The End of Diem 12

Meanwhile, the generals had to cope with Huynh Van-Cao, the Mekong Delta commander, a Diem loyalist. His three divisions, de¬ployed close to Saigon, could not only tip the scales in Diem’s favor but transform the city into a bloody battleground. To avert that pos¬sibility, Don and Dinh devised a stratagem: Dinh’s deputy, Colonel Nguyen Huu Co, would take charge of the division stationed nearest Saigon at Mytho, a town on the Mekong; he would use these troops to prevent General Cao’s forces to the south from moving into Saigon to save Diem. But Nhu heard of the maneuver from one of his spies, and a decisive scene ensued.
Summoning General Dinh to his office in the presidential palace, Nhu confronted him with Co’s duplicitous assignment. Dinh, know¬ing this was a test, performed to the hilt. Feigning astonishment at his deputy’s betrayal, he flew into a tantrum, shouting: “The little traitor! I’ll chop the bastard’s head off!”
The act convinced Nhu of Dinh’s sincerity. Taking him into his confidence, he disclosed that he knew of the generals’ plot against him and his brother. But instead of arresting them, he had conceived an elaborate project, presumably with Diem’s approval. He would launch his own preemptive coup, defeat the conspirators and in the process strengthen the American commitment to his regime. “Coups, like eggs, must be smashed before they are hatched,” Nhu told Dinh.
Nhu’s fantastic machination consisted of two operations, Bravo I and Bravo II, and he delegated General Dinh to play a pivotal role in both. As Saigon commander, Dinh would deploy Colonel Tung’s special forces in the nearby countryside in early November on the pretext of pursuing the Vietcong. During their absence, Bravo I would begin, as loyal soldiers and police disguised as insurgents staged a “revolt.” Diem and Nhu would flee to a prepared refuge at Vung Tau, a coastal resort southeast of the capital, while mob violence “spontaneously” shook the city. Gangs of hoodlums would murder several prominent Vietnamese and American officials, and, amid the chaos, the Saigon radio station was to proclaim the creation of a “revolutionary government” dedicated to evicting the Americans and making a deal with the Communists. This charade would last a few days, and then Bravo II would unfold.
Dinh, with Colonel Tung’s special forces and other units faithful to Diem, would march into Saigon and easily crush the “uprising.” Diem would return in triumph to reaffirm his legitimacy, having “proved” that only he was capable of subduing a pro-Communist challenge to his government, and the Americans would embrace him as a savior. Nhu calculated as well that the phony coup would flush out his opponents, whom he could arrest. He had also drafted a list of innocuous dissidents, planning to indict them on charges of in¬volvement in the fake rebellion.
The principal defect in Nhu’s bizarre intrigue was its reliance on General Dinh—who promptly confided the details of the scheme to Don and the other mutinous generals. But they still distrusted him, fearing that he might betray them just as he was betraying Nhu. They were racing the clock, however. If Nhu planned to preempt them, they had to preempt him. They had fixed their coup for October 26, then delayed it until October 31 because of Harkins’s indiscretion. Heeding an astrologer’s warning, they changed it again to a more auspicious moment, one-thirty on the afternoon of November 1.
Nhu, learning of the generals’ timetable from his informants, moved up his own schedule. He could turn their coup into his pseudocoup, he figured, and he instructed General Dinh to set his project in motion. On October 29, consequently, Dinh ordered Colonel Tung’s special forces out of Saigon. But then Dinh pulled another trick. Explaining that Bravo II could be conducted more effectively under his overall direction, he persuaded the regime also to give him command of the Mekong delta forces headed by General Cao. Thus he gained control of nearly all the military units in and around Saigon.
Believing him to be on their side, Diem and Nhu authorized Dinh to deploy troops as he saw fit during the days’that followed. Ac¬cordingly, Dinh positioned rebel forces inside the capital to attack such key government installations as the radio station, police head¬quarters and presidential palace. Except for a few senior officers, most of the soldiers entering Saigon were unaware that a coup was under way. A paratrooop lieutenant asked the major in charge of his bat¬talion, “Who is the enemy?” Replied the major, “Anyone who op¬poses us is the enemy.”
At ten o’clock on the morning of November 1, Ambassador Lodge and Admiral Felt paid a courtesy call on Diem. The ritual was the same as always. They sat in brocade armchairs in an ornate salon of the palace and listened wearily as Diem delivered one of his marathon monologues. At one point, Diem referred to rumors of a coup against him, but he seemed unperturbed, probably because he expected Nhu’s countercoup to succeed; possibly, too, he expected Nhu’s devious scheme to restore him to America’s good graces, and as the two-hour session ended, he suggested to Lodge that they meet again soon to resolve their differences.
Lodge retired to his residence for lunch and his customary siesta, leaving Felt to drive to the airport with Generals Harkins and Don. As Felt prepared to board his airplane, Harkins rambled on about the military situation. Don glanced nervously at his watch. The coup was due to begin in an hour, and the other insurgent generals awaited him at the officers’ club inside the compound of the staff headquarters near the airport.

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