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Interview with Lucien Conein, 1981

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Summary
Lucien Conein was an OSS officer in Vietnam in the early 1960s. He recalls the events leading up to the coup d’etat on November, 1963, which resulted in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. Conein reported plans of the coup to Ambassador Lodge and recalls the US government made it clear to the planners, ahead of time, that the US would neither support nor thwart Diem’s overthrow.
Topics
Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’état, 1963, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States. Government organization and employees, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--History--1945-, Buddhism and politics, United States--Politics and government
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Transcript

The 1963 plot to overthrow Diem

VIETNAM
SR 2407
Project T883
Conein Side 1
LUCIEN CONEIN
Sound 2407 goes with camera roll 4, #413, on the 7th of May, 1981, running an interview with Mr. Conein at 71/2 and that should be about it.
We're calling this slate 550, Take I.
Marker.
550.
Clapstick.
Interviewer:
How and when did you first learn that there was a serious plan for a coup against Diem? Will you tell us about the July 4 meeting? But what led up to it beforehand?
Conein:
Well, in February of 1962, two pilots from the VNAF attacked and bombed the Duc Lap Palace in Saigon. At that point, the officials of the United States Government did not know how deep this dissension was. Therefore, I went and I talked to, upon instructions, I talked to General Do Cao Tri, General Don, Tran Van Don, I talked to Nguyen Khanh, I talked to quite a few of the senior officers in the Vietnamese Army.
It was not apparent that there was a plot or that there was anything really serious, but there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction of the commanders with the central government. Namely, they were dissatisfied with the controls that were imposed on 'em by the central government.
Ah, they were afraid to report, for example, ah, if they had had a defeat, they... th their kills, they were afraid of doing that because they were afraid of of um, getting bawled out by the President. So, though this was a certain amount of dissatisfaction, it wasn't until the 4th of July of 1963, when all the generals most of them were in Saigon and they had been invited to the 4th of July party at the Ambassador's residence.
I received word that they were going to be at a nightclub, and the... downstairs from the Caravelle Hotel and I was asked to be present. Which I w—went and there they were, all of them, and I... talked to specifically to General Don and I talked to other generals. And then... This is the first indication that I had that there was really something serious going on, that there was actually a, a coup so to speak, being thought of by the senior offices of the Vietnamese Army.
And uh, this was reported and uh, from then on, it was important that we keep track. I'm talking about we, I'm talking about the United States Government, keep track of all the different elements because there were the generals' groups, the colonels' groups, the Buddhist groups. The...well, there were too many groups. The thing was to find out which one was a serious group. Serious in the sense that if they were going to do something, that they would have the resources to do it with.
Interviewer:
How did these different groups finally blend into one group?
Conein:
Well, they blended, ahh...they these groups blended in, uh finally, when it became obvious that the man who was going to be the father figure and also the senior military officer, General Big Minh and... uh, they came in under him and he was able, ah, very smart staff, to organize what finally led up to the, organized, the coup.

Conein's sources of information

Interviewer:
Who were you dealing with mostly? Where were you getting your inf... Who were you getting most of your information from?
Conein:
Well, most of my liaison was with General Tran Van Don and of course, I had other liaison with General Nguyen Khanh and in addition to that, I ah was getting information from uh, my friend of long standing, General Do Cao Tri.
Interviewer:
Stop, please.
Cut.
Interviewer:
I'm asking a question.
Alright.
Marker.
551
Clapstick.
Conein:
I was reporting all of my...
Interviewer:
Sorry. Start again.
Conein:
...liaisons...
Interviewer:
Start again, please.
Conein:
I was reporting all of my contacts with the different officers in the Vietnamese Army, the senior officers, directly to the Ambassador, ah Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge ah, ran a very tight ship and... one of things I was informed by him that I would report to him, any time that I was to have a meeting, with whom I was to... meet and the subject the meeting, and I would get his clearance prior to attending any meeting with any senior official of the Vietnamese Army. And immediately upon returning from the meeting, I would report to him verbally, then I'd make up my own written report for the files and they would go by cable or, I didn't handle the details of it. I’d report, and ah, it would be sent back to Washington.
Interviewer:
How much latitude did you have in dealing with your liaison people, with the Vietnamese generals?
Conein:
Ah, they lat...I had very little latitude in dealing with them except that I was permitted to deal with them and discuss certain subjects within the limits that was imposed on me by the Embassy.

Washington's response to the plot

Interviewer:
When did you begin to get a clear sense of Washington's policy? I mean did it, did it change when Lodge arrived?
Conein:
It changed right after. I don't recall the date, ex...
Interviewer:
Start again, uh, of uh
Conein:
The policy of uh, of uh Washington changed. The first indication I had was when I read a what is now the famous Hilsman's cable, which had come out from Washington, DC and sort of put my operation of being a reporter into an operational mode. In that... they were seriously contemplating um, abandoning the central government, and that we were to continue reporting on that. But, the final decision was not in that cable. It w... showed... The cable, all it did, was actually change from a a reporting of conversation to one “Now, let's plan for action.”
Interviewer:
Now, did you tell Don about that cable? Did you report to Don?
Conein:
No, I don't recall ever telling Don about any cable.
Interviewer:
Well, (cough) did you report to Don? Did you tell Don that there had been had been a change in policy in Washington?
Conein:
No. Uh, uh.
Interviewer:
In any way did you, at this stage, give him any, any indication that the United States was now giving them a green light?
Conein:
Only in the context...
Interviewer:
St...
Conein:
The only time I I... c... discussed any matter ah of say the green light, so to speak, would be upon the instruction of the Ambassador, and I don't have any files on the dates of the conversation or anything like that. So, I don't really know at what point. I know that I gave them a green light prior to the coup, upon the instruction of my government.
Interviewer:
Could you uh try to recall what the atmosphere in Saigon was in let's say September and October, when you had ah all these elements, uh all this ferment, Buddhists, generals and so forth? Try to evoke a little of that atmosphere.
Conein:
The...atmosphere in Saigon in September and October of 1963 was one of a complete chaos, I felt. We had the Buddhists burning themselves, we had demonstrations of the Buddhists, we had ahm indications that there were other elements wanting a coup ah... there were talks about the colonel's coup, there was a talk about a member of the central government wanting to have a coup, there was a talk of the generals’ coup , everybody was “coup-ing” around the place, like a bunch of pigeons.
And uh the only thing I can say was that the difficult part was to keep the reporting channels open on any element that was planning a coup or any dissident groups such as actually like Buddhist were in dissidence to the government and actively in dissidence. And also too, what should I say, um...we were still represented to the central government so it was a very difficult job. But, the attitude within the American community was one that was probably the most perplexing because there was a pro-grew coup group, there was an anti-coup group and there was some conflict...
Interviewer:
Stop please.
We’ve run out of film
Vietnam
Conein
SR 2407
T883, Side 1
Camera Roll 414 starts here.
Camera Roll 414.
Interview with Conein.
552.
Clapstick.
Conein:
Ah, within the...
Interviewer:
Hold it a second.
Conein:
Hm?
Interviewer:
Any time, go ahead.
Conein:
...Within the uh US community, there was also a division. There were elements within MACV, USAID, ah USIS, ah and in the Embassy who were pro-coup. And there was another element of individuals who were anti-coup.
Er—this is caused mainly because of the actions taken by the central government against the Buddhists uh and uh the individuals that were anti-coup were some of the most prominent representatives of the United States Government in Saigon. And uh also, some of the more prominent members of the United States Government were pro-coup.
Interviewer:
Did you get any sense, during that period, did you ever see Ngo Dinh Nhu ah did you get any sense of what was going on in the government, Madame Nhu, Diem, I mean, did you get a feeling that these people were losing their cool or going nuts?
Conein:
Um, I'm, during this period, I met with Ngo Dinh Nhu at the palace, oh one afternoon I believe about three or four hours. I say that when I met with Ngo Dinh Nhu that he did all the talking and I did all the listening and I had a feeling that he was there to convince...ah trying to convince me that everything was under control. Why me? I do not know.
But I’m sure that he knew from his secret police reports that I had been...meeting with the ah generals and ah it was obvious that I had been doing a lot of traveling and I think that the reason that he talked to me was try to convince me that everything was all all right. And, I regret that I didn’t take a tape recorder for a four-hour dissertation on auhm what the government was doing and how well it was doing, and about the republican guards and uh and um how they were fighting the Communists. And I regret that I didn’t have a conversation of that because it would be a very good report to have.
Interviewer:
What was his mood like?
Just a moment.
Conein:
The mood of Ngo Dinh Nhu is hard to describe. He’s a very intelligent, very articulate individual. He spoke beautiful French. Ping—and my impression at the time was I wonder if he really knows what’s going on around him. I felt, personally, that the government had been uh had isolated themselves. Uh, the important person of the government, of course, was Ngo Dinh Diem. Nhu was only the political advisor to his brother and uh I had previously traveled with Ngo Dinh Nhu around the country and it was not the first time that I had ever seen him. That’s the last time I saw him alive.
Interviewer:
Did you ever fear for your own life during this period when you (cough) were reporting and talking to the generals?
Conein:
I...only on two or three occasions did I feel that uhm my life might be in jeopardy, ‘specially when I would have the Secret Police parked out in front of my house and uh or uh sit down behind a tree down the street from me and um when I would drive to the Embassy, uh have somebody follow me. And...I knew that they were on to me. Uh what extent, I do not know.
Interviewer:
I mean, if they had done something to you, they...
Conein:
It would have been a VC incident and I would have been another statistic.
Interviewer:
Could you repeat “If they had done...”
Conein:
If s—uh they had done anything to me, I w—w—would have, it would have been a VC incident and I would have been another statistic.
Interviewer:
Could you tell me about some of the meetings that you had with (cough) Don and remember the meetings...
Conein:
Let’s stop the camera rolling while you set this up...
Marker.
553.
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Just a moment.
All right.
Conein:
Well, when I would have meetings with General Don, uh the meetings were generally arranged ahead of time and it would be in a dentist’s office, which is all right, except that I had to have my teeth repaired in the dentist’s office so that in case the—the Secret Police would check up, they could see that I had been legitimately at the dentist’s office.
And um, what would happen, um General Don would arrive ahead of time and I would follow, and I would sit down in the dental chair and I’d have the little, around my neck, little napkin around my neck, and I had my mouth wide open, and and then uh we’d have the meeting. So, in case that anything happened, I was being treated. General Don would (chuckle) sneak out the (chuckle) back door and get out. That’s the way the meeting, many of the meetings were held.

American attitudes towards the coup

Interviewer:
Do you remember when you told Don (cough) and Minh that the United States would not thwart the coup?
Conein:
Yes, it was in...
Interviewer:
You have to start the sentence.
Conein:
When I first told the generals upon instruction from the Ambassador, that I...we the United States Government would not thwart the coup nor would we support the coup in the sense of of equipment, what have you. That was...in September or early October of 1963 that I conveyed a message and I uh recall those instructions from the Ambassador and they were very explicit.
Interviewer:
Do you remember your meeting, you had a meeting with Big Minh in early October? Could you recall what happened at that meeting?
Conein:
I had a meeting with Big Minh...um the first week of October of 1963, if I recall, and um it was the meeting with Big Minh as more uh feeling out one another and conveying his message to the United States Government. His message was that he did not want any US participation in the coup that thy were going have. He wanted early recognition of the US Government, of the new government, once a coup was uh...
He also um spoke about the options that were left open to him as it pertained to Diem. One of the options was that uh, uh they would be able to allow Diem to go into exile. The other one was that they would apt to kill Diem, Nhu. I reported this immediately, and that was the last time that I ever discussed or had any discussion about the death of Diem until the day that it happened.
Interviewer:
There was no (cough) communication from the United States to Big Minh objecting to any plans and option to kill Diem?
Conein:
Yes, there was an immediate objection.
Interviewer:
Could you repeat that?
Conein:
There was an objection, once that I reported the conversation I had with Big Minh about the possibility that one of their options was to eliminate Diem and Nhu, there was an objection came in immediately from Washington, DC, when this was reported. And this was conveyed to the generals. Um and I don’t recall at this time I went to General Khiem or if it was through uh General Don that I conveyed the message to Big Minh. But I had very definite instructions about that.
Interviewer:
What was their response?
Conein:
At that time, they uh were the, the...not thinking specifically of the details of eliminating Diem. They were looking at different options, and when uh they uh came about to um come up to a decision, the best I uh—
Interviewer:
Hang on, we’ll change cameras rolls here
Vietnam
SR 2408
Conein
Side 2
October 22...
Marker.
Slate 554.
Camera Roll 415
Clapstick.
Conein:
In the latter part of October of 1963 um the commanding general, MACV, um informed General Don about uh the coup that uh the United States Government would not support a coup. I uh after this, I had an emergency meeting with General Don and the first reaction of the general was that somebody had leaked the information that had been passed to me through other channels.
There was no such thing as leaking because uh the Commanding General of MACV, a member of the country team, was also a member of the uh...inner group with the Ambassador, would be privy to all of this type of information. There was no type of, no intention of denying the senior officials who had to make decisions uh this but any information. But, the generals considered this as possibly a security breach. And it was at this time that I received definite instruction from Ambassador Lodge to inform the generals that we would not thwart the coup.
Interviewer:
Did they tell you the date that they were planning the coup?
Conein:
The generals never specifically said what date that the coup was gong to come on. But what they did do was to tell me that I was not to leave Saigon for a certain period of time. Also, that I was to inform Ambassador Lodge that he was not to leave during this period of time.
What was...funny about all this was that Ambassador Lodge had been called back to the United States for a consultation with the President of the United States, and he was scheduled to leave. When I informed the generals that he was scheduled to leave, they said oh, well, then he better not stay, maybe he better go. Uh because if President Diem knows he’s supposed to leave to talk to the President and he stays, maybe they will know that something is wrong, ha, ha.
Interviewer:
When Don got worried about the, what Harkins told him, did you sense that there was any (cough) notion in his head and the head of the generals that they might cancel the coup if they felt that the United States would not support it?
And could you mention General Harkins’s name in your answer?
(Cough, cough)
Conein:
I didn’t mention General Harkins’s name.
Interviewer:
Let’s go on with this.
Conein:
The commander general of the US, MACV, when he told General Don that the United States would not back the coup, I believe that, uhm, I had the emergency meeting with General Don immediately afterwards. Asked me “what’s up” and uh because this was the first official indication that we would or would not back the coup. It was only at this time then that I went back and told him that we would not stop the coup and then, and then that’s when at another meeting prior to the coup, they told me that I wa' not to leave town.
Interviewer:
But did you sense in Don that he might have cancelled the coup if they heard that the United States was not supporting it?
Conein:
I have uh no indication of that because the attitude of General Big Minh was very simple. He didn’t want any US participation in their coup. He wanted nothing to do with the Americans until after the coup was successful and then he wanted recognition by the United States Government.

The day of the coup

Interviewer:
Let’s go on to the (cough) actual story of the coup the day, November 1st and 2nd, could you try to think of a, just describe two or three highlights of your experience? For example, how did you know that the coup was about to take place? Or did they call you after it had already started? And how did you keep track of what was going on? And where did you go? (Cough)
Conein:
When the actual coup was uh being started uh General Don’s dentist came to my house and told me, uh left a message, that I am to proceed immediately to the general staff headquarters in Saigon. Well...we had through other sources through military sources, through MACV indications that troops were moving and troops were heading toward Saigon that normally wouldn’t be coming to Saigon and there was all types of activity.
Now this is normal that they would have this because every Vietnamese had a US counterpart, an officer, or enlisted man who that was in a unit, and these units immediately around Saigon were on the move. So, they knew that something was up. When I got the message to report, I went home, got into uniform and proceeded immediate...put my gun on my side, took my jeep with the radio in it, and proceeded immediately to the general staff headquarters. I got there and uh there had been, or there was a meeting going on in the general staff headquarters, involv— the commanders.
And uhm, at this time, Big Minh announced to the commanders that they were going to have a coup. In fact, the coup was on. There was one problem. We had a very important visitor who had just called on Ngo Dinh Diem that morning and he was out the airport, while the coup was in progress and everybody was trying to get him to leave before they had to close the airport down. And um the admiral left and went to Hong Kong and on the way everybody heaved a big sigh of relief, especially General Don who had to escort him out to the airport and um the coup was on.
Immediately that the coup was on, I had two types of communication, I had radio communication. I also had telephone communication to the Embassy. When they had cut the telephone lines in the PTT, which is their AT&T, Ma Bell of Saigon, they left the Embassy line open. They also left a line open to the palace, lines open to the generals’ uh quarters, and also to my quarters so I could call my house to see th...if everything was all right. At that time, my family was home and an FA team was, of special forces, was around the house guarding it.
Um, I was relieved to find out that they were there and the first...thing that happened, Big Minh comes over to me and he says, Lou, if we fail in this coup you’re coming with us. I said, Where are we going? He said we’re going to the bruce. Bruce means we’re going out into the hills. I didn’t like that one very much, but I was committed. I couldn’t get away and uh I was there with them.
Interviewer:
Was there any time during the whole coup that they asked you for advice in any way?
Conein:
No, they, the advice that they would ask would be uh more in a political sense. Um, now, we’re going to call in all the former ministers and um we’re going to send for the vice president. Uh we want uh a civilian form of government. When do you think you’re going to recognize us? He, who, me, representing the United States. When do you think the United States is going to recognize us? I said that’s not up to the United States until you’ve accomplished your purpose and it’s accepted in the world community.
Interviewer:
Were you present when...
Stop there
Camera Roll 415 ends at this point and Camera Roll 416 begins.
Camera Roll 416.
Marker.
555.
Clapstick.
Hang on please.
Vietnam
SR 2408
Conein
Side 2
Conein:
When ah...

Ambassador Lodge takes charge

Interviewer:
Hang on.
Ready?
Go ahead.
Conein:
When Ambassador Lodge arrived the third week of uh August 1963 it was at that point that...I had indications that ah ahm he was in charge and that there would be continued liaison, under his control, with the general, to find out their plans, their dates of the coup, and their intentions.
Interviewer:
Was this...could you describe that?
Conein:
It was a very dramatic change.
Interviewer:
Start again please.
Conein:
From the...
Interviewer:
Let’s start again.
Conein:
It was a very dramatic change when uh Ambassador Lodge came from the previous sort of unknown what was going on, what the intention of the United States was except for the um continued reporting and squabbling that was uh going on within the American community.
Interviewer:
So Lodge realy took over and put this thing on track?
Conein:
When Ambassador Lodge came to Saigon he let everybody know who was in charge and he was the boss and you better oh execute his orders without hesitation or murmuring or you were out.

The fate of Ngo Dinh Diem

Interviewer:
Let’s go—just one last point. How did you feel when you learned that Diem and Nhu were killed...and how did you learn they were killed?
Conein:
When the coup was coming toward its end about, I forget the time, about 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning of well the 2nd....President Diem called for the first time, talked to Big Minh. All the other telephone calls that uh Diem had with the generals was always through General Don. Diem refused to talk to Big Minh except that one time...When that call came through Big Minh said something to the effect that he would not accept their surrender, this was Diem and Nhu, as long as the Vietnamese were shooting at one another; therefore, they, Diem said that there would a cease-fire around 7:00 in the morning. This was the complete indication that the generals had won...Saigon.
At that point, all the generals and a few hanger-ons all of a sudden people started coming out of the woodwork I hadn’t seen before and went out on the patio, the large patio of the Joint General Staff Headquarters and there uh Big Minh was receiving congratulations. In fact I think they promoted a couple of people right on the spot from colonels to brigadier generals. I don’t know, stars were flying around and majors were becoming lieutenant colonels, colonels were becoming generals and generals were getting another star and...we were under the impression at that moment that Diem was still at the palace...
Big Minh asked me how long it would take for me to get an aircraft...to Saigon. First of all, he wanted to use a US aircraft, not a Vietnamese aircraft. Now this was not in the books. Uh this shows direct support so I called the Embassy and I asked the Embassy...told them that Diem was going to surrender, it was over with, there w—still some sporadic firing, some units hadn’t gotten the word, but for all intents and purposes was over with.
When and how could I get a US aircraft? I was advised by the Embassy that the United States would desire that Diem accept the first exile of the first nation that was going to grant it, whether it was the Philippines or Japan or France or—therefore they wanted...it would take twenty-four hours to get a proper aircraft from Okinawa to Saigon that could overfly any of the other countries. For example, if they were going to fly from Saigon to Paris that the aircraft would not land say in Karachi or Rome, but so that he would stop in some country and ask pol...for a second political asylum. They wanted him to be flown directly to the na—first nation that granted it. It would have been, for example uh the Philippines, it would have been very simple, we would not have had to have had a special aircraft.
At this time Big Minh asked for his sedan and escort of two MP jeeps, Vietnamese MPs, and he took off the back way toward the palace and four or six armored cars were dispatched to the palace itself. After Big Minh left, everybody started cleaning up the place because we had been drinking big oranges...ah
Interviewer:
Could we stop?
You are going into too much detail.
It's too much.
Conein:
All right.
All right
Mark 556
Clapstick. Stand by just a moment.
Conein:
After Big Minh left...
After Big Minh left JACS I went toward the palace through the back way...I noticed that we had to clean up everything we had to leave so they were preparing for Diem’s arrival. They had a table with green cloth on it, they had the Vice President there to take his, er...dismissal and they were going to bring in the cameras. At this point, I knew when they were going to bring in the cameras I’d better get out so I went home and while at home I received a telephone call from the Embassy and they said that they wanted me, this was on direct instructions from the highest authority, to locate Diem and Nhu, took a shower, went back out to the Joint General Staff and they were all in the officers’ club where they interrogating the uh ministers of the former government.
At this time I asked about Diem and Nhu. I talked to Big Minh personally and he told me that they were, they had committed suicide and that they were behind the Joint General Staff—did I want to see them? I said, No, I didn’t want to see them and felt very disappointed that they had gotten off on that type of start because original plan was that Diem would go out of the country.
Interviewer:
Did you believe this story that they committed suicide?
Conein:
Of course I—d....I never for a moment...
Interviewer:
Could you say, This...
Conein:
I never uh for a moment believed that they committed suicide because I asked where it happened and Big Minh saying well they committed suicide the Catholic Church of Cholon. Being a Catholic I knew that if anybody had committed suicide in a Catholic Church and a priest held services that night that that story wouldn't hold water and I so stated...And that’s it.
Conein:
Stop please.
Stop. Good.
Conein:
Am I through?
Interviewer:
Yes.
Room tone.
Enter the timecode: