Disorder and Decision 11

Catholic activists, spilling into the streets to check the Buddhists, converged on the military headquarters near the airport where the council had been in session. As they approached the gates, many of them riding or wheeling bicycles, nervous soldiers behind coils of barbed wire started to shoot widly. Their bullets killed six demon¬strators and wounded dozens of others. Exaggerated accounts of a massacre swept across Saigon, always receptive to rumors, and by evening, gangs of frenzied kids armed with sticks and clubs were coursing through the city, smashing shop windows or battling one another in apparently mindless outbursts of violence as the police fled before them. I had witnessed uncontrolled mobs committing horrors in places like Baghdad and Calcutta—and even in Saigon on earlier occasions—and I knew they could be murderous. I retreated to the safety of my hotel to observe these youths from afar as they streamed along Tu Do, the principal thoroughfare, and it occurred to me as I watched them that South Vietnam’s feeble authority was perhaps less threatened by Vietcong guerrillas in the countryside than by this whirl¬pool of factional chaos.
Only after two days did paratroopers, their bayonets fixed, restore order. Meanwhile, Khanh had appointed an amiable Harvard-educated economist, Nguyen Xuan Oanh, to act as prime minister in his ab¬sence. Oanh’s prospects were dim from the start. For one thing, he spoke fluent English, which tainted his nationalist pretensions. And American officials in Saigon did not help by nicknaming him “Jack Owen.”
The turbulence persisted into early September. Dissident army units periodically menaced Saigon from the Mekong Delta as the Buddhists threatened the regime from their stronghold in Hue. Potential military insurgents could be blocked by guns or bribed with money, but the Buddhists were harder to handle. Now a potent political force with disciplined followers throughout the country, they wanted far more than their routine demand that Diem’s residual sympathizers be purged from positions of authority. Their aim was to exercise a veto over all government decisions, so that Buddhism, which had suffered perse¬cution under the French and later under Diem, could flourish as both a religious and a secular movement. As he braced for a comeback, Khanh met with Tri Quang and Tam Chau to exchange pledges of mutual support. Khanh sealed the bargain by contributing the equiv¬alent of two hundred thousand dollars to the Buddhists, which was, in a reversal of Western practice, like a politician paying off a lobby.
Returning to Saigon from Dalat, Khanh displaced Oanh with the promise to retire in favor of a civilian regime as soon as he had sta¬bilized the administration. Nobody was optimistic—least of all Am¬bassador Taylor, who reported that “we need two or three months to get any sort of government going that has any chance of maintaining order.”
In fact, fresh disorders were about to erupt, provoked by a couple of disgruntled officers. General Lam Van Phat had recently been dis¬missed as minister of interior, and General Duong Van Duc was due to be relieved as commander in the Mekong Delta. On September 13, they drove their troops into Saigon and took over the usual key points. The coup attempt, which collapsed within twenty-four hours, was notable in only one respect: it marked the first major appearance in the Saigon political arena of Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, com¬mander of the South Vietnamese air force, who had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday the week before.
Ky, a lean figure with a hairline mustache who wore purple jump¬suits and carried pearl-handled revolvers, was as daring as his garb was colorful. A northerner trained by the French as a pilot, he later operated under CIA auspices, flying secret agents into North Vietnam. He was bluntly outspoken, and Americans liked his candor—even though his impetuous style sometimes scared them, as it did on that September day. Instead of offering to negotiate with the insurgent generals, he sent his aircraft over their headquarters and threatened to blast it to bits unless they surrendered. They complied.
The abortive coup also damaged Khanh’s already tarnished prestige. Indeed, many Vietnamese regarded the whole episode as having been an elaborate ploy designed by American officials so that Ky and other young officers could upstage Khanh. But just the contrary was true. Secretary of State Rusk directed the American embassy to “make it emphatically clear” to the South Vietnamese that their internecine squabbling was eroding the patience of the Johnson administration. Implicit in his message was the warning that U.S. aid might be curbed unless the chaos stopped: “The United States has not provided massive assistance to South Vietnam, in military equipment, economic re-sources and personnel in order to subsidize continuing quarrels among South Vietnamese leaders.”
Ky and other young officers, among them the armed forces chief of staff, General Nguyen Van Thieu, soon posed a challenge to Khanh. For the moment, though, the Americans were stuck with him—even though he continually confused and disheartened them. An inveterate intriguer, Khanh could never be trusted. Though he had resigned as prime minister, he retained real power for himself by taking over as commander in chief of the armed forces and getting rid of his two main rivals, Khiem and Minh. He sent Khiem into honorable exile as South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington, and dispatched Minh abroad on a “goodwill” tour. On October 20, with his approval, a rubber-stamp council of seventeen notables proclaimed the creation of a civilian regime headed by a couple of decrepit dignitaries.

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