Disorder and Decision 13

By early January 1965, the Buddhists were again demanding Huong’s ouster, and Khanh saw this as a chance to advance his own ambitions. He offered to protect Huong on condition that four army officers, among them Ky and Thieu, be given cabinet posts. But he also encouraged the Buddhist protests, now beginning to turn against the United States. Buddhist militants had mobilized a mob of five thousand students to sack an American library in Hue, and they organized a demonstration against the U.S. embassy in Saigon. As the unrest spread, Khanh stepped in as the only person capable of restoring order. On January 27, his military colleagues deposed Huong and returned him to power. He retained the facade of civilian government by keeping the aged Phan Khac Suu as figurehead chief of state and by reappointing as acting prime minister Nguyen Xuan Oanh, whose previous tenure in the job had lasted five days.
Taylor’s first instinct was to withhold U.S. recognition from Khanh—not only for personal reasons but also because he was be¬ginning to doubt Khanh’s fidelity to the anti-Communist cause. Tay¬lor’s suspicions were not unfounded. Khanh, increasingly exasperated by American attempts to restrain him, had in fact been covertly ex¬ploring a possible accommodation with the Vietcong. But Taylor was overruled in Washington. President Johnson and his aides remembered the vacuum after Diem’s overthrow, and they were unwilling to unseat Khanh in favor of an unknown alternative. McGeorge Bundy even believed that Khanh was “still the best hope” and could be handled. Nevertheless, Taylor signaled to Khanh’s rivals that he would wel¬come a change. As he confided to one of my colleagues at the time, “We haven’t told Khanh to go, but we’ve made our wishes known to the Vietnamese, and we’re leaving it up to them.”
An American intelligence agent then trying to monitor the political machinations shaking Saigon referred to the city as “the capital of the double cross.” Factions and individuals constantly switched sides as they jockeyed for power. So it was that Ky, Thieu and others, having risen to prominence as proteges of Khanh, in early 1965 began to plan his downfall. They were not directly spurred into action by the U.S. mission, but they assumed that Taylor’s hostility to Khanh would gain them American support.
On February 16, Khanh replaced the hapless Oanh with a new prime minister, Phan Huy Quat, a physician of northern origin with years of political experience behind him. Quat invited representatives from nearly all of South Vietnam’s feuding political, religious and military factions into his cabinet. But Khanh soon started to manipulate the coalition—and the inevitable occurred.
Hardly had Quat taken office than several battalions of troops en¬tered Saigon. In familiar fashion, they occupied army headquarters, the radio station and post office, and encircled Khanh’s house. Khanh escaped through a back gate and telephoned Ky, who flew him to Dalat. Then Ky returned to the air base at Bienhoa, where a group of his own comrades had gathered. Resorting to his favorite tactic, he called General Robert Rowland, U.S. adviser to the South Vietnamese air force, and asked him to deliver an ultimatum to the conspirators. Unless they capitulated within four hours, he would bomb Saigon.
The plot had been concocted by a pair of irrepressible schemers— General Lam Van Phat, whose bid to grab power in September had fizzled, and Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, the clandestine Communist operative assigned to stir up trouble of any kind. Thao, a charter organizer of the coup against Diem, had also been involved in an earlier attempt to topple Khanh, who had dispatched him to the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington to keep him out of mischief and then, fearing his conspiratorial skills even at that distance, summoned him home in late December to entrap him. Thao, tipped off as he landed in Saigon, immediately went underground. He contacted Phat, and they planned the challenge. Now, however, they were confronted with Ky’s threat. Knowing him to be impulsive, they were reluctant to call his bluff.
On the evening of February 19, within minutes of the deadline, Rowland telephoned Ky to say that Phat and Thao were ready to fly to Bienhoa to negotiate. Ky quickly rescinded his bombing orders, and the three men met. Phat and Thao, whose troops still held vital positions in Saigon, agreed to surrender—but only on condition that Khanh be dismissed and sent into exile. Nothing suited Ky better. Indeed, many American officials believed—though he later denied it— that Ky had surreptitiously engineered the attempted coup in order to dramatize that Khanh had lost the confidence of the armed forces and was thus unfit to rule.
Whatever the truth, South Vietnam’s senior officers voted the next morning to strip Khanh of his authority and, as a face-saving device, to appoint him ambassador-at-large. Three days later, after a cere¬monial airport farewell, Khanh left Saigon, never to return. Taylor, present at the departure, could scarcely conceal his pleasure. It had been, he informed President Johnson, the “most topsy-turvy week since I came to this post.”
The veneer of a civilian government remained for another four months but gradually peeled off as Buddhist, Catholic and other fac¬tions defied the prime minister, Dr. Quat. In early June, the generals ousted him along with the geriatric chief of state, Phan Khac Suu. Ky thereupon became prime minister, with Thieu as chief of state; the combination seemed to President Johnson and his staff to be, as Wil¬liam Bundy afterward put it, “the bottom of the barrel, absolutely the bottom of the barrel.”
Having hoped to limit America’s involvement, Johnson now real¬ized that he could not count on the undisciplined South Vietnamese, who plainly possessed neither the will nor the capacity to block what then appeared to be an almost inevitable Communist victory. The honor of the United States—and his own reputation—were at stake. He had no choice. He would have to Americanize the war: “Power. Power on the land, power in the air, power wherever it’s necessary. We’ve got to commit it . . .”

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