Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Objection by the United States to the anti-Buddhist repression of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem led generals of his armed forces to overthrow and kill him, creating an unstable political situation that made South Vietnam virtually dependent on U.S. support for its survival against communist opposition. This dependence deepened the involvement of the United States in the protracted Vietnam War.

Summary of Event

Ngo Dinh Diem had ruled South Vietnam with U.S. support since 1954, when the country was temporarily divided into communist North Vietnam and a noncommunist South Vietnam. Beginning as prime minister, Diem relied on his family and his fellow Catholics for support. On October 26, 1955, Diem turned South Vietnam into the Republic of Vietnam, as emperor Bao Dai Bao Dai abdicated and Diem was elected president. His trusted younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, became leader of the government’s Can Lao Party and head of the secret police, while Nhu’s flamboyant and energetic wife, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, became South Vietnam’s de facto First Lady. Vietnam War (1959-1975);South Vietnamese government Revolutions and coups;South Vietnam South Vietnamese coup (1963) [kw]Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime (Nov. 1-2, 1963) [kw]Diem Regime, Vietnamese Generals Overthrow (Nov. 1-2, 1963) Vietnam War (1959-1975);South Vietnamese government Revolutions and coups;South Vietnam South Vietnamese coup (1963) [g]Southeast Asia;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] [g]Vietnam;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] [c]Vietnam War;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] [c]Cold War;Nov. 1-2, 1963: Vietnamese Generals Overthrow Diem Regime[07710] Ngo Dinh Diem Ngo Dinh Nhu Ngo Dinh Nhu, Madame Duong Van Minh Lodge, Henry Cabot, Jr. Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;Vietnam War Conein, Lucien E. Tran Thien Khiem Le Quang Tung Tran Van Don

Diem faced armed communist aggression that had been supported by North Vietnam since late 1959. In the context of the Cold War Cold War;Asia this brought him additional support by the United States, even though many Americans despaired of Diem’s autocratic government. In May and June, 1963, the intransigent handling by Diem and the Nhus of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation protesting the South Vietnamese repression of Buddhists brought massive American disenchantment with their rule and with the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in general. In June, U.S. president John F. Kennedy threatened Diem’s government with U.S. disassociation.

On August 20, Diem declared martial law. Early the following day, Nhu’s special police forces raided Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam and arrested more than fourteen hundred protesters. The Americans were furious. On August 23, one day after the new American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., arrived in Saigon, a South Vietnamese general, Tran Van Don, approached a U.S. agent and inquired about America’s view on a coup. Faced with this feeler, the Kennedy administration was divided. At a minimum, it wanted to see the Nhus gone from power and to see Diem end his antagonism of Buddhists and focus on the war against the communists instead. Many U.S. officials believed that if these goals could not be reached, a coup by anti-Diem generals should not be opposed.

On August 26, Lodge presented his credentials to Diem, and the next day, Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Vietnam (CIA) agent Lucien E. Conein met with General Tran Thien Khiem, who informed him of an imminent coup attempt to be led by General Duong Van Minh. On August 31, however, Khiem informed the Americans that the coup was canceled, for now.

Through September and October, the Kennedy administration and Ambassador Lodge tried to change Diem’s domestic policies. One tool was the suspension of U.S. economic aid to South Vietnam, which also served as a signal to the generals that the United States was dissatisfied with Diem. Lodge was informed of the aid suspension on September 14, and on October 5, President Kennedy approved it again. On October 7, Diem and Nhu had the South Vietnamese press defiantly denounce it.

American pressure failed to change Diem and Nhu’s policies. Even though martial law was lifted on September 16 and a new national assembly elected on September 27, persecution of Buddhists continued. Madame Nhu left South Vietnam and arrived in the United States on October 7, yet she failed to gain the sympathy of the American public. In Saigon, U.S. officials kept in touch with the plotters around General Minh, whose plans gathered momentum in late October.

South Vietnamese air force commanders pledge to support Ngo Dinh Diem during a ceremony in March of 1962. In less than two years, Diem had been overthrown by the military.

(National Archives)

At 10 p.m. November 1, Diem received Lodge, accompanied by a visiting U.S. admiral. Meanwhile, the rebellious generals moved their troops into position and called a meeting at their Joint General Staff headquarters at Saigon’s airport at noon. Almost all senior South Vietnamese generals joined the coup, pledging their support on a tape. A U.S. agent, likely Conein, attended the meeting.

At 1:45, General Don telephoned the Americans about the coup. Quickly, rebel forces seized their major objectives in Saigon, leaving only Diem’s palace, palace-guard quarters, and Nhu’s special forces barracks under government control. Having arrested Nhu’s special forces commander, Colonel Le Quang Tung, the plotters forced him to order his troops to surrender and relinquish their headquarters.

At Gia Long Palace, Diem and Nhu initially thought the coup was going to falter soon. When the palace guards reported heavy fighting, the brothers tried to contact loyal troops but failed to reach them. Soon, the generals called and demanded Diem and Nhu’s resignation in return for free passage out of Vietnam, which the brothers refused. The generals, in turn, refused to come to the palace.

At 4:30, the generals professed their coup on the radio, listed their demands of Diem and Nhu and played the tape with their pledges. Diem called Lodge. Disingenuously, Lodge pledged U.S. ignorance and tried to move Diem to accept the offer of the generals, to leave with his life intact. Diem told Lodge that he was trying to restore order and ended the call.

When the generals called Diem again at 5:00, they repeated their offer of safe passage. Nhu persuaded his brother to not trust them. Colonel Tung told Diem of his own arrest, and the generals had him shot afterward. Throughout evening, Diem and Nhu tried to reach loyal troops. Unable to find any, they fled the palace through a secret passageway into the sewers of Saigon. From there, they met at an emergency hideout in Cholon, the city’s Chinese district, continued to try to raise loyal troops, and phoned the generals.

At 9:00, the generals ordered an artillery attack on the palace, where they presumed Diem to be. The bombardment continued throughout the night. At 3:30 a.m. on November 2, the generals launched an assault on the palace with tanks and infantry. The palace guards defended until Diem called General Don, offering his surrender against safe passage at 6:20, then ordered the guards to cease fire. The palace fell ten minutes later.

From a guard the plotters learned of Diem’s location, but the brothers escaped to the Church of Saint Francis Xavier nearby. At the church Diem called Don at 6:50, offering his surrender. General Mai Huu Xuan Mai Huu Xuan arrived to take the brothers into custody. Their hands were bound behind their backs and they were moved into an armored personnel carrier, to be transported to the airport. Inside the vehicle General Xuan either ordered or permitted someone to shoot Diem and Nhu. When news of the overthrow and deaths of Diem and Nhu reached Saigon’s populace on the morning of November 2, there was initial public rejoicing. A third brother, Ngo Dinh Can Ngo Dinh Can , was killed in Hue later. The murder of the brothers deeply shocked President Kennedy.

After meeting with Ambassador Lodge on November 3, the generals agreed to let the three Nhu children join Madame Nhu in Los Angeles. On November 5, the plotters announced their new government. General Minh became president and chair of the Military Revolutionary Council. He dissolved the national assembly and suspended the constitution. The unstable and inefficient interim government was overthrown in a bloodless coup by General Nguyen Khanh Nguyen Khanh on January 30, 1964.

Significance xlink:href="Diem_Buddhists.tif"

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Instead of leading to a popular, effective government successfully battling the communist guerrillas in South Vietnam—as the Kennedy administration had hoped—the overthrow and murder of South Vietnamese president Diem and his brother and adviser Nhu ushered in a period of extreme political instability in that country. Moreover, the United States’ obvious acceptance of the coup created a responsibility for subsequent events in South Vietnam that it found hard to discharge successfully.

Once Diem was overthrown, the absence of any real post-Diem leadership for South Vietnam continued to create massive problems. The fall of Diem revealed how badly the war against the communists had really gone. Because the infighting, incompetence, inexperience, inefficiency, and irresponsibility of South Vietnam’s leadership continued after the quick fall of General Minh’s new government, the communists continued their advances in South Vietnam.

In 1964, the first year after the fall of Diem, the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Vietnam led to the decision of the Johnson administration to commit U.S. ground troops to shore up the defense of the country. This inevitably drew the United States deep into what would become the traumatic experience of the Vietnam War, which nearly tore apart American society and which caused the deaths of two to three million Vietnamese in both South and North Vietnam and killed more than fifty thousand U.S. soldiers by the time the communists captured Saigon on April 30, 1975, winning the war. Vietnam War (1959-1975);South Vietnamese government Revolutions and coups;South Vietnam South Vietnamese coup (1963)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catton, Philip E. Diem’s Final Failure. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. Squarely blames Diem and the Nhus for antagonizing their Buddhist subjects, thus narrowing their base of popular support.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Colby, William. Lost Victory. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Colby, chief of the CIA’s far eastern division at the time of the overthrow, argues that the United States should have supported Diem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. 2d ed. New York: Viking Press, 1997. The standard work on the Vietnam War. Covers U.S. disenchantment with Diem up to his fall from power and his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Marilyn B., and Robert Buzzanco, eds. A Companion to the Vietnam War. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. This 514-page collection covers events leading up to the war, the war itself, and the war’s aftermath. Provides more than a military history, however. Includes social, cultural, and political analyses as well.

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Kennedy Expands U.S. Involvement in Vietnam

Thieu Is Elected President of South Vietnam

Tet Offensive Begins

United States Invades Cambodia

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