Americans’ attention will focus this month on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, but November also marks the 50th anniversary of another assassination that fundamentally affected American history. The November 1, 1963, military coup d’etat and murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem by generals in the South Vietnamese army signaled a major turning point in American policy and necessitated a deepening U.S. commitment.
Vietnam became important for American policymakers in the period after World War II as the Cold War grew to dominate U.S. foreign policy. The Southeast Asian country had been part of the French empire since the 1880s, but in the late 1940s the French were battling a Vietnamese independence movement, the Viet Minh, led by the country’s leading nationalist, the communist Ho Chi Minh. Because of Ho’s communism, American policy strongly supported France, viewing the Vietnamese independence struggle as one more battle in the global struggle against communism.
By 1954, the United States was paying the majority of the cost of the French war effort. But France was defeated, and the ensuing peace treaty mandated a division of the country, with the Viet Minh to move north and the French and its Vietnamese allies south of the 17th parallel, with elections scheduled for 1956 to reunite the country. As Vietnam is a single country whose history goes back centuries, the settlement made clear this was not to be considered a political division.
Following the French defeat, the United States stepped in with the intent of creating an independent country of South Vietnam. The plan was to send large amounts of U.S. aid and expertise into the country to build it into a bulwark against communism in the region. The idea underlying this effort reflected America’s overwhelming confidence but also total ignorance of Vietnam’s long history of struggle against foreign occupiers, whether Chinese, French, Japanese, or now, American.
To put its plan into effect, American policymakers chose Diem, who had a long personal history of Vietnamese nationalism as well as staunch anticommunism. He had, in fact, left the country during the war for independence rather than cooperate with Ho, and when Americans tapped him he was living in a Catholic monastery in New Jersey.
The selection of Diem reflected American indifference to Vietnamese culture. A Christian, Diem was expected to rule a population that was overwhelmingly Buddhist. And, in a country in which 80 percent of the population was peasants, Diem drew the majority of his support from wealthy landowners. Moreover, widespread corruption and nepotism marked Diem’s regime.
Yet the United States strongly backed Diem, acquiescing in his decision to cancel the 1956 elections. U.S. aid poured into South Vietnam for the stated purpose of building up the country’s economic and political infrastructure, though more than
75 percent went toward the military. Diem used this aid to build up his police force, which he employed to crush dissent. By the late ‘50s, a guerrilla insurgency had arisen in the south to challenge Diem, who labeled his opponents Viet Cong, meaning Vietnamese communists. The guerrilla war increasingly disrupted the country, and Diem responded by cracking down on all his opponents, including Buddhist monks who were speaking out against his leadership.
Americans argued the insurgency originated in the north and thus constituted an invasion. But that explanation rested on a basic falsehood—that South Vietnam was an independent state and thus northerners were “foreigners” who could invade.
Diem was losing control of the situation by 1963. Buddhists demonstrated in large numbers against the government, and Diem’s forces responded in brutal fashion. The rebellion reached its height in June when photographs of a monk immolating himself in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection were reprinted worldwide.
By that fall, Diem was so unpopular, both in South Vietnam and Washington, that when a group of Diem’s generals approached the U.S. ambassador and asked what would be American officials’ reaction if they knew a coup were being planned, he replied that the Americans would do nothing to prevent it.
Thus came Diem’s overthrow and an ignominious end to the nine-year U.S. project in nation-building. Diem was succeeded by a series of generals, each as corrupt as the ones before, none able to gain much popular support.
As Gen. Maxwell Taylor would later say, “In the post-Diem period when the political turbulence in South Vietnam offered the United States an excuse to withdraw from its involvement, the realization of our role in creating the Vietnamese predicament was a strong deterrent to anyone inclined to make such a proposal.”
The die had been cast; the United States was now set on an inexorable course toward full-scale military involvement, culminating in 58,000 Americans killed.
David Cochran teaches history at John A. Logan College in Carterville.