Why was South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem assassinated in 1963?
As 1960 drew to a close, Ngo Dinh Diem remained the president of South Vietnam. He had successfully thwarted a coup attempt against his government. The United States, at least publicly, supported the Diem presidency. It was seen as the best course to remain in Diem’s corner because, after a close election in the United States, a new president and new party were going to take over in 1961.
John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed in his inaugural address that the United States would, “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” To many observers, this meant that the previous policies in Vietnam would be maintained. Like Eisenhower and Truman before him, Kennedy planned on taking a hard line against communist aggression around the world. This was particularly true in Southeast Asia. The military commitment to South Vietnam increased under Kennedy, though that commitment did not extend to combat troops in 1961.
Though the Kennedy Administration wasn’t terribly fond of Diem, it also needed to keep South Vietnam in the fold of allies fighting communist world domination. For the first eighteen months of Kennedy’s presidency, it appeared that he was losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union. When President Kennedy met with the Soviet Premier, people remarked that Kennedy appeared weak, compliant and overmatched by the more senior Khrushchev.
Despite the tough posture, Kennedy took toward the Soviets, the building of the Berlin Wall made it seem as though the Americans couldn’t stop communist aggression. When the Americans did try and stop the Soviets, it ended in utter disaster. The invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a military and political disaster. Kennedy could not afford another loss in Vietnam. To that end, he authorized a further expansion of American financial and military aid to South Vietnam. American military presence, though not an active combatant, grew to over 3000 military advisors in the country by the end of 1961.
In order to bolster support for Diem, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Vietnam as a show of support. He was also sent to assess the political situation. Johnson famously called Diem “our Winston Churchill in Asia” but his outward bravado did not match the actual impression he had of South Vietnam. Johnson thought, according to his report, while the press sensationalized difficulties in the country, Diem and his government were in a dangerous and precarious position. The official report concluded that the people in Vietnam were desperate for real leadership and that, “ men in white linen suits whose contact with the ordinary people is largely through the rolled-up windows of a Mercedes-Benz” did not provide it.
Rural Issues: The Strategic Hamlet Program
In 1962, the Diem administration in cooperation with Washington developed a new strategy of “strategic hamlets.” The idea was to build strongholds to not only provide protection for the villagers and act as a defense for South Vietnam, but to stymie the influence of the Viet Cong by keeping them out of the new villages. In reality the settlements were more like fortified prison encampments. The initiative was extremely unpopular among the peasant class and it was led many villagers to join up with the Viet Cong.
Thousands of peasants in South Vietnam were forced to move from villages they had lived in for generations and resettle in the new hamlets. Not only was this a material hardship, but the majority of those resettled were Buddhist. The tradition of remaining close to one’s ancestors was a core aspect of their culture. Being forced to move away from sacred areas only made the program more unpopular.
Finally, the Strategic Hamlet program failed on one of its primary purposes, curtailing the influence of the Viet Cong in the rural areas of the country. Against the advice of American advisors, Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who oversaw the program, placed the first hamlets in areas dominated by the Viet Cong, instead of putting the settlements in more secure areas first. Many Viet Cong sympathizers or Viet Cong operatives were able to infiltrate the villages from the very beginning of their existence.
Military Issues: The Battle of Ap Bac
Adding to the difficulties of the Diem regime was the failure of the military. In January of 1963, the Viet Cong, aided by North Vietnamese regulars, ambushed a planned attack by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) near the hamlet of Ap Bac. In a disastrous piecemeal attack, the ARVN was exposed as an ill-trained army. Furthermore, though the Americans were strict non-combatants, they still suffered casualties. Though the Viet Cong were outnumbered 5 to 1, they were able to inflict heavy losses with minimal losses to their force.
Especially significant to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese was their capacity to shoot down the American helicopters that were ferrying in the ARVN troops. The communist forces shot down five US helicopters and damaged ten others. It was a boost in morale to the Viet Cong and equally deflating to the South Vietnamese. The overall assessment of the battle was that it was a major victory for the Viet Cong. They convincingly demonstrated they could take on the larger, better equipped ARVN and inflict heavy damage. Equally significant was that it demonstrated that the Viet Cong could infiltrate anywhere in the south, even regions the government thought secure.
Making the situation more complicated for Kennedy and his advisors were the turn by Diem after he had defeated an earlier coup attempt in 1960. He cracked down severely on those that opposed him, accusing any political adversary as a traitor. Dissent was barely tolerated in the last years of Diem’s presidency. It was the religious dissent, however, of Thích Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk that brought the focus of the world on the South Vietnam president. As a means of protest to the lack of religious expression allowed in South Vietnam, Duc went to a busy intersection of Saigon and lit himself on fire. It was a method of protest rarely seen, especially by western observers. It increased the pressure on Diem from his American allies to change his policies and to relax restrictions on Buddhist practices.
Diem, however, would not budge. If anything, he became more repressive and more antagonistic. He cracked down on Buddhist temples, claiming they were harboring Viet Cong and other enemies of the state. This led to more monks self-immolating, creating more negative reactions among South Vietnam’s allies. Adding to the problem was the wife of Diem’s brother, Madame Nhu. She openly laughed and mocked the protests of the monks, saying if the monks, “wanted to have another barbeque, I’ll gladly provide the gasoline.”
As the repression of Buddhists intensified, more and more of the population, especially students in Saigon, protested the Diem presidency. The resulting clashes with police left over 200 people injured and as many as 30 dead. Thousands were arrested and sent to re-education camps. The United States denounced the brutality of the Diem administration. Tensions remained high throughout the summer of 1963.
End Game: 1963 Coup and Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem
Though there were elements within the government not loyal to Diem, the military was most dissatisfied with the president and his leadership. A cabal of generals finally decided that Diem and his brother Nhu needed to be removed from power. Reaching out to the CIA, the generals were notified that Washington would not intervene in any attempt at the removal of Diem. It was as green of a light as the generals could have hoped for.
Washington could afford to turn a blind eye to such events. The standing of the United States in the struggle against communism had changed somewhat in the fall of 1962. The Soviet Union had attempted to station nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the American mainland. To prevent this, President Kennedy ordered a blockade of the island nation. Many of his advisers urged the president to strike at the Soviet ships, perhaps even launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Kennedy, however, showed restraint and trusted in the blockade. His patience paid off. The Soviet Union pulled the missiles from Cuba. The world community saw this as a victory for Kennedy who had seemed to be one step behind the Soviets up until this point. Though it was more of a quid pro quo than originally thought (the US agreed to pull missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Cuban missiles being removed) public perception was that Kennedy was finally getting the hang of international diplomacy.
As a result, the United States was willing to see a regime change in South Vietnam. In the summer and fall of 1963, the generals who were attempting the coup put their plan into motion. On November 1, 1963, those plans were carried out. Unlike the 1960 coup attempt, this time the troops surrounding the city were loyal to the rebels, not Diem. There would be no last-minute rescue for Diem this time. The president and his brother were captured trying to escape but were promised safe passage to a holding facility outside of the city. Somewhere between where they were arrested and the drive out of town, Diem and his brother were murdered.
The reaction in South Vietnam was as to be expected. There were massive demonstrations in the streets of Saigon celebrating the ouster of Diem. The expectation was that the political situation would get better with Diem gone. However, with his death, a series of military dictators took over the running of the country and each one was more corrupt than the last. Instead of an improvement, South Vietnam was plunged into an even greater chaos.
Reaction in the United States was not nearly as enthusiastic. The Kennedy administration was not pleased with the murder of Diem. While it did nothing to stop the coup, the administration was not pleased with being associated with such thuggish behavior. Also, there was a bit of wariness on the part of the US because they did not know what they were getting in the new South Vietnamese leadership. Though the US was happy to see Diem out of power, the resulting vacuum was cause for concern.
The United States, however, soon had its own turmoil. On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. A new president, Lyndon Johnson, took over for Kennedy and was as determined as his predecessors to stop the spread of communism in Asia. There is some debate about whether Kennedy would have taken the war in Vietnam in the same direction as Johnson. Considering, however, that Johnson retained the Kennedy cabinet and relied on them heavily with regards to Vietnam policy, it is safe to assume that regardless of the president, the war in Vietnam was going to grow throughout the 1960s.
Anderson, David L., Editor. The Columbia History of the Vietnam War. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011.
Lawrence, Mark Atwood. The Vietnam War: A Concise History. New York: Oxford Press, 2008.