The End of Diem 13

The generals and other senior officers, not all of them involved in the plot, had been gathering at the club since noon. They included Colonel Tung, commander of the special forces, who had been told to report to what was described as a routine meeting. Conspicuously absent, however, was Diem’s loyal navy commander, Captain Ho Tan Quyen. An hour earlier, his suspicions aroused by unaccountable troop movements around Saigon, he had driven off to consult a fellow officer outside the capital. A jeep filled with rebel marines followed him, blocking his car on a deserted road beyond the city. Leaping from his vehicle, Quyen dashed across an open field, the marines in pursuit. He stumbled and fell. One of the marines reached him as he lay on the ground, placed a pistol against his head, hesitated for a second and fired. Quyen was the first casualty of the coup—which had not yet officially begun.
Conein had been summoned to headquarters by the dentist whose office he and General Don had used for their furtive meetings. Wearing his uniform, an ivory-handled .375 magnum frontier-model revolver strapped to his waist, Conein carried a satchel containing three million piasters, the equivalent of forty thousand dollars, in case the insurgents needed funds. The generals equipped him with two telephones, one linked to the main CIA office and the other to his villa, where a squad of American Green Berets were guarding his wife and children. Conein also had a radio in his jeep. As he drove to the headquarters, he transmitted to his superiors the prearranged cipher that signaled the imminent start of the coup: “Nine, nine, nine, nine, nine, nine. . . .” Accompanied by a platoon of troops, Colonel Co had driven that morning from Saigon to Mytho, the Mekong Delta town. General Dinh, whose writ now extended into the area, had given him official orders to take over the division based there. The division’s officers considered Co’s arrival to be a normal change of command, not sus¬pecting that his real purpose was to turn them against General Cao’s loyalist forces if they tried to rescue Diem. Reaching Mytho two hours before the start of the coup, Co stalled for time by staging an elaborate ceremony in a local hall, which his soldiers surrounded. At precisely one-thirty, they burst through the doors, waving their automatic weapons at the officers present. Co thereupon revealed that the coup had begun in Saigon, adding: “Please remain seated quietly. Anyone who rises will be instantly shot.”
At that moment, mutinous units went into action in Saigon. Some encircled Diem’s palace and his guards’ barracks, while others quickly captured the police headquarters and the radio station, where an in¬surgent officer promptly began to broadcast tapes proclaiming the “revolution.” General Don announced to the officers assembled at staff headquarters that a military revolutionary council was seizing power, and he invited them to swear allegiance to the new body. Many had not known of the impending coup; now all but one of them stood up to applaud. The exception was Colonel Tung, whose fate had been decided beforehand. Minh’s bodyguard, a captain Nguyen Van Nhung, took him to another room in the building. Later in the day, Tung’s brother, Major Le Quang Trieu, was also arrested, and at nightfall Captain Nhung drove them both to a spot outside the headquarters compound and shot them. One of the officers present at the compound afterward recalled to me Tung’s searing words as Nhung led him away. Denouncing the generals for betraying Diem, he shouted, “Remember who gave you your stars!”
Ensconced in the air-conditioned cellar of the presidential palace, where they had survived earlier threats against them, Diem and Nhu at first reacted calmly to the events, confident that their Bravo op¬erations were unfolding according to plan. Within an hour or so, though, they sensed that something was wrong. They could not reach General Dinh, and refusing to imagine that he was double-crossing them, they conjectured that he might have been captured by the in¬surgents. But they rejected the generals’ appeals to surrender. At about three o’clock, however, Diem abruptly changed his tactics. He had outwitted the; rebel paratroopers in November 1960, and he could repeat that performance. He telephoned General Don.
DIEM: What are you generals doing?
DON: Sir, we have proposed to you many times that you reform
your policy to conform with the wishes of the peo¬ple. . . . The time has come for the army to respond to the wishes of the people. Please understand us.
DIEM: Why don’t we sit down together? We could talk about the
strengths and weaknesses of the regime and seek ways to improve it.
DON: It may be too late for that.
DIEM: It’s never too late. I hereby invite you all to the palace to
discuss the matter together, and find a solution acceptable to both sides.
DON: Sir, let me see what the others think.
The others, recollecting Diem’s persuasive skills, spumed the offer. But the insurgent leaders, having agreed in advance to spare Diem’s life, refrained from shelling his palace. Instead, they directed artillery fire against the presidential guard barracks nearby.
At four-thirty in the afternoon, Diem telephoned Lodge. He was too proud to plead for American assistance and Lodge, having helped to set the coup in motion, was not about to stop it.
DIEM: Some units have made a rebellion, and I want to know
what is the attitude of the United States.
LODGE: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you.
I have heard the shooting but am not acquainted with all the facts. Also, it is four thirty A.M. in Washington, and the U.S. government cannot possibly have a view.
DIEM: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a
chief of state. I have tried to do my duty. I want to do now what duty and good sense require. I believe in duty above all.
LODGE: YOU have certainly done your duty. As I told you only
this morning, I admire your courage and your great con¬tribution to your country. No one can take away from you the credit for all you have done. Now I am worried about your physical safety. I have a report that those in charge of the current activity offer you and your brother safe-conduct out of the country if you resign. Had you heard this?
DIEM: NO. [And then, after a pause] You have my telephone
number.
LODGE: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please
call me.
DIEM: I am trying to reestablish order.
Shortly afterward, the generals telephoned Diem, promising to allow him and Nhu to leave the country unharmed if they capitulated. Otherwise, they warned, they would attack the palace. But Diem, his intransigence stiffened by Nhu, refused to yield. Using his private transmitter, he radioed to his handpicked province chiefs for assistance, and he even appealed to his youth and women’s organizations for aid. Nobody responded. His messages were either jammed by the insur¬gents, or his supporters had rallied to the rebels to save themselves. General Cao, one of his few hopes, had been blocked deep in the Mekong Delta since midday.

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