On the Prospect of a Generals’ Coup Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. sent this report to Admiral Harry Felt, the commander in chief of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) and the superior to General Harkins, who is mentioned in the letter. By August 1963, South Vietnam was, domestically, falling apart. President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam had alienated the majority of the population. Having come into office via a rigged election, Diem ruled with an iron fist and reinforced his authority through his brother Nhu (Ngo Dinh Nhu), who served as Diem's unofficial political advisor and directed the ARVN Special Forces. As a result, there was no easy way to institute a change of government in South Vietnam; only the military would have the power to bring about change. Thus, the possibility of a coup had been discussed by many different individuals in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Lodge had just become ambassador, replacing Frederick Nolting, who had been a strong supporter of Diem and was against any discussion of a coup. Thus, Lodge's support for a coup brought about a change in the dynamics within the American administration.

Summary Overview

Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. sent this report to Admiral Harry Felt, the commander in chief of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) and the superior to General Harkins, who is mentioned in the letter. By August 1963, South Vietnam was, domestically, falling apart. President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam had alienated the majority of the population. Having come into office via a rigged election, Diem ruled with an iron fist and reinforced his authority through his brother Nhu (Ngo Dinh Nhu), who served as Diem's unofficial political advisor and directed the ARVN Special Forces. As a result, there was no easy way to institute a change of government in South Vietnam; only the military would have the power to bring about change. Thus, the possibility of a coup had been discussed by many different individuals in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Lodge had just become ambassador, replacing Frederick Nolting, who had been a strong supporter of Diem and was against any discussion of a coup. Thus, Lodge's support for a coup brought about a change in the dynamics within the American administration.

Defining Moment

The government of South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, had been biased toward Catholics and against Buddhists since its formal inception in 1955. In May 1963, this bias reached a critical point, when Buddhists in the city of Hue were attacked by government troops as they tried to celebrate the anniversary of Buddha's birth by displaying flags. The conflict continued to escalate, with a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in protest that June. Although American officials had known about the problem for a number of years, the monk's death brought the issue to the front pages of American newspapers. This increased the American public's concern about American policy in Vietnam. Within Vietnam, some military leaders had also been concerned for some time. On August 21, Diem instituted martial law, and his brother Nhu arrested more than a thousand Buddhist leaders. These events forced American and Vietnamese leaders to consider action against Diem sooner rather than later. One day prior to the release of Lodge's report, a communication referred to as Deptel 268 had been sent from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Lodge with a request that Lodge respond the following day, when Rusk had a meeting scheduled with President Kennedy. Deptel 268 was basically an affirmation that the United States supported and encouraged a coup, and it requested Lodge assess the situation and work to make any attempt more likely to succeed. Deptel 268 was in response to a previous communication from Lodge that outlined which forces and leader were expected to take part in a coup against Diem in the very near future.

Any attempted coup tends to be a life-or-death struggle. If successful, all may or may not turn out well; but if unsuccessful, the death penalty is usually brought into play. Thus, while it was relatively easy for American officials to encourage this course of action, for the Vietnamese military officers and troops who might consider participating, there was great danger. Lodge's support for a coup, as contrasted with former Ambassador Nolting's opposition, made a significant difference in the discussion of American support. Although no coup was attempted in August, this discussion, and related communication with Vietnamese leaders, were part of the process that eventually did lead to one in November. By sending this communication via military channels rather than straight to Rusk, Lodge was attempting to insure that all individuals who would be needed to support a coup understood what was being recommended.

Author Biography

Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902–1985) was part of a wealthy Massachusetts family. Having graduated from Harvard, Lodge entered the Massachusetts legislature in 1933, after working as a journalist. Elected to the US Senate, he served from 1937 to 1944, when he resigned to continue to serve in the army. Having served with distinction, he returned to the Senate in 1947 for one term. He lost his bid for re-election to John F. Kennedy in 1952, as he focused on helping Dwight Eisenhower win the presidency. In 1953, Eisenhower appointed him as the ambassador to the United Nations, where he served until 1960. He was on the 1960 Republican ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, but the Democratic ticket headed by Kennedy won the election. He served as ambassador to South Vietnam under Kennedy, and later, under President Johnson, Lodge was ambassador to West Germany. His final position was as the US representative to the Vatican, from which he retired in 1977.

Historical Document

Saigon, August 29, 1963, 6 p.m.

375. CINCPAC Exclusive for Felt.

We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: The overthrow of the Diem government. There is no turning back in part because U.S. prestige is already publicly committed to this end in large measure and will become more so as facts leak out. In a more fundamental sense, there is no turning back because there is no possibility, in my view, that the war can be won under a Diem administration, still less that Diem or any member of the family can govern the country in a way to gain the support of the people who count, i.e., the educated class in and out of government service, civil and military—not to mention the American people. In the last few months (and especially days), they have in fact positively alienated these people to an incalculable degree. So that I am personally in full agreement with the policy which I was instructed to carry out by last Sunday's telegram.

The chance of bringing off a Generals' coup depends on them to some extent; but it depends at least as much on us.

We should proceed to make all-out effort to get Generals to move promptly. To do so we should have authority to do following:

(a) That General Harkins repeat to Generals personally messages previously transmitted by CAS officers. This should establish their authenticity. (General Harkins should have order from President on this.)

(b) If nevertheless Generals insist on public statement that all U.S. aid to Vietnam through Diem regime has been stopped, we would agree, on express understanding that Generals will have started at same time. (We would seek persuade Generals that it would be better to hold this card for use in event of stalemate. We hope it will not be necessary to do this at all.)

Vietnamese Generals doubt that we have the will power, courage, and determination to see this thing through. They are haunted by the idea that we will run out on them even though we have told them pursuant to instructions, that the game had started.

We must press on for many reasons. Some of these are:

(a) Explosiveness of the present situation which may well lead to riots and violence if issue of discontent with regime is not met. Out of this could come a pro-Communist or at best a neutralist set of politicians.

(b) The fact that war cannot be won with the present regime.

(c) Our own reputation for steadfastness and our unwillingness to stultify ourselves.

(d) If proposed action is suspended, I believe a body blow will be dealt to respect for us by Vietnamese Generals. Also, all those who expect U.S. to straighten out this situation will feel let down. Our help to the regime in past years inescapably gives us a large responsibility which we cannot avoid.

I realize that this course involves a very substantial risk of losing Vietnam. It also involves some additional risk to American lives. I would never propose it if I felt there was a reasonable chance of holding Vietnam with Diem.

In response to specific question (c) in Deptel 268, I would not hesitate to use financial inducements if I saw a useful opportunity.

As to (d) I favor such moves, provided it is made clear they are not connected with evacuation Americans. As for (e); I fear evacuation of U.S. personnel now would alarm the Generals and demoralize the people.

In response to your para 4, General Harkins thinks that I should ask Diem to get rid of the Nhus before starting the Generals' action. But I believe that such a step has no chance of getting the desired result and would have the very serious effect of being regarded by the Generals as a sign of American indecision and delay. I believe this is a risk which we should not run. The Generals distrust us too much already. Another point is that Diem would certainly ask for time to consider such a far-reaching request. This would give the ball to Nhu.

With the exception of paragraph 8 above General Harkins concurs in this telegram.

Lodge

Glossary

CINCPAC: a US military acronym meaning Commander in Chief, Pacific

Deptel 268: a telegram from the Department of State to the US embassy in Vietnam, sent August 28, 1963

stultify: in this context, to cause or allow someone or something to appear foolish

Document Analysis

Ambassador Lodge communicates one definite assertion and raises a related area of uncertainty. He believes a coup against South Vietnam president Diem should happen immediately. However, he is seeking to gain a better understanding of how the United States could help those planning the coup. This telegram makes it clear that he believes a decision has already been made, by the “Generals” and the United States to “overthrow the Diem government.” This had been the subject of many previous communiqués, including one, Deptel 268, sent on the previous day. Lodge argues that this course of action is for the best and tries to encourage the “Generals to move promptly.”

What is not clear to him is how the United States could help. In point 2, Lodge makes it clear that there is a role to play, although not in the actual fighting that might occur. He mentions some kinds of pressure that might be put on Diem, such as cutting aid, or assistance, to the generals by publically supporting them once the coup had started. However, for the generals, there is uncertainty because if the United States is willing to sacrifice an ally of the past eight years, will it stand by that ally or “run out on them?” This uncertainty probably played a role in the coup not moving forward at that time.

Lodge was in a unique position to advise President Kennedy. Historically, he was a political rival of President Kennedy. However, as the longest-serving American ambassador to the United Nations in the first seventy years of the UN's history, Lodge had developed a strong understanding of international relations and how to deal with various governments. He was able to make decisions based on what he thought was best for the United States rather than saying what Kennedy might want to hear. Thus, his statement that the “war cannot be won with the present regime” is not said to please Kennedy; it is his own analysis of the situation. This change in government is necessary, from Lodge's perspective, if the United States wants any chance of defeating the communist attempt to take over South Vietnam. On all of these points, Lodge had consulted with the military commander for American forces in Vietnam, General Paul Harkins. The one point of disagreement between the two is whether Diem should be given the option to dismiss his brother, Nhu (and his powerful wife, known as Madame Nhu), from his position as de facto commander of a special-forces military group that acted as secret police for Diem.

The containment of communism was at stake, in the eyes of the writer. Because of this, the United States was concerned about the government of South Vietnam. Diem had to be removed for there to be a chance at victory. This was the way Lodge saw the situation. The raids on the pagodas, which resulted in massive arrests of Buddhist monks and nuns, seem to have been the action that both made US officials ready to accept a coup and pushed the South Vietnamese military to the point of considering one. Although Lodge seems to acknowledge that there was a wide gap between American and South Vietnamese military leaders on the specifics of undertaking such an action, he sees that all are unified on the need for change.

Essential Themes

This report from Ambassador Lodge to Admiral Felt, and in reality for Secretary Rusk and President Kennedy, continues a discussion that had been taking place since Lodge was appointed to be the United States ambassador to South Vietnam about two weeks prior. Basically, the turmoil in South Vietnam seems to have only one solution: Diem no longer being president of the country. And the only way to achieve that is for the military to force Diem from office. The wedge that Diem had driven between his government and the people of Vietnam, in Lodge's opinion, makes it impossible for reconciliation or for South Vietnam to have the focus needed to defeat the communists. Thus, he holds that a coup is necessary and the sooner the better. Although the administration's support was not as overt as in some coups that the Americans had engineered in other countries, pushing the idea with Vietnamese military leaders was in the same vein. Perhaps not unexpectedly, Lodge and other American leaders put American goals first, which, in this case, entail the overthrow of Diem. The same policy of doing whatever it took to repel communist advances in Southeast Asia would drive American policy for the next several years.

While there are records (such as an August 27 telegram) about General Tran Thien Khiem's meeting with CIA operatives—during which he gave them the names of six generals who were planning to participate in the coup—the leading general (Duong Van Minh) seemed to waver about the timing. Obviously, the fact that the coup was delayed by about nine weeks meant that the latter's sentiment carried the day. After the coup, about two years passed before a stable government appeared in South Vietnam; four individuals exchanged power eight times during that period. While the Buddhist persecution that Diem had instigated stopped, during this two-year period, the needs of the people were not well served. Therefore, the statement with which Lodge opens his report comes to mean more than just the coup against Diem. “We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back.” Once a coup is seen as acceptable to the United States, in other words, there is no reason for those seeking power to reconsider.

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.
  • Miller, Edward. Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  • “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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