Washington, DC, November 1, 2020—President John F. Kennedy was more disposed to support the removal of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in late 1963 than previously appeared to be the case, according to a recently released White House tape and transcript. The ouster of Diem in a military coup that would have major implications for American policy and growing involvement in the country happened 57 years ago today. Even now the views of Kennedy and some of his top aides about the advisability of a coup specifically have been shrouded by an incomplete documentary record that has led scholars to focus more on the attitudes of subordinates. Today, the National Security Archive is posting for the first time materials from U.S. and Vietnamese archives that open the window into this pivotal event a little bit wider.
Kennedy's views on removing Diem become more explicit in a tape recording of his meeting with newly-appointed Ambassador to Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., in mid-August 1963, just before Lodge set out for Saigon. Other records published today, including NSC notes of White House meetings and CIA field reports from South Vietnam, allow for a broader look at the coup period and the roles of on-the-ground officials such as the CIA's Lucien Conein and Ambassador Frederick Nolting. Some of these materials first appeared in earlier National Security Archive E-books and are added here to provide the larger context of events.
Today's posting also features a dramatic handwritten proclamation on November 1, 1963, from the doomed Diem demanding that the South Vietnamese Army follow his orders. But within hours he would be deposed and 24 hours later summarily executed by the military. Author Luke A. Nichter found the document in the Vietnamese archives. He co-authored today's posting with Archive Fellow John Prados.
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The coup against Diem has been a much-debated passage in the history of the American war in Vietnam. The National Security Archive has participated in these debates by introducing important new evidence and interpretation. In 2003 we posted an electronic briefing book with one of the first-released Kennedy tape recordings of a key White House deliberation on the final go-ahead for the coup. That post included a selection of essential documents, including the CIA briefing where the agency’s director, John McCone, informed the president of the initial approaches by South Vietnamese plotters to CIA officers. The South Vietnamese demands for American support became more insistent in the second half of August, 1963, and the posting presented the National Security Council (NSC) and State Department records of a series of White House meetings and other U.S. deliberations over a coup in Saigon. A big issue, then and since, has been the so-called “Hilsman Telegram,” or, more formally, Department Telegram (DepTel) 243, which instructed U.S. Ambassador to Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to proceed in a fashion that made clear to Diem that he needed to end nepotism and curtail the activities of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and other family members, whose efforts were impeding the counterinsurgency war then in progress. The E-book contained a selection of documents that showed how Washington considered South Vietnamese who might be alternative candidates for leadership, and jumped ahead to the final days before the coup.
In 2009 the Kennedy Library made a release of the tapes that actually covered the White House conversations of late August. The Archive built an E-book around those audiotapes, too, starting with DepTel 243 and then permitting the reader/listener to make extensive comparisons, by pairing the White House tapes with the NSC and State Department memoranda recording those same conversations. In one case we also had a record made by a senior Pentagon participant, Major General Victor Krulak. This supplemented the earlier electronic briefing book.
Diem's handwritten proclamation to the Army on the day of the coup, November 1, 1963 (Document 26).
We have since continued to collect material, and Luke Nichter’s presentation of the Kennedy-Lodge tape from mid-August offers a good opportunity to revisit the coup. Here we step back to take a broader view, not just focusing on the events of August but on the full panoply. Among the items we present here are the audio and transcript of the president instructing his ambassador; notes taken during the key week by Thomas L. Hughes, director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research; the handwritten notes on White House meetings by NSC staff deputy Bromley K. Smith; a wider selection of meeting notes from General Krulak; the CIA summary of meetings between its officers and the Vietnamese generals; a selection of CIA field reports, including the early October Vietnamese mention of assassination and the CIA reaction to that; and several items from the immediate period of the coup and assassination, including a desperate appeal for aid from President Diem even as the coup against him was underway.
Among the findings from the present posting or from our several Diem E-books taken together are the following:
- President John F. Kennedy was more disposed, than previously understood, to support actions that might change the leadership in South Vietnam.
- Kennedy was personally aware of the pro-Diem views of Frederick E. Nolting, Lodge’s predecessor as ambassador, strengthening the impression that he included Nolting in White House deliberations—and personally engaged him in colloquy about Saigon events—partly to build a case that all sides in this debate had been heard.
- White House conversations took place without any principal figures changing their minds about the Saigon situation.
- When South Vietnamese military officers renewed their contacts with CIA operatives in early October, the Vietnamese immediately raised the option of assassination.
- Vietnamese figure Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of leader Diem, remained the prime target of American maneuvers. Nhu’s attempts to fend off criticism or ingratiate himself with Washington failed.
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Vietnam perplexed American leaders from Franklin D. Roosevelt on. By the time John F. Kennedy was president, the situation seemed hopeful for a moment—long enough for JFK to think of Vietnam as a sort of laboratory where he could try out tactics and techniques. By this juncture, 1963, that optimism had evaporated and Kennedy felt that obstructionists in Saigon were losing ground against a communist insurgency. When, that May, Ngo Dinh Diem’s government got into a political confrontation with Vietnamese Buddhists, American frustration increased. So did South Vietnamese. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative was approached during the time of U.S. 4th of July festivities by South Vietnamese military officers who wanted U.S. support for a coup d’etat that might overthrow Diem (2003 E-book, document 1).
This present E-book opens (Document 1) with the record of a July 19, 1963, encounter between CIA Station Chief John Richardson and Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who ran many of South Vietnam’s special services and was increasingly seen as the power behind the presidency. This shows that Nhu, even when “calm,” as Richardson observes, obsessed with Buddhists spreading propaganda and hiding communist agents among their monks at some of the most important pagodas. Nhu had begun weekly meetings with the generals of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) where he himself had introduced the subject of a coup—as he told the CIA, it was a “psychoanalytic” technique which might induce the ARVN officers to reveal their intentions.
Nhu continued his plotting, which eventually led to a plan to launch government raids against the most important Buddhist pagodas in Saigon and Hue (Document 5).
President Kennedy decided to replace his ambassador to Saigon, Frederick E. Nolting, and appointed Henry Cabot Lodge to that position. Lodge and Kennedy met in the Oval Office on August 15 (Item 2, Document 3). We present both the audio of that meeting and a transcription of it crafted by Luke Nichter. These materials reveal that Lodge already held nuanced views on the situation in South Vietnam and had already met with South Vietnamese representatives in the U.S., who happened to be the parents of Ngo Dinh Nhu’s wife. Kennedy did a lot of agreeing, letting Lodge talk, but the two concurred the press in Saigon posed a problem, JFK expressed the sense that something would have to be done about Diem, but he didn’t want to be driven to that by the press, and he was not yet certain who, other than Diem, the U.S. could support in Saigon. Kennedy wanted Lodge to make a personal assessment.
Lodge left for Saigon, planning to stop in Hawaii and Japan on his way to receive various briefings and touch base with senior U.S. officials. During his trip the Saigon situation escalated as Nhu went ahead to launch the raids on the Buddhist pagodas he had already planned. At the State Department, W. Averell Harriman and George Ball agreed that Lodge ought to delay his arrival in Saigon until the situation had calmed somewhat (Document 4). He actually reached Saigon two days after their conversation (August 23, Washington date). He had no time to acclimate. The CIA’s chronology of its contacts with ARVN plotters (Document 13) shows that the initial contacts which plunged Washington into a frenzy of deliberations on whether to support a coup in Saigon occurred that day. One day later, Ambassador Lodge received the infamous DepTel 243, the “Hilsman cable” (2003 E-book, Document 2; E-book 302, Document 1). We do not reproduce this here because we presented it in both the previous electronic briefings on this subject. News of ARVN’s request for backing of a coup reached Kennedy as his president’s daily brief (then called the President’s Intelligence Checklist, or PICL) was reporting that Ngo Dinh Nhu was indeed behind the Pagoda Raids, and that Nhu and Diem were issuing direct orders to military officers, leaving out the ARVN chain of command (Document 7).
In our 2003 and 2009 postings, and the 2013 update, the story of what Kennedy and his officials actually decided about the Saigon coup in August was at the heart of our inquiry. Rather than revisit all of that debate, here we want to touch on a few points, presenting nuances in the form of the Thomas Hughes notes (Document 6) and meetings with Diem and Nhu that were taking place within this timeframe (Documents 8, 14, 15), amplifying the evidence.
The tapes of the White House meetings on August 26, 27, and 28, along with written records of those meetings made by NSC notetaker Bromley K. Smith and State Department official Roger A. Hilsman are available in the earlier postings, along with one record by General Victor H. Krulak. Here we add Krulak’s records on the other meetings (Documents 9, 11) and Bromley Smith’s handwritten notes, from which he derived the records we had previously posted (Documents 10, 12). Together, these materials offer comprehensive documentation on the Kennedy administration’s August coup talk.
The cycle of meetings opened on Monday, August 26, after the Hilsman cable had been sent and when the object was whether to confirm the instruction it had contained. The received history on this is that Hilsman, Harriman, and NSC staffer Michael Forrestal advocated going ahead with a coup, while other factions opposed it. One opposition faction centered on former Ambassador Nolting. Military opponents coalesced around General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and included General Krulak; while another center of opposition included CIA Director John McCone and his responsible division chief, William E. Colby. President Kennedy acted mostly as moderator. He regarded Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy as other opponents.
As we demonstrated in our 2009 E-book the reality was more complex. Bobby Kennedy spoke little in the August meetings and was absent from the August 26 session, when anger over the Hilsman cable should have been most focused. Instead, JFK spoke not of opposing a coup, but of not conducting one just because the New York Times was pushing it—almost a repeat of what he had expressed to Lodge in their meeting 10 days earlier (Document 3). Hilsman dominated the discussion, with Taylor doubting whether Saigon could get along without Diem, and McNamara sought assurances on four points. He also wanted to see something on Lodge actually talking with Diem. That encounter actually took place at that very time (Document 8). Secretary of State Dean Rusk remarked that “we’re on the road to disaster,” posing the alternatives as whether to move U.S. troops into Vietnam or get our resources out. This amounted much more to a quest for more information on Saigon conditions than an assault against a purported pro-coup faction.
On August 27 Ambassador Nolting took center stage. Our additional records do not change the impression we expressed in 2009 that Nolting had essentially gone native (Documents 9, 10). He represented the Pagoda Raids as some sort of victory for Diem, absolved Nhu of responsibility for them, pictured Diem as a man of integrity who had tried to carry out all the promises he had made to the United States, and framed Vietnamese Buddhism as manipulated by Cambodia. Nolting conceded that Nhu—also a “man of integrity”—had become a liability, but he rejected the proposition the Vietnamese generals would carry out a coup. John F. Kennedy notably remarked there was no point to a coup if it would not work.
The next day, Nolting added that the notion of a coup was based on a bad principle and would set a bad precedent, a statement that impressed National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy (Documents 11, 12). The former ambassador argued that no one other than Diem could keep South Vietnam together. CIA Director Colby described a Saigon situation that pictured the pro-regime forces as stronger than the plotters. He also spoke of how in a previous coup (1960), time had played in favor of Diem, not against him. George Ball argued that Nhu in the ascendant was impossible to live with, making the coup imperative, but the questions were mooted that day when the Vietnamese generals postponed their coup plot.
August deliberations had the effect of enabling top U.S. officials to rehearse all the arguments for and against a coup, but they left Washington with its policy problem—the intractability of Saigon leaders closed off the potential for progress in Vietnam. The experience of Americans in South Vietnam established that. Presenting his credentials to Diem on August 26 (Document 8), Ambassador Lodge got 10 minutes to explain the role of public opinion in setting U.S. policy, advising that the Saigon leader release Buddhist prisoners, after which Diem minimized the importance of Buddhists, then treated him to a two-hour harangue on his family and South Vietnam as an underdeveloped country.
Just as Kennedy ended the August round of coup talks, State Department official Paul Kattenburg, who had known Diem for a decade, had his own experience (Document 14). Kattenburg got the impression the man had a growing neurosis. “More than on earlier occasions,” he recorded, Diem “talked largely to himself.” The Saigon potentate defended his stance in the Buddhist crisis, and defended his brothers Nhu and Thuc, the archbishop of Hue, whose antics had touched off the crisis. Diem made conflicting claims that the Buddhists were being stirred up by communist cadres and that the crisis was entirely solved. For his part, Nhu also came off as more and more ominous (Document 15). The CIA learned of a talk he had had with ARVN commanders in the Saigon area where Nhu asserted that a cutoff of foreign aid would not be a problem because South Vietnam had enough foreign currency reserves to continue for 20 years. Nhu ordered that ARVN soldiers be instructed to open fire on any foreigners involved in “provocative acts.”
American officials differed on who might follow Diem and Nhu in leading Saigon. Unlike Nolting, who saw no possible candidates, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) produced an extensive list (Document 16). They emphasized, “we believe that Vietnam is not faced with any serious shortage of effective non-Communist leadership.” Thomas L. Hughes, INR’s director, remains proud today of the list his experts assembled in 1963. The next day, INR went ahead to craft a paper on “The Problem of Nhu” (Document 17), where analysts cited South Vietnamese opinions that Nhu had become the dominant power in Saigon, exercising “an overriding, immutable influence over Diem.”
Kennedy’s associates concluded early on that Ngo Dinh Nhu had to go. If President Diem refused to jettison Nhu, then Diem would have to go as well. That was the sense of the Hilsman cable, and of the follow-up instruction sent after the August round of coup talk. Through September and October, even as Washington sought to make its point by considering evacuation of U.S. nationals, withdrawals of American troops, and halting CIA aid to South Vietnamese Special Forces, President Kennedy tried to understand the situation better. JFK sent a succession of study groups to Saigon—Huntington Sheldon of the CIA, Robert McNamara plus Maxwell Taylor, General Krulak plus Joseph Mendenhall—all to report to him. The visits all confirmed what INR had said in its “Problem of Nhu” memorandum (Document 17).
Silence from the Vietnamese generals made Washington officials wary of getting too far ahead of Saigon politics. That was one reason for the study missions. Rufus Phillips describes one White House meeting around this time that ended in complete pandemonium. In an EYES ONLY cable on September 15, Secretary Rusk warned Ambassador Lodge that the coup envisioned in the Hilsman cable was “definitely in suspense” and that no effort should be made to stimulate any coup plotting. Decisions had yet to be made in Washington. At the same time Lodge was involved in a spat with the CIA over changing its station chief in Saigon. That was the climate in which ARVN General Tran Thien Khiem asked CIA for a meeting. The contact, and the meeting which followed, tipped the Americans to Nhu’s maneuvers to create channels to Hanoi, reminded them that coup plans still existed, and informed CIA that the generals were awaiting Diem’s response to their demands for cabinet-level positions in the South Vietnamese government (Document 13).
By that time Secretary McNamara and General Taylor were in Saigon on their fact-finding mission. They spoke with academic Vietnam experts, the CIA station chief, and President Diem. Taylor wrote a lengthy report afterwards which argued the generals had “little stomach” for government and had been neutralized. But almost simultaneously in Saigon, the CIA electrified Washington when operative Lucien Conein ran into General Tran Van Don at the airport and the two held a meeting that night where the ARVN officer affirmed that the generals now had a specific plan, and Don got Conein to agree to meet the top plotter several days later. Document 18 is the record of Conein’s encounter with General Duong Van Minh on October 5. General Minh renewed the August call for an expression of U.S. support for a coup. Minh identified the principal plotters, assured the CIA man a coup would take place in the near future, and outlined several possible coup options. One of them—the “easiest,” Minh said—was to assassinate two of Diem’s brothers while keeping Diem himself as a figurehead.
The mention of assassination occurred at a key moment for the U.S. in Saigon. Ambassador Lodge was sending home his CIA station chief. The assistant chief, left to comment on General Minh’s options, advised Washington not to dismiss the assassination too quickly, as the other possibilities basically meant civil war. This advice outraged CIA Director McCone and Far East operations chief Colby. McCone shot back that the best line was no line. Years later, when the Church Committee was investigating the CIA (in 1975), McCone quoted himself telling John F. Kennedy, in precise words that he remembered very clearly, “Mr. President, if I was manager of a baseball team, [and] I had one pitcher, I’d keep him in the box whether he was a good pitcher or not. By that I was saying that, if Diem was removed we would have not one coup . . . but a succession” (Document 20). McCone ordered Saigon station to drop the suggestion, and the next day Colby reinforced that order with another (Document 19).
From that point on, the U.S. embassy and Saigon station became even more active as observers of South Vietnamese coup preparations. There were more contacts with the Vietnamese generals. At one point Ambassador Lodge personally assured General Tran Van Don that CIA operative Conein was speaking authoritatively for the U.S. embassy.
Lodge had an active role in disentangling one of the most important obstacles to the coup when the South Vietnamese were moving into position. On October 23, Don had another get-together with CIA’s Conein (Document 21) where he demanded assurances on the U.S. stance and the intelligence officer was able to answer in a way that satisfied Washington guidelines. The coup would take place in a window of late October-early November. Don was furious that a different, subordinate ARVN officer, talking of a different coup, had been discouraged by U.S. military group commander General Paul D. Harkins, while word of that had reached President Diem. In turn, Conein challenged Don to produce proof that the coup group was actually authentic. Back at the embassy Lodge confronted Harkins over his intervention with the South Vietnamese officer (Document 22). Lodge set Harkins straight that the United States, while not initiating any coup, was to avoid any action that thwarted or opposed a coup. On October 24 (Document 23) Conein met again with Don, who confirmed that Harkins had admitted his error in seeming to oppose a coup. Don asserted that all plans were complete and had been checked and re-checked.
Washington’s last opportunity to back out of the Saigon coup occurred on October 29, when President Kennedy gathered his advisers to go over the ground one more time. The National Security Archive documented this event in some detail in our 2003 electronic briefing book, where we presented the meeting agenda, a tape of the conversation, the NSC meeting record, and two draft cables to Saigon that the participants considered (2003 E-book, Documents 18, 19, 20, and 21 plus audio clip). Here we present Roger Hilsman’s record of that meeting from State Department files (Document 24). At this late date Bobby Kennedy still opposed the coup and Maxwell Taylor sided with him, while other officials looked ahead to the composition of a future Saigon government, or focused on tactics or the balance of forces on the coup and palace sides.
Contrary to fears expressed at the October 29 White House meeting, when the coup began on November 1, President Diem and his forces were fairly quickly corralled in the Gia Long Palace. Again, the 2003 E-book presented an array of materials on these events (Documents 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28), ranging from Kennedy’s White House sessions to monitor events, to the CIA daily situation reports, to a cable relating several versions of how Diem and Nhu died, to a CIA retrospective analysis of press coverage of the deaths. Here we supplement the 2003 coverage with some new evidence. On November 1 we have the PICL which shows the coup underway (Document 25). Desperate to save himself, amid the coup fighting, President Diem drafted a proclamation ordering the army to reject all but his own orders and summoning help from loyal forces outside Saigon (Document 26). But it was too late. The PICL of November 2 (Document 27) records that Diem and Nhu had been killed.
John F. Kennedy Library: JFK Papers: National Security File; Country File, b. 198, f.: “Vietnam, 7/21-7/31/63.”
CIA Saigon Station Chief John Richardson met with Ngo Dinh Nhu for a conversation that focused primarily on the evolving Buddhist crisis. Nhu commented that the South Vietnamese military officers, many of whom were Buddhist themselves, started off in sympathy with the Buddhists following the uprising that occurred in Hue on May 8. Since then, however, some officers turned against the movement once the political aims of some Buddhist leaders became more apparent, blaming the Diem government for being ineffective in dealing with the problem. In a meeting with Nhu, some officers went so far as to express interest in taking part in a coup. Nhu claimed he was prepared to join them – which could have been an effort to unmask the coup plotters and their grievances rather than a genuine statement of support.
JFK Papers: Kennedy Tapes, Tape/Conversation 104/A-40/004; transcription by Luke Nichter.
Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. met with President John F. Kennedy alone in the Oval Office for his farewell meeting prior to leaving for Vietnam. Lodge began with a summary of his conversation the night before with Than Thi Nam Tran, wife of Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Tran Van Chuong, and mother of Madame Nhu. Kennedy and Lodge discussed the kinds of challenges Lodge was likely to face upon arrival, and how he proposed to deal with the Diem government. Kennedy became more specific when he said, “The time may come, though, we’ve gotta just have to try to do something about Diem, and I think that’s going to be an awfully critical period.” While never directly speaking about a “coup,” Kennedy signaled that he was willing to accept regime change under certain circumstances. Lodge warned how difficult it could be to control such an event, noting that Madame Nhu’s mother believed that she, along with Diem and Nhu, were “all going to be assassinated.”
LBJ Library: Ball Papers, b.7, f.: “Vietnam I (1/15/62-10/4/63.”
While Lodge was still in transit to Vietnam, Diem declared martial law and his military forces raided the Buddhist pagodas that were believed to be sheltering those behind the latest anti-government protests. While Diem had promised outgoing U.S. Ambassador Frederick Nolting that he would make no such move against the Buddhists, Harriman and Ball were no longer sure of Diem’s intentions. Diem and Nhu seemed to desire to present Lodge with a fait accompli regarding the Buddhists upon his arrival in Saigon.
JFK Papers: NSF: Country File, b. 198, f.: “Vietnam 8/21-8/30/63.”
Ngo Dinh Nhu explained to U.S. officials the series of events that led to the pagoda raids and the declaration of martial law. Nhu claimed that Ngo Dinh Diem himself approved the pagoda raids against the Buddhists in response to demands made by South Vietnamese army officers for Diem to deal with recent political agitation in Saigon. Nhu suggested that he was not a central figure in the actions undertaken against the Buddhists, although he was in support of them. Nhu thought it would take involvement by the United States to seek an end to the present crisis.
Thomas L. Hughes Papers, Courtesy of Thomas Hughes.
Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research Thomas L. Hughes made notes of White House conversations with National Security Council staff member Michael Forrestal and Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Roger Hilsman during August 24-28, 1963, which he referred to as “coup planning week.” Vietnam took up most of the discussions, including criticism of Nhu’s explanation for the series of events that led to the pagoda raids – which Forrestal said was “what he wanted us to hear.” They agreed that the Diem government could not survive another 12 months. Forrestal also commented, without further elaboration, that others had not been privy to the “latest Lodge-JFK private communications. The implication is that Mike [Forrestal] is.”
CIA electronic reading room; declassified July 24, 2015.
The President’s Intelligence Checklist for August 24, 1963 concluded that Nhu is believed to be behind the recent antagonism against the Buddhists and the imposition of martial law in Saigon. At the same time, there was infighting within the ranks of the South Vietnamese army officers, and the latest turmoil is likely to be only the first phase in a new wave of instability. Compare this redaction with the one on page 626 of Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, v. III, Vietnam, January-August 1963. Government Printing Office 1991).
JFK Library: John Newman Papers: “Notebook, August 24-31, 1963.”
Newly arrived U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. held his first meeting with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem on August 26. According to Lodge’s report of the two-hour discussion, many of the points he raised were nearly verbatim with those he discussed with Kennedy on August 15 – including the importance of U.S. public opinion, the role of Madame Nhu, and the recent unrest in Saigon. Lodge told Diem that he knew little about Vietnam but hoped to advise him on American affairs.
National Defense University: Maxwell D. Taylor Papers, Vietnam, Chapter XXIII, T-172-68.
Compared to other versions of Memoranda of Conversation of an August 27 meeting between Kennedy and his aides following William Colby’s briefing, this rendition by Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Victor Krulak on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff illuminates new details. Secretary of State Dean Rusk proposed that regular meetings of the group be conducted similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis meetings of the Ex Comm. While Colby emphasized that Saigon had stabilized, Kennedy asked numerous questions about the likelihood of success should the disaffected generals move forward with a coup attempt. Compare this to Items 6 (audio), 7 and 8 of E-book 302, December 11, 2009.
LBJ Library: Bromley K. Smith Papers, b. 24, f.: Meetings on Vietnam, August-November 1963.”
In a follow-up meeting the next day, another briefing by William Colby summarized the scene in Saigon. The discussion that followed is remarkable for the unanimity that had developed among nearly all of Kennedy’s advisors against Diem. While the forces at the disposal of the coup plotters remained inferior to those commanded by Diem and Nhu, if the U.S. were to back a coup attempt it was important that it was successful. By the end of the meeting, Kennedy asked for a cable to be sent to Lodge and Harkins to get their appraisal whether a coup could be successful. Compare this with Items 9 (audio), 10 and 11 of E-book 302, December 11, 2009.
National Defense University: Maxwell D. Taylor Papers, Vietnam series, Chapter XXIII, T-172-69.
In Krulak’s record of the same meeting (Document10), figures like Robert McNamara, George Ball, Averell Harriman were more forceful figures – with the latter most going so far as to say that the U.S. will lose South Vietnam if there is not a successful coup to topple the Diem government. McNamara and Ball also agreed that there was much to do to prepare for a coup; once the U.S. agreed to back it, the major challenge was to see that it was successful. Former Ambassador Frederick Nolting seemed to be the lone dissenting voice, arguing that Diem was the only figure who could hold South Vietnam together. Compare this with Document 10 here, and Items 9 (audio), 10 and 11 of E-book 302.
LBJ Library: Bromley K. Smith Papers, b. 24, f.: “Meetings on Vietnam, August-November 1963.”
Bromley Smith again took notes of another meeting held that afternoon. Kennedy reported that Lodge and Harkins said that the generals in Saigon did not seem very enthusiastic for a coup. While in support themselves, Lodge and Harkins did not feel as though U.S. support had gone so far that the only option was to have a coup. There was still time to pull back. Kennedy said his two top officials in Saigon should build up the coup forces, since at present it did not look as though they could successfully topple Diem. Harriman again said that the U.S. would lose South Vietnam if the coup fails, which was necessary because the political situation was bound to disintegrate further under Diem. Compare this with Document 11 here, and with Items 9 (audio), 10 and 11 in E-book 302.
Assassination Records Review Board release, document 177-10001-10466.
Tucked away in Roger Hilsman’s papers, a portion of which were deposited later at the Lyndon Johnson Presidential Library, was a CIA-created timetable of Agency contacts with South Vietnamese generals from August 23 through October 23. One can see the flurry of activity in August, during the first serious discussion of a coup shortly after Lodge’s arrival in Saigon. Following that there is a relative lull, then contact picks up again in early October when the coup forces were more potent and prepared to make their final push.
JFK Library: John Newman Papers, “Notebook, August 24-31, 1963.”
Deputy Director of the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs, Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, Department of State, Paul Kattenburg met with President Diem for three hours on August 28. Diem said that the Buddhist uprising had been resolved. Kattenburg reported he was hardly able to speak more than once or twice in what was primarily a one-sided monologue by Diem – who said he was “ready to die” even while vigorously defending the policies of his government over the previous months.
(JFK Papers: NSF: Country File, b. 199, f.: “Vietnam 9/11-9/17/63, CIA Reports.”
On the evening of September 7, Ngo Dinh Nhu called a meeting of all senior South Vietnamese military commanders in the Saigon area. Nhu spoke out in response to signals that the U.S. planned to cut foreign aid, dismissing the speculation by saying that South Vietnam had sufficient reserves to operate for twenty years. At the same time, Nhu ordered soldiers to fire upon Americans and other foreigners involved in acts intended to be hostile toward South Vietnam.
JFK Library: Roger Hilsman Papers: Country File, b. 4, f.: “Vietnam 9/11—9/20/63 [II]
As the fall progressed in Washington, numerous lists were drawn up of South Vietnamese leaders who could potentially replace the Diem government. These lists frequently overlooked Vice President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, who would ordinarily have been Diem’s constitutional successor. Another consistent theme among American planners was that there was no clear frontrunner, and it was unclear whether the next government would be civilian or whether it would share power with the military for a time.
National Security Archive: George McT. Kahin donation
The following day, Hughes wrote to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on the subject of Nhu. While a popular proposal in Washington had been to somehow separate Diem from Nhu, Hughes explained why it would be difficult to achieve that: Diem and Nhu were more inseparable than ever. At the same time, there was a growing view within the South Vietnamese government that Nhu was “disliked, hated, feared, or distrusted at all levels in the bureaucracy, the military establishment and urban elite circles.”
JFK Papers: NSF: Country File, b.200, f.: Vietnam 10/6—10/14/63, CIA Reports.”
After a September lull, the coup plotters in Saigon began to strengthen in early October. On the morning of October 5, Lucien Conein, acting as intermediary, met with Gen. Duong Van “Big” Minh. While Minh said he did not expect U.S. support for a coup, he wanted to ensure that no effort would be made to thwart a change in government. In addition, Minh said it was vital that American foreign aid would continue to flow after a coup. In reviewing the different ways to achieve a change in government, “assassination,” Minh said, “was the easiest plan to accomplish” – although he disavowed any political ambitions himself.
Center for National Security Studies FOIA request.
Once American policymakers became aware that the coup plotters considered assassination a potential part of their plan they proceeded very carefully. Officials in Saigon, especially Conein, who acted as intermediary with the coup plotters, were instructed to listen to their plans but to avoid having any input or recommending any specific option – especially regarding assassination.
Assassination Records Review Board release, document 157-10014-10227.
According to recollections by DCI John McCone, made in the course of interviews conducted by the Church Committee in 1975, he met with President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy on or around October 5 after Conein reported that Big Minh discussed a possible assassination plan. McCone said he discouraged Kennedy from supporting a coup unless a suitable replacement for Diem was identified. McCone said he felt that Kennedy agreed.
JFK Papers: NSF: Country File: b. 204, f.: “Vietnam Subjects: Top Secret Cables (Tab C) 10/3-10/27/63.”
After Conein had provided assurance to Big Minh that the U.S. would not thwart a coup, General Tran Van Don asked Conein why General Paul Harkins, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), said the day before that it was the wrong time for a coup and that the planners should desist in their efforts. According to Conein’s report to CIA Headquarters, he did not address Harkins’ comments but assured Don that Lodge would speak to Harkins.
JFKPapers: NSF: Country File: b. 204, f.: “Vietnam: Subjects: Top Secret Cables (Tab C) 10/3-10/27/63.”
Lodge spoke with Harkins on the afternoon on October 23. Harkins, a long-time friend of Lodge’s from their upbringing in Massachusetts and shared time in the U.S. Army, expressed regret for his remarks and said he would inform Don that his comments did not reflect official U.S. Government policy.
JFK Papers: NSF: Country File, b. 204, f.: “Vietnam: Subjects: Top Secret Cables (Tab C) 10/3-10/27/63.”
On the morning of October 24, Don saw Conein at Tan Son Nhut airport. Don reported that Harkins clarified that his remarks about the non-desirability of a coup were inadvertent. They agreed that the coup plotters would deal only with Conein in the future.
JFKL: Roger Hilsman Papers, b. 4, “White House Meetings 8/26/63-10/29/63, State Memoranda.”
In a meeting between President Kennedy and his top advisors, even at that late hour they seemed divided over a possible coup. Colby said the coup forces were roughly equal in strength to those that remained loyal to Diem. Attorney General Kennedy said he did not think a coup made sense in terms of U.S. policy objectives, while Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara echoed concern about the effect a coup could have on war progress. Rusk said that a cable should be sent to Lodge to assess the proposed coup and whether the U.S. should try to more actively exert influence. Compare to Documents 18 and 19, and the audioclip in the E-book of November 5, 2003.
CIA electronic reading room.
The President’s Intelligence Checklist for the morning of November 1 began with an update that a coup had begun in Saigon. While it was too soon to know the outcome, it appeared that Big Minh had gained the backing of all major combat units. While Diem had not yet surrendered, the coup plotters planned to set up a civilian government as soon as the coup was over.
Courtesy Luke A. Nichter.
In an extraordinary series of notes made by Diem during the coup from his bunker under Gia Long Palace, discovered by Luke Nichter in November 2016 at National Archives II in Ho Chi Minh City, Diem struggled to regain control. Hoping that forces from the south would liberate Saigon, as had occurred during the coup attempt in 1960, Diem ordered all armed forces and paramilitary units to “rise up to join me in fighting off the traitors.” Diem would be killed within a matter of hours.
CIA electronic reading room.
The President’s Intelligence Checklist for the morning of November 2 led with the deaths of Diem and Nhu in the wake of what appeared to have been a successful coup. While the details of their deaths were inconclusive, the mood in Saigon was jubilant.
The Archive is indebted to Dr. Roland Popp, researcher at the Swiss Military Academy ETH Zurich, for Documents 9 and 11.
 Thomas L. Hughes, telephone interview, September 12, 2020.
 Rufus Phillips, Why Vietnam Still Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008, pp. 183-186.
 State cable, DepTel 412, EYES ONLY, September 15, 1963. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, v. IV: Vietnam, August-December 1963. Ed. Edward C. Keefer. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1991, p. 212 (hereafter cited as “FRUS” with page number).
 Accounts of the CIA meetings with General Khiem on September 16 (CIA Saigon cable 0940) and 26 (Saigon cable 1222) appear in FRUS, IV, pp. 239-240 and 291-292.
 Joint Chiefs of Staff Memorandum, General Maxwell D. Taylor and Secretary Robert C. McNamara-President John F. Kennedy, October 2, 1963. FRUS, IV, pp. 336-346.
 CIA Saigon cable 1385, October 3, 1963, ibid., p. 354.
 CIA, Saigon cable 1447, October 5, 1963, cited in Thomas L. Ahern, CIA and the House of Ngo: Covert Action in South Vietnam, 1954-1963. Central Intelligence Agency: Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2000 (declassified February 19, 2009), p. 195.
 This quote appears in the Church Committee’s interim report on Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders (p. 221), as well as the note card we present here, compiled by committee staffer Rhett Dawson on June 29, 1975. The quote has been used in virtually every account of the Diem coup written since that time. I have been unable to find the claimed McCone quote in any contemporary record. Similarly, Alleged Assassination Plots quotes two CIA cables sent to Saigon, respectively, on October 5 and 6, of which only the latter message seems to exist in the public domain (DIR 73661, here presented as Document 19). Neither message, nor the McCone quote, appears in the Foreign Relations of the United States for example, and only the October 6 cable is in a study the agency’s Inspector General subsequently did of the Diem coup.
 Document number deleted, October 28, 1963, FRUS, v. IV, p. 449.