Diem Betrayed - Anti-Diem Propaganda leaflets

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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President Ngo Dinh Diem

I will give the reader a very brief review of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the Republic of Vietnam. I could write 10,000 words, and depending on my politics could make him into a great or a despised leader. This opening section is just meant to show the reader that Diem was fully supported by the United States until it became politically convenient to let him be killed.

Ngo Dinh Diem was born 3 January 1901 in Hue, Vietnam, the son of a minister. His family was Roman Catholic and his father was a counselor to the Vietnamese emperor. In September 1945, Diem was kidnapped by Viet Minh agents and taken to see Ho Chi Minh. Ho Chi Minh offered Diem a position in his Communist government, but Diem refused. Diem then traveled to the United States. He returned to Vietnam in 1954 where he was appointed Prime Minister.

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President Diem with President Eisenhower – May 1957
Eisenhower called Diem the “miracle man of Asia.”

After the French retreated from Vietnam as a result of their defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, Diem led the effort to create the Republic of Vietnam. Because of his strong anti-Communist philosophy, the United States backed him with money and later, massive military support.

Mervyn Roberts makes some of the following points in his paper entitled: United States psychological operations in support of counterinsurgency: Vietnam, 1960 to 1965:

Edward G. Lansdale as Deputy Assistant to the Secretary Defense for Special Operations noted that without mobilizing their total resources, the South Vietnamese could do little more than postpone defeat. This mobilization required the assistance of expanded psychological operations. Lansdale noted that American criticism of Diem’s leadership caused the president to feel isolated and that this led Diem to withdraw into a shell. In Lansdale‘s mind, Diem was the indispensable man. As Lansdale wrote:

The next time we have become holier than thou, we might find it sobering to reflect on North Vietnam. Do the Soviets and the Chinese Communists give Ho Chi Minh a similar hard time, or do they aid and abet him?

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In order to unify the country, we need President Ngo Dinh Diem

This banner hung on the southern side of the Hien Luong Bridge on Highway 1, over the Ben Hai River, near the 17th parallel. This was the symbolic passage between North and South Vietnam after 1954.

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The official logo of the President of Vietnam when Diem was in office

Ngo Dinh Diem was the first president of South Vietnam. He took power on 26 October 1956 after a disputed 1955 plebiscite. At first he was popular as the economy of the country prospered. However, Diem was a Roman Catholic and this led to problems with the Republic's Montagnard natives and its Buddhist majority. The Buddhists had a political agenda, and after several set themselves on fire, Diem gradually lost the backing of the United States. There were several attempts on Diem’s life by his own military. From 1954 onwards, the Americans had been urging political reforms upon Diem, who repeatedly promised that reforms would be made but never enacted any. With the support President Eisenhower of the United States, he refused to hold countrywide elections in 1956 (a stipulation of the 1954 Geneva Accords), fearing, almost certainly correctly, that he would lose to Ho Chi Minh.

Diem could justify his decision by saying that the Republic of Vietnam was democratic, made up of many different parties that would split the vote. The North, under Ho Chi Minh, was a dictatorship. The votes would be along party lines as directed by the party leadership. To hold a free election was to give away the nation. The United States, now operating under the “Domino Theory,” and fearful of a Communist takeover of all of Southeast Asia, supported him. In late 1957, with American aid, Diem counterattacked his critics. He used the help of the American Central Intelligence Agency to identify those who sought to bring his government down and arrested thousands. In 1959, Diem passed a series of acts known as Law 10/59 that allowed the government to hold someone in jail without formal charges if they were suspected of being a member of the Communist Party.

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Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem (front left), is greeted upon his arrival at the airport of the capital city of Taiwan, Taipei, by Chinese Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek on 22 January 1960. The Vietnamese president was making an official five-day state visit to the Republic of China.

Photograph by Bettmann / CORBIS

Diem is discussed in a 26 January 1962 Draft Memorandum by the American Assistant to the Director for Regional Affairs (Far East):

The Government of Vietnam directly reflects the personal characteristics and philosophy of President Diem. It is allegedly a corrupt government, but charges of high-level corruption have not been substantiated. Corruption may exist, but with the possible exception of Malaya, it is probably the least corrupt government in Southeast Asia…President Diem is a man of notable strengths, admired for his austere dedication and courage, but he is also handicapped by several unswerving convictions which are critical weaknesses in the present phase of the emergency… A series of experiences wherein he has rejected advice outright and later been proven right left a lasting impression with Diem. Some observers believe that he now is convinced that he enjoys something close to divine guidance.

As a result of these experiences, he is cautious of U.S. advice. He is also probably incapable of concluding that the best interests of Vietnam would be served if he relinquished power…Replacement of Diem would gravely risk chaos at a time when chaos can only benefit the Communists. Though a replacement could be found in Vietnam, as in every nation in every age, the stakes involved in engineering a change that could not be directly controlled to ensure smooth transition are too great to risk now.

Lansdale replied:

While you have included some hints of it in your paper, the main U.S. failure in working with President Diem has been our many attempts to squeeze him into an American-type mold labeled "Chief of State." Most of the Americans who attempted to do this had only the foggiest notion of what is needed in a Chief of State, not only in Vietnam, but elsewhere (including the U.S.). Thus, Diem has come to view most Americans as meddlers and quite naive meddlers.  His real American friends, the ones he trusts, have always been able to speak to him with naked honesty about local problems, as long as they speak from first-hand knowledge.

March depicts a large picture of the King of Laos reviewing his troops. The picture on the actual calendar page shows a female Social Worker honoring a former Pathet Lao who returned to the Government side. She places a garland around the former guerrilla’s neck.

Roberts adds that by 1962, problems with training, indoctrination and manning plagued the ARVN and Diem was adamant that he needed Vietnamese Ranger companies to fight the growing Communist insurgency. South Vietnamese military and administrative leadership was improving. Diem’s cohort of young nationalists had replaced many of the French-era officials. Along with the increase in U.S. military aid, this new generation of leaders brought about startling progress. In order to encourage Viet Cong desertion, Diem announced the Chieu Hoi program in 1963. This program encouraged VC to rally to the government. Throughout the summer of 1963 Diem dealt with a growing Buddhist crisis. Diem’s refusal to allow Buddhist temples to fly flags during Buddha’s birthday celebrations in May 1963 began a wave of riots and self-immolations by monks. This turmoil was seized on by the international press to portray Diem‘s government as illegitimate. Unwittingly, this supported a North Vietnamese propaganda effort.

North Vietnamese histories make clear the extent to which this movement was organized and agitated by Communist agents within the Buddhist movement. It also had the effect of helping lead Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge to begin working with coup plotters immediately after his arrival in Vietnam that August.

Prior to the November coup, the North admitted that the South had gained control over more than two-thirds of the rural population and established more than 3,500 strategic hamlets. They further claimed that over 40,000 cadre and soldiers had entered the South by the end of 1963. Diem was fighting the Army of North Vietnam and winning.

Generals in the Vietnam Army plotted a coup with the approval of U.S. officials. The impetus for the coup occurred on the night of 21 August 1963. Government forces throughout the country attacked Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam. Thousands of Buddhists were arrested and more were beaten and injured. The United States blamed Ngo Dinh Nhu and his special forces for this attack, but wondered if he had the blessing of Diem. Ngo Dinh Nhu was the younger brother and chief political advisor of President Diem. He commanded the ARVN Special Forces, a paramilitary unit which served as the Ngo family's private army, and the Can Lao political apparatus which served as the regime’s secret police. The people blamed the government and the United States who supported Diem and had trained the Special Forces troops used in the attack. Almost immediately, Kennedy was approached by his people who wanted to remove Nhu from power, and if Diem would not follow orders, the president himself.

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Ambassador Lodge pleads ignorance - Diem decides to stay and fight

The American participation in the assassination plot is told in some depth in the classified “Secret” Thomas L. Ahern book CIA and the House of Ngo.

We see Ambassador Lodge trying to convince the U.S. Government to get rid of Diem and also egging on the conspirators:

General Khanh was in Saigon on 25 August and sought out the CIA liaison officer, Al Spera, to express his dismay, and that of other unnamed officers, with the recent course of events. He claimed to fear that the regime might cut a deal with North Vietnam rather than accept US pressure to accommodate the Buddhists. Khanh said that he and his friends would then rebel…Ambassador Lodge moved to bring Washington into line with his determination to instigate a coup d'etat. Early in the evening of 29 August, he sent a cable which began, “We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back: the overthrow of the Diem government.” American prestige, already committed, and the impossibility of winning with Ngo Dinh Diem, required an “all-out effort” to get the generals to move without delay.

President Kennedy agrees but hopes for a changeover without bloodshed. On 29 August 1963, he sends Lodge a message that says in part:

Top secret, Eyes only. No department or other distribution whatsoever…I have approved all the messages…Everything in these messages has my complete support…There is one point on my Constitutional responsibilities as President and Commander in Chief…Until the very moment of the Go signal for the operation by the Generals, I must reserve a contingent right to change course…When we go we must go to win, but it will be better to change our minds than fail….

On 13 September, Lodge wrote to Rusk asking him to get the President to approve dispatching Major General Edward Lansdale “to take charge, under my supervision, of all US relationships with a change of government here.”

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The CIA’s Secret Plot is not so Secret
Associated Press Photo by Horst Faas

The headline on the front page of The Times of Viet Nam, published in Saigon on 2 September 1963 reads “CIA FINANCING PLANNED COUP D'ETAT,” (Sub title: “Planned for Aug 23, Falls Flat, Stillborn”). The story alleges a scheme by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the government of President Diem. Two months later President Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were assassinated.The Times of Vietnam was an English-language newspaper regarded as the official mouthpiece of the Diem regime. The newspaper's last publication was the 1 November morning edition, as its offices were set ablaze by anti-Diem rioters during the coup that began later that afternoon.

Meanwhile, Diem’s brother Nhu seems to be well aware of the plot and doing everything to stop it.

While the anti-Diem conspirators wove their various plots, Ngo Dinh Nhu devised one of his own. As the Station later pieced it together, Nhu instructed Dinh to prepare a raid on Saigon by units based outside the city. The apparent insurrection, which was to include terrorist-style attacks on Americans, would then be put down by loyal forces commanded by Nhu and Dinh. The US would then see that the alternative to Diem was anarchy and endorse the government's hard line against the Buddhists.

Geoffrey Shaw mentions the plotters in The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015. He says that while everyone else realized the value of Diem, Kennedy was surrounded by a small group of Democrats and Liberal newsmen who wanted a change in the regime in South Vietnam. He points out that everyone else knew the value of Diem:

Philippine Foreign Secretary Salvador said his government backed President Diem and was willing to act as an agent of reconciliation between him and the United States…Lopez warned that without Diem the U.S. Could not succeed.

The Australian government said…There was no alternative to Diem…The radical Buddhists had shot their bolt and the Australians were hopeful that the calm would allow the fight to be refocused on the Communists.

The British ambassador to South Vietnam said the Diem Government has overcome the Buddhist problem…In other words, an attempt to get another government will probably fail and therefore should not be undertaken.

Chiang Kai-shek is alleged to have said: “It's been 100 years since Vietnam had anyone like Ngo Dinh Diem. When will Vietnam produce another? He was the Confucius of Vietnam."

Even Secretary of Defense McNamara was against the change. He expressed contempt for the generals plotting against their president and claimed they had no plan for a replacement government.

Vice President Johnson never had any sympathy for the idea of changing the Vietnamese government by plotting with ARVN generals. He recommended that the White House backtrack immediately, reestablish amicable relations with Diem, and then get on with the real fight, which was against the Communists. After the murders, Johnson told Senator Eugene McCarthy, [This comment is found on White House Tapes] “They started on me with Diem, you remember. That he was corrupt, and he ought to be killed. So we killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs we went in and assassinated him. Now, we’ve really had no political stability since then.”

Vietnamese Generals Nguyen Duy Hinh and Tran Dinh Tho wrote a monograph on South Vietnamese Society for the U.S. Army Center of Military History in 1980. They point out the assets and liabilities and assets of President Diem. They say in part:

An objective assessment of various leaders who succeeded him to power after 1963 indicated that Mr. Diem at least possessed certain invaluable leadership qualities that no one else had. The people’s respect for his person was evident in the fact that he was addressed and referred to as Cu (Venerable) Diem or Tong Thong (President) Diem but not the belittling Ong (Mr.) Diem as some leaders had come to be called later.

President Johnson, when still a senator, praised him as “the Winston Churchill of Asia.” He had earned this respect or eminence, whether one criticized him for his errors or disapproved of his policies. No one, however, dared accuse him of corruption because he was a man of moral excellence totally impervious to worldly pleasures, and his religiously ascetic life was too well known. Mr. Diem also had certain traits of character which some elderly persons enjoyed comparing with those of Ho Chi Minh. Like Ho, for example, he was imbued with revolutionary ideals, gave up position and wealth, and led a life of celibacy. The personal prestige of a leader was paramount in Vietnamese society whether North or South. For this reason, Ho Chi Minh had created several myths about his person to win the respect and trust of the Northern population. But Mr. Diem hardly needed any myths to win his.

In short, President Ngo Dình Diem had proved to be a leader who showed much concern for his country and who had depth of vision and the ability to foresee political moves in his encounter with Communist North Vietnam. However, his mistake of over relying on members of his family had led certain among them to excesses, especially Madame Nhu, who was so hated by the people that his own prestige was adversely affected. In the years 1971-1973, when the situation became more difficult and society more divided, people remembered him, visited his grave, and held religious services in his memory on the anniversary of his death. This was probably the most eloquent commentary on his leadership. In these times when talking about Mr. Diem few referred to him as a dictator and many agreed that he and his actions were right.

The coup took place on 1 November 1963. General “Big” Duong Van Minh’s soldiers arrived…He gave his bodyguards a direct order to murder them…Major Nguyen Van Nhung cut out the gall bladders while they were still alive and then shot them.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History Indochina monograph Leadership by General Cao Van Vien adds:

For all its flaws, the Diem administration must be credited with strong national leadership and laudable achievements. It restored national authority, developed the economy, reorganized the Armed Forces, and turned South Vietnam into a nation of world stature in Southeast Asia. To combat communist insurgency activities, which increasingly threatened the nation's survival since 1959, the GVN instituted an antithetic national ideology culminating in the Strategic Hamlet program. Despite criticisms and excesses, this strategic concept was sound enough to provide the foundation for pacification and development in the years ahead.

As an individual, President Diem was widely recognized as a deeply patriotic, highly ethical, honest, and rather austere national leader who abhorred luxury and devoted all his time and energy to state affairs. The "eminence grise" of the regime, however, was his younger brother, Mr. Nhu. A silent and meditative scholar, Mr. Nhu distinguished himself by his vast knowledge, sharp intelligence, and innovative ideas. He helped President Diem overcome serious challenges and solve thorny problems of national importance. He was consulted on every aspect of government, and no important decision was ever made without his participation. His influence was such that all cabinet ministers sought his guidance before acting. It was also Mr. Nhu who gave birth to personalism and the Strategic Hamlet program. During indoctrination sessions, he gave lectures to cabinet ministers and high-ranking military and civilian officials on subjects relating to strategy and even tactics. With the death of the Ngo brothers, South Vietnam had lost two prominent leaders whose stature and capabilities had enabled the nation to face its communist foes with self-assurance. The death of President Diem resulted in such a void in leadership that no one among the victorious generals could take his place. National leadership, therefore, broke down into factions that fought among themselves for ascendancy.

General Cao Van Vien and Lieutenant General Dong Van Khuyen mention a Vietnamese view Diem in an Indochina Monograph published by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, titled Reflections on the Vietnam War. The book was translated by Phillip Tran.

In retrospect the regrettable death of President Diem, a leader with enough stature to oppose Ho Chi Minh, was a great disaster for South Vietnam in time of war. The three years of political instability that followed edged South Vietnam toward the brink of collapse which was averted only when the U.S. committed its combat troops to fight the ground war. North Vietnam and its servants, the Viet Cong, took advantage of South Vietnam's turmoil to step up subversion of the rural areas and aggregate South Vietnam's political vulnerabilities by advocating the policy of neutrality. This proposal caused concern among the U.S authorities that South Vietnam could come under Communist control if the U.S. were invited to leave. On the other hand, North Vietnam increased the infiltration of personnel, war materials and major units into South Vietnam to prepare for a takeover by force. On the RVN side, political instability dispirited and confused the ranks of civil servants and servicemen and diluted its war efforts.

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Vietnamese Troops Attack Presidential Palace

Troops under the command of rebel generals fire heavy machine guns at presidential
palace in Saigon during the battle to overthrow the regime of President Ngo Din Diem.
Associated Press Wirephoto November 10, 1963

Max Boot mentions the quality of the plotters against Diem in The Road Not Taken, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, 2018:

Tran Van Don, for one, was aggrieved that Diem had delayed his formal promotion to lieutenant general until the day after a fellow coup plotter, Duong Van Minh, had been elevated to that rank, thereby vaulting “Big” Minh ahead of him in seniority. Another coup plotter, Brigadier General Ton That Dinh, the military governor of Saigon, was upset that the president had refused to appoint him interior minister, a post he coveted. The coup leader, Big Minh, was yet another spurned job seeker. He took command of the conspiracy in large part because the president had removed him from a combat command and made him head of a meaningless field command.

During the attack on the palace, Diem called offering a peaceful surrender. Conein was a WWII veteran of the OSS who had served in Vietnam for decades. It was not to be.

At 0620 hours, Diem called offering to surrender if promised safe conduct out of the country. Generals Don and Khiem told Conein they would need a US aircraft for this, and Conein called the Embassy, where David Smith said that France seemed the country most likely to promise asylum, and it would take 24 hours to bring in an aircraft with enough range to avoid any intermediate stops between Saigon and Paris.

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St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church

The brothers eventually got to St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in the Cholon district where they waited and talked to the leaders of the coup. As practicing Catholics they probably felt they had sanctuary there. After being promised safe passage they surrendered. Instead, they were betrayed, stabbed multiple times and hot in the head. Inside the church today there is a plaque that states:

This is the pew in which the President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu had sat before they were taken on the tank and were killed on the way to Saigon on November 2, 1963.

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President Diem Killed by Vietnamese Soldiers in Military Armed Personnel Carrier

The Vietnamese generals offered to show the bodies to an American official. He refuses to look at them as if that somehow washes American hands from the murder.

Then, in the afternoon, Generals Big Minh, Don, and Kim separately offered to let Conein view the bodies of Diem and Nhu. Conein declined, fearing the "generals would think he was taking grisly relish in his part" in the coup. Conein now accepted as fact, however, that the President and his brother were dead.

Max Boot adds:

The brothers’ killer was Captain Nguyen Van Nhung, a bodyguard to Big Minh and a “professional assassin who liked to keep a record of the people he killed by scratching a mark on his pistol for each victim.” Before the convoy left for the church, Minh had given a hand signal to Nhung, who had carried out his orders with ruthless efficiency.

According to my friend and expert on Vietnamese War history Nguyen Ky Phong:

After General Minh was ousted, Nhung was captured and sent to Hoang Hoa Tham Airborne Camp for interrogation. He hanged himself there using his shoelaces.

The Henderson Film

Soldiers and Armor advances toward the Palace

When President Kennedy was assassinated there was a “Zapruder film” that depicted the shooting. There is a “Henderson tape” that depicts some of the attack on the Diem palace though it does not show Diem killed. United States Air Force Pilot Captain H. “Mel” Henderson filmed this 12-minute Saigon Coup D’etat film on 1 and 2 November 1963, depicting the attack, the inside of the bullet-scarred palace, and the armored personnel carrier where the assassination eventually occurred. Captain Henderson was an early advisor in Vietnam, sent to help clear the way for the thousands of troops to follow.

Trying to figure out who took part in the overthrow of the government, American senior officers gathered to scrutinize this movie on 2 November 1963 to discern the identities of the rebel forces and any CIA operative who might have been present. The film was shot free-hand and is shaky and blurry in places. The film identifies two of the leaders as Lieutenant General Duong Van Minh and Major General Tran Van Don.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that after the coup the people pulled down a statute of the Trung sisters. They were historical figures beloved by the Vietnamese as leaders of the first Vietnamese independence movement who headed a rebellion against the Chinese Han-dynasty overlords and briefly established an autonomous state. It is hard to understand why the statue would have been pulled down except that it was sponsored by Madame Nhu, the de facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. Perhaps the Vietnamese hated her and anything she had been involved in. One also wonders if there were Viet Cong among the crowd that wanted to destroy the symbol of Vietnamese independence. The mob also burnt a bookstore belonging to Madame Nhu and sacked the Parliament building, which reminds one of those “peaceful demonstrations” we see in the streets of America so often that somehow lead to stores stripped of their wares.

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The Graves of the Brothers

The brothers were initially secretly buried in Saigon's Mac Dinh Chi cemetery in unmarked graves. Years later the bodies were moved to Lai Thieu cemetery in the Binh Duong Province. President Nguyen Thieu was a converted catholic. After he was elected, Thieu ordered the bodies of the Diem brothers to be moved and allowed his followers to hold a proper death anniversary for them.

Paul Blizard visited the Binh Duong Province to visit the graves of Diem and Nhu on 7 January 2019. As pictured, there are three graves together. The brothers are buried on either side of their mother who died in 1964. Each of their graves bear their Catholic names, rather than their Vietnamese names inscribed on their tombstones. So, without knowing the Catholic names, it would be impossible to identify the graves. When arriving to the cemetery five men led Paul to the grave and stayed with him until he left. They were workers and security people at the cemetery.

Ngo Dinh Can

If killing the two Diem brothers was not enough for the generals, Paul Blizard later told me that they killed a third brother:

Six months after the military coup of the Diem regime, with the murder of President Diem and brother Advisor Nhu, a third brother, Ngo Dinh Can, who was in central Vietnam with his own secret police force, had to be eliminated. He was arrested and after a kangaroo court trial was sentenced to death. Ngo Dinh Can was a diabetic and even before his trial and execution he was denied insulin and almost died. He had a heart attack during his trial, and they had to call two soldiers to walk him to the place of execution and prop him up to be shot. He was considered a “warlord” in the Diem regime and was accused of atrocities.

After visiting the two brother’s graves, as I was leaving one of the security men pointed out the grave of the third brother Ngo Dinh Can. The brothers are buried on either side of their mother who also died in 1964. Ngo Dinh Can is buried in the same line of graves but not with his brothers or mother. Ngo Dinh Can’s headstone has his Catholic name and his first name: “Can.”

Lieutenant Colonel Peter Francis Leahy adds in his Master of Military Art and Science paper entitled: Why did the Strategic Hamlet Program Fail?

Frederick Nolting, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam from 1961 to 1963, drew the conclusion that the inability of the U.S. administration to accept Diem's style of government resulted in the coup of I November 1963. Diem failed to match the standards of democratic government set by the United States and in spite of earlier pledges to refrain from interfering in the internal politics of South Vietnam, U.S. officials “encouraged dissident generals to revolt.”

According to Stanley Karnow, President Kennedy gave the new Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, the complete discretion to suspend U.S. aid to Vietnam. In a situation where the Diem regime was almost entirely dependent on U.S. financial support, this gave Lodge the mandate to manage U.S. policy in Vietnam, “and the policy as Lodge defined It, was to topple the Diem regime.”

We should add that former Ambassador Nolting was considered a friend of Diem and in August, JFK had decided to replace Nolting with a Republican from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge.

It has been reported that Lucien Conein, a CIA operative, provided a group of South Vietnamese generals with $40,000 to carry out the coup with the promise that US forces would make no attempt to protect Diem. Other reports say that U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge assured the Generals that the U.S. would not stand in their way. A top secret, three-page, eyes-only Ambassador Lodge, Department of State Telegram dated 24 August 1963 says in part:

US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands…If, in spite of your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved…We must at same time also tell key military leaders that US would find it impossible to continue support GVN militarily and economically unless above steps are taken immediately which we recognize requires removal of Nhu’s from the scene…We recognize the necessity of removing taint on military for pagoda raids and placing blame squarely on Nhu…If he remains obdurate…we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell appropriate military commanders that we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism…Needless to say; we have held knowledge of this telegram to minimum essential people and assume you will take similar precautions to avoid any premature leaks.

So, being careful not to commit itself, the telegram sent months before Diem’s murder wants the Nhu family fired from their various appointed government positions and if this is not done, tells the Vietnamese military there will be no more cash…but if it is necessary to remove Diem, the US will provide support. It is what we call a “smoking gun.” The South Vietnam Army generals have been given freedom to do whatever they want with Diem and the U.S. will take no action and continue to finance the new government.

Another ARVN general told Conein that October 26th had been set as the date of the planned coup. To further isolate Diem, CIA Chief of Station Jocko Richardson was recalled from Saigon and sent back to Washington at the request of Ambassador Lodge.

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The Secret Diem Escape Tunnel
Photo by Paul Blizard

Diem learned about the coup and he and his brother fled to Cho Lon through a tunnel. After spending a day in the tunnel, they agreed to surrender to the generals. Diem had ordered the construction of three separate tunnels leading from Gia Long to remote areas outside the palace. About 10 p.m. on the night of the coup, Diem and Nhu allegedly packed American banknotes into a briefcase and escaped through one of the tunnels.

The generals said they would have a safe passage out of the country; but, on their way to get out of the country on 2 November 1963, the two were killed by troops who had their own agenda. Diem and his brother were assassinated in the rear of a personnel carrier.

According to Max Boot:

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara confirmed, “When President Kennedy received the news, he literally blanched. I had never seen him so moved.” Rather naïvely, Kennedy had not expected that a plot which he had sanctioned would lead to the death of a fellow Catholic president.

There could be some truth to that. The CIA Daily Intelligence briefing immediately following the overthrown and assassinations said:

It would appear that the brothers either committed suicide or were done in after they surrendered. We suspect the latter.

President Kennedy made a Dictaphone recording on 4 November 1963 that mentions his distress about the killing of Diem just days earlier. He mentions an earlier “cable 243” to Ambassador Lodge on 24 August, but unfortunately does not go into detail. Clearly it was a go-ahead for the overthrow of Diem. It has been reported that the cable basically said:

If Diem remains obdurate and refuses to remove his brother, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.

The Kennedy tape says in part:

Over the weekend, the coup in Saigon took place, culminated three months of conversation about a coup, conversation which divided the government here and in Saigon. Opposed to the coup were General Taylor, the Attorney General, Secretary McNamara and John McCone. In favor of the coup was the State Department led by Averill Harriman, George Ball, and Roger Hilsman, supported by Mike Forrestal at the White House. I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early August, in which we suggested the coup. In my judgment, that wire was badly drafted, it should never have been sent out on a Saturday, I should not have given my consent to it without a round-table conference in which McNamara and Taylor could have presented their views. While we did redress that balance in later wires, that first wire encouraged Lodge along a course to which he was in any case inclined.

Harry Rothmann says in Warriors and Fools: How America's Leaders Lost the Vietnam War and Why It Still Matters:

In a private dictation for his memoirs in the Oval Office, now part of the Presidential Recordings, he lamented the entire affair. In a somber tone, JFK implied that it might have been a mistake. To a friend who tried to console Kennedy by saying that Diem and Nhu had been tyrants, Kennedy snapped back, “No. They were in a difficult position. They did the best they could for their country.”

Historians have viewed the Diem assassination as a turning point in the US involvement in Vietnam. Gordon Goldstein, in his work on McGeorge Bundy aptly called Lessons in Disaster, noted that the affair demonstrated the weakness of JFK’s mode of national security policy-making process. The President, Goldstein argues, “allowed the bureaucracy to elude his firm command.”

History professor Mark Moyar adds:

“Lodge had overridden a much larger and better informed group of Americans who had opposed a coup, including most of Kennedy’s top advisers, the top CIA and military officials in Vietnam, and veteran American journalists, and he had disregarded orders against encouraging a coup from President Kennedy, who himself was torn by serious doubts about removing Diem. With Diem gone, America lost its best last hope of succeeding in Vietnam.”

Roberts talks about the death of Diem in: Let the Dogs Bark: The Psychological War in Vietnam, 1960-1968:

The radio in Saigon broadcast a herald of change on the afternoon of 1 November 1963. The first reports of a coup crackled across South Vietnam’s domestic service at 3:41 p.m. General Duong Van ‘Big’ Minh ordered loyalist troops to lay down arms, and the station changed its name to the Voice of the Armed Forces. General Minh continued, “Dear compatriots, as of this hour, the army has resolutely risen-up to liberate you from the dictatorial yoke.” Minutes later, the station deceptively announced that Diem agreed to resign and three hours later it announced the declaration of martial law. On 2 November 1963, President Diem surrendered and was later murdered by coup plotters. The coup, along with the assassination of President Kennedy later that month, proved to be a critical event in the brief history of South Vietnam…

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, South Vietnamese PSYWAR units focused on explaining what had happened. The principal themes consisted of reasons for the coup d’état and the new military government policies. For example, the 23rd and 25th Divisions dropped a total of 640,000 leaflets using these themes during the first week alone…

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Leaflet 88 – President Nguyen Van Thieu – Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky

I have read some reports that imply that Nguyen Van Thieu might have been the person who ordered Diem killed. There is no evidence of this. Other reports say the order was given by General Duong Van Minh. Those reports claim that Minh did not believe he had enough support among the people if Diem attempted to return to power. Allegedly, the other generals in the plot were not told of Minh’s plan and it caused a fracture that never healed and doomed the new government to failure.

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Leaflet 7-138-68

Here is another leaflet that features President Thieu. It is cruder, produced by the 7th PSYOP Battalion in 1968. The text on the front is:

Compatriots! Let's unite for a unanimous and total support of the Government of the Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of President Nguyen Van Thieu in its mission to reestablish the security of our country. Let's strictly adhere to this curfew in order to help protect your own security!

Diem was first replaced by General “Big Minh” Duong Van Minh. There were then a number of different leaders; Nguyen Thanh; Nguyen Van Thieu, Nguyen Cao Ky (Vice President and Prime Minister); Tran Van Huong; and right at the end - Big Minh again as the South tried to bargain with the oncoming victorious North Vietnamese Army. One Vietnamese told me that it reminded her of postwar Italy, with a new head of state every time you opened a newspaper. It was a mess, and one that the United States helped create.

The United States government first claimed that it had no knowledge of the coup that overthrew Diem, but later admitted that American officials met with the generals who organized the plot and gave them encouragement to go through with their plans. Diem simply would not allow himself to be ordered about by the Americans. He was the president of an independent country, but apparently was considered an impediment to the accomplishment of U.S. goals in Southeast Asia. President Kennedy was aware of the plot to overthrow Diem, but there is no evidence that he had knowledge of his assassination. Curiously, President Kennedy was assassinated three weeks later and some Vietnamese have called that karmic retribution.

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Ho Chi Minh

Diem had been a strong anti-Communist and Ho Chi Minh allegedly said when hearing of the coup:

I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.

The North Vietnamese Politburo was even more surprised:

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…The coup d'état on 1 November 1963 will not be the last.

Roberts quotes a North Vietnamese officer who said:

Although we criticized Ngo Dinh Diem publicly as an American puppet, Ho Chi Minh adopted a soberer appraisal. He realized Diem was a patriot like himself but in a different way. Diem was a Nationalist leader like Ho who lived and honest and clean life and…was unmarried, indicating a life dedicated to the nation.

To give an example of how the Viet Cong feared Diem we need only look at a catalog of VC leaflets disseminated in 1962 and filed in a United States Information Service booklet entitled National Liberation Front Propaganda. A brief look at some of the enemy leaflets discloses: An anti-Diem leaflet telling of Viet Cong victories against his army; a charge that Diem has killed elderly religious Vietnamese; a leaflet calling for the people to rise up against the oppressor Diem; A letter to the Vietnamese Army telling them that Diem is just carrying on French colonialism; a 41-page document alleging Diem crimes against the people; and a leaflet that said “For the past eight years our land has been a sea of blood, all in a vain attempt to stop the revolution. I could add another dozen, but the reader can see that the Viet Cong considered President Diem to be a serious contender.

Viet Cong Anti-Diem leaflets

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VC 598

This leaflet is long and probably meant to be used as a poster, nailed to a tree or a wall. The number 598 was added by U.S. Intelligence when the leaflet was found and filed. The text on this leaflet is in the Vietnamese language and targets the Vietnamese people. The text is:

The people of the South are determined to defeat the American interventionists; to throw out Diem, and all attempts to compromise with Diem and the Americans.

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VC 568

This 1962 leaflet is in terrible shape and probably was on the ground in the rain and the rain for a while before it was found and sent to the Intelligence Section. It is well over 50 years old, printed with homemade inks on crappy paper. In was found on 5 May 1962, one block behind MAAG Headquarters. The message can just barely be read:

Down with the blunt interference of the United States in the south of Vietnam.

We are opposed to the SEATO scheme of interfering in the south of Vietnam.

The 14-nation conference must solve the question of Vietnam.

Ngo Dinh Diem must resign; the American imperialists must get out of Vietnam

The Front for the Liberation of the South

The previously classified Confidential MACV Combined Intelligence Center VC PROPAGANDA FACTBOOK dated 29 March 1969 says about the Viet Cong’s attacks on Diem:

Viet Cong propaganda initially assailed the Diem regime. All of Vietnam's troubles were blamed on the Diem government by the massive National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFLSVN) agitation, propaganda, and indoctrination program. The fall of the Diem regime on 1 November 1963 presented the NFLSVN with both an opportunity and a crisis. The virtual anarchy in the countryside presented the NFLSVN with an unprecedented opportunity to extend its control. The swift non-Communist takeover, however, presented the NFLSVN with a new enemy, the new military junta, which had new strengths and weaknesses. VC propaganda had concentrated its efforts at toppling the Diem government, but the sudden unexpected collapse of that government left a void in the VC propaganda program.

CIA Director William Colby said the Diem assassination was “America's primary error in Vietnam,” and with proper backing Diem might have won the war in just a few years.

As part of his Goodwill Tour of Southeast Asia American Vice President Lyndon B Johnson
met with Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem - 13 May 1961

Lyndon B. Johnson said about the Washington Liberals who hated Diem in an 11 February 1966 Tape recording of a President Johnson and Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy meeting:

They started on me with Diem, you rember. That he was corrupt and he ought to be killed. So we killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in an assassinated him. Now, we've really had no political stability [in South Vietnam] since then.

The independent researcher and author Nguyen Ky Phong had this to say about Diem:

Diem was not the best but he was much better than his predecessors, especially emperor Bao Dai. He also stood out among his contemporaries as an incorruptible, unapproachable anti-French patriot. His ascension to power was neither based on his relation with the colonialists or any power, at least before he was appointed Prime Minister by Bao Dai with American and French consent. While many Vietnamese national leaders indulged in the privileges that accompanied their positions, President Diem did not. He lived a life of an ascetic.

He did have weaknesses. His dependency on his brothers and parochial and religious associates was too great to allow him to make an independent and realistic assessment of the actual situation in Vietnam. He traveled from time to time to visit his subjects, but some believe that the people he met were told what to say and how to act. There were reports that his three brothers used his name to build financial and political influence for themselves. Governmental and Civil Service procedures were not followed or enforced by the president, which caused grave discontent and distrust within the rank and file of civil servants. Certain military officers were promoted due to their wealth, family or connection with the president's staff or family. The position of Secretary of Defense was not filled until the final days of the regime. The position of Presidential Advisor was delegated to the president's brother (Ngo Dinh Nhu) without the consent or advice of the senate or any authoritative government agency. During the length of his presidency Diem was unable to fend off accusations of nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.

The question of what might have happened if President Diem was left in power is difficult to answer. There were two earlier attempts to overthrow Diem. The abortive November 1960 coup d’état should have been a warning to Diem but he failed to react or order any reform to appease the opposition. Could the Diem regime have survived had the United States not acquiesced to a coup to replace him? Would he eventually have changed his course, replaced his many yes-men and overhauled his entire administration? And, even if he were to do all that, would South Vietnam have survived the relentless and determined attacks from the Communist North? Diem was not allowed to live so we will never know might have happened.

Ken Welch says about the loss of President Diem in Tiger Hound: How we Won the War and Lost the Country:

The strategic hamlet program was abandoned. The communists were thus given carte blanche to expand their efforts. Throughout the country, they simply walked into small villages and recruited people that already had weapons and training courtesy of the United States Army. The communists fully appreciated President Diem’s strategic hamlet program. In the first 12 months following Diem’s assassination, communists killed over 11,000 village officials.

Another Vietnamese national that lived through the Diem Regime said:

Diem and his family (Nhu and his wife) killed many people. I remember hearing whispers that if you didn't vote for Diem at the election time, you would have midnight visitors and that wouldn't be good for you. Vietnam at that time needed a strong leader to fight the war. Diem (and his family) was that, but they went too far with the Buddhists, most Vietnamese are Buddhists and many of them were in control of the armed forces back then. Diem should have focused his fight on the North and not with the Buddhists. Big Minh (Leader of the military coup) was a good Buddhist man. He loved his country and people. He was a good general but not strong and ruthless enough to lead the county.

I have read reports by some Vietnamese that said that the Vietnam War was lost when Diem was killed. None of the later leaders were as strong anti-Communists as he was. After Diem’s death there was a parade of leaders, none of whom showed any great leadership abilities.

With the loss of Diem the United States was forced to send more troops to Vietnam and became more heavily involved in the fighting. The ultimate effect of United States participation in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem was to commit Washington to Saigon even more deeply. Having had a hand in the coup, the United States had more responsibility for the South Vietnamese governments that followed Diem. The weakness of the Saigon government thus became a factor in U.S. escalations of the Vietnam War, leading to the major ground war that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson opened in 1965 with the eventual deployment of 500,000 troops to Vietnam. We might say that the United States sealed its own doom and the death of 58,000 American soldiers when it took part in Diem’s death.

In the title above I talk of American betrayal. Why is that? I don’t hold the United States responsible for the overthrow or death of Diem. The Americans knew a little of the coup but that was a Vietnamese operation. What bothers me is what came next. The United States could have backed the new regime and said that they were patriotic Vietnamese officers that wanted what was best for their nation. Nobody could fault the U.S. for that. Instead, American propagandists at the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) prepared about a dozen leaflets that attacked Diem personally. Diem had been backed by the Americans so to turn on an old ally and publically insult and berate him is a betrayal in my eyes.

THE LEAFLETS

When I write these articles on wartime PSYOP I always try to find the most colorful and most illustrative leaflets available. Unfortunately, in the case of the anti-Diem leaflets, they are almost all text. Just a very few have illustrations. They also tend to be rather long with tedious political messages. I shall illustrate a few of the leaflets just to prove the theme of this article, but the reader should understand that in most cases I will cut the long messages down to only a few interesting lines. I only want to translate the more flammable text of the leaflets, not the entire messages.

Roberts mentions the campaign to vilify Diem and support the new government:

On 2 November 1963, President Diem was overthrown and later murdered. Despite his shortcomings, Diem had made progress in unifying the nation and fighting an insurgency increasingly manned by Northerners. His death unleashed a period of instability at a vital moment that allowed the insurgency to grow to a structural threat to the nation. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, Vietnamese PSYWAR units were focused on explaining what had happened. A total of 140,000 leaflets were dropped by the 23rd Division during the first week of November 1963. The principal message consisted of explaining the coup d‘état and the new military government. As one MACV report described the process in Darlac Province, ten-man teams were attached to each district to provide each district with a means to counter VC propaganda against the new government.

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SP-40

Perhaps the earliest anti-Diem leaflet is SP-40. The “SP” was a JUSPAO symbol that meant “Special project.” Later in the war the SP was removed from U.S. leaflets. Some of the text on this leaflet is:

TO THE CADRES, REGULAR TROOPS, GUERRILLAS AND MILITIAMEN STILL IN THE COMMUNIST RANKS

After living for years under the cruel, dictatorial and feudal rule of the Ngo family, the people of South Vietnam and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam rose up on 1 November 1963 and overthrew the rotten regime…Now that the treacherous regime has been overthrown by the mighty revolutionary movement sweeping free Vietnam, The Revolutionary Army makes to you all this cordial appeal and invites you to return to the side of the people and the Army so that we can work together to build a happy, free, and democratic regime for Vietnam….

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SP-42

This is a proclamation from the Military Revolutionary Council.  It also exists as SP-52. Some of the text is:

The revolution of our people has been successful. His glorious victory has put an end to a brutal and inefficient dictatorship.

Confronted with the corruption of the Ngo Dinh Diem government, the armed forces became fully aware of liberating the people to establish a truly democratic regime. For that reason, under the leadership of the Military Revolutionary Council, they resolutely rose. Because the survival of our homeland was at stake, the Armed Forces has carried out a revolution and assume this heavy responsibility before our people and before history.

A similar un-coded leaflet is a letter from The Provisional Administration of Long An to the “Military Cadres in South Vietnam Liberation Front” Dated 7 November 1963. Some of the text is:

The Army of the Republic of Vietnam has overthrown Ngo Dinh Diem and released South Vietnam from a dictatorial regime...Dear friends, you have always said that you are fighting against the dictatorial regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Now that the Diem regime has been overthrown by the Army, if you are patriotic, there is no reason not to cooperate with the new government and to work for the good of the country.

With this letter we send you a safe conduct pass that you can use to return to the government and the people. You can also use this very letter as a safe conduct pass for the same purpose. 

Leaflet SP-48 is a letter leaflet entitled: “Compatriots of Binh Duong, Increase your Vigilance, Unite to Annihilate Communism,” dated 13 November 1963 from the Province Chief of Binh Duong. This letter explains that although there has been a revolution, Vietnam is still a Republic.

This leaflet does not mention Diem by name but it mentions the Revolutionary Council Proclamation and mentions the “old regime,” “internal obstacles,” and “the Army has taken the responsibility.” They are clearly talking about the Diem government that they just assassinated. The November 1963 text is very long so I will just translate parts of it that are meaningful.

According to the Revolutionary Constitutional Act proclaimed by the Revolutionary Military Committee and the declaration of the Provisional Government, Vietnam remains a Republic…In the past, our people sacrificed to fight Communism. But the old regime lacked determination and clear-sightedness…The road of unity is open. We no longer face internal obstacles in our fight against Communism…The Army has taken the responsibility to spearhead the revolution and continue the fight against our enemy. The people must take part actively, with a fighting spirit, in order to shorten the fight against Communism and bring our country to unity, prosperity, wealth and power.

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SP-53

Another all text anti-Diem leaflet that says in part:

TO THOSE THAT ARE STILL AMONG THE VIET CONG’S RANKS

Freedom is now recovered. The totalitarian regime of Ngo Dinh Diem has been toppled.

Those who fought for freedom and the Just Cause and who were imprisoned by the old regime have been freed by the Military Revolutionary Council…Formally you took up arms against Ngo Dinh Diem’s totalitarian regime. Now that regime does not exist anymore, there is no reason for you to continue to fight against the population. Put down your weapons! Return to your families and homes and join the new government and the people in building a strong Vietnamese nation.

SP-57 is an all-text leaflet letter from the Rung Sat Special Zone Commander, Major Nguyen Hai Dang, to “Compatriots Living in the Special Zone and Neighboring Areas.” Some of the text is:

For the past nine years you have lived under the oppression of the corrupt and cruel Ngo family. You lived in constant fear, not able to make use of your eyes and your ears…Recently, adding to their crimes, the Nhu-Diem clique plotted to sell the country to the Communists.

I remind the reader again that Diem was the selection of the American government and known as a fierce anti-Communist. Here he is dead just a few days and American propagandists are writing that he was selling the country to his sworn enemy. I find this despicable.

SP-58 is an all-text letter leaflet entitled “Appeal to Young Men Serving in the Communist Ranks” from Major Nguyen Hai Dang. Some of the text is:

During the past nine years, under the despotic, corrupt, and cruel family dictatorship of Ngo Dinh Diem and his clan, sufferings were ignored and you were oppressed and plundered without pity. Angry and desperate against their unjust acts, some of you reluctantly joined the Communists although you were well aware that the Communist regime is worse and even more dangerous. Because of your anger against Diem's government, you became adventurers and led an unsettled life.

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SP-62

SP-62 is an illustrated letter addressed to “All Cadres, Soldiers and Guerrilla Partisans serving in the Viet Cong Ranks” from a defector named Van Cong Chuc, dated 1 December 1963. The former Viet Cong mentions the successful revolution and the overthrow of the Diem regime. He says that the leaflet can be used as a surrender pass. At the upper left is a photo of Van Gong Chuc, the District Chief, Chuc’s father and the Civic Action Leader. At the lower right the defector received gifts from the Women’s Youth Organization.

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SP-65

Leaflets SP-65 and SP-67 both depict photographs of members of the new revolutionary Council At the left is Major General Duong Van Minh, Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. The text says:

He is a man of the people. He has suffered much at the hands of evil people…He is a kindly man and loved by all who know him.

Prime Minister Nguyen Ngoc Tho is at the right. The text says in part:

He is an ardent Buddhist…He has great interest in the overall national plan for the development of the Vietnamese economy.

The back of leaflet SP-65 tells of the aims of the new national government now that Diem is gone. It reminds the people that:

For the glory of greater Vietnam all loyal Vietnamese must cooperate with the government against the foreign led Communist guerrillas.

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Lieutenant General Duong Van (Big) Minh

[This un-coded leaflet was probably printed by the Vietnamese Army. Minh led the South Vietnamese army under Prime Minister Diem. After the assassination he led Vietnam for three months before being replaced, and briefly led South Vietnam again in 1975 before surrendering the nation to the North Vietnamese Communists. He got the nickname, “Big Minh”, because he was six feet tall and weighed 198 pounds. It also distinguished him from General Tran Van (Little) Minh.

The front depicts a photograph of “Big” Minh and the text:

Lieutenant General Duong Van Minh

Chairman of the Revolutionary Soldiers Committee.

The back shows a scene of tanks and people in front of the Presidential palace and the text:

Commemorate the Success of the 1-11-1963 Revolution.

The Gia Long Palace, after a night of smoke and fighting was finally assaulted and occupied by Revolutionary troops to end a dictatorial, corrupt and anarchist regime.

The back of SP-67 mentions some of the accomplishments of the new government. Some of them are:

Liberated from prison all those illegally held; brought new freedoms to the people; Established a new system of justice with equal treatment for all….\

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SP-71

This leaflet is heavily illustrated with four photographs. Some of the text is:

The despotic government of the Ngo Dinh Diem family was put to an end by the November 1st Revolution.

The leaflet goes on to say that the local Province Chief, Major Ly Troung Nhon will present hamlet students with gifts from the new government. The pictures show: a school girl with new textbooks; Tools given by the American for the hamlet workers; school children with their new textbooks and school children given copybooks at the dedication of a new hamlet school.

SP-74 is an all text leaflet letter to “Dear Compatriots” from Major Lu Mong Chi, Province Chief, Bien Tuy Sector. Some of the text is:

The dictatorial, family ruling regime of Ngo Dinh Diem is being replaced by a truly free and democratic regime. A new page of our people’s history begins….

This ends our brief look at the Vietnamese and American propaganda campaign to destroy the reputation and legacy of the First President of Vietnam. Diem was no angel, but he was America’s man, supported by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy and paid with US tax dollars and CIA clandestine funds. To turn on him is such a way is not what we expect from a loyal ally. I think it is disgraceful.

Readers who wish to comment on this article are encouraged to write to the author at sgmbert@hotmail.com.