Musings on the Diem Coup


Fascinating memo dictated by President Kennedy on the Diem Coup on November 4, 1963.  Kennedy expresses regret about the coup.  His analysis of it, and its likely effects, is impressive.  Not so impressive is Kennedy allowing an action to take place which he had such misgivings about.  What Kennedy would have done about Vietnam, if he had not been assassinated eighteen days after he dictated the memo, is one of the great what ifs of post World War II American history.

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  1. Henry Kissinger offered 40 years ago his assessment of the problems which arose from the coup. In the aftermath, there was a purge of the civil service and a replacement of civilians with officers in many public sector positions. As a consequence, the attention of the officer corps at all levels was consumed with extraneous questions and political intrigue, damaging their already deficient skills as a fighting force.

    At the time, there was a campaign against the Ngo brothers in the American media. There was one dissenter, Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald-Tribune, who concluded that the opposition in South VietNam was too fractious to assemble a coherent government.

  2. Donald
    Thank you for this very interesting post.
    I think that the coup against President Diem was perhaps one of our nation’s worst foreign policy disasters and its origins are poorly understood. Much of the commonly understood narrative about the Diem Coup is contradicted by the Margret Higgins book “Our Vietnam Nightmare” and more recently Geoffrey Shaw’s book “the lost Mandate of Heaven” i
    Geoffrey Shaw had an excellent interview on Kresta in the afternoon after he published his book.
    What would Kennedy would have done with Vietnam if not assassinated is a very good question. I suspect that given his abandonment of Cubans at the Bay of Pigs and withdraw of the allied forces that President Eisenhower had sent into Laos, he would have abandoned Vietnam as well.

    Ironically Vice President Johnson was a supporter of Diem and had a very low opinion of the general leading the coup who had been fired by Diem for being corrupt and incompetent. Later it was learned that Kennedy wanted Diem sent into exile, but he was murdered because the coup leaders feared that he was still very popular with the South Vietnamese citizens and would return to power.

    Although President Johnson is blamed for mismanagement of the Vietnam War, and much of this criticism is deserved, He did inherit a situation that he wanted to avoid by supporting Diem rather then undermining his policies and planning coups.

  3. With the coup, the U.S. all but guaranteed two things. First it became from that moment on an American war. Second, the war effort was doomed to failure.

    As JFK himself noted in the dictation of the memo, Pres. Diem had held the nation together under extraordinary circumstances for ten years. There was no other leader who had his abilities or who had anything approaching the good will which he had with most if not all of the South Vietnamese population. If there was opposition to Diem, why was anyone to think that an undemocratic military coup would have inspired confidence among the people?

    A horrible blight on our nation.

  4. Diem was in many ways a trainwreck. He had alienated most factions, other than the Catholics, many of them refugees from North Vietnam, in South Vietnam by his authoritarian tactics, and was ill prepared for the enhanced war that North Vietnam was beginning to ramp up. The problem was that there was no one more capable to replace him, and the South Vietnamese military spent a great deal of time in political intrigues rather than in efforts to win their war. The problem with South Vietnam was always poor leadership, both civil and military. If that problem could have been solved, they would have been able to repulse North Vietnam unaided. The US military can do a lot, but it cannot instill in a foreign nation the will to survive.

  5. If I understand correctly, the VietCong had been militarily defeated by the end of 1972, and an agrarian reform program implemented. South VietNam fell to a conventional invasion. Not sure what might have happened had we not pulled the plug on South VietNam and gone and provided air cover, but the Democratic caucus in Congress wasn’t going to countenance any attempt. I’m trying to think of some salutary something-or-other that the Democratic Party has accomplished in the years since 1965 and the only thing I can come up with is some of Jimmy Carter’s deregulatory initiatives, something only an idiosyncratic figure like Carter would have attempted from within the Democratic fold. The 1996 welfare reform was a Republican initiative that Bill Clinton was persuaded to sign by Dick Morris. Paul Volcker may have been a nominal Democrat, but it was a Republican president that gave him a green light to go to work, something Jimmy Carter was disinclined to do.

  6. Second, the war effort was doomed to failure.

    Again, the Communists had been beaten back fairly successfully by Gen. Abrams strategies. A cardinal problem was that by 1974, neither the media nor much of the establishment wished to sustain what had been accomplished.

  7. Diem was in many ways a trainwreck. He had alienated most factions, other than the Catholics, many of them refugees from North Vietnam, in South Vietnam by his authoritarian tactics, and was ill prepared for the enhanced war that North Vietnam was beginning to ramp up.

    The most accomplished governments in the Far East during the period running from 1949 to 1997 were run by autocrats, military establishments, and political machines. Japan was a parliamentary state, but one party won every single national election for a period of 35 years. So was Thailand after 1979, but the elected officials were subject to supervison by the flag rank officer corps and the palace. South VietNam would have benefited from someone in the mold of Park Chung hee the latter-day Chiang Kai-shek, if one were to be found.

  8. Art Deco: Yes our military did it’s job. The war wasn’t lost on the battlefield. But after the Diem coup, the war was lost. The best leader the South Vietnamese people had was overthrown, with U.S. backing, and replaced by leaders who didn’t have a fraction of the respect among the people that Diem had. Who were the South Vietnamese people to rally around? A murderous cadre of generals who had assassinated their chosen leader?

    Wars are ultimately won or lost by nations acting under national leadership. We, the U.S., helped destroy that leadership by facilitating the overthrow of the best leader the South Vietnamese had.

  9. If I understand correctly, the VietCong had been militarily defeated by the end of 1972

    They never recovered from Tet and its aftermath where their North Vietnamese masters sent them into the teeth of American firepower, and the people of South Vietnam did not rise up in support as the North Vietnam political leadership predicted they would. Quite a bit of bitterness among the Viet Cong cadres about the military ineptitude shown by the North Vietnamese leadership which made their movement impotent.

  10. The JFK memo is a first class pieced of “cover my posteriorness” to have ever been made.

    While he mentions every other name involved while describing himself as uncertain, the fact is HE WAS THE PRESIDENT. Without at least passive US support it would not have happened. He could have stopped it at any time and CHOSE not to.

  11. But after the Diem coup, the war was lost.

    If the war could be said to have been ‘lost’ at a discrete point in time, it was when Congress cut off aid to South VietNam. That was in 1974, not 1963.

  12. The JFK memo is a first class pieced of “cover my posteriorness” to have ever been made.

    JFK was never an intellectual but he liked to run with that herd and keep some as pets. He acquired a fair number of their vices, including confusing talking about something with taking action. One reason I like Theodore Roosevelt is that he managed the hard feat of being both a true intellectual and a man of action, a formidable combination that is rarely seen.

  13. What I found very interesting from reading the Geoffrey Shaw’s book was his arguments that the incompetence of Diem was exaggerated by the US state department and news reporters with the intention of reducing confidence in Diem. Some examples from that book are:
    1. President Eisenhower considered Diem as one of the most talented leaders in that region and that Laos was the country that was the most unstable. He had US advisors and Filipino mercenaries maintaining some stability. Kennedy made a deal with the Russians and Chinese for all foreign forces to withdraw from Laos. After US sponsored forces withdrew, North Vietnam and its allies had free reign to infiltrate into South Vietnam from Laos. Part of the friction that Diem had with the US state department was that he refused warnings not to pursue North Vietnamese infiltrators who had retreated into Laos after attacking South Vietnam.
    2. Diem had agents in Laos negotiating with North Vietnamese Regiments to defect to the South Vietnamese Army, but this project was lost after the coup.
    3. The strategic hamlet program was more effective than reported because most journalists wrote stories from Saigon rather then gong to villages, an exception to this is Marguerite Higgins who did accompany Diem for several visits to remote villages and had favorable reports.
    4. When US military advisors the CIA and the ambassador to South Vietnam reported that Diem was slowly winning the war, the Kennedy state department dismissed this assessment because the progress was too slow.

    Although many Vietnam veterans have a low opinion of the capability of the South Vietnam Forces but there are others like General Zinni who was an advisor to South Vietnamese Marines had a more favorable opinion. An example is in General Zinni’s book “ Before the First Shots are Fired” is when be describes a very competent and aggressive South Vietnamese Marine commander being annoyed when told to delay perusing retreating North Vietnamese forces to do a body count.

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