1964 South Vietnamese coup

1964 South Vietnamese coup

On January 30, 1964, a successful coup led by General Nguyễn Khánh ousted the military junta led by General Dương Văn Minh from the leadership of South Vietnam. It came less than three months after Minh's junta had themselves come to power in a bloody coup against then President Ngô Đình Diệm. The coup was bloodless and took less than a few hours.


Following the partition of Vietnam, Khánh, a French trained officer, had rallied to the support of Ngô Đình Diệm. He rose to become the deputy chief of staff in the Vietnamese army, but his record of loyalty was called into question. In 1960, an attempted coup by rebel paratroopers, Khánh parleyed with the rebels long enough for loyal forces to arrive from the provinces to suppress the uprising, but his critics contended that he was waiting to see which side would gain the upper hand. In his younger days, Khánh had joined the Vietminh but then defected to the French colonial army. He participated in the 1963 South Vietnamese coup that deposed Diệm, playing a minor role. Khánh expected a large reward, but the junta assigned him command of the First Corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, based around Huế in the far north of the Republic of Vietnam. This, it was speculated, was to keep him far away from Saigon.

In mid-December he was moved from the II corps in the Central highlands to the I Corps, the northernmost of the military regions centred around Hue and Da Nang. This was contrary to Khanh’s request for a transfer to the Mekong Delta close to Saigon where most of the fighting was taking place. In an interview with Robert Shapelen, Khanh made no attempt to hide his annoyance at not being given a more important job. With respect to the 1963 coup, he cryptically commented "It is too soon yet to tell the whoel story, but someday I will tell it to you".

Khanh also cited the large size of the junta as a factor in the slowing down of the operation of the government.Shaplen, p. 230.]

About a month before Minh’s junta was overthrown, Khanh was approached by one of the principal tacticians in the removal of Diem, General Do Mau. A Colonel at the time of the previous coup, Mau had been head of military security under Diem. Although he did not explicitly command troops, Mau had a thorough knowledge of the backgrounds of most of the ARVN officers and their strengths and weaknesses. This had allowed him to help engineer the previous coup. The junta respected Mau, but their fears about his shrewdness led them to place him in the relatively powerless post of Minister of Information. Mau’s closest aides were posted further away from any real power. Mau began to search for officers to replace the junta, searching for exiles in Cambodia and France as well as those who had returned to Vietnam after the overthrow of Diem. The most important link in Mau’s plan was Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi, the former paratroop commander who had fled to Cambodai in the wake of the failed 1960 coup attempt against Diem. Mau persuaded the junta to install Thi as Khanh’s deputy in the I Corps. He tricked the junta into doing so by reasoning that Khanh had largely been responsible for putting down the 1960 revolt and that Thi would be an ideal mechanism for keeping Khanh in check. Privately, Mau predicted that Thi would be bridge between him in Saigon and Khanh in Hue. He was correct in thinking that the 1960 conflict would be irrelevant in the shifting of allegiances of time and that the pair would work together for their current aims. Mau recruited a second figure in the form of General Tran Thien Khiem, who was one of Khanh’s fellow cadets and had worked with Mau during the November coup. Khiem had assisted Diem in putting down the 1960 plot and had since been demoted from being Chief of Staff of the ARVN to the commander of the III Corps which surrounded Saigon. Khiem readily joined the plot and controlled the 5th and 7th Divisions of the ARVN which were based in Bien Hoa and My Tho north and south of Saigon respectively. This brought the two division commanders subordinate to Khiem into the plot. Khiem, Khanh and Mau kept in touch surreptitiously on a regular basis, supplementing their forces with an assortment of Marine, Air Force and Special Forces officers. Another notable recruit was the chief of the Civil Guard, Duong Ngoc Lam who had recently been promoted from Colonel to General. He was under investigation by the junta for swindling military funds and was readily converted. Another was General Duong Van Duc, who had recently returned from exile in Paris and was an assistant to General Le Van Kim, the chief of the junta's general staff. [Shaplen, pp. 321–232.]

In late December and early January, student demonstrations in South Vietnam were held against neutralism and de Gaulle. The Council of Notables, and advisory selected by the junta, had accused the provisional government of lacking a firm issue on the neutralist issue and went as far as to recommend that South Vietnam suspend diplomatic relations with France. The rumours and crisis heightened when a reputed French agent, Lieutenant Colonel Tran Dinh Lan suddenly returned to Saigon after spending several years in France. He had served in both the French and Vietnamese Army and had brought with him several million US dollars worth of South Vietnamese piasters. Lan moved into the home of one of General Kim’s top aides, fuelling speculation that more French agents were arriving in the capital. Such rumours served to spread the belief that a French-sponsored neutralist deal was imminent and gave the conspirators an opportunity to act. [Shaplen, p. 232.]

Duc had years of experience in France had given him a good feel of what the French might be up to and what their relations with Francophile members of the ARVN were. He used this to concoct some plausible sounding and incriminating documents for Mau. They purported to show that three prominent members of the junta: Generals Kim, Minh and Don had been bought by French agents and were on the brink of declaring South Vietnam’s neutrality and sign a peace deal to end the war with the North. Don was the Minister of Defense and Minh was the President. Some of the documents were leaked to elements of the American presence in Saigon and were brought to the attention of some senior American officials. [Shaplen, p. 232.]

The junta had failed to assert control over the country following the downfall of Diệm. Khánh, upset by his treatment, began conspiring with General Tran Thien Khiem, who was commander of the Saigon region, another officer who felt that his contribution to the Diệm coup was overlooked. They met covertly in Saigon or in Khánh’s headquarters in Huế beginning in early January, and scheduled the coup for 0400 January 30.


According to the plan, Khiem’s forces in Saigon would surround the homes of the sleeping junta members while Khánh and a paratrooper unit would occupy the general staff headquarters near Tân Sơn Nhất airport. On January 28, Khánh flew from Huế to Saigon dressed in civilian clothes on a commercial airliner. He covered for his ruse by travelling with United States military adviser Colonel Jasper Wilson and stated that he had come for a dental appointment. Khánh stayed at the house of a friend and waited for the coup.

As the time approached, he donned his paratrooper uniform and headed to the staff headquarters, where he saw that the compound was empty apart from a few guards. When he telephoned Khiem, he found that his co-conspirator had overslept after having forgotten to set his alarm clock. Despite this, by daybreak, Khánh had taken over the government without a shot being fired, stating in a morning radio broadcast that he had conducted the coup because of the junta’s failure to make progress against the Việt Cộng.

Khanh held a number of meetings with American officers in Hue during the first two weeks of January. In addition to routine military matters, coup discussions were also reported to have taken place. Khanh also regularly flew down to Saigon to take part in plotting with his colleagues. These usually took place in the secluded house of a colonel who was a nearby province chief. Khanh began growing a small goatee, which he customarily grew when he was attempting a new project and would only shave once the job had been completed.

On January, Colonel Thi followed Khanh to the capital. The plotters and their agents met in out of the way spots around town. On the night of January 29, Mau and Khiem alerted their troops to assume their positions around Saigon. These included many of those used in the first coup:Armored cars and tanks and some elements from the 5th and 7th Divisions, two airborne battalions and one Marine battalion and a assortment of Special Forces, Ranger and Civil Guard units. A number of American officers and embassy officials were alerted to be in their officers at two o’clock in the morning. At 0300, Khanh took over the Joint General Staff Headquarters at Tan Son Nhut airport. Lodge was kept fully informed throughout the night.

Reaction and aftermath

The United States was caught off guard by the coup. Although Khánh had already told CIA agent Lucien Conein (who helped to plan the coup against Diệm) in December 1963 that he intended to hold a coup, it was filed away among the many political rumour documents that were received by the American representatives. Following the coup, he was promoted by the Americans as South Vietnam’s new hope.

At the time, French President Charles de Gaulle was contemplating recognising the People’s Republic of China and wanted Southeast Asia neutralised as part of his agenda. Khánh used this to enact retribution against Generals Tran Van Don and Le Van Kim, part of the former junta. Khánh had both of them arrested, claiming that they were part of a neutralist plot with the French. Khánh noted that they had served in the French colonial administration, although he did as well. The generals were arrested and flown to My Khe beach, near Đà Nẵng. He also had arrested Generals Tôn Thất Đính and Mai Huu Xuan, the interior minister and police chief respectively. Khánh presided over their trial. The generals were interrogated for five and a half hours, mostly about details of their coup which were already known, rather than the original charge of promoting neutralism. The court deliberated for nine hours, and when it reconvened for the verdict, Khánh stated, "We ask that once you begin to serve again in the army, you do not take revenge on anybody". The tribunal then "congratulated" the generals, but found that they were of "lax morality", unqualified to command and "lack of a clear political concept". Kim was put under house arrest for six years, and Don 18 months. Offices in Da Lat were prepared for them so that they could participate in "research and planning". However, Khánh's actions left divisions among the officers of the ARVN who became dissatisfied with Khánh. When Khánh was himself deposed in 1965, he handed over dossiers proving that Don and Kim were innocent.

Khánh also had Major Nguyễn Văn Nhung, the bodyguard of Minh, shot. Nhung was notable for his execution of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in the 1963 coup, as well the Diệm loyalist Special Forces head Colonel Lê Quang Tùng. Nhung had become a symbol of the removal of Diệm, and his execution lead to fears that it would signal the return of Diệm’s policies and loyalists. This resulted in riots in Saigon, notably among Buddhists who feared that anti-Buddhist policies would be reintroduced.

Khanh swiftly and boldly attempted to consolidate his grip on power by announcing himself as the Head of State and as Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Council, replacing Minh. Minh had not been implicated in the alleged French neutralist plot. Khanh later managed to persuade Minh to remain as the nominal Head of State. This was partly the result of American pressure, who felt that Minh would be a unifying and stabilising factor in the new regime and that his cooperation would provide a degree of continuity. This did not last long as Khanh came toa ssert himself as the sole ruler of the MRC. Khanh turned out to be far more politically oriented and motivated than the previous junta, seeking the help of veteran Vietnamese politicians and technicians to create a new government infrastructure. A week after coming to power, Khanh summoned Dr. Nguyen Ton Hoan, a Catholic who was one of the former leaders of the southern branch of the Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang (Greater Vietnam Nationalist Party). Hoan had been exiled in Paris for a long period but had been among the most active of the exiled, publishing a magazine and keeping up to speed with developments in Vietnam. Hoan had generated little popular following during his campaign for power in the 1940s and 1950s and was unable to form a government as Prime Minister when he returned. Khanh thereupon decided act as both Prime Minister and Chairman of the reorganised MRC which he expanded to include 17 generals and 32 further officers. Hoan was appointed as the first Deupty Prime Minister in charge of rural pacification. He was given supervision over five ministries including the Interior, Naitonal Defense and Rural Affairs and two special commissions all of which primarily engaged in consolidating the strategic hamlets of Ngo Dinh Nhu into the renamed New Rural Life Hamlets. A second Deputy Prime Ministerial post was given to Harvard trained banker-economist Nguyen Xuan Oanh had ties to but was not a Dai Viet member. Oanh was charged with managing the finance and economy of the country. Mau was the third deputy, overseeing social and cultural affairs.236-237

Khanh selected a cabinet of thirteen minsters and two Secretaries of State at Cabinet level and chose new provincial and district chiefs. He originally tried to include members of a variety of political and religious groups including representatives of the Cao Dai and Hao Hao religious sects. The Cao Dai and Hoa Hao still had remnants of their private armies intact from their dismantling by Diem in 1955. Although Khanh insisted that he had to party affiliation, the orientation of his government was toward the Dai Viet, who held many of the key posts in the government. This provoked criticism from other anti-Communist nationalists and groups that were banned under the Diem period and were seeking a greater role in the public life of South Vietnam. 237

Khanh promised that village elections that were abolished under Diem would be held as soon as feasible and that a new National Assembly would be elected within a year. He started by abolishing the Council of Notables. Many Vietnamese and American observers considered this rash and premature since election promises had been frequently broken and that the Council had at least been an effective forum for dissent.238-239

Minh resented that fact that he had been deposed by a younger man who he regarded as an upstart. Minh was also upset with the detention of his fellow generals and some of his junior officers. The junior officers were set free when Minh demanded that Khanh release them as a condition for serving the new regime. Khanh attempted to avoid the issue of the alleged plot as long as he could and then tried to revive it by claiming that French agents were attempting to assassinate him and renew attempt at neutralism. Khanh offered no evidence, only claiming that the French had paid a hitman USD1300 to kill him.

They were chastised for being "inadequately aware of their heavy responsibility" and of letting "their subordinates take advantage of their positions". They were allowed to remain in Da Lat under surveillance with their families.

Minh was perfunctorily accused of misusing a small amount of money before being allowed to sit in as an advisor on the trial panel. Some tentative arrangements were made to send the generals to the United States for military study so that they could not plot while not commanding troops in battles, but this fell through.Shaplen, pp. 244–245.]



*cite book| title=Vietnam: A history| authorlink=Stanley Karnow |first=Stanley |last=Karnow |year=1997 |publisher=Penguin Books | pages =pp. 350–356, 354–355 | isbn=0-670-84218-4
*cite book|title=Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War| first= Spencer C. |last=Tucker |year=2000 |publisher=ABC-CLIO| pages =p. 299| isbn=1-57607-040-0
*cite book| title=Our Vietnam| first=A. J. |last=Langguth |year=2000 |publisher=Simon and Schuster | isbn=0-684-81202-9

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