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Minh / Khanh - 1963-1965

Although South Vietnam had experienced eight years of relatively stable, if authoritarian, rule under President Ngo Dinh Diem, that changed suddenly in November 1963 when a coup d'etat and Diem's death in the course of it turned the government over to inexperienced generals. Diem had had some success in restraining the sects and the militant Buddhists and until the last days of his regime in playing off the various military factions one against another. But factionalism and conspiracy, always endemic in Vietnam, flourished.

After the death of President Diem in November 1963, South Vietnam had been controlled by a number of coalition governments. Each proved incapable of providing centralized direction to the war effort, and the pacification program ground to a halt. The majority of rural areas still remained under Viet Cong control or were "contested" in the enemy's favor. The involvement of military officials in the political upheaval, the consequent widespread reassignment and adjustments within the military command and staff structure, and the setbacks in offensive operations, all brought armed forces morale and effectiveness to a new low. The internal turmoil and collapse of the government also severely hampered mobilization and recruiting efforts. Almost all combat units were below authorized strength and desertion rates continued to soar. Some paramilitary units simply disbanded and melted away; the better South Vietnam Army units were spending most of their energies reacting to enemy initiatives. It was apparent that the South Vietnam government could not prevent the enemy from taking over the country.

The civil unrest and political instability that gripped the Republic of Vietnam from 1963 to 1965 had disastrous effects on the armed forces whose morale dropped to a new low by mid-1964. Two successive coups created numerous changes in the command structure and seriously impaired the administrative and military efficiency of the Army. Short tenures prevented commanders from gaining the full support of their troops, and the confusion was further aggravated by junior officers who openly expressed dissatisfaction and spread discontent among the rank and file. In this atmosphere there was little incentive for conducting normal operations, and the war effort ground to a halt.

By 1965, what existed was closer to a free-for-all than a government. Amid changing and unstable governments, Americans found themselves involved in internal South Vietnamese politics and administration in a way Diem never would have countenanced. It was in this context that the so-called American "escalation" took place. To the policy makers it appeared clear that outside help was needed if the Vietnamese were to have the time needed to get on their feet The alternative was to accept defeat.

Within the Government of the Republic of Vietnam (GVN) an extremely close inter-relationship existed between military prosecution of counterinsurgency operations and political developments. Probably the most significant problem the GVN had faced since the 1 November 1963 overthrow of the Diem regime was instability; this was attested to by the myriad of governments which ruled RVN since that time. Immediately following Diem's overthrow, a military junta headed by Major General Duong Van (Big) Minh, and his Military Revolutionary Council (MRC) of some 40 members moved swiftly to stabilize the political situation. The MRC promised to institute democratic reforms and return governmental functions to civilian control as soon as possible.

The Vietnamese generals were still struggling with their new govemmental responsibilities, and with each other, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on 22 November 1963. During Kennedy's time in office, the commitment of US military personnel had grown from 875 to over 16,000, and civilian programs including those of the CIA had grown proportionately.

Lack of aggressive leadership within the MRC, VC exploitation of post-coup weaknesses, and low morale in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF) established the setting two months later, on 30 January 1964, for a bloodless coup d'etat by Major General Nguyen Khanh, Commander of I ARVN Corps. Khanh's coup was allegedly staged to prevent formation of a neutralist, pro-French government, to overcome the ruling junta's slowness to move ahead with political reform, and to offset the junta's deleterious effect on the progress of the war against the VC. In order to strengthen its position, the new junta reshuffled many high-level command positions and corps boundaries enabling Khanh to surround himself with commanders whose loyalty was unquestioned.

Presidents of South Vietnam
Ngo Dnh Diem 26 Oct 1955 2 Nov 1963
Duong Van Minh2 Nov 1963 30 Jan 1964
Nguyen Khanh30 Jan 1964 8 Feb 1964
Duong Van Minh 8 Feb 1964 16 Mar 1964
Nguyen Khanh16 Mar 1964 27 Aug 1964
Duong Van Minh8 Sep 1964 26 Oct 1964
Phan Khac Suu26 Oct 1964 14 Jun 1965
Nguyen Van Thieu 14 Jun 1965 21 Apr 1975
Two coups in succession, however, had a devastating effect upon the morale and efficiency of the RVNAF, and, as could be expected, the VC lost no time in exploitation. Increased rumblings of dissatisfaction in nearly every sphere of political and military activity bode an uncertain future for the Khanh government; of particular note was the effect at "rice roots" level of ineffectiveness of the armed forces--a lack of will of the peasant to resist the VC efforts to control the countryside.

Over the next few months the South Vietnamese government of Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khanh was unable to make good use of the increased U.S. aid; American advisers in the countryside reported that Khanh's political power was still crumbling. General Khanh and Air Commodore Nguyen Cao Ky, commander of the South Vietnamese Air Force, began a public campaign to place all blame for the deteriorating conditions on North Vietnam and draw the United States even further into the conflict.

A rash of anti-government demonstrations among students, Buddhists, and Catholics followed. As demonstrations turned to rioting, the MRC, on 16 August 1964, announced its dissolution andthe selection of a 'Provisional Steering Committee" (a triumvirate of Khanh, Minh, and Lieutenant General Tran Thien Khiem) to head the nation for a 60-day period following which a national congress was to install a civilian government. Minh was selected to exercise the functions of Chief of State, and Khanh took over as Detnse Minister from Khiem. During this probationary period, the cumbersome machinery of government slowly ground to a standstill which gave rise to an image of impotence and immobility on the part of the Provisional Steering Committee. From this image there arose yet another coup attempt when, on 13 September, military officers who resented Khanh's past treatment and those who hoped to stem his drift with the Buddhist tide moved into Saigon in a quick, orderly, and bloodless takeover. Because Khanh had unexpectedly absented himself by visiting Dalat, and because of the loyalty of the Air Force Commander, Nguyen Cao Ky, the coup failed, and the dissident troops were evacuated by noon on 14 Septemnber 1964.

The pressure of the coup in conjunction with that of other political, religious, and ethnic groups succeeded in causing Khanh to select a 17-man High National Council which he charged with the task of drawing up a provisional constitution and selecting a provisional national assembly. The resulting charter provided for a chief of state with limited powers and a civilian premier to determine policy, subject to the approval of the council which would act temporarily as a popular assembly. The resulting civilian government headed by former Saigon Mayor Tran Van Huong as Premier and Pham Khac Suu as Chief of State was the first of its kind since the overthrow of the Diem regime and brought some faint hope of political stability. However, it could not be said that the new government really held power, for new moves in late December 1964 by the "Young Turks," a maverick group of young military officers, tended to undercut them, and this, together with increasing politico-religious turmoil, virtually immobilized the civilians as 1964 drew to a close. The South was in perilous shape: the outlook there one of increasing defeatism, paralysis of leadership, friction with Americans, exploration of possible lines of political accommodation with the other side, and a general petering out of the war effort.

As 1965 began, the political situation was no closer to a solution than it had been the preceding year. A Buddhist attempt to overthrow the struggling but feeble civilian government was complicated further by the military. In December 1964 the Young Turks formed an Armed Forces Council (AFC) ostensibly to act as an advisory body on military affairs to Khanh, who theoretically had relinquished the trappings of governmental power in August 1964. With Khanh's approval the AFC illegally abolinhed the High National Council, and in early January it became increasingly clear that Premier Huong could not last much longer. A coordinatod uprising soon grew out of control, and this paved the way for Khanh, on 27 January 1965, to reassume leadership of RVN by persuading the AFC to issue a "decision" that Khanh must be entrusted with the "heavy responsibility of settling the present political crisis" because Huong and Suu could not control the critical situation. There was, however, dissatisfaction among the AFC members regarding Khanh's reassumption of power. Among those dissentors was Brigadier General Nguyen Cao Ky, Air Force Chief, Khanh remained in power for only four short weeks before he was again ousted on 1Z February 1965.

One product of Khanh's short tenure of office, however, was a new civilian government with his stamp on it. Important within the framework of this civilian government were provisions for the formation of A National Legislative Council (NLC) which was to consist of a civilian-military group whose function was to advise the government. Included in the NLC would be six military representatives and three unofficial representatives of each of the four major religious groupings (Buddhist, Catholic, Cao Dal, and Hoa Hao) and two independents. Thus, the NLC attained the goal of developing an institution for finding a consensus among the national power groups.

On 19 February 1965 another attempted coup, launched against Khanh, failed. The failure of this junta was due, in no small part to two rather significant reasons: First, Khanh was no longer in power since the NLC had ousted him seven days earlier and seated Pham Huy Quat, a highly respected politician; and second, only a very small segment of the military backed the aspiring junta. Shortly thereafter Khanh was appointed as a roving ambassador, and the AFC on 5 May dissolved itself. This, how. ever, did not end the new civilian government's problem. Discord arose regarding the autonomous power of the Chief of State's authority to replace ministers of the government. This and numerous other more deeply seated problems resulted in Quat's inviting the military to mediate the crisis.

In an announcement on 12 June 1965, Chief of State Suu stated that these three elements of civilian authority had handed back to the armed forces all power and authority in Vietnam. Thus the mediating generals set to the task of pounding out a new government and a new statement of national policy. The shaking and sifting that ensued brought forth the emergency of new leading figures, Major General Nguyen Van Thieu, a former Deputy Prime Minister, and Brigadier General Nguyen Cao Ky, Chief of the Air Force.



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