The Commitments Deepen 7

Lyndon Johnson certainly had cause for concern as he observed the scene in Vietnam from the Oval Office. He had opposed the plot to overthrow Diem, fearing that it would damage the war effort, and his apprehensions seemed to be coming true. As reports of the chronic ferment in Saigon reached his ears, he barked at his White House aides that he was fed up with “this coup shit.” But Diem’s successors continued to squabble among themselves; the regime would be re-vamped seven times in 1964, even though the same faces reappeared like a reshuffled pack of cards. With each change, the government’s authority dwindled, and its influence further declined with its inability to check the Vietcong’s progress on the battlefield. By early 1965, after he won his own mandate as president, Johnson concluded that only direct American intervention could prevent a Communist take¬over of South Vietnam—and, more importantly, shield him against charges of having been “the first president to lose a war.”
Late injanuary 1964, a thirty-seven-year-old field commander, Gen¬eral Nguyen Khanh, toppled the junta that had ousted Diem only three months before. A jaunty figure with darting eyes and a goatee, Khanh strutted and swaggered like a character in a Chinese opera, and his performance in power sometimes bordered on the comic. But he was shrewd and energetic. Even in a society where scruples were scarce, he was distrusted, having built his career on switching his allegiance to whichever faction promised to fulfill his limitless am¬bitions.
I had occasionally chatted with Khanh in those days, but I inter¬viewed him at length only after the war, when he had immigrated to the United States. He was then managing a shabby little oriental restaurant amid the service stations and used-car lots of a tawdry boulevard in West Palm Beach, Florida, and he lived nearby in a humble little house cluttered with flags, emblems, autographed pho¬tographs and other souvenirs of his former prominence. We slouched in plastic-covered armchairs in that melancholy atmosphere of faded glory as he reminisced in fluent French, and I knew as I listened that I would later have to separate the fact from the fiction in his “war stories.” But whatever the truth of his account, it seemed, in retro¬spect, to be almost beyond belief that America’s crusade in Vietnam could have hinged on so sleazy a surrogate.
Khanh began his career as a soldier at the age of sixteen, after what must have been a troubled childhood. His mother, who ran a nightclub in Dalat frequented by roistering French, had sent him off as a boy to reside with his father, a wealthy southern landowner, and he was raised by his father’s mistress, a popular Vietnamese actress and singer. Yearning for adventure, young Khanh left school in Saigon to join a crudely armed Vietminh band harassing the French in the Mekong Delta. He later claimed that he soon abandoned the Vietminh when he learned of its Communist coloration, but I suspect that he quit because the French had more to offer. They enrolled him in their military academy for Vietnamese officers, gave him advanced training in France and made him a platoon leader in a mobile combat unit. A tough fighter, he was wounded twice in battles against the Vietminh. He recalled during our talk in Florida that he eventually became dis¬illusioned with the French and considered forming his own “third force.” But in a conversation we had had fifteen years before in Viet¬nam, he had expressed pride at having served under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. “We campaigned together all over the country,” he told me then, as if he and the flamboyant French commander had been buddies.
Following the partition of Vietnam in 1954, Khanh rallied to Ngo Dinh Diem, who desperately needed seasoned officers. He became deputy chief of staff in the South Vietnamese army, but his fidelity to Diem was open to question. In November 1960, when rebel para¬troopers staged a revolt, Khanh parleyed with them long enough for loyal forces to arrive from the provinces to crush the uprising, but on the other hand, his critics contended, Khanh was himself waiting to see which way the wind blew. Three years later, Khanh participated in the coup that culminated in Diem’s murder. Though his role was minor, he expected a big reward, but the junta instead assigned him command of the First Corps, the northernmost military zone of South Vietnam. Nobody wanted a mischief-maker in Saigon.
Even so, Khanh demonstrated that his reach was long. His ego bruised, he began to conspire against the junta. He recruited other disgruntled officers, among them General Tran Thien Khiem, com-mander of the Saigon region, who also felt that his contribution to Diem’s downfall had not been adequately recompensed. Starting in early January 1964, they met covertly with confederates in Saigon or at Khanh’s headquarters at Hue and finally arranged to launch their coup at four o’clock on the morning of January 30. According to the plan, Khiem’s forces in the capital would surround the homes of the sleeping junta as Khanh, leading a paratrooper unit, occupied the general staff headquarters near the airport. On January 28, dressed in civilian clothes, Khanh flew from Hue to Saigon aboard a commercial airliner. He was accompanied by his American military adviser, Colo-nel Jasper Wilson, and he put out the story that he had arrived to visit the dentist. He went to the home of a friend to wait. As the appointed hour approached, he donned his uniform and drove with an aide to staff headquarters, where the paratrooper unit was scheduled to meet him. But the headquarters area was dark and deserted except for a few guards. What ensued, as Khanh recalled it in 1981, typified the inefficiency of South Vietnam’s high command: “Here I was, at the staff headquarters, and nothing was happening. No troops, no action, nothing. So I telephoned my friend, General Khiem, and I asked him, ‘What are you doing? Nothing is moving.’ He answered, ‘Oh, I must have forgotten to set my alarm clock, and I overslept. But don’t worry, we have the situation in hand. There’s no problem.’ ”

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