BOOK REVIEW

The State Department’s Destabilization of South Vietnam

The Vietnam War was a long time ago for me – specifically, forty-seven years ago when I served as a Province Intelligence Officer in Chau Doc on the Cambodian border and as a senior analyst in the office of Strategic Research and Analysis in Saigon.

Yet, memories of that war, and what went wrong in our attempt to prevent a Communist takeover of South Vietnam, came flooding back to me as I read Geoffrey Shaw’s book.

Shaw recounts in great detail the events leading up to the U.S.-orchestrated coup in 1963 to oust the first President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, and replace him with a military junta more acquiescent to American “direction” on how to wage the war in Vietnam against the Communists. The author names those U.S. officials directly responsible for that fateful decision – most notably, Undersecretary of State Averill Harriman and Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs, Roger Hilsman – and how they worked diligently to persuade John F. Kennedy to sign off on their proposals to remove Diem from power.

State Department’s Elite Overrules Defense, Intelligence

The author describes the strong opposition to the plan to replace President Diem by leading American advisers in Vietnam. U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Frederick Nolting (replaced as Ambassador only months before the coup), CIA Station Chief Bill Colby, Gen. Paul Harkins (head of the U.S. Military Mission in Vietnam), the legendary General Edward Lansdale and Sir Robert Thompson (the British expert on counter insurgency who had led the successful campaign to defeat the Communist insurgency in Malaysia), all expressed the view that President Diem was the best man to lead South Vietnam in combatting the Communist forces and that attempts to force him out would create more problems than they would solve. But, their advice went unheeded, and plans for the coup moved forward.

On November 1, 1963, Gen. Duong Van Minh (known as “Big Minh”) led the military junta that ousted President Diem. Shaw documents how one day later Big Minh ordered his soldiers to murder President Diem along with Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu (who was the President’s closest adviser). The soldiers carried out his orders and killed the Diem brothers as they were praying in a Catholic Church after attending Mass on the morning of November 2, 1963.

Ironically, President Kennedy – who had authorized the decision to depose President Diem – was himself downed by an assassin’s bullet weeks later, while on a trip to Texas.

Big Minh didn’t last long as President of South Vietnam. He was removed from office three months later in another military coup. Only, those coup leaders were more generous than Big Minh had been, and they let him live unlike what had been the fate of the Diem brothers.

The decision to oust, and eliminate, President Diem set in motion a revolving door of military leaders in charge until Gen. Thieu became President in 1967. Thieu lasted until 1975 when he resigned shortly before the fall of Saigon to the Communists. The man who took his place was none other than Big Minh who unconditionally surrendered to the Communist regime of North Vietnam days later.

From America as Advisor to America’s War

Until the overthrow and assassination of President Diem in 1963, it had been South Vietnam’s war against the Communists. The United States was serving in an advisory role. At the time of the coup, there were approximately 16,000 U.S. military forces in the country. By 1967, nearly 500,000 American soldiers were serving in Vietnam. It had become America’s war. By the time the war was over and the North Vietnamese Communists had prevailed in 1975, more than 58,000 American soldiers had been killed in that war.

One reviewer of Shaw’s book states, “the Vietnam War would not have been lost” had the United States not made the strategic blunder of ousting President Diem. I agree. As I discovered myself serving in a rural province in the Delta region of South Vietnam some six years after the assassination of Diem, many Vietnamese still mourned his loss and wished that he were alive so that he could have returned as leader of South Vietnam.

Geoffrey Shaw describes President Diem as a true nationalist “with rare integrity, a patriot who strove to free his country from Western colonialism while protecting it from Communism. “A devout Catholic in a predominately Buddhist nation, Diem assumed leadership of South Vietnam in 1955 after Vietnam had been divided. The Communists under Ho Chi Minh controlled the North. And, the non-Communists held the South. South Vietnam was expected to fall to the Communists in short order after the division of the nation; but, under Diem’s leadership, the South survived as an independent nation. As CIA station chief William Colby observed, Diem made progress in “stabilizing and rebuilding South Vietnam” during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Other American advisers to South Vietnam also were impressed with Diem’s leadership of his country. President Diem had opposed French colonialism as diligently as he fought against the attempted Communist takeover of his nation. And, he wasn’t about to let the Americans dictate how to fight the war against the Communists in the South. He would listen to their advice, but not act as a puppet for them. While this upset some American officials who were eager to impose their brand of “democracy” on South Vietnam, it was perfectly understandable to old Asian hands like Bill Colby, Gen. Edward Landsale, and Sir Robert Thompson – each of whom saw President Diem as the best man to protect South Vietnam from falling to the Communists.

Pride and Antipathy: How the Liberal Media Influenced the Kennedy Administration

In my book THE THIRTY YEARS WAR: The Politics of the ‘60s Generation, I discuss how the major media played a significant part in our ultimate defeat in Indochina. My own experience in Vietnam – particularly during my time serving in Chan Doc along the Cambodian border – led me to become very cynical about major U.S. media coverage of the war. While some reporters simply parroted the U.S. government “party line,” many other journalists let their intense opposition to the war get in the way of accurate reporting. Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Elegant later spelled all this out in an Encounter magazine article entitled, “How the Media Lost the War.”

Geoffrey Shaw explains in great detail the influential role of certain U.S. publications, particularly the New York Times – and American reporters who covered the Vietnam War in affecting the decision-making process of the Kennedy Administration on what to do in Vietnam. David Halberstam of the New York Times and Neil Sheehan of UPI were the two most prominent journalists leading the pack determined to remove President Diem from power. The two men would go on to achieve great fame and fortune for their coverage of the war and their subsequent books on Vietnam. They were both very bright. But, William Colby had it right about the two reporters when he said: “Intellectual capability has its place, but is simply no substitute for wisdom, the latter being a virtue that Colby thought the reporters lacked.”

As Shaw sets forth in great detail, Ambassador Frederick Nolting waged a noble battle to persuade the Kennedy Administration of the wisdom of working with President Diem instead of trying to get rid of him. But as Ambassador Nolting acknowledged, “he had a difficult time in dealing with certain American journalists determined to influence the decision-making process. Nolting stated that “he had severely underestimated the antipathy of these men (reporters such as Halbertsom and Sheehan) towards Ngo Dinh Diem and himself. Not only did these journalists influence Americans opinion of the Diem government by their reporting, even more critical was the influence they had on certain key officials in the Kennedy Administration, including such men as Averill Harriman, Jr., and Robert Hilsman, who would lead the charge on the inside to get rid of President Diem. Shaw cites an incident at the Caravelle Bar in Saigon – a popular gathering place for American reporters – in which Halberston was “proudly displaying a telegram from his newspaper in New York, which said, in substance: “Good going. Keep it up. State Department is beginning to see it our way.” Shaw also points out that some of the “fact-finding” reports from officials sent to report on the situation in Vietnam reflected more the views of the Saigon-based media contingent that gathered around Halberstam and Sheehan than the observations of experienced U.S. military and civilian officials serving in Vietnam at the time.

While Harriman, Hilsman, and others continued to push for the removal of President Diem from power, Sir Robert Thompson, the British expert on counter insurgency, travelled to Washington in April 1963 to stress “the importance of American patience,” whereby, “Thompson told the U.S. officials” that the U.S. news media were out of control and that the reporting in American papers …. should be improved.” Most importantly, Thompson “bluntly told the Americans that the entire government would collapse without Diem and that the counterinsurgency effort would be left in serious disarray.” Thompson emphasized “that America would lose the fight against the Viet Cong, if it lost Diem.” Unfortunately, Sir Robert Thompson was unable to change the minds of the key Washington officials who were pushing for the removal of Diem.

Agitprop and the Buddhist Crisis

The catalyst that the Washington coterie and their allies in the media needed to push President Diem out of power came along shortly thereafter in the so-called “Buddhist Crisis of 1963.” Diem’s detractors had hit a nerve. Having already been criticized for being a Catholic President in a predominantly Buddhist culture, it was easy for Diem’s critics to portray him as anti-Buddhist during a series of Buddhist-led protests against the government. The author notes it didn’t matter, since “Many of his advisers and most of his generals and cabinet members … were Buddhist or other non-Catholics.” Ambassador Nolting scoffed at the idea that Diem was “anti-Buddhist.” According to Ambassador Nolting, “if Diem had a prejudice it was against the Saigon bourgeoisie who always seemed to be involved in various plots.”

Nonetheless, a small core of radicalized Buddhists, under the influence of a militant Buddhist monk named Trich Tri Quang used a crisis provoked by a dispute over the government banning of Buddhist flags at a Buddhist demonstration in Hue to march on the local radio station. GVN troops were deployed to the scene. Seven people died after “two massive explosions ripped through the crowd.” The South Vietnamese government got the blame for the deaths even though “a Buddhist doctor who examined the bodies of the victims said that their injuries had to have been caused by something exceeding the capacity of GVN anti-riot gear.”

Following Halberstam’s lead, the major media in the U.S. portrayed the incident in an entirely different light. They called it a peaceful demonstration interrupted by government troops firing on the crowd and cited it as further evidence that the masses had lost confidence in President Diem’s government. Trich Tri Quang, the Buddhist protest leader, upped the ante by encouraging Buddhist monks to commit suicide by fire, making sure that American reporters would witness the self-immolations. Marguerite Higgins was one of the few American reporters who did her homework and maintained her objectivity in covering the war. She interviewed Thich Tri Quang several times. Shaw discusses her observations: “According to Marguerite Higgins, one of the few reporters to interview him at length, he was a disciple of Thich Tri Do, the leader of the Buddhist organization in Hanoi approved by the Communist regime there. To Higgins, Thich Tri Quang was quite unlike the peaceful, meditative Buddhist monks of her acquaintance. ‘Deep burning eyes stared out from a gigantic forehead. He had an air of massive intelligence, total self-possession, and brooding suspicion.’ Throughout the Buddhist crisis, Higgins watched him stir up protesters. ‘The results were frightening. By the time Thich Tri Quang was through with the mobs, they would cheerfully go drown themselves in the Saigon River, if that were what he wanted. He was, and is, a true demagogue. Hate emanates from the man. Mobs thrive on hate.’”

Even more damaging: “As Higgins discovered in interviews with Thich Tri Quang, the leader of the Buddhist insurrection, the monks were using self-immolation not because of harsh treatment by the GVN but because it had shock value in the Western world and would separate Diem’s regime from its supporters in America.”

The State Department’s Strategic Blunder Leads to the Destabilization of South Vietnam

Harriman and Hilsman now had what they needed to persuade President Kennedy to signal support for a military coup to oust Diem. The coup took place, and the South Vietnamese government never recovered from the incalculable damage that was done. The situation in the South got worse, not better.

I remember writing a letter in the summer of 1969 from Chau Doc to a friend of mine named Pete Copp, an old Asia hand. I described to Pete my own impressions of the situation in Vietnam. My observations later were published in U.S. News & World Report. In summary, the article concluded that, while I hoped we would win the war, I was afraid we were going to lose it, if we kept on our current course. I noted there was “no sense of unity” among the South Vietnamese. Political factionalism and jockeying for power had become the prevailing climate in South Vietnam as the Vietnamese witnessed a revolving door of military coup leaders come and go. There was an absence of effective political leadership to combat the Viet Cong infrastructure. I said that Americans were misguided, if they thought that making the government more democratic would make it easier to defeat the Communists. Moreover, the Americans had made a major mistake in failing to address the constant infiltration of Communists troops into South Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia. I also observed that, all too often, American troops were doing what the South Vietnamese should be doing for themselves. I quoted a South Vietnamese Colonel who said that American aid was like opium: “Our people have become dependent upon it and have let the Americans do what we ought to be doing for ourselves.”

As I read Shaw’s book I thought to myself that most of those problems with the war that I cited in my observations on the situation in South Vietnam at the time could have been avoided had the U.S. not made the horrible mistake of removing President Diem from power.

Geoffrey Shaw has done us a great service in telling the truth about the American betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem and the tragic consequences it had for the Vietnamese people and for those Allied soldiers who gave their lives in that war.


Tom Pauken was a Province Intelligence Officer in the Delta region of South Vietnam and a Senior Analyst for the office of Strategic Research & Analysis, Joint Intelligence Command. He is the author of THE THIRTY YEARS WAR: The Politics of the ‘60s Generation. Mr. Pauken also served as a White House staff assistant and Director of the Action agency in the Reagan Administration.