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Coup in Saigon: A Detailed Account

Originally published in The New York Times, November 6, 1963

SAIGON, South Vietnam, Nov. 5 — Plot and counterplot in a complex pattern of intrigue culminated in the military coup d'etat in South Vietnam Friday.

The vanity of an ambitious young general, Ton That Dinh appears to have been a key factor in the train of events that led to the overthrow of the Ngo family regime and the deaths of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Buddhist dissatisfaction with the Ngos, which had long been simmering, erupted into demonstrations and violence during the summer and the climate was ripe for a coup. Generals who had been considering a coup at various times began to plan seriously.

One of the first allies they needed was Ton That Dinh.

Ton That Dinh, at 38 years of age, had risen meteorically to the rank of brigadier general. He owed much of his success to the fact that the Ngo family trusted him as it trusted only other general, Huynh Van Cao.

The family gave Ton That Dinh a command to the north of Saigon so that it could block any attempt to overthrow the Government from that direction. Defense to the south of Saigon was in the hands of Huynh Van Cao in the Mekong Delta area.

Thus, when other generals who were disaffected with the Ngo family persuaded Ton That Dinh to join the plot, the Ngo family's carefully planned system of self-protection was left with a big hole. The Ngos did not know the hole was there, so great was their faith in Ton That Dinh.

Ton That Dinh shows the marks of vanity and driving ambition. He likes to wear a tightly tailored paratrooper's uniform, a red beret at a jaunty angle and dark glasses. Behind him there usually is a tall, silent Cambodian bodyguard. Newspaper photographers who take pictures of Ton That Dinh have always been warmly treated.

The dissident generals played upon his vanity to bring about his defection.

What follows is a recapitulation, as complete as can be obtained today, of what actually went on at the secret meetings of the plotters and the secret meetings of Government officials from the beginning of the critical period.

The Buddhists' discontent with the Ngo family, which is Roman Catholic, became overt in the spring when the Government forbade the Buddhists to fly their religious banners along with the national flag. The Buddhists drew up a list of demands to remedy what they considered the Government's repressions. The Government promised action, but there was none.

The Buddhists began to demonstrate for what they considered their rights, and nine Buddhists were killed in one protest, at Hue. This city, the capital of the central region, is a strong Buddhist center as well as the see of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, another brother of the President.

The Buddhist centers of worship, the pagodas, then became centers of political as well as religious unrest.

Three generals began to plot in June, when the Buddhist crisis began to grow from a religious dispute into a full-scale political crisis.

One of the three was Duong Van Minh, known as Big Minh, who had a distinguished record as a combat leader, but who had been shunted aside because of Ngo Dinh Nhu's jealousies.

The second was Tran Van Don, a suave, aristocratic graduate of St. Cyr, the French West Point.

The third was Le Van Kim, virtually an unemployed general who was called by one military man the shrewdest of generals.

Generals Foresaw Crisis on Buddhist Issue

These men felt that the Government was provoking a major crisis and that its refusal to meet some of the Buddhist demands was arrogant and self-defeating.

They brought in other key officers step by step. In all this early planning, Duong Van Minh's prestige gave the plot respectability.

The officers moved slowly and gained the consent of Gen. Nguyen Khanh of the II Corps and Gen. Do Cao Tri of the I Corps.

They had no set plan and too few troops. Their main problem would be to get troops into Saigon.

The Ngos, however, had prepared a military structure to guard against such threats. Great emphasis was placed on loyalty among the high officers, particularly those in and directly north and south of Saigon.

There were two reasons for this: First, a disloyal commander could turn his troops around and head up the highway and storm the Presidential Palace. Second, if other troops rebelled, then Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu could call in their loyal commanders. This had happened in the past.

In 1960, when paratroopers had all but scored a coup d'état, they began negotiating with Ngo Dinh Diem only to find that the President had moved in tanks and loyal units from the Seventh Division.

The palace also depended on two elite units. These were the Special Forces and the Presidential Guard, with about 24 tanks. Their main job, if there was a rebellion, was to hold off rebel units until a loyal force could arrive.

Such loyal forces were the troops under the command of Ton That Dinh to the north and Huynh Van Cao to the south of Saigon. The latter, perhaps the most vigorous prosecutor of the war against the Communist guerrillas, the Vietcong, was known as the most political of the generals. He also had advanced quickly in the military because of his personal loyalty to Ngo Dinh Diem.

The Dissident Generals Hatch a Plot

In August the secretly dissident generals hatched a plot to circumvent the careful protection set up by the regime. They suggested to Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu that martial law be declared and that troops be moved into the town from the distant areas where the three had supporters.

The three generals planned to stage the coup the moment the troops were in the city.

Ngo Dinh Nhu, however, had been planning to raid the pagodas with his Special Forces and the police. When he heard the generals' suggestions, he decided to work it into his plan.

He went ahead with the raid, but he declared martial law to make it look as if the army had forced him to take action and to make it appear that the anti-Buddhist move had enjoyed wide popular support.

Ngo Dinh Nhu brought his trusted general, Ton That Dinh, to Saigon and let him plan the raid on the pagodas. They were carried out Aug. 21, with international repercussions.

The raids were violent and they scarred Saigon's relations with the United States — the chief support of South Vietnam in the war against the Communists. The military, which had been growing progressively uneasy about the progress of the war, was angered further by the fact that the army had been used as a front for violent attacks on civilians.

After the pagoda raids, however, Ton That Dinh felt that he was the hero of the republic. In private he told other officers that he had "defeated" the United States Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, who had arrived to take up his post just as the raids occurred.

"He came here to hold a coup," Ton That Dinh said, "but I,. Dinh, have conquered him and saved the country."

Soon afterward, Ton That Dinh held a news conference. That conference, in effect, sealed the doom of the Ngo regime by opening the way for the dissident generals to woo Ton That Dinh. The generals played upon his vanity.

At the news conference, Ton That Dinh spoke of plots by "foreign adventurers," indirectly called the United States Central Intelligence Agency "crypto-Communist," and assailed the Buddhists as Communists.

Ton That Dinh was questioned sharply. He is a man with a quick temper and he became angry. On several occasions newsmen — including Vietnamese reporters for Government-controlled newspapers — broke into laughter at some of the general's accusations. This added to the general's fury.

When Ton That Dinh left the news conference he was in a rage. He thought of himself as a "hero of the republic," but he had lost face before Westerners and before his countrymen.

This was just what the three dissident generals wanted — an angry Ton That Dinh. The three generals did not have troops in positions from which a successful attack could be staged, but Ton That Dinh did. They needed him. So they began to play on his wounded pride.

Plotters Decide to Try Discrediting Regime

The plotters decided to try to discredit the regime in Ton That Dinh's eyes, undermine his loyalty to Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, and convince him that he had been used.

They told him that he was a great national hero and that the country looked up to him. They said he was being badly treated by Ngo Dinh Nhu. They told him that his military moves against the pagodas were a good start but that political moves must follow, that the tired, ineffectual Cabinet of the Ngo family was unable to do these things and that young, active military men were needed in the Cabinet.

The generals said they needed to get up momentum in the war against the guerrillas to maintain the morale of the troops. They suggested that Ton That Dinh talk with Ngo Dinh Diem and use his influence. For he, after all, the advice continued, was now the foremost hero of the republic.

The generals believed that these ideas would outrage Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, and that the brothers would turn on Ton That Dinh.

Ton That Dinh believed the generals and went to see Ngo Dinh Diem. He demanded new roles for the military officers, and the Ministry of the Interior for himself.

Ngo Dinh Diem, extremely sensitive both about police control and about the role of the military, was stunned. The last thing he wanted was members of the military in the Cabinet, and in particular Ton That Dinh as Minister of the Interior.

The President gave Ton That Dinh a blunt rejection and lectured him angrily. He told him he was, in effect, temporarily relieved and to go to Da Lat and rest.

"Stay out of politics and leave the politics to me," Ngo Dinh Diem said. Ton That Dinh left the office and went to Da Lat, humiliated now in front of the other generals, too.

He did not follow Ngo Dinh Diem's order to leave politics to the palace. He became a plotter.

When Ngo Dinh Diem inadvertently turned Ton That Dinh into a dissident, he destroyed the arrangement for the protection of the palace. And he did it at a time when he already had too many enemies, when he and Ngo Dinh Nhu were in what amounted to a twilight struggle for survival.

For most of the rest of the military, and in particular for the younger, more aggressive officers, the time for a coup seemed to be overdue. For months before the moves moves against Buddhists, there had been great concern over the war effort and after the Buddhist crisis, this concern began changing into despair.

Junior officers were becoming disaffected.

"The police techniques of the Ngos," one Vietnamese officer said, "which used to reach mostly into the homes of people we considered political, were more and more reaching into our own homes."

There was, as one officer said privately at the time, a strong feeling that the regime had become so preoccupied with its own survival that the war against the Communists had become secondary.

The army, the plotters believed, was increasingly being twisted into something that fitted the Ngo family's requirements for loyalty first.

Ironically, it was the Ngo family's preoccupation with possible plotters that turned men like Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Minh and Tran Van Don, soldiers, into plotters.

The Generals Are Handed a Ready-Made Coup

When a rebellion was decided upon by the generals and these young officers were approached, it was almost as if the generals had to run to catch up with the parade.

"We handed the generals a ready-made coup on a platter," one young major said.

The United States policy in South Vietnam, which had never been clear to the military leaders, was becoming clear, along new lines.

President Kennedy indicated that he felt South Vietnam would be a happier place without Mr. and Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu. John Richardson, the C.I.A. chief in South Vietnam, who was believed by the Vietnamese military to be close to Ngo Dinh Nhu, was recalled to Washington.

It was known in South Vietnam that the new United States Ambassador neither admired the Ngo family nor thought it could win the war. Large amounts of American aid to South Vietnam were suspended.

Then the Americans told Ngo Dinh Nhu that the Special Forces, led by Col. Le Quang Tung, would receive no more United States aid if they remained on security duty instead of fighting the Vietcong.

For a time, in September and early October, the dissidents became frightened and disorganized. The Government made mass arrests in Saigon and tightened its control of the troops. The plotters, fearing discovery, became confused and stopped their planning.

But the Government's repressions began to let up in mid-October and the dissidents resumed their work.

According to extremely reliable sources, about two weeks before the coup, after several weeks of working on Ton That Dinh, the generals said to him, in effect, "You should carry out the coup. It is time to save your country."

Ton That Dinh began to draw up plans, discarding many before finally settling on one.

The generals then set about recruiting units to join them.

Three days before the coup, Ton That Dinh sent his deputy, Nguyen Huu Co, to My Tho to talk to some officers.

My Tho is a key city, 40 miles south of Saigon along a main highway. It is the seat of the Seventh Division, which sent the tanks up the highway in 1960 to break up the paratroopers' coup.

Nguyen Huu Co, according to reliable sources, talked to the deputy divisional commander, to two regimental commanders, the armored unit commander and the My Tho province chief. He told them that the army should overthrow the Ngo family, citing many reasons including possible loss of the war against the Vietcong.

Nguyen Huu Co said that all the generals had joined in the plan except Huynh Van Cao. He said that Ton That Dinh had not yet joined but was expected to.

The entire episode was reported to the President.

The next day the President called in Ton That Dinh. Reliable sources believe that at this point Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu did not entirely trust Ton That Dinh but felt he could be used against the other generals because he was not fully committed.

Ngo Dinh Diem showed Ton That Dinh the report of the conversation in My Tho.

According to the story, Ton That Dinh put on a show of weeping.

"This is my fault," the general was reported to have said. "Because you have suspected me. I have not really gone to work for the last 15 days but have stayed at home because I was sad. But I am not against you. I was sad because I thought I was discredited with you. So Nguyen Huu Co profited from my absence to make trouble."

Then Ton That Dinh was reported to have suggested that he arrest his deputy and have him shot. Ngo Dinh Nhu was against this; he wanted him arrested and interrogated to find the names of the other plotters.

The President and his brother said they had not really distrusted Ton That Dinh, but had been preoccupied with other matters. Indeed, Ngo Dinh Nhu said, he had been thinking of promoting Ton That Dinh to major general, and would take care of it quickly.

Then the three men decided they must have a plan for a counter-coup.

Ton That Dinh suggested they make a massive show of force, moving troops and tanks into Saigon to crush the plotters. Ngo Dinh Nhu agreed and suggested that Ton That Dinh get together "with the other two members of the party," Lieut Col. Nguyen Ngoc Khoi, commander of the Presidential Guard, and Col. Le Quang Tung.

The President told Ton That Dinh, according to these sources, "You have full authority to get what you need. I approve what you need."

The next day Ton That Dinh met with the two other officers and told them a major show of force must be made, and tanks must be used "because armor is dangerous." The two others, who are considered by many Vietnamese officers to be armchair soldiers, readily agreed.

According to the account, Ton That Dinh said that if they brought in all the reserves, the Americans would become angry and charge that the Vietnamese were not prosecuting the war.

"So we must deceive the Americans," Ton That Dinh said, ordering Le Quang Tung to send his four Special Forces companies out of Saigon and ordering him to tell the Americans that the forces were going into combat.

The following day, the day before the coup, Le Quang Tung moved the four companies out with the approval of the President and his brother.

Ton That Dinh then drew up plans that were presented to Ngo Dinh Diem as plans for Operation Bravo, a show of force, and that were to the other generals the start of moves for the coup.

When he signed and approved the plans for Operation Bravo, Ngo Dinh Diem legalized the groundwork for a coup d'etat.

Reliable sources here believe that some of the generals privately saw some key Americans before the coup and let them know that a coup might take place. All they were reported to have told the Americans was that they wanted no interference.

The insurgents' plans involved three main task forces. The first consisted of two marine battalions and a company of M-113 armored personal carriers. The marines were brought in from Binh Duong Province and two battalions of airborne troops considered loyal to the President were moved out to take their places.

This first task force was the spearhead of the coup.

The second task force consisted of the Sixth Airborne Battalion from Vung Tau and a battalion from a training camp, assisted by 12 armored vehicles from the school at Long Hai.

The third task force consisted of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Regiment of the Fifth Division and the Second Battalion of the Ninth Regiment of the Fifth Division.

These Troops Employed to Occupy City

These were the troops that occupied various parts of the city, and guarded the four 155 howitzers and the headquarters of Col. Nguyen Van Thieu, who directed the attack on the Presidential Guard barracks.

Some troops from the Quang Trung training camp were used to occupy the security police headquarters. These troops were commanded by Mai Huu Xuan, who is now director general of the national police.

Ton That Dinh also had 20 tanks brought to his headquarters at Camp Le Van Duyet. Fifteen were used during the coup. All told, the plotters had more than 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers and they were a decisive factor in the showdown around the palace.

When these movements began, the security police called Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu. They were reassured by Ngo Dinh Nhu that the movements were legal and part of a palace plan.

The coup came shortly before noon on Friday when the navy commander, Capt. Ho Tan Quyen, was assassinated while he was driving along the Bien Hoa Highway.

At 1:30 P.M. marines began occupying the central police headquarters, the radio station and the post office. Shortly afterward, the central police called Ngo Dinh Diem and told him the marines were there and they were not friendly.

Ngo Dinh Diem immediately ordered his military aide to call Ton That Dinh's headquarters. An aide to Ton That Dinh answered and the President took the phone at his end.

The President said that the marines were at the police station and told the aide to tell Ton That Dinh to send troops there immediately. The aide said Ton That Dinh was not in.

In the meantime, a group of high-ranking military men were having luncheon at the officers club of the general staff. The luncheon had been called nominally for a discussion of changes in corps boundaries.

At 1:30 P.M., Gen. Tran Van Don announced that a coup was on and arrested all of those at the lunch.

At about this time, there was some fighting between some of the Special Forces and troops from General Headquarters. The plotters forced Col. Le Quang Tung to get on the phone and tell his troops to surrender.

President Was Deceived on Leader's Loyalty

Half an hour after his first call, the President's aide again called Ton That Dinh's headquarters, and was again told that Ton That Dinh was not there.

In the background, according to the report, President Ngo Dinh Diem could be heard saying that Gen. Ton That Dinh must have been arrested by the other generals.

Fighting was developing between some of the Presidential Guard units and marines near the post office. Insurgent troops were also moving up on the Presidential Guard's barracks and firing.

At this point, the President and his brother began broadcasting on a palace transmitter. The first broadcast called on all division commanders and province chiefs to send troops to protect the President.

The message asked for acknowledgment and there was none.

As time passed, the palace receiver got messages from division commanders pledging loyalty to the military leaders.

The Presidential Palace became lonelier and lonelier. Ngo Dinh Nhu began calling the provincial chiefs to send irregular units to protect the President. The last of these messages, at 4 o'clock the next morning, called on the Republican Youth and paramilitary women's groups to move into Saigon to save the Government.

One of the insurgents' vital goals was to keep the Seventh Division from attempting to save Ngo Dinh Diem as it had before.

This division was to be transferred on Friday to the III Corps under Ton That Dinh's command.

Ngo Dinh Diem had ordered Col. Lam Van Phat to take command of this division Thursday, but according to tradition, he could not assume command until he had paid a courtesy call on Ton That Dinh, his new corps commander. Ton That Dinh refused to see him and told him to come back at 2 P.M. Friday.

In the meantime Ton That Dinh got Gen. Tran Van Don to sign orders transferring the command of the Seventh Division to Nguyen Huu Co, his deputy.

Nguyen Huu Co went to My Tho by helicopter, locked the staff officers in a room and took command.

Then Nguyen Huu Co called Huyhn Van Cao, who, like Lam Van Phat, is a southerner. Nguyen Huu Co is from the central region and he was afraid Huyhn Van Cao would detect the difference in accent, but he did not.

Word of what was happening in Saigon reached Huyhn Van Cao in midafternoon, but he told the Seventh Division officers that Ngo Dinh Nhu had assured him this was a false coup and that the idea was to turn against the dissident elements before they could act. Huyhn Van Cao, however, ordered one regiment and some armor to prepare to move if necessary.

By early Saturday, Huyhn Van Cao realized it was a real coup. When he radioed My Tho, Nguyen Huu Co identified himself and taunted him, "Didn't you recognize my accent?" Nguyen Huu Co then told Huyhn Van Cao that he had pulled all the ferry boats to the Saigon side of the Mekong River anD that Huyhn Van Cao should not attempt to cross the river unless he wanted to die.

This left no one left to help the President and his brother.

By this time the coup was going by clockwork; the radio station, the telephone office and police headquarters were sealed off.

After Col. Le Quang Tung was captured, most of his Special Forces were through. Then the insurgents moved to sell off the Presidential Guard's barracks.

The fighting there was heavy and there was stiff resistance. The barracks were heavily mortared for several hours and then surrounded by tanks. At midnight the barracks fell.

Then Ton That Dinh began to plan the attack on the palace itself. During the entire evening, the generals kept asking the President and his brother to surrender to save Vietnamese lives. If they surrendered, the generals pledged, the two brothers would be protected and sent out of the country, but if they did not, they would be killed.

The President asked the commanders to send a delegation to the Palace to talk. The rebels feared this was a repetition of 1960 and did not agree.

It was reported that at 4 A.M. Ngo Dinh Diem called Ambassador Lodge. Mr. Lodge was reported to have told the President that he was concerned for the President's safety and would do all he could to insure that he and his family were honorably treated.

The coup, in the view of one observer, went slowly because the rebels made every effort to talk troops into surrendering to avoid killing Vietnamese.

The attack on the palace was scheduled to start at 3:15 A.M. with a heavy artillery barrage.

In the early morning, civilians watching the struggle from roofs noted the flashes of double flares that can be used in gauging artillery fire. At 4 A.M. the President's military aide called Ton That Dinh for the last time and asked for troops to save the palace. This time, according to the story, Ton That Dinh came on the phone "and cursed, using insulting phrases to describe the family." According to one source, he told the brothers, "You are finished. It is all over."

"I saved them on Aug. 21, but they are finished now," he said after the conversation.

Most of the real fighting was done around the palace by opposing armored units. One observer described the maneuvering as "two boxers fighting in a closet."

Atop the United States Embassy a cluster of staff members watched. Early in the morning one decided to go downstairs and tell Thich Tri Quang, the buddhist protest leader who had taken refuge there.

"Reverend," the American said, "there is a coup d'etat taking place."

The priest replied: "Do you think I am deaf?"

When the rebels brought in flamethrowers, the issue was decided. For the rest of the early morning, the tanks blasted at the palace. At 6 A.M., the firing ceased and then marines stormed and took the palace.

But Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu were gone.

They Wait at Church but Are Arrested

There are said to be three main tunnels leading from the palace but the rebels knew and guarded the exit of only one. According to one report, Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu escaped through a tunnel leading to a park north of the palace where they were picked up by a vehicle.

The vehicle, reported to have been a Land Rover, took the brothers to a church in suburban Cho Lon where they apparently hoped to wait for rescue.

Armored vehicles were sent to the church where the brothers were arrested. It was reported that they had a large sum of money with them. They were placed in an armored personnel carrier.

When the news was telephoned that they were dead, Ton That Dinh grabbed the phone and made the officer repeat what he had said.

Then Ton That Dinh slowly let his arms fall.

At this point the others contended that the Ngos had committed suicide. One of Ton That Dinh's aides demanded how they could have committed suicide. The officer answered that they had grabbed a rifle from an enlisted man. Then Ton That Dinh's aide asked why only one officer was guarding them.

"Someone was careless," was the answer.

Then all was over. Duong Van Minh became Chairman of the committee. Tran Van Don became Minister of Defense and Ton That Dinh became, as he had wanted, a major general and the Interior Minister.

The Government had fallen, the Ngos were dead and the military leaders had won all they had sought.

The war with the Vietcong, the questions of subversion, loyalty, poverty and religious conflict at this point became theirs to deal with.

Copyright ©, 1963 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.

David Halberstam fords a stream in Vietnam. Photo credit: Horst Faas Reporter's Notebook