The End of Diem 15

At the church, the Ngo brothers politely shook Xuan’s hand. Diem appeared to be disappointed that a limousine befitting his rank had not been dispatched, but Xuan advised him that the armored car had been deliberately chosen for his protection against “extremists.” Acquiescing, Diem and Nhu boarded the vehicle. Nghia climbed into the gun turret overlooking them, while Nhung sat near them below. Xuan and the other officers got into jeeps, and the motorcade drove off.
What occurred after that has been related in various versions, but most of the details concur. The convoy headed toward Saigon and stopped at a railroad crossing. There, by every account, the assassi¬nations took place. General Don’s later investigation determined that Nghia shot the brothers point-blank from the gun turret with an automatic weapon, while Nhung sprayed them with bullets then stabbed their bodies repeatedly with a knife. Awash with blood, the armored car went on, preceded by the jeeps, whose passengers had not looked back.
Don and the other officers were stunned when the corpses arrived at headquarters. Barging into Minh’s office, he demanded an expla¬nation; Minh parried him, and Don began to insist. At that moment the door opened and Xuan entered. Unaware of Don’s presence, he snapped to attention and said, “Mission accomplie.”
The report of Diem’s death, flashed to Washington, caught Kennedy in a meeting with Maxwell Taylor and other aides. Kennedy leaped to his feet and, as Taylor later recalled, “rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face.” Soon afterward, the White House requested further information from Lodge, who directed Co- nein to see Minh. Conein, who had gone home to bed, returned to staff headquarters—less to gather intelligence than to scold Minh for inventing a lame alibi.
MINH: He committed suicide.
CONEIN: Where?
MINH: Well, he was at a Catholic church, and—
CONEIN: Listen, this is your affair, but I’ll tell you something as
a Catholic. If a priest holds mass for him tonight, every¬body is going to know that he didn’t commit suicide. Therefore, your story doesn’t sound right.
MINH: Would you like to see him? We have him here.
CONEIN: There’s a one-in-a-million chance that people will believe
your story. But if the truth gets out, I don’t want to be blamed for leaking it.
Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred only three weeks after¬ward, would be exhaustively investigated by official commissions. But neither the American nor South Vietnamese government ever conducted a public inquiry into Diem’s death.
At the time, Saigon welcomed his downfall. Crowds tore up his portrait and slogans. Political prisoners, many scarred by torture, emerged from his jails. The city’s nightclubs reopened with a ven¬geance. In the countryside, peasants demolished the strategic hamlets. Elated and unrepentant, Lodge invited the insurgent generals to his office to congratulate them on their victory, which was his triumph as well. A few days later, he cabled Kennedy: “The prospects now are for a shorter war.”

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