The Commitments Deepen 9

Militant Buddhist groups, to whom Nhung’s elimination also por¬tended a return to power of Catholics and others faithful to Diem, exacerbated the turbulence. The heads of eleven of South Vietnam’s fourteen different Buddhist sects had agreed to cease their bickering and form an alliance designed to exert political influence. Tri Quang, the monk who had first mobilized the Buddhist campaign against the Diem regime the year before, lobbied for a key post in the coalition. But his dynamism worried his rivals, some of whom also suspected him of Vietcong connections, and they instead gave the direction of the movement’s secular affairs to Tam Chau, a North Vietnamese refugee and fierce anti-Communist. Frustrated, Tri Quang decided to go on a pilgrimage to India, Ceylon and Japan—to, as he put it to friends, “bury my life” in faraway monasteries. He was raising funds for the journey in late January when Khanh had Nhung shot. He abruptly canceled his travel plans and moved to Hue, the scene of the initial Buddhist uprising against Diem. There he began to organize his acolytes, warning them that Diem’s disciples were conspiring to regain authority. He soon persuaded Tam Chau and other Buddhists to embark on an offensive that would challenge Khanh and his suc¬cessors.
Khanh had also blundered by detaining Generals Don and Kim, whom he banished to Dalat to await trial for allegedly plotting with French agents to establish a neutralist government in Saigon. Unable to produce a shred of evidence to substantiate the accusation, Khanh ended up looking petty and foolish. Indeed, a court-martial afterward rejected the indictment and merely reprimanded the two officers for such infractions as “lax morality,” a ruling that sounded to the per¬missive Vietnamese like an indirect jibe at Khanh. More important, the transparently phony case turned many officers against Khanh, further dividing the upper echelons of the South Vietnamese army at a time when it badly lacked cohesion. Khahn later tried to repair his error by appointing Don and Kim to advisory jobs, but the damage had been done.
Khanh made yet another mistake by seeking support from remnants of the Dai Viet Quoc Gia Lien Minh, or Greater Vietnam party, a nationalist movement that had been largely shattered by the Vietminh and the French. One of its surviving leaders, Dr. Nguyen Ton Hoan, a deceptively mild-looking Catholic physician, had fled to Paris in 1955 after staging an abortive bid to unseat Diem. Typically, he opened a restaurant, meanwhile maneuvering from afar to influence events inside South Vietnam through a clandestine network of associates there. Khanh, figuring that he could play the Dai Viet off against competing factions to his own advantage, summoned Hoan home to become prime minister, but the ploy misfired. The Dai Viet was so splintered that Hoan could not harness its assorted cliques; other par¬ties, hungry for a share of power, resented his appointment; and younger political activists protested, complaining that the country needed fresh blood rather than superannuated exiles. Khanh back¬tracked. He made himself prime minister and named Hoan his deputy. Hoan, feeling betrayed, began to conspire against Khanh, who had also become a target for Buddhist, Catholic and other groups, which spilled into the streets to demonstrate against each other. Saigon again spiraled into confusion, and its population grew still wearier of a war that had, at that stage, only started to intensify.
“One clear victory would do wonders for this government right now,” an American military adviser told me at the time, but the South Vietnamese army was no match for the Vietcong, which stepped up its operations in the countryside and even staged a series of terrorist attacks in Saigon, one of them killing three Americans and injuring forty others in a downtown movie theater. Khanh’s forces suffered a particularly humiliating setback in the Mekong Delta in late February, when a Vietcong battalion eluded three thousand of his best troops. The government units had encircled the enemy but balked at ad¬vancing, once again calling for air and artillery strikes to avoid cas¬ualties. Stung by the failure, Khanh peremptorily dismissed three of his four corps commanders and five of his nine division commanders. The gesture eroded the army’s morale. Meanwhile, he had shattered the rural administrative structure by replacing most of the province and district chiefs appointed after the coup against Diem.
Gloom pervaded the U.S. mission in Saigon. Lyman Kirkpatrick, a senior CIA official, reported after a visit there in February that he was “shocked by the number of our people and of the military, even those whose job is always to say we are winning, who feel that the tide is against us.” Other American officials echoed his pessimism, estimating that “unless there is marked improvement in the effec¬tiveness of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces,” the country had only “an even chance of withstanding the insurgency menace during the next few weeks or months.” Lyndon Johnson had ruled out withdrawal, nor would he contemplate a compromise with the Communists. But how could he halt the drift toward defeat?
Roger Hilsman, an assistant secretary of state held over from the Kennedy era, had never abandoned his belief in counterinsurgency. He proposed that the United States train South Vietnamese soldiers as guerrillas to fight the Communists at their own game, and he outlined an “ink blot” plan under which Saigon government partisans would secure villages one by one, extending the regime’s control over the countryside like a spreading blot of ink. But, during the early months of 1964, the situation was too desperate for such a slow strat¬egy, whose results could not be guaranteed. Besides, Johnson dis¬trusted Hilsman—partly because of his Kennedy connection and partly because of his role in the ouster of Diem. He forced Hilsman to resign and leaned instead toward the blunt military approach recommended by the joint chiefs of staff, now headed by Maxwell Taylor. Johnson sent McNamara and Taylor back to Vietnam in early March, and their trip deepened the U.S. commitment.

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