Arrest and Assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem - Attempted Cover-up - US Reaction

US Reaction

Kennedy learned of the deaths on the following morning when National Security Council staffer Michael Forrestal rushed into the cabinet room with a telegram reporting the Ngô brothers' alleged suicides. According to General Maxwell Taylor, "Kennedy leaped to his feet and rushed from the room with a look of shock and dismay on his face which I had never seen before." Kennedy had planned that would be safely exiled and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. recalled that the U.S. president was "somber and shaken". Kennedy later penned a memo, lamenting that the assassination was "particularly abhorrent" and blaming himself for approving Cable 243, which had authorised Lodge to explore coup options in the wake of Nhu's attacks on the Buddhist pagodas. Forrestal said that "It shook him personally ... bothered him as a moral and religious matter. It shook his confidence, I think, in the kind of advice he was getting about South Vietnam." When Kennedy was consoled by a friend who told him he need not feel sorry for the Ngô brothers on the grounds of despotism, Kennedy replied "No. They were in a difficult position. They did the best they could for their country."

Kennedy's reaction did not draw sympathy from his entire administration. Some believed that he should not have supported the coup and that as coups were uncontrollable, assassination was always a possibility. Kennedy was skeptical about the story and suspected that a double assassination had taken place. He reasoned the devoutly Catholic Ngô brothers would not have taken their own lives, but Roger Hilsman rationalised the possibility of suicide by asserting that Diệm and Nhu would have interpreted the coup as Armageddon. U.S. officials soon became aware of the true reasons for the deaths of Diệm and Nhu. Lucien Conein had left the rebel headquarters as the generals were preparing to bring in the Ngô brothers for the press conference which announced the handover of power. Upon returning to his residence, Conein received a phone call from Saigon's CIA station that ordered him to report to the embassy. The embassy informed Conein that Kennedy had instructed him to find Diệm. Conein returned to Tân Sơn Nhứt at around 10:30. The following conversation was reported:

  • Conein: Where were Diem and Nhu?
  • Minh: They committed suicide. They were in the Catholic Church at Cholon, and they committed suicide.
  • C: Look, you're a Buddhist, I'm a Catholic. If they committed suicide at that church and the priest holds mass tonight, that story won't hold water. Where are they?
  • M: Their bodies are behind General Staff Headquarters. Do you want to see them?
  • C: No.
  • M: Why not?
  • C: Well, if by chance one of a million of the people believe you that they committed suicide in church and I see that they have not committed suicide and I know differently, then if it ever leaks out, I am in trouble.

Conein knew that if he saw the execution wounds, he would not be able to deny that Diem and Nhu had been assassinated. Conein refused to see the proof, realising that having such knowledge would compromise his cover and his safety. He returned to the embassy and submitted his report to Washington. The CIA in Saigon later secured a set of photos of the brothers that left no doubt that they had been executed. The photos were taken at about 10:00, 2 November, showing the dead brothers covered in blood on the floor of an APC. They were dressed in the robes of Roman Catholic priests with their hands tied behind their backs. Their faces were bloodied and bruised and they had been repeatedly stabbed. The images appeared to be genuine, discrediting the generals' claims that the brothers had committed suicide. The pictures were distributed around the world, having been sold to media outlets in Saigon. The caption below a picture published in Time read "'Suicide' with no hands."

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