183. Research Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to the Secretary of State1



  • Implications of the Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam

The Diem government’s manner of implementing its agreement with South Vietnam’s Buddhist leaders could give rise to renewed difficulties. This memorandum examines the implications of such difficulties for the stability of the regime.


What appeared to be an isolated Buddhist incident in the city of Hue quickly became a national crisis that crystallized long-standing resentment of what Buddhist leaders regard as the privileged position occupied by the minority Roman Catholic church of which President Diem, his family, and a disproportionate number of civil and military officials are members.

The speed with which the Buddhist issue reached critical proportions was largely the result of the position adopted by President Diem and his family who misread the seriousness of the Buddhist movement and attributed it to political and even Communist inspiration. Until June 16 such concessions as were made to the Buddhists were clearly piecemeal and grudging. On June 16, however, against a background of sharply-increased Buddhist tensions and United States pressure, the Diem government signed an agreement with Buddhist leaders that, for the first time, accommodated all their demands.

A degree of calm having been resolved [reached?] by the June 16 agreement, much will now obviously depend on the sincerity and speed with which it is implemented. If the regime is conspicuously dilatory, inept, and insincere in handling Buddhist matters, renewed tension would probably again reach crisis proportions. Disaffection within the bureaucracy and the army, coupled with popular discontent and disorders, would almost certainly give rise to coup efforts. Such an effort if led, as it probably would be, by top and middle-echelon military and civil officials, would probably have good prospects of success. A successful coup, while posing real dangers of major internal upheaval and a serious slackening of the military effort against the [Page 406] Viet Cong, could draw upon a reservoir of trained and experienced personnel for reasonably effective leadership of the government and the war effort.

[Here follow sections entitled “Buddhist Incident Builds into National Crisis”, “The Diem Position”, Prospects for Long-Range Settlement”, and “Implications for the Stability of the Diem Regime”.]

Coup Prospects

A new Buddhist crisis, in the wake of any failure on the part of the regime to fulfill its commitments, would almost certainly give rise to coup efforts. A resurgence of open Buddhist hostility would again be reflected in demonstrations and, almost inevitably, bloodshed. Most Buddhist leaders, although not themselves likely to assume command of a movement to overthrow the government, would probably be inclined to favor a drastic political change as the only means by which their grievances could [be] remedied. Even before Buddhist-led disturbances reached serious or widespread proportions, however, the Diem leadership would probably be faced with an open revolt within the bureaucracy and the military establishment.

Some of Diem’s principal supporters might seek to counsel compromise and reform, but the futility of such counsel in the past, knowledge that officials have been removed or isolated for urging compromise, and the substantially-increased influence of the Nhus would tend to deter this effort. In any event, Diem probably would not listen to such advice, particularly to any recommendations that suggest removing the Nhus or even restricting their authority.

A revolt against Diem’s leadership could occur in several ways. For example, an army unit commander in the field, reacting rather spontaneously and without prior planning, might refuse orders from Saigon to use force to suppress a demonstration and might even openly indicate his support of the Buddhist cause. Apart from his personal sympathies, he might be motivated by fear of mutiny by his troops or armed action by the local populace aided by the Viet Cong. In any event, this open defiance of the government could quickly spread to other units, gain support within the top military leadership and the civil bureaucracy, and reach a climax in a major coordinated coup effort against the Diem family in Saigon. Counteractions by Diem, which he would have time to prepare in a revolt of this kind, could lead to armed conflict within military ranks and a protracted struggle between pro and anti-Diem forces.

Alternatively a revolt could be precipitated in Saigon, aimed at resolving the situation quickly without excessive armed conflict and bloodshed and without weakening the military front against the Viet Cong. The initial action in Saigon would not preclude coordinated supporting actions elsewhere. A revolt staged in this fashion would [Page 407] almost certainly require considerable prior planning and probably the participation of middle and top military and civil officials. The abortive 1960 coup, however, may well have impressed potential coup leaders with the necessity of better planning and broader participation by army and government elements and with the potential dangers posed by succumbing to protracted negotiations with Diem.

The Viet Cong would probably not be able to initiate or gain control of a successful and ostensibly non-Communist revolt. More likely, they would make every effort to provoke militant action by the Buddhists and to encourage disaffection among local government officials and army field units. Once a revolt had been launched, they would attempt to strengthen their military and political positions locally. In the main, they would be looking for a general breakdown of government authority in the countryside.

Nor do we believe that the diversified array of non-Communist oppositionists outside the government could initiate or lead a successful coup. These oppositionists have consistently demonstrated their inability to unite under a common cause or leader. Many of them are opportunists whose political views range from neutralism to possible pro-Communist sympathies and who have little support outside their immediate personal following. However, some appear more responsible, have contacts within the government, and might be acceptable as participants although not necessarily as leaders in a revolt, particularly if they had gained support within Buddhist circles.

We believe that the most likely revolt, however staged, would be non-Communist and fully committed to the counterinsurgency effort, have appreciable support within the government, and include middle and top echelon military and civil officials. Nevertheless, we do not feel that a major polarization of the South Vietnamese military and civilian leadership into active coup and anti-coup groups will necessarily occur. While most of them would probably favor the coup, if it is clearly anti-Communist, many might still hesitate to commit themselves actively at the outset and would give their tacit or active support to whatever side appeared to have the best chance of winning. However, we believe that this would tend to work to the advantage of the coup leaders. Under these circumstances, the revolt would have a fair-to-good chance of succeeding.

We do not believe that Diem and his family are prepared to capitulate without a fight, but we see it as equally unlikely that they would be permitted any alternative other than to resign or face death. The removal of the Diem family would probably precipitate a power struggle within the government, but ultimately would tend to strengthen the role of the military. It is not impossible that Diem’s successor could come from outside the ranks of the present government. A government led by a military junta or by Vice President [Page 408] Nguyen Ngoc Tho is more likely, however, with the army, in the latter case, playing a major if not predominant role behind the scenes. On the one hand, the military might conclude that a military-led government would be better able to maintain national unity and internal political cohesion and, more importantly, to conduct a determined and effective campaign against the Viet Cong. On the other hand, they might conclude that Tho would share their views on the manner of conducting the fight against the Viet Cong and that his constitutional succession would legitimize the change in government and possibly avert a serious power struggle. The possibility for successful cooperation between Tho and military leaders is good; he is apparently on cordial terms with a number of them, and is also competent and widely respected in and outside the government.

The sudden removal of South Vietnam’s authoritarian and long-established regime, whatever the character of the successor government, would pose real dangers of major internal upheaval and a serious slackening of the military effort against the Viet Cong. Certainly it is open to question whether any successor to Diem could, on the one hand, provide the same firm anti-Communist leadership, or on the, other, assure a more efficient and less authoritarian administration. Nevertheless, there is a reasonably large pool of untapped or ineffectively used but experienced and trained manpower not only within the military and civilian sectors of the present government but also, to some extent outside, that, given the opportunity and continued support from the United States, could provide reasonably effective leadership for the government and the war effort and make possible broader participation in the administration.

Implications for the United States

The public reaction of the United States might well determine the failure or success of any armed revolt against Diem. Diem will almost certainly expect quick, publicly expressed, and strong support and would feel that he no longer had United States confidence if such support were not forthcoming. Indeed, he might immediately leap to the conclusion that the United States had inspired the action or was actively assisting the rebels. Under these circumstances, if Diem were able to defeat the rebels, the United States would meet with increased difficulty in efforts to guide and influence Diem’s policies. Even should the United States publicly come to Diem’s support in return for commitments on his part with respect to his future activities, these commitments might not be fulfilled were Diem to succeed in putting down the revolt. A victory in these circumstances would greatly reinforce Diem’s view that he is indispensable, that he knows best what the situation requires, and that he cannot trust anyone outside his immediate family.

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The rebels and the fence sitters too would be looking for some indication of the United States position. Our silence over any period or indications that we regarded the revolt as an internal problem which we hoped to see quickly resolved would probably be taken as support for the rebels. This, or any other evidence that the United States was not supporting Diem, would probably inspire broader participation in the rebel effort, and if it were successful, enable the United States to influence the formation and policies of the successor government. On the other hand, obvious United States support for the Diem government would tend to deter participation in the rebel effort. If nevertheless the rebel effort were successful we could anticipate considerable hostility toward the United States in the new administration.

  1. Source: Department of State,S/P Files: Lot 70 D 199, Vietnam 1963. Secret; No Foreign Dissem; Limit Distribution. A note on another copy of this memorandum indicates that it was placed in the President’s weekend reading file. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 6/63)