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The brutal murder of the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his powerful brother and adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, on November 2, 1963, was a major turning point in the war in Vietnam. Up until the deaths of the Ngo brothers, the United States had been ‘advising the government of South Vietnam in its war against the Viet Cong and their benefactors, the government of North Vietnam. At the time, the United States had 16,000 troops in South Vietnam training the ARVN forces and even going so far as to accompany them on helicopter-borne raids deep into enemy territory. American casualties were beginning to mount, and images of the dead were being broadcast on stateside network television.

In the wake of the assassinations, American policy toward the war in Vietnam changed dramatically. The murder of President John F. Kennedy almost three weeks later placed a new head of state in the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson carried on his predecessor’s Vietnam policies until 1964, when American participation in the war dramatically increased. A series of corrupt generals ruled Saigon while American forces would eventually reach the 500,000 mark.

What the American public did not realize in the fall of 1963 was just how much the Kennedy administration knew of the coup and of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert role in the background plotting that went on in the weeks prior to the event. In order to fully understand how the deaths of Diem and Nhu affected the outcome of the war in Vietnam, it is imperative that the reader know more about Kennedy’s political thinking as he entered the White House in January 1961, and how his training and background in Asian affairs shaped his policies toward Southeast Asia.

The political education of John F. Kennedy started at the home of his powerful father, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. Over dinner at the Kennedy compound, the patriarch would quiz his large family on the daily events of the world. The children were expected to know what was going on and answer accordingly.

As a member of Congress, Representative Kennedy took an avid interest in foreign policy, especially as it affected Third World countries and their struggle against colonialism among the Western nations. After his election to the Senate over the incumbent senator, Henry Cabot Lodge (who would later serve as American ambassador to South Vietnam during the Diem years), Kennedy was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There, he began sounding off on international matters, especially those affecting the newly emerging nations of Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Two of his primary concerns were Vietnam and Algeria.

In the late 1950s, Kennedy became a member of a group of influential Americans called the Friends of Vietnam, which included the noted New York–based newspaper writer Max Lerner as well as Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who was later a member of the Kennedy administration. The Friends of Vietnam were mostly liberal in their politics; they sought to ensure that the government of South Vietnam would remain separate, rather than reuniting with the Communist north as stipulated by the Geneva accords of 1954. Commenting on the situation in South Vietnam at the time, Kennedy remarked that what was needed was a revolution — a political and social revolution far superior to anything the Communists can offer.

Early in his congressional career, Kennedy had traveled to Asia and met with many of the power brokers and other dissident members of the various governments in the region. He was particularly adamant that the French would not be successful in keeping control of Vietnam by force of arms. He spoke out forcefully, saying that the Communist Viet Minh, then battling the French for control of Vietnam, would ultimately win the independence of that country. Kennedy also angered the French, as well as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, by proposing to add to a sweeping military aid bill an amendment stipulating that any further American aid to France had to be contingent on that country’s granting independence to Vietnam.

Kennedy found himself alone in his criticism of French action in Indochina when General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh forces moved against the French army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The 15,000-man French garrison was then surrounded, and the United States began serious consideration of sending military aid, including the possibility of using nuclear weapons to support the French. During an impassioned speech before the Senate on April 6, 1954, Kennedy declared: To pour men, material and money into the jungles of Indochina without at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile…no amount of American military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere, an enemy of the people, which had the sympathy and the covert support of the people.

Despite Kennedy’s forceful remarks, a majority of the Congress sided with the existing American position. The 1954 Geneva accords ended the French–Indochina War, but the United States refused to back the agreement, calling for a new election in 1956 in which both the North and South would vote for their country’s future.

During the 1960 U.S. election campaign, neither Kennedy nor his Republican opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, paid much attention to Vietnam, concentrating instead on the ever-intensifying military and political situation in Cuba. By 1961, however, with Kennedy in the White House, Vietnam’s problems became his problems. This is the worst one we’ve got, isn’t it? Kennedy asked his national security adviser, Walt Rostow, shortly after assuming office. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.

In his thousand days in the White House, Kennedy learned more about Vietnam than he cared to. That remote Southeast Asian country quickly dominated his time as no other foreign problem, and eventually led the United States down a slippery slope of combat and lost lives that would not reach bottom until the mid-1970s.

Kennedy began to focus more on the situation in Vietnam after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba in April 1961. Having suffered one humiliation in American foreign policy at the hands of Fidel Castro, Kennedy resolved not to let the same thing happen in Vietnam. He was a firm believer in the domino theory, which held that if one Western-supported country in a region fell, the others would crumble in its wake. Thus Kennedy in early 1961 made certain key decisions regarding further American involvement in Vietnam.

A National Intelligence Estimate report on South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem concluded that Diem’s internal policies were autocratic and that his domestic programs were hindering the war effort. As early as 1961, according to a report in the later-released U.S. Department of Defense study titled United States– Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967 (a k a the Pentagon Papers), the United States was questioning Diem’s long-term ability to remain in power unless he made certain far-reaching changes to improve the lives of his people. The American president hoped that Diem, who was a Catholic like himself, would make the necessary shifts in policies before events began spiraling out of control.

On May 11, 1961, the president ordered 400 U.S. Special Forces troops into Vietnam, along with an additional 100 military advisers to help train the South Vietnamese military. At the same time, Kennedy ordered the start of a clandestine war against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces inside South Vietnam, as well as covert missions into North Vietnam by well-trained South Vietnamese troops. These actions elicited a protest from the Hanoi government, which charged that the United States was using South Vietnamese territory to prepare for an invasion of North Vietnam. That October, Kennedy issued an order that sent American military personnel into ground action near the Laotian border.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Vietnam in 1961 and met with Diem, calling him the Churchill of Southeast Asia. But Johnson also reported back to the president that in his opinion, the United States would have to either commit itself to further military actions or throw in the towel as far as Diem was concerned. Diem, in turn, asked Kennedy to commit an additional 100,000 American troops to Vietnam. Kennedy refused the request, but he did agree to provide assistance to train an additional 30,000 ARVN soldiers.

The initial steps in expanding American involvement in Vietnam caused a rift inside the Kennedy administration. Deputy Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson called for American combat troops. Johnson was supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who asked the president to commit 40,000 ground troops to deal with the Viet Cong. Other proponents of committing American forces included administration adviser William Bundy, who urged an early and hard hitting American role in the war; and General Maxwell Taylor, the president’s military aide and trusted adviser. Taylor traveled to Vietnam, where he held talks with Diem. Taylor then urged the commitment of 6,000 to 8,000 U.S. ground troops, but he also warned of possible casualties if they actually went into combat. At a news conference announcing the Taylor mission to Vietnam, the president called it an economic survey. Members of the press, however, wondered why the president’s chief military adviser was going to Vietnam to assess economic conditions.

Upon Taylor’s arrival in Vietnam, Diem presented him with a statement of national emergency, a call for American air support, and a request for a mutual defense treaty with the United States. Diem also asked for a flood relief program to help the people in the Mekong River delta who were suffering from the effects of torrential rains. Taylor did finally recommend some combat troops, including helicopter-borne units and tactical air support. He also urged approval for the flood relief effort. Taylor’s proposals were supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, and by Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatrick. Secretary of State Dean Rusk opposed them, balking at the thought of American forces fighting on the ground. Others opposed to committing U.S. forces included Ambassador W. Averell Harriman and Undersecretary of State Chester B. Bowles.

Of all Kennedy’s advisers who urged expanded American involvement in Vietnam, Walt Rostow, deputy to William Bundy, was the most forceful. In the spring of 1961 Rostow put before President Kennedy a detailed series of proposals concerning further American objectives in Vietnam. Rostow was an architect of the counterinsurgency program, through which the United States would use covert operations and irregular warfare to combat the Viet Cong. Among the initiatives recommended by Rostow were the trip to the region by the vice president, the selection of a backstop man in Washington to oversee Vietnam policy, an increase in the number of U.S. forces assigned to MAAG (Military Assis-tance Advisory Group–Vietnam), an increase in the number of Special Forces troops in Vietnam and specific steps to persuade Diem to broaden his regime. After studying Rostow’s report, Kennedy agreed to implement all of the recommendations except the backstop to oversee Vietnam policy. (According to the Pentagon Papers, the person who would have become the backstop was Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who was attached to the CIA.)

Kennedy’s second major 1961 decision on Vietnam policy was the rejection of proposals to send large numbers of American combat troops to help fight the Viet Cong. The president told his advisers that he did not want to create a situation in which American forces would have to fight a major land war in Asia. One of the players in the Vietnam debate upon whom the president relied for advice was former General Douglas MacArthur. The old warrior warned the president against allowing American troops to become bogged down in such a land war.

Instead of sending conventional ground troops, the president ordered the Pentagon to mount a large-scale counterguerrilla program using large numbers of American noncombatant advisers to train the ARVN to defend its own country. Communications equipment and military supplies, including helicopters, were to be sent to the Diem regime, but no combat troops. At the same time, however, the planning was begun in 1961 to commit American troops to Vietnam if necessary.

Diem reacted swiftly to Kennedy’s policy decisions, insisting that U.S. combat troops were necessary to defeat the Communists. Diem complained so loudly to U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting that Nolting cabled Washington reporting that Diem was considering asking the Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan to supply a division of combat troops. As Diem became more estranged from the United States, he initiated more repressive actions to quell internal dissent at home. Kennedy studied the Taylor report and in the end decided on a middle course of action, recommended by both Rusk and McNamara. The United States would not allow South Vietnam to fall into Communist hands, but American troops would not be sent for the time being. Diem would have to make major internal reforms.

Despite those lofty goals, the war took its own course. By 1962 11,000 American troops were on the ground in South Vietnam advising and supporting ARVN units. Americans flew helicopter missions, taking fire and suffering 109 casualties in the process through that time. During the same year, McNamara called for the troops’ withdrawal, saying there was tremendous progress being made in the war.

By October 1963, more than 16,000 American troops were in Vietnam, and the casualties had mounted into the hundreds. That summer the Diem regime was waging an open, hard-hitting war against the Buddhist majority in the country. A campaign to that effect was personally directed by President Diem, his brother Nhu and Diem’s sister-in-law, Ngu Le Xuan — the flamboyant Madame Nhu. They closed Buddhist schools and made random arrests of dissident Buddhist leaders. ARVN elite troops attacked a Buddhist demonstration, arresting hundreds. Then a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc set fire to himself in protest on a crowded Saigon street. The Ngo brothers believed that the Buddhist uprising was Communist inspired, and Madame Nhu, often known as the Dragon Lady, notoriously said that she would enjoy seeing more barbecues of Buddhists.

Much of the violence perpetrated by the Diem regime against the seemingly peaceful Buddhist majority was seen on American television. Reaction from the White House was swift. President Kennedy condemned the violence and urged Diem to get his house in order. Ambassador Nolting had meanwhile been replaced by Henry Cabot Lodge, who in August 1963 received a message from then acting Secretary of State George Ball, who noted that Diem had to get rid of his corrupt brother and inflammatory sister-in-law if he expected to receive continued U.S. support of his government. Lodge, in a memo to Washington, reported that the chances of Diem going along with the American demands were virtually nil. The fallout from the Buddhist uprisings in the summer of 1963 became the lightning rod for the coup that sealed the fate of both Diem and Nhu.

The first coup effort against Diem originated in August 1963, when CIA officer Colonel Lucien Conein met secretly with a number of high-ranking South Vietnamese military officers, including Generals Duong Van Big Minh, Tran Van Don, Le Van Kim and Tran Thien Khiem. Conein was a veteran of the World War II Office of Strategic Services and was on good terms with Diem. It was his job to act as an intermediary between the plotters and the U.S. embassy. During the initial meeting, Minh spoke about assassinating both Diem and Nhu. When Ambassador Lodge learned of this he cabled Washington. Upon receiving the report of the clandestine meeting, Kennedy responded by declaring that there was no turning back.

In his discussions with the insurgent generals, Conein meanwhile told them that the United States could not be of any help during initial action of assuming power of state. It would be entirely their own action, win or lose. At the end of August the Kennedy administration sent another, more forceful message to the coup plotters, saying that the United States would support a coup if it had a good chance of succeeding, but it would not permit the participation of U.S. forces. The president also told Ambassador Lodge that it was fine if Washington initiated action to suspend further aid to the Diem regime.

According to the Assassinations Report issued by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1975, the initial coup plan failed because the Generals did not feel ready and did not have sufficient balance of focus. If Diem did not realize at that point that his hold on power was fleeting, a series of public pronouncements from Washington should have allayed any doubt. On September 8, David Bell, the director of the Agency for International Development, told a television reporter that Congress might cut off further aid to Diem if radical changes were not carried out. On September 12, Senator Frank Church, with President Kennedy’s approval, introduced a resolution in the Senate condemning the South Vietnamese government for its repressive measures and calling for aid to be cut off.

In October 1963, Secretary McNamara and General Taylor arrived in Saigon on a fact-finding mission. After meeting with President Diem, they recommended to President Kennedy that the United States work with Diem but hold back further financial and political support. They also proposed a 1,000-man troop withdrawal by the end of the year. Their most important concern was that no actions resulting in a coup take place at that time.

On October 3, however, Conein made contact with General Minh, who told him that a new coup was in the offing and asked for American support if it succeeded. In their discussion Minh revealed that the plan included the assassinations of both Diem and Nhu. On October 5, 1963, according to the Assassinations Report, the unnamed acting chief of the CIA station in Saigon cabled Washington that he had recommended to Ambassador Lodge that the United States not set ourselves irrevocably against the assassination plot.

Also according to the Assassinations Report, CIA Director John McCone later stated that after a meeting with both the president and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he believed that President Kennedy agreed with his recommendation to assemble all pertinent intelligence on the coup plot, despite the fact that the president had great reservations about Diem. McCone further said that during his talk with President Kennedy they did not discuss assassination specifically, only whether or not the United States should let the coup go ahead or try to stop it. McCone left the meeting believing that the president concurred with the CIA director’s hands-off recommendation.

In Saigon, Conein met secretly with General Don, one of the coup plotters, telling him that the United States was opposed to any assassinations. The general responded, All right, you don’t like it, we won’t talk about it anymore.

On October 28, Don told Ambassador Lodge that he would tell him of the plans for the coup before it took place. Lodge called Washington, reporting that he could do nothing to stop the coup. Washington hurriedly replied, telling Lodge to try to talk the generals out of going ahead with the coup. By that point neither Lodge nor any other American official in Washington or Saigon could exert any more influence over the generals. The coup was on.

In the pre-dawn darkness of November 1, 1963, ARVN soldiers loyal to the generals took up positions around Saigon. They took over police headquarters and radio stations and began to move on the presidential palace. The coup leaders gave only a four-minute warning to the U.S. embassy, allowing Ambassador Lodge no time to react. When they confronted Diem, the plotters demanded that he resign and guaranteed him and the Nhus safe exit from the country. Diem called Lodge, who said that the United States could take no action.

General Minh called Diem and told him that if he did not resign immediately the presidential palace would be attacked. When Diem did not respond, the plotters launched an air attack on the presidential palace just before dark. In the early hours of November 2, Diem finally called General Don and offered to surrender if his party received safe passage out of the country. Don agreed to the terms, but Diem did not inform Don of his whereabouts.

Diem and Nhu had escaped through a secret tunnel under the presidential palace and had made their way to Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon. In circumstances that are still unclear today, Diem and Nhu were tracked down and taken into custody by forces loyal to the plotters. A little while later Diem and Nhu were killed inside an armored personnel carrier while they were being transported to the joint general staff headquarters building.

When President Kennedy heard the news, he reacted with shock to the deaths of Diem and his brother. Their murders had not been in the script.

Over the next several years a steady stream of petty generals ruled in Saigon while the war intensified and American involvement grew substantially. Three weeks after the deaths of Diem and Nhu, President Kennedy himself was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Despite the behind-the-scenes American involvement in the death of Ngo Dinh Diem, the Assassinations Report concluded by stating, The details of Diem’s and Nhu’s deaths are not known. None of the informed sources give any indication of direct or indirect involvement of the United States.

This article was written by Peter Kross and originally published in the October 2004 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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