The End of Diem 3

At sixty-two, with a lifetime of public service behind him, Henry Cabot Lodge was healthy, vigorous and looking for work. He struck Dean Rusk as an ideal successor to Ambassador Nolting. Lodge had visited Vietnam during the 1930s as a young newspaper reporter, and he spoke fluent French, having served as a liaison officer with the French army during World War II. The idea tantalized President Ken¬nedy. He could be magnanimous to an old foe whom he had defeated for senator in Massachusetts and again as Nixon’s running mate. Be¬sides, a Republican in Saigon was insurance against recrimination should Vietnam go down the drain. So, on June 27, 1963, Kennedy named Lodge his envoy, scheduling him to start in September. A week later, Kennedy summoned a few aides to the Oval Office to discuss Vietnam. They included Harriman, Hilsman and George Ball, now deputy secretary of state. They concurred that Nhu was the culprit, but they also agreed that Diem would never jettison him. For the first time in Kennedy’s hearing, they speculated on the likelihood of a coup d’etat against Diem.
On the same evening in Saigon, the same topic was discussed by General Tran Van Don, figurehead commander of the South Viet¬namese army, and Lucien Conein, the veteran CIA operative, now a lieutenant colonel. A few nightclubs were thriving despite Madame Nhu’s ban, and they had gone to a noisy boite after a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. embassy, reckoning that the music would muffle their conversation.
Don, then in his late forties, was smooth, handsome and more French than Vietnamese. Indeed, he had been born in Bordeaux, where his father, the son of a rich Mekong Delta landowner, was studying medicine. Back in France as a university student, he became a French army officer when World War II erupted. He later returned to Viet¬nam, rising rapidly in the French-sponsored Vietnamese forces. He rose in rank under Diem but gradually soured on the regime as he observed its shortcomings, and he began to share his doubts with other senior officers. His closest confidant was his brother-in-law, General Le Van Kim, the brainiest of South Vietnam’s top soldiers. Kim had also been raised in France, where he had worked as an assistant film director before joining the French army. Though he recognized Kim’s talents, Diem distrusted him and had kicked him upstairs as head of South Vietnam’s military academy. Don and Kim would later recruit another dissatisfied colleague, General Duong Van Minh, the hefty southerner known as “Big Minh” who had helped Diem to eliminate the sects. Minh was too popular with the troops for Diem, who a couple of years earlier had named him a “special adviser,” a-job without authority. Don had sounded out other dis¬contented officers, and now he was ready to consult his old copain, “Lulu” Conein, whom he rated as “the only American I could really trust.”
An eccentric, boisterous, often uncontrollable, yet deeply sensitive and thoroughly professional agent, Conein inspired confidence in his Vietnamese contacts, who in typically Asian fashion placed more faith in personal ties than in institutional relationships. He and Don had not only fought and boozed and wenched together but also shared a peculiar cultural bond. Just as Don was a Frenchified Vietnamese, so Conein was an Americanized Frenchman.
Born in Paris, he had been shipped alone at the age of five by his widowed French mother to live in Kansas City with her sister, the wife of a World War I doughboy. He grew up speaking with a Mis-souri accent, but he retained his French citizenship. He enlisted in the French army at the outbreak of World War II, deserting when France surrendered in 1940. He managed to escape from Europe to the United States, where the OSS recruited him to parachute back into France, this time to link up with a French resistance unit. When the war ended in Europe, he transferred to Asia to join a company of French and Vietnamese commandos harassing Japanese posts in northern Viet¬nam. He entered Hanoi after Japan’s defeat with the OSS team that dealt with Ho Chi Minh and the other Vietminh leaders, and he returned there nine years later on a furtive mission to sabotage the Communist transportation system. During those early days in Viet¬nam, he befriended many young Vietnamese officers and political figures who later became his informants. He also married his third wife, a pretty Eurasian.
One of the star performers in the CIA’s “department of dirty tricks,” Conein had also infiltrated saboteurs and other covert agents into Eastern Europe, and he had trained paramilitary forces in Iran. The only physical scars of his perilous career were two missing fingers, absurdly cut off by the fan of an automobile engine he was trying to repair. The mishap occurred one night in West Germany, while he was out with the wife of a chum, and he cheerfully called it his punishment for carrying on an illicit love affair. E. Howard Hunt, a former CIA colleague, nearly hired him later for the group that bun¬gled the Watergate burglary and sparked the scandal that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation. “If I’d been involved,” Conein once assured me, “we’d have done it right.”
Reassigned to Vietnam in early 1962, Conein masqueraded as an adviser to the Saigon ministry of interior, a “cover” that allowed him to roam the country and gather intelligence on the conspiracies against the government. His job was delicate. He had to be careful that his reports on close friends, like Don, were not leaked to Diem and Nhu by the regime’s American sympathizers. His own life was in jeopardy, since Nhu could have liquidated him for intriguing and attributed his death to the Vietcong. Most important, Conein had to get his facts straight, a normally difficult task in Vietnam, now even more com plicated by the proliferation of plots and rumors of plots. Dozens of different factions were scheming, and not until late 1963 would they become a single conspiracy.

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