The End of Diem 14

Realizing that they could not hold out for long, Diem and Nhu made a desperate move. At about eight o’clock in the evening, ac¬companied by two aides, they slipped out of the palace to a nearby street. There they climbed into a waiting Land Rover and drove to Cholon, the Chinese suburb of Saigon, where they switched to a black Citroen sedan. A curfew; had been imposed, and they zigzagged around the deserted city, luckily managing to avoid rebel troop pa¬trols. Finally, they pulled up at a large villa belonging to a wealthy Chinese merchant, Ma Tuyen, who had financed their covert political network for years. Nhu’s secret agents had equipped the villa for just such an emergency. One of its telephones was connected to the palace communications system, so that the insurgent generals did not know that Diem had escaped their siege as they talked with him later in the night. Nor were the generals aware, when they issued the order to assault the palace at nine o’clock, that they were about to stage a battle for an empty building. Tragically, the presidential guards were also under the illusion that they were protecting Diem, and many died defending the palace he had fled earlier.
The insurgents triggered the attack with an artillery barrage, but it failed to break the presidential guard battalion. An infantry division commanded by Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu—later to become South Vietnam’s chief of state—then attempted to storm the shattered build¬ing. Again the defenders clung tenaciously to their positions; the futile fighting went on for hours.
As the battle seesawed, Diem and Nhu doggedly continued their efforts to contact General Dinh, still believing him to be loyal. At midnight, they finally reached him for the first time since the uprising had begun. With the other generals hovering over him as he picked up the telephone at staff headquarters, Dinh was anxious to dispel any doubts about his commitment to the coup. Selecting a choice vocab¬ulary of Vietnamese obscenities, he barked at Diem, “I’ve saved you motherfuckers many times, but not now, you bastards. You shits are finished. It’s all over.”
Not quite. At three o’clock in the morning, November 2, the gen¬erals received a telephone call from one of the two aides who had left the palace with Diem and Nhu. Having decided to shift to the winning side, he whispered that the brothers were in Cholon, but he would not pinpoint their exact location. The generals, uncertain whether to trust the disclosure, nevertheless dispatched search parties to the Chinese district—a labyrinth in which fugitives could, unless betrayed precisely, hide out for weeks.
A couple of hours later, the rebel troops besieging the palace noticed a white flag fluttering from a window. Assuming it meant surrender, they advanced in the open toward the building. A fusillade of auto¬matic fire broke out, and one of the advancing officers fell dead. At that, the insurgents intensified their attack. They captured the palace in forty-five minutes and then proceeded to loot, stealing Madame Nhu’s negligees and Nhu’s whiskey. Piles of American adventure magazines littered Diem’s bedroom; on Nhu’s desk, strangely, were several copies of the same book, a thriller entitled Shoot to Kill: The brothers, as Diem’s turncoat aide had reported, were gone.
At 6:00 A.M., Diem telephoned Minh, his voice husky with fatigue. He was prepared to negotiate, but he refused to reveal his whereabouts. He would resign, but only on condition that authority be transferred either to the vice-president or the speaker of the legislature, in accor¬dance with the constitution. The generals, conferring hastily amid the empty beer bottles and cigarette butts that cluttered staff headquarters, quickly rejected the terms, suspecting that he had a trick up his sleeve. At six-thirty, when Diem called back, Don informed him of the rebuff, suggesting instead that he and Nhu simply leave the country. Diem agreed. Again, however, he posed a condition—or, as he put it, a “special favor.”
DIEM: I am the elected president of the nation. I am ready to resign
publicly, and I am also ready to leave the country. But I ask you to reserve for me the honors due a departing pres¬ident.
DON: [After a pause] Really, I must say that we cannot satisfy you on that point.
DIEM: It’s all right. Thank you.
Diem hung up, but he called Don back a few minutes later. He would now surrender unconditionally, and he disclosed that he and Nhu were at Saint Francis Xavier, a French church in Cholon, waiting to be fetched.
General Don was worried. Having guaranteed Diem’s security, he now had to fulfill the pledge. The generals had forgotten to make arrangements to transport Diem and Nhu out of Vietnam. They turned for help to Conein who had also overlooked that vital detail. He explained the complications involved. A long-range aircraft had to be requisitioned, probably from the American base on Okinawa, which meant a delay of at least twenty-four hours. And where would the brothers go? The Kennedy administration, fearful of their em¬barrassing propaganda potential in the United States, would not grant them asylum in America. Finding another haven would require dip¬lomatic exploration. The generals would have to keep the brothers out of danger until they could be exiled.
Not all the generals favored leniency. Some argued for expelling Diem and holding Nhu for trial, while others wanted both to face a court-martial. They debated the issue and finally decided that their first priority was to escort the Ngos from Cholon to the staff head¬quarters in Saigon. They entrusted the assignment to General Mai Huu Xuan, an unsavory figure who had worked for the French as a secret police agent and afterward served Diem in the same capacity. He detested Diem for having shunted him into a minor job—but then, most of the insurgent officers had similar grievances against the regime they had just deposed.
The generals provided Xuan with an M-113 armored personnel carrier and four jeeps containing several soldiers, among them a tank officer by the name of Major Duong Huu Nghia, and Minh’s body¬guard, Captain Nhung, who had murdered the Tung brothers the previous evening. Before the group left headquarters, Minh gestured to Nhung by raising two fingers of his right hand—the signal to kill them both.

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