Military Wiki
1965 South Vietnamese coup
DateFebruary 19–20, 1965
LocationSaigon and Bien Hoa, South Vietnam
Result Original coup failed; Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Chanh Thi then forced Nguyen Khanh from power and into exile
Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) rebels Flag of South Vietnam.svg South Vietnam
Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) ruling junta
Commanders and leaders
Tran Thien Khiem
Lam Van Phat
Pham Ngoc Thao
Nguyen Khanh
Nguyen Cao Ky
Nguyen Chanh Thi
50 tanks, several infantry battalions At least one infantry regiment and marine brigade
Casualties and losses

On February 19, 1965, some units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam commanded by General Lam Van Phat and Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao launched a coup against General Nguyen Khanh, the head of South Vietnam's ruling military junta. Their aim was to install General Tran Thien Khiem, a Khanh rival who had been sent to Washington DC as Ambassador to the United States to prevent him from seizing power. The attempted coup reached a stalemate, and although the trio did not take power, a group of officers led by General Nguyen Chanh Thi and Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, and hostile to both the plot and to Khanh himself, were able to force a leadership change and take control themselves with the support of American officials, who had lost confidence in Khanh.

Although Khanh had seized power in January 1964 in alliance with Khiem, the pair had soon fallen out over policy disputes along religious lines, and the Catholic Khiem began to plot against Khanh. Khiem was believed to have helped plan a failed coup in September 1964, and Khanh exiled him as a result. While in Washington, Khiem continued to plot alongside his aide Thao, who was actually a communist agent bent on trying to foment infighting at every opportunity. Aware of Thao's plans, Khanh summoned him back to Vietnam in an apparent attempt to capture him, and Thao responded by going into hiding and preparing for his attack. In the meantime, Khanh's hold on power was slipping as his military support dwindled, and he became increasingly reliant on the support of civilian Buddhist activists who favored negotiations with the communists and opposed escalation of the Vietnam War. The Americans—most notably Ambassador Maxwell Taylor—were opposed to this and had been lobbying various senior Vietnamese officers such as Ky to overthrow Khanh, who knew that American-sponsored moves to depose him were afoot.

However, the Americans were not counting on Thao and his fellow Catholic Phat trying to seize power on an explicitly religious platform, claiming fidelity to slain former Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem and promising to recall Khiem from the US to lead the new regime. This caused alarm among the Buddhist majority, who had campaigned heavily against Diem's discriminatory religious policies in the months leading up to his ouster in November 1963. Although they wanted Khanh gone, the Americans did not want Thao and Phat to succeed, so they sought out Ky and Thi in an attempt to have them defeat the original coup and then depose Khanh. During the initial attack, Thao and Phat tried to capture both Khanh and Ky, but both men escaped narrowly, although some of their colleagues in the Armed Forces Council were arrested. Although the rebels were able to take control of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the largest in the country and the military headquarters of South Vietnam, Ky was able to regroup quickly and retain control of the nearby Bien Hoa Air Base, using it to mobilize air power and stop the rebel advance with threats of bombing. Late in the night, Thao and Phat met Ky in a meeting arranged by the Americans, where an agreement was reached for the coup to be ended in return for Khanh's ouster. By early next morning, the bloodless military action was over as Thao and Phat went into hiding, and the junta voted to sack their leader Khanh, who was absent on a military inspection tour, thinking that Ky and Thi were on his side.

When Khanh heard of his ouster, he declared it to be illegal. After defying his colleagues and travelling around the country for a day in a fruitless attempt to rally support for a comeback, Khanh went into exile after being named to fill the meaningless post of Ambassador-at-Large and allowed an elaborate ceremonial military send-off to save face. Phat and Thao were later sentenced to death in absentia. Thao was hunted down and killed in July 1965, while Phat remained on the run for several years before turning himself in and being pardoned.


General Nguyen Khanh had come to power in January 1964 after surprising the ruling junta of General Duong Van Minh in a bloodless coup. However, due to American pressure, he kept the popular Minh as a token head of state, while concentrating real power in his hands by controlling the Military Revolutionary Council.[1] In August, the Vietnam War continued to escalate following the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a disputed encounter between communist and American naval vessels off the North Vietnamese coast; Washington accused North Vietnam of attacking their ships in international waters.[2][3][4] Khanh saw the tense situation as an opportunity to increase his authority. On August 7, he declared a state of emergency, increased police powers, banned protests, tightened censorship and allowed the police arbitrary search and imprisonment powers.[2] He drafted a new constitution,[5] which would have augmented his personal power at the expense of the already-limited Minh. However, these moves only served to weaken Khanh as large demonstrations and riots broke out in the cities, with majority Buddhists prominent, calling for an end to the state of emergency and the abandonment of the new constitution, as well as a progression back to civilian rule.[2]

Fearing he could be toppled by the intensifying protests, Khanh made concessions,[6] repealing the new constitution and police measures, and promising to reinstate civilian rule and remove Can Lao Party—a secret Catholic organization used to infiltrate and spy on society to maintain President Ngo Dinh Diem's regime—members from power.[6] General Tran Thien Khiem later claimed "Khanh felt there was no choice but to accept since the influence of Tri Quang was so great that he could not only turn the majority of the people against the government but could influence the effectiveness of the armed forces".[7][8] Many senior officers, particularly the Catholic Generals Khiem and Nguyen Van Thieu, decried what they viewed as a handing of power to the Buddhist leaders.[9] They tried to replace Khanh with Minh, but abandoned their coup plans after failing to get an endorsement from the Americans.[10] Khanh blamed the government instability on troublemaking by members and supporters of the Catholic-aligned Dai Viet Quoc Dan Dang (Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam, usually known simply as the Dai Viet), who he accused of putting partisan plotting ahead of the national interest.[11] Prominent officers associated with the Dai Viet included Thieu and Khiem.[12] For his part, Khiem blamed Khanh's weakness in dealing with Buddhist activists for the demonstrations in the cities and the rural losses against the communists.[11]

In September, the Catholic Generals Lam Van Phat and Duong Van Duc launched a coup after being demoted by Khanh in response to Buddhist pressure; Phat was a well-known Diem loyalist.[13][14][15] They were supported by the Dai Viet, Khiem and Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao.[16] While Thao was also a Catholic, he was an undetected communist spy who tried to foment infighting at every opportunity.[16] The coup failed and Khanh exiled Khiem to Washington as ambassador, and his close friend Thao was sent along as press attache.[13] Concerned that Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky and General Nguyen Chanh Thi—who had put down the coup attempt for him—had become too powerful, Khanh had Phat and Duc acquitted in their military trial in an effort to use them as a political counterweight. However, the coup was seen as the start of Khanh's ultimate political decline.[17] Due to the intervention of Ky and Thi, Khanh was now indebted to them. In an attempt to maintain his political power in the face of increasing opposition from within the junta, he tried to court support from Buddhist civilian activists, who supported negotiations with the communists to end the war. As the Americans were strongly opposed to such policies, relations with Khanh became increasingly strained.[17]

American encouragement of a coup

Middle-aged man with greying dark hair parted slightly off-centre. He wears a green dress uniform, with suit and tie, is clean-shaven, and has four stars on his shoulder to indicate his rank.

Maxwell Taylor, the US Ambassador to South Vietnam, was an opponent of Khanh and encouraged the other South Vietnamese officers to launch a coup.

By 1965, the Americans were looking for someone to overthrow Khanh, and these efforts were spearheaded by Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, who had begun encouraging other senior officers to move against Khanh since the start of the year, even though there was still significant hesitation and opposition to any regime change back in Washington. At the time, the US was planning to start a large-scale bombing campaign against the communist north and regarded Khanh's reliance on Buddhist support as an obstacle to their aims.[18] Furthermore, Taylor and Khanh developed an intense personal antipathy for one another, which culminated in a breakdown in their relationship; in December 1964, Khanh's junta deposed the High National Council, a civilian advisory body that was designed to give a semblance of civilian rule. This resulted in Taylor angrily condemning Khanh and his generals in private to the point of suggesting Khanh resign the leadership. Khanh responded by threatening to expel Taylor, and going on a media offensive against the ambassador.[19] Taylor threatened to withhold military aid, but the Americans could not do so because of their overriding desire to see the military defeat of the communists, and without foreign funding, South Vietnam could not survive.[20]

In January 1965, the junta-appointed Prime Minister Tran Van Huong intensified the anti-communist war effort by expanding military expenditure using aid money and equipment from the Americans, and increasing the size of the armed forces by widening the terms of conscription. This provoked widespread anti-Huong demonstrations and riots across the country, mainly from conscription-aged students and Buddhists who wanted negotiations.[21] Reliant on Buddhist support, Khanh did little to try to contain the protests.[21][22] Khanh then decided to have the armed forces take over the government. On January 27, with the support of Thi and Ky, Khanh removed Huong in a bloodless putsch. He promised to leave politics once the situation was stabilized and hand over power to a civilian body. It was believed some of the officers supported Khanh's increased power to give him an opportunity to fail and be removed permanently.[21][23] Khanh persisted with the facade of civilian government by retaining figurehead chief of state Phan Khac Suu and making economics professor Nguyen Xuan Oanh the caretaker prime minister.[24][25]

Khanh's deposal of the prime minister nullified a counter-plot involving Huong, which had developed during the civil disorders that forced him from office. In an attempt to pre-empt his deposal, Huong had backed a plot led by some Dai Viet-oriented Catholic officers, reported to include Generals Thieu and Nguyen Huu Co. They planned to remove Khanh and bring Khiem back from Washington. The US Embassy in Saigon was privately supportive of the aim,[26] but was not ready to give full support. They regarded it as poorly thought out and potentially a political embarrassment due to the need to use an American plane to transport some plotters, including Khiem, between Saigon and Washington. As a result, the Deputy Ambassador U. Alexis Johnson only promised asylum for Huong if the plot failed.[26]

Khanh's deposal of Huong further heightened American opposition to him and fears that his reliance on Buddhist support would result in his not taking a hardline position against the communists.[27] Aware of declining US support, Khanh tried to initiate peace negotiations with the Vietcong, but he only managed an exchange of letters and was yet to organize any meetings or negotiations before he was overthrown. In the meantime, this only intensified US efforts to engineer a coup, and many of Khanh's colleagues—mostly Catholic Dai Viet supporters—had by then privately concluded that he was set to pursue a deal with the communists.[28][29] Many of these felt that Khanh saw himself as the "Sihanouk of Vietnam";[29] the Cambodian monarch had managed to avoid the Cold War for the time being by shunning both communist and anti-communist blocs. During the first half of February, suspicions and evidence against Khanh began to solidify, an example being his order to release the wife of communist leader Huynh Tan Phat from jail. Taylor's superiors in Washington began to align with his view, giving him more scope to agitate for a coup.[29][30]

During the dispute with Taylor over the High National Council in December, Khanh had tried to frame the dispute in nationalist terms, in an attempt to rally support around himself against what he saw as overbearing US influence. This worked for a while, as Taylor had angrily berated Khanh's generals,[19] but in the long run it failed, as South Vietnam and the generals' careers and advancement were dependent on US aid. Taylor hoped Khanh's appeals to nationalism might backfire by causing his colleagues to fear a future without US funding.[31] On occasions during the December stand-off, Khanh had appealed to his colleagues to support the expulsion of Taylor from the country. The ambassador said that US support for South Vietnam would end if he was expelled, and the generals backed down, but Khanh said the military did not need US aid. The Americans were aware of Khanh's tactics and exploited it by persistently trying to scare his colleagues with the prospect of a military heavily restricted by the absence of US funding.[31] After the December coup, Taylor credited the fear of US abandonment for having "raised the courage level of the other generals to the point of sacking him",[26] as many were seen as beholden to their desire for personal advancement above all.[30]

In the first week of February, Taylor told Ky—who then passed on the message to colleagues in the junta—that the US was "in no way propping up General Khanh or backing him in any fashion".[32] Taylor thought his message had been effective and sent a cable to Washington claiming his words had "fallen on fertile ground".[32] He then had the message repeated to seven other key generals. At this stage, Taylor and his staff in Saigon thought highly of three officers as possible replacements for Khanh: Thieu, the commander of II Corps Co, and the commander of the Republic of Vietnam Navy Admiral Chung Tan Cang.[32] A US Defense Department report described Co as an "outstanding officer ... friendly to Americans" and deemed Cang "a good leader ... anti-communist; friendly towards U.S".[33] Thieu was quoted in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report as being described by an unnamed American official as "intelligent, highly ambitious, and likely to remain a coup plotter with the aim of personal advancement".[33] At the same time, the CIA was aware that Co had become disillusioned with Khanh and had stopped attending junta meetings after Khanh accused him of "having been bought off by the Americans".[33] Taylor also did not rule out supporting a return to power for Khiem,[32] despite having agreed with Khanh's decision to exile him after the September 1964 coup.[34]

Taylor cabled Washington to say "I can well visualize [the] necessity at some time of using full U.S. leverage ... to induce our Vietnamese friends to get Khanh out of [the] position of commander-in-chief (from which he pulls the strings) and to install their very best governmental line-up."[32] He also told his State Department superiors that Khanh was very likely aware of his machinations, but that he did not care about this.[32] At the same time, there was also the question of finding another military-appointed prime minister to replace Huong.[32] Taylor wanted Nguyen Luu Vien, Huong’s deputy, to take over, and advised South Vietnamese officers who were on good terms with him to try to engineer this, but they were not able to get enough support.[32] Eventually, Phan Huy Quat was appointed prime minister on February 14.[35] Quat was a moderate Buddhist not associated with the political demonstrators, and seen as a compromise candidate who would be acceptable across the religious spectrum, albeit grudgingly. He was also regarded as being favorable to Khanh, who would not be around for more than a few more days to support, control or pressure him in any case.[36] All the while, intelligence reports of Khanh's attempted dealings with the communists increased.[37]

Preliminary plots

Three Asian men with black hair standing from left to right. The first is in profile, wearing a beret. He has three stars as a Lieutenant General and has a moustache. The next man is facing towards the camera smiling. He is clean shaven and has three stars. A third man on the right has his back to the camera and is wearing a cowboy hat. All are wearing military fatigues.

Thi (left) and Thieu (right) during the 1960s. Thi helped stop the coup and overthrow Khanh, while Thieu was regarded as a potential leader of a coup against Khanh.

Taylor's exhortations to the Vietnamese officers to remove Khanh were not a secret, and it had an unwanted side-effect; it accelerated coup action from figures not favored by Washington. The likes of Ky, Thieu, Co and Cang were not yet ready to stage a coup, and their preparations were well behind those of Thao, an unstinting plotter.[37] On February 14, the commander of the Marine Brigade General Le Nguyen Khang reported to an American official that he was involved in plotting against Khanh but said he and the other Young Turks were not ready because the military was not sufficiently united. He said they had to wait for a time when a coup could be carried out without generating unspecified side-effects.[38] Khang was aware Thao was planning a move with some generals who were now on the outer. He anticipated trouble in trying to keep his subordinates from joining Thao, as his men might not wait for the younger generals to launch their coup if they thought it would never come.[38]

At the time, the Vietnamese military was highly factionalized in complicated and unusual ways, and it was not clear where the sympathies of the respective officers lied.[30] Thi was pro-Buddhist,[30] but he and Ky had been suspected of mooting a coup attempt against Khanh in September 1964,[39] and he had also been reported by the CIA in December 1964 as having vowed to kill Khanh.[40] Although Ky had made comments hinting threats to Khanh,[41] he was also known to be strongly opposed to nominally hardline Catholic Diem supporters—such as Thao—who were currently the frontrunners to launch the coup.[42] Meanwhile, the likes of Thieu, Co and Cang, whom the Americans favored,[37] and were Catholic-aligned in more moderate ways,[32] were cautious in comparison to the flamboyant and impetuous Ky and Thi.[40][43][44] They maintained a guarded approach, waiting to see what the other officers would do, rather than boldly taking the initiative.[37] For his part, Ky was reported by US intelligence to have privately predicted that Khanh would be ousted in an efficient manner without bloodletting and replaced by Thieu.[45]

Plot by Phat and Thao

In late December 1964, Thao was summoned back to Saigon by Khanh, who correctly suspected him and Khiem of plotting together in Washington. Thao believed Khanh was attempting to have him killed,[16][46] so he went underground upon returning to Saigon,[47] and began plotting in earnest,[48] unfazed by the prospect of being charged for desertion.[47] The ruling junta appealed to Thao in newspaper advertisements and broadcasts to follow orders to report, but he ignored them.[49] Due to his Catholicism, Thao was able to recruit Diem loyalists such as Phat.[50] In mid-January 1965, the regime called for him to report to his superiors in the ARVN, warning that he would be "considered guilty of abandoning his post with all the consequences of such a situation" if he failed to do so.[47] At this time, it was still not known that Thao was a communist agent who was deliberately trying to cause infighting within South Vietnam at every opportunity.[16] With Khanh's hold on power shaky, an anonymous source said Thao was worried about how he would be treated if someone else took over: "Thao acted first, out of fear that if he did not, the other generals would overthrow Khanh and get rid of him as well. He knew that if the others overthrew Khanh his fate would be worse than Khanh's."[37] During this time, Thao kept in touch with elements of the CIA in an attempt to get American backing.[37]

Between January and February, Thao finalized his own coup plans.[51] Thao consulted Ky—who wanted to seize power for himself—and exhorted him to join the coup, but the air force chief claimed he was remaining neutral. Thao thus mistakenly thought Ky would not intervene against him.[52] Ky had actually been preparing his own coup plans for a fortnight and was strongly opposed to the likes of Thao and Phat.[53]

Coup beginning

Shortly before noon on 19 February, Thao and Phat attacked, using around 50 tanks and a mixture of infantry battalions to seize control of the post office and radio station in Saigon, cutting off communication lines. The tanks were led by Colonel Duong Hieu Nghia, a Catholic member of the Dai Viet. He surrounded the home of General Khanh, and Gia Long Palace, the residence of head of state Suu.[35][51][53][54] When he was spotted by the press, Phat emerged from a tank to quip "This operation is to expel Nguyen Khanh from the government".[55] Thao said he was going to bring back Khiem from Washington to head the new regime. In doing so, he caught Khiem—at least nominally—off guard, asleep in his Maryland home. When informed of what was happening, Khiem sent a cable pledging "total support" to the plot.[55] Rebel forces also surrounded the headquarters of the Republic of Vietnam Navy located on the Saigon River,[54] apparently in an attempt to capture Cang. However this was unsuccessful, and Cang moved the fleet to Nha Be—a port downstream on the Saigon River—to prevent the rebels from seizing the boats.[54]

Black-and-white photo of a runway and hangars. Only one large airplane can be seen.

Tan Son Nhut Air Base, pictured here in 1962, was the headquarters of both the US and South Vietnamese military and a key target in any coup.

In the meantime, Thao's main partner Phat headed towards Tan Son Nhut Air Base—the country's military headquarters—to capture it with an assortment of marines, paratroopers and special forces troops.[35] At the time, most of the senior officers had been in meetings with American officials at Tan Son Nhut since the start of the morning, and Khanh left at 12:30. The plotters had secured the cooperation of someone working inside the Joint General Staff headquarters. This collaborator was supposed to have closed the gate so Khanh would be held up, but left them open.[56] Some of the other senior officers in the Armed Forces Council were not so lucky, and were caught by Phat's troops inside headquarters, while other buildings in the complex remained under junta control.[53]

Khanh had been scheduled to meet with Quat and his cabinet in a building at Tan Son Nhut. It was the new ministry's first meeting, and Taylor and General William Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, were present. Due to the poor relations, Khanh was sure they were plotting against him. He thus suspected their insistence on his attending Quat's first cabinet meeting to be part of a trap, and decided to excuse himself partway through the meeting to go "on tour", at which point he saw troops massing around the perimeter of the air field.[53]

Khanh managed to escape to Vung Tau after his plane had just managed to emerge from the hangar and lift off as rebel tanks rolled in to block the runway and shut down the airport.[35][52][57] The ground troops also missed capturing Ky, who fled through the Saigon streets in a sports car with his wife and mother-in-law.[55] Ky ended up at Tan Son Nhut, where he ran into Khanh, and the pair flew off together.[53] Khanh ordered three battalions of loyal troops to proceed to Saigon, while Ky ordered a loudspeaker plane to drone overhead and repeatedly announce "Brother must not fight against brother".[55] In the meantime, Khanh tried to lobby Westmoreland through the phone for support.[49]

Announcement of coup

A portrait of a middle-aged man, looking to the left in a half-portrait/profile. He has chubby cheeks, parts his hair to the side and wears a suit and tie.

Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963. The plotters praised him and promised to form a regime based on his legacy.

Thao made a radio announcement claiming the sole objective of his military operation was to get rid of Khanh, whom he described as a "dictator".[51] The coup group made pro-Diem announcements; the Catholic civilian Professor Nguyen Bao Kiem said then-US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. "was wrong in encouraging the coup against Diem rather than correcting mistakes".[53][58] Lodge was one of the strongest advocates among US policymakers of Diem's removal, and during his tenure as ambassador, refused to meet with the Vietnamese leader for extended periods to show his displeasure with Saigon's non-compliance with American advice.[59][60] Thao said he intended to recall Khiem to Saigon to replace Khanh at the head of the Armed Forces Council. Following this, a Catholic major delivered a long speech, extolling the character and achievements of Diem, and mourning his loss. This gave the impression the coup plotters were planning to roll back the regime to a Diem-era position and punish those involved in Diem's overthrow and subsequent execution in 1963.[53] The rebels also made broadcasts pledging to aggressively fight the Vietcong and cooperate with the United States. Throughout the day, a series of anti-Khanh speeches were broadcast on radio,[49] and the rebels claimed to have the support of four divisions; this statement was rebuffed by the junta as highly dubious and inflated.[54]

The announcements shed more light on the nature of the coup group. American government analysts concluded that the rebellion was "primarily a move by die-hard neo-Diemists and Catholic military militants disturbed at the rise of Buddhist influence, opposed to Gen. Khanh and—in a vague, ill-thought way—desirous of turning back the clock and undoing some of the results of the November 1963 ouster of Diem."[37] Most of the military figures prominent in the coup were Catholics and members of the Dai Viet. Notable among Catholic civilian support for the action was Professor Kiem, a faculty member of the National Institute of Administration, a body that had US funding. Kiem was the leader of the National Defense Force (NDF), a body based on the secret Catholic Can Lao Party[37] that was used to sustain Diem’s autocratic rule, but had petered away after his deposal and execution. The CIA had reported that the NDF’s members and associates counted among them some senior military officers including Co, Thieu and General Nguyen Bao Tri, commander of the 7th Division based in the town of My Tho immediately to the south of the capital. Other notable civilian supporters of the coup were Catholic activists Father Hoan Quynh and Mai Ngo Khuc.[37]

American intelligence analysts had thought General Tran Van Don was involved in the coup with Phat and Thao, but altered their assessment when he stayed in the mountain resort town of Da Lat instead of heading for the capital. Their changed assessment was reinforced by the announcement that Khiem would be leading the replacement government if the coup was successful.[56] Eight months after the coup was over, Don told the American historian George McTurnan Kahin that he had been plotting with Thao, who had planned for him to become Defense Minister and Chief of Staff of the military, but said the Dai Viet and Kiem had insisted on installing the Catholic Khiem.[56] A month earlier, American intelligence analysts thought Thao was planning to replace Khanh as commander-in-chief with Don.[33] Ambassador Khiem had been putting pressure on his bitter rival Khanh for over two months by charging him and the Buddhists of seeking a "neutralist solution" and "negotiating with the communists",[53] and as soon as the coup broke, he was immediately deemed by media analysts as a key figure behind the action.[53]

As Diem had strongly discriminated in favor of minority Catholics and placed restrictions on Buddhism, the rebels' radio addresses caused an unsurprisingly negative response among the Buddhist majority. The Buddhist activist monk Thich Tam Chau spoke from a radio station in Nha Trang, exhorting his co-religionists to support the incumbent junta.[61] The Diemist speeches also alarmed pro-Buddhist or anti-Diem generals, such as Thi and Co, who had been part of the failed 1960 and successful 1963 coups against Diem respectively, and feared retribution from Thao and Phat.[61] The speeches drove many anti-Diem officers who may have otherwise been neutral or sympathetic to the coup, to swing more towards Khanh.[61]

Khiem prepares to return from exile

By this time, Khiem was preparing to return to Saigon to assist with the coup or take control if it had already succeeded. His colleagues had anticipated the Americans would lend them an aircraft to transport Khiem back home, but second thoughts arose among Taylor and Westmoreland. The two American generals had lost confidence in Khanh, but the pro-Diem ideology being expressed by Thao's supporters alienated them, due to fears the coup plotters would destabilize and polarize the country if they took power.[61] The Americans wanted Khanh out but were worried that Phat and Thao could galvanize support for the beleaguered incumbent through their extremely divisive pro-Diem views, which had the potential to provoke large-scale sectarian divisions in South Vietnam, playing into the hands of the communists and hindering wider American objectives.[61] They were also worried by Thao’s support for the removal of Quat and the civilian components of the government, whom Thao saw was "too susceptible to Buddhist peacemongering".[45][61] In contrast, the Americans saw civilian participation in governance as a necessity. They were also concerned a Khanh victory would enhance his prestige and make his attempted deal with the communists more likely, so they wanted to see some third force emerge and defeat both Thao and Khanh's factions.[61]

The Marine Brigade commander, General Khang, appealed to the US Embassy in Saigon to not allow Khiem to leave Washington.[61] As a result of this, Taylor messaged the State Department: "Regardless [of] what ultimate outcome may be we feel Khiem's arrival here ... would only add tinder to what this evening appears to be very explosive situation with possibilities of internecine strife between armed forces units ... Urge he not [to] try return [to] Saigon until situation more clarified."[61] More generally, Westmoreland and Taylor by now decided it was imperative that Thao and Phat fail, while Khanh should also be deposed by someone else amidst the chaos. Westmoreland gave orders to US officers who were advising South Vietnamese units to stop work if the unit was being used in the coup, and pretend to be neutral even though the American high command had already decided to intervene.[61]

Failure to capture Bien Hoa Air Base and stalemate

Phat was supposed to seize Bien Hoa Air Base, the second largest air force installation in the country, located in the satellite city of Bien Hoa on the northeastern outskirts of Saigon. This was to prevent Ky from mobilizing air power against them,[50][51] but Phat failed, as Ky had already flown to Bien Hoa to take control after dropping Khanh off at Vung Tau.[53] Phat could not challenge Ky’s fighter planes, which were already patrolling the air above Bien Hoa by the time they arrived.[53] Ky then flew a short distance southwest and circled Tan Son Nhut, threatening to bomb the rebels.[51][52] Ky had never liked Thao or Phat and did not want them to take power.[62] In threatening to flatten Tan Son Nhut, Ky appeared unconcerned about the junta members who had been captured there, nor the more than 6,000 Americans who worked there, but intervention from Westmoreland stopped any air strike.[53] A CIA report and analysis written after the coup concluded that "Ky’s command of the air force made him instrumental" in preventing Khanh from being overrun, "until Ky changed his mind" on Khanh’s continued hold on power.[62] Meanwhile, most of the forces of the III and IV Corps surrounding the capital supported neither Khanh nor the rebels, and took no decisive action.[63]

Taylor and Westmoreland began to lobby Ky and Thi, the two most powerful generals in the junta outside Khanh, hoping to enlist them in an effort to shut down Phat and Thao while also removing Khanh.[61] Ky was the most convenient outlet, as the air force along with both the American and South Vietnamese military headquarters were adjacent to one another at Tan Son Nhut, making communication easy, whereas Thi was commanding I Corps in the far north. Westmoreland communicated with Ky through the latter’s adviser, Robert R. Rowland.[62] Despite his inconvenient geographical location, Thi was seen as being hostile to Khanh by this point in time, and as a supporter of and commander of a region which was seen as the Buddhist heartland of Vietnam, he and his grassroots support base were strongly opposed to the Diemist pro-Catholic ideology espoused by Phat and Thao.[61]

Middle-aged man with greying and receding dark hair combed back. He has drak bushy eyebrows. He wears a green dress uniform, with suit and tie, is clean-shaven, and has four stars on his shoulder to indicate his rank.

William Westmoreland, the US commander in Vietnam, tried to organize some forces to stop the coup and overthrow the incumbent Khanh.

In the short term, Taylor and Westmoreland unofficially designated Ky the duty of moderating between the coup forces and Khanh’s loyalists, preventing bloodshed and keeping them apart until some further action was decided upon after an emergency meeting of the Armed Forces Council could be convened.[62] Late in the evening, the 7th Division led by General Tri based in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho was preparing to move north into the capital to attack Phat and Thao’s forces, after Tri had been won over by Khanh in a meeting at Phu Lam. However this was stopped after Westmoreland told Tri’s American adviser at divisional level, a Colonel Gruenther, to tell the 7th Division commander to consult Ky before making any moves.[62] Tri, whom the CIA had assessed as "anti-Communist and pro-US",[45] was shortly afterwards reported to have halted the advance of his regimental-sized task force into the capital, at least for the time being.[45][62] At the same time, a brigade of Vietnamese marines was being prepared to support Khanh in his fight against the rebels, but it is not clear whether this was to be coordinated with Tri’s 7th Division and whether Tri’s decision to stand his ground instead of attacking had an effect on the marines.[62] There were also reports of elements of the 9th Division from Can Tho in the far south, and the 25th Division from the west moving towards the capital with around 30 armored personnel carriers.[54] They were reportedly joined by the 5th Division who were coming in from Bien Hoa in the north.[54] During all of these moves, Ky’s hand was strengthened by the mistaken belief of Khanh and his faction that the air force commander supported them.[62]

While this was happening, the Americans consulted with Thi and General Cao Van Vien, the commander of III Corps surrounding Saigon, to assemble units hostile to both Khanh and the current coup into a Capital Liberation Force.[62] The Americans provided Thi with a plane so he could fly in from his I Corps headquarters in Da Nang to Saigon to lead ground forces against both the rebels and Khanh.[62] In the meantime, there was no further fighting as another round of negotiations was started.[62] In the evening, Khanh came on the radio, using a transmitter believed to be in Ba Xuyen in the Mekong Delta. Khanh denounced the coup leaders as members of the Can Lao.[49] He said his loyalists were moving on Saigon and that the rebels had to disperse by the next day to avoid an attack.[49] Close to midnight, there were reports that Khanh's loyalists had entered the capital and had passed a rebel roadblock in the Chinese business district of Cholon, around 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) west of central Saigon. It was reported the troops manning the roadblock did not attempt to stop Khanh's men.[54]

Coup collapse

Middle-aged man with side-parted black hair and moustache, in a black suit, white shirt and brown tie. To the left is a clean-shaven Asian man with black hair and a green military cap.

Ky was a key figure in stopping the coup and then removing Khanh.

At 20:00, Phat and Thao met Ky in a meeting at Bien Hoa Air Base organized by the Americans, and insisted on Khanh's removal from power. The coup collapsed when, between midnight and dawn, anti-Thao forces swept into the city from the south along with some components of the 7th Airborne Brigade loyal to Ky from Bien Hoa in the north. Whether the rebels were genuinely defeated by the overwhelming show of strength or whether a deal was struck to end the revolt in exchange for Khanh's ouster is disputed, although a large majority support the latter.[49][51][62][64][65] According to the second version, Phat and Thao agreed to free the members of the Armed Forces Council they had arrested and withdraw in exchange for Khanh’s complete removal from power.[62] Possibly as a means of saving face, Phat and Thao were also given an appointment with the figurehead chief of state Suu, who was under the close control of the junta, to "order" him to sign a decree stripping Khanh of the leadership of the military and organizing a meeting of the junta and Prime Minister Quat’s civilian cabinet.[62] During the early morning, while the radio station was still in the hands of the rebels, a message attributed to Suu was read out; it announced Khanh's removal. However, the authenticity of the announcement was put into doubt when paratroopers wrested control of the station from the rebels and Suu then spoke in person, saying he was trying to get into contact with both factions and convince them to eschew bloodshed.[49] Later the radio station played a pre-recorded speech by Khanh claiming he had regained control of the situation.[49] There were no injuries or deaths in the coup.[55]

Khanh ousted

Phat changed into civilian clothes,[64] and made a broadcast stating "We have capitulated", before fleeing with Colonel Huynh Van Ton.[66] Thao broadcast a message saying the coup had been effective in removing Khanh. This was not the case as yet, but the Armed Forces Council later adopted a vote of no confidence in Khanh.[51] Later in the morning, while on the run, Thao made a broadcast using a military radio system to call for Khanh's departure and defend his actions, which he described as being in the best interest of the nation.[66] Eager to remove Khanh, the Americans provided aircraft to transport the officers, Quat, and his civilian cabinet to the meeting at short notice.[62] The motion was precipitated by Thi, who gained the support of Ky, and the final vote was unanimous.[51] Suu and Quat, who were not members of the Armed Forces Council, concurred with the military’s decision to depose Khanh.[67] Ky, Thi and Thieu became the key figures in a junta that continued with Suu and Quat as a civilian front, although General Tran Van Minh became the nominal commander-in-chief of the armed forces.[51][67][68] The junta ordered Khanh to leave South Vietnam immediately,[64] and made a show of support for Quat and his civilian ministry.[62]

Khanh was not present at his ouster, because he was north of Saigon, inspecting a display of captured communist weapons.[69] When he heard of what was happening via a phone call from the junta secretary, General Huynh Van Cao, he became angry and refused to accept his fate. Khanh's contended that only a full sitting of the Armed Forces Council, him included, had the power to make a leadership change.[67] Khanh told Cao of his intention to resist what he saw as an illegal seizure of power.[67] Having concluded that Khanh would fight to the bitter end, Cao went and saw Westmoreland in an open request for help. Westmoreland sent Rowland to meet with the eight available members of the AFC—Ky, Thi, Cao, Thieu, Minh, Khang, Co and Pham Van Dong[45]—to devise a plan to thwart Khanh’s attempts to reestablish himself.[67]

Khanh's last stand

Khanh used his personal aircraft to fly to different provinces, trying to rally support and promising to promote would-be allies.[64] He flew to Vung Tau, his favorite retreat, before travelling to Can Tho, the main city in the Mekong Delta. He then proceeded to Soc Trang, a town near the border with Cambodia.[70] However, he received little support.[64] Despite being forced out of power, Khanh refused to entertain the concept, calling Thi through an intermediary and informing him of his removal from the command of I Corps.[70] The deposed leader's attempted command was met with harsh words from Thi.[70] Having ousted Khanh, the generals held an afternoon press conference, claiming no decision had been definitively made.[69] Nevertheless, they assailed Khanh as a "troublemaker" who was lethargic in pursuing the Vietcong, and accused him of being obsessed with power and politics.[70]

By the end of the evening, Khanh was in Da Lat when his plane ran out of fuel, and no pumps were open at the time, so he was marooned there for the night.[64] He phoned Saigon asking for re-supply, but his rivals denied his wish.[70] Fearing a Khanh comeback, the Armed Force Council met again and unanimously resolved to make contingency plans to repel any counter-insurrection by Khanh.[69] Westmoreland sent Colonel Jasper Wilson, Khanh's former confidant and adviser at corps level, to go to Da Lat to convince the Vietnamese general to resign and allow a new military leadership to take the reins.[64] A year earlier, Wilson had helped Khanh depose Minh.[67] Khanh initially refused to depart, calling the coup an American initiative and saying if he capitulated now, it would simply prove that the Americans were involved, as Wilson had been sent to tell him to leave.[67] Khanh finally agreed to leave if he was given a dignified send-off, so the other generals arranged a ceremonial farewell at Tan Son Nhut on February 24.[64] Military bands played as he theatrically bent down and picked up some loose dirt before putting it in his pocket; Khanh said he was taking his beloved homeland with him,[68] and vowed to one day return.[70] His enemies, the remaining Vietnamese officers, most notably Ky and Thi, as well as Taylor, all met him at the airport. The foes managed smiles and handshakes for the media cameras.[70] To make the coup "appear as much as possible the doing of Vietnamese themselves", Taylor had not made any public statement after Khanh’s ouster, on orders from the State Department.[67] Wearing his Grand Cross of the National Order, and carrying two more plastic bags filled with Vietnamese soil,[70] Khanh then left as Ambassador-at-Large, and was sent on a meaningless[64] world tour, starting with a report to the United Nations in New York City.[69]


Phat and Thao were stripped of their ranks, but nothing was initially done as far as prosecuting or sentencing them for their involvement in the coup.[67] The new junta decided to ignore Khiem’s actions and he remained in Washington as the ambassador, with no further action taken.[67] Phat and Thao stayed in hiding in Catholic villages. They offered to surrender and support the government if they and their officers were granted amnesty.[71]

In May 1965, a military tribunal under Ky sentenced both Thao and Phat, who were still on the run, to death in absentia. As a result, Thao had little choice but to move around indefinitely or attempt to seize power in order to save himself.[72] He chose the latter. On May 20, a few officers and around 40 civilians, predominantly Catholic, were arrested on charges of attempting to assassinate Quat and kidnap Ky among others. Several of the arrested were known supporters of Thao and believed to be abetting him in evading the authorities. In July 1965, he was reported dead in unclear circumstances after being hunted down; an official report claimed he died of injuries while on a helicopter taking him to Saigon, after being captured north of the city. It was generally assumed he was murdered or tortured to death on the orders of some junta members.[72][73] Phat remained on the run for three years. During that time, Ky's power was eclipsed by Thieu in a continuing power struggle, and the latter removed Ky supporters in the military from positions of high power. In June 1968, Phat came out of hiding and surrendered himself to the authorities. He was pardoned by a military court in August and released.[74]

After he too had been exiled the following year, Thi said "It was necessary to move against him because our army was dependent on the Americans, and we could not get along without them."[26] Thi accused overseas-based Diem supporters for the coup.[56] Despite his failure to take power, Khiem said Khanh’s demise made him "very happy. I think my objective has been realized."[56] The Soviet Union responded to the coup by saying "The farce will go on" and lampooning South Vietnam's "bankrupt politicians and warriors".[55]


  1. Shaplen, pp. 228–240.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Moyar (2004), p. 757.
  3. Moyar (2006), pp. 310–311.
  4. Moyar (2006), p. 311.
  5. McAllister, p. 762.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Moyar (2004), p. 761.
  7. McAllister, p. 763.
  8. Moyar (2004), p. 762.
  9. Moyar (2004), pp. 762–763.
  10. Moyar (2004), p. 763.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Moyar (2006), p. 318.
  12. Kahin, pp. 228–230.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Kahin, pp. 228–232.
  14. "Challenger in Saigon: Lam Van Phat". The New York Times. 1964-09-14. p. 14. 
  15. Halberstam, David (1963-11-06). "Coup in Saigon: A Detailed Account". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-10-29. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Tucker, p. 325.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Kahin, pp. 232–235.
  18. Kahin, pp. 292–296.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Kahin, pp. 255–259.
  20. Karnow, p. 399.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Kahin, pp. 267–269.
  22. Moyar (2004), pp. 774–775.
  23. Moyar (2006), p. 775.
  24. Karnow, p. 400.
  25. Kahin, p. 293.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Kahin, p. 297.
  27. Kahin, pp. 294–295.
  28. Kahin, p. 295.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 Kahin, p. 511.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 Kahin, p. 296.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Kahin, pp. 296–297.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 32.4 32.5 32.6 32.7 32.8 Kahin, p. 298.
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 33.3 Kahin, p. 512.
  34. Kahin, p. 232.
  35. 35.0 35.1 35.2 35.3 Moyar (2006), p. 363.
  36. Kahin, pp. 298–299.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 37.3 37.4 37.5 37.6 37.7 37.8 Kahin, p. 299.
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  39. Kahin, p. 498.
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  41. "South Viet Nam: Remaking a Revolution". Time. 1964-09-25. 
  42. Kahin, pp. 301, 513.
  43. Karnow, pp. 396–397, 460.
  44. Moyar (2006), p. 407.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 Kahin, p. 515.
  46. Tang, pp. 56–57.
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 Shaplen, pp. 308–309.
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  49. 49.0 49.1 49.2 49.3 49.4 49.5 49.6 49.7 Langguth, Jack (1965-02-20). "Khanh is back in power; his troops regain Saigon, putting down brief coup". The New York Times. p. 1. 
  50. 50.0 50.1 VanDeMark, p. 80.
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  52. 52.0 52.1 52.2 VanDeMark, p. 81.
  53. 53.00 53.01 53.02 53.03 53.04 53.05 53.06 53.07 53.08 53.09 53.10 53.11 Kahin, p. 300.
  54. 54.0 54.1 54.2 54.3 54.4 54.5 54.6 "Hours in an Anxious Saigon: How Anti-Khanh Coup Failed". The New York Times. 1965-02-21. p. 2. 
  55. 55.0 55.1 55.2 55.3 55.4 55.5 "South Viet Nam: A Trial for Patience". Time. 1965-02-26. 
  56. 56.0 56.1 56.2 56.3 56.4 Kahin, p. 514.
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  58. Moyar (2004), p. 777.
  59. Kahin, pp. 160–185.
  60. Moyar, pp. 250–280.
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  64. 64.0 64.1 64.2 64.3 64.4 64.5 64.6 64.7 64.8 Moyar (2006), p. 364.
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  66. 66.0 66.1 "Dissident General Yields". The New York Times. 1965-02-20. p. 2. 
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