Ngo Dien Diem

Kennedy, Vietnam and The Coup That Killed Diem and Was Supposed to Kill Kennedy

Ngo Dien Diem

Ngo Dien Diem

If You are someone on the border of whether there were elements with the government that could possibly Kill their own president and find it hard to believe the CIA and other collaborators could be guilty. Well, learn a little bit about the CIA’s and OSS origins in Vietnam immediately following World War II and all the way up until the end of the war and read on the struggles Kennedy faced in trying to have a peaceful outcome in Vietnam. Chances are there would have been no Vietnam war had Kennedy lived.

At the age of twenty-five he became a provincial governor.

When the Geneva conference took place in 1954, the United States delegation proposed Diem’s name as the new ruler of South Vietnam. The French argued against this claiming that Diem was “not only incapable but mad”. However, eventually it was decided that Diem presented the best opportunity to keep South Vietnam from falling under the control of communism. Diem and his brother Ngô Đình Nhu became foreign Heads of State that the United States and its allies would need to keep a close eye on if the United States and France wanted to keep the Indo-China Peninsula protected from Communism and a Red Scare.

Ngo Dinh Nhu and Vice President Lyndon B Johnson (May 12, 1961)

Once in power, the Americans discovered that Diem was unwilling to be a ‘puppet’ ruler. He constantly rejected their advice and made decisions that upset the South Vietnamese people. Several attempts were made to overthrow Diem. Finally just less than a month before Kennedy died, Nov 1, 1963 He was overthrown in a CIA backed Coup led by Lucien Conein, that President Kennedy Was very much against. He liked Diem and  felt if the CIA would just move to the side and stop instigating that he could resolve the issues.

In the 1950s then Senator Kennedy made a trip to IndoChina including Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and saw for himself the challenges America would face if they continued to meddle in the region and would lose a war if they fought the NVA, Vietcong or North Vietnamese. In 1961 JFK approves a widening of military support for South Vietnam in defense against the communist North. Another ironic situation is that Kennedy’s rival from Massachusetts Henry Cabot Lodge had asked Kennedy if he could be the Vietnamese Ambassador during his administration.

In July 1962 The USA signs the Declaration of Neutrality of Laos in Geneva. Two months prior in May 1962 the secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara asked General Harkins to submit a plan for withdrawal of American Personnel (CIA) from vietnam, but was ignored.1101550404_400

A little history too on some of the issues facing Vietnam. As you may know the French had occupied Vietnam and Roman Catholics made up only just over 10% of the population in South Vietnam. As a reward for adopting the religion of their French masters. Catholics had always held a privileged position in Vietnam. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and most of the officials who helped administer the country for the French were Catholics.

The main religion in Vietnam was Buddhism. Surveys carried out in the 1960s suggest that around 70% of the population were followers of Buddha. The French, aware of the potential threat of Buddhism to their authority, passed laws to discourage its growth.

After the French left Vietnam the Catholics managed to hold onto their power in the country. Deim was a devout Catholic and tended to appoint people to positions of authority who shared his religious beliefs. This angered Buddhists, especially when the new government refused to repeal the anti-Buddhist laws passed by the French.And in the Spring and Summer there were many Buddhists killed and beaten which was leading to some quite unrest. All This time the S. Vietnamese were getting financial aid from the United States. And Kennedy felt he could achieve peace through diplomacy with Diem and felt a connection to Diem because Kennedy too had to and was currently dealing with the same war hawks Diem was dealing with.

This ultimately leads us into Summer of 1963 and Diem is still refusing to play ball with the CIA and US government.

In early September, he discovered that another key decision related to a coup had been made without his knowledge. A White House meeting with the president was discussing whether or not to cut off the Commodity Import Program that propped up South Vietnam’s economy. It was a far-reaching decision. For the United States to withdraw the AID program could prompt a coup against Diem.

David Bell, head of AID, made a casual comment to Kennedy that stoppped the discussion. He said, “There’s no point in talking about cutting off commodity aid. I’ve already cut it off.”

“You’ve done what?” said John Kennedy

“Cut off commodity aid”, said Bell.

“Who The Hell told you to do that?” asked the president

“No One”, said Bell. “It’s an automatic policy. We do it whenever we have differences with a client government.”

Kennedy shook his head in dismay.

“My God, do you know what you’ve done?” said the President.[1]
He was staring at David Bell, but seeing a deeper reality. Kennedy knew Bell’s agency, AID, functioned as a CIA front. AID administrator David Bell would not have carried out his “automatic” cutoff without CIA approval. “We do it whenever we have differences with a client government” could serve as a statement of CIA policy. By cutting South Vietnam’s purse strings, the CIA was sending a message to its upstart client ruler, Diem, as well as to the plotting generals waiting in the wings for such a signal. Most of all, the message was meant for the man staring at David Bell in disbelief. He was being told who was in control and it was not the president.

By having AID cut off the Commodity Import Program, the CIA had made it almost impossible for Kennedy to avoid a coup in South Vietnam. The aid cutoff was a designated signal for a coup. In late August, the CIA had agreed with the plotting South Vietnamese generals that such a cut in economic aid would be the U.S. Government’s green light to the generals for a coup.

The critical meeting is described in Ellen Hammer’s book on the coup, A Death in November. On August 29, 1963 at a top secret meeting in Vietnam approved by Lodge, the CIA’s Lucien Conein had asked coup leader General Duong Van Minh point-blank “What would you consider a sign that the American Government does indeed intend to support you generals in a coup”.

Minh answered “Let the United States suspend economic aid to the Diem Government”[2]

It was twelve days later when David Bell told Kennedy of the suspension of financial aid to the Diem government. The reduction of aid was the decisive event that persuaded them to proceed with the revolt against Diem.

General Minh said, “The aid cuts erased all our doubts” [3] General Tran Thien Khiem, the army chief of staff, said, “We looked on this U.S. decision on aid as a signal from Washington that the Vietnamese military had to choose between the American’s and Diems.

Withdraw From Vietnam and The  Mcnamara-Taylor Report

Through the Mcnamara-Taylor Report, Kennedy tried to find a way out of the coup box which he had been placed. Mcnamara and Taylor recommended of a middle way between an unconditional reconciliation with anunchanged Diem, on the one hand and the active promotion of the coup on the other. He tied the AID to the actions by the Diem Government. Which enabled AID to be reestablished if Diem met certain requierements. At an October White House meeting, Kennedy emphasized the openness with which Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to negotiate with Diem: Kennedy directed Lodge in a cable the same day to “maintain sufficient flexibility to permit US to resume full support of Diem regime at any time the US gov’t deems it appropriate”

Kennedy didn’t want Lodge to confront the South Vietnamese ruler with a “hard and fast list of demands”, as ambassador Lodge was prone to. Lodge objected to the Presidents demands.

Lodge concluded his rebuttal to Kennedy by making an ominous connection between a withdrawal request and a coup: “we should consider a request to withdraw as a growing possibilty. The beginning of withdrawal might trigger off a coup”

Lodge had Kennedy in a corner. At the very moment when Kennedy was quietly ordering the beginning of his own U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Lodge was warning him that the request for a withdrawal by Diem and Nhu could also in itself trigger a coup in Saigon that Lodge was facilitating.

Coup In Vietnam Could Cause Coup In America

Only five days before Lodge’s telegram, Washington Daily News reporter, Richard Starne’s alarming article on the CIA’s “unrestrained thirst for power” in Vietnam had appeared. Starnes had cited a “very high American official” in Saigon who “likened the CIA’s growth to a malignancy, and added he was not sure even the White House could control it any longer”[1]

President Kennedy had read Starne’s article closely. He was so disturbed by it that he brought it up in the October 2nd, 1963 meeting of the National Security Council, asking the NSC members, “What should we say [in a public statement] about the news story attacking CIA which appeared in today’s Washington Daily News?”[2] Kennedy decided not to say anything aabout the article publicly[3], but it had shaken him.

Starnes had also cited an unnamed U.S. official who spoke of a possible CIA coup in Washington. The official said prophetically, the month before the JFK assassination, “If the United States ever experiences a Seven Days in May[the novel envisioning a military takeover of the U.S. government], it will come from the CIA, and not the pentagon[4]. In the light of Lodge’s telegram five days later, the president may have wondered if Starne’s unnamed source in Saigon was none other than Henry Cabot Lodge.

Did Lodge’s cable warning Kennedy that the beginning of a U.S. withdrawal might trigger a Saigon coup carry overtones of Washington coup as well.

Nov 1, 1963

The CIA had won, and Diem is removed from Power. The account is very scary when you consider we had a president who was just undermined, and consider following McNamara-Taylor Report, or rather included in the report Kennedy Signed National Security Memorandum 263 to start to withdraw US personnel from Vietnam. Only To have Lyndon Johnson overrule the withdrawal of US Personnel after Kennedy had died and the draft was actually prepared the day before Kennedy died. Which Kennedy couldn’t have done because he was already in Texas on the 21st of November. NSAM 273 was signed by LBJ after Kennedy had died.

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But at least Americans still did this when they wanted change

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So how did our ELECTED officials respond to the American people’s cries and protests for Peace? WEll…..

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[1]David Halberstam, The Best and The Brightest (Random House 1972.) Also White House Meeting Memorandum from September 10, 1963 and identifies David Bell as a participant. FRUS 1961-1963, vol. IV, p161. Those who can confirm David Bell’s Statement: Sec.of State Dean Rusk; Att.Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara, and CIA Director John McCone.
[2] Ellen J. Hammer, A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987), p190
[3] Marguerite Higgins, Our Vietnam Nightmare (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) p208

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