Blood on our hands: Kennedy and his 1963 coup in Vietnam

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secret...

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (from left) greet South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem at Washington National Airport ion 1957. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the 50th anniversary of one of the more portentous days in the United States’ long and tragic involvement in Vietnam. On November 1, 1963, the United States backed a coup in South Vietnam, encouraging and turning a blind eye to the violent overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, once a loyal ally and puppet of the United States. This is the chapter from my 2001 book A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent Into Vietnam, which describes this fateful day and the decisions that led to the coup and Diem’s subsequent murder.

A Stone Rolling Downhill

“As long as Diem is the head of the government of South Vietnam,” Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon indignantly told the Senate on September 9, “we continue to support a tyrant; we continue to support a police-state dictator.” Morse, who had first spoken out against American involvement in Vietnam more than a year earlier, was now even more certain that the United States should leave Vietnam “and save the American people the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars that our government is pouring down that rat hole.” Morse knew that his protest was not widely popular, in the Senate, in his home state of Oregon, or in most parts of the country. “But I shall continue to speak it,” he vowed. “On the basis of the present policies that prevail there,” he concluded, “South Vietnam is not worth the life of a single American boy.”

Morse was not alone in his belief that the United States should leave Vietnam. Another senator, freshman Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota, also nursed growing concerns about Kennedy’s policies. An amiable, soft-spoken man of 41 years, McGovern had arrived in the Senate in January 1963, having been Kennedy’s Food for Peace director and, before that, a member of the House of Representatives. From his positions on the Agriculture and Interior committees, McGovern—like most freshmen—had worked to protect his state’s interests. Far more, though, than a parochial member of Congress who cared only about securing pork barrel appropriations for his state, McGovern was a thoughtful and passionate man, a former college history professor who combined a love of politics with an equally intense enthusiasm for liberal causes. That liberalism had come naturally. As the son of a Methodist minister, he was inculcated early with John Wesley’s teachings about “practical divinity,” a theology that stressed the church’s role in fighting poverty, injustice, ignorance, and disease. He was undoubtedly influenced by the pronounced strains of populism and agrarian unrest that ran through much of the Depression-era Midwest of his youth.

Nothing, however, had influenced McGovern more than his formal education. It was during his graduate studies at Northwestern University, a bastion of liberalism in the 1940s, that he learned about the history and politics of Southeast Asia. His familiarity with the views of China scholars like John King Fairbank and Owen Lattimore convinced him that the war in Vietnam was not the result of a communist-inspired, China-backed insurrection. “I felt then, as I do now,” McGovern told a biographer in the early 1970s, “that U.S. foreign policy was needlessly exacerbating tensions with the Soviet Union and that we were wrong in our support of Chiang, the French in Indochina, and Bao Dai.” Asia was out of control, he believed, and Southeast Asia was “being convulsed by social and nationalistic upheavals that couldn’t be contained by the usual sources of military power.” Arriving in the Senate, the World War II bomber pilot was “struck,” he recalled, “by the fact that the basic Cold War assumptions were just widely accepted in the Senate and in the executive branch and that people applied it in Vietnam without discrimination—and, therefore, we had to stand firm.”

For months, McGovern had heard from various sources that the American effort in South Vietnam “wasn’t working out too well.” He suspected the reason for the lack of success was that “we didn’t have popular support out there—the rank and file people were not all that opposed to Ho Chi Minh and not all that enamored of the regime that we were backing.”

On September 24, 1963, McGovern declared that the nation’s foray into Southeast Asia was a “failure.” He told the Senate, “the current dilemma in Vietnam is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power. There in the jungles of Asia, our mighty nuclear arsenal—our $50 billion arms budget—even our costly new ‘Special Forces’—have proved powerless to cope with a ragged band of illiterate guerrillas fighting with home-made weapons or with weapons they have captured from us.” The “trap” that had lured America into Southeast Asia, McGovern insisted, “will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world, if we do not properly appraise its lesson.”

McGovern’s September 24 speech was not aimed at challenging the fundamental premise of Kennedy’s Vietnam policies. His remarks on Vietnam had actually been an aside. He had, instead, come to advance his proposal to reduce funding for weapons procurement and military research and development. America, he said, echoing Fulbright and Mansfield, “will exert a far greater impact for peace and freedom in Asia and elsewhere if we rely less on armaments and more on the economic, political and moral sources of our strength.”

Two days later, on September 26, McGovern again took his concerns about Vietnam to the Senate floor and, after Morse, became the second member of Congress to call publicly for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. “The U.S. position has deteriorated so drastically,” he told the Senate, “that it is in our national interest to withdraw from that country our forces and our aid.” American guns and money, he said, “are being used, not to promote freedom, but to suppress religious freedom, harass and imprison students and teachers, and terrorize the people.” Press coverage of the speeches was minimal. Neither Morse nor McGovern took their concerns about Vietnam directly to Kennedy.

While some members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in closed hearings, pressed McNamara, Rusk, and Taylor for more information, the leading foreign policy voices in Congress had fallen virtually silent during the months of September and October. “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was relatively quiet,” Rusk later recalled, adding that Fulbright “raised no particular problems” about Vietnam. In fact, Ful-bright had let it be known publicly that withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam would be “unacceptable.” As Rusk noted, “there were no doves and hawks in those days. … I think everybody hoped that somehow the modest steps that were taken during the Kennedy administration would be enough to pacify the situation.” As one of the few senators to speak out about Vietnam, McGovern was surprised that his speech did not spark some kind of reaction. “I thought it was kind of a nugget that would catch some attention,” he recalled, “but it didn’t.” McGovern concluded that “people just thought I was talking about a rather obscure and insignificant little country and that it really didn’t matter all that much.”

But Kennedy and Rusk knew they were only one or two incidents away from a public outcry over Vietnam. The reporters in Saigon, particularly David Halberstam, continued raising troubling questions about the direction of U.S. policy in Vietnam and shed new light on the divergent views about Diem among Kennedy’s foreign policy advisors. The thought of a public and a Congress growing restless over a faltering U.S. policy in Vietnam and the troubling divisions among his own advisors worried Kennedy. “There is increasing concern here with strictly military aspects of the problem,” Kennedy acknowledged in an “eyes only” cable to Lodge on September 17, “both in terms of actual progress of operations and of need to make [an] effective case with Congress for continued prosecution of the effort.”

Kennedy’s response was another fact-finding mission. This time, he sent two of his top military advisors, McNamara and Taylor. Their largely optimistic conclusions, based on discussions with U.S. and South Vietnamese officials in Saigon, reinforced Kennedy’s own inclination to plot a middle course between supporting Diem and promoting a coup. Claiming that “the military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress,” McNamara and Taylor advised caution upon their return. While Diem’s government had become increasingly unpopular, they insisted— inaccurately, as it turned out—that “there is no solid evidence of the possibility of a successful coup.” Furthermore, they also led Kennedy to believe that American training of the South Vietnamese army would be completed by the end of 1965. “It should be possible,” they said, “to withdraw the bulk of U.S. personnel by that time.” They encouraged Kennedy to announce that he would make a down payment on that expectation by withdrawing one thousand American troops by year’s end. The McNamara—Taylor report recommended that Kennedy

follow a policy of selective pressures: “purely correct” relationship at the top official level, continuing to withhold further actions in the commodity import program, and making clear our disapproval of the regime. A further element in this policy is letting the present impression stand that the U.S. would not be averse to a change of Government—although we would not take any immediate actions to initiate a coup. (Emphasis added)

Besides drastically underestimating the prospects for a coup and presenting an unrealistic timetable for the South Vietnamese army to withstand a U.S. troop withdrawal, the McNamara-Taylor report contained, in the words of William Bundy, the deputy assistant secretary of defense who accompanied McNamara to South Vietnam, a “clear internal inconsistency.” On one hand, it claimed the war could be won if Diem made political reforms. Yet, at the same time, McNamara and Taylor said they doubted such reforms would ever be made. Later, Averell Harriman and his assistant, William Sullivan, argued that the report was not only misguided—it contained a patently false characterization of the situation in South Vietnam. “The [U.S.] military are trained when they are in a battle to make the best face of what they’re up against,” Harriman explained in a 1965 interview. Ultimately, McNamara, Taylor, and other military leaders, Harriman believed, “were taken in by their own statements.” Sullivan later recalled that the State Department’s opinion of the conflict—despite Rusk’s aversion to advancing this point of view in meetings with Kennedy—was far different from the Pentagon’s. “We felt this was going to be a long, grinding sort of thing, and we shouldn’t create any illusions or delusions in the American public that it was going to be something that could be taken care of very quickly.”

In any event, the Taylor-McNamara report became the new guiding light for Kennedy’s Vietnam policy. After the National Security Council adopted the report in early October, Kennedy approved a statement announcing a withdrawal of U.S. forces. “By the end of this year, the U.S. program for training Vietnamese should have progressed to the point where 1,000 U.S. military personnel assigned to South Viet Nam can be withdrawn.” In the weeks following the report, the administration began implementing the recommended “selective pressures”: the CIA recalled its station chief, John Richardson, known to be one of Nhu’s close friends; withheld funding for Nhu’s special forces; and stopped all shipments of commodities like rice, milk, and tobacco.

Although these selective pressures were not specifically designed to make Diem more vulnerable, they certainly had that effect. By the middle of October, coup plotting was again in full bloom. Lodge, believing the U.S. effort would only be successful with Diem out of the picture, was the generals’ primary American cheerleader. Urging McGeorge Bundy to give him the latitude to continue his support for the generals, Lodge argued that “we should remember that this is the only way in which the people in Vietnam can possibly get a change in government.” Bundy did not reject that argument, but cautioned Lodge to “avoid direct engagement” with the plotters and to only support an effort that was likely to succeed. “An unsuccessful coup,” he wrote, “however carefully we avoid direct engagement, will be laid at our door by public opinion almost everywhere.”

By October 29, according to Lodge, the coup was imminent. “We are not engineering the coup,” Lodge assured Washington. “The sum total of our relationship thus far is: that we will not thwart a coup; that we will monitor and report.” Throughout, Kennedy—knowing that the momentum now belonged to the dissident generals—was little more than a bystander to the quickly unfolding events. Quoting Lodge, he told his national security advisors that the coup was “comparable to a stone rolling down hill which can’t be stopped.” His advice to Lodge, to whom he had ceded most of the responsibility for the U.S. role in the Saigon intrigue, was simple and direct: “tell the generals that they must prove they can pull off a successful coup or, in our opinion, it would be a mistake to proceed. If we miscalculated, we could lose our entire position in Southeast Asia overnight.”

On the afternoon of Friday, November 1, the generals launched their assault on the presidential palace. Earlier in the day, Diem had suddenly turned conciliatory, asking Lodge to inform Kennedy that “I take all his suggestions very seriously and wish to carry out them out, but it is a question of timing.” By then, it was too late. Nothing Diem could do would have discouraged the generals. At 4:30 p.m., Diem phoned Lodge to inform him that a “rebellion” was beginning.

“What is the attitude of the U.S.?” he inquired.

“I do not feel well informed enough to be able to tell you,” Lodge lied.

“I have heard the shooting, but am not acquainted with all the facts.” It was 4:30 A.M. in Washington, Lodge added, and the U.S. government “cannot possibly have a view.”

“But you must have some general ideas,” Diem pressed. “After all, I am a chief of state. I have tried to do my duty.”

Lodge agreed, then inquired about Diem’s safety. “If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.”

“I am trying to reestablish order,” Diem said.

Earlier in the day, the generals had seized key military and communications installations around Saigon. That afternoon, they demanded that Diem and Nhu resign. But as soldiers under the command of the rebel generals marched toward the presidential palace, Diem and Nhu fled through an underground tunnel and sought refuge in the Chinese district of Saigon. That evening, after attending a Catholic mass, Diem and Nhu were found by soldiers loyal to the generals. Persuaded that their personal safety was guaranteed, the two men agreed to board an army personnel carrier. Within minutes, they were murdered.

At the White House, meanwhile, Kennedy was meeting with his national security advisors when Michael Forrestal brought in a telegram. Diem and Nhu, he informed the president, were dead, presumably by suicide. According to Taylor, Kennedy “leapt to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before.”

Kennedy was not alone in his apparent horror over Diem’s death. In a November 4 letter, Richard Nixon told Eisenhower that “our complicity in Diem’s murder was a national disgrace.” The former president agreed. “No matter how much the administration may have differed with him,” Eisenhower replied on November 11, “I cannot believe any American would have approved the cold-blooded killing of a man who had, after all, shown great courage when he undertook the task some years ago of defeating communist’s [sic] attempts to take over his country.”

Diem’s old friend and defender Mansfield was also “horrified” by Diem’s death. While he was well aware of Diem’s faults, he—like other American opponents of the coup—insisted that “I didn’t see anyone who could replace Ngo Dinh Diem and expect to do any better.” Thirty-five years after the fact, Mansfield still refused to believe—despite the overwhelming archival and anecdotal evidence—that Kennedy had supported Diem’s ouster. Mansfield later said his opposition to American involvement in Vietnam began with Diem’s assassination. “I lost all hope,” he said, “after Diem was assassinated.”

Addressing the Senate on November 5, the majority leader said the “tragic events” in Saigon would only have “constructive significance” if American leaders recognized “that the effectiveness of our Asian policies cannot be measured by an overthrow of a government, by whether one government is ‘easier to work with’ than another, by whether one government smiles at us and another frowns.” Mansfield argued that the success of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia should, instead, be weighed in light of several “basic questions,” including, “Do these policies make possible a progressive reduction in the expenditures of American lives and aid in Vietnam?” and “Do these policies hold a valid promise of encouraging in Vietnam the growth of popularly responsible and responsive government?”

George Ball, meanwhile, failed to see how any of that mattered in the long run. The man whose August 24 telegram to Lodge had encouraged the generals’ plotting against Diem believed that the war was lost, with or without Diem and with or without a change in U.S. policy. While opposed to Diem’s murder, Ball believed that Diem still had to go—not because he was inept, but because he was a corrupt tyrant. “The Nhus were poisonous connivers,” Ball wrote in his memoirs, “and America could not, with any shadow of honor, have continued to support a regime that was destroying Vietnamese society by its murderous repression of the Buddhists.”

Yet Francis Valeo, Mansfield’s aide and a noted Asian scholar, believed that the administration’s support for Diem’s overthrow, for whatever reason, was symptomatic of another disturbing shortcoming that would soon manifest itself: an abysmal misunderstanding of Vietnam’s problems and an undeniable American hubris in the pursuit of a solution to those perceived problems. “We made the terrible mistake,” Valeo observed, “of looking for a Vietnamese administrator in lieu of Diem who would do our bidding more readily. I think that was the root of the disaster.” Whether Diem was competent was not the issue. What was instructive, Valeo believed, was how U.S. officials reacted when Diem proved reluctant to serve as the figurehead leader for Nolting, Lodge, and Harkins.

This is quite apart from whether Diem was capable of dealing with the problems that existed in the country or not, but the course we took was bound to lead in the quite opposite direction from what we hoped. We would eventually have to find that the cost of what we were doing, in terms of lives and in terms of money, would be so ridiculously out of proportion with any national interest that we had in that area, that we would have to pull out. I think Diem understood that. We did not. We were still confusing the technique and the machinery with the purpose. And we were good, and we knew we had great equipment, and we knew we had brave soldiers, and we knew we had a very professional military force. But that was not the answer in that situation.

A day or so after Diem’s assassination, a ringing telephone awakened Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman in the middle of the night. His friend, Marguerite Higgins, the hawkish foreign correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, was on the line. “How does it feel to have blood on your hands?” she asked.

“God, Maggie, this is a revolution; people get hurt in revolutions. No way you can stop that.”

On November 22, exactly three weeks after Diem’s death, Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy in Dallas. In Vietnam, the slain president had left a tragic legacy. While Kennedy had wisely resisted the advice of his more hawkish advisors that he take a precipitous plunge into Vietnam, he had, nonetheless, presided over a sometimes naive and politically motivated policy that steadily ratcheted up the American role in Vietnam by degrees. All the while, he refused to examine fully the impossible challenges the United States faced in Vietnam and—like Eisenhower before him—preferred the soothing reassurances of his military and diplomatic advisors over the honest and discomforting reports from friends like Mansfield or the reporters in Saigon.

Under Kennedy’s leadership—and with the unwitting support of most members of Congress—the nation was now heavily invested in South Vietnam’s survival, having committed to the belief that the fate of Southeast Asia hung in the balance. Less than a year into his term, Kennedy dramatically altered the U.S. role when he approved increased military aid and economic support for an enterprise in which the United States and South Vietnam were to be partners. But the partnership was far from a success. Although his country had benefited from billions of American dollars and thousands of its fighting men, Diem proved a stubborn ally, almost always resisting military, political, and economic advice from the Americans. Advice was usually the strongest form of counsel that Diem received. For most of Kennedy’s presidency, U.S. officials shrank from pressuring Diem to institute the kind of real reforms that might have attracted more popular support for his government. When the pressure was finally applied in 1963, the president’s emissary in South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, inserted himself into the domestic political affairs of the country to an appalling and disastrous degree. In the name of saving the government, the United States engineered the overthrow and assassination of the nation’s leader—and pushed its government into a downward spiral of repression, corruption, and ineptitude from which it would never recover.

Like Truman and Eisenhower before him, Kennedy firmly believed that he lacked the political freedom to ignore the perceived hegemonic lust that Communist China had for Southeast Asia. But his political calculations in Vietnam were also based on a genuine belief that the “fall” of South Vietnam to the Viet Cong would not only imperil his presidency but would be a stunning and disastrous defeat for Western democracy in general and the United States in particular. While the U.S. military role in Vietnam under Kennedy’s watch was puny compared to the massive presence commanded by his successors—at the time of his death there were about sixteen thousand American soldiers in Vietnam—the slain president and his advisors had made very public commitments to South Vietnam that would not be easily reversed or revoked. Haunted by the same political ghosts as Kennedy and persuaded of Vietnam’s importance to U.S. national security, Lyndon Johnson was not about to change the nation’s course in Vietnam only a year before the 1964 presidential election. Kennedy’s tragic crusade in Vietnam now belonged to Johnson.

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