The Commitments Deepen 8

Khiem was correct. By daybreak, Khanh had taken over the gov¬ernment without firing a shot, asserting in a morning radio broadcast that he had conducted his “purge” because thejunta had failed to make any progress against the Communists. The Saigon population went about its business, apparently oblivious to the event.
Ambassador Lodge had been aware of Khanh’s plans in advance, but he did nothing to squelch the plot. Following the coup, moreover, U.S. officials boosted Khanh as South Vietnam’s new hope. It seemed at the time, therefore, that the United States, having lost confidence in thejunta, encouraged Khanh to seize power. But as usual in Viet¬nam, appearances blurred reality. Lodge and his staff had in fact dis¬missed Khanh’s signals as mere products of Saigon’s prolific rumor mill and had been caught by surprise. The episode further illustrated how little the Americans could monitor, much less control, the arcane political maneuvers of their South Vietnamese clients. President John-son, in Washington, could demand stability in Saigon, but in Saigon itself, the “puppets” were still pulling their own strings.
As early as the first week in December, a month after Diem’s col¬lapse, Khanh had divulged his intentions to Lieutenant Colonel Co- nein, the ubiquitous CIA agent. Conein dutifully reported the conversation to his superiors, who filed it along with the multitude of other rumors then sweeping through the capital. Undeterred, Khanh and his fellow conspirators continued to badger almost any American official they could find. Like the generals who had over¬thrown Diem, they were anxious to obtain American approval as an assurance of future support. But nearly every South Vietnamese officer was involved in a plot of one sort or another, and some were enmeshed in several intrigues. The American intelligence establishment in Saigon simply could not cope.
In one respect, Khanh struck a chord with the Americans. President de Gaulle, then contemplating the recognition of China, favored the neutralization of Southeast Asia as part of his grand design. The con¬cept alarmed the United States, but Khanh saw it as a chance to advance his own aims. He spread the word around Saigon that French agents were behind a conspiracy to install a South Vietnamese government that would carry out de Gaulle’s policy. The principal plotters, he alleged, were Generals Tran Van Don and Le Van Kim, both of whom had served in the French colonial administration—as indeed, he him¬self had. American intelligence operatives regarded these allegations as flimsy. Yet Lodge gave them credence, possibly because he had heard them from European diplomats he respected. After the coup, he welcomed Khanh as a convenient antidote to the dreaded virus of neutralism. He tortuously explained his sentiments in a confidential cable to Washington: “To overthrow a government that was pro¬gressing fairly satisfactorily seemed like a violent and disorderly pro¬cedure. . . . On second thought, however, one realized that Generals Don and Kim had never at any time forsworn the possibility of a neutral solution.”
As regimes rose and fell in Saigon, nothing alarmed American strat¬egists more than the prospect of a change that would bring to power South Vietnamese leaders prepared to reach an accommodation with the Communists. Ironically, Khanh was to attempt to make such a deal years later, after he had been exiled to Paris, and he actually held a press conference to reveal his secret correspondence with the Viet- cong. But in early 1964, it suited his aims to appear fiercely anti- Communist. Lodge was somewhat skeptical at that stage, and his diagnosis of the situation once again mirrored the fatal American flaw of thinking that the challenge in Vietnam was essentially a manage¬ment problem: “We have everything we need in Vietnam. The United States has provided military advice, training, equipment, economic and social help, and political advice. The government of Vietnam has put a relatively large number of good men into important positions and has evolved civil and military procedures that seem to be work¬able. Therefore, our side knows how to do it. We have the means with which to do it. We simply need to do it. This requires a tough and ruthless commander. Perhaps Khanh is it.”
The uncertain note in Lodge’s appraisal was prescient. For it quickly became apparent that Khanh would perform no better than his pred¬ecessors—and might even be worse. No sooner had he seized authority than he ordered the liquidation of Major Nguyen Van Nhung, one of the officers who had murdered Diem and Nhu three months earlier. Thejob was done surgically by one of Khanh’s henchmen, who quietly led Nhung to a garden behind a Saigon villa on the evening ofjanuary 31, forced him to kneel, and put a single bullet through the back of his head. Nhung probably deserved the punishment, having himself snuffed out dozens of lives as a professional assassin. Khanh’s aides circulated the story that Nhung, overcome with remorse at having killed Diem, had hanged himself. Not only did this ring hollow, but Nhung’s summary execution sparked a series of complicated political reactions—he was, despite his unsavory record, a symbol.
In the first place, he had worked for General Duong Van Minh. Thus, apart from any personal grievances Minh might have felt, Nhung’s death suggested to him that Khanh intended to repudiate the coup against Diem and reinstate those who had served the old regime. Lodge and his aides in Saigon, fearful that a feud between Minh and Khanh would divide the South Vietnamese army, persuaded the two men to cooperate. Minh sullenly accepted Khanh’s offer to become titular head of state. But soon South Vietnam tumbled into a year of upheavals nearly as chaotic as Diem’s battles against the dissident religious and gangster factions a decade earlier.

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