How did Lyndon Johnson, one of the most gifted political figures of his time, lose his way in a war he didn't start and didn't end?
Many historians believe that the November 1963 coup that brought down South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem was the event that started Johnson slogging through the morass that became the Vietnam War.
At this point, Johnson was still vice president and, ironically, as far as historians can tell, had not taken part in any high-level discussions about whether the US should support a coup.
“By 1963, he had been more or less cut out of Vietnam policy and of foreign affairs in general,” says Dartmouth College history professor Ed Miller. “President Kennedy really didn't trust Johnson and so, therefore, Johnson didn't have a major role in most of the meetings that took place on Vietnam in 1963.”
The coup that Kennedy had expected only to topple Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, instead ended with their brutal execution. Kennedy made his feelings clear about this in a memo he recorded at the time.
“I feel that we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of early Aug. in which we suggested the coup — in my judgment, a wire that was badly drafted,” he said.
Listen to Kennedy's personal memo.
“The Aug. 24 cable is the moment at which US policy towards the Diem government changes,” Ed Miller says.
Until then, US policy had been strong support for Diem’s government, Miller explains. As of Aug. 24, the policy shifted to “‘if there is an opportunity to promote a coup, which we think has a good chance of success, then we will support that,’” he says.
Three weeks after he dictated his November memo, Kennedy would meet the same fate in Dallas that President Diem had met in Saigon, and the troubling question of what to do about Vietnam would pass to Lyndon Johnson. And trouble wasn’t long in coming.
“Within a few months after the coup, the South Vietnamese government began to come apart at the seams,” Miller says. “There was another coup in Jan. of 1964 [and] the Vietcong make huge gains in the countryside.”
“It doesn't take very long to come to the conclusion that we were dealing with an absolute sinking ship,” recalls Paul Kattenberg, the State Department’s leading Vietnam watcher at the time. Prior to the coup, he’d been sent to Vietnam to investigate and had met with Diem, whom he'd known for a decade, and with Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the US ambassador to South Vietnam.
The day after his return to the states, Kattenberg found himself part of a National Security Council discussion about the impending coup.
“It was technocratic talk, instead of real serious political thinking about how to handle this,” Kattenberg says. “It would have been far better if we’d had a meeting of area experts who knew the region and knew the forces in contention.”
Normally, a staffer of Kattenberg’s junior rank wouldn't have spoken in such a high-level gathering, but he was just back from Saigon. He was asked for an assessment.
“I said that, all things being equal, maybe it would be better if we just left with honor. I really did think that, and I thought it more [as] the year went on,” Kattenberg recalls.
Later, Kattenberg’s remark would be remembered, even celebrated, within the foreign policy community as something of a profile in courage. But at the time of the meeting, the idea of an American withdrawal from Vietnam was, to many in the Kennedy administration, unthinkable.
“The first one, as I recall, to react to this was Johnson,” Kattenberg says. “Johnson was very much a kind of a warrior type. He wasn’t going to give up. [He thought], ‘We haven't gone this far with this whole thing to give it up now.’”
Johnson took a “very dim view” of the coup, recalls Samuel Gammon, a mid-level State Department staffer at the time. “He said, ‘This is cops and robbers stuff.’ He felt the fact that we knew about it [meant] we obviously could have discouraged it and we should have discouraged it. Diem may have been a son-of-a-bitch, but he was our son-of-a-bitch.”
“One of the greatest mistakes that this country ever made was when we encouraged the South Vietnamese to assassinate this president,” Johnson said in a private recording made when he was long out of office.
Listen to Johnson's recording.
Johnson's distress over the murder of Diem was personal as well as political. The two men had met in May of 1961 when Kennedy sent Johnson to Asia.
“Right from the outset, Diem and Johnson took a liking to each other,” Miller says. “Johnson, especially in public, was not just complimentary but effusive about Ngo Dinh Diem.”
In his private recording, Johnson notes that he told Diem he needed “to rise to the occasion and provide the same quality of leadership that Churchill [had]. … It makes no difference whether it’s a fascist aggressor or a communist aggressor, you people have got to stand up here and show some steel [and] not be the Chamberlains of your time. Be the Churchills of your time.”
Listen to Johnson's recording.
After Diem’s execution and JFK’s assassination, Johnson appears to have internalized the message he had communicated in his pep talk to Diem. As Churchill had stood up to aggression in Western Europe, it now fell to him, he seemed to believe, to do the same in Asia.
Ultimately, this deep, almost visceral, need to “show some steel,” to be Churchill the warrior rather than Chamberlain the appeaser, would paint the president into a terrible corner — knowing the war was a disaster in the making, but unable or unwilling to walk away.
This article is based on the PRI podcast, LBJ's War, hosted by David Brown. Subscribe to LBJ's War on Apple Podcasts.