Political turmoil in Saigon

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Despite filling the role of “first among equals” during the planning and execution of the coup, Duong Van Minh was indolent and without ideas aside from removing Ngo Dinh Diem’s officials and abandoning his policies. In a matter of days, the structure of authority created by the Ngo Dinh brothers was dismantled and the strategic hamlet program came to a halt. During the three months of Duong Van Minh’s regime, most government activity had to do with sorting out a shifting pecking order among military officers and allotting the spoils of power. Duong Van Minh was susceptible to the views of the Buddhist activists, and to the extent that a general policy for his government could be discerned, his rivals and the increasingly appalled Americans accused him of favoring the neutralism touted by the French and by Sihanouk. Sihanouk ended his relationship with American foreign aid after Ngo Dinh Diem’s death, fearing that it could have a similar effect in Cambodia, and he called for a neutralization of Indochina. Duong Van Minh resisted extension of the US advisory program and appeared to encourage the activist monks to believe that their anti-war and anti-American views were important for national policy. Duong Van Minh failed to establish successful working relations with civilian politicians, with his fellow generals, and with the Americans. The cabinet appointed by the generals to administer the country excluded some groups, such as the Dai Viet and the Hoa Hao, who instinctively began to work to bring down the government. There was also a falling out into factions among the generals themselves. General Tran Thien Khiem (b. 1925), a Catholic and godson of Ngo Dinh Diem, had joined the coup plot but resented Duong Van Minh’s decision to kill the Ngo Dinh brothers. He and other military officers were dissatisfied with how authority was apportioned after the coup. The Americans soon decided that the results of the coup were a step backwards in terms of government stability and battlefield performance. The military situation had begun to shift in late summer when the attention of the commanding generals was diverted from fighting to plotting. In the wake of the coup, many experienced and competent officers and officials were discarded, the battlefield situation became grim, and Duong Van Minh had no plans. Under the new American President, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908–1973), initiative for policy shifted from the embassy of Ambassador Lodge to the MACV command of General Harkins. Harkins had never agreed with the scheme for removing Ngo Dinh Diem, and he had little esteem for the group of opportunistic generals gathered around Duong Van Minh. He identified General Nguyen Khanh (b. 1927) as someone more likely to share the American concern to fight communists and encouraged him to take power. Nguyen Khanh, like Duong Van Minh, was the son of a wealthy Cochinchina landlord. He had received military training in France in the late 1940s and in the US in the late 1950s. He had helped to foil the 1960 coup plot. In 1963, with a command just north of Saigon, he had remained aloof from the plotters until joining the coup as it occurred. Duong Van Minh then reassigned him to command the northern part of the country, which made him very dissatisfied. His new second-in-command was Nguyen Chanh Thi (1923–2007), who had been a prominent member of the 1960 coup attempt against Ngo Dinh Diem and had gone into Cambodian exile until rehabilitated in November 1963. Nguyen Khanh, along with Nguyen Chanh Thi, Tran Thien Khiem, and other officers who were alienated by Duong Van Minh’s lack of initiative, his vulnerability to the Buddhist activists, and his inability to maximize benefits from the American relationship staged a mostly bloodless coup at the end of January 1964 with the active encouragement and support of the Americans. Nguyen Khanh was the pre-eminent figure in the Saigon government for the next year. He was opportunistic and he lacked political ability, but he was indebted to the fact that American policy was in an era of passivity as Johnson waited for the election of 1964 to give him the political clout to respond to what under Khanh’s wavering leadership became an increasingly chaotic situation. Nguyen Khanh initially turned to the Dai Viet politicians who had been excluded from power by both Ngo Dinh Diem and Duong Van Minh. But political parties  in Vietnam had arisen during French colonial rule and consequently were oppos- itional, conspiratorial, and unwilling to take responsibility for governing. Fur- thermore, the Dai Viet politicians did not form a coherent party organization but  rather had become groups vaguely allied as opponents of Ngo Dinh Diem. There were at least four groups of Dai Viet politicians, three of them aligned in factions associated with the three parts of Vietnam – north, center, and south. The most prominent Dai Viet figure was Phan Huy Quat (1908–1979), whom Nguyen Khanh made his Foreign Minister. Phan Huy Quat, a medical doctor, was from the northern Dai Viet faction. He had served as Minister of Education under Bao Dai in 1949 and as Minster of Defense during the brief Nguyen Phan Long government of 1950, and again in the Nguyen Van Tam government of 1953–1954. He briefly served as acting Prime Minister in 1954 between Buu Loc and Ngo Dinh Diem and was touted by some as an alternative to Ngo Dinh Diem in 1954. He was a signer of the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960. In February 1964, he refused to join some Dai Viet figures who were plotting to seize control of Nguyen Khanh’s government. This plot disabused Nguyen Khanh of relying on civilian politicians associated with “parties.” Because he had overthrown those who had eliminated Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Khanh was vulnerable to accusations of wanting to re-establish the Catholic regime of the Ngo Dinh family. His support of the Dai Viet politicians was intended to negate this accusation because the Dai Viet politicians had the reputation of being opponents of Ngo Dinh Diem. However, when he realized that the non-sectarian political parties, including the Dai Viet, were incoherent and untrustworthy because of their lack of organization and their conspiratorial culture of opposition, he began to look elsewhere for a political base. During the  spring and summer of 1964, he attempted to cultivate the support of the Bud- dhist monks and of the younger generation of military officers.  After the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, activist Buddhist leaders reorgan- ized themselves into the Vietnamese Buddhist United Church, which included  around three thousand monks and six hundred nuns and claimed three million lay adherents. They became experts at pressuring Saigon governments with street demonstrations. Student groups, particularly in Saigon, being inspired and influenced by the Buddhists, had developed their own style of street politics beginning in the late summer of 1963, and they continued their efforts to affect national policy during 1964. In May 1964, the Buddhists and students successfully demanded that Nguyen Khanh kill Ngo Dinh Can to prove that he had repudiated Ngo Dinh Diem’s political heritage. From this,  they understood that Nguyen Khanh was a weak leader who could be pres- sured from the streets. More important than the civilian politicians or the Buddhists and students were the junior colleagues of Nguyen Khanh in the military. He was a relatively lonely generational figure between the Francophile senior generals who had gathered around Duong Van Minh and junior officers who represented a more pro-American and anti-communist perspective. During the first half of 1964, Nguyen Khanh made sure to recognize the loyalty of his junior colleagues with promotions. Aside from Nguyen Chanh Thi, two other prominent figures in this group of so-called “Young Turks” were Nguyen Van Thieu (1923–2001) and Nguyen Cao Ky (1930–2011). Nguyen Van Thieu, from a coastal region not far north of Saigon, had converted to Catholicism during Ngo Dinh Diem’s rule. In 1963, he was the commander of a key unit near Saigon and had joined the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem when it became clear that it was going to succeed. He subsequently joined the plot led by Nguyen Khanh. He was a cautious man, determined to be on the winning side of military politics and convinced that the exercise of power depended upon American support. Nguyen Cao Ky, a pilot who had become the commander of the air force, was also alert to the winds of change. However, unlike Nguyen Van Thieu, who was introverted and secretive, Nguyen Cao Ky was open, outspoken, transparent, and with no hint of corruption. As Nguyen Khanh endeavored to keep his position atop the shifting sands of Saigon politics, American policy prepared for greater intervention as it became clear that the battlefield situation had turned dramatically against Saigon after the death of Ngo Dinh Diem. No major initiative was politically possible until after the presidential election of November 1964. Until then, US policy in Vietnam was subordinated to electoral politics. Nevertheless, early in his  presidency, Johnson had authorized sabotage and intelligence gathering oper- ations by Taiwanese and Vietnamese commandos along the coast of North  Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. In August 1964, this resulted in an attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats upon a US destroyer, just at a time when Johnson needed to demonstrate his anti-communist resolve to silence criticisms from his presidential opponent. He ordered a retaliatory air strike against North Vietnam  and obtained congressional approval of the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin Reso- lution” that authorized him to wage war in Southeast Asia. This helped Johnson  to silence his militant critics, but it also had an effect upon Saigon politics.  During the summer of 1964, Buddhist militants organized the National Salva- tion Council with provincial committees to stage demonstrations against what  they continued to view as the danger of a return to power of Ngo Dinh Diem’s people. Many public confrontations with Catholics turned violent, and Catholics began to denounce what they viewed as religious persecution. Activists on both sides influenced student groups, who began to stage demonstrations in Saigon not directly related to religion. In late July, students led a large demonstration in Saigon denouncing what they saw as French interference in Vietnamese affairs. Nguyen Khanh appeared irresolute amidst the clamor of street politics. The Gulf of Tonkin episode with retaliatory US air strikes on North Vietnam and a warlike congressional resolution inspired Nguyen Khanh  to try some similarly dramatic initiative to overcome his reputation for vacil- lation. He declared a national emergency, imposed press censorship, and  persuaded his military colleagues to issue the Vung Tau Charter, giving him near-dictatorial powers. After ten days of public demonstrations in which Buddhists denounced these moves and mobs of Buddhist and Catholic youth brawled in the streets, Nguyen Khanh backed down and rescinded the Vung Tau Charter. Nguyen Khanh’s military colleagues were losing confidence in him, yet no one else was in a position to push him aside. Maxwell Taylor had just replaced Lodge as US ambassador and, at the same time, General William Childs Westmoreland  (1914–2005) replaced Harkins as MACV commander. Taylor and Westmore- land wanted to avoid any dramatic political change while rebuilding a civilian  government. By the end of August, Nguyen Khanh entered a kind of triumvirate with Duong Van Minh and Tran Thien Khiem. In mid September, Tran Thien Khiem was implicated in a coup attempt plotted by two other Catholic generals and, consequently, sent out of the country to be ambassador to the US. The Young Turks thwarted the coup and their influence accordingly grew. In November, Duong Van Minh was eased out and sent abroad as a “roving ambassador.” Meanwhile, in early September the High National Council was formed of sixteen civilians with responsibility to write a constitution, to function as a temporary national assembly, and to restore a civilian administration. Phan Khac Suu (1893–1970) was chosen as Chairman of the High National Council. He was an agricultural engineer and a member of the Cao Dai who had served in Bao Dai’s cabinets. He had signed the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960 and was subsequently jailed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Under his leadership, at the end of October, the High National Council promulgated a “provisional charter” to serve as a temporary constitution. He was elevated to serve as Chief of State, and he chose Tran Van Huong (1902–1982) to be the prime minister. Tran Van Huong had a reputation for honesty and competence. A secondary school teacher, he spent most of the French war working for the Vietnamese Red Cross in southern Vietnam. Under Ngo Dinh Diem, he was the mayor of Saigon for several months and then became Secretary General of the Vietnamese Red Cross Society, a position he held when he signed the Caravelle Manifesto in 1960. Duong Van Minh made him a member of his powerless Council of Notables after the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem. He was once again the mayor of Saigon when Phan Khac Suu called on him to be Prime Minister. Tran Van Huong stood for establishing public order against the street politics  of the student and Buddhist activists. He sponsored a Buddhist church organiza- tion of monks opposed to the militancy of Thich Tri Quang and insisted that  politics and religion should not be mixed. Although his ability to exercise strong leadership was hindered by controversy over his selection of cabinet ministers in the High National Council, now functioning as a legislative body, he forcefully responded to Saigon street disturbances in late November by declaring a state of emergency, closing schools, banning public meetings, and authorizing the local military commander, General Pham Van Dong (1919–2008), to search and arrest without warrant. These measures were popular in Saigon where street politics had been disrupting life for months, but Nguyen Khanh and the Young Turks viewed Pham Van Dong as a potential rival. Pham Van Dong had a long record of service in the French and Vietnamese armies. Americans praised his competence on the battlefield, and he had a reputation for being politically astute and personally honest. He kept a small private army of men from a northern upland ethnic minority, into which he had married, and accordingly enjoyed a measure of independence in relation to other military officers. Tran Van Huong’s reliance upon him to restore a semblance of public order raised the profiles of both men as effective leaders. However, the Buddhist activists, whose influence on government depended upon their skill in street politics, were unhappy. Nguyen Khanh, who remained susceptible to the idea of increasing his authority in alliance with the militant Buddhists, was also unhappy. Neither were the Young Turks happy with the ascendancy of Pham Van Dong, which threatened to intercept their path to power. Nguyen Chanh Thi, a prominent Young Turk, was closely associated with both Nguyen Khanh and the militant monks based at Hue. When the High  National Council resisted pressure to expand its membership to include support- ers of Thich Tri Quang, the young generals demanded that it pass a law to retire  military officers after twenty-five years of service. This measure was aimed at Pham Van Dong, who had enlisted in 1939, a year earlier than Duong Van Minh. When this demand was refused, Nguyen Khanh and his young colleagues dissolved the High National Council and arrested some of its members along with other political figures. They nevertheless continued to express support for the Tran Van Huong government and pretended that the powers of the High National Council had passed to Phan Khac Suu. This action weakened Tran Van Huong while strengthening Nguyen Khanh and the Buddhist activists.  Taylor reacted angrily to the apparent reassertion of Nguyen Khanh’s author- ity and to the setback in building a civilian government. The two men fell out, each demanding that the other leave the country. Tran Van Huong managed to defuse the situation and by mid January 1965 had restored a measure of calm to  Vietnamese–American relations. Taylor’s reaction was to some extent aggra- vated by American plans to escalate involvement in Vietnam, which after the  US presidential election were now rising in priority. The Americans wanted a stable civilian Vietnamese government to facilitate and legitimize an increase in US involvement. Nevertheless, political turmoil in Saigon continued during the next two months as dry-season battlefield activity intensified and American military intervention began to materialize. In late January, Tran Van Huong aimed to strengthen his government by proposing a new cabinet that included four generals. This prompted Buddhist militants led by Thich Tri Quang to call for Tran Van Houng’s resignation and to  mobilize violent anti-American demonstrations in Saigon and in Hue. Respond- ing to this, Nguyen Khanh solicited Buddhist support by persuading the generals  to remove Tran Van Huong from office. By mid February, Nguyen Khanh had named Phan Huy Quat to be prime minister. Phan Huy Quat, a Dai Viet leader who had been in Nguyen Khanh’s first cabinet, was a Buddhist from the north widely considered to be a political enemy of those who had supported Ngo Dinh Diem. Most of the men he appointed to his cabinet were from the north or center of the country. He was acceptable to the Buddhist militants, but Catholics and southerners distrusted him. In late February, southern Catholic officers attempted to stage a coup that was suppressed by Nguyen Chanh Thi and other generals who took the occasion to send Nguyen Khanh into exile. Thereafter, as American bombing of North Vietnam started and American troops began to arrive, Nguyen Chanh Thi established himself in the Hue/Da Nang region of the central coast with strong Buddhist support. Meanwhile, the Phan Huy Quat government limped along in Saigon, handicapped by its unpopularity among Catholics and southerners, which prompted another unsuccessful coup attempt in late May. By early June, the government was paralyzed by a dispute between Phan Huy Quat and Chief of State Phan Khac Suu over the composition of the cabinet. The National Legislative Council, which had been formed in February to  replace the High National Council, was too weak to solve the problem. Conse- quently, Phan Huy Quat resigned and handed the government back to the  generals, who decided on Nguyen Van Thieu as Chief of State and Nguyen Cao Ky as Prime Minister. These two generals, along with Nguyen Chanh Thi, had emerged as the most influential among the military officers after Nguyen Khanh’s departure. Nguyen Chanh Thi preferred to establish his personal bailiwick in the northern part of the country rather than to enter the politics of the Saigon-based generals. In mid June, Nguyen Cao Ky formed a war cabinet as American intervention accelerated.

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