History is selective. We remember moments, and, because that moment in Dallas blazes so vividly, everything around it fades to a gray blur. So here, from the archives, is an alternative 40th anniversary from November 1963:
8 a.m. Nov. 2: Troops enter a Catholic church in Saigon and arrest two men. They’re tossed into the back of an armored personnel carrier and driven up the road a little ways to a railroad crossing. The M-113 stops, the pair are riddled with bullets and their mutilated corpses taken to staff HQ for inspection by the army’s commanders. One of the deceased is Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam. The other is Ngo Dinh Nhu, his brother and chief adviser.
Back in the White House, President Kennedy gets the cable and is stunned. When Washington had given tacit approval to the coup, the deal was that Diem was supposed to be offered asylum in the United States. But something had gone wrong. I use “gone wrong” in the debased sense in which a drug deal that turns into a double murder is said to have “gone wrong.”
Kennedy had known Diem for the best part of a decade. If he felt bad about his part in the murder of an ally, he didn’t feel bad for long: Within three weeks, he too was dead. Looked at coolly, there seems something faintly ridiculous about cooing dreamily over the one brief shining moment of a slain head of state who only a month earlier had set in motion the events leading to the slaying of another head of state.
Two presidents died that November, but the mawkish parochialiasm of the Camelot cult has obliterated the fact that the second bore responsibility for the death of the first. No “eternal flame” for Diem, just an unmarked grave. He’s the Mary Jo Kopechne of the autumn of 1963, unhelpful to the myth: “What goes around comes around” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “one brief shining moment.”
Unless you’re a Vietnam scholar, you won’t remember the pros and cons of an anti-Diem coup as argued in Washington through the summer and fall of 1963. They barely made sense at the time, and Kennedy’s bewildered reaction to the Buddhist unrest earlier that year sums up the administration’s grasp of the situation: “Who are these people?” he said. “Why didn’t we know about them before?” “Big Minh,” the general who led the coup, lasted two months before he was overthrown by another general. He moved to Thailand, where the American taxpayer picked up his tab, including for some expensive dental work.
As Ho Chi Minh observed, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.” There was certainly a presidential-assassination conspiracy afoot in the US in the fall of 1963. In Washington. But all that drivel about Dallas-the-city-of-right-wing-hate is more flattering to American liberalism’s self-image.