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Was JFK Behind the Assassination of Diem?

Last week the Weekly Standard published an article claiming that newly-released tapes from the LBJ presidential library included "a bombshell" ... "Johnson himself believed what Richard Nixon always suspected: that the Kennedy White House did not merely tolerate or encourage the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem, but organized and executed it."

HNN asked historians on H-Diplo to respond to the charge.

THOMAS SCHWARTZ Author of Lyndon Johnson and Europe: In the Shadow of Vietnam

This article is old news, in that LBJ was complaining from the day he came into office that the Kennedy people had mismanaged the Vietnamese political crisis and the Diem coup. Beschloss records a conversation Johnson had with Donald Cook on November 30, 1963, in which LBJ complained that we needed a new ambassador to replace Henry Cabot Lodge who won't want to "make Vietnam into America overnight." (Beschloss, p.74) (Johnson's venom in these early days was directed as much against Lodge as anybody else - he complained constantly about him, and I suspect this also had to do with the possibility that Lodge might be a candidate in 1964.) Johnson did feel, with some justification in my view, that the Kennedy's Administration should have anticipated Diem's murder given his history of surviving coup attempts and taking revenge on his opponents. But this is a long way from believing that Kennedy explicitly ordered Diem's assassination. What we know of Kennedy's reaction - and admittedly JFK was a good actor at time - is that he expressed shock and regret. But he was also relieved that Diem was gone and congratulated Lodge on his achievement, so the story is a bit mixed. These new Johnson tapes only show the frustration of a man who inherited a disastrous political situation and was now being criticized by some of the people, like Robert Kennedy, whom he held responsible for it.

Incidentally, Richard Nixon was more direct than LBJ in expressing his view of Kennedy's culpability. In a taped telephone conversation with Billy Graham on April 9, 1971, he told Graham simply that "Kennedy killed Diem," and that he was the person most responsible for the mess that he was trying to resolve. Obviously Hunt and his subordinates wanted to come up with something a bit more direct in implicating Kennedy.

DAVID KAISER Author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War

It is a very sad fact of modern life that journalists and popular historians have no understanding of basic rules of evidence, and do not take the trouble to find authoritative works on subjects they choose to discuss.

I exhaustively researched and reported the Kennedy Administration's role in the Diem coup in my book, American Tragedy (which is not mentioned in the Weekly Standard.) Using contemporary documentation and audio tapes, I made two things very clear.

1. On only one occasion did President Kennedy refer to Diem's possible fate in a coup. At that time--during the last week of August 1963--he definitely said that Diem should be exiled and that nothing more should happen to him.

2. The Kennedy Administration, in a last meeting on October 30--two days before the coup--simply decided that they would not stand in the way of a coup if one took place. The discussion shows considerable skepticism as to whether one was going to take place. When the execution of the coup began, Conein got about an hour's warning.

It has been well known for many, many years that Lyndon Johnson opposed the coup from the beginning, and that he (and Nixon) liked to blame the coup for the war. It should be clear to any intelligent person with any familiarity with LBJ that he was blowing off steam, not reporting verbatim conversations. He was referring to the view of Roger Hilsman and Averell Harriman (whom he fired and demoted, respectively, within months of taking office) that Diem had to be replaced.

It is sad to realize, when one has devoted years of one's life to searching out the facts of a controversial historical incident, that when it comes to controversial events, only a small minority of Americans will be interested in those facts.

ERIC BERGERUD Author of Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam

I can certainly sympathize with David Kaiser's dismay over a mass circulation article "trumping" years of general research. Yet I suspect that the notion that the Diem coup was orchestrated by "puppet masters" in Washington is very widespread among historians teaching survey courses. I have heard such descriptions often. (Indeed, I think many of the "self-evident truths" concerning the recent past held by young journalists comes from well meaning professors they encountered in college who were passing on a kind of political dogma in lieu of nuanced interpretation.)

This kind of distortion hardly starts or stops with the Diem coup. If I were to point to one general error made by American academia concerning the course of the Cold War in the "Third World" it would be the general disregard of indigenous factors. Depending upon political viewpoint, the strings controlling events in developing countries are depicted as being pulled in Washington (usually), Moscow, Beijing, London or even Paris. The indigenous components, often crucial, are downplayed or ignored. The Diem coup is a perfect example.

My late friend Douglas Pike described the Diem years as the "Terry and the Pirates" period of the Vietnam conflict. He was referring to the tangled and venomous political atmosphere that was both caused by and reflected by revolutionary forces. It was no trouble to find an enemy of Diem before 1963. (It was also easy enough to find sincere enemies of the communists.) I think one could argue that Diem suffered because it was perceived he was losing U.S. support. Nevertheless, it is one thing to say that Washington failed to protect Diem and quite another to say that Washington ordered his removal and condoned his murder.

In any case, Diem was overthrown by Vietnamese for Vietnamese reasons. I think one could make a similar statement concerning the coup against Allende, or the murder of Patrice Lumumba just to cite two examples. This is not to say that the Great Powers were bystanders. Indeed, civil discord throughout history has been an open invitation to foreign meddling or intervention. The trick is to get the equation right. As it stands, I fear, all too often the people most closely involved in the struggles of the Cold War have been relegated to the status of puppet or forgotten completely. This is very bad history. If nothing else it implies a degree of coherence in policy-making or control of events that rarely existed on the part of the Great Powers when playing the Great Game after 1945.