South Vietnam 1963

U.S. ambassador Lodge and South Vietnam president Diem


In 1963, the president of South Vietnam , Ngo Dinh Diem, was deposed by the country's military. At that point, the United States was, as we saw above, deeply engaged in a campaign of emergency military assistance to the regime, although plans were also being made to begin withdrawing U.S. advisers. In the spring of 1963, Buddhist monks began a protest campaign against the Diem government, asking for an end to discrimination. This was met with force and an escalatory spiral ensued, eventuating in several monks burning themselves to death. Diem still failed to budge, in spite of repeated U.S. advice to soften his policy; worse, his sister-in-law applauded the monks' deaths and offered to supply fuel for additional such “barbecues.” Finally, after the outgoing U.S. ambassador had departed, Diem declared martial law and sent the army into the Buddhists' pagodas to round up those whom it considered subversive. Washington was now faced with a South Vietnamese president, whom it had put in power and lavishly supported for almost a decade, whose actions were widely condemned by his own people and by newspapers and governments around the world. Even more worrisome was the prospect that the mostly Buddhist “middle level enlisted men” in the South Vietnamese army would at the least be distracted from the counterinsurgency war they were carrying out against the PLAF.


The result was a cable sent by the State Department to the new ambassador, Henry Cabort Lodge, instructing him that “US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie.” Should Diem remain “obdurate,” then the time had come to “face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” Key “military leaders” should be told that the U.S. would no longer be able to support the regime “militarily and economically” unless Nhu and his wife were removed from the scene, if need be by overthrowing Diem, and that if such an effort led to a “breakdown” in the central government, the U.S. would provide “direct support” to the military. Lodge immediately acted on these instructions, sending CIA officers (who for months had been passing on word of planned or hoped-for coups) to contact South Vietnamese generals. In the meantime, a furious debate erupted in Washington , with top military and Defense Department officials expressing outrage that the cable had been sent without their approval. In the end, though, they had to go along with the decision, not only because the U.S. would have lost all credibility with the generals had it told them that its backing had been a mistake, but also because there were no signs that Diem would change his policy toward the Buddhists. Kind words and earnest advice had already failed; threats would simply “stimulate Nhu to immediate action,” perhaps including rapprochement with North Vietnam and the expulsion of U.S. forces from the country. Thus the coup policy was reaffirmed; but to no avail, since back in Saigon , the generals had gotten cold feet. “This particular coup,” the CIA station chief cabled, “is finished” – but, he added a few days later, the generals were continuing their planning and were “determined to go ahead and overthrow government.”


It soon became clear that the U.S. could not return to its old policy of backing Diem. The army's junior officers, Lodge pointed out, came from the country's elite, which was “filled with hostility” toward Diem and those around him. How could such officers be expected to fight with any enthusiasm? Hence, “the ship of state here is slowly sinking” and, of necessity, the U.S. therefore had to apply “effective sanctions ... to force a drastic change in government.” The most effective such sanction would be to suspend aid to the regime. After more hesitation, Washington sided with Lodge and began slowing down and suspending economic aid, as well as assistance given to the unit in the armed forces most closely linked with Nhu (the rest of the military was spared any aid cuts). Within days, the generals, who had been plotting a coup since the collapse of the previous one, contacted the CIA and let it be known that this time, they were ready to move. Lodge was again given permission to maintain contact with the plotters and to make it clear that the U.S. would do nothing to stop them and indeed would give them assistance if they got the upper hand. The final telegram he received before the coup began, based on hours of discussion in the White House, made it clear that once a coup “under responsible leadership” had begun, “it is in the interest of the U.S. Government that it should succeed.”


As can be seen from this summary, the coup against Diem was conditioned in the extreme by the large-scale military effort in which the United States had been engaged (see chapter five of the book). Up until August of 1963, the generals knew perfectly well that the U.S. backed Diem and simply dared not take the risk of alienating their main supplier of weapons and money. But once the U.S. let the generals know that it, too, was unhappy with Diem and was willing, at least momentarily, to envisage his overthrow, the entire context changed. This was particularly the case when it became clear that the U.S. military commander in Vietnam , who until then had staunchly defended Diem, was no longer the most influential American official in Saigon . Diem was now seen by the Americans as a hindrance to the war effort and he could safely be overthrown. Nothing further needed to be said, either to the coup plotters or, for that matter, to Diem, as this telephone conversation makes clear:

  • Diem: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know: What is the attitude of U.S. ?
  • Lodge: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. I have heard the shooting, but am not acquainted with all the facts. Also it is 4:30 a.m. in Washington and U.S. Government cannot possibly have a view.
  • Diem: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a Chief of State. I have tried to do my duty. I want to do now what duty and good sense require. I believe in duty above all.
  • Lodge: You have certainly done your duty. As I told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. No one can take away from you the credit for all you have done. Now I am worried about your physical safety. I have a report that those in charge of the current activity offer you and your brother safe conduct out of the country if you resign. Had you heard this.
  • Diem: No. (And then after a pause) You have my telephone number.
  • Lodge: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.
  • Diem: I am trying to re-establish order.

Several hours later, Diem and Nhu, having escaped through a tunnel from the palace, were picked up by an army patrol, tossed in the back of an armed personnel carrier, and with their hands tied, shot in the head. 1


1) Felt, quoted by Hilsman, in White House meeting, “Memorandum for the Record,” 26 August 1963; State to Saigon , 24 August 1963; both FRUS 1961-1963 , vol. 3: docs. 289, 281; Rusk in White House meeting, “Memorandum of Conference With the President,” 29 August 1963; CIA Station Saigon to CIA, 31 August 1963; CIA Station Saigon to CIA, 2 September 1963; Saigon to State, 11 September 1963; Bundy to Lodge, 30 October 1963; Saigon to State, 1 November 1963; all FRUS 1961-1963 , vol. 4: docs. 15, 32, 48, 86, 249, 259; withdrawal plans: “Record, Eighth Secretary of Defense Conference, HQ CINCPAC, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii,” 6 May 1963: 4-a-2; Taylor to Chiefs of Staff, 4 October 1963; both Galbraith (2003); Newman (1992: pts. 4-5); Jones (2003: chs. 15-7); Porter (2005: ch. 5). The two FRUS volumes for Vietnam in 1963 are full of discussions about coups against Diem – starting months before the actual coup – by U.S. officials in Saigon and Washington . As regards the issue of assassination, although it is clear that when the possibility was broached by the Vietnamese generals, the U.S. reaction was strongly negative, it is also clear that the U.S. did not go beyond informing the generals that it did not like the idea (to which the response was, “All right, you don't like it, we won't talk about it anymore”; Don, quoted by Conein [U.S. Congress, Senate 1975b: 221 and, for the entire episode, 217-23]); proposal in CIA Station Saigon to CIA, 5 October 1963, FRUS 1961-1963 , vol. 4: doc. 177.