DECEMBER 14, 1987
A Death in November
By Ellen J. Hammer
(E.P. Dutton, 373 pp., $22.50)
As films, books, and television series on Vietnam proliferate, the focus is almost always, of course, on us: on how young Americans lived and died when thrust into a world for which they were unprepared, how our decision-makers calculated, or miscalculated, as they confronted the bewildering Indochinese quagmire. This is natural enough. The war tore our country apart too; and the poison that it injected into American politics is still with us, coloring every debate on the use of American force abroad.
But for all our absorption with the grunts on Hamburger Hill and the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, the fact remains that the story of American involvement in Vietnam can only be understood by examining the complex, and ultimately fatal, interaction between Saigon politicians and American policymakers. And it must begin with the days before American combat troops came to Vietnam, when the United States, with relatively little public debate and often without public announcement, slipped from an advisory role, for which we were ill-suited, into the responsibility for a war that we couldn't win.
There were many misunderstandings, many days of deception, in the long involvement of American policy-makers and Vietnamese officials. But one day stands out above all others as the turning point: November 1, 1963. On that day Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam, was overthrown by a group of army officers, which had explicit encouragement from the American government. Ellen J. Hammer's book is a study of that extraordinary day, and of the events that led up to it.
That day holds strong personal memories for me. It was a Friday, and I was planning to leave my post in Soc Trang, in the lower Mekong Delta, where I was a civilian provincial adviser, to spend the weekend in Saigon with some friends. I waited several hours to catch a ride with an Army C-123 that was supposed to come down from Saigon, but it never arrived, so in the late morning 1 set out for Saigon in my Jeep Wagoneer, normally a trip of a few hours. At the main crossing of the Mekong River at Can Tho I found troops blocking the ferry crossing. A battle? A crisis in Saigon? It wasn't clear, but there was no getting across the great river.
From a phone in the nearby USIS compound I called my friends, who lived near the presidential palace. "I'm not sure I can make it," I started to say, but my friend interrupted me. "We're all in the closet," he shouted. "There's shooting all over the place." And ever thoughtful, he held the telephone out of the closet so I could hear for myself the sound of gunfire. The day that everyone had feared, or hoped for, was at hand. Early the next morning the ferry resumed service; I drove to Saigon and found a celebrating Vietnamese citizenry planting flowers in the soldiers' gun barrels. I was 22 years old and extremely upset that I had missed the chance to see a revolution.
By the fall of 1963, at least six different groups were plotting a coup against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. After eight years of increasingly heavyhanded rule, the reclusive Catholic leader and his family had run out of room. Diem's brothers had created narrowly based personal fiefdoms throughout the country. One was the archbishop of Hue, another the political boss of that graceful, old imperial city. Ngo Dinh Nhu, the most powerful brother, ran the government on a day-to-day basis. After the government's bloody repression in May of attempts to celebrate the Buddha's birthday with traditional parades (which included the banned Buddhist flag), the situation took a dramatic and unexpectedly rapid downturn; and in May 1963 a 73-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Due, immolated himself at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon. It was then that Madame Nhu, Ngo Dinh Nhu's vicious and hated wife, a proto-Imelda Marcos, made her famous reference to "Buddhist barbecues."
In Washington, the Kennedy administration now began a tremendous internecine disputation about whether, after so many years of support, the time had come for the United States to abandon Diem. In late August, after a shocking midnight raid on the main Buddhist pagodas by Diem's secret police, a top secret State Department telegram was sent to the American Embassy in Saigon, where it was received by Henry Cabot Lodge, Kennedy's old political rival and the new American ambassador. This was the famous DEPTEL 243. While it never used the word "coup," the communication instructed the U.S. Embassy in Saigon to make contacts with the generals concerning a change in government. If Diem does not reform, DEPTEL 243 continued:
then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell the appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown of the central government mechanism. . . . Ambassador and country team should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem's replacement if this should become necessary.
The authority for DEPTEL 243 remains controversial to this day. Several senior officials in the Kennedy administration have maintained that it was never properly cleared, that Kennedy approved it only because he was inaccurately informed that Dean Rusk was supporting it. Asked later what he had learned from the DEPTEL 243 incident, McGeorge Bundy is alleged to have said, "Never do business on weekends."
Still, self-protective historical revisions and repositionings notwithstanding, the telegram was undeniably sent and never clearly rescinded. And the CIA, primarily through a legendary agent named Lucien Conein, began making contacts that gave the generals a message they had been awaiting for years. Einally, although still somewhat ambivalent about its role, the United States was even a physical presence at the end; Conein was actually at coup headquarters, reporting to the American Embassy via a special telephone line. "Bring lots of money," Gen. Tran van Don had told Conein. The leader of the coup. Gen. Duong van Minh ("Big Minh"), added, "In case we fail, you're going with us."
The coup succeeded, of course, but Big Minh's macabre joke to Conein turned out to be spectacularly true: when the generals failed to save their country, they took the United States with them. Only 90 days later, Big Minh .lnd his fellow officers were overthrown by another general, an incompetent "clown" (in the words of South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem in his fascinating new memoir The Jaws of Victory) named Nguyen Khanh. This coup, of which the American Embassy again had prior knowledge, and which it should have prevented, brought chaos to Saigon. Khanh himself will be remembered as the round-faced general who led Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Gen. Maxwell Taylor around the Vietnamese countryside on a whirlwind campaign-style tour, holding their hands aloft in his, while McNamara chanted "Vietnam muon nam." Unfortunately McNamara got his Vietnamese tones wrong; instead of saying "Long live Vietnam," what he actually said, to the vast amusement of his audiences, was "Vietnam wants to lie down."
The consequences of the events of 1963 were beyond calculation. After November 1 the United States was drawn inexorably into every detail of Vietnamese life. Politically, we became the decisive external force whose smile or frown could determine the fate of ministers, even of governments. Economically, our aid, already huge, grew to incredible proportions. And as Saigon's military forces deteriorated, as the Communists pressed forward with renewed vigor to take advantage of the capital's confusion, we were left with a grim choice: either "Americanize" the war effort or walk away from it and leave Indochina to the Communists. In the end, of course, we first chose the former; and then, as the costs of that policy became intolerable, the latter. It added up to the worst of all possible policies and the worst of all possible outcomes.
It would be gratifying to report that Hammer has produced a book worthy of this fateful and catastrophic event, a companion to her early classic. The Struggle for Indochina. But such is not the case. A Death in November sheds no significant new light on the events of 1963. Its only original sources seem to be second-level Vietnamese and foreign officials. Hammer is content to recycle secondary sources and add a few personal anecdotes. Although many of the participants in these events are still alive. Hammer apparently has failed to interview them; for example, she does not even mention, let alone interview, men such as Michael Dunn, then Lodge's special assistant, or Frederick W. Flott, who transcribed the last conversation between Diem and Lodge. Nor, apparently, did she interview any of the numerous Washington officials or American journalists to whom she refers.
Yet the story of November 1, 1963, is so important to an understanding of the Vietnam War that, until a better book comes along. Hammer's book will have to do. And the general reader will certainly leam from it. Our involvement in Vietnam was not some kind of strange accident; 550,000 Americans were not dropped into Southeast Asia by some sort of cosmic pilot error. Hammer does remind us of how we got into the war; and she reminds us too what a blunt instrument American power tends to be, and how difficult it is to use subtly, for example, for the advocacy of reform.
Was the American government responsible for Diem's overthrow and murder? On this controversial point, debated for over 20 years, two things must be said. First, Diem lost his legitimacy when he alienated the Buddhist activists; his regime doomed itself with its own repressive policies, especially after the August attack on the pagodas. It was Diem, and nobody else, who planted the seeds of his downfall. In the final analysis, the United States did not overthrow Diem, nor could it have saved him.
Still, American involvement in the coup was critical, just as it would be in Manila in 1986. It shaped the timing and the nature of the event, and the expectations that followed Diem's downfall; and it changed forever the American role in Vietnam. A coup was inevitable, then, but the precise way in which it occurred, with American encouragement and Conein at GHQ, meant that history would hold the United States accountable in one way or another, even for things beyond Washington's control. Washington, in short, had found the worst possible level of involvement— deep enough to be held responsible, not skillful enough to find a government that could be effective in the war against the Viet Cong.
During the period preceding the coup, there were no serious discussions among American policy-makers about the nature of a post-Diem government, or about what Washington thought would be required to win the war. Nor did the American government seek to save the lives of the Ngo brothers. The official embassy record of Lodge's final conversation with Diem, calling from hiding, makes chilling reading today:
DIEM: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know: What is the attitude of the United States?
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 . . .
DIEM: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a chief of state. I have tried to do my duty . . .
LODGE: You have certainly done your duty. As 1 told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. . . . 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 [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.
The two men never talked again. Diem and Nhu surrendered and were shot as they were being driven to military headquarters, apparently on orders from the coup leaders.
Later Richard Nixon became convinced that John Kennedy had ordered Diem killed, and he assigned none other than E. Howard Hunt to find, or perhaps to fabricate, evidence linking the president to the murders. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Americans participated in the decisions that led to the assassination of the Ngo brothers. What does seem clear, however, is that the United States did not do enough to ensure their survival. There was some feeling in Saigon—I remember it well— that if Diem survived a coup, he would cause dissension and intrigue later, as Marcos, for example, has done since he arrived in Honolulu. But even if there was such a danger—and I think the fear was greatly overstated—the United States still should have tried to protect the Ngo brothers' physical safety, as it did, correctly, with Marcos in 1986. The ugly and failing character of Diem's regime notwithstanding, simple decency, and a proper respect for historical relationships, required a serious effort to save them; and none was made.
The lessons of November 1, 1963, for American foreign policy have been as bitterly disputed as the war itself. There are those, including Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who apparently believed that if we had stuck with Diem we could have won the war. There is nothing to substantiate such a view; like the war itself. Diem was not salvageable, even with American help. Indeed, a respectable case can be made that the United States should have abandoned Diem years earlier, when it was clear that he would never take the measures for reform that were necessary to build a popularly based anti-Communist government, measures that Washington had repeatedly and unsuccessfully urged on him. (It is Bui Diem's contention in The Jaws of Victory that America's greatest mistake was supporting Diem in 1955.)
In the 24 years since November 1, responsible policy-makers—those who understood the complicated legacy of that day—should have learned to ask themselves more searching questions about what kind of regime might follow the incumbents; about the real extent of American influence, and of its ability to control events; about the personal fate of fallen leaders with long-standing ties to the United States; above all, about the real interests of the United States in a particular country or region.
Unfortunately, neoconservatives have derived a predictably wrong lesson from Saigon, reinforced later in Nicaragua and Iran: better to support the anti- Communist authoritarian you know, no matter how narrow his base of support, rather than risk a drift toward the left as a result of pressure for reform and democracy. Thus they oppose the Reagan administration's efforts, however tentative, in such places as the Philippines, Korea, and Chile. But Jeane Kirkpatrick and others misread the tragedy in Saigon, as well as the ouster of Somoza in Nicaragua. Those regimes, as well as Marcos's, were doomed. American policy has to proceed from an understanding of the underlying situation in these countries in order for us to be among the beneficiaries of inevitable change, rather than one of its victims. The alternative to the authoritarianism so attractive to neoconservatives is less and less likely to be communism. For communism, as an ideology, has become intellectually and morally bankrupt, rejected by almost every region and nation in the Third World that has had a choice.
Only two routes to power are still open to communists: the use of external force, as in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or Vietnam's ouster of the Khmer Rouge; or the step-by-step, op- portunistic creation of a movement in which the Marxist element is publicly minimized, battening on a common opposition to a repressive or corrupt regime. It was the latter condition that gave a Marxist-dominated Sandinista opposition the chance to take over Nicaragua from Somoza. The Philippines under Marcos raised a similar risk; senior administration officials predicted in 1985 that if he remained in power, the Communist guerrilla movement could well succeed within a few years. American support for the development of more broadly based and popularly supported governments is not only correct morally, it is an essential ingredient in an effective American foreign policy, a necessary condition for the prevention of the growth of Marxist-controlled movements clothed in reformist rhetoric. That is the most important lesson of that Friday in November.
Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Carter administration, is a managing director at Shearson Lehman Brothers.