The End of Diem 9

A few days later, Conein conveyed the substance of that message to Minh. The green light had been flashed. Minh designated Don to keep in touch with Conein, and from then on, Conein and Don met secretly at a Saigon dentist’s office: “Whatever else happened,” Conein recalled to me later, “I certainly had a lot of work done on my teeth. ”
Lodge was now armed with the rationale he would employ publicly in the years ahead to deny his responsibility for Diem’s downfall: he had not promoted the coup but simply had “not thwarted” it. Or, as he commented to The New York Times on June 30, 1964, eight months after the episode: “The overthrow . . . of the Diem regime was purely a Vietnamese affair. We never participated in the planning. We never gave any advice. We had nothing whatever to do with it.” But in a cable to Washington on November 6, 1963, four days after Diem’s murder, Lodge privately offered Kennedy a somewhat different as¬sessment. The coup, he said, had been a Vietnamese action that “we could neither manage nor stop after it got started.” Nevertheless, he added, “It is equally certain that the ground in which the coup seed grew into a robust plant was prepared by us, and that the coup would not have happened [as] it did without our preparation. ”
Saigon seemed to have gone haywire during the early weeks of Oc¬tober 1963. Nhu’s influence was now predominant, and though martial law had been lifted, political repression intensified after another Buddhist monk burned himself to death near the central market at noon on October 5—the first self-immolation since the summer. Hardly a day passed without Nhu’s secret police arresting scores of dissidents, among them children caught distributing antigovernment tracts or scrawling slogans on walls. Bureaucrats were ordered to boycott their American advisers as Nhu issued almost daily denun¬ciations of the United States, in both private and public. He charged American officials with “destroying the psychology of our country” and “initiating a process of disintegration,” and he described Lodge as a “man of no morality.” He had managed to install electronic eavesdropping devices in the U.S. embassy and was thus able to pub lish remarkably accurate accounts of confidential American discussions in his English-language newspaper, the- Times of Vietnam. And he spread rumors of his covert contacts with the Communists, claiming that “the Americans have done everything to push me into their arms. ” The turmoil even spilled into the United States when Madame Nhu went on a speaking tour during which she shrilly excoriated American liberals as worse than Communists and dismissed Buddhist monks as “hooligans in robes.” Following her around the country was her fa¬ther, Tran Van Chuong, the former South Vietnamese ambassador in Washington. Acting as a one-man “truth squad,” he would con¬tradict her statements, criticize the Diem government’s “injustice and oppression” and warn that the Saigon regime “has become unwittingly the greatest asset to the Communists.” A similar squabble meanwhile intruded into the American media.
The Vietnam drama at the time was a journalist’s dream but a nightmare for U.S. officials, who feared that accounts of events in Vietnam would turn the American public against the war effort. Cen¬sorship was still ruled out, but without censorship it was difficult to control dynamic young correspondents in Saigon like David Halber- stam of The New York Times, Neil Sheehan of United Press Inter¬national and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, who were deluged with real and imaginary details fed them by adversaries of the regime. Even Lodge, who could be as devious as any Vietnam¬ese, leaked information aimed at tarnishing Diem’s image. Kennedy tried to have Halberstam transferred, but he was rebuffed by the publisher of the Times. Carl Rowan, then director of the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, instructed the U.S. mission in Saigon to steer the news media away from events that “are likely to result in undesirable stories.” Like so many other embarrassing doc¬uments, his classified memorandum on the subject found its way into print.
The nastiest diatribes against reporters in Saigon, however, came from journalistic purveyors of the official line. Joseph Alsop, for ex¬ample, accused his young colleagues of carrying on “egregious cru¬sades” against Diem; he compared them to Chiang Kai-shek’s press critics, whom he blamed for China’s fall to the Communists. An equally vitriolic assault was inspired by Otto Fuerbringer, then man¬aging editor of Time, who commissioned a subordinate in the mag¬azine’s New York office to write an article charging the Saigon press corps with pooling its “convictions, information, misinformation and grievances” to distort the truth. Charles Mohr, a Time correspondent in Vietnam, after pleading in vain for space to refute the allegation, resigned along with Mert Perry, another Time reporter. Mohr joined the New York Times soon afterward and distinguished himself as a combat correspondent.
The U.S. mission in Saigon was also roiled by internal disputes over whether the rebel generals ought to be encouraged to topple Diem. Lodge had heartened the Vietnamese insurgents in early Oc¬tober by dismissing John Richardson, the CIA chief, who had begun to express doubts about a coup. But Lodge still had to contend with Harkins, who decried the conspiracy and was, besides, complicating an already complicated situation with his indiscretions. On the evening of October 22, at a British embassy reception, Harkins drew General Don aside to tell him that he had heard that a coup was imminent and that he considered it a mistake. Alarmed, Don left the party early and summoned Conein to the dentist’s office the next morning. Un¬usually excited, Don told Conein that the coup had been scheduled for October 26, Armed Forces Day, when rebel military units could be deployed in Saigon without attracting attention, but that he had hastily postponed the plan after listening to Harkins. He then bom¬barded Conein with questions. How did Harkins know about the plot, when only Lodge and Conein were supposed to be privy to it? Did Harkins mean that the insurgents could no longer count on Amer¬ican support? What was the U.S. attitude now?
Don’s questions were crucial. For they suggested, once again, that the conspirators were desperate for U.S. approval and might cancel the coup were it not forthcoming. Interviewed years later, Conein disagreed: “At that point, they would have gone ahead even without American acquiescence. Their necks were stretched too far. If the generals hadn’t done it, the colonels would have, and if the colonels got cold feet, someone else would have pulled the coup.”

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