The Fall of Diem (1963)

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The Fall of Diem (1963)

During 1963, American dissatisfaction with Ngo Dinh Diem's (1901–1963) government in South Vietnam continued to grow. At the beginning of the year, the United States' policy of providing military and financial aid to Diem remained in place. But as the months passed, U.S. President John Kennedy (1917–1963; president 1960–1963) and his administration reluctantly concluded that the Diem government was too deeply flawed to survive.

One primary reason for American unhappiness with Diem was the growing strength of Viet Cong Communists operating in South Vietnam. But an even bigger cause for alarm was Diem's response to a massive uprising by the country's Buddhist majority population, which finally became fed up with Diem's anti-Buddhist views and policies. Diem's brutal crackdown against the demonstrators kept him in power for another few months. But it also convinced the United States that Diem would never be able to rally his people against the Communist threat. As a result, the United States did not interfere when several South Vietnamese generals engineered the overthrow of Diem's government in November 1963.

Viet Cong gains in the countryside

During the early 1960s the Communist guerrillas known as the Viet Cong continued to make military gains throughout South Vietnam (guerrillas are small groups of fighters who launch surprise attacks). Relying on terrorism and widespread dissatisfaction with Ngo Dinh Diem's government, the Viet Cong successfully recruited large numbers of South Vietnamese from both rural villages and urban areas. They also launched periodic attacks on targets throughout South Vietnam, including government installations, military outposts, villages, and strategic hamlets (fortified villages created by the Diem government). All of these efforts were actively supported by the Communist government of North Vietnam.

Around this same time, the performance of the South Vietnamese army came under increasingly harsh criticism. Many U.S. military advisors stationed in the country complained that Diem and the military leadership of the South Vietnamese army—formally known as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam or ARVN—were reluctant to move aggressively against the Viet Cong. The advisors also noted that South Vietnamese officers were afraid that Diem would punish them if their troops suffered many casualties. Some U.S. observers even came to believe that the ARVN contained significant numbers of secret Viet Cong agents. "The whole country had been penetrated [by the Viet Cong], from the palace down to the platoons," claims historian Bruce Palmer in The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. "The Vietnamese could not put out their orders the way we would. They did not trust their own chain of command. They wouldn't tell the troop commanders where they were going until the last minute. And I think that when we [the United States] went in there, we didn't really realize the extent of the subversion.'"

By early 1963, the United States had stationed more than 12,000 American advisors and pilots in South Vietnam to help the country defend itself from the Communists. Despite this assistance, however, the ARVN continued to struggle in its campaign against the Viet Cong. "One had a sense on all sides of the . . . incompetence and unpopularity of the [Diem] government at the time," recalled presidential advisor John Kenneth Galbraith. "Here were just a few thousand Vietcong guerrillas scattered over that still quite huge country and a vast array of armed men already incapable of doing anything about them."

Battle of Ap Bac

American concern about the capabilities of South Vietnam's army intensified after an early 1963 clash known as the Battle of Ap Bac. This battle took place on January 2, 1963, at the small town of Ap Bac, about thirty-five miles southwest of Saigon. During the course of this fight, a Viet Cong battalion defeated a much larger South Vietnamese force that was supported by armored vehicles, heavy artillery, and U.S. Army helicopters. The South Vietnamese army performed very poorly in this battle, and the Viet Cong escaped after shooting down several helicopters and inflicting heavy casualties.

American military advisor John Paul Vann witnessed the entire battle at Ap Bac. After the fight was over, he submitted an angry report in which he harshly criticized the South Vietnamese army for its "damn miserable" performance. He charged that the officers were cowards and claimed that the entire ARVN force showed no willingness to fight. A few days later, Vann became further outraged when he learned that the South Vietnamese military lied about what happened in order to claim victory.

It then became clear that U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting and other American officials in Vietnam had no intention of telling the public the true story. So Vann secretly informed several American reporters about the disastrous battle. After hearing Vann's account, these reporters began to doubt the word of U.S. and South Vietnamese military officials, who continued to insist that the war against the Viet Cong was going well.

Armed with Vann's inside information, reporters told the American public about the loss at Ap Bac. The news stunned the American people, many of whom had paid little attention to U.S. involvement in Vietnam until this time. "Ap Bac . . . was a decisive battle," writes New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in A Bright Shining Lie. "Ap Bac was putting Vietnam on the front pages and on the television evening talk shows with a drama no other event had yet achieved. The dispatches, [full of] details of cowardice and bumbling, were describing the battle as the worst and most humiliating defeat ever inflicted on the Saigon [South Vietnamese] side."

American worries about Diem continue

As America's worries about South Vietnam's military increased, so did U.S. concerns about the stability of President Ngo Dinh Diem's government. Throughout the spring of 1963, American officials tried to convince Diem to make changes in the way he was ruling South Vietnam. They wanted him to introduce policies that would help the nation's struggling peasant population and stamp out widespread corruption in the military and other branches of government. They also urged Diem, who was Catholic, to show respect for Buddhism, the religion practiced by most South Vietnamese families. The United States hoped that by making these changes, the Diem government could reverse its drop in popularity and strengthen its grip on power.

But Diem ignored most U.S. efforts to get him to change his ways, and the military situation continued to deteriorate. "The military leadership of the ARVN seemed more interested in preserving its own privileges than in fighting the war," states Robert D. Schulzinger in A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. "For his part, Diem worried more about disloyal army officers threatening his regime [government] than he did about fighting the Vietcong."

By mid–1963, members of the Kennedy administration were fiercely divided over whether the United States should continue to support Diem's presidency. "We had a big battle all that summer between [the Department of] State and the National Security Council," former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Colby recalls in The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. "State's position was that you cannot hope to win with Diem because he cannot generate popular support. That was an honest appreciation. The other side, people at Defense and in CIA who'd been there, believed you weren't going to get much different government from anybody else." General Maxwell D. Taylor agreed that "there was a strong group [of Kennedy advisors] that had picked up the slogan 'You can't win with Diem.' The other group, to which I belonged, argued maybe we can't win with Diem, but if not Diem—who? And the answer was complete silence."

The Buddhist crisis

In early May President Diem traveled to the city of Hue to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his brother Ngo Dinh Thuc's promotion to archbishop in the Catholic Church. As part of the celebration, Catholic-themed flags were strung along the city's streets. A few days later, however, the Diem government banned members of the city's majority Buddhist population from flying their own banners in celebration of one of their religious holidays. This discriminatory treatment outraged the Buddhists in Hue, one of the historical centers of Vietnamese Buddhism. Thousands of Buddhist demonstrators soon took to the streets in a major protest against Diem's government. On May 8, 1963, the protest in Hue ended in terrible violence. Diem's soldiers attacked the crowds with clubs, tear gas, and gunfire, killing a number of people (reports range from eight to forty people killed) and wounding and jailing many others.

The Diem government blamed Viet Cong guerrillas for the violence in Hue and never admitted responsibility for its actions. But the nation's general population was not fooled, and new demonstrations organized by Buddhist leaders quickly spread throughout the country. Within a matter of days, the Buddhists were joined by several other South Vietnamese groups who opposed Diem's government. In The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era, New York Times reporter David Halberstam describes these protests against the Diem regime as an ominous sign of "deeprooted discontent [anger] among a religious group [the Buddhists] that constitutes about 70 percent of the country's population. What started as a religious protest has become predominantly political . . . the Buddhists are providing a spearhead for other discontented [groups]."

Buddhist suicide shocks the world

On the morning of June 11, 1963, a 73-year-old Buddhist bonze (monk) named Quang Duc sat down in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. He folded his hands in prayer and crossed his legs in the lotus position of meditation, while another monk poured gasoline over his shaven head and orange robe. The old monk then lit a match and set himself on fire to protest Diem's repression of the Buddhist religion.

Shocking pictures of the monk's suicide quickly appeared in the United States and all around the world. The photographs persuaded many stunned Americans to focus greater attention on their country's involvement in South Vietnam. The pictures also triggered a wave of intense international criticism against Diem's government and its treatment of Vietnamese Buddhists. U.S. President John Kennedy commented that "no news picture in history has generated as much emotion around the world as that one."

President Diem and his ruling family reacted defiantly to the criticism, however. Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu (1910–1963) insulted the country's followers of Buddhism and proclaimed that "if the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be happy to supply the gasoline." Diem's sister-inlaw, Madame Nhu, made similar statements. She indicated that she would cheer if other monks committed suicide, adding that "if they [the Buddhists] burn thirty women we shall go ahead and clap our hands."

These remarks horrified President Kennedy and other U.S. officials. They told Diem that "Madame Nhu is out of control" and urged him to send her out of the country. U.S. diplomats also told Diem that Ngo Dinh Nhu should be removed from the government, citing his corrupt ways and his brutal use of the nation's secret police to silence political opposition. American advisors warned the South Vietnamese president that if he did not exercise greater control over Madame Nhu and Ngo Dinh Nhu, his government would become even more unpopular. But Diem relied heavily on his brother and sister-in-law, and he disregarded the warnings.

Demonstrations across South Vietnam

Over the next several weeks, six other monks and nuns in South Vietnam committed suicide by setting themselves on fire in ritual ceremonies. As the summer months passed, the demonstrations against the Diem regime continued to grow in size and intensity. On July 30, for instance, Buddhists and university students launched massive protests in Saigon and four other cities in South Vietnam. "The Buddhist movement became a rallying point for all of the discontent that had been accumulating against the ruling family among urban Vietnamese since 1954," explains Neil Sheehan in A Bright Shining Lie.

During this time, the Diem government used violence in an effort to stop the unrest. Peaceful demonstrators were sometimes attacked by soldiers and police armed with rifles, clubs, and tear gas. Other protestors, including monks and students who were believed to be leaders of the demonstrations, were kidnaped in the middle of the night and never seen again. Nonetheless, the government was unable to stop the demonstrations. According to Sheehan, Diem and the other members of his ruling family "did not understand that each act of repression bred more followers for the Buddhists."

On August 21, 1963, the Diem government declaredmartial law (meaning that the military took charge of the nation) and launched a massive crackdown across South Vietnam in an effort to stamp out the Buddhist-led demonstrations once and for all. Ngo Dinh Nhu's U.S.trained military troops stormed Buddhist temples—known as pagodas—all across the country. They arrested approximately 1,400 monks and nuns in these raids. The attacks were especially bloody in Hue. About 30 monks and student followers were shot or clubbed to death in assaults on Buddhist temples in the ancient city. Madame Nhu personally observed a raid on one of the main Buddhist temples in Saigon. She later called it "the happiest day of my life."

But the government crackdown failed to silence the anti-Diem protestors. Instead, riots broke out at several places across the country, including Saigon University. Diem promptly closed the university, only to see several Saigon high schools erupt in riots. Many of these schoolchildren were the children of important Vietnamese officials and businessmen. Around this same time, Madame Nhu's father, Tran Van Chuong, resigned from his post as ambassador to the United States. He announced that there was "not one chance in a hundred for victory" over the Communists with his daughter, her husband, and brother-in-law in power. Observers saw these developments as further signs that Diem's rule was in grave danger.

Henry Cabot Lodge arrives in Vietnam

In August 1963, the same month that Diem and his ruling family launched their desperate crackdown on the demonstrators, a new U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam arrived in the country. Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985) replaced Frederick Nolting, a longtime defender of Diem's government. After reviewing the situation in Saigon, Lodge quickly concluded that Diem's regime was doomed. A week after his arrival, he sent President Kennedy a top-secret message in which he said, "We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government. There is no possibility, in my view, that the war [against the Communists] can be won under a Diem administration."

Lodge's report disturbed Kennedy, who had hoped that the Diem government could be saved. But other reports confirmed Lodge's view of the situation. The entire length of South Vietnam, from its riot-torn cities to its Viet Cong-threatened rural areas, seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Some intelligence reports even suggested that Diem and his brother Nhu had entered into secret negotiations with North Vietnam in an effort to hold on to their positions. Determined to keep the country out of Communist hands, the Kennedy administration began preparing for the end of the Diem regime.

Diem's last days

In early September 1963, Kennedy publicly expressed his concerns about events in South Vietnam during an interview with newsman Walter Cronkite. "I don't think that unless a greater effort is made by the government to win popular support that the war can be won out there [in South Vietnam]," Kennedy said. "In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam, against the Communists. We are prepared to continue to assist them, but I don't think that the war can be won unless the people support the effort and, in my opinion, in the last two months, the government has gotten out of touch with the people."

Around this same time, a group of South Vietnamese military officers joined together in a plot to overthrow Diem and take control of the government. The leaders of this group were General Duong Van Minh, General Tran Van Don, and General Le Van Kim. In October, Lodge secretly informed the officers that the United States would not oppose a change of leadership of the South Vietnam government. "It seems at least an even bet that the next government would not bungle and stumble as much as the present one has," Lodge told the Kennedy administration.

After the United States extended its promise not to interfere in the coup (attempt to overthrow the government), the generals set their plan in motion. On November 1, 1963, they used a strong military force to seize control of several strategically important outposts in Saigon and other areas of South Vietnam. Initially, Diem and his brother refused to surrender. When it became clear that they could not stop the coup from succeeding, however, the brothers used a secret exit to escape the presidential palace after dark. But they proved unable to elude their pursuers, and were captured a few hours later at a Catholic church in Saigon. A short time later, Duong Van Minh—also known as "Big Minh"—ordered the execution of both men and assumed leadership of the country. Madame Nhu, meanwhile, escaped capture and possible execution only because she was in the United States at the time of the coup.

President Kennedy was stunned and upset when he learned of Diem's murder. He believed that South Vietnam was better off with new leadership, but he had wanted the South Vietnamese generals to simply remove Diem from office, not assassinate him. "It was a shock to all of us," said General Maxwell Taylor. "But I think perhaps to the President more than any of us—because he didn't realize that we were all playing with fire when we were at least giving tacit [implied or understood] encouragement to the overthrow of this man."

Today, the United States' role in the overthrow of the Diem government continues to be fiercely debated by government officials and historians alike. Some people claim that it was necessary for the Kennedy administration to withhold support for Diem during the coup. They insist that the Communists probably would have seized control of South Vietnam in a matter of months if Diem had remained in power. But other observers strongly disagree. For example, General William C. Westmoreland called the U.S. approval for the overthrow of the Diem government a "grievous mistake." Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. military forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, claimed that "action morally locked us in Vietnam. If it had not been for our involvement in the overthrow of President Diem, we could perhaps have gracefully withdrawn our support when South Vietnam's lack of unity and leadership became apparent."


Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Hammer, Ellen J. Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963. New York: Dutton, 1987.

Karnow, Stanley. "The Fall of the House of Ngo Dinh." Saturday Evening Post (December 21, 1963).

McMahon, Robert J., ed. Major Problems in the History of the Vietnam War. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1995.

Nolting, Frederick E., Jr. From Trust to Tragedy: The Political Memoirs of Frederick Nolting, Kennedy's Ambassador to Diem's Vietnam. New York: Praeger, 1988.

Palmer, Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988.

Willenson, Kim. The Bad War: An Oral History of the Vietnam War. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Words to Know

ARVN The South Vietnamese army, officially known as the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The ARVN fought on the same side as U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.

Buddhism A religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (known as the Buddha; c. 563–c. 483 B.C.), in which followers seek moral purity and spiritual enlightenment. Buddhism was the religion of the majority of citizens of South Vietnam.

Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist governments in practice often limit personal freedom and rights.

Coup d'état A sudden, decisive attempt to overthrow an existing government.

North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho Chi Minh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.

South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.supported government.

Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.

People to Know

John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) Served as the 35th president of the United States from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1963.

Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985) U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, 1963–66.

Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) Vietnamese political leader who became president of South Vietnam in 1954. He gradually lost the support of the United States and was killed following the overthrow of his government in 1963.

Ngo Dinh Nhu (1910–1963) Known as Brother Nhu, he was the brother and main political advisor of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Madame Nhu (1924–) Served as the unofficial first lady of South Vietnam during the presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem. She was actually the wife of Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu; her maiden name was Tran Le Xuan.

Diem Makes a Final Appeal for Help from America

As the coup that toppled the Diem government was launched, President Ngo Dinh Diem (1901–1963) made a telephone call to U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge (1902–1985). The transcript of this last communication makes it clear that Diem feared for his life. It also shows that while the United States was willing to take steps to protect Diem if he promptly resigned, America would not intervene in the coup attempt.

Ngo Dinh Diem: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know what is the attitude of the U.S.?

Ambassador Lodge: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. I have heard the shooting, but am not acquainted with all the facts. Also it is 4:30 a.m. in Washington and the U.S. Government cannot possibly have a view.

Diem: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a chief of state. I have tried to do my duty. I want to do now what duty and good sense require. I believe in duty above all.

Lodge: You have certainly done your duty. As I told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. No one can take away from you the credit for all you have done. Now I am worried about your physical safety. I have a report that those in charge of the current [coup] activity offer you and your brother safe conduct out of the country if you resign. Had you heard this?

Diem: No. (Diem then pauses before continuing.) You have my telephone number.

Lodge: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.

Diem: I am trying to re-establish order.

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The Fall of Diem (1963)

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