America’s Mandarin 11

He was also persuaded that the Communist guerrillas were not— and never would be—a real threat. Swayed by his Korean experience, he argued that the potential danger to the south was a massive invasion from the north. Thus he rejected the necessity for renovating the society and instead urged Diem to focus on building up a conventional army. Diem needed no encouragement. He was not especially inter¬ested in fighting the Vietcong insurgency, and even less in rural re¬forms that might alienate the landowning class that supported his government. His priority was to reinforce his military and police machinery, which would defend him against his rivals in Saigon, whom he believed were plotting his overthrow.
Diem’s instincts proved to be prescient in November 1960, when three crack paratrooper battalions and a marine unit surrounded his palace in an effort to compel him to introduce reforms. The instigator of the revolt, Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong, was a young northerner who had fought with the French against the Vietminh. Lean and intense, he had trained afterward at Fort Leavenworth, Kan¬sas, and his American advisers in Vietnam regarded him highly. Fiercely anti-Communist, he had become irritated with Diem’s ar¬bitrary rule—especially his meddling in army operations. It was com¬mon for Diem to deploy detachments around the country without informing the general staff; he promoted favorites; and he played senior soldiers against each other in order to prevent the army from challenging his power. Years later, Dong disclosed to me his objective had simply been to force Diem to change. But the naivete of that hope was reflected in the inefficiency of his maneuver.
A year earlier, Dong had lined up other disgruntled officers, among them his commander, Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi, who had fought for Diem against the sects in 1955. Dong also enlisted the cooperation of an armored regiment. But the operation, launched at five o’clock on the morning of November 11, was off course at the start. The rebels failed to follow the most elementary procedures, such as seizing the radio station and blocking the roads into the city. They left tele-phone lines at the presidential palace intact, allowing Diem to appeal to loyal units to rescue him. And they refrained from attacking for thirty-six hours in the expectation that Diem would comply with their demands. During that time, Dong called on Ambassador Durbrow to intervene on his behalf. But Durbrow, though he had no love for Diem, equivocated. “We support this government until it fails,” he told Dong.
Cleverly using the time at his disposal, Diem outwitted the dissident soldiers. Descending into the cellar of the palace, he taped a speech agreeing to free elections and other liberal measures. The stall worked. Just as his concessions were being broadcast, loyal contingents rolled into Saigon. The clash was brief but bloody; the four hundred dead included many inquisitive civilians who had streamed into the streets to watch the confrontation. Dong, Thi and their officers fled to asylum in Cambodia, and Diem promptly reneged on his promises. He also rounded up numbers of innocuous critics, among them several former members of his cabinet.
Not long afterward, Nhu invited me to his office to reveal the “real” story behind the attempted coup. Cluttered with mounted animal heads and tiger skins, the study resembled a den in a hunting lodge. Nhu chain-smoked as he spoke in shrill French. Plainly referring to Durbrow’s equivocation, he asserted that the regime’s enemies were “not only Communists but foreigners who claim to be our friends.” He would repeat that accusation until it finally came true in 1963, when Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge encouraged a cabal of South Vietnamese generals to oust Diem.
Dong’s abortive effort was a pivotal event. From then on, many of Diem’s former disciples began to plot against him. They included his secret police chief, Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, who quietly consulted with military and civilian officials, and several senior South Vietnamese officers. Also among them was Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a southern Catholic and former Vietminh intelligence agent—and a clandestine Communist agent.
As early as October 1957, on instructions from Hanoi, the Com¬munists in the south organized thirty-seven armed companies, most of them in the impenetrable forests and marshes of the western fringe of the Mekong Delta. In May 1959, the North Vietnamese leadership created a unit called Group 559, its task to begin enlarging the tra¬ditional Communist infiltration route, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, into the south. Two months later, another logistical unit, Group 759, was formed to study ways to ship men and supplies from North Vietnam to the south by sea. “Absolute secrecy, absolute security, were our watchwords,” recalled the Communist officer in charge in an inter¬view after the war. His motives were clear. At the time, the Com¬munists were determined to foster the impression of total adherence to the terms of the Geneva agreement, which banned military buildups by either of the two Vietnamese regimes in each other’s zone. The Communist moves then, however, were largely precautionary.
Until 1959, Ho Chi Minh had discouraged his southern comrades from engaging in armed attacks against the Diem regime, arguing that the situation was “not ripe” for insurrection. He warned against “reckless” actions, contending that they would provoke Diem to re¬press the population and thus impede the construction of a solid po¬litical organization. A contemporary Communist document typified the plea for prudence: “At the present time, we are still in an indecisive back-and-forth period. . . . We must accumulate our forces and de¬velop our apparatus . . . preserve the legal status of the masses, not eliminating the government but just crippling it. . . . To ignore the balance of forces and rashly call for a general uprising is to commit the error of speculative adventurism, leading to premature violence and driving us into a very dangerous position.” In 1990, looking back on that period, Giap told me, “Perhaps we should have acted sooner, but we had just come through a long war against the French. The people were exhausted, and mobilizing them for a new armed struggle may have been difficult. In any case, Vietnam had been divided many times in its history, often for hundreds of years, and we felt that we could wait.”

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