Ngo Dinh Nhu

Ngo Dinh Nhu
For his wife, see Madame Nhu.
Ngô Đình Nhu
Ngô Ðình Nhu (right) meeting Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President of the United States.
Personal details
Born October 7, 1910(1910-10-07)
Phu Cam, French Indochina
Died November 2, 1963(1963-11-02) (aged 53)
Saigon, South Vietnam
Spouse(s) Trần Lệ Xuân (Madame Nhu)
Relations Ngô Đình Khả (father)
Ngo Dinh Khoi (brother)
Ngo Dinh Thuc (brother)
Ngo Dinh Diem (brother)
Ngo Dinh Can (brother)
Ngo Dinh Luyen (brother)
Tran Van Chuong (father-in-law)
Ngo The Linh (cousin)
Nguyen Dinh Thuan (nephew)

Ngô Ðình Nhu (About this sound listen; October 7, 1910 – November 2, 1963) was the younger brother and chief political advisor of South Vietnam's first president, Ngô Ðình Diệm. Nhu was widely regarded as the architect of the Ngô family's nepotistic and autocratic rule over South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. Although Nhu did not hold a formal executive position, he wielded immense unofficial power, exercising personal command of both the ARVN Special Forces (a paramilitary unit which served as the Ngô family's de facto private army) and the Cần Lao Party, which served as the regime's de facto secret police. A long-time opium addict, Nhu's extensive underground connections with the international opium smuggling market allowed him to channel millions of dollars in drug money into the personal accounts of the Ngô family during their regime. An outspoken admirer of Adolf Hitler (particularly his approach to internal security), Nhu's organizational models incorporated elements of both fascist and communist styles and methodologies.

In his early age, Nhu was a quiet and bookish individual who showed little inclination towards the political path taken by his elder brothers. While training as an archivist in France, Nhu adopted the Roman Catholic ideology of personalism, although critics claimed that Nhu had misused their philosophy. Upon returning to Vietnam, he helped his brother in his quest for political power, and Nhu proved to be an astute tactician and strategist, helping Diệm to gain more leverage and outwit rivals. During this time, he formed and handpicked the members of the secret Cần Lao Party, which swore its personal allegiance to the Ngô family, provided their power base and eventually became their secret police force. He remained as the head of it until his death.

In 1955, Nhu’s groups helped to intimidate the public and rig the 1955 State of Vietnam referendum that ensconced Diệm in power. Nhu used the Cần Lao, which he organised into cells, to infiltrate every part of society to root out any opposition to the Ngô family. In 1959, he organized a failed assassination attempt via mail bomb on Prince Sihanouk, the leader of neighbouring Cambodia, with whom relations had become strained. Nhu publicly extolled his intellectual abilities, and was widely regarded as conceited by the public. He was also known for making aggressive public statements; these included a promise to demolish the Xá Lợi Pagoda, where Buddhist dissidents were mobilising against him, and a vow to kill his father-in-law, Trần Văn Chuơng, who was the regime's Ambassador to the United States. As opposition to the family grew, coup attempts often formed around hatred of him and his wife, and Diem's supporters in Washington tried to convince the president to do away from his brother, to no avail.

In 1963, the Ngo family's grip on power became unstuck during the Buddhist crisis, during which the nation's Buddhist majority rose up against the pro-Catholic regime. Nhu tried to break the Buddhists by using the Special Forces in raids on Buddhist temples that left possibly hundreds dead, and framing the regular army for it. However, he was found out and this intensified plots by military officers, encouraged by the Americans, who turned against the Ngos after the pagoda attacks. Nhu was aware of the plots, but remained confident that he could outmanoevre them, and began to plot a counter-coup, as well as the assassinations of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and other American and opposition figures. However, Nhu was fooled by the loyalist General Ton That Dinh, who had turned against him. On November 1, the coup proceeded, and the Ngos were caught off guard and defeated. The next day, Diem and Nhu were captured and executed.


Early years

Nhu's family originated from the village of Phu Cam in central Vietnam. His family had served as mandarins in the imperial court in Hue, and his father Ngo Dinh Kha was a counselor to Emperor Thanh Thai during the French colonisation. When the French deposed the emperor on the pretext of insanity, Kha retired in protest and became a farmer. Nhu was the fourth of six sons, born in 1910.[1]

In his early years, Nhu was aloof from politics and was regarded as a bookish and quiet personality who preferred academic pursuits. By the 1920s, his three elder brothers Ngo Dinh Khoi, Ngo Dinh Thuc and Ngo Dinh Diem were becoming prominent figures in Vietnam; Thuc was a Roman Catholic cleric, while the other two had become provincial governors of the Nguyen Dynasty. In 1932, Diem became the interior minister but resigned within a few months after realising that he would not be given any real power.[2] Nhu nevertheless showed little interest in following in their footsteps.[3] Despite their differing interests, Nhu and his brothers were devoutly Catholic and Confucianist.[3]

Nhu completed a bachelor's degree in literature in Paris and then studied paleography and librarianship, graduating from the École Nationale des Chartes, an archivists' school in Paris.[3] He returned to Vietnam from France at the outbreak of World War II. He was influenced by personalism, a concept he had acquired in the Latin Quarter. It had been conceived in the 1930s by Catholic progressives such as Emmanuel Mounier. Mounier's heirs in Paris, who edited the left wing Catholic review Esprit denounced Nhu as a fraud.[1] Personalism condemned liberal capitalism for the Great Depression and individualistic greed and exploitation, and disagreed with communism because of its opposition to spirituality.[4]

He worked at Hanoi's National Library and in 1943,[3] he married Tran Le Xuan, making her known as "Madame Nhu". Prior to this, he was strongly rumoured to have been having an affair with his mother-in-law, six years his senior. The French dismissed Nhu from his high-ranking post,[3] due to Diem's nationalist activities, and he moved to the central highlands resort town of Da Lat and lived comfortably, editing a newspaper.[5] He also raised orchids during his time in Da Lat.[3]

After the August Revolution of 1945, when Ho Chi Minh's communist Vietminh declared independence, various groups as well as the French colonialists jockeyed for political control.[6] Nhu became more politically active, especially in helping his brothers to establish a political base among Vietnamese Catholics.[3] By this time, Khoi had been assassinated by the communists, so Diem was the leading political figure in the family.[6] Diem had little success in the late 1940s and went into exile in 1950 to campaign from abroad after the communists sentenced him to death in absentia.[7]

Up until that point, Nhu had kept a relatively low-key profile.[3] However, he appeared to imbue personalist ideas into his elder brother, who used the philosophy's terminology in his speeches. Diem and Nhu thought that personalism went well with their "Third Force" anti-communist and anti-colonial ideology.[4] After 1950, Nhu became a leading figure in the mobilizing of his elder brother's support based among anti-communist Vietnamese. He also became for assertive in pushing personalism as a guiding ideology for Vietnam's social development. In April 1952, Nhu gave a talk on the topic at the newly opened Vietnamese National Military Academy in Da Lat.[4] He said that the Catholic concept was applicable to people from all backgrounds,[4] especially in the fight against communist and unadulterated capitalism. He called on all Vietnamese to engage in a personalist-driven social revolution to strengthen the society and country.[8]

Regarding himself as a great intellectual, Nhu was known for making long, abstract and difficult-to-understand speeches, something which many Vietnamese resented.[8] Although Nhu was well known for his pretensions as an intellectual and political philosopher, he was to become much more effective as a political organizer, much to the chagrin of those who impeded his family's political progress.[8]

Around 1950, Nhu started the forerunner of what would become Can Lao Party (Personalist Labor Party) and form the power base and serve as the control mechanism of the Ngo family.[8] Initially an entirely secret organization, little is known of the Can Lao's early years. The body consisted of a network of cells, and most members knew the identities of only a few colleagues. After 1954, its existence was declared, but the public knew little of its activities, which mostly remained hidden from view.[8]

In the early 1950s, the Can Lao was used to mobilize support for Diem's political campaign.[8] Around 1953, Nhu began an alliance with Tran Quoc Buu, a trade unionist who headed the Vietnamese Confederation of Christian Workers. Nhu and his supporters began publishing a Saigon journal called Xa Hoi (Society) which endorsed Buu's movement and unionism in general.[9]

At the time, opportunities for opposition politicians began to open up. Bao Dai, head of state of the State of Vietnam, an associated state of the French Union became increasingly unpopular as the citizens became increasingly impatient with his strategy of allying with the French against the communists in return for gradually increased autonomy and eventual independence. Many felt that the Bao Dai's policy would never deliver meaningful self-determination.[10]

In late-1953, Nhu began to try to exploit increasing anti-Bao Dai sentiment. He organised a Unity Congress, a forum of various anti-communist nationalists such as Nguyen Ton Hoan's Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang (Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam), the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnamese Nationalist Party), various Catholics, the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects, as well as the Binh Xuyen organised crime syndicate. Nhu's real objective was to gain publicity for Diem, especially while Bao Dai was overseas and unable to respond effectively. The conference turned into chaos, but Nhu achieved his objective of gaining publicity for his brother; in addition, the other groups had engaged in angry denunciations against Bao Dai and put on pressure on the head of state.[11]

Bao Dai was rattled by the chaos in Saigon and announced that a National Congress would be opened in October. The leaders of most of the other parties agreed to participate, but Nhu and his organizations were absent. He was worried that the body might play into Bao Dai's hands by endorsing him. This appeared to be the way the delegates were heading at first, but a sudden change saw an upsurge of condemnation against Bao Dai's policies of coexistence with France.[12]

Rise to power

Nhu's brother Diệm had been appointed Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam by Emperor Bao Dai after the French had been defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. At the start of 1955, French Indochina was dissolved, leaving Diem in temporary control of the south.[13] A referendum was scheduled for October 23, 1955 to determine the future direction of the south. It was contested by Bao Dai, the Emperor, advocating the restoration of the monarchy, while Diem ran on a republican platform. The elections were held, with Nhu and the family's Can Lao Party, which supplied Diem's electoral base, organising and supervising the elections.[14][15] Campaigning for Bao Dai was prohibited, and the result was rigged, with Bao Dai supporters attacked by Nhu's workers. Diem recorded 98.2% of the vote, including 605,025 votes in Saigon, where only 450,000 voters were registered. Diem's tally also exceeded the registration numbers in other districts.[14][16]

In his youth he had formed student movements. He created a web of covert political, security, labor and other organizations. Emulating the communists, he built a structure of five-man cells to spy on dissidents and promote those loyal to Diem's regime.[5]


Nhu held no official role in the government, but ruled the southern region of South Vietnam, commanding private armies and secret police. Along with his wife and Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, he lived in the Presidential Palace with Diem, as part of a nepotistic regime.[17] Pervaded by family corruption, Nhu competed with his brother Ngo Dinh Can, who ruled the northern areas for US contracts and rice trade.[18] He controlled the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces commanded by Colonel Le Quang Tung, not for fighting the Vietcong but in Saigon to maintain the authoritarian rule of his family.[5] Tortures and killings of "communist suspects" were committed on a daily basis. The death toll was put at around 50,000 as well as 75,000 imprisonments, and extended beyond communists to anti-communist dissidents and anti-corruption whistle-blowers.[19] His agents infiltrated labor unions and social organizations, and he expanded the police forces from 20 to 32 officers. They conducted arrests without warrants and selective suppression of criminal activity and graft while turning a blind eye to regime loyalists.[20]

Nhu was an opium addict and Adolf Hitler admirer. He modelled the Can Lao secret police's marching and torture styles on Nazi designs.[21] He and his wife amassed a fortune by running numbers and lottery rackets, manipulating currency and extorting money from Saigon businesses.[22]

In 1956, Diem created a rubber stamp unicameral legislature, the National Assembly. Nhu won a seat in the body, ostensibly as an independent, but never bothered to attend a single session of debate or vote, but this made no difference as Diem’s policies were overwhelmingly approved in any formal show of numbers.[23]

In June 1958, the ARVN were involved in border clashes with Cambodia and made gains in the northeastern Cambodian province of Stung Treng.[24] This provoked a war of words between Diem and Sihanouk.[25] On August 31, 1959, Nhu failed in an attempt to assassinate Sihanouk. He ordered his agents to send parcel bombs to the Cambodian leader. Two suitcases were delivered to the Sihanouk's palace, one addressed to the head of state, and the other to Prince Vakrivan, his head of protocol. The deliveries were labeled as originating from an American engineer who had previously worked in Cambodia and purported to contain gifts from Hong Kong. Sihanouk's package contained a bomb, but the other did not; however, Vakrivan opened both on behalf of the monarch and was killed instantly, as was a servant. The explosion happened adjacent to a room in the palace where Sihanouk's parents were present.[26][27] At the same time, anti-Sihanouk broadcasts emanated from a secret transmitter located somewhere in South Vietnam, widely attributed to Nhu.[28] Given that the Ngos had tried to organise a coup against him earlier in the year, Sihanouk quickly blamed them for his relative's death. His aides made statements implying that the United States might have been involved in Nhu's assassination attempt.[26]

The relationship between the two countries became indelibly strained thereafter, and Cambodia gave refuge to Vietnamese military personnel involved in attempts to overthrow Diem. Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi and Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong were given immediate refuge after a failed coup in November 1960,[29] and Vietnam Air Force pilot Lieutenant Nguyen Van Cu was accorded the same treatment after his aerial bombardment of Independence Palace failed to kill the Ngos.[30][31]

Strategic Hamlet Program

In 1962, Nhu began work on the ambitious Strategic Hamlet Program, an attempt to build fortified villages that would provide security for rural Vietnamese. The objective was to lock the Vietcong out so that they could not operate among the villagers. Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, a Catholic favourite of the ruling family, supervised these efforts, and when told that the peasants resented being forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and put into forts that they were compelled to build, he advised Nhu and Tuyen that it was imperative to build as many hamlets as fast as possible.[32] The Ngos were unaware that Thao was a communist agent bent on turning the rural populace against Saigon.[33] Thao helped to ruin Nhu's scheme by having strategic hamlets built in communist strongholds. This increased the number of communist sympathisers who were placed inside the hamlets and given identification cards. As a result, the Vietcong were able to more effectively penetrate the villages to access supplies and personnel.[34][35]

Buddhist crisis

In May 1963, the Buddhist crisis broke out after nine Buddhist protestors were killed while protesting a ban on the Buddhist flag on Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. This prompted the Buddhist majority to stage widespread demonstrations against Diem, who discriminated in favour of Catholics, for religious equality. The movement threatened the stability of the Ngo family's rule. Nhu was known to favor a stronger line against the Buddhists. He had made statements calling for the suppression of the protests through his English language newspaper, the Times of Vietnam.[36] During this time, his wife Madame Nhu, who was the de facto first lady due to Diem's bachelor life, inflamed the situation by mockingly applauding the suicides of Thích Quảng Đức and others, referring to them as "barbecues" while Nhu stated "if the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline".[37]

July 7 was the ninth anniversary of Diem's 1954 ascension to Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam.[38] American pressmen had been alerted to a Buddhist demonstration to coincide with Double Seven Day at Chanatareansey Pagoda in northern Saigon.[38][39] When the Buddhists filed out of the pagoda into an adjacent alley, they were blocked by Nhu's secret police. When Peter Arnett and Malcolm Browne began taking photos,[39] the police punched Arnett in the nose, floored him, threw rocks and broke his camera.[40] Browne took photos of Arnett's bloodied face, and while the police smashed his camera, the film survived. Photos of Arnett's bloodied face were circulated in US newspapers and caused further embarrassment for Diem and Nhu.[41][42] The Saigon press corps officially protest Nhu's men's "open physical intimidation to prevent the covering of news which we feel Americans have a right to know".[41]

There were persistent reports that Nhu was seeking to usurp real power from his elder brother and that he would attack the Buddhists.[36] In a media interview, Nhu said that if the Buddhist crisis was not resolved, he would stage a coup, demolish Xa Loi Pagoda, where the Buddhists were massing to coordinate their activities, and head a new anti-Buddhist government.[43] The news was promptly published, although the Americans were not sure that Nhu was serious.[43]

On the evening of August 18, a group of senior ARVN generals met to discuss the Buddhist crisis and decided that the imposition of martial law was needed to disperse the monks who had gathered in Saigon and other regional cities and return them to their original pagodas in the rural areas.[44][45][46] On August 20 they met Nhu for consultations and made their request. Most of the group were already involved in plotting against the Ngo family at the time.[45][47] The generals tried to play on Nhu's prejudices by saying that the pagodas were infiltrated with communists and that they needed to be dispersed.[45][46] Hearing this, the brothers agreed to declare martial law effective on the next day, without consulting the cabinet. The real purpose of the generals' request was to maneuver troops in readiness for a coup, and they had no concrete plans to use the regular army to raid the pagodas. However, Nhu took the opportunity to discredit the army by using Tung's Special Forces and the combat police to attack the pagodas.[48][49]

With the approval of Diem, Nhu used the declaration of martial law to order armed men into the Buddhist pagodas. Nhu purposely chose a time when the American Embassy was leaderless. Frederick Nolting had returned to he United States and his successor Lodge was yet to arrive. As the high command of the ARVN worked closely with the American advisers, Nhu used the combat police and Tung's Special Forces, who took his orders directly from Nhu. The men were dressed in regular army uniforms,[50] such as paratrooper uniforms,[51] in order to frame the army for the raids. Nhu's motive was to shift the responsibility for a violent operation that would anger the Vietnamese public and the American officials onto the army. In doing so, he intended to dent the public and American confidence in the senior army officers, who were plotting against him. Nhu hoped that the Buddhist majority and the Americans would blame the army for the raids and become less inclined to support a coup by the generals. In the past, Nhu's Machiavellian tactics in playing the generals against one another had kept conspirators off-balance and thwarted coup attempts.[50][51]

Squads of Special Forces and combat police flattened the gates of Xa Loi Pagoda and smashed their way in at around 00:20 August 21.[52][53] Nhu's men were armed with pistols, submachine guns, carbines, shotguns, grenades and tear gas. The red bereted Special Forces were joined by truckloads of steel-helmeted combat police in army camouflage uniforms.[53] Two of Nhu's senior aides were seen outside Xa Loi directing the operation.[51] Monks and nuns were attacked with rifle butts and bayonets, and overpowered by automatic weapons fire, grenades and battering rams.[54] It took around two hours to complete the raids because many of the occupants had barricaded themselves inside the various rooms.[52]

Nhu's men vandalized the main altar and confiscated the intact charred heart of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who had self-immolated in protest against the policies of the regime. However, some of the Buddhists were able to flee the pagoda with a receptacle with the remainder of his ashes. Two monks jumped the back wall of the pagoda into the grounds of the adjoining United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission, where they were given asylum.[55] Thich Tinh Khiet, the 80 year old Buddhist patriarch, was seized and taken to a military hospital on the outskirts of Saigon.[56] Military control, press censorship and the airport closures were enacted in Saigon.[55][57]

The violence was worse in Hue. Pro-Buddhist civilians left their homes upon hearing of the raids to defend the city's pagodas. At Tu Dam Pagoda,[55] which was the temple of Buddhist protest leader Thich Tri Quang,[58] government soldiers, firing M1 rifles, overran the building and demolished a statue of Gautama Buddha and looted and vandalized the building,[52][55] before leveling much of the pagoda with explosives. Many Buddhists were shot or clubbed to death.[59] The most determined resistance occurred outside the Dieu De Pagoda in Hue. As troops attempted to erect a barricade across the bridge leading to the pagoda, the crowd fought back, and the military finally took control after five hours, leaving an estimated 30 dead and 200 wounded.[55][59]

An estimated 500 people were arrested in the city, and 17 of the 47 professors at Hue University, who had resigned earlier in the week in protest against the family's policies,[56] were arrested.[55] The raids were repeated in cities and towns across the country. The total number of dead and disappeared was never confirmed, but estimates range up to several hundred. At least 1,400 were arrested.[56][59][60] Thanks to Nhu's actions, no further mass Buddhist protests occurred during the remainder of Diem's rule.[61]

Government sources claimed that in Xa Loi, An Quang and various Theravada pagodas, soldiers had found machine guns, ammunition, plastic explosives, homemade mines, daggers, and Vietcong documents; these had been planted by Nhu's men.[62] A few days later, Madame Nhu said that the raids were "the happiest day in my life since we crushed the Binh Xuyen in 1955", and assailed the Buddhists as "communists".[63] Nhu accused the Buddhists of turning their pagodas into headquarters for plotting insurrections. He claimed that the Buddhist Intersect Committee operated under the control of "political speculators who exploited religion and terrorism".[64]

Nhu's actions prompted riots from university students, which were met by arrests, imprisonment, and university shutdowns. The high school students followed suit, and followed their university counterparts into jail.[65] Thousands of students from Saigon's leading high school, most of them children of public servants and military officers, were sent to re-education camps.[66] The result was a further drop in morale among those who were supposed to defend the Ngo family.[67]

In a media interview, Nhu vowed to kill his father-in-law. He said "I will have his head cut off. I will hang him in the center of a square and let him dangle there. My wife will make the knot on the rope because she is proud of being a Vietnamese and she is a good patriot."[68] In the same interview, Nhu claimed to have invented helicopters and pioneered their use in military combat.[68]

On August 24, the Kennedy administration sent Cable 243 to Lodge in Saigon, marking a change in American policy. The message advised Lodge to seek the removal of the Nhus from power, and to look for alternative leadership options if Diem refused to remove them. As the probability of Diem doing so was seen as highly unlikely, the message effectively meant the fomenting of a coup. Lodge replied that there was no hope of Diem removing Nhu, and began to make contact with possible coup plotters through CIA agents.[69][70][71] The Voice of America also broadcast a statement blaming Nhu for the pagoda raids and absolving the army of culpability.[72] Lodge believed that Nhu's influence had risen to unprecedented levels. He thought that Nhu's divide and conquer tactics had split the military into three power groups.[64]

One of the recommendations of the Krulak Mendenhall mission, was to stop American funding for the Motion Picture Center, which produced hagiographic films about the Nhus.[73] and to pursue covert actions aimed at dividing and discrediting Tung and Major General Ton That Dinh.[73] Dinh was the youngest general in ARVN history, primarily due to his loyalty to the Ngo family. He was thus given command of the III Corps forces surrounding the capital as he and Tung were the most trusted officers and could be relied upon to defend the family against any coups.[74][75]

The McNamara Taylor mission resulted in the suspension of funding for Nhu's special forces until they were placed under the command of the army's Joint General Staff (JGS) and sent into battle.[76][77] The report noted that one of the reasons for sending Tung's men into the field was because they "are a continuing support for Diệm".[78] The Americans were also aware that removing the special forces from Saigon would increase the chances that a coup attempt would succeed, thereby encouraging the army to overthrow the president.[78] Diệm and Nhu were undeterred by suspension of aid, keeping Tung and his men in the capital.[79] Nhu accused the Americans of "destroying the psychology of our country and called Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. a "man of no morality".[80]

At Nhu's request, Tung was reported to have been planning an operation under the cover of a government-organised student demonstration outside the US Embassy. In this plan, Tung's men would assassinate Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and other key officials among the confusion.[68] Another target was the Buddhist leader Thich Tri Quang, who had been given asylum in the embassy after being targeted in the pagoda raids. According to the plan, Tung's men would then burn down the embassy and portray it as a riot staged by the populace.[68]

Another notable religious attack was perpetrated by Nhu's right-hand man in 1963. A hugely oversized carp was found swimming in a small pond near Da Nang. Local Buddhists began to believe that the fish was a reincarnation of one of Gautama Buddha's disciples. As more people made pilgrimages to the pond, Ngo family officials mined the pond and raked it with machine gun fire, but the fish survived.[81] Nhu's special forces grenaded the pond, finally killing the carp. This backfired, because it generated more publicity—newspapers across the world ran stories about the miraculous fish. ARVN helicopters began landing at the site, and paratroopers filled their bottles with water that they believed to be magical.[81]

Coup and death

By this time, Diem and Nhu knew that a group of ARVN generals and colonels were planning a coup, but did not know that Ton That Dinh was among them.[82] Nhu ordered Dinh and Tung[83] to plan a fake coup against the Ngo family. One of Nhu's objectives was to trick dissidents into joining the false uprising so that they could be identified and eliminated.[84] Another objective of the public relations stunt was to give a false impression of the strength of the regime.[82]

Codenamed Operation Bravo, the first stage of the scheme would involve some of Tung's loyalist soldiers, disguised as insurgents led by apparently renegade junior officers, faking a coup and vandalising the capital.[85] During the orchestrated chaos of the first coup, the disguised loyalists would riot and in the ensuing mayhem, kill the leading coup plotters, such as Generals Duong Van Minh, Tran Van Don, Le Van Kim and junior officers that were helping them. The loyalists and some of Nhu's underworld connections were also to kill some figures who were assisting the conspirators, such as the titular but relatively powerless Vice President Nguyen Ngoc Tho, CIA agent Lucien Conein, who was on assignment in Vietnam as a military adviser, and Lodge.[86] These would then be blamed on "neutralist and pro-communist elements".[86] Tung would then announce the formation of a "revolutionary government" consisting of opposition activists who had not consented to being named in the government, while Diem and Nhu would pretend to be on the run and move to Vung Tau. A fake "counter-coup" was to follow, whereupon Tung's men, having left Saigon on the pretext of fighting communists, as well as Dinh's forces, would triumphantly re-enter Saigon to reaffirm the Diem regime. Nhu would then round up opposition figures.[85][87][88]

Dinh was put in charge of the fake coup and was allowed the additional control of the 7th Division based in My Tho south of the capital, which was previously assigned to Diem loyalist General Huynh Van Cao, who was in charge of the IV Corps in the Mekong Delta. The reassignment of the 7th Division to Dinh gave his III Corps complete encirclement of Saigon. The encirclement would prevent Cao from storming the capital to save Diem as he had done during the 1960 coup attempt.[87][89][90][91]

Nhu and Tung, remained unaware of Dinh's allegiance to the rebels, and were fooled. Dinh said that fresh troops were needed in the capital,[92] opining, "If we move reserves into the city, the Americans will be angry. They'll complain that we're not fighting the war. So we must camouflage our plan by sending the special forces out to the country. That will deceive them."[92] Nhu had no idea that Dinh's real intention was to engulf Saigon with rebel units and lock Tung's loyalists in the countryside where they could not defend the Ngos.[88] Tung and Nhu agreed to send all four Saigon-based special forces companies out of the capital on October 29.[92]

Diem's dead body in the back of an armoured personnel carrier

On November 1, 1963, the real coup went ahead, with Cao and Tung's troops isolated outside Saigon, unable to rescue Diem and Nhu from the rebel encirclement.[89] By the time the Ngo brothers realised that coup was not the fake action organised by the loyalists, Tung had been called to the Joint General Staff headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, under the pretense of a routine meeting, and was seized and executed. Attempts by Diem and Nhu to make contact with Dinh were blocked by other generals, whose staff claimed that Dinh was elsewhere, leading Nhu and Diem brothers to think that he had been captured, unaware that he had turned against them.[90]

Around 20:00, with the Presidential Guard hopelessly outnumbered, Diem and Nhu hurriedly packed and escaped the palace, 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.[93] The brothers were believed to have escaped through a secret tunnel, and emerged in a wooded area in a nearby park, where they were picked up and taken to a supporter's house in the Chinese merchant district of Cholon.[93][94] 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 travel to join Cao's IV Corps, while the other would go 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. Diem turned down his younger brother.[93]

The brothers sought asylum from the embassy of the Republic of China, but were turned down and stayed in the safehouse as they appealed to ARVN loyalists and attempted to negotiate with the coup leaders.[95] Nhu's agents had fitted the home with a direct phone line to the palace, so the coup 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.[94] Diem and Nhu refused to surrender, so the 5th Division of Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu besieged the palace and captured it by dawn.[96]

In the early morning of November 2, Diem and Nhu agreed to surrender. The ARVN officers had promised the Ngo brothers safe exile and an "honorable retirement".[97] The US did not want Diem and Nhu near Vietnam "because of the plots they will mount to try to regain power".[98]

When Duong Van Minh found the palace empty, he was angered, but was soon informed of the Ngo brothers' whereabouts.[99] Nhu and Diem fled to the nearby Catholic Church of St. Francis Xavier,[98] where they were taken into custody and put into an armoured personnel carrier,[100] to be taken back to military headquarters. The convoy was led by General Mai Huu Xuan and the brothers were guarded inside the APC by Major Duong Hieu Nghia and Captain Nguyen Van Nhung, Minh's bodyguard.[101]

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. An investigation by General Tran Van 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.[102]

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."[100] 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."[100]

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".[103] 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 the arms of his personal power."[104]

Nhu and Diem's place of burial was never disclosed by the junta, and rumours persist to the present day. The speculated burial places include a military prison, a local cemetery, and the grounds of the JGS headquarters at Tan Son Nhut; there are also reports of cremation.[105][106] Nobody was ever prosecuted for the killings.[107]


  1. ^ a b Karnow, pp. 229–233.
  2. ^ Jacobs, pp. 10–20.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Miller, p. 448.
  4. ^ a b c d Miller, p. 449.
  5. ^ a b c Karnow, pp. 280–284.
  6. ^ a b Jacobs, pp. 20–23.
  7. ^ Jacobs, pp. 24–32.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Miller, p. 450.
  9. ^ Miller, p. 451.
  10. ^ Miller, p. 452.
  11. ^ Miller, pp. 452–453.
  12. ^ Miller, p. 453.
  13. ^ Maclear, pp. 65–68.
  14. ^ a b Karnow, p. 239.
  15. ^ Langguth, p. 99.
  16. ^ Jacobs, p. 95.
  17. ^ Karnow (1997)
  18. ^ Karnow, p. 246.
  19. ^ Maclear, pp. 70–90.
  20. ^ Tucker, p. 461.
  21. ^ Olson, p. 65.
  22. ^ Olson, p. 98.
  23. ^ Scigliano, p. 155.
  24. ^ Osborne, p. 107.
  25. ^ Osborne, p. 108.
  26. ^ a b Osborne, p. 112.
  27. ^ Clymer, pp. 74–76.
  28. ^ Dommen, p. 364.
  29. ^ Hammer, pp. 131–133.
  30. ^ Jacobs, pp. 131–132.
  31. ^ Karnow, pp. 280–281.
  32. ^ Karnow, p. 274.
  33. ^ Tang, p. 47.
  34. ^ Jacobs, p. 127.
  35. ^ Langguth, pp. 168–169.
  36. ^ a b Halberstam, p. 139.
  37. ^ Tucker, pp. 292–293.
  38. ^ a b Jones, p. 286.
  39. ^ a b Langguth, p. 219.
  40. ^ Prochnau, p. 328.
  41. ^ a b Hammer, p. 157.
  42. ^ Jones, p. 285.
  43. ^ a b Halberstam, p. 140.
  44. ^ Dommen, p. 524.
  45. ^ a b c Hammer, p. 166.
  46. ^ a b Jones, p. 300.
  47. ^ Jacobs, pp. 168–169.
  48. ^ Karnow, p. 301.
  49. ^ Halberstam, pp. 144–145.
  50. ^ a b Hammer, p. 167.
  51. ^ a b c Halberstam, p. 145.
  52. ^ a b c Halberstam, p. 143.
  53. ^ a b Jones, p. 297.
  54. ^ Jacobs, p. 153.
  55. ^ a b c d e f "The Crackdown". TIME. August 31, 1963.,9171,940704-1,00.html. Retrieved August 18, 2007. 
  56. ^ a b c Hammer, p. 168.
  57. ^ Jones, p. 298.
  58. ^ Dommen, pp. 508–511.
  59. ^ a b c Jacobs, pp. 152–153.
  60. ^ Halberstam, p. 144.
  61. ^ Moyar, pp. 212–216, 231–234.
  62. ^ Jones, pp. 298–299.
  63. ^ Halberstam, p. 146.
  64. ^ a b Jones, p. 306.
  65. ^ Halberstam, p. 153.
  66. ^ Jacobs, pp. 153–154.
  67. ^ Halberstam, p. 154.
  68. ^ a b c d Jones, p. 393.
  69. ^ Jacobs, pp. 162–163.
  70. ^ Karnow, pp. 303–304.
  71. ^ Halberstam, pp. 157–158.
  72. ^ Halberstam, p. 152.
  73. ^ a b Jones, pp. 358–359.
  74. ^ Tucker, p. 404.
  75. ^ Jacobs, p. 169.
  76. ^ Jones, p. 390.
  77. ^ Hammer, pp. 246–247.
  78. ^ a b Hammer, pp. 235–236.
  79. ^ Hammer, pp. 272–273.
  80. ^ Karnow, pp. 300–324.
  81. ^ a b Prochnau, p. 411.
  82. ^ a b Karnow, p. 318.
  83. ^ Karnow, p. 317.
  84. ^ Jones, pp. 398–399.
  85. ^ a b Hatcher, p. 149.
  86. ^ a b Sheehan, p. 368.
  87. ^ a b Tucker, pp. 291–298.
  88. ^ a b Karnow, p. 319.
  89. ^ a b Karnow, pp. 307–322.
  90. ^ a b Gettleman 1966, pp. 280–282.
  91. ^ Hatcher, pp. 145–146.
  92. ^ a b c Jones, p. 399.
  93. ^ a b c Hammer, p. 293.
  94. ^ a b Karnow, p. 323.
  95. ^ Jones, p. 418.
  96. ^ Jones, pp. 412–415.
  97. ^ Hammer, p. 297.
  98. ^ a b Hammer, p. 294.
  99. ^ Hammer, p. 292.
  100. ^ a b c Jones, p. 429.
  101. ^ Hammer, pp. 297–298.
  102. ^ Karnow, p. 326.
  103. ^ Jones, p. 436.
  104. ^ Jones, p. 435.
  105. ^ Shaplen, p. 210.
  106. ^ Jacobs, p. 189.
  107. ^ Jones, p. 180.


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