Diem Overthrown and Executed
The inept performance of the South Vietnamese army was exemplified by failed actions such as the Battle of Ap Bac on 2 January 1963, in which a small band of Viet Cong beat off a much larger and better equipped South Vietnamese force, many of whose troops seemed reluctant even to engage in combat. The ARVN were led in that battle by Diem's most trusted General Huynh Van Cao, a Catholic who had been promoted due to religion and fidelity rather than skill. Some policy-makers in Washington began to conclude that Diem was incapable of defeating the communists and might even make a deal with Ho Chi Minh. He seemed concerned only with fending off coups. As Robert F. Kennedy noted, "Diem wouldn't make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with..."
Discontent with Diem's policies exploded following the Hue Vesak shootings of majority Buddhists who were protesting against the ban on the Buddhist flag on Vesak, the Buddha's birthday. This resulted in mass protests against policies that gave privileges to the Catholic Church and its adherents. Diem's elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the Archbishop of Hue and aggressively blurred the separation between church and state. Diem refused to make concessions to the Buddhist majority or take responsibility for the deaths. On 21 August 1963, the ARVN Special Forces of Colonel Le Quang Tung, loyal to Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, raided pagodas across Vietnam, causing widespread damage and destruction.
During the summer of 1963 U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change. The United States Department of State was generally in favor of encouraging a coup, while the Defense Department favoured Diem.
Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem's younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu controlled the secret police and was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression. As Diem's most powerful adviser, Nhu had become a hated figure in South Vietnam. This was conveyed to the US embassy in Saigon in Cable 243.
The CIA was in contact with generals planning to remove Diem. They were told that the United States would not oppose such a move nor punish the generals by cutting off aid. President Diem was overthrown and executed, along with his brother, on 2 November 1963. When he was informed, Maxwell Taylor remembered that Kennedy "rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face." He had not approved Diem's murder. The U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, invited the coup leaders to the embassy and congratulated them. Ambassador Lodge informed Kennedy that "the prospects now are for a shorter war".
Diem wouldn't make even the slightest concessions. He was difficult to reason with...”— Robert F. Kennedy
Kennedy appointed Lodge to the position of Ambassador to South Vietnam, which he held from 1963 to 1964. The new ambassador quickly determined that Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam, was both inept and corrupt, and that South Vietnam was headed for disaster unless Diem either reformed his administration or was replaced. But while the coup toppled the Diem regime, it sparked a rapid succession of leaders in Vietnam, each unable to rally and unify their people, and each in turn overthrown by someone new. As the situation in the region deteriorated, Lodge suggested to the State Department that South Vietnam be made to relinquish its independence, and it be made a protectorate of the United States so as to bring governmental stability. The alternatives, he warned, were either increased military involvement by the U.S., or else total abandonment of South Vietnam by America.