Disorder and Decision 12

The new chief of state, Phan Khac Suu, was an octogenarian who advertised his obsolescence by dressing in a black mandarin gown. A French-trained agricultural engineer who vaguely belonged to the Cao Dai sect, he had once served the Emperor Bao Dai and was briefly jailed by Ngo Dinh Diem for mild dissidence. The prime minister, Tran Van Huong, a schoolteacher and former mayor of Saigon, seemed equally out-of-date—or so he struck me during a chat we had one morning in his shabby office. A pleasant gentleman in his early sixties, with close-cropped white hair and a ruddy complexion, he might have been a petit fonctionnaire in a French provincial town. Yet, speaking in flawless French, he evoked his Asian identity in an appeal to some vague divinity that would rescue South Vietnam: “I am com¬pletely tranquil, as I must be to have faith in this country’s future. You know, we Asians are fatalistic. I believe in providential assis¬tance.”
The gods did little to help Huong during his three months in office. Soon Saigon’s factions, the Buddhists in the forefront, were again on the rampage. They staged protest demonstrations, went on hunger strikes and repeated their charge that the government still employed pro-Diem elements. After appealing in vain for calm, Huong declared martial law—a move that Khanh and the Ky group interpreted, pos¬sibly with good reason, to be a device to put General Minh back in power. They again began to plot.
Rumors of their conspiracy alarmed Ambassador Taylor. He had just returned from a quick trip to Washington, where President John¬son had insisted that he stem the instability in Saigon. On December 8, over steak and red wine at General Westmoreland’s villa, Taylor frankly warned Ky, Thieu and other young officers that the chronic disorder not only “dismayed the staunchest friends of South Vietnam” but might even discourge Congress from increasing U.S. aid. The officers left, apparently chastened. Within two weeks, however, they were again hectoring Huong. They demanded that he forcibly retire nine “old guard” generals, including Minh, now back from his tour abroad, charging them with “fomenting unrest.” Huong predictably refused, and they set their plan in motion. Early on the morning of Sunday, December 20, they rounded up Minh and four other generals at their homes and flew them to confinement in Pleiku, a squalid town in the central highlands. They also arrested thirty other officers and civilian politicians and set up an armed forces council as the real au¬thority in Saigon, with Khanh its titular head. Confident that they could control Huong, they left him undisturbed.
Taylor, usually unflappable, was now frustrated to the point of despair. On December 21, he summoned Khanh and the young of¬ficers to his office at the U.S. embassy, an ugly new building designed by the noted architect Edward Durell Stone. Only Ky, Thieu and two others appeared. Taylor motioned them to seats in the spacious room, its picture window looking out on a courtyard graced by a giant tamarind tree. “Do all of you understand English?” he began abruptly, his voice taut. They nodded. He then launched into a tirade, scolding them as if he were still superintendent of West Point and they a group of cadets caught cheating: “I told you all clearly at General West-moreland’s dinner that we Americans were tired of coups. Apparently I wasted my words. . . . Now you have made a real mess. We cannot carry you forever if you do things like this.”
Taylor had committed a cardinal sin. By humiliating the young officers, he had made them “lose face”—the most demeaning of ex¬periences for an Asian. The incident so rankled Ky that, a decade later, he bitterly remembered Taylor as “the sort of man who addressed people rather than talked to them.” More significant, Taylor’s per¬formance revealed a deeper error. The South Vietnamese were com¬peting against a Communist movement that, having defeated the French, could rightly claim to represent the vanguard of Vietnamese nationalism. For the sake of their own pride, they resented being treated in ways, that reminded them of their almost total dependence on an alien power. How could they preserve a sense of sovereignty when Taylor, striving to push them into “getting things done,” be¬haved like a viceroy?
Khanh reacted angrily. In an interview with the New York Herald Tribune correspondent in Saigon, he denounced Taylor for meddling in South Vietnam’s internal affairs. The Americans were trying to remold Vietnam in their own image, he said, and unless Taylor acted “more intelligently,” the United States “will lose Southeast Asia and we will lose our freedom.” He went even further in a radio broadcast, implying that the American effort to manage him was a form of “colonialism” as dangerous as the Communist threat: “We make sac¬rifices for the nation’s independence and the people’s liberty, not to pursue the policy of any foreign country.”
Stung by the attack, Taylor advised Khanh to resign and go abroad. Khanh replied by hinting that he might expel Taylor. That, said Tay¬lor, would spell the end of America’s responsibility for South Vietnam. To make his warning credible, he suspended certain U.S. military and civilian programs. Once again, though, America lacked leverage, as it had when Henry Cabot Lodge quarreled with Ngo Dinh Diem. For the South Vietnamese knew that the United States could not abandon them without damaging its own prestige. So despite their reliance on American aid, now more than a half billion dollars a year, they could safely defy American dictates. In short, their weakness was their strength. As a Saigon government official privately explained it to me at the time, “Our big advantage over the Americans is that they want to win the war more than we do.”
But Khanh, realizing that the Americans could play his rivals against him, tempered his squabble with Taylor and agreed to respect Huong’s civilian government. His compromise gesture, however, was part of a maneuver.

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