Vietnam, Diem, the Buddhist Crisis

In the spring of 1963, South Vietnamese forces suppressed Buddhist religious leaders and followers, which led to a political crisis for the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

The suppression of Buddhists in South Vietnam became known as the "Buddhist crisis." President Ngo Dinh Diem did little to ease the tensions, though he later promised reforms. Many people suspected that his brother and closest advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was the actual decision maker in the Saigon government and the person behind the Buddhist suppression.

The Buddhist demonstrations continued throughout spring and summer and culminated in June when a Buddhist monk publicly lit himself on fire. The photograph of the event made news around the world.

The Fall of Diem

President Kennedy tried to impress upon President Diem the need for major government reforms in Saigon, but Diem ignored the warnings. In August, Diem declared martial law and his forces raided the pagodas of the Buddhist group behind the protests. Soon after, South Vietnamese military officers contacted US government representatives and inquired about what a US response would be to a military coup in Saigon. The officers assassinated Diem and overthrew his government in November 1963.

In August and October 1963, President Kennedy and his advisors had met several times to discuss the potential consequences of a coup in Vietnam and how the United States should react. Excerpts of the tapes and documents related to this crisis can be found in the header of this webpage. The image in the header shows Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Maxwell D. Taylor (far left), in a meeting with President Kennedy on October 2, 1963.

The tapes reveal President Kennedy's reservations about US support for a military coup in South Vietnam. They document meetings the president held with State Department, White House, military, and intelligence advisors during the week after Cable 243 (pdf) was sent. Cable 243, which set a course for the eventual coup in Vietnam on November 1, 1963, has been described by one historian as the "single most controversial cable of the Vietnam War."

See also: JFK in History - Vietnam