Who's Who

A failed coup in South Vietnam

Richard Cavendish remembers the attempted coup against the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1960.

A peace conference in Geneva in 1954 split Vietnam in two: the Communist ‘democratic republic’ in the north under Ho Chi Minh; and a monarchy in the south under the Emperor Bao Dai. It was intended to be a temporary arrangement, but Bao Dai was thrown out in 1955 and replaced by Ngo Dinh Diem as president of a new southern republic. Ngo was a Roman Catholic and a dedicated anti-Communist, who had no intention of giving Ho any chance to take over a reunited country. He turned South Vietnam into a despotic dictatorship with members of his family in key positions. His brother was head of the political police, which herded suspected opponents into prison camps. The favour the regime showed to Roman Catholics and its hostility to Buddhism helped to power rising discontent, while the Communist Vietcong movement formed in the south and the Americans, who had poured millions of dollars into South Vietnam to keep Communism at bay, had growing doubts. An American official in South Vietnam memorably described Ngo as ‘a puppet who pulled his own strings’.

An attempted military coup against Ngo began in November 1960, when three battalions of South Vietnamese paratroopers and a unit of marines entered the capital, Saigon. Most of the men thought they were rescuing Ngo from a mutiny by his own guard at the presidential palace. They were led by Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong, a 28-year-old officer who had done part of his training in the United States, where he was regarded as brilliantly promising.

The rebels made straight for the palace and raked it with gunfire, smashing the windows. One machine-gun fired into Ngo’s bedroom and might have killed him in his bed if he had not happened to get up shortly before. He and his brother took refuge in the cellar, while the presidential guard resisted bravely. Trapped in the palace, Ngo lured the rebels into a ceasefire for negotiations in which he promised to reform the system while waiting for other army units to come to his aid. This they swiftly did. The rebels had failed to cut off the palace’s phone lines, which allowed Ngo to make calls to senior officers outside Saigon. They had also failed to block the roads leading into the city and two divisions of loyalist troops with tanks were able to make their way in. Four hundred people were killed in the ensuing battle, which the outnumbered rebels lost.

Vuong got away to Cambodia by plane. Ngo, who accused the American Central Intelligence Agency of backing the coup attempt, survived for the time being. Another coup failed in 1962 but Ngo was deposed and murdered in 1963. The Vietnam War began two years later.

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