The End of Diem 5

Henry Cabot Lodge, en route to Vietnam, was conferring in Hon¬olulu when the crackdowns against the Buddhists occurred. On in¬structions from Washington, he sped to Saigon, landing on August 22. Awaiting him was a cable from the State Department requesting his immediate appraisal of the situation. After a briefing by his staff, he reported that Nhu had planned to move against the Buddhists, “probably” with Diem’s “full support.” He also confirmed that the generals had sought American support for a coup against the brothers, but he counseled prudence; immediate action would be a “shot in the dark.” At the same time, Admiral Harry Felt, commander for the Pacific, telephoned Washington from Honolulu to urge that the Amer¬ican government act tough toward Nhu; two of Diem’s close civilian aides, upset by the repression, made the same recommendation to their American contacts in Saigon.
These and other messages, heightened by dramatic newspaper head¬lines and television accounts of the situation, pushed the Kennedy administration toward a prompt response. On Saturday, August 24, an American policy decision went back to Lodge, and it was to be the focus of controversy and recrimination for years afterward.
Roger Hilsman, head of the State Department’s Far Eastern bureau, considered himself a counterinsurgency expert, having served as a commando in Burma during World War II. He had long criticized the Saigon regime’s competence to wage an essentially political strug¬gle. Now, he believed, the moment had come to exert maximum pressure on Diem. Asserting that the United States “cannot tolerate a situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands,” Hilsman proposed in a memorandum to Lodge that Diem be “given the chance” to jettison his brother. If Diem “remains obdurate and refuses,” Hilsman continued, “we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” The message to Lodge further advised him to pass this decision on to the dissident generals—in effect, to assure them of American support for a coup against Diem unless he removed Nhu.
Thus Hilsman was recommending that the Kennedy administration encourage the overthrow of an uncooperative ally, a proposal whose significance far transcended Vietnam. For it meant, in theory at least, that the United States reserved the right to manipulate a dependent government that failed to conform to its standards.
Hilsman drafted the cable with the collaboration of Averell Harri- man and Michael Forrestal, an aide to McGeorge Bundy, the presi¬dent’s national security adviser. Their next step was to obtain approval from their superiors—late on a hot Saturday afternoon in August.
George Ball, the deputy secretary of state, was playing golf at a Washington club, and Harriman and Hilsman drove up just as he had completed the ninth hole. Ball took them to his house to study the message. He favored its firmness but insisted that it be cleared with President Kennedy, who was spending the weekend in Hyannis Port at his Cape Cod estate. It has never been established whether Kennedy received the text by teletype, as Hilsman has claimed, or was merely read the “relevant passages” over the telephone, as Ball has recollected. Kennedy could not have assumed that all his advisers had approved the cable, as his brother Robert recalled, since he endorsed it on con¬dition that Ball get the concurrence of Secretary of State Rusk and of Roswell Gilpatric, the deputy secretary of defense acting for Mc¬Namara, who was on vacation. Most probably, Kennedy was not paying close attention to details on that summer weekend.
What followed was a series of misunderstandings. Rusk, telephoned in New York, where he had gone for a special United Nations session, cautiously endorsed the directive under the impression that Kennedy had approved it. Gilpatric similarly assented in the belief that both Kennedy and Rusk had agreed, but he later telephoned Maxwell Tay¬lor, now chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to register his misgivings. Taylor, who had been dining in a restaurant and could not be im-mediately located, said afterward that this was the first he had heard of it. But one of his deputies, General Victor Krulak, had earlier cleared it on his behalf without notifying him. In years to come, Taylor branded Ball, Harriman, Hilsman and Forrestal as “anti-Diem activ¬ists” whose maneuver had been an “egregious end run.” McGeorge Bundy, however, later summed up the lesson of the improvised pro¬cess: “Never do business on the weekend.”
Everyone involved gathered with Kennedy at the White House on Monday morning for the first of four days of stormy meetings. Ken¬nedy opened by lashing out at Ball, Harriman, Hilsman and Forrestal for their impulsiveness. Soon they were locked in a fierce dispute with Taylor, McNamara, Lyndon Johnson and John McCone, the CIA director, all of whom argued against a coup; Rusk characteristically played safe by remaining silent. A day later, Kennedy invited Nolting to present his ideas; predictably, he opposed any action against Diem. Incensed, Harriman unleashed a tirade against Nolting and even re¬fused afterward to drive him back to the State Department in his limousine. The upper echelons of the administration were split as never before. “My God!” Kennedy confided to a friend, “my government is coming apart!”
While the acrimonious White House debate droned on, U. S. officials began to resemble the Vietnamese plotters, as they deviously jockeyed to advance their views. Taylor and Harkins, both opposed to a coup, were surreptitiously communicating with each other over a “back channel” Pentagon line between Washington and Saigon. At Lodge’s request, Hilsman now authorized the “Voice of America” to broadcast a report absolving the South Vietnamese army of responsibility for attacking the temples. The radio went even further, citing American press speculation that the United States “may sharply reduce its aid” to Diem unless he dismissed the organizers of the anti-Buddhist raids. Though this was promptly denied, the broadcast plainly indicated to Diem that the Kennedy administration was turning against him. It also worried the Saigon conspirators, who feared that their intrigue would be tainted if U.S. support was displayed too publicly.

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