The Geneva Accords, signed on July 20, 1954, ended the Indochina War. The Accords established a demarcation line along the 17th parallel, dividing Vietnam into two political entities: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the State of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Partition was intended as a temporary expedient pending elections in July 1956 to determine if both populations wanted unification.
Rebellion Starts Brewing
South Vietnam’s prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, a hardline Catholic, fervent nationalist, and committed anti-communist, was immediately faced with domestic turmoil caused by armed militias threatening the new government. However, the fledgling army had four battalions of well-trained, well-disciplined paratroopers who helped defeat the most dangerous private army, establishing Diem as the undisputed leader of South Vietnam.
Disregarding the mandate for joint elections, the prime minister organized a countrywide referendum where it appeared that the voters had overwhelmingly opted for their own nation, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), with Diem as president. His rule proved autocratic and nepotistic. His brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was his chief adviser. Other family members held positions of authority.
By 1960, there was great dissatisfaction among prominent civilians and military officers over Diem’s failure to grant more individual freedoms and be more proactive combating the growing communist insurgency. On Nov. 11, 1960, the same paratroopers who contributed to the restoration of order at independence turned on the president and attempted a coup d’etat. This marked the first open rebellion in the country’s six-year history.
Diem’s Praetorian Guard
Developing a viable military was one of many challenges facing South Vietnam. The national army, a legacy of French colonial misrule, was a heterogeneous assortment of separate battalions and companies. Few leaders were groomed for high command because the French had dragged their feet putting Vietnamese officers into leadership positions.
Airborne battalions were the exception. During the Indochina War, the overextended French Far East Expeditionary Corps used indigenous troops to augment their forces. In 1951, the 1st Vietnamese Colonial Parachute Battalion was formed, becoming the first of five airborne battalions manned entirely by Vietnamese soldiers. French officers occupied key jobs while promising Vietnamese were given responsibilities as combat platoon leaders and company commanders.
After independence, four airborne battalions—the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th—were organized into the Airborne Group and moved to Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the northern outskirts of Saigon. All the paratroopers were volunteers. Many had served in combat against the Viet Minh, Ho Chi Minh’s troops. The 5th Vietnamese Airborne Battalion, a former colonial parachute battalion, saw extensive action. Most notably, the unit parachuted into surrounded Dien Bien Phu and fought there until May 7, 1954, when the garrison fell.
The Airborne Group’s combat experience was soon tested. The Binh Xuyen, a gangster organization controlling the police, gambling, and prostitution in Saigon, chafed under restrictions imposed by Diem. Its base was in Cholon, the Chinese quarter of the capital, and its heavily armed paramilitary forces numbered several thousand. On April 27, 1955, skirmishing broke out between Diem’s paratroopers and the Binh Xuyen.
The next day, hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed in fighting that raged throughout Saigon. Cholon became a free-fire zone as mortars and artillery obliterated parts of the enclave, killing 500 civilians and leaving 20,000 homeless. This urban fighting became known as the Battle of Saigon. After a week of intense combat, the Airborne Group overran the Binh Xuyen’s main command post. Most militia troops were killed or captured while their leader, Le Van Vien, fled to Paris.
Diem was impressed with the Airborne Group. One paratrooper, Lt. Col. Nguyen Chanh Thi, especially distinguished himself. When the dust settled, Thi was promoted to colonel and given command of the Group. The prime minister, a bachelor, spoke affectionately of Col. Thi as his “son.” A CIA operative, George Carver, reported Thi was an excellent combat commander but a “blatant opportunist.” This assessment was remarkably prescient.
Warning signs to Washington
Diem’s victory over the Binh Xuyen did not go unnoticed in Washington. Heretofore, there were discussions as to whether Diem was the right man for the job.
Foremost among his critics was Gen. Joseph Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had appointed Collins as his emissary to South Vietnam in October 1954. Collins was adamant that Diem was not the leader the country needed. His reports to the State Department and Eisenhower castigated the prime minister as “a man in over his head.”
Yet Diem had American advocates. Sen. Mike Mansfield and Rep. John F. Kennedy countered Collins’ criticism. A turning point came when Diem defeated the Binh Xuyen; Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, concluded that Diem held Vietnam together when it was on the brink of civil war. The full weight of the U.S. administration now supported him.
Diem moved rapidly to strengthen his control and take advantage of American goodwill. In October 1955, a quickly organized referendum was held that established the Republic of Vietnam.
A Corrupt Election and business as usual
His brother Ngo Dinh Nhu rigged the election, giving Diem a stunning victory with a 98.2 percent plurality—when ballots were counted, the new president received 200,000 more votes in Saigon than there were registered voters!
Such heavy-handed actions were troubling for Eisenhower. However, he wanted to portray Diem in a good light due to the anti-communist Cold War aims of the U.S. Official pronouncements extolled Diem’s accomplishments. “President Diem stands for the highest qualities of heroism and statesmanship,” declared Eisenhower during Diem’s 1957 visit to the United States. Life, the most influential magazine of the era, followed that lead and called Diem the “Tough Miracle Man of Vietnam.”
The acclaim Diem received in Washington carried little weight back in South Vietnam. A communist insurgency grew. Assassinations, kidnappings, and attacks on army outposts became commonplace. Many officers sensed that Diem and Nhu had a “business-as-usual” attitude toward this menace. Attempts to push the powerful brothers to be more proactive fell on deaf ears.
Silencing All Critics
Communist activity was not the only problem facing Diem. Discord over restrictions on basic freedoms was on the rise. Nhu filled jails with political dissidents. His secret police shut down newspapers daring to criticize the government. Club-wielding thugs dealt with demonstrators brave enough to take to the streets.
Efforts by the U.S. ambassador, Elbridge Durbrow, to persuade Diem to be more liberal got nowhere. His authoritarian behavior and clampdowns rankled both influential citizens and military leaders. Governmental intransigence was the catalyst for plotting against the Ngo family.
However, money still flowed in from Washington. Much of it was used to expand the army and some earmarked for economic development was redirected to the military. The Airborne Group, a Diem favorite, received more than its share. Two more infantry battalions, the 7th and the 8th, and a 105mm artillery battalion were activated.
On Dec. 1, 1959, the last vestige of French influence disappeared when the “Airborne Group” designation was dropped and the unit was named the Airborne Brigade, now with six infantry battalions.
In April 1960, 18 anti-communists, former cabinet ministers, dissenting Catholics, and leaders of several political parties published a letter listing grievances over the loss of civil liberties and recommending modest reforms. U.S. reporters called the document the Caravelle Manifesto because its contents were announced at a press conference at the Caravelle Hotel in downtown Saigon. The letter to the president was respectful and did not call for him to leave office. Diem simply ignored it. Vietnamese journalists, thoroughly intimidated, did the same.
The Paratroopers Rebel
Col. Nguyen Chanh Thi, commander of the Airborne Brigade, and his former deputy, Lt. Col. Vuong Van Dong, were persuaded military action was needed to coerce Diem to implement changes. Neither wanted the president removed. Yet they were adamant that Nhu and his wife, Madame Nhu—Diem’s sharp-tongued sister-in-law often referred to as “The Dragon Lady”—needed to leave the government.
Their discontent came to a head on Nov. 11, 1960, three days after the U.S. presidential election when Sen. John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon. CIA analysts thought that the timing of the coup attempt was directly linked to the election and that the rebels wanted to give JFK a more liberal administration to deal with.
Shortly after 3 a.m., automatic weapons fire and mortar explosions shattered Saigon’s nighttime quiet. Earlier the previous evening, Thi and Dong led three paratroop battalions, the 5th, 6th, and 7th, and two companies of marines into the city. Detachments took control of the Joint General Staff headquarters, the central police station, and the main telephone exchange while the bulk of the troops headed for their main objective, the presidential residence at Independence Palace.
Diem narrowly escaped being killed when the paratroopers opened up suppressive fire with small arms and machine guns. Diem, Nhu, and Madame Nhu retreated to the safe room in the cellar equipped with communications gear, including radios and recently installed telephone lines not routed through the central exchange’s switchboard.
Storming the Palace
Around the palace, Diem’s outnumbered guards, about 30 men, stood their ground and inflicted casualties on the attackers. As the paratroopers launched their initial assault, the 5th Airborne Battalion commander was killed. A dozen airborne soldiers died and scores more were wounded.
The ferocity of the guards’ resistance surprised Thi and caused him to hesitate, although he possessed more than enough strength to destroy them. His hesitancy was a critical mistake. The initiative was lost and a time-consuming dialogue with the president began.
The pause allowed Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh, the acting head of the army, to slip into Independence Palace and serve as intermediary. Thi passed his demands through Khanh while Dong contacted Ambassador Durbrow, requesting American help. Although a frequent critic of the regime, Durbrow turned Dong down. In a call with Diem, the ambassador urged negotiations to avoid bloodshed. Diem was furious and viewed the response as tacit approval of Thi’s actions.
Rebuffed by the U.S. ambassador, Diem said he would listen to the insurgents. At the same time, he reached out to loyal commanders and requested their assistance. Being a talker, he could parlay extensively with his opponents and appear to accommodate them while his supporters organized efforts to aid him with force.
Diem Buys Time
Two nearby loyalists immediately responded to Diem’s request. Col. Tran Van Khiem, commander of the 7th ARVN Division in the Mekong Delta, was a friend of the president’s family. He assembled his tank battalion and two infantry regiments for a move to Saigon. Col. Nguyen Van Thieu mobilized the 5th ARVN Division, stationed northeast of Saigon in Bien Hoa, and gave orders to march on the capital. Thieu would later rise to prominence as the president of South Vietnam from 1967-1975.
Diem haggled with Thi throughout the afternoon and evening of the 11th. He agreed to some points, including dismissing his current cabinet and forming a more moderate government. He refused to sack his brother. The insurrectionists were delighted when Diem stated he would end press censorship, allow more free speech, and reduce economic restrictions. To buy additional time, the president promised to tape a speech highlighting the concessions. When it was completed at dawn, the insurgents rushed it to Radio Saigon.
Yet, as the president’s speech aired on the morning of the 12th, two infantry divisions, supported by tanks, converged on Independence Palace. They moved freely because Thi failed to block the routes leading into Saigon—a fatal error. The appearance of the 5th and 7th ARVN divisions caused senior officers, who stayed on the sidelines with a “wait-and-see” attitude, to declare their loyalty to Diem.
Fighting ensued as the newly arrived units attacked the paratroopers. Four hundred were killed in the melee. Many of the dead were innocent bystanders who came on the streets to see what was going on. By late afternoon, the remaining paratroopers surrendered and were herded back to their barracks.
As the situation crumbled, Thi, Dong, and their allies boarded a military aircraft and sought sanctuary in Cambodia. The abortive coup attempt was over and the Ngo family remained firmly in power.
Road to further destruction
Outsmarting the efforts of the paratroopers gave an extreme boost to Diem’s confidence. During the crisis he received advice from his brother and Madame Nhu that reinforced his perception of their indispensability and the preeminence of his family. Having triumphed over his adversaries, he promptly reneged on promises of reform and punished those who had sided with the paratroopers. The roundup included the signers of the Caravelle Manifesto.
Another lesson Diem promoted was that loyalty trumped all. Allegiance to the president, not the nation, became the primary attribute for army promotion and key assignments. He and his brother personally reviewed and approved every major military posting. Unfortunately, this policy prevailed after Diem was gone.
Diem carefully selected the new Airborne Brigade commander. He wisely chose Col. Cao Van Vien, considered Vietnam’s most gifted leader who remained loyal to the president throughout his tenure in office. Vien was almost shot because he would not participate in the Nov. 1-2, 1963, coup d’etat that overthrew Diem and led to his and his brother Nhu’s assassinations. Vien ultimately became a four-star general and Chairman of the Joint General Staff from 1965-1975.
The airborne battalions involved in the coup attempt were assigned new leaders and banished from their comfortable billets at Tan Son Nhut Air Base (to more spartan sites outside the capital). The 5th and 7th Airborne Battalions were moved to Bien Hoa. The 6th Airborne Battalion, the unit at the forefront of the insurrection, was sent to the seaside town of Vung Tau, 65 miles from Saigon. Diem and his brother believed the distance would keep that battalion out of the capital’s political intrigues. U.S. advisers who later served with the 6th said “banishment” to a quiet, picturesque locale overlooking the South China Sea was hardly a punishment.
The Buddhist Crisis
Lost in the turbulence of the waning days of 1960 was the December 20 activation of the National Liberation Front (NLF). After six years trying to unify the two Vietnams by political means, the Communist Party in North Vietnam decided violence was required to depose Diem and expel the Americans. After the paratrooper incident, the Politburo knew it was time to act.
The NLF muted its communist ideology and ties to the north in order to recruit disillusioned southern nationalists. The new organization, collectively referred to as the Viet Cong by Americans, proved to be a serious problem for Diem, surpassing any rebellious activity stirred up by disgruntled paratroopers.
The rift between the United States and South Vietnam became palpable after Nov. 11, 1960. Diem remained angry with Ambassador Dur-brow for his “lack of support” and “meddling in local affairs.” Nhu even accused Durbrow and the CIA of collaborating with the rebels. The wound of distrust did not heal even after a new American ambassador arrived in Saigon.
Diem and Nhu fought any pressure for reforms from citizens as well as from the United States. Recriminations were the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, the mishandled coup was a symptom of instability and unrest, overlooked in Washington as attention focused on the U.S. presidential transition.
Years later, the CIA’s George Carver reflected, “It [the paratrooper coup] was a fire bell warning which few noticed. Its not being heeded made probable, if not inevitable, much tragedy that was soon to follow.”
Losing Kennedy’s Support
The tragedy cited by Carver unfolded sooner than Diem or Kennedy anticipated. Notwithstanding dramatic increases in American economic and military aid, Diem was unable to make headway in combating the communists or generating more support for his government. The brothers’ obsession with ferreting out dissidents, real and imagined, became a growing malignancy that caused them to take more draconian measures.
Restrictions on religious freedoms led to the 1963 Buddhist crisis. Riots that began in May spread throughout South Vietnam, culminating in self-immolations by Buddhist monks. Photos of a burning bonze circulated worldwide and caused the Kennedy administration to finally lose patience with Diem.
It was the last straw for Americans. Vietnamese generals began plotting in earnest once they learned the United States would support a regime change.
Mistakes made by the paratroopers three years earlier were not repeated. On Nov. 1, 1963, troops commanded by Gen. Duong Van Minh stormed the president’s residence, now in the Gia Long Palace. Although the Airborne Brigade commander, Vien, refused to join the rebels, his subordinate leaders and their paratroop battalions actively participated in the coup. The commander of the 6th Airborne Battalion commandeered trucks in Vung Tau and moved the unit to Saigon where he led the attack on the barracks of the presidential guard.
To Minh’s frustration, Diem and his brother escaped before the assault on the palace. After hiding in nearby Cholon, the Ngos surrendered the next day, assuming they would be sent into exile. Denied a ceremonial transfer of power, an infuriated Minh directed their execution. At the time of the assassinations of her husband and brother-in-law, Madame Nhu was traveling in the United States with her daughter. She and her children were exiled to Europe. In the end, Diem’s ouster and assassination solved nothing, since Minh and the military junta proved to be as inept at governing as their deceased predecessors.