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November 1, 1963

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What do we know today that we did not know on November 1, 1963? That was the day when South Vietnamese Generals Big Minh and Van Don and some 7,500armed men broke out of their barracks in Saigon to declare war on President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. In the next 12 hours the two Diem brothers were dead, and the rebellious generals were the new rulers in South Vietnam.

The rest is history.

A month later, President John F. Kennedy would be killed in Dallas. And not long after, JFK's Vietnam exit strategy would be replaced by National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM)273, which marked the beginning of the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Most Americans of my generation - or a certain percentage of my neighbors - have exhibited an absolute ambivalent guilt and fascination regarding the atrocities of Vietnam before and after the Vietnam War. However painful and gory, live television news from Vietnam aroused more animated conversations at America kitchen tables than ordinary game shows in the 1960s. As masters of the world - since the Second World War - there was a glorious optimism that intoxicated the nation despite a burgeoning anti-war movement.

The coup d'e'tat in Vietnam and the assassination of the Diem brothers were part of the not so long prelude that culminated in and indeed marked the beginning of the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In his memoir "In Retrospect," Robert McNamara, JFK's secretary of defense clarifies the basic chronology and the map of the Vietnam War.

McNamara tells the truth through coded language. Moreover, his memoir/confession is mindful not to induce new wounds from old scars. Hence, McNamara is overly cautious and excruciatingly symbolic in "In Retrospect," which gave him enough time to rest on his laurels and die in peace.

"In Retrospect" offers a well-defined chronology of events, which not only have the appearance of sabotage but are acts of sabotage of JFK's Vietnam exit strategy with evidence. For instance, on September 27, 1963, Michael Forrestal, a White House aide, hand delivers a note from Roger Hilsman (another White House aide) to Ambassador Cabot Lodge: "Dear Cabot, I am taking advantage of Mike Forrestal's safe hands to deliver this message."

The message read: "I have the feeling that more and more of the town is coming around to our view, i.e., that Diem must be removed by a coup, and that if you in Saigon and we in the Department stick to our guns, the rest will also come around. As Mike with tell you, a determined group here will back you all the way."

This letter must be understood in the context of a handwritten letter by the President Kennedy that McNamara carries with him to Vietnam during the same trip, which advocates just the opposite - political pressure and negotiation. In essence, the President's directive and Hilsman note via Forrestal are contradictory.

McNamara confirms that the complicit acts of Roger Hilsman, Michael Forrestal and McGeorge Bundy (three key insiders of the JFK White House) and two civil servants stationed in Vietnam - Ambassador Cabot Lodge and Lucien Conein (the CIA station chief) - sabotage JFK's Vietnam exit strategy. With remarkable clarity, McNamara illuminates how and why the Vietnam War begins.

It is not a single event; rather it is the slow build up of multiple little events. It is not a single assassination but rather it is the cumulative impact of several murders. It is not just one miscommunication but rather the systematic deliberate series of miscommunications perhaps starting with the infamous August 24, 1963, cable from Michael Forrestal to Cabot Lodge, then culminating with the misrepresentations of the 29th of October meeting right before the assassination of the Diem brothers and then the slowly and methodically gathering storm through the Vietnam War leadership conference in Honolulu on November 20, 1963. McNamara, with exquisite detail, guides us through history and makes us understand why not he but the inner circle of Michael Forrestal, McGeorge Bundy and Roger Hilsman with crucial help from Cabot Lodge and Lucien Conein are the engineers of the coup in Vietnam.

Of course, McNamara's memoirs alone cannot record the history of the launching of the Vietnam War, and that is why particularly the circumstances that surround the murders of the Diem brothers are of significance. Ironically, for at least a decade or so, JFK was falsely blamed for the Diem brothers' demise. The truth is different. McNamara offers an important insight on page 85 of "In Retrospect": "Hours before the coup began President Diem capitulated unconditionally but Lodge delayed the news of his acceptance offer from the White House."

Despite all the compelling evidence of sabotage from within of the JFK Vietnam policy, the hostile influences that caused the dysfunction - the wrongful cable, the ill-advised coup d'e'tat and the dumb assassinations - could be downplayed because of the political crisis. Yet, the absurdity and illegality of the U.S. State Department to promote executions of political asylum seekers is simply abhorrent to the American Constitution and spirit, and this is the final link to Lodge's and Conein's crime.

In displaying their true colors, Lodge and Conein performed their perfect duties to first lure the third Diem brother Ngo Dinh Can for a flight to Saigon with an American military aircraft after he sought asylum in the American consulate in Hue. There he was greeted, escorted and driven by Lucien Conein to his political rivals, who tried and executed him in the spring of 1964. Lodge and Conein had their own game plan: sabotage of JFK's presidency from within.

From 1963 to 2009, a good many years passed. Hopefully the truth that surrounds the assassination of the Diem brothers will also help us discover other truths that led to JFK's tragic death on November 22, 1963.


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Alen J. Salerian, MD is a Washington, DC based physician, author, and historian who has been practicing psychiatry and psychopharmacology for 35 years. He is the former chief psychiatrist of the FBI's mobile psychiatric unit. He has authored (more...)
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