The arrest and assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, then president of South Vietnam, marked the culmination of a successful CIA-backed coup d'état led by General Duong Van Minh in November 1963. On the morning of November 2, 1963, Diem and his adviser, younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, were arrested after the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had been successful in a bloody overnight siege on Gia Long Palace in Saigon. The coup was the culmination of nine years of autocratic and nepotistic family rule in South Vietnam. Discontent with the Diem regime had been simmering below the surface, and exploded with mass Buddhist protests against long-standing religious discrimination after the government shooting of protesters who defied a ban on the flying of the Buddhist flag.
When rebel forces entered the palace, the Ngo brothers were not present, as they had escaped the night before to a loyalist shelter in Cholon. The brothers had kept in communication with the rebels through a direct link from the shelter to the palace, and misled them into believing that they were still in the palace. The Ngo brothers soon agreed to surrender and were promised safe exile; after being arrested, they were instead executed in the back of an armoured personnel carrier by ARVN officers on the journey back to military headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
While no formal inquiry was conducted, the responsibility for the deaths of the Ngo brothers is commonly placed on Minh's bodyguard, Captain Nguyen Van Nhung, and on Major Duong Hieu Nghia, both of whom guarded the brothers during the trip. Minh's army colleagues and US officials in Saigon agreed that Minh ordered the executions. They postulated various motives, including that the brothers embarrassed Minh by fleeing the Presidential Palace, and that the brothers were killed to eliminate a later political comeback. The generals initially attempted to cover up the execution by suggesting that the brothers had committed suicide, but this was contradicted when photos of the Ngos' bloodied bodies surfaced in the media.
Diem refused to hold the reunification elections, pointing out that the State of Vietnam had not signed the Geneva Accords. He then proceeded to strengthen his autocratic and nepotistic rule over the country. A constitution was written by a rubber stamp legislature which gave Diem the power to create laws by decree and arbitrarily give himself emergency powers. Dissidents, communist and nationalist, were jailed and executed in the thousands, and elections were routinely rigged. Opposition candidates were threatened with being charged for conspiring with the Vietcong, which carried the death penalty, and in many areas, large numbers of ARVN troops were sent to stuff ballot boxes. Diem kept the control of the nation firmly within the hands of his brothers and their in-laws, and promotions in the ARVN were given on the basis of loyalty rather than merit. Two unsuccessful attempts had been made to depose Diem; in 1960, a paratroop revolt was quashed after Diem stalled for negotiations to buy time for loyalists to put down the coup attempt, while a 1962 palace bombing by two air force pilots failed to kill him.
South Vietnam's Buddhist majority had long been discontented with Diem's strong favouritism towards Catholics. Public servants and army officers had long been promoted on the basis of religious preference, and government contracts, American aid, business favours and tax concessions were preferentially given to Catholics. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country, and its holdings were exempt from land reform. In the countryside, Catholics were de facto exempt from performing corvee labour and in some rural areas, Catholic priests led private armies against Buddhist villages. Discontent with Diem and Nhu exploded into mass protest during the summer of 1963 when nine Buddhists died at the hand of Diem's army and police on Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. In May 1963, a law against the flying of religious flags was selectively invoked; the Buddhist flag was banned from display on Vesak while the Vatican flag was displayed to celebrate the anniversary of the consecration of Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, Diem's brother. The Buddhists defied the ban and a protest was ended when government forces opened fire. With Diem remaining intransigent in the face of escalating Buddhist demands for religious equality, sections of society began calling for his removal from power. The key turning point came shortly after midnight on August 21, when Nhu's Special Forces raided and vandalised Buddhist pagodas across the country, arresting thousands of monks and causing a death toll estimated to be in the hundreds. Numerous coup plans had been explored by the army before, but the plotters intensified their activities with increased confidence after the administration of American President John F. Kennedy authorised the U.S. embassy to explore the possibility of a leadership change.
At 13:30 on November 1, Generals Duong Van Minh and Tran Van Don, respectively the Presidential military adviser and Armed Forces Chief, led a coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, assisted by mutinous ARVN officers. The rebels had carefully devised plans to neutralise loyalist officers to prevent them from saving Diem. Unbeknownst to Diem, General Ton That Dinh, the supposed loyalist who commanded the ARVN III Corps that surrounded the Saigon area, had allied himself with the plotters of the coup. The second of Diem's most trusted loyalist generals was Huynh Van Cao, who commanded the IV Corps in the Mekong Delta. Diem and Nhu were aware of the coup plan, and Nhu responded by planning a counter-coup, which he called Operation Bravo. This plan involved Dinh and Colonel Le Quang Tung, the loyalist commander of the Special Forces, staging a phony rebellion before their forces crushed the "uprising" to reaffirm the power of the Ngo family. Unaware that Dinh was plotting against him, Nhu allowed Dinh to organise troops as he saw fit, and Dinh transferred the command of the Seventh Division from Cao's IV Corps to his own III Corps. This allowed Colonel Nguyen Huu Co, Dinh's deputy, to take command of the Seventh Division based at My Tho. The transfer allowed the rebels to completely encircle the capital and denied Cao the opportunity of storming Saigon and protecting Diem, as he had done during the previous coup attempt in 1960. Minh and Don had invited senior Saigon based officers to a meeting at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the headquarters of the Joint General Staff (JGS), on the pretext of routine business. Instead, they announced that a coup was underway, with only Tung refusing to join. Tung was later forced at gunpoint to order his loyalist Special Forces to surrender. The coup went smoothly as the rebels quickly captured all key installations in Saigon and sealed incoming roads to prevent loyalist forces from entering. This left only the Presidential Guard to defend Gia Long Palace. The rebels attacked government and loyalist army buildings but delayed the attack on the palace, hoping that Diem would resign and accept the offer of safe passage and exile. Diem refused, vowing to reassert his control. After sunset, the Fifth Division of Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu, who later became the nation's president, led an assault on Gia Long Palace and it fell by daybreak.
In the early morning of November 2, Diem agreed to surrender. The ARVN officers had intended to exile Diem and Nhu, having promised the Ngo brothers safe passage out of the country. At 06:00, just before dawn, the officers held a meeting at JGS headquarters to discuss the fate of the Ngo brothers. According to Lucien Conein, the US Army officer and CIA operative who was the American liaison with the coup, most of the officers, including Minh, wanted Diem to have an "honorable retirement" from office, followed by exile. Not all of the senior officers attended the meeting, with Don having already left to make arrangements for the arrival of Diem and Nhu at JGS headquarters. General Nguyen Ngoc Le, a former police chief under Diem in the mid-1950s, strongly lobbied for Diem’s execution. There was no formal vote taken at the meeting, and Le attracted only minority support. One general was reported to have said "To kill weeds, you must pull them up at the roots". Conein reported that the generals had never indicated that assassination was in their minds, since an orderly transition of power was a high priority in achieving their ultimate aim of gaining international recognition.
Minh and Don asked Conein to secure an American aircraft to take the brothers out of the country. Two days earlier, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., had alerted Washington that such a request was likely and recommended Saigon as the departure point. This request put the Kennedy administration in a difficult position, as the provision of an airplane would publicly tie it to the coup. When Conein telephoned David Smith, the acting chief of the Saigon CIA station, there was a ten minute wait. The U.S. government would not allow the aircraft to land in any country, unless that state was willing to grant asylum to Diem. The United States did not want Diem and Nhu to form a government in exile and wanted them far away from Vietnam. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman had written in August that "Under no circumstances should the Nhus be permitted to remain in Southeast Asia in close proximity to Vietnam because of the plots they will mount to try to regain power. If the generals decide to exile Diem, he should also be sent outside Southeast Asia." He further went on to anticipate what he termed a “Götterdämmerung in the palace”.
The nearest plane that was capable of such a long range flight was in Guam, and it would take twenty-four hours to make the necessary arrangements. Minh was astounded and told Conein that the generals could not hold Diem for that period. Conein did not suspect a deliberate delay by the American embassy. In contrast, a U.S. Senate investigative commission in the early 1970s raised a provocative thought: “One wonders what became of the U.S. military aircraft that had been dispatched to stand by for Lodge’s departure, scheduled for the previous day.”
Minh instead arrived to find that the brothers were not in the palace. In anticipation of a coup, they had ordered the construction of three separate tunnels leading from Gia Long to remote areas outside the palace. Around 20:00 on the night of the coup, with only the Presidential Guard to defend them against mutinous infantry and armor units, Diem and Nhu hurriedly packed American banknotes into a briefcase. They escaped through one of the tunnels with two loyalists: Cao Xuan Vy, the head of Nhu’s Republican Youth, and Air Force Lieutenant Do Tho, Diem’s aide de camp. Tho was the nephew of Colonel Do Mau, the director of military security and a participant in the coup plot. After the coup, General Paul Harkins, the head of the U.S. presence in Vietnam, inspected the tunnel and noted that it “was so far down that I didn’t want to go down to walk up the thing". The brothers emerged in a wooded area in a park near the Cercle Sportif, the city’s upper class sporting club, where they were picked up by a waiting Land Rover. Ellen Hammer disputes the tunnel escape, asserting that the Ngo brothers simply walked out of the building, which was not yet under siege. Hammer asserts that they walked past the tennis courts and left the palace grounds through a small gate at Le Thanh Ton Street and entered the car. The loyalists travelled through narrow back streets in order to evade rebel checkpoints and changed vehicles to a black Citroën sedan. After leaving the palace, Nhu was reported to have suggested to Diem that the brothers split up, arguing that this would enhance their chances of survival. Nhu proposed that one of them travel to the Mekong Delta to join Cao's IV Corps, while the other would travel to the II Corps of General Nguyen Khanh in the Central Highlands. Nhu felt that the rebel generals would not dare to kill one of them while the other was free, in case the surviving brother were to regain power. According to one account, Diem was reported to have turned down Nhu, reasoning that “You cannot leave alone. They hate you too much; they will kill you. Stay with me and I will protect you.” Another story holds that Diem said “We have always been together during these last years. How could we separate during these last years? How could we separate in this critical hour?” Nhu agreed to stay together until the end.
The loyalists reached the home of Ma Tuyen in the Chinese business district of Cholon. Ma Tuyen was a Chinese merchant and friend who was reported to be Nhu’s main contact with the Chinese syndicates which controlled the opium trade. The brothers sought asylum from the embassy of the Republic of China, but were turned down and stayed in Ma Tuyen’s house as they appealed to ARVN loyalists and attempted to negotiate with the coup leaders. Nhu’s secret agents had fitted the home with a direct phone line to the palace, so the insurgent generals believed that the brothers were still besieged inside Gia Long. Neither the rebels nor the loyalist Presidential Guard had any idea that at 21:00 they were about to fight for an empty building, leading to futile deaths. Minh was reported to be mortified when he realised that Diem and Nhu had escaped in the middle of the night.
After Minh had ordered the rebels to search the areas known to have been frequented by the Ngo family, Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao was informed by a captured Presidential Guard officer that the brothers had escaped through the tunnels to a refuge in Cholon. Thao was told by Khiem, his superior, to find and prevent Diem from being killed. When Thao arrived at Ma Tuyen’s house, he phoned his superiors. Diem and Nhu overheard him and fled to the nearby Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier. Tho drove them to the church which they had frequented over the years. Lieutenant Tho died a few months later in a plane crash, but his diary was not found until 1970. Tho recorded Diem’s words as they left the house of Ma Tuyen as being "I don’t know whether I will live or die and I don’t care, but tell Nguyen Khanh that I have great affection for him and he should avenge me". Soon after the early morning mass celebrating All Souls’ Day (the Day of the Dead), the congregation emptied from the building. The Ngo brothers walked through the shady courtyard and into the building wearing dark gray suits. It was speculated that they were recognised by an informant while they walked through the yard. Inside the church, the brothers prayed and received Communion.
A few minutes later, just after 10:00, an armoured personnel carrier and two jeeps entered the narrow alcove housing the church building. Lieutenant Tho had earlier urged Diem to surrender, saying that he was sure that his uncle Mau, along with Dinh and Khiem, would guarantee their safety. Tho wrote in his diary afterwards that "I consider myself responsible for having led them to their death".
Diem requested that the convoy stop at the palace so that he could gather personal items before being exiled. Xuan turned him down, clinically stating that his orders were to take Diem and Nhu directly to headquarters. Nhu expressed disgust that they were to be transported in an APC, asking “You use such a vehicle to drive the president?” Lam assured them that the armour was for their own protection. Xuan said that it was selected to protect them from “extremists”. Xuan ordered the brothers’ hands be tied behind their backs before shoving them into the carrier. One officer asked to shoot Nhu, but Xuan turned him down.
After the arrest, Nhung and Nghia sat with the brothers in the APC, and the convoy departed for Tan Son Nhut. Before the convoy had departed for the church, Minh was reported to have gestured to Nhung with two fingers. This was taken to be an order to kill both brothers. The convoy stopped at a railroad crossing on the return trip, where by all accounts the brothers were assassinated. An investigation by Don later determined that Nghia had shot the brothers at point-blank range with a semi-automatic firearm and that Nhung sprayed them with bullets before repeatedly stabbing the bodies with a knife.
Nghia gave his account of what occurred during the journey back to the military headquarters: "As we rode back to the Joint General Staff headquarters, Diem sat silently, but Nhu and the captain [Nhung] began to insult each other. I don’t know who started it. The name-calling grew passionate. The captain had hated Nhu before. Now he was charged with emotion." When the convoy reached a train crossing, Nghia said that Nhung "lunged at Nhu with a bayonet and stabbed him again and again, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Still in a rage, he turned to Diem, took out his revolver and shot him in the head. Then he looked back at Nhu, who was lying on the floor, twitching. He put a bullet into his head too. Neither Diem nor Nhu ever defended themselves. Their hands were tied." At the time of their deaths, Diem was 62 and Nhu 53 years old.
At this time, Xuan walked into Minh's office through the open door, unaware of Don's presence. Xuan snapped to attention and stated "Mission accomplie".
Shortly after the midnight of November 2 in Washington, the CIA sent word to the White House that Diem and Nhu were dead, allegedly due to suicide. Vietnam radio had announced their deaths by poison, and that they had committed suicide while prisoners in an APC transporting them to Tan Son Nhut. Unclear and contradictory stories abounded. General Paul Harkins reported that the suicides had occurred either by gunshot or by a grenade wrestled from the belt of an ARVN officer who was standing guard. Minh tried to explain the discrepancy by saying “Due to an inadvertence, there was a gun inside the vehicle. It was with this gun that they committed suicide.”
Kennedy learned of the deaths on the following morning when National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal rushed into the cabinet room with a telegram reporting the Ngo brothers’ suicides. According to General Maxwell Taylor, “Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before.” Kennedy had planned that Diem would be safely exiled and Arthur Schlesinger recalled that the U.S. president was “somber and shaken”. Kennedy later penned a memo, lamenting that the assassination was “particularly abhorrent” and blaming himself for approving Cable 243, which authorised Lodge to explore coup options in the wake of Nhu’s attacks on the Buddhist pagodas. Kennedy’s reaction did not draw sympathy from his entire administration. Some believed that he should not have supported the coup and that as coups were uncontrollable, assassination was always a possibility. Kennedy was sceptical about the story and suspected that a double assassination had taken place. He reasoned that the Catholic Ngo brothers would not take their own lives, but Hilsman rationalised the possibility of suicide by asserting that Diem and Nhu would have interpreted the coup as Armageddon.
The Americans soon became aware of the true reasons for the deaths of Diem and Nhu. Conein had left the rebel headquarters as the generals were preparing to bring in the Ngo brothers for the press conference which announced the handover of power. Upon returning to his residence, Conein received a phone call from Saigon's CIA station that ordered him to report to the embassy. The embassy informed Conein that Kennedy had instructed him to find Diem. Conein returned to Tan Son Nhut at around 10:30. The following conversation was reported:
Conein knew that if he saw the execution wounds, he would not be able to deny that Diem and Nhu had been killed. Conein refused to see the proof, realising that having such knowledge would compromise his cover and his safety. He returned to the embassy and submitted his report to Washington.
The CIA in Saigon later secured a set of photos of the brothers that left no doubt that they had been executed. The photos were taken at about 10:00, November 2, and showed the two dead brothers covered in blood on the floor of an APC. They were dressed in the robes of Roman Catholic priests with their hands tied behind their backs. Their faces were bloodied and bruised and they had been repeatedly stabbed. The images appeared to be genuine, discrediting the generals’ claims that the brothers had committed suicide. The pictures were distributed around the world, having been sold to media outlets in Saigon. The caption below a picture published in Time read "‘Suicide’ with no hands.”
Several members of the Kennedy administration were appalled by the killings. The Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Averell Harriman declared that “it was a great shock to everybody that they were killed.” He postulated that it was an accident and speculated that Nhu may have caused it by insulting the officers who were supervising him. Embassy official Rufus Phillips, who was the US advisor to Nhu's Strategic Hamlet Program, said that “I wanted to sit down and cry”, citing the killings as a key factor in the future leadership troubles which beset South Vietnam.
According to the historian Howard Jones, the fact ”that the killings failed to make the brothers into martyrs constituted a vivid testimonial to the depth of popular hatred they had aroused.” The assassinations caused a split within the leadership of the junta and repulsed American and world opinion. The killings damaged the public belief that the new regime would be an improvement over the military junta, turning the initial harmony among the generals into discord. The criticism of the killings caused the officers to distrust and battle one another for positions in the new government. Don expressed his abhorrence at the assassinations by caustically remarking that he had organised the armoured car in an effort to protect Diem and Nhu. Khanh claimed that the only condition he had put on joining the conspiracy was that Diem would not be killed. According to Jones, “when decisions regarding postcoup affairs took priority, resentment over the killings meshed with the visceral competition over government posts to disassemble the new regime before it fully took form.”
The responsibility for the assassinations was generally put on the shoulders of Minh. Conein asserted that "I have it on very good authority of very many people, that Big Minh gave the order," as did William Colby, the director of the CIA's Far Eastern division. Don was equally emphatic, saying "I can state without equivocation that this was done by General Duong Van Minh and by him alone." Lodge thought that Xuan was also partly culpable asserting that "Diem and Nhu had been assassinated, if not by Xuan personally, at least at his direction."
When Thieu rose to become President, Minh blamed him for the assassinations. In 1971, Minh claimed that the then Colonel Thieu had caused the deaths by hesitating and delaying the attack by his Fifth Division on Gia Long Palace. Don was reported to have pressured Thieu during the night, asking him on the phone "Why are you so slow in doing it? Do you need more troops? If you do, ask Dinh to send more troops – and do it quickly because after taking the palace you will be made a general. Thieu stridently denied responsibility and issued a statement that Minh did not dispute:"Duong Van Minh has to assume entire responsibility for the death of Ngo Dinh Diem."
During the presidency of Richard Nixon, a U.S. government investigation was initiated into American involvement in the assassinations. Nixon was a political foe of Kennedy, having narrowly lost to him in the 1960 Presidential election. Nixon ordered an investigation under E. Howard Hunt into the murders, convinced that Kennedy must have secretly ordered the killings. Nixon’s inquiry was unable to find any such secret order.
One Vietnamese Diem loyalist asked friends in the CIA why an assassination had taken place, reasoning that if Diem was deemed to be inefficient, his deposal would suffice. The CIA employees responded that “They had to kill him. Otherwise his supporters would gradually rally and organise and there would be civil war.” Some months after the event, Minh was reported to have privately told an American that “We had no alternative. They had to be killed. Diem could not be allowed to live because he was too much respected among simple, gullible people in the countryside, especially the Catholics and the refugees. We had to kill Nhu because he was so widely feared – and he had created organizations that were arms of his personal power.”
Tran Van Huong, a civilian opposition politician who was jailed in 1960 for signing the Caravelle Manifesto that criticised Diem, and later briefly served as Prime Minister, gave a scathing analysis of the generals’ action. He stated that “The top generals who decided to murder Diem and his brother were scared to death. The generals knew very well that having no talent, no moral virtues, no political support whatsoever, they could not prevent a spectacular comeback of the president and Mr. Nhu if they were alive.
The government first approved of memorial services for the eighth anniversary of Diem's death in 1971, and this was the third year that such services were permitted. Several thousand people gathered at Diem’s purported gravesite for religious services. Catholic prayers were given in Latin, in addition to a Buddhist ceremony. Banners proclaimed Diem as a saviour of the south, with some mourners having walked into Saigon from villages outside the capital carrying portraits of the slain President. Madame Thieu, the First Lady, was seen weeping at a requiem mass for Diem at the Saigon basilica. Several cabinet members were also at the grave and a eulogy was given by a general of the ARVN. According to the eulogy, Diem had died because he resisted the domination of foreigners and their plans to bring great numbers of troops to Vietnam and widen a war which would have destroyed the country. According to General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, "there was the memory of Diem to haunt those of us who were aware of the circumstances of his downfall. By our complicity, we Americans were responsible for the plight in which the South Vietnamese found themselves.