The End of Diem 8

But while getting out of Vietnam was excluded, nobody could come up with suggestions for relaxing the tensions in Saigon. On Mc¬Namara’s advice, President Kennedy did what is usually done in times ofindecision: he sent out a “fact-finding mission.” This one, composed of General Victor Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall, a State Department official who had served in Vietnam, flew a total of twenty-four thou¬sand miles for a four-day survey to confirm their prejudices. An op¬timist, Krulak concluded from speaking almost exclusively with American and South Vietnamese army officers that “the shooting war is still going ahead at an impressive pace.” A pessimist, Mendenhall concluded from talks primarily with urban bureaucrats and politicians that the Diem government was near collapse. After they presented their divergent reports to him on September 10, Kennedy quipped: “You two did visit the same country, didn’t you?”
Undeterred, Kennedy decided to send McNamara and Taylor on a voyage to Vietnam in late September. Ambassador Lodge objected, contending that Diem would construe the high-level mission as U.S. endorsement, but Kennedy had bureaucratic motives: the Pentagon brass and braid opposed the attempts by American diplomats to reform Diem, believing they were impeding the war effort; what Kennedy wanted from McNamara and Taylor was a negative assessment of the military situation, so that he could justify the pressures being exerted on the Saigon regime. But Taylor and McNamara would only further complicate Kennedy’s problems.
They listened to a spectrum of opinions during their exhausting ten-day tour, and their conclusions were riddled with contradictions and compromises. To placate Harkins and the other optimists, they hailed the “great progress” of the military campaign, proposing that a thousand U.S. advisers be pulled out by the end of the year. They even predicted that the “bulk” of the American force could be with¬drawn by 1965—a prophecy evidently made for domestic political consumption at Kennedy’s insistence. At the same time, they did their best to satisfy Diem’s critics by decrying his intransigence, and they proposed limited sanctions against him. Among other steps, they sug¬gested that Colonel Tung’s special forces be deprived of American funding unless they were deployed outside Saigon, where Nhu was using them to repress dissidents. Kennedy approved the document except for one nuance. He deleted a phrase calling the U.S. commit ment to Vietnam an “overriding” American goal, terming it instead a part of his worldwide aim to “defeat aggression.” He wanted to preserve his flexibility.
Taylor, hoping to sound out “Big Minh,” had invited him to play tennis at the Cercle Sportif, the old French club now frequented by Saigon’s elite. The place was crawling with Nhu’s secret police, and Minh prudently avoided mention of the conspiracy. Taylor presumed that the coup had been canceled. Acting on that presumption, Kennedy cabled Lodge on October 2: “No initiative should now be taken to give any covert encouragement to a coup. There should, however, be an urgent effort … to identify and build contacts with possible alternative leadership as and when it appears.”
Three days later, however, Lodge reported to Kennedy that the on- again, off-again coup was on again. The generals had been quietly organizing over the past month and were now ready to share some of their thoughts with the Americans. Don arranged a meeting be¬tween Conein and Minh for the morning of October 5 at Le Van Duyet, the Saigon garrison headquarters, a sprawl of mildewed bun¬galows of French vintage.
Conein groaned at the prospect of an enounter with Minh, whom he dismissed as a “glorified French army corporal.” But Minh was now unusually articulate. Speaking in French, he told Conein that the generals did not expect tangible American support for a coup but merely assurances that the United States would “not thwart” it. They also wanted a pledge of continued U.S. military and economic aid— it was then running to more than $500 million per year—after they seized power. Minh identified the other principal plotters as Don and Le Van Kim, adding that he distrusted Khiem; he emphasized the need for urgency. Conspiracies were mushrooming everywhere, and the wrong attempt made by the wrong group could cause a “catastrophe.”
The generals were contemplating three possible strategies. The “eas¬iest” would be to assassinate Nhu and Ngo Dinh Can, the brother in Hue, leaving Diem in office. Or they could strangle the regime by encircling Saigon, a maneuver that required the cooperation of General Ton That Dinh, the area commander. Or they could directly confront the government troops in the capital, dividing the city into sectors and “cleaning it out pocket by pocket” in street fighting. A key figure to eliminate was Colonel Tung, head of the special forces, whose five thousand men were sure to defend the Ngo brothers. Conein agreed, calling Tung “one of the more dangerous individuals.”
Minh’s talk with Conein at last gave Lodge the formula he was looking for to encourage the conspiracy without overt American com¬plicity. He recommended to Kennedy that Minh be told that the United States “will not attempt to thwart” the coup. Kennedy ap¬proved the convoluted language—cautioning only that Americans re¬frain from direct involvement in the plot: “While we do not wish to stimulate a coup, we also do not wish to leave the impression that the United States would thwart a change of government. . . . But we should avoid being drawn into reviewing or advising an operational plans, or any other act that might tend to identify the United States too closely.”

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