TV Recap - The Vietnam War: Episode 2, Part 2
By Mark Light
September 28, 2017
College students protested, so Diem shut down all the universities. High school students then protested so Diem shut down all the high schools and grammar schools. Thousands of school children were arrested. Henry Cabot Lodge arrived and reportedly demanded to Diem that Nhu be fired or US aid to South Vietnam would be cut.
In the wake of this, a small group of South Vietnamese generals contacted the CIA. Nhu was basically in charge of the government now, they said. What would the US think if the generals mounted a coup?
Kennedy and his senior staff were out of DC. An Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, named Roger Hillsman Jr., took it upon himself to draft new instructions for Lodge. Diem would be given an opportunity to get rid of Nhu. If he would not, perhaps the generals should have their chance.
Kennedy was on vacation in Hyannis Port when he was contacted about the new instructions. He decided to approve it because he thought his senior staff had already endorsed it. They had not.
Lodge read the cabled instructions and decided that not only did Ngo Dinh Nhu have to go, but also his brother, Ngo Dinh Diem. But opinion was still divided at the top of the American government. Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, Lyndon Johnson, and the head of the CIA were all against it because they did not think there was a viable alternative to Diem. Some State Department officials felt that without meaningful change, which Diem opposed, South Vietnam would be lost. Kennedy finally decided to tell Lodge to tell the generals that the United States would not promote a coup, but America wouldn't thwart one either.
On November 1, 1963, an 18-hour battle broke out for control of Saigon. Diem and Nhu surrendered to the coup plotters in exchange for a promise of safe passage out of the country. They climbed into an APC and were murdered soon afterwards.
While South Vietnam seemed jubilant and Lodge felt that war would be victorious if the generals stuck together, Kennedy was not so sure. On November 4, 1963, JFK dictated his thoughts into a tape recorder about the coup. He felt he shouldn't have given his consent to Hillsman's cable without a roundtable discussion. He was appalled by the death of Diem and Nhu. He said, "The question now is whether the generals can stay together and build a stable government or whether public opinion in Saigon will turn on this government as repressive and undemocratic in the not too distant future."
Kennedy wouldn't get the answer to that question, as he was murdered in Dallas 18 days later. The fate of the American involvement in Vietnam now rested on the shoulders of the new president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
As Sam Cooke's "Mean Old World" plays, the credits roll. Up next is Episode Three "The River Styx (January 1964 - December 1965)."