Escalation 5

Ky owed his titular authority to a tacit accord with the generals who commanded South Vietnam’s four military regions. They backed him as prime minister because he was acceptable to the United States, which furnished them with funds and supplies, and because he rarely meddled in their areas, where they ruled as virtual warlords. The arrangement suited the Americans, since the semblance of political harmony meant that they could “get on with the war.” But Ky, presuming that President Johnson had mandated him to consolidate control, began to rock the boat—to the dismay of American officials in Saigon and Washington. After trying to manage Diem, Duong Van Minh, Nguyen Khanh and an array of lesser South Vietnamese figures, they found themselves once again confused and tormented by yet another “puppet” pulling his own strings.
The trouble erupted in March 1966 when Ky sought to extend his sway over central Vietnam by dismissing General Nguyen Chanh Thi, the boss of the region. Both flamboyant characters who wore gaudy uniforms and sported sinister mustaches, the two young officers had been friends, and their rivalry seemed to typify the personal struggles for power that chronically afflicted South Vietnam. But their dispute mirrored more than individual ambition.
Under American pressure to confect a democratic image palatable to the U.S. public, Ky had earlier promised to retire in favor of an elected civilian government. But following his inspirational encounter with Johnson in Honolulu, he stalled, and various South Vietnamese factions demanded his resignation. Foremost among them were the militant Buddhists headed by Tri Quang, the monk who had mobi¬lized the opposition to Diem three years before. Tri Quang directed the opposition from Hue, where he had cemented an alliance with General Nguyen Chanh Thi. Ky figured that he could bridle the Buddhists by ousting Thi—and American officials approved the tactic, explaining that it was a “step toward political stability” that would bolster the Saigon regime. They, and Ky, miscalculated.
Within days of Thi’s removal, Buddhists streamed into the streets of Hue to demonstrate, and the protests spread south to other coastal cities. Dockworkers and civil servants in Danang went on strike, and violence broke out in parts of Saigon as gangs of youths set fire to automobiles and smashed shop windows. The police, either bewil¬dered or sympathetic to the crowds, did nothing to curb the agitation. Meanwhile, South Vietnamese military operations in the central prov¬inces stopped as Thi’s troops, joining the resistance, took over Hue and Danang in an apparent act of secession. South Vietnam soon seemed to be roiled by a civil war within a civil war, a spectacle that stupefied members of the U.S. mission in Saigon. Their Vietnamese proteges, for whom the United States had expended so much in blood and treasure, were behaving like ingrates. Westmoreland, baffled by Ky’s motives, referred to his conduct as “foolishness,” but other American officials were less charitable. One of them, unable to restrain his frustrated fury, exploded at me: “What are we doing here? We’re fighting to save these people, and they’re fighting each other!”
The chaos worsened in early April when Ky announced his intention to “liberate” Danang, which he claimed was in Communist hands. The allegation was patently ridiculous, since Danang had been heavily invested by U.S. marines for a year. Nevertheless, desperate to see order restored, Ambassador Lodge loaned American airplanes and pilots to Ky to transport four thousand South Vietnamese soldiers to Danang. Leading the operation himself, Ky landed to find Thi’s dis¬sident troops blocking the road into the city with machine guns. The U.S. marine commander, in charge of the airport, intervened to avert a clash, leaving the two forces deadlocked. After an afternoon of posturing, Ky finally flew back to Saigon and his men departed a few days later. His mission unaccomplished, he had “lost face.”
The Buddhists, incensed by the way the Americans had helped Ky, now turned to denunciations of the United States. They sent a telegram to Lodge, assailing him for helping Ky to “suppress and wipe out the Vietnamese people,” and they paraded through Hue with banners reading DOWN WITH THE CIA and END FOREIGN DOMINATION OF OUR COUNTRY. Ky thought that these slogans were further proof of Com¬munist complicity in the Buddhist movement, and his assertion might have been dismissed as hyperbole had it not been repeated by senior American officials and influential American journalists. McGeorge Bundy contended in a speech on April 8 that Tri Quang was conspiring with the Communists to seize power. By no coincidence, New York Times columnist Cyrus L. Sulzberger simultaneously published the same accusation, having been briefed by William Porter, the deputy U.S. ambassador, at whose house in Saigon he was then staying. Sulzberger also interviewed Ky, who persuaded him that the Com¬munists had “deeply infiltrated” the Buddhist ranks in a maneuver to cut central Vietnam off from the rest of the country.
Like so much other information emanating from Saigon, the alle¬gation was sheer fantasy. Not only had the Communists remained aloof from the disorder, but they later regretted their failure to profit from the turmoil. Ho Chi Minh’s principal deputy, Le Duan, ex¬plained in a secret message to his southern comrades in July 1967 that they “had not taken the initiative in inciting the masses to arise” because their machinery in the cities of the region was “still weak.” As a consequence, he admitted, “we lost an opportunity.” He added, however, that the experience “taught us a lesson”—and the Commu¬nists began to construct an urban apparatus that was to become impor¬tant, particularly in Hue, during the Tet offensive the following year.
A week after tarring the Buddhists as Communist agents and dupes, Ky abruptly zigzagged and acquiesced to their demands to resign following election of a constituent assembly of civilians, to be held within five months. Placated, Tri Quang urged his disciples in central Vietnam to cease demonstrating. The tumult subsided, but the lull was brief. Early in May, fearful of looking weak, Ky again reversed himself, proclaiming that he would not quit soon—and, indeed, ex¬pected to remain in office “for at least another year.” With that, he dispatched a force of two thousand troops against his adversaries in Danang, this time without informing the U.S. embassy in Saigon or even consulting Nguyen Van Thieu, the chief of state.

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