The End of Diem 10

As they talked in the dentist’s office, Don gradually relaxed; Conein reassured him that the United States would “not thwart” a coup. He guaranteed that neither he nor Lodge was consulting Harkins and that no information on the plot was seeping out. “Mon vieux, I love my lily-white skin as much as you love your yellow skin, and I’m not going to take any chances. They can bump me off and call it a Vietcong incident, and nobody’ll know the difference.”
Don promised to show Conein the plans for the coup, insisting that they be shared only with Lodge. But two days later, when they met again at the dentist’s office, Don was empty-handed. He had acci¬dentally seen Harkins the previous night, and he still feared betrayal. Don again pledged to give the Americans an outline of the rebel military tactics and a blueprint of the political organization that the insurgents intended to set up after they won, and he vaguely informed Conein that the coup would take place before November 2.
Harkins was still jockeying behind Lodge’s back. In private com¬munication with Taylor, he continued to warn that an attempt to destroy Diem could wreck the war effort against the Vietcong. Indeed, intelligence estimates already indicated that the Vietcong was taking advantage of the unrest and escalating its activities. Taylor passed on Harkins’s misgivings to Kennedy, who began to get last-minute jitters.
Kennedy was troubled that the U.S. mission in Saigon did not have the coup plans. Suspicious of romantic CIA agents, he wanted more details on Conein’s peculiar relationship with Don. Above all, an aborted plot conjured up his memories of the Bay of Pigs disaster. McGeorge Bundy transmitted these worries to Lodge on October 25: “We are particularly concerned about the hazard that an unsuccessful coup, however carefully we avoid direct engagement, will be laid at our door by public opinion almost everywhere. Therefore, while shar¬ing your view that we should not be in a position of thwarting a coup, we would like to have the option of judging and warning on any plan with poor prospects of success.”
Lodge, replying immediately, tried hard to allay Kennedy’s appre¬hensions. He admitted the risks but argued that “it seems at least an even bet that the next government would not bungle and fumble as the present one has.” Besides, he contended, to prevent a coup was to assume “an undue responsibility for keeping the incumbents in office,” which represented “judgment over the affairs of Vietnam.” That said, Lodge then violated his own principle of noninterference by proposing the composition of a future Saigon regime to include the Buddhist militant Tri Quang, and Tran Quoc Buu, a labor leader with close ties to the CIA.
On the morning of October 28, behaving as if nothing were amiss, Diem assembled the diplomatic corps at the Saigon airport as he pre¬pared to fly to Dalat to open an atomic energy installation. General Don, a member of his entourage, decided to take a bold step: he steered Lodge into a corner and questioned him directly for the first time about America’s attitude toward the conspiracy. Did Harkins or Co- nein reflect the U.S. position? Lodge told Don to ignore Harkins and listen to Conein, thus obliquely confirming that America would “not thwart” the coup.
Back in Saigon that evening, Don again met Conein at the dentist’s office; this time he disclosed which military units would be involved in the revolt. Conein pointed out that Lodge, who was scheduled to visit Washington in three days for consultations, wanted to review the coup preparations before his departure. But the plans might not be available until four hours before the action began, Don explained, advising that Lodge leave anyway, to avoid arousing suspicion. Lodge, who had no intention of missing the spectacle, found a pretext to postpone his trip: he stayed on to greet Admiral Felt, who was due to arrive on a routine tour.
That night, Lodge told Washington that a coup was “imminent,” and could be stopped only by betraying the insurgent officers to Diem, which was unacceptable. He would have only four hours’ notice before the action started, which “rules out my checking with you” in ad¬vance. In short, it was too late for second thoughts. He, Lodge, would alone steer U.S. policy in Vietnam.
But there were second thoughts at the White House the following day, October 29, when Kennedy convened his senior advisers. Harkins had sent more angry messages to Taylor, who brought them to the meeting to reinforce his own objections to Lodge’s conduct. Harkins distrusted Conein’s accounts of the conversations with Don, who was “either lying or playing both ends against the middle.” He challenged Lodge’s bleak appraisal of Diem’s performance and once more main¬tained that “we are gaining in the contest” against the Vietcong:— again reviving the issue of whether the struggle was primarily political or fundamentally military. “There is a basic difference apparently between the ambassador’s thinking and mine,” Harkins said, outlining his own attitude with emotion unusual for a soldier.
In my contacts here, I have seen no one with the strength of character of Diem, at least in fighting Communists. Clearly, there are no generals qualified to take over. … I would suggest that we not try to change horses too quickly. That we continue to take persuasive actions that will make the horses change their course and methods of action. That we win the military effort as quickly as possible, then let them make any and all the changes they want.
After all, rightly or wrongly, we have backed Diem for eight long hard years. To me it seems incongruous now to get him down, kick him around and get rid of him.
Harkins’s plea shook Robert Kennedy, who warned that a coup “risks so much,” and his brother’s misgivings swayed the president. He directed McGeorge Bundy to cable Lodge that he was “deeply concerned” that Conein was the only link to the conspirators; he wanted Harkins to take charge of the U.S. mission in Saigon if the revolt should begin during Lodge’s scheduled trip to Washington. Above all, Bundy’s message made plain, Kennedy doubted that a coup could succeed. The insurgents were apparently too weak to vanquish Diem’s forces, and “the substantial possibility of serious and prolonged fighting or even defeat . . . could be serious or even disastrous for U.S. interests.” Bundy instructed Lodge to order Conein to inform Don that “we do not find that the presently revealed plans give a clear prospect of quick results.” The generals were to be told, at least implicitly, that the United States favored postponement if not can¬cellation of the coup.

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