Foggy Bottom was a local name for the State Department complex along the Potomac River. Everyone of importance was out of town, Jack Kennedy (JFK) up on Cape Cod at the family compound, the Secretary of State at the United Nations (UN) in New York, the CIA chief at his California get-away, the Defense Secretary and others out of reach on that end-of-summer weekend.
Three senior diplomats remaining in the capital kept an eye on US-South Vietnam (SVN) policy. Recent news had not been good, and cables from Saigon indicated conditions in SVN were getting much worse. President Diem’s brother Nhu, the de facto secret police chief, had just sent squads of Special Forces and combat police into three major Buddhist pagodas, and over a thousand priests and nuns had been roughed up and arrested. Reportedly, several hundred were killed.
Since spring, the predominantly Catholic government of Diem had been in sharp conflict with the Buddhist religious establishment, which represented the predominantly Buddhist population. It had started on a minor note to which the regime had reacted violently, killing nine unarmed civilians. In reaction, saffron-robed Buddhist monks called bonzes had begun martyring themselves in public squares – gasoline and a match – creating shocking photos on the front pages of the world press and embarrassing the regime’s patron, the United States.
The US, present when SVN was established and Diem installed in the mid-‘50s, by then had much political capital invested. The escalating Buddhist crisis was distracting attention from the government’s flagging fight against Communist North Vietnam’s insurgency, and Washington became concerned. Things weren’t going well with the US client state anyway – endemic corruption and resistance to reforms to engender popular support had become the norm.
On July 4th 1963, the US Embassy in Saigon threw its annual Independence Day party. A number of senior South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) generals, including General Tran Van Don, ran into an ex-comrade in arms, Lou Conein. French by birth, American by citizenship, a long serving hand in the Saigon CIA Station. Conein had first arrived in Vietnam in ‘45 as a WWII OSS* operative, and had fought alongside some of officers now generals in driving the Japanese occupation forces out of Indochina. His old friends invited him to join them for drinks at the nightclub at the Hotel Caravelle where they revealed they were planning a coup against Diem, and asked Conein to find out what Washington’s attitude would be.
Conein reported back to them that the US was non-committal, but would not stand in the way – what the conspirators hoped to hear. Planning began, then on August 21st the raid on the pagodas occurred, and Nhu falsely implicated the generals. They were furious, it was the final straw.
The next day, they sent word to the American Embassy asking the USG for a signal. It was the very day the new ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, arrived. He’d been briefed earlier and was disposed toward regime change. He cabled State for instructions and ordered Conein to liaise with the cabal. In addition, a team of Army Security Agency (ASA) linguists (lingys), including brother Jeff Sharlet, were quickly flown into Saigon from Clark Air Base in the Philippines (PI). Set up at an out of the way base, their classified mission was to tap into the conspirators’ communications.†
Lodge’s urgent cable reached Washington that humid Saturday morning, instantly setting in motion a flurry of activity. Since spring the President himself and most of his senior advisers had become disenchanted with Diem’s leadership, especially his brother’s actions. It had become clear that the war against the insurgents would not be won without a regime change.
The ambassador needed immediate guidance, so the key officer, Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East Hilsman, and his superior, the Deputy Secretary of State, began urgently drafting strong, unambiguous instructions for regime change in Saigon – at the very least, the removal of Nhu.
Protocol required that the communication be approved by the Under Secretary of State who was in town, but at the golf course. With the cable in hand, the draftsmen rushed out to Burning Tree Golf Course where they caught up with Secretary Ball at the ninth hole. Ball insisted on calling JFK at his Hyannisport retreat. The President suggested circulating the draft for more approvals.
By Saturday evening, Rusk had been reached at the UN, as well as the acting chiefs at the Pentagon and CIA, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shortly after 9 PM, JFK’s White House Vietnam adviser telephoned him at the Cape and secured final approval. At 9:36 PM, the cable that would irreversibly transform America’s commitment in Southeast Asia went off.
Marked ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Eyes Only – Ambassador Lodge’, the text was as direct as diplomatic language permitted. The ambassador was to see Diem forthwith to say that the USG could no longer tolerate Nhu, but if Lodge’s efforts were to no avail, then, in the delicate phrasing of high diplomacy, “we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.” The key generals were to be told that if Diem proved obdurate about his brother, then the USG is “prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem” himself. The ambassador was assured that Washington would back him “to the hilt.” As history has recorded, a ‘green light’ had been given.
On Monday, August 26th, with all the foreign policy principals back in town, there was alarm that the cable had been too strong, even incendiary. The President’s advisers were divided – McNamara at the Pentagon, McCone of CIA, and General Taylor of the Chiefs all felt that Hilsman, Harriman, and Ball had gone too far. Concerned over the divide among his inner circle, JFK quickly convened the National Security Council.
At that first of many meetings, the President served as moderator, generally questioning rather than expressing his views. However, at the outset when several inner circle people proposed withdrawing the cable, JFK rejected that course of action.
Despite the concern over the tone of the cable, Hilsman led off the initial session, expressing the broad consensus that Nhu had to go. He added that the two key generals who had sent word to Lodge told their US contacts “you have got to make up your mind.” From where the generals stood, things had reached a critical point, and the USG could no longer sit on the fence. JFK called another meeting for Tuesday and asked that Ambassador Nolting, the outgoing Saigon envoy be present. McNamara suggested designating the policy group an Executive Committee or ExComm.
As the ExComm went through a series of meetings that last week of August, no clear agreement on what to do about the situation in Saigon had been reached, and the President was beset by indecision.
On August 28th, domestic politics momentarily intruded on the ExComm deliberations. That was the day of the great march on Washington, 250,000 strong, culminating in Martin Luther King’s (MLK) iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial. JFK broke off a late afternoon session to receive MLK and a delegation from the historic event.
JFK remained distressed that his closest advisers disagreed, not only in Washington, but at the Saigon embassy where Lodge was an enthusiastic coup proponent while the general commanding the military advisors, essentially a career staff officer an old cavalry officer with no knowledge of guerrilla warfare, was doubtful and the CIA station chief less than keen. However, as the leading authority on the secret history of the Vietnam War has concluded: “In effect the President rejected an immediate coup, but accepted that one would eventually take place.”**
By the end of that hectic week in August, JFK directed a cable be sent leaving the initial green light signal on the table, but expressing his second thoughts. No doubt divining Washington’s hesitation and ambivalence, the generals, who were risking their lives and feared possible betrayal either by one of their own or even the Embassy, abruptly suspended planning for a near-term coup. The diplomatic reason given – they didn’t feel ready.
The pressure was off at the embassy, but Jeff and the ASA team continued their covert assignment on a 24/7 basis, recording and translating the intercepted communications of the target generals, and no doubt highlighting key words that turned up. Their ‘product’, destined for the National Security Agency, was so politically sensitive that it was rigged to explode should the guards be stopped enroute to the airport for the flight to Washington by South Vietnamese police or military personnel.
Decades later Jeff’s buddy, the late Ed Smith††, told me that at the time they had no idea why they were listening in on US allies. Despite their top secret and cryptographic security clearances, the ‘big picture’ was well above their pay grade. Jeff and the intercept team did not have ‘Need to Know’, a concept I understood well from my own ASA experience in Cold War Europe where the translator working next to me and I were not permitted to discuss our respective work – compartmentalization was the name of the game.
September arrived, and nothing had changed in Saigon. The bumbling Diem remained blissfully unaware of the real state of affairs in the country, having long encouraged overly optimistic reports. Even his brother Nhu privately referred to the regime as ‘mandarin’ and ‘feudal’. Washington’s dilemma was that while the war was unwinnable with Diem in power, they foresaw political instability and a lost cause in the long run without him.
Meanwhile, Saigon was awash in rumors; an observer commented that the “city seemed as taut as a piano wire.”*** The senior conspirator of the summer plotters, General Minh, known as ‘Big Minh’, asked the CIA contacts to keep the lines of communication open, so Conein, under orders from the ambassador, listened and reported through channels.
That promise came back quickly from JFK who directed the Embassy not to encourage a coup, but not to discourage one either. Essentially it was a repetition of the ambiguous signal of August, but satisfactory to the generals. They just wanted to be sure as they proceeded that the Americans would not betray them to Diem and Nhu.
Conversely, from their side the generals wanted to be certain Conein was speaking with authority. An unobtrusive meeting was arranged at the airport between General Don and Ambassador Lodge as the ambassador awaited a flight. Don asked him in French for whom Conein spoke. Lodge replied unequivocally, “Il parle pour moi. Il me représente." (He speaks for me. He is my representative.)
Unexpectedly a ‘monkey wrench’ was thrown into the works when Harkins, a protégé of General Taylor, who opposed a coup, on his own initiative told General Don to cease and desist the plotting. Alarmed that the Americans had changed their collective position, the generals sought clarification. Conein told Don that the general had been out of line, and the ambassador, although an old Boston friend of Harkins, quickly set him straight. Meanwhile covering all bets back in Washington, the CIA director assured JFK that if the coup went awry, the Agency would disavow Conein as a rogue agent.
The President, already quite uneasy, was getting mixed messages from his people. Ambassador Lodge came on strong while General Harkins via a backchannel was feeding Taylor dissent. Near the end of October, JFK signaled Lodge to slow things down, but the ambassador cabled back it was too late. The US was implicated, and at that point events in Saigon were beyond its influence.
***R Phillips, Why Vietnam Matters (2008), 200.