Was JFK Behind the Assassination of Diem?Fact & Fiction
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.
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Joe William Glidewell - 5/5/2005
I have just finished this book that is mentioned in the above comment. I do not agree that President Kennedy sent Lodge to Vietnam for the express purpose of having Diem and his brother eliminated thru assassination. I believe that President Kennedy sent Lodge for the purpose of having someone there that he felt would give him information that would support the feeling that a change was necessary. But I found little evidence in the book that suggested that Kennedy wanted to have Diem killed when the "hopeful coup" took place. In fact I think that Jones proves with his extensive use of documentation that Kennedy was indeed shocked and disappointed, if that is the correct word, that Diem lost his life. I think Jones shows the immaturity of Kennedy and his advisers in dealing in the coup business. History has shown for a long time that a coup takes a life of its own once it starts and you can not predict with any certainty how it will turn out. The coup that removed Diem and his brother is a classic example of how this happens. Did Kennedy and his advisers want a change in Vietnam's govt. in 1963? Most definetly. Did they also want an "executive action" against Diem? I don't think so and I don't believe that Mr. Jones does either.
Steve George Hale - 4/27/2005
Ellen Hammer wrote a very important book back in 1987 entitled: A Death In November. This book, written by the foremost authority on Vietnam's history, gives a month-by-month description of how the U.S. State Department engineered the overthrow of the government of South Vietnam in 1963, culminating in the assassination of Diem. JFK was assassinated just 20 days later, after having ordered the return of the first 1,000 military advisers from Vietnam, based on Diem's wishes to remove U.S. involvement.
A recent book by Howard Jones, concerning how the assassinations of Diem and Kennedy served to prolong the war, says that Henry Cabot Lodge went to Vietnam as ambassador in the summer of 1963 for the express purpose of orchestrating the plot to kill Diem and his brother under the guise of a coup. And it worked without a hitch. Hilsman was a major player on this side, along with David Halberstam of the N.Y. Times, who sought to defame Diem regarding the buddhist revolt, which was proved to be a hoax against Diem's integrity.
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Josh Greenland - 10/10/2003
"... I don't think our government has the right to overthrow any foreign government, democratically elected or not."
I agree with you on this, strongly. (I make an exception for the governments of the Axis due to their threat to the rest of the world, but since WWII I don't think we've been justified in any of our covert ops or military interventions.)
Josh Greenland - 10/10/2003
"There is plenty of reason to believe Allende was planning his own bloody purge of right-wing elements in the military and in the political sphere as well. Remember, there had already been an attempted coup against Allende a little over two months prior to Pinochet's successful attempt."
Does plenty of reason mean there is actual evidence. This is the first I've heard Allende was planning a coup, and frankly this feeds into the myth that the Pinochet coup was somehow preepmtive and defensive. This sounds like the propaganda that was generated at the time of the coup to justify it.
"And as far as domestic disturbances being the primary cause of the Allende coup, Alec Lloyd is, I think, correct. Chile had the highest inflation rate in the world in 1972 and 1973, and of course, there were also the massive strikes that basically shut down the country the year of the coup."
Probably the worst and the most economically destructive strike was the truck owners' "strike" that had them keeping trucks off the roads so they couldn't transport goods. This "strike" was funded and organized by the CIA.
As far as "domestic disturbances," the CIA was pumping so much money into Chile to fund anti-Allende covert ops, including fake political parties and secretly controlled newspapers, that the price of the dollar versus Chile's currency was pushed down.
"Anyway, I don't think any amount of American destabilization can bring down a foreign government that enjoys true legitimacy and at least the tacit acceptance of the people it governs.... But Allende was a guy who tried to completely remake Chile, and after getting 38% of the vote! There was bound to be domestic combinations raised against him, with or without our assistance."
Chile in the early 1970s was a class-stratified society, something like 19th century Europe. There was already a certain amount of upper-middle class resentment that Allende was helping the poor. But that country's military was professional and didn't initially want to intervene in politics. The US worked to aggravate existing social tensions and to break down Chilean military inhibitions. I don't think it's credible to state that a coup would certainly have happened without our MASSIVE intervention, which I recall went on for a year or two. This was a classic destabilization campaign. (I think the word destabilization may have entered the general US lexicon at that time.)
"The $64,000 question: people like to wring their hands over Allende's sad fate, and it can't be debated that Pinochet's junta was brutal and arbitrary, especially just after the coup, but honestly- can anyone say that Chile would be better off today under a Communist government?"
It's a $64,000 question in confederate money. Salvador Allende was a Social Democrat, not a Communist. Trying to claim that Allende or someone in his government would probably have "communized" Chile is too much of a stretch. The $64,000 confederate money question sounds like an effort to justify the torturing, murderous Pinochet regime by claiming that it prevented a likely or certain slide to communism, which we are all supposed to agree is worse on human rights than any reactionary government ever could be. I don't buy these assumptions, and they would all have to be operative to make the monster Pinochet into the Savior of Chile.
Jesse Lamovsky - 10/10/2003
Good points. Actually, I don't think our government has the right to overthrow any foreign government, democratically elected or not.
Lester Milton - 10/9/2003
Those are good points, but I think we miss the bigger point. Whether or not the U.S. was instrumental in overthrowing these democratically elected leaders (also, see Guatemala in '54 and Iran in '53, not to mention our assistance in the mass murders in East Timor), we spent a great deal of money and energy trying to accomplish the overthrow of democratically elected leaders.
Maybe those democratically elected leaders would have been bad for their countries or good for their countries is kind of irrelevent. Until leaders of the U.S. can say that it was wrong for it to have even attempted to overthrow a single democratically elected government (let alone several), they won't be (and shouldn't be) taken seriously when they speak of the importance of international law and human rights.
Jesse Lamovsky - 10/9/2003
I hear what you're saying, but there are a couple of other issues here, especially in Chile.
There is plenty of reason to believe Allende was planning his own bloody purge of right-wing elements in the military and in the political sphere as well. Remember, there had already been an attempted coup against Allende a little over two months prior to Pinochet's successful attempt. And as far as domestic disturbances being the primary cause of the Allende coup, Alec Lloyd is, I think, correct. Chile had the highest inflation rate in the world in 1972 and 1973, and of course, there were also the massive strikes that basically shut down the country the year of the coup.
Anyway, I don't think any amount of American destabilization can bring down a foreign government that enjoys true legitimacy and at least the tacit acceptance of the people it governs. Look at Cuba and Iran. Saddam Hussein was so legitimate, the American government had to physically invade Iraq to topple him. But Allende was a guy who tried to completely remake Chile, and after getting 38% of the vote! There was bound to be domestic combinations raised against him, with or without our assistance.
The $64,000 question: people like to wring their hands over Allende's sad fate, and it can't be debated that Pinochet's junta was brutal and arbitrary, especially just after the coup, but honestly- can anyone say that Chile would be better off today under a Communist government?
Oscar Chamberlain - 10/8/2003
It was my understanding that, while Kennedy had not wanted Diem killed, the coup and the death of Diem increased the sense of responsibility among Kennedy and his advisors for the fate of South Vietnbam.
I am having trouble remembering my source for that; so maybe its another misperception. But if I am correct, and I think I am, it could be that the outcome of the coup and the increased sense of responsiblity afterwards may have been conflated, somewhat unconsciously, into the idea that Kennedy was fully responsible for the coup and its outcome.
the BZA - 10/7/2003
I'm not exactly sure when the last time the US apologized for aiding in a military coup was, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't happen too often and I think it's a pretty big deal. It was certainly not intended as key evidence. There are a number of books dealing with the coup in chile, too many to recommend simply because they all say the same thing: the US played a major role in the overthrowing of a legally elected president.
I would also suggest you read The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo DeWitte and tell me that the Congolese "pawns" had a will of their own, a will that somehow miraculously supported the belgian government and went against the popular demand of the people.
Alec Lloyd - 10/7/2003
I find it ironic that in a post urging careful scholarly scrutiny of historical events, the remarks of the Secretary of State 30 years after the fact are held up a key evidence.
The author is in fact correct: without a fertile environment of domestic unrest, all of the Great Power intervention in the world would have been for naught.
It may be comforting to think that most of the world's ills originated in Moscow, Washington, London or Paris if for no other reason than by implication the solutions would be found there as well.
Alas, this is not the case. Washington and Moscow may have tried to use the Third World as pawns in the Great Game, but the pieces often had a will of their own.
the BZA - 10/7/2003
I agree with Mr. Bergerud when he says that "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." I also agree that the Standard is basing their conclusions on extremely shoddy circumstantial evidence and at best one would be "unsure" of the Kennedy administration's role in the Diem coup.
But to lump this event in with the Allende coup and, perhaps even more ridiculously, the Lumumba assassination, is absurd. Just as the evidence strongly supports Mr. Kaiser's viewpoint in this matter, there is a mass of evidence regarding the US involvement in the Allende coup from a much larger perspective than just a casual observer against the socialist president. No historian ignores the fact that Allende was only elected by a slight margin and his power was weak in many ways, but active participation by the United States government has even been acknowledged by our current Secretary of State Colin Powell (given, it was to try to convince Chile to vote our way in the UN, but nevertheless it stands in history). But really incredible is the notion that Lumumba would have been successfully overthrown without the consent of the United Nations and the complete control of the Belgium government. No one is arguing that there is not an enormous amount of infighting between different ethnic groups within the nominal borders of Congo. But to assume that this animosity was not purposefully exploited is to ignore history and absolve major world and colonial powers of their due guilt. You say "Diem was overthrown by Vietnamese for Vietnamese reasons" and I think that is (probably) true. I agree that "one could make a similar statement concerning the coup against Allende, or the murder of Patrice Lumumba," but they would be creating the bad history you speak of in so doing.
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