The Inside Story of the Guerrilla War - Chapter 14: Coups in Saigon

For the next two issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964


The End of the Diem Regime


It was the unbroken series of military defeats since Ap Bac that spelled the doom of the Diemist regime, not the repression of Buddhists and students. For over 12 months, the American press had been more and more openly critical of Diem’s ineptitude in handling the war, of his resistance to U.S. strategy and tactics. The mixture of medieval and fascist police methods he used to repress all whom he considered his opponents, for the most part, went unnoticed in the U.S. press, or was reported approvingly. But he was losing the war, and this was a real crime. “Can We Win With Diem?” was the title over one anguished editorial in the New York Times, hinting at the shape of things to come. The papers were full of wrangles between Harkins and Diem’s top military officers, and of Diem’s resistance to a complete takeover of military affairs by the Americans. These were the real issues.


The suppression of the Buddhists would have gone unnoticed — it had been going on for years — had it not been for official U.S. dissatisfaction with Diem, plus the fact that the Liberation Front’s organisation in Saigon went into action. The latter broadened the demand for more religious freedom into one for democratic liberties as a whole, and called out its supporters in vast mass demonstrations that ended in fierce street battles with the police. The size of the demonstrations, the energy and militancy of the crowds, was a great shock to the U.S. command in Saigon. The Viet Cong was right amongst them, in Saigon itself, in many tens of thousands, slugging it out with Diem’s shock troops.


Diem was not only losing the battle in the countryside; he was losing it in Saigon itself. He had to go. But official U.S. opinion was not unanimous about this. The Pentagon wanted Diem disciplined, but not out and dead. Harkins in fact was against the coup. His own argument with Diem was on two main points.


Harkins wanted to cut losses; to pull out of hundreds of those encircled posts. He correctly regarded them as “arms supply points” for the Liberation forces; they tied up dozens of his helicopters in daily supply operations. But Diem opposed this; it meant abandoning even nominal control in much of the richest part of the country, because it was precisely from Mekong Delta areas that Harkins proposed withdrawing. Even Harkins’ promise to win it back later with the mobile reserves accumulated from the “unemployed” garrisons did not impress Diem. Diem also resisted Harkins’ other demand, that U.S. officers should have complete operational control, down to company level, and administrative control at district level — about the extreme limit to which the “special war” could be pushed. Harkins was confident that with enough pressures applied, Diem would give way. He was against the coup and in this he was supported by a very mediocre brigadier-general, Nguyen Khanh, who had been rapidly promoted by Diem after he played a vital role in saving the latter in the abortive officers’ coup in November 1960. Nguyen Khanh was Harkins’ closest friend among the Diemist officers.


The State Department demanded the coup, however, and it was Ambassador Cabot Lodge’s role to be at his new post in time to arrange it. The State Department had become convinced that “we cannot win with Diem” and the suppression of the Buddhists and jailing of thousands of students from “respectable” Saigon families was hurting U.S. relations with other Buddhist states. More embarrassing still and decisive for the State Department was that the matter of persecution of the Buddhists was before the United Nations; by the skin of their teeth, American UN officials avoided a vote and had the matter temporarily shelved. But a UN mission of inquiry was already in Saigon. The State Department wanted, needed desperately in fact, to have Diem overthrown and thus liquidate half a dozen embarrassing problems with one coup. So the Buddhist crisis, though not the cause of Diem’s downfall, probably fixed the date. Cabot Lodge’s “two men in Saigon” were Generals Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don, both of them southerners as opposed to Centralists like Diem and others with whom leading posts in the army and bureaucracy were staffed.


The CIA, usually so enthusiastic where coups are concerned, was divided about this one. The chief of the CIA in Saigon was against the coup and was subsequently packed off home by Cabot Lodge. Many top CIA men thought Diem was ‘‘too good to lose”, and from their point of view they were right. Those in the CIA Saigon team who favoured the coup had as their man Major General Ton That Dinh, a Centralist feudalist like Diem, a ferocious anti-Communist and, as Diem’s Acting Chief of Staff, in a position to move the divisions about.


How the coup was carried out, Ngo Dinh Diem and his notorious brother Nhu murdered, is past history and better known than its background, though it quickly faded out of the world headlines after another more important president fell to an assassin’s bullet just ten days later.


In the first month that followed the murder of the Ngo brothers, the guerillas cut great chunks out of all roads leading from Saigon towards the Mekong Delta, turning some sections back into water-logged rice fields. They blew up railway bridges and built dams across canals, planting banana palms and bushes on top of them; cut or blocked all road, rail and river communications, and launched a great campaign to wipe out posts and dismantle strategic hamlets. Virtually all posts in the Delta became dependent on helicopter-borne or parachuted supplies.


By the time some of the communications had been restored, a great number of former strategic villages had been converted into “fortified villages”; posts that used to control them were now controlled themselves, with guns pointing at them from all directions. All the bright predictions after the fall of Diem that “military action will be immediately stepped up” were correct but in a contrary sense to that intended. The initiative was with the Front. Lots of operations were launched by Saigon, true, but they all ended in failure. From the month starting Nov. 25, 1963, the U.S.-Saigon forces launched 180 operations, many of them involving three to seven battalions in Tan An and Cholon provinces, one of the main gateways to Saigon. In counter-attacks, the guerillas destroyed a dozen posts — 20 more had to be abandoned; 82 strategic hamlets were either dismantled and peasants went back to their original villages or were converted into “resistance” villages.


“In that month of November,” said President Nguyen Huu Tho, “the Liberation armed forces and the population destroyed 1,662 strategic hamlets; wiped out hundreds of posts; in Cochinchina alone we wiped out or the enemy was forced to abandon 401 posts, including very important ones in My Tho, Long An, Ben Tre and Ca Mau provinces. During that same month our compatriots and troops killed 5,495 soldiers and officers, including 31 Americans; wounded 2,849, including 15 Americans; captured 990, of them four Americans; seized 2,172 arms of all types, including 16 mortars, 47 machine guns and automatic fines; knocked down 32 planes and helicopters and damaged 30 others. Apart from this, 6,358 enemy soldiers and officers deserted.” And he went on to list some important battles in which the Front had come off on top.


Those happy U.S. voices after Diem’s downfall started now to sing another tune. “During the next six months,” commented the New York Times on Dec. 9, only five weeks after the coup, “the new government faces an uphill struggle to regain the initiative.” The military junta never regained the initiative nor did it last six months. General Harkins and Nguyen Khanh were working quietly in the background. They could both say, “I told you so” to Cabot Lodge, as the military reverses piled up. Within the junta, formed mainly by Minh, Dinh and Don, a fight for power was going on; as they were all of the same rank and none had any more prestige than the other. There was a complete deadlock.


The Khanh Coup


Nguyen Khanh and Harkins were now plotting to overthrow the junta generals and Khanh promised that he would give Hoang the job as premier. So preparations for a new coup went ahead; its code name should have been “Harkins’ Revenge”. Khanh was prepared to accept what the junta was still resisting, a pilot plan under which U.S. officers would take over complete operational and administrative control in 28 districts, Saigon officers and troops to be placed unreservedly at their disposal, and to have Nguyen Ton Hoang as prime minister. U.S. Defense Secretary McNamara came to Saigon at the end of the year and Newsweek of Jan. 5, 1964, quoted him as telling the junta generals: “The dry season has started and pursuit of the enemy is easier than ever. Forget your concern for casualties and fight the war as if it were your last chance — for well it might be.” And well it was.


On Jan. 17, the “greatest heliborne assault in military history,” as UPI described it, was launched at Thanh Phu, in Ben Tre province. Fifty helicopters, 3,000 troops, 26 M-113 tanks, 26 naval soft and dozens of planes were employed against what was described as a guerrilla base. This was to be the supreme justification for Harkins’ “withdraw, concentrate and reoccupy” tactic. The mobile “strike force” had been knocked together from the withdrawn garrisons. The Liberation forces allowed the first four waves of helicopters to come in, then opened up on the fifth wave, knocking down two and damaging 15. Had they wanted to avoid combat, of course, they could have opened up on the first wave and with such helicopter losses the battle would have ended then and there. “One of the worst days of the war in U.S. helicopter operations,” reported AP.


As the assault waves moved up, the defenders waited until the officers, urging the troops on from behind with weapons ready to shoot any who wavered, were also within range. The defenders then opened up and the assault wave mumbled. This started the classic pattern: more bombing and shelling; attacks from the centre, from the right flank, the left flank; extreme right and left flanks together, and bomb and shell barrages in between. The action lasted two days before it was broken off by the Saigon forces. U.S. reports called the results — apart from the “blackest days ever in helicopter losses” — “meagre and disappointing”. In fact it was a shattering defeat. The junta had obeyed McNamara’s instructions to forget their “concern for casualties”. The Saigon forces lost around 600 killed and wounded, according to Liberation Front figures. The junta’s chief of staff, Le Van Kim, who personally commanded the action, went back to Saigon to brood over matters with his fellow junta members. Did this mean they had lost their last chance?


About ten days after the Thanh Phu debacle, there was a stormy session of the military junta. President de Gaulle, in the meantime, had launched his bombshell about neutrality for Southeast Asia, including South Vietnam. Half a dozen Saigon papers had just been closed down for mentioning the possibility of a neutralist solution. But the junta chiefs, all of them French-trained, discussed the impossible military situation and inevitability of a negotiated settlement based on some form of neutrality. Not that they all agreed on this; some, like Nguyen Khanh, fiercely opposed the idea. But Minh, Don, Dinh and Kim supported it in various degrees. This was sufficient for Harkins to break down any last resistance from Ambassador Lodge to a sort of “back to Diemism” coup — back to individual strong-man dictatorship rather than muddled junta dictatorship and flirtations with neutralism. Khanh was to be the new military chief, ready to accept without reserve U.S. direction of the war at all levels; Nguyen Ton Hoang would be made premier and some sort of a political machine would be brought back into the picture.


So, while Harkins was conveniently “out of town,” the coup was made, no one firing a shot in defense of the junta. The leading junta generals were all arrested. They had “had their chance” and muffed it. Nguyen Khanh, however, once in power, proved to be a reluctant puppet in one matter. Lodge’s consent had been obtained in return for the promise of some pretense of a civilian regime. Harkins probably did not care a fig about this, so Nguyen Khanh refused. He would not divide power. He would be military and civilian chief; it is the latter job that yields rich financial rewards from handling U.S. dollar aid. He did bow to pressure, however, to release Duong Van Minh, the former junta chief, from house arrest, and make him a figure-head “chief of state,” with no powers at all.


Liberation Front’s Assessment


After Khanh had been in power for a month or so, I asked President Nguyen Huu Tho if he could sum up, from the Liberation Front viewpoint, the result of the two coups. “They were gifts from heaven for us,” he said. “Our enemy has been seriously weakened from all points of view, military, political and administrative. Their armed forces have suffered heavy losses on the battlefield and from desertions. The special shock troops that were an essential support for the Diem regime have been eliminated. The military command has been turned upside down and weakened by purges.


“For the same reasons, the coercive apparatus, set up over the years with great care by Diem, is utterly shattered, especially at the base. The principal chiefs of security and the secret police, on which mainly depended the protection of the regime and the repression of the revolutionary movement, have been eliminated, purged.


“Troops, officers and officials of the army and administration are completely lost; they have no more confidence in their chiefs and have no idea to whom they should be loyal. Their morale, already shattered even before these events because of the repeated victories of the patriotic forces, has fallen to a new low.”


When I asked Tran Nam Trung, of the People’s Revolutionary Party, what he thought of the results of the coups he was even more forthright. “The Americans were accusing Diem and Nhu of responsibility for the defeats; Diem and Nhu were accusing the Americans. The Americans were demanding they adopt more up-to-date policies in order to pull the wool over the eyes of the people; they wanted to check the falling morale and also to hand over to more docile puppets. So they chose the dangerous course of ‘changing horses in midstream.’


“But in fact,” said this veteran revolutionary, “they will search in vain for a more efficient horse than Diem. With all his faults and criminal stupidities, in nine years Diem did succeed in setting up and maintaining an army, an administration and some sort of a political machine, with all the reins of power in his hands. One U.S. idea — probably Lodge’s too — was that it would be enough to get rid of brother Nhu and this would make Diem more docile. Nhu, although a champion anti-Communist, was regarded as a ‘hard head,’ a ‘tough nut’ who obstinately refused to be docile enough in executing Washington’s orders, especially towards the end. But the first coup went a bit contrary to Washington’s expectations. It was the military who did it and they wiped out Diem as well as Nhu.


“Each of the three groups among the junta generals had his own satellites fighting for him within the army and administration and that is why there was complete confusion there and a total lack of confidence in the power at the Center. It explains also how we were able to exploit the situation for large-scale activities in the countryside and in Saigon itself. Many hundreds of strategic hamlets’ were liberated in groups of ten and 20 at a time and we scored important military victories on all fronts. In Saigon factories, universities and schools, there was a big upsurge of activity by workers, especially the textile workers, by teachers and students, struggling for improved economic conditions, democratic freedoms, a purging of police spies in their organizations.


“A new and important development is the very strong movement for ‘peace and neutrality’ among different sections of the urban population. This movement, in fact, started several years ago, but in the crisis that followed the two coups it was possible to transform this into a very strong mass movement. There is great scope now for radical activity in the cities, based on the struggle for democratic liberties and improved living conditions. The press is already raising its voice in this sense, demanding an end to censorship, among other things. The enemy was unable to stabilize the situation after the first coup; in all fields, but especially the military one, things had taken a rapid turn for the worse. That was the reason for the second coup, plus the fact that the Americans wanted a more docile servant, a more efficient puppet free of suspected pro-French leanings.”


Another point made by the Front leaders was that U.S. prestige among some sections of the population rose slightly after the anti-Diem coup, because Diem was so hated that “nothing could be worse”. Similarly, Duong Van Minh gained a certain amount of prestige because he had got rid of Diem. So popular feeling was against Nguyen Khanh from the start, especially when he arrested Minh and killed the latter’s bodyguard because it was he who had executed Diem and Nhu. Anger against the U.S. then rose to new heights because it was so clear to everyone that this was an authentic “made in USA” coup.


“We had little difficulty in persuading people of this,” said Nguyen Huu Tho, “but the greatest gift for us was when McNamara came and toured the countryside, holding up Nguyen Khanh’s arm and shouting, ‘This is our man.’ This saved our propaganda cadres a great deal of effort.” McNamara felt it was necessary to come and “sell” Nguyen Khanh to the population; to assure them in a dozen different variants that Khanh had the complete backing of the U.S., precisely because Washington knew that he had no popular support at home. But he was the one general prepared to continue “killing Communists” on U.S. terms. “He doesn’t need your support, he’s got ours,” was what McNamara was saying in effect to the South Vietnamese people. However, when Khanh’s troops refused to go into action and, despite some extra blood money, the rate of desertions was sharply stepped up, Washington probably realised that something more than only their support was needed.


The political vacuum seated by the dismantling of all Diemist organizations has not been filled, nor can it be within a short time. Washington is aware of the desperate weakness that results from this and Americans on the spot have been thrashing round to try and fill the vacuum. Immediately after Khanh took over, U.S. correspondents wrote that he was the man to rally the sects and within days there were announcements that this or that Cao Daist or Hoa Hao leader had rallied to Khanh. As the sects had previously been crushed by Diem with U.S. arms and official U.S. approval, the new hopes smelt of cynicism. But within seven days of taking over, Khanh’s American-piloted air force had dropped 60 tons of bombs on Ben Can, the second largest Cao Dai center after Tay Ninh — in Saigon-controlled territory — burning out 1,000 homes, killing 84 and wounding 200 people. There was such a tremendous outburst of rage that Khanh, Cabot Lodge and Harkins rushed to Tay Ninh and promised to pay 2,000 piastres for every adult and 1,000 for every child killed, while photographers took pictures of Khanh handing out candy to Tay Ninh children. As the uproar continued, even at a public meeting addressed by Khanh, the price of South Vietnamese corpses was raised to 5,000 piastres for an adult and 2,000 for a child.


The other political force on which U.S. hopes are based is the Dai Viet party mentioned earlier. A tiny party without any grass roots support at all — ”dollar hunters par excellence,” as Trung expressed it — the Dai Viet is already split into several factions, each of whom has its nominee for future premier. One of them, Nguyen Chanh Thi who helped organise the abortive officers’ coup in November 1960, tried his luck again on February 10, 1964, against Khanh, eleven days after the latter took over. He was doubtless encouraged by the ease with which Khanh had done the job, but he failed again. But even if a Dai Viet coup succeeded, it cannot fill the gap caused by the dismantling of the Diemist organizations nor can it pretend to represent even a class in Vietnamese society. As a counter to the Front, it would be like “trying to push back the ocean with a fire hose,” as one of the Saigon Liberation Front leaders said.


And the junta generals? All jailed within three months for having hitched their stars to the State Department and some of them were very lucky to have had only their immediate underlings executed and not themselves. And Nguyen Khanh himself? Could he have felt very safe when his chief backer, comrade-in-arms and co-plotter was relieved of his Saigon command in May 1964? Khanh knew the reason why! Because he, General Nguyen Khanh, who had made the most fire-eating speeches about “crushing Communists,” suffered more defeats faster than any of his predecessors. If Khanh did not realise that by mid-1964 the CIA experts were thumbing through the dossiers of generals and colonels for the next choice, he must have been naive in the extreme. The CIA, incidentally, had not yet had its coup.


If Washington was then having difficulty in persuading a new figure to have a try, the dilemma of even those avid for power at any price must be recognised.


A major effort to coordinate State Department and Pentagon policies was the appointment in June 1964 of General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief ideologist of the “special war”, as a sort of super-ambassador in Saigon to replace Cabot Lodge. Maxwell Taylor thus had military and civil affairs in his hand: a striking parallel to what the French government had done just ten years previously when they sent their Chief of Staff, General Paul Ely, to Saigon to take over civilian and military authority.


In sending General Taylor as ambassador, President Johnson was saying to him in effect: “You got us into this mess, now get us out of it.” Just as “special war” was Taylor’s brainchild, the main strategy for winning it — the Staley-Taylor plan of 1961 — was also co-fathered by him. Both had failed. General Taylor is doubtless a good general; so was France’s de Lattre de Tassigny, but he was sent on a hopeless mission. The most brilliant strategies and tactics could not be effective when Washington had already lost the battle for the minds of the people of South Vietnam.


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling 

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