The End of Diem 11

Lodge never conveyed that order to Conein. Nor was General Don advised through any other channel. The rebel generals continued to believe, as Lodge wanted them to believe, that the Americans would “not thwart” their bid for power.
Answering Bundy the same day, Lodge parried the president’s in¬structions. He refused to widen the American contacts with the plot¬ters, since the link between Conein and Don was, he said, “an appropriate security measure”; besides, the generals distrusted U.S. officers. He also spurned the idea of putting Harkins in charge of the American mission during an episode “so profoundly political as a change of government.” As for blocking the coup itself, Lodge again argued, the action could be stopped only by betraying the insurgents to Diem, which would “make traitors out of us” as well as sacrifice the “civilian and military leadership needed to carry the war … to its successful conclusion.”
Once again, Lodge contradicted his principle of nonintervention. He would grant asylum to Diem and his supporters in the wake of a coup, but he flatly opposed any help for them against the insurgents. On the other hand, he proposed that the rebel generals be “discreetly” furnished with U.S. funds “to buy off potential opposition,” and he further recommended that they be promptly rewarded with American recognition and aid after they overthrew Diem. Lodge made it clear that his management of events fit his own concept of “nation build¬ing”: “My general view is that the United States is trying to bring this medieval country into the twentieth century. . . . We have made considerable progress in military and economic ways, but to gain victory we must also bring them into the twentieth century politically, and that can only be done by either a thoroughgoing change in the behavior of the present government, or by another government.” Bundy, speaking for President Kennedy, insisted that “we do not accept as a basis for U.S. policy that we have no power to delay or discourage a coup.” Once more, however, the main concern in the White House was pragmatic rather than ethical—not whether the United States ought to be involved in the plot, but whether it would work. Despite the gravity of the matter, Kennedy finally left the judgment to Lodge: “If you should conclude that there is not clearly a high prospect of success, you should communicate this doubt to the generals in a way calculated to persuade them to desist at least until chances are better. . . . But once a coup under responsible leadership has begun . . . it is in the interest of U.S. government that it should
succeed.”
Lodge had, of course, made up his mind long before. It now re¬mained to the rebel officers to fulfill his faith in them—though Lodge and his aides were only dimly aware at the time of the tangled ma-neuvers going on among the assorted dissident groups.
If the insurgent generals had been proceeding prudently toward a coup, it was not only because of their uncertainties about U.S. policy. They also faced an array of other problems that threatened to subvert their effort. Saigon was seething with intrigues within intrigues, many of them so obscure, complex and quixotic that the various conspirators suspected each other as much as they distrusted their potential adver¬saries in Diem’s regime.
The generals had become particularly worried by Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao’s faction, composed of infantry, marine, paratroop and armored elements comprising some three thousand men. Dissuaded from acting in August, his group was now preparing to strike on October 24, two days before the generals’ deadline. They again stopped him, and after considerable haggling, Thao agreed to place his units under their direction, but they could not be sure of his fidelity.
An even more difficult hurdle was winning over General Ton That Dinh, the Saigon region commander, without whose cooperation a coup would be impossible. Unusually young for a South Vietnamese general—he was then only thirty-seven—Dinh had risen rapidly. He had been trained in France, later becoming the protege of Diem’s brother Can, the boss of central Vietnam, who had been impressed by his courage. But Dinh’s bravery as a soldier was matched by his ambition, vanity and impulsiveness, and Don skillfully played on those character flaws to draw him into the conspiracy. Indeed, no factor in the coup was more important than Dinh’s conversion, which dra-matized his extraordinary talent for duplicity.
The crackdowns on the Buddhist temples in August had been carried out by Colonel Tung’s special forces on orders from Nhu. But General Dinh, who had approved of the raids as Saigon commander, claimed credit for them, boasting that he had rescued South Vietnam from Buddhists, Communists and “foreign adventurers,” his transparent euphemism for Americans. “I have defeated Henry Cabot Lodge,” he announced. “He came here to stage a coup d’etat, but I, Ton That Dinh, have conquered him and saved the country.”
Don saw an opportunity to snare Dinh in his own inflated ego. The senior South Vietnamese officers, a lusty lot, frequently drank and whored together, and Don arranged such a series of binges for Dinh in early September. Embarking together on an “inspection tour” of the provinces, they flew from town to town, visiting military units during the day and carousing throughout the evening. Night after night, after polishing off sumptuous dinners and dallying with local prostitutes, they talked endlessly over Scotch whiskey and French brandy. Don assured Dinh that he was a national hero worthy of political authority, and the flattery worked. Dinh now saw himself as a cabinet member, and his favorite fortune-teller further puffed him up by predicting his forthcoming elevation to prominence. Dinh did not know, of course, that Don had bribed the soothsayer to fabricate the prophecy.
His ego inflated, Dinh asked Diem to name him minister of interior. As Don anticipated, Diem not only rejected the request as preposterous but scolded Dinh for proposing it. Dinh went off in a sulk, and Don grabbed his chance. He persuaded Dinh to join the conspiracy, prom¬ising him the ministry of interior in a successor regime.
Even so, the rebel officers continued to doubt Dinh. They calculated that he would cooperate only as long as the coup promised to be successful. As a precaution, they assigned a hit squad to liquidate him if he wavered.

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