Last Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of the Diem brothers, who ruled South Vietnam from 1955-1963. That same day, an article by Mark Moyar, a notorious Vietnam War revisionist, wrote that President Kennedy had permitted Henry Cabot Lodge, then the ambassador to South Vietnam, to push disaffected generals into a coup that resulted in the death of both Diem brothers, one the president of the country, the other its Archbishop. Moyar attributes Kennedy's decision to "partisan politics."
He writes that Kennedy had appointed Lodge because he hoped that Lodge "would be ensnared in a protracted conflict with no prospects of immediate victory, which could prevent him from campaigning or damage him as a candidate" if Lodge, a former senator who was a leading Republican, became the GOP candidate in the 1964 election.
I have a very different opinion. I have always believed that JFK permitted or even encouraged the assassinations because he fully intended to support the South Vietnamese in their battle against the Communist North Vietnamese army.
President Kennedy was a Catholic and religion was still a big thing in the 1960s. In September, just prior to his election, Baptist ministers in Houston wanted to make sure that he would not be a captive of the Vatican. They wanted him "to appeal to Cardinal Cushing, Mr. Kennedy's own hierarchical superior in Boston to present to the Vatican Mr. Kennedy's sincere statement relative to the separation of Church and State... in order that the Vatican may officially authorize such a belief for all Roman Catholic in the United States." Some wondered if he would be a servant of the Pope rather than of the Constitution.
Vietnam was a Buddhist nation. In 1963, Buddhist monks were incinerating themselves as acts of protest against the Catholic Diem brothers who were waging war against northern Buddhists even if they were Communists. If President Kennedy had sent Americans to defend a Roman Catholic country and GIs and Marines had died in those wars, the same ministers might accuse him of killing Americans on behalf of the Pope. If the Diems were no longer South Vietnamese leaders, those charges could not be made. If the president planned to go to war in defense of South Vietnam, the first thing he would have to do was remove its Catholic leaders.
I think that's what the president did when he either ordered or permitted the assassination of, in Moyar's words, two "autocratic leaders." Moyar compares the Diems with the autocratic leaders in today's Middle East. I think the comparison is a good one. But there is one real difference; the Diems were Catholics and so was JFK. The Middle East authoritarians are Muslims and despite what some might say, President Obama is not.