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  • James Houser

November 2, 1963 - Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

November 2, 1963. After a day full of chaos in the streets of Saigon, the South Vietnamese military has overthrown President Ngo Dinh Diem. Along with his brother, the overthrown leader is brutally executed on the side of the street in broad daylight. Diem’s supporters in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, who gave the greenlight for the coup, are about to sink deeper into the quagmire that is Vietnam.

The French had fought and failed to maintain their colonial rule over Indochina since the end of World War II. With their great defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1953, their hold on Southeast Asia was irretrievably broken and there was no option but to withdraw their forces. The result was the Geneva Peace Conference of 1954, held in the small Swiss town, where every interested nation gathered to hash out a lasting settlement that could secure a final peace for Indochina.

The French wanted nothing more than to wash their hands of the whole mess. They were done, done, done with Indochina, and especially with their nemesis the Viet Minh. This guerrilla organization had been the driving force in expelling the French, and sought to consolidate their independence at Geneva. Their leader was Ho Chi Minh, a worldly Marxist who had modelled his own country’s independence movement after that of George Washington. Ho had full control over most of northern Vietnam, but the southern portion was still largely held by the French. Diplomats from all over the world – China, the Soviet Union, and the United States – joined the main belligerents at Geneva to settle the matter. At this point, though, it was the United States that was pushing for continued Western engagement in Vietnam.

Why was America, with no real interests in Southeast Asia whatsoever, the main proponent for keeping the Indochina struggle alive after the French were ready to call it quits? Vietnam in and of itself meant nothing to America or the Soviet Union. But Vietnam represented far more in the slow-moving chess game of the Cold War. The United States was still a nation in the throes of the Second Red Scare, where Joseph McCarthy sprayed his invective across the whole Federal government. Hordes of diplomats and military officers had been impugned or accused when China had fallen to the Communists in 1949, and the United States felt obliged to rush to war in Korea in 1950 for much the same reason. To be soft on Communism was to give in, to surrender, to show weakness, and this was unacceptable to the United States.

The so-called “domino theory” that was so popular in the American State Department implied that one country falling to Communism would inevitably cause other countries to fall as well. The only hope for the world was stopping that first domino, or at least the next one. The United States genuinely believed that if Vietnam was unified under the rule of Ho Chi Minh, it would cause other neighboring states to crumble as well. Who would be next – Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Japan? No, it had to be stopped in Vietnam.

The key problem for the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh was that the French, while looking for a way out, were far from defeated – they still held all the major cities and had almost 500,000 troops in Vietnam. The Chinese were increasingly concerned that, like in Korea, the United States would intervene if the war continued. If there was one thing the Chinese did not want, it was an American-occupied Vietnam on their southern border. So the Chinese representatives pushed Ho Chi Minh to accept a peace deal that split Vietnamese occupation at the 17th Parallel. The north would be held by Ho and his Viet Minh, while the south would be held by a “Vietnamese State” led by former Emperor Bao Dai and backed by the French and Americans. The agreement also stipulated that by 1956, a nationwide election would be held and Vietnam would transition to its new democratic government.

Of course, we know that didn’t work out. In October 1954, the Viet Minh marched into Hanoi, even as a million and a half Vietnamese – mostly Catholics, or locals who had aligned with the French – flocked south into the new administration. This massive exchange of populations was assisted by the U.S. 7th Fleet, which transported hordes of Vietnamese refugees south to Saigon. The Viet Minh also withdrew their troops from the South…well, most of their troops. Some units were left as “stay-behinds,” agents assigned to blend into the population and prepare for the resumption of the war if or when it would be necessary. Ho Chi Minh knew that the struggle was not over yet.

By the end of 1954, there was a North Vietnam and a South Vietnam in all but name. The hope of a unified Vietnamese state had vanished for the next twenty years. The Vietnamese Communists – now the ruling party of North Vietnam – bore a lasting grudge against the Chinese, believing that the larger nation had sold them down the river at Geneva. From now on, the North Vietnamese would tilt farther and farther towards the Soviet Union, which alienated Mao’s government and helped widen the already prominent breach in the Communist Bloc. This mutual mistrust would eventually lead to a war between Communist China and Communist Vietnam in 1979.

In the meantime, the South Vietnamese government was coming into being. Neither the United States nor the developing South Vietnamese regime had signed anything at Geneva, and were not bound to its settlements. American diplomats and CIA operatives used this opportunity to construct a new, Western-aligned government for South Vietnam. Technically led by Emperor Bao Dai, part of the old Vietnamese royal family from the pre-colonial era, South Vietnam was led in fact by his Prime Minister, our chief protagonist/antagonist of today’s post: Ngo Dinh Diem.

Ngo Dinh Diem was America’s Chosen One. He was born to a Catholic Vietnamese family in 1901 and had been a courtier to Bao Dai under French rule before he came out in open support of Vietnamese nationalism in 1933. He was both anti-colonialist and anti-Communist, supporting a “Third Way” that revolved around Vietnamese independence and an orderly capitalist government. He had been in exile for several years, mainly in America, where he garnered the respect and admiration of many American intellectuals and liberals. To them, Diem was a splendid figure with immense character and potential – and he was a Christian to boot. Who better for an American ally in Southeast Asia? Diem was the toast of the Ivy League elite, the icon of America’s best and brightest, the Great Hope of Asia.

That, at least, was how the Americans saw Diem. To the Vietnamese, in large part, he represented something else. Diem was a pro-American figure, a Western supplicant who had sucked up to the French and to the Americans. Unlike Ho Chi Minh, he had failed to resist the Japanese during World War II or the French afterwards. His social circle consisted of Vietnamese Catholics and only Vietnamese Catholics, excluding the majority Buddhist population from the centers of power. Diem’s regime would ultimately fail to win the support of its population, largely due to its own catastrophic failings. Diem simply did not represent the Vietnamese people.

The United States, though, was enamored with Diem and convinced of his virtue. The troubling issue was the alleged election that was supposed to take place in a few months. American intelligence was convinced that Ho Chi Minh would win any such election by almost 80%, which just would not do. This was probably not likely; it was entirely possible that a large chunk would have voted for Diem. During his early period in South Vietnam from 1954 to 1956, Diem actually performed very well as Bao Dai’s Prime Minister. But the Americans were not willing to take that chance – and to be fair, neither were the North Vietnamese, who would be just as certain to rig any election. The scheduled elections for a unified Vietnam never happened, and both sides began to consolidate their power and prepare for a struggle. Vietnam was divided now, and the United States was in far deeper than they knew.

The problems with America investing in Diem were manifold. First, it sunk the United States even deeper into the quagmire that was Vietnam, causing an increasing blindness to the risks and perils they were taking. Second, Diem’s aggressive Catholicism, failure to participate in the nationalist movements of liberation, and his open subservience to the Western Powers made him unpalatable to most Vietnamese. Finally, Diem’s increasingly inept and corrupt rule would tie the United States to his failure – unless something could be done to remove him.

There was no real attempt in America, even when the Presidency changed hands from Eisenhower to Kennedy, to question Diem’s prominence, to reassess the domino theory, or to take a step back and ask if what the United States was doing in Southeast Asia was wise. Each time the American intelligence experts reassessed the domino theory they expressed concern about its reliability, but the policies never changed. It was almost like questioning the theory would reveal how broken it was, and everyone knew it. America drifted towards Vietnam slowly, surely, by inertia more than overt action.

In 1955, Diem had a referendum in South Vietnam to remove the Emperor Bao Dai and establish a republic with himself as President. The election was so thoroughly rigged that it was blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes to see; 98.9% of the population voted for Diem according to the official results, a number that was almost insulting in its unbelievability. Diem’s American advisors had urged him to use numbers that were at least plausible, but Diem viewed the election as a show of strength rather than a bid for legitimacy. Yeah, when you have 133% voter turnout in Saigon, that looks pretty freaking strong. Even the dead are voting for you, Vietnam must love you.

Diem subsequently declared South Vietnam as an independent Republic of Vietnam (ROV), with its capital in Saigon. Don’t feel too bad for Ho Chi Minh and his Communists, though. They aren’t the good guys in this story. No one are the good guys in this story, except the poor Vietnamese people that had to be subjected to all this horsecrap. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Party *obviously* won 99% of the votes in every election in North Vietnam, and they had already started a horrific program of land redistribution and “wealth reform,” which sounds nice until the inevitable executions of maybe around 50,000 landlords and “suspect persons” came into play. The leaders in Hanoi benignly admitted to “excesses” in their original plans of redistribution. Ah yes, excesses.

But now Diem was in charge of South Vietnam. He was not only America’s Chosen One, but South Vietnam’s new President, with little chance of replacement in any *cough* “election.” Diem’s devout Catholicism, rigid anti-communism, and deep conservatism endeared him to Americans as they undermined him with the Vietnamese. He represented an autocratic rule on an increasingly narrow base of support – the Vietnamese Catholic minority and that was about it.

Diem dedicated his country to the Virgin Mary and increased radical pro-Catholic policies, staffing his government almost solely with that minority group. He appointed his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu as commander of the South Vietnamese Special Forces – aka the Ngo family’s secret police - and exercised immense nepotism on behalf of his immediate family, creating a state of unparalleled corruption. He also undertook purges of suspected communists and other opposition groups, with about 12,000 political killings and 40,000 imprisonments. During this time, he paid a visit to the United States and was greeted warmly by President Eisenhower and presented with a parade in New York City.

But trouble was brewing for Ngo Dinh Diem. From 1954 to 1957, Diem had had his way in South Vietnam, suppressing almost all resistance throughout the country. But that began to change in the following years. With the election promised at Geneva receding into dreamland, and perceiving American distractions elsewhere, the Communist government in North Vietnam decided to resume the war to unify and liberate Vietnam under their banner. Starting from 1959, the Communist government began to slip guerrilla forces and leaders over the 17th Parallel to rendezvous with their stay-behinds from the truce, and in 1960 the Viet Cong was formally established as a unified guerrilla movement opposed to Diem’s rule.

Diem’s own actions helped encourage the rise of the Viet Cong. The Viet Minh, during their brief occupation of many rural areas during the war against the French, had seized the land from the French-aligned landlords and redistributed it to the peasantry. Diem undid most of these reforms during his years in power, and suddenly people who had been free for years now found themselves back under control of the autocratic landlords. The South Vietnamese Army would patrol the fields and force rent collection. To the average peasant, it was no different than if the French themselves had come back. As the Viet Cong insurgency grew, though, America was undergoing a change of leadership.

President John F. Kennedy had emerged as the surprising winner of the 1960 election, and even though Eisenhower warned him about Southeast Asia based on his last few years in office, Kennedy’s focus was mainly on Europe (particularly Berlin) and Latin America. These are the familiar beats of the Kennedy Presidency: the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna summit with Khrushchev, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Far less prominent is the role that Kennedy played in lengthening and deepening the American involvement in Vietnam.

Kennedy’s foreign policy team was composed of “The Best and the Brightest,” to quote the excellent David Halberstam book about the mistakes that led us into Vietnam. These were the Eastern intellectuals that had been in love with Diem from the outset, men like McGeorge Bundy at CIA and Averell Harriman at State. Ardent Cold Warriors all, their morale was shaken by the Kennedy administration’s early foreign policy failures at Cuba and in Vienna, and they wanted to gain some measure of control to stop the bleeding and prevent Communist takeovers elsewhere. Vietnam, with its divided state and Communist insurgency, looked like the place. Domestic concerns drove foreign policy. Kennedy and his “whiz kids” had to look bold and strong in the face of international communism, and chose Vietnam as the place to make that stand.

That wasn’t a good decision, because Diem’s regime was clearly crumbling from the inside. The corruption, ineptitude, and nepotism of the Diem government was hamstringing its war against the Communists. Only weeks after Kennedy’s triumph in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) lost a critical battle at Ap Bac in January 1963. This battle was a significant failure for Diem’s regime, since a larger and far better-equipped force had lost to a small number of Viet Cong rebels, and the general in charge was a Diem crony who had been promoted due to his Catholic religion and personal loyalty rather than to military ability. Ap Bac showed that the Diem regime was not just a rotten apple, but was losing the war – indeed, the Communists considered Diem and his family their best asset. American Special Forces had been in Vietnam since 1961, and their numbers had been growing ever since, a deepening American commitment that seemed more and more wasted as Diem’s problems mounted.

In May 1963, Diem and his government made a series of moves that embarrassed the United States even further. The Buddhists of South Vietnam had come under increasing pressure from the Saigon government, and Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Thuc – the Archbishop of Hue – had aggressively enforced Catholic supremacy on the population. Catholic militias roamed the country destroying Buddhist pagodas, and Diem refused to rein them in. Robert Kennedy complained of Diem’s inability to “make the slightest concessions.” The Buddhists resisted peacefully but publicly. In one of the most famous public protests in human history, the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself alive in the middle of a Saigon intersection. The Pulitzer-winning photographs of this incident, captured by Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, shocked the world and brought to light the cruelty and corruption of Diem’s South Vietnam government.

You know the picture. It’s literally the first Google search result for “burning monk.”

By mid-1963, the Kennedy administration was considering the unthinkable and hashing out ways to cut Diem loose. This had been considered as far back as the late 1950s, when Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had said that Diem was only chosen because there was no other alternative. As Diem’s incompetence in the war against the Communists grew more obvious and his religious persecutions drew worldwide ire, Diem became less of a tool and more of a liability.

There were voices in support of Diem. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson famously growled “Shit, man, he’s the only boy we got out there.” The Defense Department by and large defended Diem, but the State Department wanted him gone. But after Diem’s brother Nhu sent his Special Forces to raid and sack Buddhist pagodas across Vietnam, resulting in hundreds of deaths, the decision was made. Diem had to go.

The CIA got in touch with Vietnamese generals planning to overthrow Diem, and the State Department communicated with the Saigon embassy in the infamous Cable 243. The Vietnamese generals had approached the United States once already to ask if the Americans would still support South Vietnam after a coup, only to be turned away. This time, it was the CIA and the Saigon embassy that reached out, stating that they would not oppose the removal of Diem any longer, and promised to continue aid no matter who was in charge of South Vietnam.

On November 1, 1963, the South Vietnamese coup began. The Kennedy Administration was clued in from the very beginning, and the U.S. Ambassador was under instructions not to stop it. General Duong Van Minh and his cadre of supporters quickly seized control of Saigon and all the major military command posts, capturing many loyalist leaders quickly by force of surprise. There’s not a lot of fighting in this coup; as military coups in post-1945 countries go, the losses were surprisingly low. Only a few people died overall, and the generals were quickly in command of the city.

Diem and his family, though, were looking for any option. U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had already assured Diem that he was safe, though Lodge knew of the imminent coup. Diem contacted Lodge after the coup had begun and pleaded with him for support and help. Lodge could only offer promises of Diem’s personal safety, even as the dictator tried in vain to reestablish order. The United States, who had created Diem and made him the power in South Vietnam, now abandoned him to his fate. He who can create can destroy.

In the early morning of November 2, 1963, Diem and his government agreed to surrender. The South Vietnamese generals had agreed to exile Diem and his brother Nhu, but factions within the army instead advocate for execution. When the generals asked the United States for a plane to take the Ngo brothers out of the country, the Americans hesitated, since they wanted to avoid looking like they had any hand in this mess. While the United States frittered about whether or not they could take in the exiles, South Vietnamese officers took the matter into their own hands. Sometime late in the night of November 2, an M113 APC that was carrying the two captive brothers stopped at a railroad crossing. Major Duong Hieu Nghia forced the two men out of the vehicle and shot the two brothers in the back with a machine pistol, then stabbed them repeatedly for good measure. Ngo Dinh Diem, along with his brother and right-hand-man, was dead.

The shock of Diem’s murder hit the generals – who had wanted him removed but alive – and the Kennedy Administration, who now felt as if they had blood on their hands. But the damage was done. As both John Foster Dulles and Lyndon B. Johnson had warned, Diem sucked and sucked hard, but there was no plausible alternative. For the rest of South Vietnam’s existence, the government would be in the hands of various cabals of generals and admirals, each overthrowing the other in quick succession. Hanoi took advantage of the chaos and instability and filtered in even more guerrillas. Rather than solving the problem by removing Diem, the United States had only made the situation worse, since every subsequent government looked more and more like a tool of the Americans. The war only got worse, and the demise of Diem had escalated the collapse of South Vietnam. By trying to solve the problem, America had only taken more steps deeper into the quagmire. Soon we would be in to our necks.

Only 21 days after the death of Diem, it would be John F. Kennedy’s turn to fall at the hands of an assassin’s bullet. He left Lyndon B. Johnson with the fragments of a Vietnam policy that was only growing worse, and by 1964 Johnson would seem to have no other choice but to send in the troops. And so it continued, and continued, and continued.

There were a thousand opportunities to turn back, to cut loose, to abandon the struggle. But the United States always doubled down, and in so doing descended into the hubristic tragedy that was Vietnam.

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