August 23, 2013
The Ugly American Telegram
By ANDREW J. BACEVICH
BOSTON — ON Aug. 24, 1963, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, received a top-secret message with the bureaucratically anodyne title Deptel 243. But the content of the message was anything but routine. Hastily drafted and cleared over the course of a single day, with most of official Washington on vacation, Deptel 243, also known as the Hilsman telegram, signaled a major shift in American policy. A few days later Mr. Lodge remarked, “We are launched on a course from which there is no respectable turning back.”
For years the witticism “Sink or swim with Ngo Dinh Diem” — the South Vietnamese president — had captured the essence of America’s position regarding the Southeast Asian country. Nearly a decade before, the United States had installed Mr. Diem in power and had supported him ever since. On a trip to Southeast Asia in 1961, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson affirmed Mr. Diem’s standing in Washington’s eyes, hailing him as the “Churchill of Asia.” He was our guy.
Now, according to Deptel 243, he wasn’t.
Mr. Diem’s principal offense was his refusal to do America’s bidding. Fiercely anti-Communist, he was also fiercely nationalistic, and an autocrat to boot. He resented outsiders telling him how to run a country that was his, not theirs.
Unfortunately, his insistence on exercising power outstripped his aptitude for doing so. Internal opponents besieged his regime. Insurgents supported by Communist North Vietnam controlled large swaths of the countryside. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or A.R.V.N., built under American tutelage, was neither militarily effective nor politically reliable.
Things came to a head in the spring of 1963. In major South Vietnamese cities, Buddhist monks mounted large anti-Diem protests, culminating in dramatic acts of self-immolation. The American government pressed President Diem to calm troubled waters. His government responded by roiling them further.
His influential sister-in-law Tran Le Xuan, commonly known as Madame Nhu, mocked the ritual suicides as “barbecues.” Her husband, Mr. Diem’s brother and right-hand man Ngo Dinh Nhu, used the protests as a pretext to launch a violent crackdown — which he then blamed on the army, angering A.R.V.N. generals.
Worse still were rumors about Mr. Nhu’s secretly approaching North Vietnam to explore a possible peace deal. Any such deal would strike at the foundations of America’s cold war policy, based on the premise that the United States presided over a bloc of freedom-loving peoples devoted to preventing the spread of tyranny. Allowing lesser nations to opt out by reconciling with tyrants would leave the self-anointed “leader of the free world” looking foolish.
This was the situation facing the Kennedy administration on Saturday, Aug. 24, 1963, when the White House received word of an A.R.V.N. plot to overthrow Mr. Diem. In Saigon, embassy officials sought guidance.
Seizing the moment, three second-tier officials — Michael V. Forrestal, W. Averell Harriman and Roger Hilsman — set out to provide it. Within hours, the United States government had thrown in with the coup plotters. Mr. Diem had become expendable.
“No one made a decision,” the historian Howard Jones later observed. More or less in a fit of exasperation, senior policy makers “merely signed off on one that they all thought someone else had made.”
Released at 9:36 p.m. that night, Deptel 243 instructed American officials in Saigon to notify A.R.V.N. leaders that providing further military or economic support had become “impossible” unless “steps are taken immediately” by the South Vietnamese president to remove Mr. Nhu — in essence offering Mr. Diem a chance to come around. If, however, “Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.”
Although providing Mr. Lodge with no specifics on how to make all this happen, the cable assured him that “we will back you to the hilt on actions you take to achieve our objectives.” The ambassador had a free hand.
The August plot came to nothing, but the change in American policy proved irreversible. Assured of Washington’s backing, disgruntled A.R.V.N. generals eventually got their act together. On Nov. 1, 1963, they overthrew — and murdered — Mr. Diem and his brother. The prospect of a reinvigorated war effort beckoned.
This, of course, was not to be. If anything, conditions grew worse. Inept generals proved unable to govern. In Saigon, political chaos reigned. Away from the capital, prosecution of the war flagged. Mr. Diem’s departure from the scene had opened a Pandora’s box, setting in motion the sequence of events that culminated in 1965 with the disastrous decision to Americanize the Vietnam War.
Reflecting on American complicity in Mr. Diem’s overthrow a quarter-century after the fact, the diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke, who was in South Vietnam at the time of Mr. Diem’s overthrow, expressed hope that the mistakes had at least left policy makers a bit wiser. Perhaps, he speculated, they “learned to ask themselves more searching questions about what kind of regime might follow the incumbents; about the real extent of American influence, and of its ability to control events. …”
They hadn’t then. They haven’t since. In Washington, the conviction that removing obstreperous leaders, whether adversaries like Saddam Hussein or “friends” like Hosni Mubarak, facilitates Washington’s ability to steer events remains the most persistent — and dangerous — of illusions. Yet time and again, the effect has been to let loose the forces of anarchy.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the author, most recently, of “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”