After the assassination of President Diem in November 1963, President
Kennedy and his aides met to discuss the murder. It is dialogue worthy of
Shakespeare and it was all secretly recorded by Kennedy. (pp. 723-725)
Audio Clip 18, pp. 723 - 725
"It's hard to believe he'd commit suicide given his strong religious career," Kennedy said half to himself soon after the generals announced that President Diem of South Vietnam had killed himself. Catholics believe that eternal damnation is God's judgment on those who end their own lives, and he knew that Diem was a man of profound faith.
"He's Catholic, but he's an Asian Catholic," Hilsman said.
"What?" Kennedy asked. It may have been that the president was off somewhere in his own thoughts at the Ex Comm meeting on November 2, 1963. It was also true that when someone said something especially stupid, the president often asked him to repeat it.
"He's an Asian Catholic, and not only that, he's a mandarin. It seems to me not at all inconsistent with Armageddon."
"There're several different reports here, Mr. President," Bundy said, having heard enough of this sophomoric digression. He then went on to read an eyewitness report that both Diem and Nhu were dead and had clearly been assassinated. Bundy also read a second report saying the two men had poisoned themselves in the Chalon Catholic church.
Whatever words these men spoke this day, the first order of business was to convince themselves that they could not be rightfully accused either of having ordered the assassination or of creating the climate that felled Diem and Nhu. They had to make themselves believe that they had been far away. Rusk was obviously the most worried about these accusations, and he sought to convince his colleagues before they could convince the world.
"I think our press problem is likely to be pinpointed upon U.S. involvement, and we need to get that straightened out," the secretary of State said. "The fact is, we were not privy to this plan in the sense that we really didn't know what they were going to do…The fact that the coup was reported and rumored is not basically different in character than things that have been happening over the last several months…It would be to our interest to indicate that this was Vietnamese and that we were not participants in the coup and try to keep the gap as clear as we can."
Kennedy listened to Rusk's quasi-dissembling, the words set forth in tedious monologue, devoid of affect, so boring that he did not so much win his arguments as numb his opponents into concession. When the secretary of State finally finished, Kennedy found himself asking questions that should have been asked weeks before. "I think one of the problems…is how we square a military revolt against a constitutionally elected government which we approve as opposed to our position on Honduras and the Dominican. How do we square that?" Kennedy had aides who could square anything, and though they had their answers, the overwhelming question still hung there.
The cabinet officers and other high officials twisted and turned, trying to assure each other that they had done everything possible to get Diem to seek reforms before seeking other ways to remove him, and that they had no complicity in his death. But they were like men standing in front of a small fire on a frigid day: no matter how they turned, they could never quite warm themselves.
"About this suicide, I've brought this to your attention only because there is some question in some of our minds how much we want to know about this, sir, suicide versus assassination," Hilsman said. The undersecretary may have been a man of bombastic public presentation, but he understood the uses of euphemism and gentle suggestion. He also understood that the ground on which he stood could cave beneath him. The press was already writing about a memo Hilsman had written that they took as giving the generals permission to proceed. He had indeed, at the time of the Buddhist protests, given the embassy in Saigon a secret order approved by the president to "tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in an interim period of breakdown [in the] central government."
"It's becoming more and more clear that it was an assassination, at least I think it was, and people around here do," Hilsman went on. "Now this is the cable which suggests that he [Conein] actually go to Big Min [General Duong Van Minh] and really find out. But there's some doubt in some of our minds whether we want to or not. Maybe we ought to just let it alone."
As these men nervously discussed the bloody deed, McCone probably already knew precisely what had happened. "Big Minh offered Conein an opportunity to see the bodies, and he refused," McCone said, in his bloodless, bureaucratic way. "The suicide story is out. Conein is pretty conscious that it was assassination, and he didn't want to get involved with it. I would suggest that we not get into, into this story. Knowing it doesn't do us any good."
Regicide is the most horrible of murders, for if the king is not safe, then no one is safe. In the Cabinet Room these men usually discussed grand strategies, geopolitical considerations, theories of nuclear deterrence, counterinsurgency, and economic initiatives. They did not talk about a former friend lying in a pool of blood in the back of an army vehicle. There was an unsettling quality to their discourse, as if they had been condemned to look straight at where their ideas had led. Of all the men in the room, Kennedy seemed the most obsessed with what had happened. The president had always had a certain queasiness when it came to blood and death, and he was being led through a chamber of horrors.