Returning [to South Vietnam] from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in the summer of 1957, I had the privilege to begin a close professional association with President [Ngo Dinh] Diem that lasted for nearly three years….I saw first hand the strong talent for leadership President Diem exhibited, his great concern for the people of Vietnam, and the earnest efforts he made on behalf of security for the country.

I came also to appreciate the brilliance of Mr. Nhu, the President’s brother.  He was an innovative thinker – not a real leader as was Diem – but a man of ideas.  The President would sign no paper or utter any prepared speech unless Mr. Nhu had first reviewed and approved it.  Indeed, Mr. Nhu personally wrote most of Diem’s speeches and was responsible for developing all major aspects of national policy and strategy during this period.

While the Diem government devoted its efforts to nation-building, North Vietnam began to initiate disruptive activities following President Diem’s rejection of elections toward unification.  Former Viet Minh cadres who remained in South Vietnam after 1954 were ordered into action.  At the same time, North Vietnam infiltrated into the South those cadres who had regrouped in the North.  The insurgency thus began and gradually picked up scope and intensity.  From sabotage and assassination, terrorist actions stepped up into battalion-size warfare….

To counter the communist insurgency, President Diem created the Ranger Forces whose concept took after the French Commandos of the 1949-54 war.  His plans initially met with opposition from MAAG [U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam], which not only suspected a political motive, but objected to the transferring of the most experienced officers and men from established units to the Rangers.  In the face of growing insurgency, however, MAAG finally agreed to support the Ranger forces teams to train them….Beginning in 1961, MAAG also agreed to increase the RVNAF [Republic of Vietnam National Armed Forces] force structure from 150,000 to 170,000.

Despite President Diem’s leadership and many accomplishments – or, perhaps in some cases because of them – he had many enemies within the country besides the Communists.  And despite his brilliance, Mr. Nhu took too little account of the public’s animosity toward him as the President’s counselor, animosities that were naturally transferred to the president himself.  Reflecting the political turmoil that still weakened the country…opponents of the regime, not content to follow constitutional processes, plotted violent means to supplant the elected leadership of the country.  One attempt took place in November 1960 in which Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi employed his paratroopers to initiate the coup which ultimately ended in failure.  The second attempt took place in February 1962 when two dissident pilots bombed the Independence Palace with their A-1 Skyraiders….But in 1963 a new group of plotters exploited the riotous situation caused by the dissident Buddhists and gathered enough strength, and American support, to depose the Diem regime.

The self-immolation of Reverend Thich Quang Duc and other monks effectively burned the bridge of possible reconciliation between the Diem government and the Buddhists.  Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu, who derided the Buddhist self-immolation as “a barbecue party,” joined her husband in demanding that the Buddhist protestors be crushed, charging that they were communist-led extremists.  The U.S., meanwhile, urged the government to make concessions and exile the Nhus.  This was a completely impractical idea.  It was no more possible for President Diem to banish his brother than to sever his own head.  Mr. Nhu was not only the President’s brains, he was his most loyal and trusted adviser and supporter.

While President Diem was still undecided, on August 21, elements of the Vietnamese Special Forces attacked the Xa Loi and other pagodas in Saigon, apparently under Mr. Nhu’s orders.  The monks and even the nuns were brutally beaten and apprehended.  Thousands of students and teachers who demonstrated for the monks were arrested and all high schools and universities were ordered closed.  This heavy-handed repression enraged many officials, military officers and professionals whose children were manhandled and jailed.  It also ended support for the Diem regime at home and abroad.

The U.S. seemed to have rushed the unraveling of events by suspending subsidies for imports and support for the Special Forces.  Enraged, Nhu acrimoniously accused Americans and other foreign elements of plotting against the Diem government.  Encouraged by the American attitude, several army officers began to plot Diem’s overthrow.  One group was led by Colonel Do Mau, the trusted director of the Military Security Service, and Major General Tran Thien Khiem, Chief of Staff of the JGS.  Do Mau and Khiem were joined by other officers, students and workers.  Another group which included Generals Tran Van Don,  Duong Van Minh, and Le Van Kim, enlisted the cooperation of Lt. Gen. Do Cao Tri, commander of I Corps and Lt. Gen. Nguyen Khanh, commander of II Corps.

Ngo Dinh Nhu knew that the generals were plotting against him and Diem, but, lacking the evidence, he could not crack down on them.  Using a machiavellian scheme, he feigned collusion with Ton That Dinh, the III Corps commander and Diem’s most trusted general, and plotted to seize leadership from Diem.  He was hoping that Dinh, whom he suspected as a plotter, would give away the co-conspiring generals.  But Nhu’s scheme worked against him when Dinh, who had been won over by Do Mau, decided to join forces with the generals.

And so the conspiracy went undetected until the generals decided to strike.  On 1 November government troops entered Saigon and seized control.  Within hours, the president and his brother were both  brutally murdered.  The First Republic was over and Vietnam had lost a great leader.


Source:  General Cao Van Vien, “Leadership,” Indochina Monographs, U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1981, pp. 30-33.

stevenhardestyVNcoup,vietnam warReturning from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in the summer of 1957, I had the privilege to begin a close professional association with President Diem that lasted for nearly three years....I saw first hand the strong talent for leadership President Diem exhibited, his great...Recovering forgotten and overlooked military history