The American Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, demanded that the President of South Vietnam Diêm (Our son-of-a-bitch) dismiss his brother who had been responsible for the raids on monks that disturbed people from around the world, but particularly Americans who were supporting the South Vietnamese regime.
Lodge also began to explore the possibility of a coup. The Americans were not shy about sponsoring coups in allied countries. They have done it in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, and many other countries. Why not Vietnam too? While John F. Kennedy was on vacation, the American Under Secretary authorized a cable to Lodge approving a coup.
Kennedy actually had not wanted a coup. He thought his advisors had opposed a coup. It turned out they had supported it without his knowledge. As a result the Americans supported a coup against their own ally. When Kennedy was interviewed by Walter Cronkite and told him, unless Diêm changes his ways or “there is a change in personnel there is little chance in wining the war in Vietnam,” that certainly could have been interpreted as support for a coup.
Many of Kennedy’s advisors, including his Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, General Maxwell Taylor, and the head of the CIA all counseled Kennedy against a coup. None of them liked Diêm, but they saw no realistic alternative. That is a lesson American Presidents have forgotten in many countries including Iraq and Libya. Disposing of an unattractive leader serves no useful purpose if the replacement is just as bad or even worse.
Former American Ambassador to Vietnam, Fritz Nolting, who had served in that capacity from 1961 to 1963 warned that if Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother were gone there was no one in South Vietnam capable of taking over from them. He said, if we got rid of them we would be saddled with a descending cycle of mediocre generals. Was he ever right!
Other advisors on the other hand thought it would be impossible for the South Vietnamese government to last under Ngô Dinh Diêm’s leadership. Kennedy told Lodge, as a result that the Generals of South Vietnam should be warned that the United States did not want to stimulate a coup but would not thwart one either. In other words, the Americans would acquiesce in a coup, but did not want to be held responsible for it. That’s the way it is usually done–they act like weasels. The Generals took this as a blessing to plan a coup.
Kennedy later confided in his personal notes, that the almost inadvertent authorization of a coup was a mistake. He should have had a full round table discussion on the subject.
As a result, on November 1, 1963 the plotting South Vietnamese Generals led a coup in South Vietnam against President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his brother. According to Lodge, that day every South Vietnamese he saw had a big smile on his wife. No one supported Diêm. He had burned too many bridges (or should I say too many monks?). Lodge believed that after the coup the chances of winning the war had greatly improved. Kennedy was not so sure. That might have been true, if the replacement for Ngô Dinh Diêm was much better. Sadly, Nolting was right, the General that replaced him was also incompetent. Kennedy was also appalled that the coup led to the assassination of Diêm and his brother.
The brutal murder of the South Vietnamese President Ngô Dinh Diêm and his equally corrupt brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on November 2, 1963 was a major turning point in the war in Vietnam. Until that time the Americans had been mainly “advising” the government of Vietnam in its war against the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army. At that time the U.S. had “only” 16,000 troops in Vietnam. Those troops helped to train the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) but also accompanied them on actual helicopter raids deep into enemy territory. It really was more than advising. It was engaging in battle, but it was done covertly.
When American casualties increased, and images of those dead were regularly seen on American television it became increasingly difficult to sell the American public on the idea that these were just advisors. After the assassination of the Diêm brothers, American policy in Vietnam took a dramatic turn. President Kennedy was also assassinated 3 weeks later and Lyndon Johnson became the new President. Johnson tried to follow Kennedy’s low-key approach to Vietnam until 1964 when American participation in the war increased sharply.
After the coup the question the Americans had to ask was whether or not the Generals would be able to create a stable democracy. Kennedy asked that question, but because he died 18 days later, he never really got an answer. Lyndon Johnson would have to deal with the issue.
Neil Sheehan, a New York Times reporter, was a perceptive commentator on the War in Vietnam. He pointed out that Americans thought they were an exception to history. They could never back the wrong side in a war. Americans are the good guys. They are always the good guys, Americans thought. Yet Sheehan said, “But the War in Vietnam proved we were not an exception to history.”
Johnson had opposed the coup that deposed Diem, thinking it would make a bad situation worse. That is exactly what it did. As Le Quan Cong, a VC soldier said, when Diem was killed the Vietcong was very excited. They thought they were about to liberate the whole country. They attacked night and day. As he said, “More and more puppet soldiers surrendered. More and more young people joined our forces.”
By then, “40% of the countryside and 50% of the people were effectively in the hands of the Vietcong.” Meanwhile the Generals that had overthrown Diem were bickering among themselves rather than concentrating on the war effort. As Robert Rheault of the American Special Forces said, “The assassination of Diem set in motion a series of coups each government was less effective than the one before it.” It was just as Nolting had predicted.
In January 1964 General Nguyen Khanh, with U.S. encouragement and support, completed another coup. Johnson told McNamara to show that he had U.S. support. Johnson told his advisors, “no more of this coup shit,” but Khanh lacked support too. Other generals continued to jockey for power thinking he had no legitimacy.
Things were far from stable, no matter what Johnson said. Johnson turned a blind eye to calls from the Buddhists for a genuinely representative government they thought they would get when Diem was overthrown. There were 8 different governments between January 1964 and June 1965. “All of the leaders were so close to the Americans they were seen as puppets.” That immediately destroyed their credibility. One of Johnson’s aids suggested that the national symbol of South Vietnam should be a turnstile.
What continually amazes is the extent to which politicians in America tied themselves to the most dubious of political leaders in far off lands. Often those leaders were incompetent, corrupt or both. Yet the careers and legacies of American political leaders were irrevocably connected to those leaders and once committed those American felt they could never sever that connection. Why were they not able to say, “you know we were wrong. We thought we had people to work with in Vietnam. That proved not to be the case so I am calling our soldiers home. We would like to work with the people of Vietnam to keep out the communists if that is what they really want but we can’t carry the load alone especially when the local leaders are not worth supporting with American lives. We would love to help but just can’t do it.” After such statements where American leaders came clean to the American public, would Americans not accept the decision of their own leaders and say thanks for not wasting any more lives of their young soldiers? Instead political leaders like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon committing themselves to supporting Vietnamese leaders no matter how clearly it was evident that nothing good would come of it. Inertia is a powerful force.
This is particularly important today for American political leaders seem to have learned nothing from past disastrous experiences. They continue to support autocratic and corrupt leaders in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Burma, the Philippines, Chile, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on and so on. The list is nearly endless. Such a policy seems absolutely suicidal and has proved disastrous over and over again, yet American political leaders keep doing it.
I am reminded of what one American leader said about Antonio Somoza a vicious and corrupt former leader of Nicaragua who said, “he is a son-of-a – bitch, but he is our son-of-a – bitch.” Why do American political leaders think they always have to support a son-of-a – bitch no matter what? Why not just abandon them at the outset or at the very least give up on them when it becomes clear what they are? They don’t really need son-of-a – bitches on their side. There is usually (always?) a better way, no matter what the masters of real politick believe.
Sadly the answer is clear–we are not always the good guys. In fact we often not the good guys.