The Crime that Led to U.S. Defeat in Vietnam

The majority of today’s Americans aren’t old enough to have an adult memory of the Vietnam War from its beginning in the 1960s to the Communists’ victory in 1975. However, most everybody is aware, even if it has never been and never will be officially acknowledged, that it was in Vietnam that the U.S. met its first defeat in a foreign war. Why were we defeated? The ultimate reason is laid out in a new book, The Lost Mandate of Heaven; The American Betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, by military historian Geoffrey Shaw, with a foreword by James V. Schall, S.J., published by Ignatius Press.

The reason can be put briefly: The U.S. violated a civilizational principle so basic it didn’t have to wait for the advent of Christianity to be enunciated. Socrates had already done it. As expressed by Fr. Schall in his foreword: “It is never right to do wrong.”

The wrong in the case of the Vietnam War was perpetrated when American officials, believing that the installation of U.S.-style liberal democracy in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) was the sure and necessary way to thwart the expansionist aggression of Communist North Vietnam, and seeing the country’s Catholic President Diem as the chief obstacle to its installation, instigated the overthrow of Diem in a bloody coup during which he and a brother were barbarously murdered. At least some of the officials must have realized that Diem would likely be killed, given the record of the particular Vietnamese doing the dirty work.

Who were the U.S. officials? President John Kennedy authorized the overthrow. Other key players included Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., all of them operating at the time from within the U.S. State Department.

Cabot Lodge is a name familiar to persons who know something of Boston and Massachusetts society and national politics in the first half of the twentieth century. Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., had been Richard Nixon’s running mate in Nixon’s failed 1960 election bid for the White House. He was the kind of Episcopalian New England patrician whose anti-Catholicism had less to do with the teachings of the Faith than with a sense of Anglo-Saxon and class superiority that saw Catholics (and Jews) as not as acceptable as one’s own kind regardless of how much money they had or public offices they occupied. He would never have stooped to saying, “Some of my best friends are Catholic.” Kennedy made him ambassador to Saigon, in which position he oversaw the coup against Diem on the Feast of All Souls, 1963.

No, it wasn’t U.S. troops on that day who seized the intensely devout Diem and his brother at Saigon’s Church of Saint Francis Xavier where they had just attended Mass, forced them into an armored personnel carrier, cut their gall bladders from their living bodies and then shot them. Neither did the U.S. officials who instigated and approved Diem’s overthrow ever quite utter words like “kill” or “execute” in their discussions, but his permanent elimination, one way or another, was intended. In other words, we are talking here about moral responsibility.

Lyndon Johnson, U.S. Vice President at the time of the killing and who was opposed to the overthrow when it was planned (as was CIA Saigon station chief and later CIA Director William Colby), assigned the responsibility where it belonged in a 1966 tape-recorded telephone conversation with U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (the reader can hear this for himself on YouTube): “We killed him. We all got together and got a goddamn bunch of thugs and we went in and assassinated him.”

Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of President Diem and wife of the brother slain with the President (another brother was Archbishop of Saigon) certainly saw things that way. She was in the U.S. trying to enlist popular support for Diem’s goal of a unified, anti-Communist and independent Vietnam when the killing took place. At a news conference on November 5, 1963, she declared, “Whoever has the Americans for allies does not need any enemies.” She continued presciently, “I can predict to you all that the story in Vietnam is only at its beginning.”

In fact the “story” would go on aimlessly and immorally for more than a decade, with various Vietnamese generals succeeding Diem as the U.S. shifted its support from one to another and at a cost of 58,000 American lives and the lives of perhaps as many as 3.1 million Vietnamese.

Aimlessly? Diem had a goal. No one who followed him had, except to try to stay in power. The U.S. hadn’t, except to see liberal democracy take hold, but that was as good as aimless since it was no more realizable in Vietnam than it would be in Afghanistan and Iraq forty years later (or in Syria today).

Why was it immoral? A war waged without aim is immoral by its very nature. It is waged for nothing, and human lives should never be sacrificed for nothing. Of course it could be said the U.S. fought in order to achieve victory (or put another way, not be defeated), but at what point can victory be seen as achieved if the war is aimless?

The tragedy of Vietnam is compounded because the U.S. President who authorized Diem’s overthrow was Catholic. Fr. Schall characterizes Kennedy as “weak and vacillating.” That will be too much to swallow for Americans who have never looked through the smoke and mirrors that have surrounded the figure of the man ever since his own assassination exactly three weeks after Diem’s. Abstracting from his personal weaknesses — his womanizing and addiction to prescription uppers and downers — perhaps it is enough to recall that during his campaign for the presidency Kennedy promised a highly publicized gathering of Baptist ministers that if elected he would not be influenced by his religion. More image than substance he certainly was, but this was a campaign promise he kept. If he practiced the Catholicism he professed, he would have had Diem’s back.

Saying that is a way of telling readers too young to remember the sixties that Diem’s Catholicism, if not exactly the cause of our overthrowing him was the excuse for doing so. The American public was regularly seeing television news footage of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest against the supposed “oppression” their religion suffered under the Catholic (and “authoritarian”) Diem. The pictures and very idea of these men burning themselves to death horrified Americans taught that the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock were fleeing religious persecution and that the First Amendment (no “establishment” of religion) encapsulated the genius of the U.S. political system. They could feel a moment of pride when they heard a reporter ask the Saigon-bound Henry Cabot Lodge at an airport press conference what his mission in Vietnam was going to be and the new ambassador tersely replied, “To defend religious freedom.”

When the war was over, the victorious Hanoi regime acknowledged that the men who burned themselves to death were North Vietnamese agents, but this news was ignored by U.S. media. It came twelve years too late anyway.

Everything I’ve reported here, and much more, is told in documented detail by Geoffrey Shaw in his book, but why bother to learn the truth about events most do not now remember? I’ll quote Fr. Schall again:

“The redemption of memory is a necessary step in restoring the order of truth to its prime position in our thinking and our policy. Shaw has provided the evidence for this redemption. Presenting this evidence is what a historian can do for the public good. The killing of Ngo Dinh Diem was not another death of a corrupt politician. It was a step in the death of the basic principle on which civilization rests.”

That basic principle again: “It is never right to do wrong.” Recognizing violation of the principle in Vietnam will be a help in recognizing the wrongs perpetrated elsewhere in the decades since and that will continue to be until Americans and everyone, or at least a much larger number than now, throughout the formerly Christian West recognizes the greatest wrong of all: the embrace of the basic principle on which liberalism in all its forms rests, including the form called “conservatism” in the U.S.: that men may and even should conduct their lives and the affairs of the world without reference to anything higher than themselves, as if God does not exist.