Ambassador Lodge on the Worsening Situation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One month into his appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. sent another assessment of the situation there to President Kennedy, via the secretary of state. American involvement in Vietnam had been escalating during the past few years. Almost 15,000 military advisers were in the country, some of whom were participating in battles. The United States was putting more than a million dollars a day into supporting South Vietnam's government. Lodge wanted officials in Washington to know that these efforts were failing to produce positive results. Essentially, he called for a change in government, as President Ngo Dinh Diem had undertaken policies that were totally alienating the general population of South Vietnam. Most of the reports that were being sent to Washington from Vietnam were very optimistic because the authors did not want to seem to be failing. Lodge, who had just arrived and had been a political rival of Kennedy, had no qualms about being totally honest with him.

Summary Overview

One month into his appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. sent another assessment of the situation there to President Kennedy, via the secretary of state. American involvement in Vietnam had been escalating during the past few years. Almost 15,000 military advisers were in the country, some of whom were participating in battles. The United States was putting more than a million dollars a day into supporting South Vietnam's government. Lodge wanted officials in Washington to know that these efforts were failing to produce positive results. Essentially, he called for a change in government, as President Ngo Dinh Diem had undertaken policies that were totally alienating the general population of South Vietnam. Most of the reports that were being sent to Washington from Vietnam were very optimistic because the authors did not want to seem to be failing. Lodge, who had just arrived and had been a political rival of Kennedy, had no qualms about being totally honest with him.

Defining Moment

In 1960, the communist forces in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong, organized across the country with help from North Vietnam. They became a more effective military force and were able to confront the forces of South Vietnam. Shortly after that, the ever-multiplying American military advisers, who previously were just advisers, began to take an active role on the battlefield. This greatly increased the investment that the United States was making in that country, in addition to the skyrocketing monetary costs of economic assistance. At the same time this pressure was being applied by the communists, President Diem was alienating 70 to 80 percent of South Vietnam's population, or those identifying as Buddhist. Diem and most of his close advisers were Catholic, and their policies were mainly directed toward the 20 to 30 percent of the population that was Catholic. This created discontent, which the communists could use to support their cause. Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was in charge of security and had no compassion when dealing with average citizens. He viewed anyone who was not fully behind Diem as a communist, even though most were just disenchanted citizens. Most believed that if Diem continued these policies and his support of his brother, not only would his government fall, but South Vietnam would fall as well. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., was among those with this belief. This spurred him to write to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, in order that the president and his cabinet might take the appropriate action.

Lodge made clear in this report that he understood the culture of ‘yes men.’ Having twice lost elections to Kennedy and being a Republican, Lodge understood that Kennedy had appointed him to the position because of the Lodge's experience at the United Nations. Kennedy wanted someone who would be honest about a situation that was becoming very tenuous. Although because of his own death, Kennedy ultimately did not make the decision to greatly expand the American commitment, and it was clear to him that very soon a decision would have to be made regarding American involvement in the struggle. From other documents, it is clear that Kennedy had lost faith in Diem, and this report by Lodge would have strengthened that view.

Author Biography

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902–1985) was born into an influential family in Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard and working at a newspaper, he began his political career in 1933, winning election to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1936, he was elected to the US Senate, serving from 1937 to 1944 and 1947 to 1953. After having served one tour of duty in World War II, he had to choose between being in the army or the Senate. In 1944, he resigned from the Senate to undertake a second tour, winning several medals for distinguished service. Re-elected to the Senate, he helped convince Dwight Eisenhower to run for president and focused on Eisenhower's campaign, which resulted in Lodge losing his Senate seat to John F. Kennedy. He then served as ambassador to the United Nations until 1960, when he was the Republican vice-presidential candidate. He served as ambassador to South Vietnam and, later, to West Germany. His final position was as the US representative to the Vatican, from which he retired in 1977.

Historical Document

Saigon, September 11, 1963, 2 p.m.

Eyes only for the Secretary from Lodge.

My best estimate of the current situation in Viet Nam is:

a. That it is worsening rapidly;

b. That the time has arrived for the US to use what effective sanctions it has to bring about the fall of the existing government and the installation of another; and

c. That intensive study should be given by the best brains in the government to all the details, procedures and variants in connection with the suspension of aid.

Herewith is the background for this proposal:

I do not doubt the military judgment that the war in the countryside is going well now. But, as one who has had long connection with the military, I do doubt the value of the answers which are given by young officers to direct questions by Generals—or, for that matter, by Ambassadors. The urge to give an optimistic and favorable answer is quite unsurmountable—and understandable. I, therefore, doubt the statement often made that the military are not affected by developments in Saigon and cities generally.

The fact that Saigon is “only one-seventh” of the population does not allow for the fact that there are a number of other cities and that the cities in the long run must play a vital military role. For example, the junior officers in the Vietnamese Army come, as they do in all countries, largely from families which are educated, the so-called elite. These people live largely in the cities. The evidence grows that this elite is filled with hostility towards the Govt of Viet Nam, consider therefore the lieutenant in the Vietnamese Army whose father has probably been imprisoned; whose mother has seen her religion insulted, if not persecuted, whose older brother has had an arbitrary fine imposed on him—and who all hate the government with good reason. Can the lieutenant be indifferent to that? Now come the high school demonstrations and the fact that the lieutenant's younger brother has probably been dragged off in a truck (bearing the US insignia) to camping areas with the result that our lieutenant also has a deeply disaffected younger brother, if not a sister, who has been handled disrespectfully by the police.

Is it conceivable that this will not affect the energy with which the lieutenant will do his job in supporting his government? Is it any wonder that I hear reports of a major in the G-3 section of a corps headquarters who simply sits and does nothing because he is disgusted with the government? Must there not inevitably be a tendency—not for something spectacular and mutinous—but for the soldiers to get less aggressive and for the populations to get less sympathetic to the war effort? And as this happens will not the popularity of the US inevitably suffer because we are so closely supporting a regime which is now brutalizing children, although we are clearly able, in the opinion of Vietnamese, to change it if we wanted to?

Does not all of this mean that time is not on the side of the military effort and that if the situation in the cities is not improved, the military effort is bound to suffer?

But instead of improving, everything I can learn shows me that the situation is getting worse. The demonstrations in the schools are to me extremely curious and impressive manifestations. Out of nowhere apparently appears a banner and a plan to put up a roadblock or a scheme for conducting a parade. Perhaps this is the work of Communist agents, even though the students are undoubtedly not Communists. The latest rumor is that there will soon be similar demonstrations by civil servants—and what a fantastic confusion this will create and the government is obviously cut off from reality—not looking at anything objectively but solely concerned with fighting back, proving how right it has been-and privately thumbing its nose at the US.

For these reasons it seems to me that the ship of state here is slowly sinking. This brings me to the conclusion, that if there are effective sanctions which we can apply, we should apply them in order to force a drastic change in government. The only sanction which I can see is the suspension of aid and therefore I recommend that the best brains in the government study precise details of suspending aid so as to do ourselves the most good and the least harm.

Let us, for example, assume that our aim is to get rid of Nhu. I use this purely for illustrative purposes, as we may think of something better. Once we have made up our minds that we are willing to suspend aid, should we not make a private threat that unless Nhu was removed we would suspend aid? This procedure might have two advantages: First it might result in Nhu's being removed. But, secondly, it would seem to put us on the popular side of the question and would then, when news of it leaked, tend to separate the government from the people. Also, when the tremendous shock of aid suspension took place, it should lessen the hatred which would be visited on us. This should be a period of action with perhaps a few leaks and with a minimum of statements by us—certainly not emotion-stirring statements which would arouse the xenophobia which is always latent here and the arousing of which would strengthen the GVN. We might, for example, be able to express our horror at the brutalization of children, but even this is risky if we are the ones who are doing the talking.

Renewed efforts should be made to activate by whatever positive inducements we can offer the man who would take over the government—Big Minh or whoever we might suggest. We do not want to substitute a Castro for a Batista.

We should at the same time start evacuation of all dependents. Both in order to avoid the dangers to dependents which would inevitably ensue, but also for the startling effect which this might have.

As the aid suspension went publicly into effect, we should be prepared to launch a massive program to protect the lives of the little people in the cities from starvation. Should this be soup kitchens, or should it mean taking anti-inflationary measures?

As aid suspension went into effect publicly, should we not start another quiet program to keep the Army supplied so that the war against the Viet-Cong should go on? Should not the Army be supplied by totally bypassing the Govt of Viet Nam, with supplies coming directly from the US to the Vietnamese Army?

Might we not thus bring sanctions to bear on the government without impeding the war effort and without making ourselves hated all over the world, as would be the case were there famines and misery?

Admittedly this is difficult and intricate and perhaps impossible, but it is also utterly vital and I recommend that it be studied without delay. We are giving it as much study as we can here in the Embassy.

If we decide to wait and see, we run certain risks:

a. That the future leadership of Viet Nam, the educated classes—already completely out of sympathy with the regime, and disillusioned with and distrustful of us as the instruments of change—will lose heart. (For while waiting we shall have to resume the role of supporters of the regime.)

b. More importantly, those individuals whom the regime regards as proximate threats will be systematically eliminated from contention in one way or another.

In short, by a wait-and-see approach, we insure that when and if we decide that we cannot win with the present regime, we shall have even less to work with in terms of opposition than we have now.

What is even more dangerous is that the situation here may not wait for us. The student demonstrations in Saigon, for example, are profoundly disturbing. At the very least, these reflect in the most unmistakable way the deep discontent of the middle and upper-class population of Saigon. They are also the classic vehicle for Communist action. There is thus the real possibility of the situation getting out of hand in such a way that only the Communists will be in a position to act—when and if we decide that we cannot win with this regime.

Lodge

Glossary

Big Minh: Duong Van Minh, general and leader of the November 1963 coup

Castro/Batista: in Cuba, communist Fidel Castro had taken power from the dictatorial American ally Fulgencio Batista

GVN: Government of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)

Nhu: President Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu

Document Analysis

Ambassador Lodge gets to the point quickly in his report to the secretary of state. The South Vietnamese government is declining in its ability to do anything positive. The dire situation cannot be rectified by the current government. A new government is needed and until then, the United States should figure out how to cut its foreign aid without hurting the people or the war effort; it is that simple and yet that complex. The United States had propped up the Diem government for eight years and, therefore, was closely identified with it. Officials in Washington needed to figure out how to meet this challenge: how could they support Vietnamese anticommunist efforts without supporting the government that had undertaken those actions. If Diem could fire his brother, Lodge thought, there might be hope for a substantial change within the current government. However, he does not believe that this is a real possibility. Lodge gives descriptive examples and an analysis of the deteriorating situation to help the Washington officials understand what he has come to know since his arrival in Vietnam the previous month.

Lodge calls for quick action to resolve the situation. As he states toward the end of the report, waiting and watching means that the United States will have to continue to prop up a failed government against the will of virtually all of the people in South Vietnam. Continued demonstrations against the government will play into the hands of the communists, and waiting will allow Diem to not only repress any demonstrators, but to imprison or kill anyone loyal to South Vietnam who might be seen as a threat to the regime. Inaction means losing potential allies when a new government is formed and having less influence with whomever becomes the new ruler. Lodge understands that it is essential for the United States to be able to work with the new government, if the anticommunist efforts are to succeed and the people of South Vietnam are to have any hope of a better life.

Lodge knew that Diem was not a true supporter of democracy, so that a change in government likely meant a coup. He comments that the “ship of state here is slowly sinking.” As a result, what is needed is the United States to cooperate with the right people—“to force drastic change in government.” He believes that the United States needs to take a very public stance showing its lack of support for Diem. Cutting aid and removing American dependents are both things that Lodge expects would have a “startling effect” on Diem, on the population of South Vietnam, and on observers around the world. He does not want America's withdrawal of support for the government to hurt the people, or to make America “hated all over the world.” But change is necessary. This needs to be communicated to those who might undertake the change, without hurting the programs in South Vietnam in which the United States has become involved.

Essential Themes

Ambassador Lodge was not the first American official who thought that the time had come for President Diem to leave office. However, the force of this report is much greater than that of many of the previous ones. It adds weight to the arguments for change and helps tip the scales in the direction of the United States supporting a coup. Although no decisive action was taken when this report was first received, less than a month after Lodge sent his report, he was informed of an impending coup. Those planning it wanted to be certain that the United States would not interfere. Within two months, a successful coup cost Diem and his brother not only their positions, but their lives as well. Big Minh (Duong Van Minh), who is mentioned in this report, was the leader of the coup. It is unclear whether he ordered Diem's execution, but as leader of the coup, he must take responsibility for all actions. Minh and the military council he established were not ready to rule, however, and within three months, his government was toppled and Minh went into retirement.

While the lack of support for Diem's government is the main focus of this report, Lodge also raises the question of how the United States could support people and programs within a country while not supporting its government. This was a major issue in Vietnam in 1963, as it has been elsewhere at other times. Lodge does not have an answer to this question, but he underscores the need to find an answer through the various illustrations he includes in the report. It continued to be an issue throughout most of the Vietnam War.

One result of Lodge's report supporting a change in government was not only the coup in November 1963, but all the later changes in government. The proposal he puts forth to accept one change in government meant that in later years, other individuals would feel little compunction about staging a coup. In less than two years, there were eight changes in government before a stable regime—that of Nguyen Van Thiêu—took control for the final ten years of South Vietnam's existence. Lodge's report points out the need for a government in the midst of conflict to serve its own people in addition to confronting the enemy. The various regimes that ruled during South Vietnam's twenty year existence never seemed to meet the criteria that Lodge set out for a successful government, thus contributing to the North's ultimate victory.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Blair, Anne E. Lodge in Vietnam: A Patriot Abroad. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. As It Was: An Inside View of Politics and Power in the ‘50s and ‘60s. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1976. Print.
  • Logevall, Fredrik. Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Print.
  • Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013. Print.
  • “Vietnam, Diem, the Buddhist Crisis.” JFK in History. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 2015. Web. <http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Vietnam-Diem-and-the-Buddhist-Crisis.aspx>.
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