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US ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

DEPTEL 243, also known as Telegram 243, the August 24 cable or most commonly Cable 243, was a high profile message sent on August 24, 1963 by the United States Department of State to Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., the US ambassador to South Vietnam. The cable came in the wake of the midnight raids on August 21 by the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem against Buddhist pagodas across the country, in which hundreds were believed to have been killed. The raids were orchestrated by Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and precipitated a change in US policy. The cable declared that Washington would no longer tolerate Nhu remaining in a position of power and ordered Lodge to pressure Diem to remove his brother. It said that if Diem refused, the Americans would explore the possibility for alternative leadership in South Vietnam. In effect, the cable authorized Lodge to give the green light to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) officers to launch a coup against Diem if he did not willingly remove Nhu from power. The cable marked a turning point in US-Diem relations and was described in the Pentagon Papers as "controversial". Historian John W. Newman described it as "the single most controversial cable of the Vietnam War."[1]

The cable also highlighted an internal split in the Kennedy administration, with anti-Diem officials in the State Department prevailing over generals and Department of Defense officials who remained optimistic that the Vietnam War was proceeding well under Diem. This was underlined by the manner in which the cable was prepared before being transmitted to Lodge.

Contents

Background

Ngo Dinh Nhu (pictured right) meeting US Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson

The cable came in the wake of the midnight raids of August 21 by the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem against Buddhist pagodas across the country in which hundreds were believed to have been killed and more than a thousand monks and nuns were arrested. The pagodas were also extensively vandalised. Initially, the raids coincided with the declaration of martial law on the day before. A group of generals of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had asked Diem to give them extra powers to fight the Viet Cong but secretly wanted to manoeuvre for a coup. Diem agreed, so that Nhu's Special Forces could take advantage and attack the Buddhist pagoda while disguised as regular ARVN forces. The raids were instigated by Nhu's Special Forces and Secret Police.[2]

At first, there was confusion as to what had occurred. Nhu had ordered the phone lines into the US embassy and the US Information Service to be cut. A curfew was imposed on the streets, and it was initially believed that the regular army had orchestrated the attacks. The Voice of America initially broadcast Nhu's version of the events, which held that the army was responsible. This infuriated the ARVN generals, since many Vietnamese listened to the program as their only source of non-government, non-propaganda news. Through CIA agent Lucien Conein, General Tran Van Don communicated to the Americans that Nhu had created the impression that the ARVN were responsible in order to increase dissent among the lower ranks and to weaken support for and discredit the generals in case they were planning a coup.[3]

Preparation of the cable

On a Saturday afternoon, with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and CIA director John McCone on vacation, the message was drafted by a group of State Department officials. President John F. Kennedy was on vacation, and told the officials to get other officials to approve the message. Believing that Kennedy had already approved the cable, administration advisors subsequently approved it. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was the only cabinet member to sign the document, believing that Kennedy had already informally approved it. The cable signalled the start of more frenetic plotting by ARVN officers in the belief that the US would not interfere and would support a military junta. The plotting culminated in a November 1 coup lead by General Duong Van Minh, in which Diem and Nhu were overthrown and assassinated.[4]

Cable

The opening paragraphs of the cable stated:

It is now clear that whether military proposed martial law or whether Nhu tricked them into it, Nhu took advantage of its imposition to smash pagodas with police and Tung's Special Forces loyal to him, thus placing onus on military in eyes of world and Vietnamese people. Also clear that Nhu has maneuvered himself into commanding position.


US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu's hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available.
If, in spite of all your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.[5]

The cable went on to instruct Lodge to inform Diem that the US could not accept the raids and to call for strong action to address the Buddhist crisis.[5] Lodge was told to tell the South Vietnamese military officers that:

....US would find it impossible to continue support GVN militarily and economically unless above steps are taken immediately which we recognize requires removal of Nhus from the scene. We wish give Diem reasonable opportunity to remove Nhus, but if he remains obdurate, then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem. You may also tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism.[5]

The cable also informed Lodge of the need to exonerate the ARVN from responsibility of the pagoda raids. It asked Lodge to approve a broadcast by the Voice of America laying the responsibility at Nhu. Lodge was further requested to examine and search for alternative leadership to replace Diem.[5]

Lodge's response

Lodge replied the next day and endorsed the strong position but proposed to refrain from approaching Diem to suggest that Nhu be removed. Lodge advocated only stating the US position to the generals and in effect to encourage the ARVN to stage a coup.[5] Lodge's cable stated:

Believe that chances of Diem's meeting our demands are virtually nil. At the same time, by making them we give Nhu chance to forestall or block action by military. Risk, we believe, is not worth taking, with Nhu in control combat forces Saigon. Therefore, propose we go straight to Generals with our demands, without informing Diem. Would tell them we prepared have Diem without Nhus but it is in effect up to them whether to keep him.[5]

Infighting

The decision to authorise the cable prompted significant infighting in the Kennedy administration. This began on a Monday morning meeting at the White House on August 26. Kennedy was met with angry comments by Rusk, McNamara, McCone and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, all of whom denied authorising the cable. Kennedy was reported to have said "My God! My government's coming apart." Taylor felt insulted by the final line of the cable which asserted that only the "minimum essential people" had seen its contents. During an acrimonius exchange at a midday meeting, he condemned the cable as an "egregious end run" by an anti-Diem faction. Hilsman rebutted Taylor by asserting that Kennedy and representatives of departments and agencies had approved the message. Years afterward, Taylor declared

The anti-Diem group centered in State [department] had taken advantage of the absence of the principal officials to get out instructions which would never have been approved as written under normal circumstances.

Talyor claimed that the message was reflective of Forrestal and Hilsman's "well-known compulsion" to remove Diem.[6]

Kennedy could no longer stand the arguing among his officials and shouted "This shit has got to stop!". Kennedy was angry at Hilsman and Forrestal for what he deemed to be incompetence and Harriman for indiscretion. When Kennedy criticised Forrestal for proceeding without the explicit approval of McCone, Forrestal offered to resign Kennedy sharply replied "You're not worth firing. You owe me something, so you stick around."[7]

In the end, the cable was not retracted despite the disagreement. Ball refused to back down, maintaining that "the evil influence of the Nhus" overrode all other factors. Ball described Diem as "an offense to America." McCone did not advocate a change in policy despite disagreeing with the process in which the telegram left Washington. Taylor said that "You can't change American policy in twenty-four hours and expect anyone to ever believe you again." Kennedy walked around the meeting table and asked each of his advisers whether they wanted to change course. None were willing to tell him to retract his telegram.

Notes

  1. ^ Jacobs, p. 161.
  2. ^ Jacobs, pp. 152–154.
  3. ^ Jacobs, p. 160.
  4. ^ Jacobs, p. 162.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963". The Pentagon Papers. 1963. pp. 201–276. http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/pentagon2/pent7.htm.  
  6. ^ Jones, p. 318.
  7. ^ Jones, p. 319.

References

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