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Ngo Dinh Diem in the Crosshairs

October 2, 2013
The body of Ngo Dinh Diem.  This photo was taken by an unnamed US official serving in Vietnam and is stored at the US National Archives

The body of Ngo Dinh Diem. This photo was taken by an unnamed US official serving in Vietnam and is stored at the US National Archives

As October ticks toward November we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-backed military coup in South Vietnam that overthrew the government and resulted in the deaths of Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and alter-ego, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Though South Vietnamese generals carried out the coup d’etat, the Kennedy administration backed them enthusiastically and lent the support of the CIA.  this history was revisited at the conference “Vietnam, 1963” last week. The Coup and a wide range of other pertinent issues were aired at the conference sponsored by the Vietnam Center and Archive of Texas Tech University and co-hosted by the Cold War International History Project of the Wilson Center and the National Archives and Records Administration between September 26 and 28.

The CIA’s role in the Saigon coup has long been established but what remains controversial is when and how President John F. Kennedy threw his weight behind the South Vietnamese generals. A widely-believed version of this evolution holds that a “cabal” of Washington officials, including Assistant Secretary of State W. Averell Harriman, Deputy Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger A. Hilsman, and National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal conspired to make it happen. According to this account the cabal waited until the top officials of the government were out of town one weekend in August 1963, then took advantage to push through an instruction to U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to back the generals’ coup. In this construction the top officials, especially CIA director John McCone, were furious when they learned of the “end-run” and denounced what became known as the “Hilsman cable” at a National Security Council (NSC) meeting on August 26, 1963, compelling Kennedy to rescind the instructions.

The Archive assembled and presented new evidence on this affair at the end of 2009, including actual audio recordings of the NSC meetings on Vietnam that took place during that crucial week in 1963, possible because President Kennedy had had a tape recording system installed in his White House office and the Cabinet Room, where the NSC meetings took place. This evidence, in combination with the relevant documents of the time, shows that the standard version of the Hilsman cable story is not accurate. I presented the evidence and argued the case at the Texas Tech conference.

Washington officials were not simply plotting to send an instruction. They were responding to a specific prompt from the Vietnamese generals, who asked for a reply the same day. It was a matter of coincidence that senior officials were away at the time. While officials did divide into factions based on their policy preferences, the Hilsman cable was drafted in the normal manner and cleared according to standard procedures. Michael Forrestal, the NSC aide, gave JFK two opportunities to stop the action, once in reporting that an instruction was being prepared, and again when he sent the draft reply to the president. The audio tape of the August 26 NSC meeting shows quite clearly that the participants raised only instrumental points, designed to facilitate U.S. support for a coup by the Vietnamese generals. None of them objected to the basic policy. Moreover, the tone of the tape demonstrates no anger towards members of the supposed “cabal.”

Most historians who have related the old version of the Hilsman cable story based themselves on an oral history interview which Robert F. Kennedy recorded in the mid-60s. The records show that Robert Kennedy did not attend the August 26 NSC session. Washington officials did not behave differently after the NSC than before it. The CIA, for example, was supposed to have been at the heart of opposition. But records show that CIA Far East operations chief William E. Colby met with Roger Hilsman immediately after the NSC discussion, and that Colby was in touch with Hilsman twice as often in the days after the coup decision as in the week before it. Further, prior to another meeting with the president on August 27, Colby was in touch with Hilsman several times and appears to have rehearsed his NSC briefing for the State Department official. After that presidential meeting Colby sent instructions to the Saigon CIA station to canvass for South Vietnamese figures suitable to replace Diem, even while Hilsman directed Ambassador Lodge to go slow on coup plans. The slowdown was predicated on a fresh CIA report that the generals were now delaying their plans. But while the Vietnamese delayed, the U.S. continued to make the preparations agreed upon in the original NSC discussion. This evidence is presented in detail in Electronic Briefing Book no. 302. In short, the United States made a decision in August 1963 to support a coup in Saigon if Diem did not get rid of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, and never changed that basic policy or wavered in its support.

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