That assassination 44 years ago today is a mere historic footnote, but it helped propel the U.S. into a decade-long quagmire that took 58,000 American lives and in some respects was a template for another failed war that shows no signs of ending. The similarities include an attempt to impose democracy on a society that is unprepared for it and divided along sectarian lines, as well as propping up a corrupt regime more focused on power mongering than national reconciliation.Kennedy was very much a free-thinking liberal, but he always put
As a young congressman, he had been a lonely voice in condemning
"To pour men, material and money into the jungles ofNevertheless, Kennedy rejected the 1954
Indochinawithout at least a remote prospect of victory would be dangerously futile . . . no amount of American military assistance in Indochinacan conquer an enemy which is everywhere, an enemy of the people, which had the sympathy and the covert support of the people."
Only a few weeks into his administration, Kennedy learned the hard way that meddling in another country's affairs could backfire after approving the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion against Fidel Castro. He vowed that the
Like Kennedy, Ngo Dinh Diem was a Roman Catholic, but
As the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret report on U.S. involvement in Vietnam revealed, intelligence reports showed that Diem was an autocrat whose policies were alienating the Buddhist majority and helping the Communists, and that his hold on power was shaky.Within weeks after the
Vice President Lyndon Johnson visitedBy the summer of 1963, something had to give.
shortly thereafter and met with Diem, calling him the "Churchill of Southeast Asia" in public but confiding to Kennedy in private that the Vietnam would have to commit to further military action or get rid of Diem. U.S.
Kennedy rejected Diem's calls for a major infusion of American troops and air support, but the number of Special Forces and advisors grew steadily, as did the clandestine campaign, and by 1963 there were 16,000 Americans in-country and U.S. deaths were climbing into the hundreds.
Led by the president's corrupt brother Nhu and sister-in-law, the flamboyant Madame Nhu, aka the "Dragon Lady," the Diem regime was waging open warfare against South Vietnam's Buddhist majority. They made mass arrests and closed schools, prompting demonstrations, including one during which a monk set himself on fire on a crowded Saigon street, a public relations disaster in the States and abroad not unlike the backlash provoked by images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq four decades later.
Sympathetic Kennedy biographers were to write that Diem's subsequent assassination was not in the script, but that appears to not have been the case because the president was not only privy to intimations that Diem was to be disposed of with U.S. help, but gave it his tacit approval.
Diem was advised by the U.S. to remove the Nhus from power but resisted. Then in August 1963, word reached Washington that a coup attempt was being planned against Diem and Nhu with the help of a CIA officer
The first attempt was stillborn, but on November 1, Vietnamese Army soldiers loyal to a group of anti-Diem generals moved on the presidential palace, confronted Diem, demanded that he and the Nhus resign and offered them safe exit from the country. Diem calledNo federal law then or now criminalizes U.S. involvement in the assassination of a foreign official. While the involvement of the CIA in and White House approval of the plot against Diem may have been questionable, it was not illegal. Nor was his death the end of the
Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. for help, but Lodge replied that the U.S. could take no action. U.S.
Diem and Nhu escaped through a secret tunnel under the palace and made their way to the Chinese district of Saigon where they were captured and killed under still murky circumstances.
Upon learning of the assassination, Ho Chi Minh is reported to have said, "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid." The North Vietnamese Politburo was more explicit, predicting:
"The consequences of the 1 November coup d' état will be contrary to the calculations of the U.S. imperialists . . . Diem was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism. Everything that could be done in an attempt to crush the revolution was carried out by Diem. Diem was one of the most competent lackeys of the U.S. imperialists . . . Among the anti-Communists in South Vietnam or exiled in other countries, no one has sufficient political assets and abilities to cause others to obey. Therefore, the lackey administration cannot be stabilized. The coup d' état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last."Ho and his advisors understood what Kennedy and his advisors did not: Diem had been a powerful if unpleasant bulwark against Communism.
The U.S. had, in a sense, backed the right horse in the wrong war, and blind to the quagmire that awaited it, then helped kill the horse. The consequences, which may well have been the same had Diem continued to rule, included an end to the Democratic hegemony in Washington, over 58,000 American deaths and years of recriminations over a "lost" war.
The similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars can be overstated, and the similarities between Diem and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are mostly incidental. But another political hegemony is ending in Washington primarily because of a wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time and America has plunged into a new era of recrimination.
in the October 2004 issue of