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Interview with Tran Van Don

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Summary
As a former general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Tran Van Don was pivotal to the toppling of Ngo Dinh Diem during the 1963 coup d'etat. Here he recalls life under French colonialism, the rule of Bao Dai, and his relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem - leading to the coup d'etat and death of Diem.
Topics
Ngô, Dình Di?m, 1901-1963--Family, Vietnam (Republic)--History--Coup d’état, 1963, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, Vietnamese, United States--History, Military--20th century, United States--Politics and government, Vietnam (Republic)--Foreign relations--United States, United States--Foreign relations--Treaties, Discrimination--Religious aspects--Buddhism, Race discrimination--Vietnam, Capitulations, Military, Guerrilla warfare--Vietnam--History--20th century, Escalation (Military science)--1960-1970, France--History, Military--20th century, Ngô, Dinh Diêm, 1901-1963--Assassination, Bình Xuyên--History, Eisenhower, Dwight D. (Dwight David), 1890-1969, Bao Dai, King of Vietnam, 1913-1997, Lodge, Henry Cabot, 1902-1985, Ngô, Dinh Diêm, 1901-1963
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Transcript

Discrimination Under the French

5/7/1981
SR 2410
Tran Van Don
Sound roll 1. Marker. 573. Clapstick.
Tran Van Don:
When I was in...
Interviewer:
Just a minute.
Tran Van Don:
When I was, when I was a very young student in Vietnam, I didn’t feel a big difference between the French students and myself. Maybe it was my generation. But even so, I observed, and I certainly saw, differences the French made regarding certain Vietnamese who were just as educated - that is to say, those who had gotten the same French diplomas - but who were not getting the same jobs in Vietnam. My god, I know that.
Because the French government must manage a colony and, in order to do that, it has to create a difference between the French proper, the French of the colony, and what they called at the time...
Interviewer:
I’m sorry, we have to stop. I’m going to go see if I can stop that typing.
Rolling. Marker. 574.
Interviewer:
One moment please. Good.
Tran Van Don:
When I was a young Vietnamese, I knew the French colonial administration in my country, Vietnam. Personally, I didn’t see a lot of differences between me and my classmates. But I saw, I observed that there were some marked differences between the French of the colony and the Vietnamese who had obtained the same diplomas in France.
For example, when I returned from France with an engineering degree, the same jobs weren’t available as there were for the French. So this even created feelings of frustration for Vietnamese who themselves believed, who told themselves they were just as capable as the French, and who didn’t have...
Interviewer:
It’s perfect. Let’s continue with...
Camera roll 420. Marker. 575.
Interviewer:
Just a moment. Good. Okay.
Tran Van Don:
For example, there was the case of the old Vietnamese officer, naturalized in France, who had gone through the same schools as a French officer, which is to say the École Polytechnique, l’École d’Artillerie à Fontainebleau, who returned to serve in Vietnam as an officer of the French army, but who instead was placed in more of a bureaucratic position than one of command. Finally...
Interviewer:
Could you talk a little about your impressions of General Leclerc, how you were his aide-de-camp and also, speak a little about your search to find a settlement for the Vietnamese conflict.
Tran Van Don:
In 1945 when General Leclerc arrived in Vietnam with the first French units, he learned that there were two Vietnamese officers - of Vietnamese origin, but who were naturalized French – who served in the French army. It was my brother-in-law Le Van Kim and myself. We were in the French commando squad.
When he learned that, General Leclerc himself gave the order to immediately remove us from the French combat units and give us other positions, for the reason, he said, that he did not want the Vietnamese officers, as well as the French – but those of Vietnamese origin - to pull on their fellows. And we left our units. My brother-in-law Le Van Kim went to Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu and I went to the Chief of Staff Leclerc.
So I knew Leclerc. I had known him personally from a dinner – he had invited me with other French generals and some colonels. And I noticed that General Leclerc told us that he did not feel that the French administration knew how to give independence to Vietnam, and that he thought Vietnam had a right to independence.
And that’s the reason for which we guessed at the time there were these conflicts with Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu, who was nevertheless the chief. And that’s how he left Vietnam.
Interviewer:
Did he think of having a rapprochement with the Viet Minh, or what?
Tran Van Don:
No. General Leclerc, he used to say to us, the people of the south – you alone can fight. You alone can have independence. There’s nobody but you who can have it. It’s not us, the French, who can give independence to you. And General Leclerc if he made treaties with Hanoi, it was simply to save the 30,000 French who were jammed in Hanoi during the Great War. But he never, I don’t think that General Leclerc wanted to make any accord with Hanoi.

Impressions of Bao Dai

Interviewer:
Can you talk about your impressions of Bao Dai? What kind of a man he was and - he was wasteful, right? And he needed money.
Tran Van Don:
Bao Dai was raised to become a king without power, without ruling. But he was a man – he is a man, because he’s living. He’s a very intelligent man who well understood international political affairs. I had the chance to meet him on several occasions. Only, he wasn’t a persevering man.
He, he had been so disappointed by all the attempts he had made with the French during his reign, before the Great War, that he no longer tried to obtain the [incomprehensible] of the French, while he was head of state. I recall an anecdote, a story that was told to me by Léon Pignon, who was the French High Commissioner of Indochina.
When the troops the Chinese troops arrived in 1949 to the North Vietnamese border. The allies - I mean the United States - wanted to ask Bao Dai for a statement against the Communists, to clearly indicate his anti-Communist position. This was 1949. Mr. Pignon explained to him during a conversation in Da Lat that lasted an hour, in his house, that the international situation and the local situation – that is, that the Chinese were at the North Vietnamese border, and that a very important statement from Bao Dai was required.
Pignon told us this afterwards, just after the conversation that lasted an hour - that Bao Dai did nothing but listen and grumble, but never said that he that he was ready to make a statement...That’s the trouble with Bao Dai. Not persistent. And Bao Dai certainly needed a lot of money. Bao Dai told us about this, and above all, he wrote this in a book, because he was a young emperor, he didn’t have any money. France paid for everything he bought. He never had money in his pocket or in his safe.
And afterwards, when he returned as head of state they gave him money. Remember that the Vietnamese government gave him money, lots of their money. He loved money – money allowed him, evidently, to have an easy life. To gamble, because he gambled big, very big. He gambled in France, in Cannes. And I believe it’s that which prevented him somewhat from working a little harder for his country. It’s really too bad.
Interviewer:
Was it his need for money that led to his arrangement with the Binh Xuyen?
Tran Van Don:
I think so.
Interviewer:
You have to repeat the subject.
Tran Van Don:
I think so because he had this need for money, and the Binh Xuyen - who had taken control of the Saigon police and, above all, the gambling, the brothels – had lots of money. And I think, and it’s a reproach one can make to Bao Dai, to have given to the Binh Xuyen, who were, despite it all, pirates [incomprehensible] the control of the Saigon police. It was incredible, but it was true. And it...
Interviewer:
Very nice, good follow up questions, Stan.

The Loss of Trinh Minh The

Sound rolling. Marker. 576. One moment. Good.
Tran Van Don:
The...
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Tran Van Don:
The general Trinh Minh The is an old Caodaist general who had fought against the French during the whole French war in South Vietnam. And he joined up with President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1955. So he was a great supporter of Ngo Dinh Diem, and he was equally a very important asset for Diem for the fact that he was an officer, a general who had fought against the French.
This was very important for Diem for his prestige. And in the course of battle - the battle against the Binh Xuyen in May, end of May 1955 - he was killed. He was being defeated up until then in the jungle, in the guerrilla war, and he was not used to an open war and he took a bullet right at the moment he was crossing the bridge. His death was felt strongly by Diem. Because he was a great loss for Diem as a supporter and as a Caodaist.
I was Chief of the Defense Staff at the time. I organized the national funeral for General Trinh Minh The who was buried at Tay Ninh and I happened to go see President Ngo Dinh Diem pay homage at his casket. And he was very sad. He had truly lost a very important asset.

Diem's 1957 State Visit to the U.S.

Interviewer:
In 1957 you went with Diem to the United States. Could you talk about the trip, the reception that you received from Eisenhower, and also the parade in New York?
Tran Van Don:
Yes, it’s a, it’s a great memory I have.
Interviewer:
You have to begin again with the subject.
Tran Van Don:
When in 1957 the government of the United States invited President Ngo Dinh Diem to make his first state visit to Washington, DC. For Diem it was an extraordinary voyage, it was payback for all the work he had done over several years in Vietnam, and also he had many American friends. We were. In short, he was received at Andrews Air Force by President Eisenhower with all the honors due to a foreign head of state and he was brought by convoy from Andrews Air Force to the White House, to Blair House precisely.
And along the way a large convoy a long, very important convoy with everybody along the route. And I was at the time Chief of the Defense Staff. He had brought me along actually as aide-de-camp, so I was close to him and I could see Diem’s attitude and Eisenhower was truly perfect, and then there was a speech before Congress, which was very, very well received, and then, the parade...
Interviewer:
We have to change. But you can say it again. You can begin again with the parades...
Camera roll 421. Sound roll 2411. Slate 577. Rolling. Marker, 577. Clapstick.
Tran Van Don:
I smile because I personally have, also a very good memory of President Diem’s trip to the United States, this parade on Broadway in New York. And the trip that he made privately, that he made to the monastery Seminole [sic] where he lived for a time alone, and where he contemplated, where he worked toward the return to his country, and particularly with the aid of Cardinal Spellman to whom he made a visit, and with whom he also had a private mass.
All these visits he made, private or public, were a marked success of the trip, of his first trip to a foreign country, to the United States. And Diem was very proud, very happy, not only for himself personally, but also for South Vietnam, or for the Vietnam that he represented at the time.
Interviewer:
To return to Vietnam, even during the fifties, there were always, there were lots of Americans who were beginning to come to Vietnam who were there to give advice to the Vietnamese, etc. [cough] Could you describe that a little, and what you thought of all these Americans who, who had come to say – to give advice to the Vietnamese – how to govern, how to develop the country, etc.?
Tran Van Don:
In 1950?
Interviewer:
’50 – in the 1950s - 1956, 1957, 1958.
Tran Van Don:
Ahh, at the time Diem when Diem was in power.
Interviewer:
Yes.
Tran Van Don:
It’s a fact that Mr. Diem had great support from, from the Americans. And it was normal that he had lots of Americans who were constantly around him, as advisers. He had in particular two advisers: one was General Lansdale – Colonel Lansdale at the time - who was able to see him at any hour of the day or night.
And this was very important, because Diem is a man, an old mandarin – of very strict protocol. He could see Lansdale at any hour, day or night, who helped him with his information, with the various assistance that he brought in his problems that he had, for example with the army in 1954.
And the second was Dr. Fishel, from Michigan, who was also in charge of the reorganization of the police. These were the two men in particular who were very influential on Diem.
Interviewer:
But [cough] from your point of view, as a Vietnamese, do you think that all the Americans from the aid programs, the military advisers, economic, etc. etc. How did you feel towards them, that they came to tell the Vietnamese how to manage their country - do you?
Tran Van Don:
It is it is a fact that that we owe a lot to the Americans of that time. As much for the civil plan as for the military plan. And I’m speaking as an army man now. Because I was Chief of Defense Staff at the time – and I had lots of problems with the Americans. Because, for example, I wanted – with my friends, my officers – to make the Vietnamese army capable of fighting against an enemy in his war – that is to say in the guerrilla war.
I wanted to have light units, mobile, and then above all to have the direct, armed assistance of the people. But the Americans didn’t want that. They wanted us to be able to reorganize the Vietnamese army on the American model. And this was very annoying for us. Because we knew that the American army was a conventional army and not a guerrilla army. And it’s there that I saw the problem. And I think that these problems – for me personally, who saw this from a military point of view – in other areas there were also similar problems.
Interviewer:
During this period, ’57, ’58...
Interviewer:
Okay, stop. We’ve got to set this up because this is a long one...

The Guerrilla War

Stop. Cut. Rolling. Marker. 578. Okay.
Tran Van Don:
I began to take...
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Tran Van Don:
I took over the command of the 1st Army Corps in 1957 until 1963. So I can say that during the fifties I commanded an army corps. That is to say, I commanded a territory. And I saw the activities of the police, and above all, the activities, at the time, of the political party of Diem and his brothers.
It’s always necessary to associate the brothers to his political activities: Mr. Nhu and Mr. Can. I even saw the desired effects. I even saw a certain control of the people down to the village level. I saw that in controlling...I can cite for example a typical instance.
I had, one day a jeep, with simply a jeep escort I went around alone without any escort other than my own, from Hue to Da Lat. I had a meeting in Da Lat on the highlands, and I made a journey a little more than 1,000 kilometers without encountering anything.
That, that proves that there was control even in the countryside. And that, that was a result of the activities of the Diem government of the fiftees. But it was a fact that, little by little, the police would carry out abuses. And so would the political party – and that’s when, little by little, the Viet Minh must have given birth to the organization known as the National Liberation Front in order to try to re-take control of the people at the village level.
And it’s then, at that moment, that one can say we left ’59-’60 with the abuses committed little by little by Diem’s police, by the political party of the Diem government. And with the new actions of the National Liberation Front, the people at the base level began to have fears – and to start helping the National Liberation Front a little.
Interviewer:
Yes, as you observed them, did the people [cough] when there were abuses by the police and repression by Diem – could it be that that played in favor of the Front, or is it only that [cough] Diem lost the support of the people?
Tran Van Don:
It played in favor of the Front. I saw it personally during an operation. For example, during one military operation - this was in a village. I arrived. There were some signs that night. I arrived with some units, some trucks – mass modern weapons, really. And then the villagers said to me, “But there are so many of you, you’re so powerful. You simply come to look for our little, our little soldiers, who are simply here to protect our village?”
I was a little, a little ashamed because it was a little true. But behind the little soldier, behind the little Viet Cong, there was a Viet Minh, and behind the Viet Minh, there was Hanoi. This is what the villagers didn’t know – that I knew myself. But the fact was it was a massive military outfit against a little Viet Cong soldier.
Interviewer:
Stop.

Diem's Religious Discrimination

SR 2411. Rolling. Marker. 579. Clapstick. One moment. Another moment.
Tran Van Don:
We were used to...
Interviewer:
Wait. Okay? Go ahead.
Tran Van Don:
We were used to calling President Ngo Dinh Diem “the monk”. Diem looked like a monk. He lived like a monk. He was very Catholic. He didn’t believe anything but his religion, which was Catholicism. And he told me one day, “Everyone can lie but my older brother” – who is the Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc. “Because the Archbishop doesn’t lie.” So everything the Archbishop told him, he believed. But a liar can go tell something to the Archbishop that he believes, and who in turn repeats to Diem, so you see how it is. That was fine. That’s how it was with Diem. He was truly an honest man, very honest.
He was a man who was truly very nationalistic. But he wasn’t a man with his feet on the ground. He didn’t realize that on earth there weren’t only Catholics, there were also Buddhists, and I am a Buddhist. Therefore it was necessary work and also to live with the Buddhists.
And he didn’t see that in that manner. He preferred for example, in the various military commands that it was important, if possible, to have a Catholic rather than a Buddhist, even in his administration. And that’s the way he made relations with his army, or with his government.
Interviewer:
Do...
Interviewer:
I think we’re about to run out of film.
Interviewer:
Do you think that it was an error to put a man like that – a Catholic – in a country like Vietnam?
Tran Van Don:
It is, it is not an error if such a man truly had his feet on the ground instead and realized ultimately that it was equally necessary to believe that there were not only Catholics who could carry out certain jobs. He was too sectarian, that’s the best word to describe Diem.
Interviewer:
Now we’re out of film. Yes.

Escalation

Excuse me. Camera roll 422. Sound 2411. This Tran Van Don interview, Vietnam Project T-883 on the 7th of May. Slate 580. Rolling, marker 580. Clapsticks.
Tran Van Don:
When I was in the army in 1961, ’62, ’63, I knew the Americans were close to sending additional units – soldiers – to South Vietnam. Personally I was not against it, under the condition that these units carried out the war behind the enemy. Which is to say, North of the 17th parallel.
But if it was to come to South Vietnam and not make war, as we already knew at the time For example, in the 1st Army Corps, my American military advisers told me, “We don’t have the right to have long operations.” Which is to say, we haven’t the right to go very far. We simply have the right to make operations with a “limited objective”. So that didn’t help anything, to have units all over the place if, if, if, if they weren’t going to fight the war in the North.
Interviewer:
You did the American materiel that came in – the helicopters and all that – did that change the situation for you?
Tran Van Don:
Lots.
Interviewer:
You’ve got to respond.
Tran Van Don:
Yes, but that changed in, in the sense, that if we were...
Interviewer:
Say that the materiel...
Tran Van Don:
Yes. The American materiel that arrived could change the situation of our military operations if we could use these units. Unfortunately, it was always the same thing. These units that were under the com direct command of the Americans. Which is to say that if we wanted to have operations of extended objective, we couldn’t.
Interviewer:
In order to be more precise, did the helicopter change your...did it give you more mobility or anything?
Tran Van Don:
In a certain way, yes. But in a certain way the helicopters necessarily had to have more mobility in the logistics of the Vietnamese units, and in the transfer of certain units to certain posts. That’s all. In my opinion, this was not so necessary if this was only in order to have units transported a lot farther away.

The 1963 Coup Against Diem

Cut. Okay. Marker. 581. Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Go ahead. Wait a minute.
Okay.
Tran Van Don:
A certain malaise existed already since 1960. There had even been some attacks against important Vietnamese army units. And we saw that the military situation wasn’t very good, especially when the coup happened - the failed coup of November 11, 1960. From that date, certain generals, including myself, even told ourselves that it was necessary to do something. We were in the middle of fighting against the communists and our internal situation wasn’t very good, due to the Diem administration.
So we needed some remedy. And we heard – we were even given suggestions, and we had even prepared certain plans that required Diem to relinquish power in order to better the military situation. We’re talking mostly about the military administration.
In 1963, we were a lot closer to this situation due to the Buddhist crisis. President Diem made a great error. Everybody makes errors. But he made a very, very big error. It was very significant...to have authorized the attack on the pagodas and the arrest of the Buddhist monks.
And that, I believe that he could have made a lot of errors as commander-in-chief of the Vietnamese army or insofar as he was president of South Vietnam, but to have attacked the pagodas, and I repeat, attacked the pagodas, and close the pagodas and arrest both the Buddhist monks and nuns, this was truly the gravest error he could that he shouldn’t have made. And he made it.
We asked him on several occasions to free the monks and nuns, to re-open the pagodas. He never accepted. Why? I don’t know at all. Maybe because he believed that he had to be just. And it was at this moment that we decided to bring about change. Because we told ourselves that in the Vietnamese army, the majority of the soldiers were Buddhists.
Me, I’m a Buddhist. I had lots of difficulties with my family who reproached me for having attacked the pagodas, and it wasn’t true. They said it was the army, but really it was only the units faithful to Diem, who caused them to attack. But that didn’t mean anything. We were equally responsible. And it was necessary at that time to do something to protest. Either Mr. Diem changed his politics or we were going to change Diem. It was that simple.
Interviewer:
As soon as there was the idea of a coup there were lots of different groups who began to conspire. How did you how did you manage to get everyone together?
Tran Van Don:
There were...we thought about making a change. And there were lots of groups. It’s necessary to say right now that the Americans were behind it, they were working at it lots of groups. There was the group of colonels, there were the groups of politicians, there were groups of all kinds and then there was also our group. Our group was a group of generals.
It was maybe the most important, because we even had control of the army, but it was perhaps the group the most discrete because we didn’t want to parade our idea of making the coup. At that moment, when we decided and we decided to make the coup because Mr. Diem didn't want to change.
The same day before the coup, that is the 31st of October 1963, I personally went to find him and I said to Mr. Diem, “Can you make some changes to your domestic policy, that is to say one more time – re-open the pagodas, free the monks and nuns, bring about a much more flexible government, designate a primer minister, for example, all those things. He told me, “No there is nothing to do because the situation is fine again.”
We were forced to throw the coup the next day. Why? Because if we threw the coup the next day, the others would throw it the next day. And the others never would have dared make it alone, because they wanted to make a coup with us, all together. Because they tried to make a coup d’état once in 1960, some colonels did. They failed. It backfired, and they thought that in order to make a coup d’état they had to have the generals on their side. This is what they did.
Interviewer:
How did you get these groups together, organize them - a true uh – how did you unify the group to make the coup?
Tran Van Don:
We weren’t unified at all. We simply had our group, we had com...the command of the army, control of various units. And when the group gave the order to attack, to knock down the regime, the others followed our movement. They went with us. But really, we weren’t unified, we never worked with the various groups in order to say “come with us”. That’s all.
Interviewer:
Cut. The next one we’ve got to break up...
Interviewer:
Yeah, now I...
Rolling. Marker. 582. Clapsticks. Okay.
Tran Van Don:
The attack on the pagodas, August 19th, nineteen fifty – sixty-three was made by special units belonging to the President of the Republic, meaning Diem and Nhu. But they pretended this attack was made by the army. It’s for that reason.
After this attack, as I heard on the radio that it was we who attacked, I sought out an American friend who I knew well. It was Conein. I made him come to the Chief of Staff where I was, and I told him, “We didn’t attack the pagodas. These were special units, some special forces that belonged to the President of the Republic”.
So Conein was a little astonished, so I explained the situation to him, I told him “We were there, clearly. But we didn’t attack the pagodas.” So Conein thought that I made him come in order to tell him that we wanted to throw a coup d’état. There was confusion in Conein’s mind.
So Conein said, “Did you throw the coup?” I, I laughed and I said, “Yes, yes, but now I have nothing then I didn’t have a plan to make the coup. It was only after we presented a petition many times to Diem to ask him to re-open the pagodas, to free Buddhist monks and nuns, and once he refused two or three ties, at that moment, there were many arrests of the students.
The domestic situation was intolerable, and it was then that we decided to make our coup d’état because there were many groups, some little groups who wanted to make a coup d’état. Some little groups equally supported by the Americans. There were lots, lots of Americans who supported one or the other.
And they told us, “either you make your coup, or you do not.” So we decided one more time to throw our coup d’état. Only beforehand we decided that I would personally go with two comrades to see Diem and to ask him if he wanted to change his domestic policy.
And my relationship with Conein that we needed to have at the time the support of the Americans if we wanted to make a coup d’état. We wanted to be sure that if we succeeded to make a coup d’état, we would be supported in turn by the Americans.
The Americans agreed with us because we needed their aid to continue the war. There, that’s what we wanted. I asked Conein what the Americans thought about that. He told me, “But the Americans agree.” Those were the kind of secret meetings between Conein and myself at a dentist-friend of mine, or I would even go to the Caravelle to help with a theater performance, but really to see Conein. And so as a result it was like that. Little by little Conein made me understand that the Americans agreed. But Conein always spoke of the name, Cabot Lodge. And Cabot Lodge told me nothing.
Interviewer:
We just have to change the film. It’s going very well.
Interviewer:
We just have to back.
We have to change film; we have to redo that.
We had the air-conditioning turned off in the middle of that last take. Please use the room tone from the, oh, first roll.
Camera 423. Slate 583. Take 1. Ah, wait a second, wait a second. Wait a second. One question. Rolling. 583. Okay.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Tran Van Don:
During the period of preparation for the coup d’état of November 1st, 1963, Conein was our intermediary - rather, my intermediary, because I was the only one of my group that was qualified to speak with the Americans. Conein was, in sum, my intermediary with the Americans. But Conein came to see me, to tell me lots of things and I found some things very confusing. For example, the 22nd October, 1963, General Harkins, who was the commander of the Americans forces in South Vietnam, told me over the course of a dinner that he was against a coup d’état.
He said it was inadmissible – he didn’t see why it was necessary to remove Diem. So when he told me that, I was very surprised. Well, those were the Americans before me. There was Conein who told me one thing, supposing Conein was coming on behalf of Cabot Lodge, the ambassador - and General Harkins, who is Cabot Lodge’s adjunct, who told me that he was against the coup. So, put yourself in my place. I said, “I don’t know what more to do now. I very well know what I want to do, but I don’t know.”
So I asked Conein, “I would like to meet your ambassador in order to be sure because I need American support. If I don’t have American support, I can’t throw the coup because we need American support to continue the war against the Communists.” This was very clear in our minds, in the minds of the generals.
Conein, came to see me at my friend the dentist’s to set up a meeting with Cabot Lodge. This meeting took place on the airfield of the Saigon airport at the time of the departure of the plane that would take President Diem, Ambassador Cabot Lodge and his wife to Da Lat in order to inaugurate the atomic center.
So I arrive a little ahead of time, Ambassador Cabot Lodge arrives after me and says to me, hello. He told me so I asked the question right then. I said “Mr. Ambassador, what is Conein’s relation to you?” He said, “He is my representative.”
And I said, fine. And I didn’t avoid talking about the coup. I said, “Well, I’m very happy to know he’s your representative.” So then I jumped into the subject. I said, Mr. Ambassador we need a change soon. I didn’t speak of a regime change, merely of a “change”. He knew I was talking about a coup. He said, “Well, I’m ready to give you support, and so are the Americans in all that you do.”
I said, “Mr. Ambassador, I don’t need, we don’t need anything right now. It’s after the coup that we need your support, after the change, if there’s a change. Because I would like to make it clear to you and the rest of the Americans that it’s purely a Vietnamese affair, and that it’s we alone who have to do this. And I will keep you up to date.” And then President Diem arrived, it’s the only time I met Cabot Lodge, and I had the support of the Americans. So we decided to have the coup. That’s it.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Interviewer:
Excellent.

The Death of Diem

584. Clapstick. One moment. Okay.
Interviewer:
Okay?
Interviewer:
Yes.
Interviewer:
Go ahead.
Tran Van Don:
There was never any question of killing either Diem or Nhu. During the preparation for the coup d’état, it was decided that they would be sent abroad, in exile, as we are today.
That day, that morning we decided to send a convoy to find them and bring them back to the Chief of Defense Staff and from there to take a plan abroad, because I had asked Ambassador Cabot Lodge the day before to get a plane ready to transport them abroad. So everything was ready.
Only that morning, Big Minh gathered the generals and colonels on the terrace. And he asked each of us what our opinion was regarding the future of Diem and Nhu. I was asked first. I said I had planned to send the two abroad, in exile.
The next person spoke as I had. I heard others say, Let Diem leave and hold on to Nhu. Finally I left because he was asking everyone, there were many of them. And I was convinced that it was decided - and I was even one of the most important members of the committee – that both of them would go abroad.
After two hours, the convoy returned and I found the two bodies Mr. Diem and Mr. Nhu. Killed. I went to find Big Minh in his office. I asked, “What happened? Why are they dead?” And he replied, “They’re dead? They’re dead?”
I was so shocked that I just stared at him. And then two people went out to find the other two, the two brothers. A general named Mai Huu Xuan came to the door of the office, saluted, and said to Big Minh, “Mission accomplished.”
So immediately I said to myself, It’s Minh who killed them then, who gave the order. Because in the car that the two brothers were brought in there were Big Minh’s personal security guards. So they were killed by Big Minh’s security guards, the general who notified Big Minh of the mission. To me, Big Minh gave the order to kill them. That’s all.
Interviewer:
Cut.

Factors in the Loss of the War to the North

Sound rolling. Marker. 586. Clapstick.
Interviewer:
Ok.
Tran Van Don:
The Vietnam War was a very important issue. And it was a disastrous issue because we lost the Vietnam War.
Sorry. Shall we stop? Hold on. Sound rolling. Record. 587.
Interviewer:
Okay.
Tran Van Don:
The Vietnam War was a global issue. It was a subject on which people have said a lot. Millions of words were written on the Vietnam War. Why did we lose the war? We lost the war from my point of view because of the first, the most important factor: there was no, there was no major international alliance between the American troops and the Vietnamese troops.
In sum, there never was very direct cooperation between the American military activities and the Vietnamese ones. And that is very important. Secondly when the American units were sent en masse in 1965 – 500,000 men, with all the very important logistical devices, aerial and naval coverage – at that moment it was necessary to make war.
But in order to have a war you have to have the authorization of the American military in the first place since they commanded such sizeable troops to make war against the enemy. Because one can’t win the war if one fights against the units the enemy was sending into the South, without going into North Vietnam.
So we never wanted that. The American units had come en masse not to go to war. They made defensive operations and when, for political reasons, it is the third factor since they did not want to continue these defensive operations, and it was necessary to negotiate with the enemy in order to have an armistice in 1973.
At that moment, one said, We have to do the war ourselves. Because after all it’s our war. But in order to wage war, we wanted the Americans to send just as much materiel, as much munitions, as much arms as Russia or China were sending to North Vietnam. And we would have found our strategy, and our tactic for fighting the war.
And I think that the North Vietnamese were equally Vietnamese, just as the South Vietnamese were equally Vietnamese. And this was a battle between two masses, the Communist mass and the non-Communist mass. And we lost because we didn’t have these three factors with us.
Interviewer:
Did you ever think of a possibility of compromise, of negotiations between the Vietnamese, between the Southerners and the Northerners?
Tran Van Don:
Personally, I think, if we wanted to end the war, and preserve South Vietnam we had to abandon the Liberation Front of North Vietnam and retain it in South Vietnam. We have to have, in sum, an “appropriate” South Vietnamese government, meaning with all the people of South Vietnam, in order to maintain a free South Vietnam, independent and neutral, since they demand it and also since it is in actuality.
Interviewer:
And could you have a coalition government in the South?
Tran Van Don:
When in 1973 they signed the Paris Peace Accords there was question of an administration of national concord. It was in sum a coalition government. So it was necessary to execute the accords. And I was since they signed, but they had to execute them, that’s all. And it was possible. And I know very well that the National Liberation Front should have asked to go with the people of the South to wage, in sum, a political war and save the South for themselves.
Interviewer:
Cut.
Enter the timecode: