The November Assassinations That Rocked The World

Author: John Malch

Editor’s Note: Jealousy, political or religious ideology, contract killing, revenge, geopolitical manipulation and nation building are all motives for assassination: the murder of an individual who is usually a famous celebrity, politician, religious figure or royal. John Malch’s post addresses the brutal assassinations of South Vietnam’s Ngô Ðình Diem and his brother on November 2, 1963. The assassinations haunted U.S. President Kennedy, but by November 22, 1963, less than three weeks later Kennedy, himself, would die from an assassin’s bullet(s).

Part I Friendly Dictators

The United States has a dark history of poor choices for ‘Puppets of State’. Especially in

Prime Minister Ngô Ðình Diem casting his ballot in 1955 State of Vietnam referendum (Cuoc trung cau dân ý mien Nam Viet Nam 1955)!etd.send_file?accession=osu1091210764&disposition=inline

Prime Minister Ngô Ðình Diem casting his ballot in 1955 State of Vietnam referendum (Cuoc trung cau dân ý mien Nam Viet Nam 1955)!etd.send_file?accession=osu1091210764&disposition=inline

Latin America, South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. One of the most controversial and disturbing choices the United States’ made was in 1956, when, backed by the “American Plan”, Ngô Ðình Diem proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Vietnam, naming himself President.

I have often wondered whether Diem was ever vetted for this position. Ngô Ðình Diem was born in Phú Cam, Quong Binh Province,‘North Vietnam’. Diem was christened Jean-Baptiste in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Hue in 1907. His primary education started at a French Catholic school. He later entered a private school started by his father. At the end of his secondary schooling, his examination results were sufficiently impressive at the French lycée in Hue, he was offered a scholarship to Paris. Diem declined. Instead, He moved to Hanoi to study at the School of Public Administration and Law, a French school that trained Vietnamese bureaucrats. It was there that he had the only romantic relationship of his life when he fell in love with one of his teacher’s daughters. After she persisted with her vocation, entering a convent, he remained celibate.

Why would the United States select a Roman Catholic, with a formal French education

Buddhism in Vietnam

Buddhism in Vietnam

and very little knowledge of Anman and especially Cochin-china where the population in 1956 was over 92% non-Christian, i.e., Animism, Buddhism (70% of the population), Cao Dai, Confucianism, Hinduism, Hinduism, Hoa Hao, and Islam, as president of newly formed Republic of Vietnam?

Vietnamese elders I know, claimed it may have been necessary for the United States to appease France in softening the blow for their loss of their Colony, French Indo-China. Tongue-in-cheek they said it was better for the new president to speak fluent French rather than English.

The United States had rushed headlong into supporting Diem, seemingly without consideration of the culture. South Vietnam was a U.S. government construct, a nation-building exercise illuminated by the Pentagon Papers.

“The United States moved quickly to prevent the unification and to establish South Vietnam as an American sphere. It set up in Saigon as head of the government a former Vietnamese official named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had recently been living in New Jersey, and encouraged him not to hold the scheduled elections for unification. A memo in early 1954 of the joint Chiefs of Staff said that intelligence estimates showed “a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States [Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-the three parts of Indochina created by the Geneva Conference] to Communist control.” Diem again and again blocked the elections requested by the Vietminh, and with American money and arms his government became more and more firmly established. As the Pentagon Papers put it: “South Viet Nam was essentially the creation of the United States.”[1]

By 1961, Southeast Asia was rapidly becoming a tinder box.  During a discussion of an Edward Lansdale report on Vietnam with Walt Whitman Rostow, the National Security advisor, Kennedy lamented, “’This is the worst one we’ve got. You know, Eisenhower never mentioned it. He talked at length about Laos, but never uttered the word Vietnam.”  Lansdale’s report brought the deterioration of South Vietnam’s political stability into focus for Kennedy as he remarked to Rostow that the “Lansdale’s narrative was ‘an extremely vivid and well-written account of a place that was going to hell in a hack.’…” [2]

Diem and his brother persisted in implementing domestic policies based on impressing the Catholic religion and requiring personal loyalties that accelerated the destabilization of the country.  The prevailing religion in Vietnam was Buddhism, that represented 70% of the

Buddhist Monks were burning themselves alive in protest.

Buddhist Monks were burning themselves alive in protest.

population at the time and the Ngô brothers were persecuting them terribly.  Making matters worse were two notable supporters of the Ngô’s, neither of whom had a clue about the national culture of Vietnam.  Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, a Montana Democrat, lectured in Far Eastern and Latin American history in his previous life. Mansfield was also a practicing Catholic.  While Mansfield openly admitted he knew nothing about Vietnam, he very much liked Diem and he was generally considered to be congress’ resident Vietnam expert.  The second big player who knew nothing about Vietnam was Col. Edward Lansdale, a CIA asset who befriended and used the Ngô brothers but was only committed to his concept of counterinsurgency warfare.  The Pentagon Papers revealed that, based on Lansdale’s advice, Kennedy approved secret operations to “dispatch of agents to North Vietnam” to engage in “sabotage and light harassment”.

The Ngô brothers’ refused to cease and desist acting on their paranoia, and that resulted in thousands of Buddhists and dissenters being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.  The Geneva Accords permitted the U.S. to have 685 military advisers in southern Vietnam. Eisenhower sent several thousand and, under Kennedy, the figure rose to sixteen thousand with some of them taking part in combat operations. Diem was losing. Most of the South Vietnam countryside was now controlled by local villagers organized by the NLF. (See Footnote 1)  It became clear that a new government was necessary if the U.S. was to be effective in keeping Vietnam out of Communist hands.  Kennedy authorized the overthrow with the provision that the Ngô brothers would be extracted to live in exile.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Ambassador to South Vietnam, received a cable (Cable 243) outlining the issues and actions that were the next steps in changing regimes or bringing the Diem’s regime into line with American interests, following the midnight raids on the Buddhist Pagodas on August 21, 1963.[3]  The brothers would not or could not change directions and the South Vietnam’s Diem government was overthrown in a military coup d’état according to the CIA play book.  What did not go ‘according to plan’ was the murder

Ngô Ðình Diem's body after being shot and killed on 2 November1963 coup from the National Archives of the U.S. Cited as being taken by an unnamed US official serving in Vietnam

Ngô Ðình Diem’s body after being shot and killed on 2 November1963 coup from the National Archives of the U.S. Cited as being taken by an unnamed US official serving in Vietnam

of the Ngô brothers whose desperate calls for rescue went unheeded by the U.S. government that had put them in power.

While a true November horror story, it was not the first or last time the U.S. interfered. Here is a short list of some of the more recent and disturbing choices:

As mentioned earlier the U.S. was active in supporting authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world including Latin America. Other good reads are Friendly Dictators blog, It Ain’t Just Mubarak- 7 of the Worst Dictators the U.S. Is Backing to the Hilt, 10 vicious dictators supported by the U.S. government, and 35 Countries Where the U.S. Has Supported Fascists, Drug Lords and Terrorists.

The November assassinations are a painful reminder of U.S. failures in the international arena of ‘nation building’. I spent the past three days at my daughter’s in Garden Grove.  She is care giver to a man who was present during Diem Coup in 1963.  At the time he was Major Nguyen Ngoc Thiet, Provost Marshal of ARVN. Major Thiet was a member in General Committee under MG Duong Van Minh, Chairman.  Our discussion confirmed many truths and myths about the Diem assignation.  One of the best accounts of this tumultuous period is the Coup Against the Diem Government. (If you scroll down to page 529, line number 103 you’ll find Major Thiet was a member in General Committee under MG Duong Van Minh, Chairman.)

At his inauguration, President Kennedy said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  In Vietnam, we kept that promise on the backs of our soldiers and the Vietnamese people. 


[1] A People’s History Of The United States; Howard Zinn; Chapter 18: The Impossible Victory: Vietnam;

[2] George Washington University National Security Archives; The Wall; Episode 9; INTERVIEW WITH WALT ROSTOW;

[3] George Washington University National Security Archives; Cable 243;

Part II will cover President Kennedy’s assassination

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