298. Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Harkins) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Taylor)1

MAC JOO 8625. Gen Don called on me this morning. This is the first time I’ve seen him since Adm Felt’s departure last Friday.2 We discussed the recent past and future plans. I said I had heard so many conflicting stories on the coup and on the demise of Diem and Nhu I would like to get his version.

He said as far as he could tell, Diem and Nhu left the Palace Friday evening about 2200. They went in some Chinese civilian’s car to a house in Cholon. Though the Generals had talked to Diem and Nhu during the evening, neither of the brothers let on they were no longer in the Palace. JGS intelligence knew the house in Cholon and the two were arrested there, Saturday, a.m.

They were placed in an M-133 for security and for delivery to the JGS compound. Upon arrival at the compound it was discovered they were dead. The Generals were truly grievous over this because they had promised safe conduct. Don did not explain what had happened, whether it was suicide or someone had not got the word.

He is holding the coffins for later shipment to Hue for burial.

I asked about Ngo Dinh Can, the late President’s brother in Hue. Don said I Corps troops were protecting him and he was considering bringing him to Saigon for safekeeping. I asked about the graves [Page 570] reported being found in Can’s enclave. Don smiled and said they had nothing to do with Can at all. Don knows Can very well and, while I Corps Commander, visited him many times. He said he knew where the graves were and that they had been there for years. They belong to many families who lived in and around the area even before it became Can’s residence.

Don went on to say he received a call from Los Angeles from Mrs. Nhu this morning. That the Madame went into a tirade, saying they were all fools-murderers and bought by the Americans-that the people would never follow Big Minh or the military. Don disclaimed any connection with the demise of Diem and Nhu-also that he was not bought off. He told the Madame if she were here she would see for herself the changed attitude of the people. She asked about her children. Don told her they departed last night, but could not tell her when they would arrive in Rome. Incidentally, they must be there by now as they made good connections with a jet flight out of Bangkok last night.

As to the present—they were still making changes in command—also in some province chiefs (I’ll report them when firm). I reminded him many of the province chiefs had done well and suggested not changing them all just for change’s sake.

He admitted he and Big Minh considered the possibility of a counter coup—but are not too concerned as they pretty well know who is involved.

I asked about Col Tung, former Commander of the Spec Forces. Don said Tung was with the Generals when the coup started. He said he didn’t know what has happened to him since.

Don feels he can get most of the troops out of the city by this weekend and as soon as the changes in command are established, he will be ready to prosecute the war. He said he as Minister of Defense and Chairman of the JGS could see no difficulties in getting orders carried out.

The Special Forces now under command of Maj Gen Nghiem, former Commander of III and I Corps and who now also commands the parachute brigade, will be directly under the command of the JGS. Further, when working in a corps of S.F.’s would be under command of the corps commander concerned.

He intends to disarm the Republican Youth except those who are hamlet militia, and also Madame Nhu’s Women’s Army. He hopes to steer them to more productive fields—didn’t explain the productive part.

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Don said Gen Dinh, presently III Corps Commander, would probably be Minister of Security. Wearing this hat he would command the National Police and perhaps the Gendarmerie. However, he was considering bringing the Gendarmerie back into the army as most of the officers and NCO’s originally came from the army.

All in all, if, I repeat, if things work out, we’ll have a more orderly set-up-and a more streamlined chain of command, fewer para-military organizations under arms and not as much concern with political interference which caused delays and in some cases changed missions and orders.

I reminded Don that the courage and determination shown by the coup’s battalions in overcoming the Presidential Brigade of 1,500 men, if displayed in fighting a VC battalion of three to four hundred men, could make short order of the remaining VC in SVN.

All this might add up to a much earlier ETA for getting counterinsurgency in SVN under control.

I feel sure this will be true if I can get the show on the road.


  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 S VIET. Secret; Eyes Only; Priority. Also sent for information to CINCPAC for Felt and to the Embassy in Saigon. Repeated to the White House exclusive for Bundy; to the Department of State exclusive for Rusk, Harriman, Hilsman, and Ball; and to CIA exclusive for McCone and Helms. The source text is the Department of State copy, which was received at 6:40 p.m.
  2. November 1.