The End of Diem 7

The principal plotters, Minh, Don, Kim and Khiem, were presti¬gious figures, but they did not themselves command troops. They had lined up infantry battalions around the country as well as air and naval units. The key to success, however, lay in Saigon. There Diem could count on the special forces headed by Colonel Le Quang Tung, a Catholic from central Vietnam who had been trained by the CIA in the United States. To counter him, the conspirators had to win over General Ton That Dinh, the commander of the Saigon military region, a swaggering prima donna whose loyalties were then in doubt. The generals had delayed the coup in order to cultivate Dinh, and their stalling frustrated Lodge, who concluded bitterly that they had “nei¬ther the will nor the organization … to accomplish anything.” Har¬kins, delighted by Lodge’s disappointment, misquoted Kipling in a sardonic remark to Taylor: “You can’t hurry the East.”
Nhu, aware of the American dealings with the plotters, meanwhile began to make roundabout overtures to the Communists. One of his key contacts was Mieczyslaw Maneli, chief of the Polish delegation to the International Control Commission, the vestigial group set up under the Geneva accords to monitor violations of the peace. Its Indian, Canadian and Polish members could travel freely between the two zones of Vietnam. As a Communist official, Maneli had special access to the North Vietnamese hierarchy. When he first arrived in Hanoi in early 1963, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were closely watching the growing tensions between Diem and the Americans, hoping to drive a wedge between them. Maneli, who later defected to the United States, recalled Hanoi’s policy at that time: “Our real enemies are the Americans. Get rid of them, and we can cope with Diem and Nhu afterward.”
Diem, and particularly Nhu, had never foreclosed on the possibility of an accommodation with Hanoi, despite their anti-Communist rhet¬oric. One of their intermediaries was Buu Hoi, a distinguished scientist and former adviser to Ho, who lived in Paris, where he had contacts with de Gaulle. The French president then favored neutrality for In¬dochina and at Buu Hoi’s urging, he instructed Roger Lalouette, his ambassador in Saigon, to promote the concept with Diem and Nhu. They sounded receptive, and Lalouette secretly commissioned Maneli to sound out the Communists about economic and cultural exchanges between North and South Vietnam as a prelude to an eventual political deal. Maneli carried this proposal to North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who reminded him that the Communists had made such a recommendation years before. Once the Americans were out, said Pham Van Dong, “we can come to an agreement with any Viet-namese.”
Maneli returned to Saigon, where Lalouette introduced him to Nhu. At a private meeting in Nhu’s palace office on September 2, Maneli disclosed his conversation with Pham Van Dong, Nhu expressed in¬terest. Maneli shuttled back to Hanoi, where the Communists reiter¬ated that their principal foe was U.S. “imperialism,” not the Diem regime. They even authorized Maneli to inform Nhu that he could rely on their help in the event of a clash with the United States. Maneli never relayed the message. Diem and Nhu were dead by the time he got back to Saigon.
Were these maneuvers serious, or merely a smoke screen? In Viet¬nam, where nothing is simple, they were probably a combination of both. Hoang Tung, the Communist party propaganda boss, con¬firmed to me in Hanoi in 1981 that the North Vietnamese had in fact tried to “probe the depth of the differences” between Diem and the United States. Madame Nhu, who later was to affirm that talks had been going on, even revealed that she was prepared to send her two oldest children to Hanoi as a “fraternal gesture.” But Nhu’s mach¬inations were also contrived to blackmail the Americans. Among other things, he leaked the story to columnist Joseph Alsop, in an obvious attempt to scare Washington. “He was,” as Maneli put it, “playing on many instruments at the same time.”
To some American officials, these schemes were an added reason for Diem’s ouster. Hilsman, in a top-secret memorandum to Rusk, suggested that the rebel generals be spurred to “move promptly with a coup” if the Diem regime negotiated with Hanoi; and also recom¬mended that U.S. military strikes be staged against North Vietnam if the Communists sent troops south to rescue Diem. Hilsman later explained to me that his memorandum had simply listed “options.”
Perhaps an opportunity was lost for a marriage of convenience between the two Vietnams. But, given the U.S. mood of the period, an American withdrawal was unthinkable.
Robert Kennedy floated that notion at a White House meeting in September. He wondered aloud whether a Communist takeover “could be successfully resisted with any government” in Saigon, and if not, perhaps “now, was the time to get out of Vietnam entirely.” As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., recalled, however, the speculative question “hovered for a moment, then died away, a hopelessly alien thought in a field of unexamined assumptions and entrenched convictions.”
The idea had also been raised at a National Security Council session on August 31 by Paul Kattenburg, a perceptive State Department veteran of Vietnam. He had just returned from Saigon, where he had found opinion so hostile to Diem that, he forecast, the United States would be compelled to leave in six months if it continued to back him. So, he went on, perhaps it was preferable now “for us to make the decision to get out honorably.” His view stunned the assemblage. Rusk asserted that “we will not pull out . . . until the war is won.” McNamara affirmed that “we have been winning the war,” and Lyn don Johnson added, “We should stop playing cops and robbers [and] go about winning the war.” That took care of Kattenburg, who was to terminate his government career at the U.S. embassy in Guyana— not far from Devil’s Island.

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