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In this Vietnamese name, the family name is Trần, but is often simplified to Tran in English-language text. According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to by the given name Đôn.

Trần Văn Đôn (born 1917 in Bordeaux, France) was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, and one of the principal figures in the coup which deposed Ngo Dinh Diem from the presidency of South Vietnam.

Contents

Family

Don's father was the son of a wealthy Mekong Delta land owner, which allowed him to travel to France to study medicine. It was during this period that Don was born.

Education

Don later returned to France as an adult for his university study. He became a French Army officer when World War II began. Don trained at École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, the French version of West Point.

Military

He returned to Vietnam and served in the French backed Vietnamese National Army of the French backed State of Vietnam, fighting against the Vietminh in the First Indochina War. Don was a colonel in 1955, when he and then fellow colonel Duong Van Minh helped Ngo Dinh Diem establish himself in control of South Vietnam following the Geneva Accords and partition by helping to subdue the private armies of the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects as well as the Binh Xuyen organized crime syndicate. Both were immediately promoted to the rank of general. With the proclamation of the Republic of Vietnam, military officers were faced with becoming Vietnamese citizens if they wanted to remain in their positions. Don became a Vietnamese citizen.

Don became Diem's chief of staff and presided over a ceremony in Saigon in which the French style military rank insignias were burnt and replaced with American-inspired new insignias. In the early 1960s he commanded the I Corps of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which operated in the far north of South Vietnam, in the border region along the demilitarised zone. He led his forces into the mountainous areas of the central highlands to flush out pockets of Vietcong resistance and to prevent further infiltration from North Vietnam. In all, his command took in five provinces. He often came into dispute with Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Can who had his own autonomous private army and secret police and ruled the northern border regions of South Vietnam arbitrarily. Don was removed from command of troops and made the Joint Chief of Staff, where he was confined to an office with no troops. His work was mainly travelling to the airport to greet visiting American dignitaries. Diem feared that the respect that Don commanded could make a him a possible rival for power, as the army leadership was selected for the purposes of preserving Diem in power, rather than defeating the communists.

Don, then army Chief of Staff, organised discontented officers, and in mid 1963 began meeting with Lucien Conein, a French born CIA agent in Saigon with whom he culturally related. His closest confidant was his brother in law General Le Van Kim, who was also trained in France. In August, Don and other generals proposed to Diem that he declare martial law so that they could prosecute the war more effectively among the unrest. Their real purpose was to strengthen their control in preparation for a coup. Diem agreed, although he arranged that the army would raid the Xa Loi Pagoda and attack Buddhist dissidents unhappy with Diem’s pro Catholic policies. In the wake of the raids, Don attempted to win over General Ton That Dinh, the commander of the forces which surrounded Saigon, so that he could encircle Diem. Dinh, who was regarded as being vain, was reveling after taking credit for the Pagoda raids, even though they were performed by the Special Forces of Colonel Le Quang Tung. Don organised for a national inspection tour with Dinh, and played to his ego. Don organised many parties for Dinh, and told him that he was a national hero worthy of political authority. He even bribed Dinh’s soothsayer to predict his elevation to political authority. After Dinh asked Diem for the interior ministry post in front of his colleagues and was rebuked and sent off duty in front of his colleagues, Dinh changed sides. Don and Dinh then signed orders transferring the forces based around My Tho, 60 kilometres south of Saigon from General Huynh Van Cao, a Diem loyalist, to General Nguyen Huu Co. This gave the plotters complete encirclement of Saigon.

On November 1, Don convened a group of South Vietnamese officers at staff headquarters at Tan Son Nhut airport at 1330, and announced that a military revolutionary council was taking power in a coup. Diem repeatedly asked Don to call off the coup and negotiate governance reforms, but this was refused, since the 1960 South Vietnamese coup attempt was crushed by loyalists after the rebels stalled for negotiations. Don promised Diem safe passage from the country, but Major Nguyen Van Nhung, one of the arresting officers shot Diem.

Don then served in the military junta that resulted from the coup, as defense minister until it was deposed three months later in the 1964 South Vietnamese coup lead by General Nguyen Khanh. Khanh, unhappy with his dividend from the 1963 coup, enacted retribution against Don and Kim. He arrested both, claiming that they were part of a neutralist plot with the Vietcong and taken to Da Lat. 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, Khanh 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 for 18 months. Offices in were prepared in Da Lat so that they could participate in "research and planning". When Khanh fled the country after being deposed in 1965, he handed over a dossier which cleared Don and the other generals of the charges for which they were convicted.

Political service

In 1965, Don retired and was elected to the Senate in 1967 after topping the elections. He later served as the Defense minister, until Saigon was overrun in April 1975. He left for the United States a day before the fall.

References

  • Gettleman, Marvin E. (1966). Vietnam:History, documents and opinions on a major world crisis. Penguin Books. pp. 280–293.  
  • Karnow, Stanley (1997). Vietnam: A history. Penguin Books. pp. 300–326, 350–355. ISBN 0-670-84218-4.  
  • Tucker, Spencer C. (2000). Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War. ABC-CLIO. pp. 408. ISBN 1-57607-040-0.  
  • Hammer, Ellen J. (1987). A Death in November. E. P. Dutton. ISBN 0-525-24210-4.  
  • Shaplen, Robert (1965). The lost revolution: Vietnam 1945–1965. Andre Deutsch.  
  • Buttinger, Joseph (1967). Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled. Praeger publishers.  
  • Langguth, A. J. (2000). Our Vietnam. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-684-81202-9.  
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