Today is the anniversary of the most critical decision of the Vietnam War

On 31 August, 1963, the most important meeting for Americans regarding the Vietnam War took place to debate U.S. policy and the possibility of a coup against the Diem regime.

During 1962 and 1963, the communist networks increased their covert assassination campaign against anyone working at the local level for the Saigon government.  These were attempting not only to create fear, eliminate local leaders in the districts, and support the Buddhists, but also to undermine confidence that the Saigon government could provide local security 24-7.

President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of Vietnam receives pledge of support from Vietnam Air Force. 
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives.

In a reaction to these covert attacks, the U.S. increased the number of advisers at the district level.  By the end of August 1963, it was clear that the communists were winning this fight.  The Saigon government and the USA had no strategy and no plan to reverse this form of warfare.  There were endless debates about whether the soft power means of peace or the hard power means of war should be used.  And there were continual demands that the USA provide more money for "development" and more troops for combat.

Having the mercurial Diem family as the main instrument of U.S. policy did not seem to be a sound course.  The U.S. had concluded that the authorities in Saigon were either unwilling or unable to provide security for Vietnam and that the U.S. had to either withdraw or provide that security.  At this meeting, a critical and long-reaching strategic error was made.  Secretary of state Dean Rusk, secretary of defense Robert McNamara, General Taylor, and McGeorge Bundy (NSC), and their staffs, were willing to see an end of the Diem family, but they wanted to reopen communication with those in the government who wanted to keep a pro-U.S. government in South Vietnam.

But the people of Vietnam saw the whole government, not just the Diem family, as more French than Vietnamese.  Most of the people want a government of, by, and for the people of that country.  And the communists had convinced most of the people they would provide that.

The men at this meeting on 31 August 1963 were the best of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  However, they did not understand how to be successful in ideological conflict since they had failed to learn that stability has to be built from the bottom up, not from the top down, to know that fear is the most important factor in winning hearts and minds, or to realize that stability, order, and satisfaction must be achieved by the people themselves.  These were things that members of the foreign policy establishment have never accepted because of their state-to-state orientation and their belief in centralized authority through the rule of law.

President Ngo Dinh Diem following execution with his arms tied behind his back.
Photo: U.S. National Archives.

Paul Kattenburg, who had worked in Vietnam for many years, was the only person at the meeting with in-depth knowledge of Vietnam.  He held the Vietnam desk in the State Department.  He knew that the Diem regime did not have, and could not gain, the support of the people.  He did not think U.S. armed forces could stabilize Vietnam with a military victory, and he did not think the American people would support protracted warfare with no clear victory.  Taylor, McNamara, and Rusk dismissed Kattenburg's arguments, saying the U.S. would not be defeated.  Bundy said nothing.  Kattenburg thought, but did not say: "None of these men know what they are talking about."

After the meeting, Kattenburg was removed from the Vietnam desk.  On 1 November 1963, Vietnamese generals – with the backing of Ambassador Lodge – conducted a successful coup against the Diem family.  The course of the Vietnam War for the nest eight years had been set.

Dr. Sam C. Holliday is a retired colonel, U.S. Army. 

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