The End of Diem 6

Originally cautious, Lodge now pleaded for giving the rebel generals the go-ahead. He told Washington that delays would only strengthen Nhu and diminish the prospects for an effective coup. He also doubted that Diem could be persuaded to drop Nhu, an impression he con¬firmed on August 26, when he met Diem for the first time to present his credentials. Both Brahmins in their way, they sat stiffly over their ritual tea in the presidential palace, neither one willing to yield to the other. As Lodge recalled the scene to me years later: “I could see a cloud pass across his face when I suggested that he get rid of Nhu and improve his government. He absolutely refused to discuss any of the topics that President Kennedy had instructed me to raise, and that frankly jolted me. He looked up at the ceiling and talked about ir¬relevant subjects. I thought it was deplorable.”
John Richardson, the CIA chief in Saigon, backed up Lodge. Basing his assessment on intelligence that Conein and other clandestine agents had gathered, he reported to Washington that the situation had reached a “point of no return.” The generals “must proceed quickly.” he said, recommending that’they be given covert U.S. help, since Vietnam’s fate hinged on their success. “It is obviously preferable that the generals conduct this effort without apparent American assistance. . . . Never-theless, we all understand that the effort must succeed and that what¬ever needs to be done on our part must be done. If this attempt by the generals does not take place, or if it fails, we believe it no exag¬geration to say that Vietnam runs a serious risk of being lost over the course of time.”
Harkins demurred. He privately warned Taylor against “crash ap¬proval” for the conspirators, pointing out that they lacked the force to defeat the government’s units. He also perceived, accurately, as it turned out, that the plotters would not move without a U.S. signal. Harkins would continue to try to foil the coup, clashing with Lodge’s endeavors to push the generals into action.
By late August, the generals had not yet divulged their plans to Conein and other CIA operatives. They feared betrayal; they also wanted visible evidence of American endorsement, such as a halt in U.S. economic aid to Diem. Kennedy was not yet ready for so strong a gesture of reproval, but Lodge took an unusual step, designed to dem¬onstrate his sympathy. He ordered the CIA to furnish them with infor¬mation on a secret base used by the special forces, a unit loyal to Nhu.
On August 29, impatient at Washington’s waffling, Lodge sent a cable demanding decisive measures.
We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government. There is no turning back because U.S. prestige is already publicly committed to this end in large measure, and will become more so as the facts leak out. In a more fundamental sense, there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration.
Lodge proposed that U.S. aid to Diem be halted—the signal awaited by the generals to spark their coup. And, with uncharacteristic emo¬tion, he urged an “all-out effort” to make the insurgents “move promptly,” stressing that the outcome of the action would depend “at least as much on us” as on them. Otherwise, he warned, dissat¬isfaction with the Diem regime might explode in violence, bringing in a “pro-Communist or at best a neutralist set of politicians.” Amer¬ica’s investment in Vietnam entitled the United States to intervene: “Our help to the regime in past years inescapably gives us a respon¬sibility that we cannot avoid.”
Kennedy approved Lodge’s recommendations, giving him complete discretion to suspend U.S. aid to Diem. So Lodge was handed the mandate to manage American policy in Vietnam. And the policy, as Lodge defined it, was to topple the Diem regime.
What inspired Kennedy to delegate such power to Lodge remains a mystery that has not been adequately unraveled by any of the self- serving memoirs of the period. It may be, as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, that Lodge was “a strong man with the bit between his teeth” who eluded Kennedy’s control. On the other hand, Kennedy may have agreed with Lodge on the need to oust Diem but preferred to give the Republican a messy job that might backfire politically.
Kennedy would later have reservations about the coup. But on September 2, in a prime-time television interview with Walter Cronkite, he publicly endorsed Lodge’s approach. Repeating Lodge’s private warning almost word for word, Kennedy doubted that the war could be prosecuted effectively “unless a greater effort is made by the [Diem] government to win popular support. ” He bluntly added that the regime had “gotten out of touch with the people.” And he also called for changes in “policy and personnel,” meaning that Diem had to conciliate the Buddhists and dump the Nhus. None of this signified, however, that he contemplated a retreat from Vietnam. “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. We must be patient. We must persist. ”
But Lodge, for all his determination and dynamism, could not get the conspirators to “move promptly.” On the contrary, he predicted, getting them to move at all would be like “pushing a piece of spa¬ghetti.”
At the beginning of September, to Lodge’s consternation, the rebel officers abruptly postponed their coup planning amid clouds of sus¬picion and uncertainty. Some suspected that Richardson, the CIA chief, was informing on them to Nhu, with whom he maintained close contacts, while others suspected Harkins of betraying them to Diem. Don suspected Khiem, who had rescued Diem from the in¬surgent paratroopers three years before, and Khiem suspected Thao because of his Vietminh past. Most had misgivings about Minh’s nominal leadership,, since he seemed to be more interested in playing tennis and raising orchids than in directing a revolt. Above all, they sensed at that stage that they lacked the strength for a showdown.

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