intensive negotiations with General Minh on November 2 on the composition of the interim government. He apparently understood the eagerness of the generals to have him head a new government to provide continuity, and he used this knowledge to bargain with them about the composition of the cabinet. He was not to be their pliant tool.
While these conferences were taking place, the coup committee, or "Revolutionary Committee" as it was now calling itself, distributed leaflets and press releases announcing the dissolution of the National Assembly and the abolition of the Diem-Nhu government based on the constitution of 1956, and proclaiming the support of the committee for such democratic principles as free elections, unhampered political opposition, freedom of press, freedom of religion, and an end to discrimination. They were at pains to explain that the purpose of the coup was to bolster the fight against the Communists which they pledge themselves to pursue with renewed vigor and determination.
On the afternoon of November 3, the second day after the coup, Generals Don and Kim called on Lodge at the Embassy, explaining that General Minh was tied up in conversations with Vice President Tho on the new government. The conversation was long and touched on many topics. It began with mutual expressions of satisfaction at the success of the coup, and continued with Lodge's assurance of forthcoming U.S. recognition for their new government. The generals explained that they had decided on a two-tiered government structure with a military committee presided over by General Minh overseeing a regular cabinet that would be mostly civilian with Tho as prime minister. Lodge promised to see to the immediate restoration of certain of the aid programs and the speedy resumption of the others when the government was in place. They then dealt with a host of immediate problems including the return of the Nhu children to their mother and the disposition of the rest of the Ngo family, press censorship, the release of Tri Quang from the Embassy, curfew, reprisals against former ministers, etc. The generals confirmed the psychological importance of the commodity import suspension to the success of their plans. Lodge was elated, both at the efficiency and success of the coup, and the seriousness and determination of the generals to deal with the pressing problems and get on with the war.
The following day, on instructions from Washington, Lodge, in company with Lt Colonel Conein, met with Generals Minh and Don. Washington had been anxious for Lodge to urgently convey to the generals the need to make a clarifying statement about the deaths of the brothers and to take steps to insure humane treatment of other members of the family. The generals were responsive to Lodge's urgings and promised to see that action was taken on the U.S. requests. Minh said that the composition of the new government would be announced shortly. In describing the meeting later, Lodge offered a prophetic description of Minh: "Minh seemed tired and somewhat frazzled; obviously a good, well-intentioned man. Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?" Lodge closed the cable by taking exception to State's excessive pre-occupation with the negative public relations problems of the coup and decrying its failure to note the brilliance with which the coup was planned and executed.
The promised announcement of the new government came on the morning of November 5. It was very much as General Kim had described it to Lodge on November 3. Minh was named President and Chief of the Military Committee; Tho was listed as Premier, Minister of Economy, and Minister of Firiance; Don was named Minister of Defense; and General Dinh was named to the Ministry of Security (Interior). Only one other general was included in the cabinet of fifteen which was composed primarily of bureaucrats and civilians with no previous experience. Political figures, either opposed to Diem or not, were conspicuously absent from the cabinet, a fact which would impair the new government's securing the roots in popular support it would need in the long run. The announcement of the new cabinet was followed by the release of "Provisional Constitutional Act No. 1," signed by General Mmh, formally suspending the 1956 constitution and outlining the structure and functions of the interim government. On November 6, Saigon radio announced the composition of the Executive Committee of the Military Revolutionary Council. Minh was Chairman, Don and Dinh were Deputy Chairmen, and nine other senior generals, including Kim, Khiem, "little" Minh, Chieu, and Thieu were members. Significantly, General Khanh was not.
On October 5, the new Foreign Minister had sent a note to the Embassy informing the Ambassador officially of the change of government, and expressing the hope that relations between the two countries would be continued and strengthened. State approved Lodge's proposed reply of recognition the following day, November 6, and, under the pressure of other governments and the press, announced its intention to recognize on November 7 in Washington. The note of recognition was delivered on November 8, when Lodge called on the new Foreign Minister, Pham Dang Lam. Lam, emphasizing his own insufficiencies for the job he had been given, asked for Lodge's advice which Lodge was apparently not reluctant to give on a variety of topics. The primary impression left was that the new government would be heavily dependent on U.S. advice and support, not only for the war effort, but also in the practical problems of running the country.
In the first three weeks of November 1963, three problems preoccupied most Americans and Vietnamese in the new political and military situation created by the coup. The first of these was getting the new government started, developing the relations between the new Vietnamese officials and their American counterparts, and most importantly shaking down the power relationships within the new regime. The first two aspects of this problem would be self-resolving and were largely a matter of time. With respect to the latter, it was clear from the outset that General Minh was the dominant figure in the new government and was so regarded by nearly all the military men. Tho, however, had exhibited considerable independence during the negotiations over the cabinet, reflecting his confidence that the generals felt they needed him. The open question, then, was what degree of freedom of action the new cabinet under Tho would have, or alternatively, how deeply the military council intended to involve itself in running the country. This issue was not resolved in the public statements and communiques of the new regime and ambiguity on the subject was clearly reflected in the lack of decisiveness and vigor of the new ministers and in their general uncertainty as to their authority. While the exact reasons for not including any politicians in the cabinet are not known, it is reasonable to assume that neither Tho nor the military were anxious to see potential political rivals, with power deriving from popular support, in positions to challenge the authority of the new leaders. Whatever the case, it was the irresolution of the power relationship within the new government that was one of the factors contributing to the next round of coup-making in January 1964.
The second urgent problem of these first weeks in November was the rapidly deteriorating economic situation in Vietnam. The situation had been serious in September, and a large deficit for the 1964 budget had already been forecast. The suspension of the commercial import payments and selected PL 480 had aggravated the situation during September and October. Furthermore, all negotiations on the 1964 budget levels and U.S. support had been suspended and were now seriously behind schedule. Aware of the urgency of the problem, State, on November 2, had asked for Lodge's recommendations on the resumption of aid and had urged him to identify the people responsible for economic planning in the new government so that negotiations could begin immediately. Concern was also expressed at the lack of expertise in this area among the generals and Lodge was advised to encourage them to make maximum use of economists in the previous government who were familiar with the problems. Lodge proposed in response that the government be asked to name a high level commission of economic experts to work with a similar group from the U.S. Mission. This suggestion had been agreed to in principle the previous day by Tho, through whose office all economic aid matters were to be channeled. Lodge also believed that our aid should be increased as an indication of our support for the new government. But beyond these preliminary discussions, no real progress was made on the economic problems before the Honolulu Conference on November 20.
The third problem that worried Americans was the heightened level of Viet Cong activity in the wake of the coup and the military dislocations caused by it. Related, but of even more importance, was the new information that came to light after the coup and in the atmosphere of free discussion that it generated showing that the military situation was far worse than we had believed. The overall statistical indicators had now begun to show deterioration dating back to the summer. The incidence of VC attacks was up over the first six months of 1963, the weapons loss ratio had worsened and the rate of VC defections was 'way down. In the immediate wake of the coup, VC activity had jumped dramatically as MACV had feared it would and there was great concern to return units participating in the coup to the field quickly to forestall any major Communist offensive. Cause for more fundamental concern, however, were the first rumors and indications that under Diem there had been regular and substantial falsification in the military reporting system and in reporting on the strategic hamlets that had badly distorted the real military situation in Vietnam to make it appear less serious than it was. This, it turned out, was the main reason for the previous discrepancies in MACV and U.S. mission evaluations of the war. In the first flush of self-satisfaction after the coup, Lodge had predicted that the change of regime would shorten the war because of the improved morale of the ARVN troops. But as time wore on, the accumulating evidence of the gravity of the military situation displaced these sanguine prognoses.
The only comforting note in the intelligence was the apparent discomfiture of the National Liberation Front. Throughout the summer and fall, the NLF had seemingly been unable to capitalize on the Buddhist or student struggle movements. In fact, its principal response to the Diem-Buddhist clash had been increasingly vituperative attacks on the U.S. Not until November 7th did the NLF issue a post-Diem policy statement, consisting of a list of "eight demands":
(1) Destroy all strategic hamlets . . . and other disguised camps.
(2) Release all political detainees. .
(3) Promulgate without delay democratic freedom. . .
(4) Root out all vestiges of the fascist and militarist dictatorial regime.
(5) Stop all persecution and repression and raiding operations.
(6) Dissolve all nepotist organizations. . .
(7) Immediately stop forcible conscription. . .
(8) Cancel all kinds of unjustified taxes.
The Duong Van Minh government could claim that it was in the process of meeting all of these "demands" except one--halting the draft--so that the NLF was effectively pre-empted. On November 17, the NLF Central Committee issued another series of demands:
(1) Eliminate the vestiges of the Diem regime.
(2) Establish democratic freedom.
(3) Eliminate American influence.
(4) Make social and economic reforms.
(5) Halt the fighting.
(6) Establish a coalition government.
The demands were accompanied by a statement affirming the reunification of Vietnam as a goal of the NLF, the first such statement in over two years. Douglas Pike's analysis was unable to resolve the reasons for the inaction of the NLF throughout the crisis:
Had the NLF leadership wished to do so, it could have used its impressive struggle machine to launch in the name of the Buddha a nation-wide struggle movement that conceivably could have ended with its long-pursued General Uprising . . . Knowledgeable Vietnamese attributed its refusal to act an unwillingness to involve itself in an alien struggle movement. The NLF and the communists, ran the argument, avoid activities over which they do not exercise total control. . . . The Buddhist leadership made it clear it did not seek NLF help since it wished at all costs to avoid the Communist stigma. Another popular explanation for the NLF's "sit-tight" policy during the Buddhist troubles was that the NLF was going to allow the bourgeois revolutionary forces to succeed in toppling Diem, after which it would capture the Revolution as the Kerensky Government was captured in the Russian Revolution. No such effort, however, was made by the NLF. A slanderous but widely bandied explanation among Vietnamese at the time was that the NLF did not want Diem removed, that he and his brothers and sister-in-law were far more valuable to the NLF in office than out. In truth, the NLF posture during this period remains something of a mystery.
C. THE HONOLULU CONFERENCE AND NSAM 273
Having postponed his planned October 31 visit to Washington because of the
imminence of the coup, Lodge apparently suggested, in response to a State query,
that it be rescheduled for November 10. Rusk proposed a further postponement
to insure time for Lodge to establish working relations with the new government
and to take advantage of his own planned trip to Tokyo later in the month. Accordingly,
a meeting with Rusk, Bundy, Bell, McNamara, and Taylor in Honolulu was scheduled
on November 20 for the entire country team. Lodge was invited to proceed on
to Washington after the meeting if he felt he needed to talk with the President.
In preparation for the conference, State dispatched a long series of specific questions to Lodge on possible methods of broadening the political base of support of the new government and increasing the effectiveness of the war effort. This was additional to the comprehensive review of the situation, including an evaluation of progress on the McNamara-Taylor recommendations, that the military was expected to provide and the in-depth assessment of the new regime and its prospects by the country team. Lodge replied even before arriving at the conference that the proposed discussions would require detailed information about the functioning of the new rulers which it was far too early to obtain.
In a broad overview of the new political situation in Vietnam at the plenary session in Honolulu, Lodge voiced his optimism about the actions taken thus far by the new government to consolidate its popular support. In particular, he noted the efforts to eliminate forced labor in the strategic hamlets, to curtail arbitrary arrests, to deal with extortion and corruption, to enlist the support of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects, and to consolidate and strengthen the strategic hamlet program. But, he left no doubt that the new leadership was inexperienced and fragile. For this reason, he urged the conferees not to press too much on the government too soon, either in the way of military and economic programs, nor steps to democratize and constitutionalize the country. His second major point was the psychological and political, as well as economic, need for U.S. aid to the new government in at least the amount of our aid to Diem, and preferably more. He recognized the domestic political problems in the U.S. with Congress, but he argued that anything less would be a severe blow to the new rulers who were still getting their bearings. USOM Director Brent supported these latter views, but registered his concern about the naiveté of the new leaders in the face of an extremely grave economic situation. In response to a direct question from Rusk as to whether an increase in dollars would shorten the war, Lodge demurred somewhat and replied that what was required was greater motivation. McNamara immediately disagreed, saying that his understanding of the piaster deficit problem was that it was endangering all the programs, and that both AID and MAP were in need of increased funding. Concurring in this view, AID Administrator Bell agreed to review the entire AID program.
General Harkins' assessment of the military situation took note of the upsurge of Viet Cong activity in the week following the coup, but in general remained optimistic, although more guardedly than in the past. The sharp increase in VC attacks after the coup seemed to have been haphazard, and not part of a well coordinated country-wide response to the uncertain political situation. And in the week just ended, activity had returned to more normal levels. Moreover, he did not show concern about the seeming long term deterioration in the statistical indicators. While he was favorably impressed with the determination of the new leaders to prosecute the war and make needed changes, he was worried about the sweeping replacemnt of division and corps commanders and province chiefs. The discontinuities and disruptions created by wholesale replacement of province chiefs could have a serious negative effect on the whole counterinsurgency program. On the positive side, he noted the strengthened chain of command under General Don as both Defense Minister and Chief of Staff. McNamara pointedly questioned both Harkins and the other military briefers about conditions in the Delta and seemed skeptical of the official optimism, although he was equally disinclined to accept undocumented negative judgments.
The conference ended inconclusively with respect to the military problem. It did, however, underscore U.S. support for the new regime and focus U.S. official concern on the urgency and gravity of the economic problem confronting the new government. An uninformative press release after the conference took note of U.S. support for the new government in facing the difficult political and economic problems in South Vietnam, and pointedly reiterated the plan to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year with 300 to leave on December 3.
Lodge flew to Washington the following day and conferred with President Johnson. Based on that meeting and the report of the discussions at Honolulu, a National Security Action Memorandum was drafted to give guidance and direction to our efforts to improve the conduct of the war under the new South Vietnamese leadership. It described the purpose of the American involvement in Vietnam as, "to assist the people and Government of that country to win their contest against the externally directed and supported Communist conspiracy." It defined contribution to that purpose as the test of all U.S. actions in Vietnam. It reiterated the objectives of withdrawing 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of 1963 and ending the insurgency in I, II, and III Corps by the end of 1964, and in the Delta by the end of 1965. U.S. support for the new regime was confirmed and all U.S. efforts were directed to assist it to consolidate itself and expand its popular support. In view of the series of press stories during November about the disagreements between Harkins and Lodge, the President requested "full unity of support for established US policy" both in Saigon and in Washington. NSAM 273 directed the concentration of U.S. and Vietnamese military, political, economic and social efforts to improve the counterinsurgency campaign in the Mekong Delta. It further directed that economic and military aid to the new regime should be maintained at the same levels as during Diem's rule. And in conclusion, plans were requested for clandestine operations by the GVN against the North and also for operations up to 50 kilometers into Laos; and, as a justification for such measures, State was directed to develop a strong, documented case "to demonstrate to the world the degree to which the Viet Cong is controlled, sustained and supplied from Hanoi, through Laos and other channels."
As a policy document, NSAM 273 was to be extremely short lived. In the jargon
of the bureaucracy, it was simply overtaken by events. The gravity of the military
situation in South Vietnam was only hinted at in NSAM 273 and in the discussions
in Honolulu. Its full dimensions would rapidly come to light in the remaining
weeks of 1963 and force high level reappraisals by year's end. But probably
more important, the deterioration of the Vietnamese position in the countryside
and the rapid collapse of the strategic hamlet program were to confront the
fragile new political structure in South Vietnam with difficulties it could
not surmount and to set off rivalries that would fulfill all the dire predictions
of political instability made by men as diverse as John Mecklin and Fritz Nolting
before Diem's fall.
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
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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