A Death in November
By Ellen J. Hammer
(E.P. Dutton, 373 pp., $22.50)
As films, books, and television series on
But for all our absorption with the grunts on Hamburger Hill and the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton, the fact remains that the story of American involvement in Vietnam can only be understood by examining the complex, and ultimately fatal, interaction between Saigon politicians and American policymakers. And it must begin with the days before American combat troops came to Vietnam, when the United States, with relatively little public debate and often without public announcement, slipped from an advisory role, for which we were ill-suited, into the responsibility for a war that we couldn't win.
There were many misunderstandings, many days of deception, in the long involvement of American policy-makers and Vietnamese officials. But one day stands out above all others as the turning point: November 1, 1963. On that day Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of
That day holds strong personal memories for me. It was a Friday, and I was planning to leave my post in Soc Trang, in the lower Mekong Delta, where I was a civilian provincial adviser, to spend the weekend in
From a phone in the nearby USIS compound I called my friends, who lived near the presidential palace. "I'm not sure I can make it," I started to say, but my friend interrupted me. "We're all in the closet," he shouted. "There's shooting all over the place." And ever thoughtful, he held the telephone out of the closet so I could hear for myself the sound of gunfire. The day that everyone had feared, or hoped for, was at hand. Early the next morning the ferry resumed service; I drove to
By the fall of 1963, at least six different groups were plotting a coup against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. After eight years of increasingly heavyhanded rule, the reclusive Catholic leader and his family had run out of room. Diem's brothers had created narrowly based personal fiefdoms throughout the country. One was the archbishop of
then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell the appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown of the central government mechanism. . . . Ambassador and country team should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem's replacement if this should become necessary.
The authority for DEPTEL 243 remains controversial to this day. Several senior officials in the Kennedy administration have maintained that it was never properly cleared, that Kennedy approved it only because he was inaccurately informed that Dean Rusk was supporting it. Asked later what he had learned from the DEPTEL 243 incident, McGeorge Bundy is alleged to have said, "Never do business on weekends."
Still, self-protective historical revisions and repositionings notwithstanding, the telegram was undeniably sent and never clearly rescinded. And the CIA, primarily through a legendary agent named Lucien Conein, began making contacts that gave the generals a message they had been awaiting for years. Einally, although still somewhat ambivalent about its role, the
The coup succeeded, of course, but Big Minh's macabre joke to Conein turned out to be spectacularly true: when the generals failed to save their country, they took the
The consequences of the events of 1963 were beyond calculation. After November 1 the
It would be gratifying to report that Hammer has produced a book worthy of this fateful and catastrophic event, a companion to her early classic. The Struggle for
Yet the story of November 1, 1963, is so important to an understanding of the
Was the American government responsible for Diem's overthrow and murder? On this controversial point, debated for over 20 years, two things must be said. First, Diem lost his legitimacy when he alienated the Buddhist activists; his regime doomed itself with its own repressive policies, especially after the August attack on the pagodas. It was Diem, and nobody else, who planted the seeds of his downfall. In the final analysis, the
Still, American involvement in the coup was critical, just as it would be in
During the period preceding the coup, there were no serious discussions among American policy-makers about the nature of a post-Diem government, or about what
DIEM: Some units have made a rebellion and I want to know: What is the attitude of the
? United States
LODGE: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. I have heard the shooting but am not acquainted with all the facts. Also, it is 4:30 a.m. in Washington . . .
DIEM: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a chief of state. I have tried to do my duty . . .
LODGE: You have certainly done your duty. As 1 told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. . . . Now I am worried about your physical safety. I have a report that those in charge of the current activity offer you and your brother safe conduct out of the country if you resign. Had you heard this?
DIEM: No [after a pause). You have my telephone number.
LODGE: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.
DIEM: I am trying to re-establish order.
The two men never talked again. Diem and Nhu surrendered and were shot as they were being driven to military headquarters, apparently on orders from the coup leaders.
Later Richard Nixon became convinced that John Kennedy had ordered Diem killed, and he assigned none other than E. Howard Hunt to find, or perhaps to fabricate, evidence linking the president to the murders. But there is no evidence whatsoever that Americans participated in the decisions that led to the assassination of the Ngo brothers. What does seem clear, however, is that the
The lessons of November 1, 1963, for American foreign policy have been as bitterly disputed as the war itself. There are those, including Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who apparently believed that if we had stuck with Diem we could have won the war. There is nothing to substantiate such a view; like the war itself. Diem was not salvageable, even with American help. Indeed, a respectable case can be made that the United States should have abandoned Diem years earlier, when it was clear that he would never take the measures for reform that were necessary to build a popularly based anti-Communist government, measures that Washington had repeatedly and unsuccessfully urged on him. (It is Bui Diem's contention in The Jaws of Victory that America's greatest mistake was supporting Diem in 1955.)
In the 24 years since November 1, responsible policy-makers—those who understood the complicated legacy of that day—should have learned to ask themselves more searching questions about what kind of regime might follow the incumbents; about the real extent of American influence, and of its ability to control events; about the personal fate of fallen leaders with long-standing ties to the United States; above all, about the real interests of the United States in a particular country or region.
Unfortunately, neoconservatives have derived a predictably wrong lesson from Saigon, reinforced later in
Only two routes to power are still open to communists: the use of external force, as in the Soviet invasion of
Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Carter administration, is a managing director at Shearson Lehman Brothers.