Mistake #3 – the Biggest Mistake of the War - Part 2
On November 1, 1963, the Kennedy Administration encouraged and abetted a military overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. As a consequence, Diem and his brother and chief political advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were killed the next day. This led to more than two years of unstable government and military leadership in South Vietnam, which was fully exploited by North Vietnam’s Communist leaders and led to more extensive commitments of American manpower to save South Vietnam. President Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after Kennedy’s own assassination on November 22, later called the overthrow of Diem the biggest mistake of the Vietnam War. President Nixon, writing in 1985, agreed that it was one of the three greatest mistakes of the war.
In May 1963, President Diem’s Strategic Hamlet Program seemed to be working and South Vietnam’s economy and people were prospering. Communist leaders in Hanoi and South Vietnam were discouraged. But their hopes and morale would soon be revitalized.
Beginning in May of 1963, President John F. Kennedy and many of his advisors began to be uncomfortable with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s handling of Buddhist political demonstrations on the streets of Hue and Saigon. These protests alleged discrimination against Buddhists by the strongly Roman Catholic Diem Administration. They were organized by a small but highly political leftist Buddhist group led by Thich Tri Quang. Following a bomb blast killing eight protestors in Hue, the protest organizers carefully contrived a protest that would get international attention.
On June 11, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, clothed in saffron-yellow robes and sitting in the Buddhist posture of prayer, was doused with gasoline and set himself on fire. Thousands of pre-mimeographed copies of his thoughts were distributed by the militant Buddhist cadre who had recruited him. A small group of liberal American journalists had been tipped off to the event, and the dramatic photograph and critical commentary were soon seen on the front pages of thousands of newspapers and magazines around the world. Diem’s popularity in the United States plummeted, and American media criticism of the U.S. advisory role in South Vietnam escalated, led by the influential New York Times.
Diem continued to act with the firmness and independence that had characterized his leadership successes in the past. On August 21, the government raided the twelve Buddhist pagodas associated with Tri Quang—out of a total of 4,776 in the country. No one was killed, but the media greatly exaggerated the violence and “oppression.” Although Diem had been President of South Vietnam since 1955 and had brought considerable stability to its government, Kennedy and a majority of his closest advisors decided that they would welcome a regime change in Saigon. In arriving at this decision, Kennedy placed his trust in the biased, sensationalist reports in the U.S. media and misinformed public opinion rather than the more balanced reporting of former South Vietnamese Ambassador Frederick Nolting and the CIA. Removal of Diem was also strongly opposed by Vice President Johnson, CIA Director John McCone, and JCOS Chief General Maxwell Taylor, but to no avail. On August 24, Kennedy and his like-minded anti-Diem advisors conveyed their sympathy for replacing Diem to a group of ambitious South Vietnamese generals, who disagreed with Diem on military policy.
On November 1, the forces of Duong Van “Big” Minh and his conspirators surrounded the government palace, but Diem and his brother Nhu escaped through a secret tunnel and telephoned U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge offered only safe passage out of the country, if they resigned and went into exile. However, the generals feared Diem’s extraordinary influence with the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S and other Western nations might present a serious future threat to them. Big Minh’s aides picked up Diem and Nhu in an armored vehicle, but rather than taking them to the airport, shot them both in the head.
President Kennedy and his advisors were shocked when they heard that Diem and Nhu had been murdered by the military junta. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Communists, however, could not believe their good fortune. South Vietnam was thrown into political and military chaos and for two years would lack firm anti-Communist leadership. The South Vietnamese presidency became a revolving door with ten changes in government in two years. Meanwhile, North Vietnam put over 240,000 troops into South Vietnam between 1964 and 1967. Their Viet Cong auxiliaries increased three-fold to 120,000.
The liberal bias of the American media blinded them to the reality of brutal Communist aggression and malevolent Marxist lies and political tactics in South Vietnam. Diem was dealing with organized terrorism and Marxist agitation to overthrow Constitutional government. The liberal media could not appreciate what Diem fully understood—that the first task of government is to establish order.
John F. Kennedy was strongly anti-Communist, but his overly strong desire to curry favor with the liberal media pushed him into an Allied regime change that became a costly military and foreign policy disaster.
To be continued.
Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.
He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.
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