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Discontent with Diem’s policies exploded following the Hu? Ph?t Ð?n 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 discriminatory policies that gave privileges to the Catholic Church and its adherents. Diem’s elder brother Ngo Dinh Thuc was the Archbishop of Hu? and aggressively blurred the separation between church and state.
Thuc’s anniversary celebrations shortly before Vesak had been bankrolled by the government and Vatican flags were displayed prominently. There had also been reports of Buddhist pagodas being demolished by Catholic paramilitaries throughout Diem’s rule.
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 and leaving a death toll estimated to range into the hundreds. U.S. officials began discussing the possibility of a regime change during the middle of 1963.
The United States Department of State was generally in favor of encouraging a coup, while the Defense Department favored Diem. Chief among the proposed changes was the removal of Diem’s younger brother Nhu, who controlled the secret police and special forces was seen as the man behind the Buddhist repression and more generally the architect of the Ngo family’s rule.
This proposal was conveyed to the U.S. embassy in Saigon in Cable 243. Ngo Dinh Diem after being shot and killed in the 1963 coup. 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”.
Following the coup, chaos ensued. Hanoi took advantage of the situation and increased its support for the guerrillas.
South Vietnam entered a period of extreme political instability, as one military government toppled another in quick succession. Increasingly, each new regime was viewed as a puppet of the Americans; whatever the failings of Diem, his credentials as a nationalist (as Robert McNamara later reflected) had been impeccable.
U.S military advisers were embedded at every level of the South Vietnamese armed forces. They were, however, almost completely ignorant of the political nature of the insurgency.
The insurgency was a political power struggle, in which military engagements were not the main goal. The Kennedy administration sought to refocus U.S. efforts on pacification and “winning over the hearts and minds” of the population.
The military leadership in Washington, however, was hostile to any role for U.S. advisers other than conventional troop training
General Paul Harkins, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam, confidently predicted victory by Christmas 1963. The CIA was less optimistic, however, warning that “the Viet Cong by and large retain de facto control of much of the countryside and have steadily increased the overall intensity of the effort”
Paramilitary officers from the CIA’s Special Activities Division trained and led Hmong tribesmen in Laos and into Vietnam.
The indigenous forces numbered in the tens of thousands and they conducted direct action missions, led by paramilitary officers, against the Communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese supporters.The CIA also ran the Phoenix Program and participation Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MAC-V SOG), which was originally named the Special Operations Group, but was changed for cover purposes.