By the beginning of October 1963, American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had long reached the point of no return in supporting a coup and where the U.S. administration in Washington could effectively restrain Lodge’s behavior. On October 3, Lodge authorized a meeting between his trusted CIA contact Lucien Conein and South Vietnamese Generals Don and Minh. The next day, the CIA chief in Saigon John Richardson was transferred out of the country and replaced. Some have subsequently made the claim that the Richardson re-assignment was done at Lodge’s request, while others have argued that it was unrelated to the Ambassador but rather was meant as a sign to the Vietnamese. Lodge did make a request for removing Richardson as CIA station chief in Saigon a month earlier, but that request had been refused. No conclusive answer can be given.
On October 5, President Kennedy issued a final policy directive that remained in effect until the Diem coup on November 1:
“President today approved recommendation that no initiative should now be taken to give any active covert encouragement to a coup. There should however be, urgent, covert effort…to identify and build contacts with possible alternative leadership…Essential that this effort be totally secure and fully deniable.”
On October 24, Lodge sent CIA contact Conein to meet with General Don one more time to discuss progress of the coup, which now was planned for the week leading up to November 2. The coup had entered its final stage and Lodge had one more meeting to attend to: that with the President of the Republic. Lodge met Diem on October 28. He described him as “very likeable.” In an act of extreme duplicity Lodge responded to Diem’s accusations, that anti-GVN activity was being conducted by agencies of the American government, by coldly insisting that should he have any proof of “improper action by any employee of the U.S. government…I will see he leaves Vietnam.” Presumably, he was not referring to himself.
On October 30, Lodge sent one more cable about an imminence of a coup, concluding once more that the U.S. was in no position to stop or delay a coup. While the President’s security adviser William Bundy cabled a response denying that this was the case, the window for action had been closed and the coup was imminent. On November 1, General Harkins received the first report of the coup taking place, with “with the central police station being seized. Diem, upon hearing of the coup, called the ambassador asking him what the opinion of the U.S. government was:
• Diem: Some unites have made a rebellion and I want to know: What is the attitude of the U.S.?
• Lodge: I do not feel well enough informed to be able to tell you. Also, it is 4:30 a.m. in Washington and U.S. government cannot possibly have a view.
• Diem: But you must have some general ideas. After all, I am a chief of state. I have tried to do my duty.
• Lodge: You have certainly done your duty…I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country…Now I am worried about your physical safety…
• Diem: You have my telephone number?
• Lodge: Yes. If I can do anything for your physical safety, please call me.
• Diem I’m trying to re-establish order.
After the phone call with Diem, Lodge sent a cable to Washington describing events so far. Diem never did re-establish order. He escaped with his brother Nhu from the besieged Presidential palace and fled to a hideout in Dalat, the same city where Lodge and Diem had dedicated a nuclear reactor only three days earlier. Diem was subsequently captured by the army at a Catholic church in Dalat. He was killed soon after.
President Kennedy, upon hearing the death of Diem, “leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face…he always insisted that Diem must never suffer more than exile. In a taped recording on November 4, President Kennedy took personal responsibility for the death of Diem and added that Lodge had been inclined from early august to remove Diem from office. For Lodge, the coup provided him an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past three months in Vietnam. It also allowed Lodge to defend his role to the Kennedy administration and to reassure himself that he had made the right decisions:
“At the time of the pagodas raids of August 21, U.S.G. and GVN seemed to be totally deadlocked…We were being totally taken for granted by the GVN...There is no doubt that the coup was a Vietnamese and a popular affair, which we could neither manage nor stop after it got started…But it is equally certain that the ground in which the coup seed grew into a robust plant was prepared by us and that the coup would not have happened [when] it did without our preparation…All this may be a useful lesson in the use of U.S. power for those who face similar situation in other places in the future…Perhaps the U.S. government has here evolved a way of not being everywhere saddled with responsibility for autocratic governments simply because they are anti-communist…Clearly the coup has brought about change; let us hope it will turn out to be a great improvement…Our actions were not ‘colonial’ and when Madame Nhu accused me of acting like the Governor General of Indochina, it did not ring true.”
In the next three years, South Vietnam experienced four more coups. Relative stability returned only with the regime of Thieu in 1967. President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And Ambassador Lodge continued his term as ambassador until 1964 and was re-elected to that position by President Johnson in 1965.