For today’s episode, the narrative on the war in Vietnam continues, covering events in 1962 and 1963. We will see the Americans increase their commitment, because they are no closer to winning than they were before. Nevertheless, the Viet Cong will win the first big battle of the war, at Ap Bac. And then we will see the downfall of the South Vietnamese government, after President Ngo Dinh Diem makes one mistake too many.
This episode is dedicated to Savern P. and James K., for making donations to the podcast. It has been two months since any donations arrived on my end, so I am grateful to both of you for ending the dry spell. From an economic standpoint, a dry spell can never end soon enough. And Savern, I noticed you have a Laotian last name, so you will be pleased to know that the next episode after this one will be all about Laos. Now are we ready for today’s show? Great! Let’s cue the theme music!
Episode 73: The Second Indochina War, Part 3
or, The Fall of Ngo Dinh Diem
Greetings, dear listeners! Today I will begin with a bit of old business. In the middle of August 2019, right before the previous episode went up, the total number of downloads for the podcast passed the 250,000 mark. It took a year and a half, to go from 100,000 downloads to a quarter million, and a little more than three years to get here from nothing. I can’t thank you enough for letting me speak to you on this subject, twice a month if you are listening to the episodes right after I upload them, or at a different rate if you so choose. That’s the advantage podcasts have over radio and TV programs. You don’t have to listen to them at any particular time, and by downloading an episode, you can listen to it more than once. For example, I know some folks who use podcasts to pass the time at a boring job, or to entertain themselves on a long road trip. Heck, I’ve done that, too. For example, two years ago, I drove two hundred miles west to see the Great American Solar Eclipse, and traffic on the roads was so bad, it took me five hours to reach a place where the eclipse was total, and seven hours to come back, so I played four podcasts on the trip, one of them being Dan Carlin’s latest six-hour marathon. Anyway, thank you once again for your support, and let’s see if we can get the podcast to a million downloads, before the history narrative reaches the present.
I predicted some time back that a lot of new listeners would join us, when the Vietnam War became the topic, and sure enough, the number of downloads is up this month. If you are just joining us, we began the current topic, the Second Indochina War, or as Americans call it, the Vietnam War, with Episode 71, so I recommend you go listen to Episodes 71 and 72, in order to understand what’s going on now. And even at the beginning, I didn’t introduce all the characters and factions, so if you want the background material on Vietnam, here are the previous episodes:
Episode 4 for Vietnam in ancient times.
Episode 8 for Vietnam in medieval times.
Episode 19 for Vietnam in early modern times.
Episodes 25, 26, 34 and 35 for the period of French conquest and rule over Indochina.
Episode 58 for the World War II battles between the Japanese and the French in Indochina.
And for the First Indochina War, listen to Episodes 64 through 68.
Anyway, after the French left Vietnam, the Americans did not take over, but they replaced the French as the main faction opposing the spread of communism in Indochina. The Americans found a nationalist named Ngo Dinh Diem who wasn’t a communist, and in Episode 71 we saw his rise to the presidency of South Vietnam. But then his failings became visible in Episode 72, and the Diem administration went from good times to troubled times, and not just because a new round of fighting began, between the communists and their opponents. Part of the problem was that Diem ruled more like an emperor than a president, and he ignored advice from the Americans to run South Vietnam more like a Western democracy.
In one way this was a case of history repeating itself. Around 1900, Admiral Henri Rieunier, a senior French official in Vietnam, said this about the Vietnamese. Quote: "On our side, we have only Christians and crooks." Unquote. Sixty years later, the Americans involved with Vietnam could say exactly the same thing.
Also in the previous episode, we saw how the United States came to realize that just sending money to South Vietnam would not defeat the communist insurgency. By the beginning of the 1960s, the Americans were sending military equipment as well, especially helicopters, and US military personnel went as “advisors,” to show South Vietnamese troops how to operate them. Those of you familiar with military history will recognize this pattern. Back in the early years of World War II, in 1940 and early 1941, the United States sent military aid to Britain, but did not get involved in the fighting until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt talked about giving the British, quote, “all aid short of war,” unquote, and thus, both the Eisenhower and the Kennedy administrations said they were doing the same thing for South Vietnam. Of course they were confident they would win. After an almost uninterrupted string of successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Americans had come to believe they could do anything. Withdrawal was unthinkable, after what had been committed so far. And the communists in Vietnam were at best a third-rate military power. What could go wrong?
<helicopter sound effect>
On that note, let’s get into today’s narrative. Today we are covering Vietnam in 1962 and 1963. Two years doesn’t sound like much, after the thousands of years we have covered in this podcast, but with all that happens, it will be enough. Anyway, introducing helicopters gave the Viet Cong a setback, but it was only temporary. At first they were a shock, because with choppers, the South Vietnamese army, also called ARVN (for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam), could get at even the most remote Viet Cong hideaways. But the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese backers were adaptable, you have to give them credit for that. They dug trenches and tunnels to hide from helicopter raids, practiced assaults against mock-ups of helicopters on the ground, and as they captured mortars and machine guns from the enemy, they would try using them to shoot down helicopters. Also, paradoxically, at the same time the helicopters made the South Vietnamese government and armed forces more rigid. The South Vietnamese troops became less willing to confront the Viet Cong in ground battles, if American air strikes and artillery would do the job for them. And as long as President Ngo Dinh Diem thought he was winning the military struggle, he resisted making the political, economic and social reforms that both his people and the Americans wanted.
Diem’s rigid behavior prompted two South Vietnamese pilots, Second Lieutenant Nguyen Van Cu and First Lieutenant Pham Phú Quoc, to take matters into their own hands. On February 27, 1962, these pilots, flying World War II era fighter planes, bombed the presidential palace. Their goal was to kill the president and his family; if they didn’t succeed, they hoped their raid would spark an uprising to topple the South Vietnamese government. As it turned out, three staff members were killed and 30 were injured, but the only family member hurt was Diem’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, and her injuries were minor. One bomb fell into a room where Diem was reading but it failed to detonate; because he was unhurt, the president claimed afterwards that he had “divine protection.” And no uprising followed. As for the pilots, Cu escaped to Cambodia, thinking that the raid had succeeded, and gave a press conference from there. Meanwhile Quoc was arrested and imprisoned. After Diem’s death, Cu was able to return, Quoc was set free, and both were reinstated in the Air Force. Quoc ended up getting killed in an air raid over North Vietnam in 1965. Cu managed to survive through the entire war, only to be locked up in a communist re-education camp for ten years after the war’s end. In 1991 he immigrated to the United States, where he lives now, at the age of 85.
Unfortunately, American support for the defense of South Vietnam meant that Americans began straying into combat zones, and this was a violation of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which prohibited foreign troops in the former Indochina colonies for combat purposes. The response from American leaders was to cover up the activities of the servicemen, or to simply lie. For example, at a press conference on January 15, 1962, US President John F. Kennedy was asked if any Americans in Vietnam were engaged in the fighting. The president responded "No," without further comment. And when American pilots began to fly combat sorties out of Bien Hoa, an air base north of Saigon, the official story was that the flights were training exercises for South Vietnamese pilots. Kennedy also authorized the American pilots to use napalm, a nasty incendiary weapon, and defoliant chemicals, to remove the jungle cover that concealed the Viet Cong, and to destroy the crops that kept them fed. The most notorious of the defoliants, Agent Orange, would make news for years to come, because of its lingering effects on the people exposed to it. For activities on the ground, the Americans introduced M-113 armored personnel carriers, which could go virtually anywhere in the swampy terrain of the Mekong delta.
In February 1962 a new organization, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MAC-V, was established to oversee American military activities in Vietnam. Its first commander was General Paul Harkins, who had been a member of General George Patton’s staff in World War II. The general’s previous experience meant he knew how to win battles, and the appointment of a fighting general showed that the American mission was changing from giving military aid and training, to combat. At first the MAC-V assisted the group that had previously been in charge of the military aid and advisors, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, or MAAG Vietnam; you may remember I introduced that group in Episode 71. But eventually, in 1964, MAAG Vietnam was absorbed into the MAC-V. Meanwhile, the American commitment to Vietnam continued to grow. In late 1961 there were 685 American advisors in Vietnam; at the end of 1962 there were 11,300 US servicemen on the scene; by the end of 1963 there were 16,300. In addition, there were 122 American combat deaths in 1963, and South Vietnam received $500 million in US aid for that year.
In the 1950s, the British had crushed a communist insurgency in Malaya; we covered that in Episode 69 of the podcast. Now, because brute force wasn’t working to destroy the Viet Cong, American and South Vietnamese leaders looked at the Malayan example, and saw that the British won by putting Chinese peasants in fortified villages, thereby cutting off the communists from their supporters. Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, liked this idea, and in 1959 they tried relocating the peasants of the Mekong delta into fortified villages called “agrovilles,” but because the program was so badly handled, and because the peasants were overwhelmingly hostile to it, the program was abandoned after only a few agrovilles were built. Now in March 1962, they decided to try it again, this time calling it the Strategic Hamlet Program.
The Strategic Hamlet Program failed miserably, for two reasons. First, Vietnam is not like Malaya. The Malayan communists were all Chinese, so the British only had to win the hearts and minds of one ethnic group; the other ethnic groups, the Malays and Indians, stayed loyal during the “Malayan Emergency.” In addition, Malaya is a rice-poor land (Malaya is known for producing tin and rubber, not rice), and the communists starved when the rice was stored in the fortified villages, but in Vietnam, where rice is widely grown, the Viet Cong could get it elsewhere.
Second, and more important, the peasants had nothing to gain by moving into the new villages, which were now called “strategic hamlets.” Indeed, the government demanded more taxes and labor from the peasants, once they were in the hamlets. The peasants resented having to walk long distances from the hamlets to their fields, market places and ancestral burial grounds. The old village societies were disrupted, and in some cases the peasants were moved to places where they had to work inferior or unbroken ground. But what would you expect of a policy imposed from above, by men who had never spent a day on a farm? The money promised to the peasants when they moved often disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials, as well as money earmarked for seed, fertilizer, irrigation, medical care, education, and sometimes even weapons. The hamlets were thrown together in such a slapdash fashion that in more than fifty of them, Viet Cong agents remained inside; they became informers for their comrades, and soon took over by killing or intimidating the village leaders.
As a result, Diem ordered bombing raids against suspected Viet Cong-controlled hamlets. The air strikes by the South Vietnamese Air Force were supported by U.S. pilots, and the Americans also conducted some of the bombings. Of course civilian causalities eroded popular support for Diem and increased peasant hostility toward America, which they blamed for both the unpopular resettlement program and the bombings. The long-term result of the Strategic Hamlet Program was that it drove many neutral peasants into the arms of the Viet Cong.
By this time, the Viet Cong had perfected their recruiting techniques. In fact, the Viet Cong spent more time recruiting than they did fighting; that’s why their numbers grew so quickly. Typically they would send a team to a village, flatter the residents, and perform plays that were both entertaining and carried a political message. Often members of the teams came from the same province where they recruited, and that allowed them to fine-tune their propaganda, to mention things that the locals needed and wanted. And guerrilla units tended to split up, with their members living and working in the villages like ordinary peasants, until they got the signal to reunite for a military mission. In return the peasants gave them remarkably good intelligence about what the government was doing, allowing them to plan their own activities more successfully. In the previous episode I mentioned there were about 26,000 Viet Cong fighters in late 1961; by the end of 1963 there were around 100,000 of them.
Podcast footnote: The largest US bases in South Vietnam were either on the coast, where it was easy for the Navy to supply them, or near Saigon. US Special Forces broke out of that pattern in August 1962, when they established a camp and an airfield at Khe Sanh, a hilly area just seven miles from the Vietnamese-Laotian border, and ten miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. Previously the French had a fort in this area, and the Americans came here for two reasons: to give aid and protection to the local hill tribes, and to monitor communist movements on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the nearest part of Laos. I am mentioning this because Khe Sanh will become the site of a big battle in 1968. Although you will have to wait for a future episode for details on that battle, the stage was set for it now. End footnote.
Speaking of battles, up until the end of 1962, firefights had taken the form of raids and ambushes when the communists attacked, and skirmishes when the South Vietnamese forces did. However, 1963 began with the first battle that would characterize the war from now on, the battle of Ap Bac. Ap Bac was a village in the middle of the Mekong delta, about forty miles southwest of Saigon, and the South Vietnamese learned that the Viet Cong had about 120 guerrillas concentrated in the area, with a radio transmitter. On the first day of 1963, 1,200 South Vietnamese troops approached Ap Bac from three directions, with ten American helicopters and thirteen armored personnel carriers backing them up. Because the Viet Cong were hopelessly outnumbered, it was expected that there would be a clash between the Viet Cong and ARVN, the Viet Cong would flee in the one direction left open to them, and they would be massacred by artillery and aircraft gunfire. But the information ARVN and the Americans received was faulty; there were really three companies of Viet Cong in the area, or 350 guerrillas. Moreover, the Viet Cong heard their enemies were coming for them, and decided to dig in. They got this information from Phan Xuan An, a reporter for Time Magazine who was secretly working as a Viet Cong spy. After the battle, Phan Xuan An would receive a North Vietnamese medal for his role in it.
The battle began with ARVN attacking at 7 AM on January 2, 1963. Americans had been looking for an opportunity to whip the Viet Cong when they stood their ground, and now they had their chance. The Viet Cong held their fire until the helicopters landed, to release the South Vietnamese troops they carried. Because the helicopters became a vulnerable target on the ground, the result was devastating; two helicopters were destroyed at once, and three more were shot down later in the morning, when they came back to rescue the crews of the first two. Meanwhile, the close-quarter fighting between the South Vietnamese and Viet Cong largely canceled out the advantage in firepower the South Vietnamese and Americans had; if they used the big guns here, they ran the risk of killing soldiers on their side. The highest ranking American on the scene, Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann, flew overhead in an observation plane, but he could not tell how many enemies they were fighting, and when he ordered the commanders of the other South Vietnamese units to go in and rescue the unit under fire, they refused to move. Late in the day the armored personnel carriers arrived, but their commander refused to take orders from Americans, and when they charged the Viet Cong positions, the gunners riding on top of the vehicles became a target for snipers. By concentrating all the weapons they had against the APCs, the Viet Cong managed to put three of them out of action.
At the end of the day the Viet Cong withdrew from the battlefield; they knew that they wouldn’t be able to hold this ground if the Americans brought in reinforcements. That’s one advantage of the guerrilla fighter – he doesn’t have to defend a fixed position. Because the Viet Cong were gone from Ap Bac, American and South Vietnamese leaders called the battle a great victory. So did most of the American media. However, the body counts told a different story. The Viet Cong suffered 18 killed, 39 wounded, while 83 ARVN troops were killed and more than a hundred wounded; three Americans were killed as well. That shouldn’t have happened when the odds were all against the Viet Cong! Even more important was the battle’s effect on communist morale, they had stood their ground against a larger, better armed opponent, and never before had they taken out five helicopters in one encounter. The battle of Ap Bac has been called "the turning point of the early stages of the war" because it also showed that ARVN was weak; the South Vietnamese troops were more concerned about saving themselves than in fighting to win. Afterwards, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were a lot less afraid of the Americans, communist propaganda often talked about what happened at Ap Bac. In the United States, the American people now realized they had another war on their hands. One reporter, 27-year-old Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, called Ap Bac a defeat; later on, the North Vietnamese would proclaim him a hero for that.
In his presidential palace, Ngo Dinh Diem tried to minimize the threat. He did not want to offend his American patrons by letting them know the problem was greater than they thought it was. Likewise, his subordinates swept the bad news under the rug because they were afraid of reporting it openly. Most of the provincial governors and army officers were promoted not for their abilities and experience, but for their loyalty to Diem; that meant they were not very competent, and it goes a long way towards explaining why ARVN performed so badly at the battle of Ap Bac. The officers had orders from Diem to avoid casualties as much as possible. Their primary mission was to protect Diem from any coup d’etat in Saigon.
Foreign reporters told each other that if Diem granted them an interview, they had better go to the bathroom first, because he would keep them in his office for five or six hours, while leaving other visitors and the country’s problems waiting outside. During those interviews he gave marathon monologues on "personalism," the confusing authoritarian ideology developed by his brother Nhu. Communist propaganda portrayed Diem as an American puppet, and routinely linked Diem’s name to that of America with a hyphen. Yet there was no way South Vietnam could rid itself of the Americans without losing the vital support that was needed more with each passing day.
American officials also cast a positive spin on the US war effort. In May 1962 the US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, visited Vietnam and reported, quote, “We are winning the war.” Unquote. He thought it would be possible to begin a gradual withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, which would be completed in 1965. And most of the war’s coverage in the American press was upbeat and favored the armed forces, the way it had been in previous wars. But the biggest voice of optimism was that of General Paul Harkins, who did everything he could to keep morale high, saying in all his reports that the situation is quote, “well in hand.” Unquote. This was especially the case when American officers in the field gave much more pessimistic views, and after the battle of Ap Bac, when it became clear that things were not going well for South Vietnamese troops, Harkins continued to look on the bright side. Two reporters for Time Magazine, who regularly heard the press conferences that Harkins gave, composed a song making fun of this, sung to the tune of an old Christian hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Let’s see, am I in voice?
“We are winning, this I know,
General Harkins tells me so.
In the mountains, things are rough.
In the delta, mighty tough.
But the V. C. will soon go,
General Harkins tells me so.”
Alright Simon, I am not the singer in the family! Anyway, those Americans who realized that Ap Bac wasn’t a victory remained optimistic. To use the “light at the end of the tunnel” symbolism we have mentioned in the past, they now believed the situation in Vietnam would get darker before it got brighter. This included President Kennedy, who now felt that the withdrawal of Americans from Vietnam would have to wait until after his re-election in 1964; he would send over more quote-unquote “advisors” first. Late in 1962, he sent a colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, to survey the situation in Vietnam. I mentioned Mansfield in Episode 71, as one of the first Americans who supported Ngo Dinh Diem, because he was a Catholic like Diem, but he could also change his mind. When he came back, he was brutally frank. The United States had spent $2 billion over the past seven years to support the Diem regime, but, quote, “substantially the same difficulties remain if, indeed, they have not been compounded.” End quote. Part of the problem was caused by the ongoing war with the Viet Cong, of course, but the blame could also be placed on a shortsighted US policy and Diem’s unwillingness to share power with folks outside of his family. He warned that the United States must take a second look at what it is doing in Vietnam, before it gets more involved than it already is. Quote: “It is their country, their future that is at stake, not ours. To ignore that reality will not only be immensely costly in terms of American lives and resources, but it may also draw us inexorably into some variation of the unenviable position in Vietnam that was formerly occupied by the French . . . The great increase in American military commitment this year has tended to point us in that general direction.” End quote.
Whoa! Those of you familiar with the Vietnam War can see that Mansfield is predicting what will come in the future. Soon afterwards, Mansfield attended a party on the president’s yacht, and Kennedy scolded him for writing such a critical report. Mansfield replied, quote, “You asked me to go out there,” unquote, and Kennedy said, quote, “Well, I’ll read it again.” Unquote. The president did so, and then confided this to an assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell. Quote: “I got angry with Mike for disagreeing with our policy so completely, and I got angry with myself because I found myself agreeing with him.” Unquote.
The end of the Diem regime came not because of the fighting with the Viet Cong, but because Diem picked a fight with South Vietnam’s Buddhist majority, and the military sided with the Buddhists. Previously I talked about Diem making some big mistakes, so you can call this his last mistake. On May 8, 1963, Buddhists assembled in Hue to celebrate the 2,527th birthday of the Buddha, and a local Catholic official prohibited them from flying their multicolored flag. Only a week earlier, the same official had encouraged Catholics to wave blue and white papal flags, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of Ngo Dinh Thuc, Diem’s brother and the Archbishop of Hue. The Buddhists protested against this discrimination, and in the demonstration that followed, government troops opened fire, killing a woman and eight children.
Diem tried to blame the trouble on the communists (of course), and the Buddhists organized an opposition party. Although the Buddhists had no formal ties with the communists, they organized their party the same way. They established a network of three-member cells, put their headquarters in temples, and they quickly learned how to write, copy and distribute their messages, and to translate them into other languages so that foreign reporters knew what they had to say. When it came to organizing rallies and hunger strikes, they did so with great efficiency. The party leader was Tri Quang, a monk in his early forties, and he called on help from the Americans with this statement to US officials. Quote: “The United States must either make Diem reform or get rid of him. If not, the situation will degenerate, and you worthy gentlemen will suffer most. You are responsible for the present trouble because you back Diem and his government of ignoramuses.” Unquote. The US ambassador, Frederick Nolting, urged Diem to treat the Buddhists fairly, but Diem still insisted that the Viet Cong had caused the Hue incident, while Madame Nhu declared that the Buddhists were being manipulated by the Americans. Later, when another American diplomat, William Trueheart, warned that the Diem government could lose US support if its repression of the Buddhists continued, Madame Nhu screamed, quote, “Blackmail!”, unquote, while Diem created a powerless committee to investigate the Buddhist complaints.
One month after the trouble started, the Buddhists burst a bombshell. On June 11, at a busy intersection in Saigon, not far from the Cambodian embassy, a 66-year-old monk, Thich Quang Duc, surrounded by a group of monks and nuns, sat down in the street. Another monk poured gasoline on him, and Quang Duc struck a match, setting himself on fire. During the next ten minutes he burned himself to death, his hands fixed in an attitude of prayer. The other monks prostrated themselves at this extreme example of protest, and so did some of the bystanders and police. A shocking photo of the burning appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world the next day. Buddhists immediately declared Quang Duc a saint, or to use Buddhist terminology, a bodhisattva. The only part of him which did not burn was his heart, so that became a holy relic. The car which brought Quang Duc to the site of the burning became a holy relic, too; today you can see the car at a pagoda in Hue.
While world opinion turned against the Diem regime, Madame Nhu told some sick jokes about the burning, calling it a “barbecue.” Here is a sound file I found of her saying that. I apologize in advance for the sound quality, hopefully you can understand it.
Podcast footnote: It’s no surprise that the monk’s suicide attracted so much attention, and over the summer of 1963 more monks burned themselves to death. However, some people today have the wrong idea about this form of protest. I remember in particular one individual I met in an online forum who thought the monks were protesting US involvement in Vietnam, and that the burnings went on until the war ended. Obviously that person was too young to remember the war, or he would have known better. Let me straighten out these misconceptions now. First, the monks should not be compared with other individuals famous for committing suicide, like the kamikaze pilots of Japan, or the terrorists of today. Unlike those other groups, the monks did not try to take anyone with them. By the way, the kamikaze pilots had their time in this podcast last year, especially in Episode 50. Second, the monks were never protesting the Americans; their opposition was always directed at the Diem government. Once Diem was overthrown, the burnings stopped. End footnote.
As more monks went up in flames, Washington decided that Diem was a political liability that had to be replaced if South Vietnam was not going to be lost to communism. In early July, a South Vietnamese general, Tran Van Don, tipped off a CIA agent, Lucien Conein, that army officers were plotting against Diem. Because Diem was no longer on speaking terms with Ambassador Nolting, President Kennedy sent a new ambassador in August, Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge looked like a great choice, because of his past experience; like Kennedy, he was both a former senator from Massachusetts and a World War II veteran. Furthermore, he had been the US ambassador to the United Nations under the Eisenhower administration, and had unsuccessfully run for vice president in 1960. Finally, because Lodge had once been a political opponent of Kennedy, Kennedy thought that having Lodge on his team would encourage Republicans to support his Vietnam policy wholeheartedly. But Nolting left Saigon a day before Lodge arrived, and Diem used that gap between ambassadors to impose martial law on all of South Vietnam. Members of the special forces, originally trained by the US and now controlled by Diem’s brother Nhu, waged violent crackdowns against Buddhist sanctuaries in Saigon and Hue, and this sparked more anti-Diem demonstrations.
Because Nhu was using and abusing power the most, Washington figured the situation would start to improve if Diem took his privileges away. On August 26, four days after his arrival, Lodge had his first meeting with Diem, and neither would give an inch to the other. Here is how Lodge described the meeting. Quote: “I could see a cloud pass across his face when I suggested that he get rid of Nhu and improve his government. He absolutely refused to discuss any of the topics that President Kennedy had instructed me to raise, and that frankly jolted me. He looked up at the ceiling and talked about irrelevant subjects. I thought it was deplorable.” Unquote.
After this, President Kennedy and his top aides began discussing what to do about Diem; they no longer believed the war could be won with the current South Vietnamese government in charge. Although the US would not get involved in any coup, Lodge was instructed to maintain contacts with the officers who were plotting one. But the Americans probably could not have directed a coup from the other side of the world anyway. Lodge said as much when he admitted that getting the conspirators to move was like, quote, “pushing a piece of spaghetti.” Unquote. On September 2, Kennedy was interviewed by Walter Cronkite, America’s most respected news anchor, and he suggested that South Vietnam would be better off under different leadership, when he described Diem as "out of touch with the people" and added that South Vietnam’s government might regain popular support, quote, "with changes in policy and perhaps in personnel." Unquote. But he still did not feel that the American commitment to Vietnam was a mistake. In the same interview he said, quote, “If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, would go…” Unquote.
The anti-Diem generals waited to act because they wanted reassurances that the United States would not stop sending aid to South Vietnam, should the coup succeed. They got those reassurances in October, when Ambassador Lodge and Lucien Conein, the previously mentioned CIA agent, both hinted to the generals that Washington wanted the coup to happen. Chief among the generals was Duong Van Minh, or “Big Minh”; we met him in Episode 71, when he was putting down non-communist rebels in the Mekong Delta. Meanwhile in Washington, the White House grew increasingly nervous about the possible public relations fallout, if the coup failed.
On November 1, 1963, Ambassador Lodge and the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry D. Felt, met with Diem from 10 AM to noon. It was a routine meeting, dominated by one of Diem’s monologues. At one point he mentioned that he had heard rumors of a coup, but he seemed confident that the forces led by his brother Nhu would defeat it. When the Americans left, Diem said that they should meet again soon, to resolve their differences. Then at 1:30 in the afternoon, normally a siesta time in Vietnam, the coup plotters struck. Mutinous troops roared into Saigon, surrounded the presidential palace, and seized police headquarters. Trapped inside the palace, Diem and Nhu refused to surrender, and tried unsuccessfully to talk the rebel generals out of the coup. Diem called Lodge on the telephone next, and asked, quote, "…what is the attitude of the United States?" Unquote. Lodge answered, quote, "…it is four thirty AM in Washington, and the US government cannot possibly have a view." Unquote. Lodge finished the call by expressing concern for Diem’s safety, and Diem replied, quote, "I am trying to restore order." Unquote.
By the end of the day, Diem and Nhu realized that no army units in Saigon were loyal to them. At 8 PM, they sneaked out of the palace unnoticed and went to a safe house on the outskirts of Saigon that belonged to a wealthy Chinese merchant. Not knowing that their quarry had escaped, the army attacked the presidential palace at 9. The only people left in the palace were the presidential guards, and in the battle that followed, the guards died, thinking that Diem was still there.
At 3 AM on November 2, one of Diem’s aides betrayed his hiding place to the generals, and they moved again, this time to a Catholic church. From here Diem telephoned the generals at 6 AM, and offered to surrender in return for safe conduct out of the country. The generals agreed, Diem and Nhu gave themselves up, and they were placed in the back of an M-113 armored personnel carrier, which they were told had been sent to protect them from “extremists.” On the way, the car stopped at a railroad crossing, and one of the soldiers in the car shot Diem and Nhu, so both of them were dead on arrival when the armored car reached staff headquarters.
In the White House, President Kennedy was meeting with General Maxwell Taylor and other aides when news of Diem’s death arrived. According to witnesses, the president’s face turned pale and he immediately left the room. Later, he wrote in his private diary, quote, "I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it." Unquote.
What happened to the rest of Diem’s family? One of his brothers, Ngo Dinh Can, had been a rival of Nhu, and virtual dictator over the northern half of South Vietnam, from the coastal town of Phan Thiet to the 17th Parallel. At the time of the coup, he was living with his ailing mother in Hue. On November 4 he flew to Saigon, with intentions of going abroad, to either the United States or Japan, but in Tan Son Nhut Airport he was arrested, and charged with various crimes and atrocities. His mother died during the trial, which ended with him being convicted, and Can was executed by a firing squad in May 1964.
Ngo Dinh Thuc, the brother who was Archbishop of Hue, was attending the Second Vatican Council in Rome when the coup took place. Naturally he spent the rest of his life in exile, in Italy, France and the United States. He died in Missouri in 1984, and is buried in Springfield, MO, a long way from home for sure.
Madame Nhu was finishing up a goodwill tour of the United States, in Beverly Hills, California, when her husband was assassinated. Instead of going home, she and her four children moved to Rome, where they could at least be near her brother-in-law Thuc. She stayed in a 15-room villa, “living in seclusion and silence,” as The Washington Post put it, only granted interviews for a hefty price, and died there in 2011. One of the last outsiders she met was an author named Monique Brinson Demery, who tracked her down in Rome and began a correspondence that she would publish in 2013 as a book entitled, “Finding the Dragon Lady.” When Demery appeared on “The Daily Show” to promote the book, she told Jon Stewart that it took a very long time to convince Nhu that she wasn’t a secret government agent.
The youngest brother, Ngo Dinh Luyen, had been appointed ambassador to Britain by Diem, and thus was in London at the time of the coup. He lived until 1990, and was the only brother of Diem, besides Thuc, who finished his life peacefully.
Back in Saigon, General Minh became the new head of state, and told everyone, unconvincingly, that Diem committed suicide. The people of Saigon celebrated by tearing down Diem’s portraits and slogans. Political prisoners, many bearing the scars of torture, were released from the jails, and the city’s nightclubs, which had been closed by the puritan president, now reopened. In the countryside, the peasants, with Viet Cong help, destroyed the strategic hamlets. Everyone was in a good mood for the next few days, prompting Lodge to send a telegram to Kennedy that said, quote, “The prospects now are for a shorter war.” Unquote.
Alas, Lodge was being optimistic. North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were not going to lay down their arms, simply because Diem was gone. And on November 22, twenty days after Diem’s assassination, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. You probably know that the Kennedy assassination case has never been settled to everyone’s satisfaction. A bunch of conspiracy theories have been floated about who killed JFK, and for what it’s worth, one of the theories suggested that Madame Nhu was the mastermind behind it, in retaliation for the deaths of her husband and brother-in-law. She did send a condolence letter to Jacqueline Kennedy that included this cruel line. Quote: “I sympathize the more for I understand that that ordeal might seem to you even more unbearable because of your habitually well-sheltered life.” End quote.
Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in to take Kennedy’s place, and two days later, Johnson declared he will not "lose Vietnam," while meeting with Ambassador Lodge in Washington. Thus, Johnson will oversee a massive escalation of the war effort, while relying on many of the same policy advisors who had served Kennedy. With new governments running both the United States and South Vietnam, a new phase in the Vietnam War was about to begin.
Well, that’s a good place to end the narrative for today! However, next time I won’t go straight into what was happening in Vietnam in 1964. To the west, a civil war erupted in Laos in 1959, between the royalists, the communist Pathet Lao, and a right-wing faction. The first phase of that conflict finished before the end of 1963, so we need to catch up. Therefore, as I mentioned at the beginning of this show, the next episode or two will cover the Second Indochina War’s Laotian phase, and then we will resume the narrative on Vietnam after that. Will you join me next time? Of course you will!
You’re probably thinking, “How can I support the podcast, to make sure the future episodes that Charles promised will become a reality?” I’m glad you asked! First, you can tell anyone you know who listens to podcasts. I meet folks like that almost every time I leave home, and you probably have friends and relatives who listen to podcasts, too. Tell them about this one. Whether they are interested in Asian history, American history or military history, there is something in the current episodes for them. A long time ago, I commented on this show that the typical American bookstore divides its history books between three shelves: one for American history, one for military history, and one for everything else. In that sense, this podcast has all three bases covered!
And that’s not all you can do. You can also write a review, and leave some stars, on the website or app where you download your favorite episodes. It’s reviews that make the Internet go round, and today’s businesses depend on them, too. And if you are on Facebook, “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page. That way you will know when a new episode is available, and you will see the content I post the rest of the time. All of it ties in with Southeast Asia, but not all of it is history-related. Last week, for example, we had a fun discussion about the durian, Southeast Asia’s most notorious fruit!
Last, but not least, you can keep the lights on by making a donation! The website that hosts the sound files, Blubrry.com, isn’t free, and all the time and effort I spend on research and recording is worth something as well. In addition, those who donate will have their first names honorably mentioned at the beginning of the next episode. Donations are secure and done through Paypal. Go to the Blubrry.com page for any episode of this podcast, and click on the gold button at the bottom of the page, the one that says “Donate.” Donations start at one US dollar. I have heard from two of you that Paypal does not accept Singapore dollars, so hopefully I can get an alternative to Paypal up for you soon. Okay, I have said enough for today. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!