The End of Diem 4

An early plotter was Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, a tiny man with a squeaky voice who scarcely seemed like one of Saigon’s most sinister figures. He ran the Office of Political and Social Studies, the secret government apparatus organized with CIA assistance to keep tabs on dissenters. A northern Catholic who had fled south in 1954, Tuyen feared that Diem’s failings would bring about a Communist takeover. Ironically, he filled his faction with dissidents he had blacklisted, and he also attracted disgruntled junior officers. He teamed up as well with Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, unaware of his clandestine Communist ties. Thao’s followers included a young air force pilot, Nguyen Cao Ky.
Hoping to preempt other conspirators, Tuyen and Thao had planned a quick coup against Diem. But Conein, getting wind of their project, tipped off General Tran Thien Khiem, the army chief of staff, who stopped the premature action; Nhu then exiled Tuyen to Cairo as consul general. Tuyen went no farther than Hong Kong, where he continued to plot long-distance. Thao thereupon joined Khiem’s in¬surgent group, which eventually was folded into the mainstream conspiracy.
With the pieces of the puzzle not yet fit together, Don had few details to offer Conein as they talked in the noisy nightclub after the Fourth of July party. He could only hint to Conein that a coup was in the making. And he had a crucial question to ask him: “What will the American reaction be if we go all the way?”
The question revealed the conspirators’ basic preoccupation, which persisted as they prepared the coup. Inexperienced politically, tutored first by the French and later reliant on Diem, they were eager for American approbation—partly because they were accustomed to act¬ing on orders and also because they would need U.S. aid if they succeeded. So the United States probably could have prevented Diem’s downfall by disapproving of the plot. While no U.S. officials of any rank considered Diem ideal, some foresaw disaster in his continued leadership; others predicted chaos without it. Either way, the dilemma illustrated the danger of underwriting a client who refused to behave like a client.
The problem of the recalcitrant protege was not confined to Viet¬nam. In varying degrees and at different times, such states as Israel, Taiwan and South Korea manipulated the United States, so Diem was not the only “puppet who pulled his own strings.” But, in exerting leverage, he ran the risk of exasperating an American government no longer willing to be a captive of its dependent.
Conein could not furnish Don with a clue to U.S. intentions in early July because, at that stage, Kennedy still hoped that Diem might be persuaded to compromise with the Buddhists. Kennedy sent Nolt- ing back to Saigon with instructions to “get that guy out there to play ball.” But Nolting, fearful of weakening the regime, refused to prod Diem, who did little to resolve the crisis. Four more monks burned themselves to death during the first half of August, and Madame Nhu applauded the suicides.
Nolting finally went home in the middle of August, still extolling Diem’s devotion to “democratic principles” and “social justice,” and even asserting that he had “never seen any evidence of religious per¬secution” during his two years in Vietnam. A week after his departure, the tottering U.S. policy toward Diem fell into shambles.
On August 20, Don and other generals proposed to Diem that he declare martial law so that they could prosecute the war more ef¬fectively despite the political turmoil. Their real purpose was to strengthen their control for a coup. Surprisingly, Diem acquiesced, but for another purpose: by imposing martial law, he aimed to im¬plicate the army in a scheme then being designed by Nhu—to crack down on the Buddhists with his own loyal forces disguised as regular soldiers. Thus, he calculated, he could turn the Buddhists and their sympathizers against the army and to his own advantage. He struck shortly after midnight on August 21.
Armed with rifles, submachine guns and tear gas grenades, truck- loads of Nhu’s men raced through the silent streets of Saigon to sur¬round the Xa Loi temple, the city’s principal Buddhist sanctuary. They attacked without warning, ransacked the ornate pagoda, and arrested some four hundred monks and nuns, among them Vietnam’s eighty- year-old Buddhist patriarch. But the Saigon raid paled in comparison to events in Hue, where monks and nuns barricaded inside the Dieude temple fought off Nhu’s assailants for eight hours as nearly two thou¬sand townspeople rioted in protest. Nhu staged similar assaults in other cities, rounding up more than a thousand monks, nuns, student activists and ordinary citizens. Many were injured and others disap¬peared, presumably killed in the melees.
Vietnamese reacted in dismay. Urban youths, most of them the sons and daughters of the middle-class families that made up the bu¬reaucracy and army leadership, poured into the streets to demonstrate against the regime. Madame Nhu’s father, Tran Van Chuong, the South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington, quit his post to de nounce the government. Foreign Minister Vu Van Mau resigned and shaved his head like a Buddhist monk as a gesture of protest. Tri Quang, the Buddhist leader, took refuge in the U.S. embassy—be¬lying the government’s allegation that he was a Communist.
The CIA was supposed to track Nhu’s every move, but its agents had been caught off balance by the attacks. Nhu had cut the U.S. embassy and residential telephone lines when he launched his raids, gulling American officials into the belief that the army had attacked the Buddhist temples. The “Voice of America” at first broadcast that version of the event, which infuriated the generals, since numbers of Vietnamese listened to its Vietnamese-language news programs, their only unbiased souce of information. Don summoned Conein to his headquarters near the Saigon airport and denied that the generals had suppressed the Buddhists. But despite Don’s demands, the “Voice of America” refrained from broadcasting a retraction.

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