Ton That Dinh
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- In this Vietnamese name, the family name is Tôn, but is often simplified to Ton in English-language text. According to Vietnamese custom, this person should properly be referred to by the given name Đính.
|Tôn Thất Đính|
|Place of birth||Annam, Vietnam, French Indochina|
|Allegiance||Cần Lao Party|
|Years of service||1950s–1966|
|Commands held||Commander of III Corps|
|Battles/wars||1963 South Vietnamese coup|
|Other work||Interior Minister (November 1963 – January 1964), Senator (1968–1975)|
Major General Tôn Thất Đính (born 1926) was a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He is best known as one of the key figures in the coup that deposed Ngo Dinh Diem, the nation's first president, in November 1963.
A favourite of the Ngo family, Dinh was quickly promoted up the ranks, ahead of more capable officers. He converted to Roman Catholicism to curry favour with Diem, and headed the military wing of the Can Lao Party, a secret Catholic organisation that maintained the family's grip on power. At the age of 35, Dinh became the youngest ever ARVN general, but he was regarded as a dangerous, egotistical and impetuous figure with a weakness for alcohol.
In 1962, he was appointed commander of the III Corps, which oversaw the region surrounding the capital Saigon, as Diem regarded him as one of his most loyal officers. This position meant that Dinh would be a critical factor in the success or failure of any coup. In late-1963, with Diem becoming increasingly unpopular, his colleagues recruited him for a coup by playing on his ego. They convinced him to ask Diem for a cabinet post, knowing that Diem would chastise him. Diem promptly rebuffed Dinh, who became upset and was lured into the plot. Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu were aware of a coup plot, but did not know that Dinh was part of it. Nhu planned a fake coup of his own, in an attempt to trap his opponents and generate positive publicity for his family. He put Dinh in charge of the coup, and the general promptly redeployed loyal units outside Saigon and rebel forces near the capital. On November 1, the rebel coup proceeded, and the Ngo brothers were deposed and executed.
After the coup, Dinh became one of the 12 members of the Military Revolutionary Council (MRC), serving as the Interior Minister. However, the MRC lasted only three months before being ousted in a bloodless coup by General Nguyen Khanh. Dinh and his colleagues were put under house arrest and Khanh falsely accused them of promoting neutralism. The military trial collapsed and they were convicted of "lax morality" and eventually allowed to resume their military service. Dinh was appointed to command the I Corps in 1966, but Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky disapproved of his policies and militarily attacked him, forcing him to abandon his command. Ky then imprisoned Dinh. After being released, Dinh was elected to the Senate and served there until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when he left Vietnam.
 Early years
Trained as a paratrooper in France, he became a protege of Ngo Dinh Can, the younger brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who controlled the region of central Vietnam near Huế. Can was impressed by what he considered to be an abundance of courage. Dinh proudly described himself as "fearless and arrogant" and as Diem's adopted son— the president was a lifelong bachelor.
Regarded by his peers as ambitious, vain and impulsive, Dinh's favour among the Ngos saw him appointed in 1958 to head the military wing of the Can Lao Party, a secret Catholic organisation that maintained the Diem's grip on power. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1961 aged 35, making him the youngest ever ARVN general. Dinh had converted to Catholicism in the hope of advancing his career and was promoted above more capable officers, and was known mainly for his drunken presence in Saigon's nightclubs. The CIA labelled him as a "basic opportunist". He was known for always wearing a paratrooper's uniform with a red beret at an angle, and was always accompanied by a tall, uncommunicative Cambodian bodyguard. Senior Australian Army officer Ted Serong, who worked with Dinh, called him "a young punk with a gun—and dangerous".
 Xa Loi Pagoda raids
Dinh was the commander of the II Corps, which covered the central highlands region mainly inhabited by indigenous tribes, and was based in Pleiku. At the time, the CIA had been training Montagnard tribesmen under the Village Defnse Program (later to become the Civilian Irregular Defense Group) with the stated intention of resisting communist infiltration, but Dinh regarded it was an attempt to divide and conquer and undermine him. He estimated that 18,000 tribesmen had been armed, and said to Nhu that "the Americans have put an army at my back". The CIA agent Lucien Conein admitted years after that Dinh's claim was correct. Dinh also wrote to Diem complaining that his units were being weakened by the policy of not promoting officers on merit, despite being a beneficiary of the said policy.
After a reorganisation of the corps boundaries in December 1962, which created a fourth region, the entire Saigon region came under the purview of the III Corps, whereas before, there were two corps in controlling the regions to the north and south of the capital. As a key supporter of Diem, Dinh was entrusted to be commander of the III Corps, as the Ngos trusted him to defend the city against any coup attempts. In August 1963, Diem's brother and confidant Ngo Dinh Nhu, who controlled the special forces and secret police, allowed Dinh to have a hand in planning raids against Buddhist dissidents who had been organizing at the Xa Loi Pagoda, Saigon's largest. This included the deployment of the Fifth Division, based in the town of Bien Hoa on Saigon's northern outskirts, into the capital. Although the execution of the raids were primarily the responsibility of Le Quang Tung, the special forces head, Dinh privately claimed responsibility for the operation, stating to a journalist
During this period, Dinh told a dinner guest that the visitor had the great honour of dining with a great national hero. When the guest asked Dinh where the hero was, Dinh said "it is me" and claimed to have defeated the Americans. Dinh's ego had been played on by the Ngo brothers, who had themselves reiterated this point.
In a press conference after the raids, Dinh claimed to have saved South Vietnam from Buddhists, communists and "foreign adventurers", a euphemism for the United States. After being questioned sharply, Dinh quickly became angry. Ray Herndon of United Press International asked him to name the country that he was referring to, but Dinh dodged the question. Herndon lampooned him by saying that a national hero should be able to identify who the national enemy was, and asked him to call Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the First Lady known for her anti-American comments, to get help in identifying the country. After several reporters derisively laughed at his comments, he angrily stormed out of the conference.
 Defection and coup
Feeling embarrassed by the events at the press conference, Dinh returned to the officers’ mess at the Joint General Staff headquarters. His colleagues, led by General Tran Van Don, were plotting a coup, and attempted to play on his ego in a campaign of flattery to convince him to join them. They knew that without Dinh's assistance, a coup would be difficult as his forces were in charge of the region surrounding the capital.
In a series of meetings, the other generals assured Dinh that he was a national hero worthy of political authority, and claimed that Nhu had not realised how important he was. His colleagues even bribed his soothsayer to predict his elevation to political power. The other generals told him that the people were dissatisfied with Diem's cabinet and that Vietnam needed dynamic young officers in politics, and that their presence would reverse the declining morale in the ARVN. They advised Dinh to ask Diem to promote him to Interior Minister, Duong Van Minh to Defence Minister, and Tran Van Minh to Education Minister. The other generals hoped that Diem would reject Dinh and wound his pride.
As a result, Dinh went and asked Diem to promote him to the post of Interior Minister. Diem was reported to have bluntly chastised Dinh in front of his colleagues, and ordered him out of Saigon to the central highlands resort town of Da Lat to rest. Dinh was embarrassed, having promised his colleagues that he would be successful. The Ngo brothers had been alarmed by Dinh's request, and they put him under surveillance. Dinh found out, further straining his relationship with the palace. Dinh then agreed to join the coup, although with his ambitious nature, the other officers were skeptical of him and organised to have him assassinated if he tried to switch sides. Without Dinh, who commanded the troops surrounding the Saigon region, the coup would not have been possible.
Diem and Nhu were aware of the coup plans, but did not know that Dinh was part of the group. Nhu ordered Dinh and Colonel Le Quang Tung—a loyalist who commanded the Army of the Republic of Vietnam Special Forces and took his orders directly from Nhu instead of the ARVN command—to plan a fake coup against the government. One objective was to trick anti-government dissidents into joining the false uprising so that they could be identified and eliminated. Another objective was that the public relations stunt would give a false impression of the strength of the regime.
Codenamed Operation Bravo, the first stage of the scheme would involve some of Tung's loyalist soldiers, disguised as insurgents led by apparent renegade junior officers, faking a coup and vandalising the capital. Tung would then announce the formation of a "revolutionary government" consisting of opposition activists who had not consented to being named in the government, while Diem and Nhu would pretend to be on the run. This would be followed by a fake "counter-coup", whereupon Tung's special forces, having left Saigon on the pretext of fighting communists, as well as Dinh's forces, would triumphantly re-enter Saigon to reaffirm the Diem regime. Nhu would then exploit the scare to round up dissidents.
As a result, Dinh was put in charge of the fake coup, and was allowed the additional control of the Seventh Division based in My Tho, which was previously assigned to Diem loyalist General Huynh Van Cao, who was in charge of the IV Corps in the Mekong Delta. The reassignment of the Seventh Division to Dinh gave his III Corps complete encirclement of Saigon. This would prevent Cao from storming the capital to save Diem as he had done during the 1960 coup attempt.
However, Nhu and Tung were unaware that Dinh was part of the real coup plot. Dinh told Tung that the counter-coup needed to employ an overwhelming amount of force. He said that tanks were required "because armour is dangerous". In an attempt to outwit Tung, Dinh said that fresh troops were needed, opining:
If we move reserves into the city, the Americans will be angry. They'll complain that we're not fighting the war. So we must camouflage our plan by sending the special forces out to the country. That will deceive them.
The loyalists were unaware that Dinh's real intention was to engulf Saigon with his rebel divisions and lock Tung's loyalists in the countryside where they could not defend the president. Tung and the palace agreed to send all four Saigon-based special forces companies out of the capital on October 29.
On November 1, 1963, the coup went ahead, with Cao's troops isolated in the far south, and Tung's forces outside Saigon, unable to rescue Diem from the encirclement of rebel forces. Tung was called to the Joint General Staff headquarters at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, under the pretense of a routine meeting, and was arrested and executed. Many attempts by Diem and Nhu to make contact with Dinh were denied by other generals, who claimed that Dinh was elsewhere, leading the Ngo brothers to think that he had been captured, unaware that he had turned against them. Dinh was allowed to have the final word with Diem before the brothers were finally arrested, allowing him to prove his loyalty to the rebel cause. Dinh subsequently shouted obscenities at Diem and Nhu. Dinh alleged that Nhu's contacts with the communists and threats to make a deal with North Vietnam had motivated the coup. When Diem and Nhu were killed by the arresting officers against the orders of the generals, Dinh claimed that he "couldn't sleep that night".
Dinh claimed that he and his troops were responsible for the successful seizure of the broadcasting studios, the police headquarters, Tan Son Nhut, and releasing hundreds of political prisoners such as monks and students. He also claimed that he was responsible for leading the successful siege on Gia Long Palace, although the Fifth Division of Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu had in fact carried it out.
Following the coup, a Military Revolutionary Council was formed, comprising of 12 generals, each of whom had equal voting power. They appointed a cabinet mainly consisting of civilians led by Prime Minister Nguyen Ngoc Tho, who had been the Vice President under Diem, although he had little real power under the Ngo family. Dinh was initially made Interior Minister, although Tho was said to have been personally opposed to the appointment. Eventually General Duong Van Minh, the head of the military junta, struck a compromise whereby Dinh was made Security Minister and Administrative Affairs, which partially covered the Interior Ministry.
However, tension persisted as Tho's civilian government was plagued by infighting. According to Tho's assistant, Nguyen Ngoc Huy, the presence of Don and Dinh in both the civilian cabinet and the MRC paralysed the governance process. Dinh and Don were subordinate to Tho in the civilian government, but as members of the MRC they were superior to him. Whenever Tho gave an order in the civilian hierarchy with which the generals disagreed, they would go into the MRC and give a counter-order. Dinh and the new national police chief General Mai Huu Xuan were accused of arresting people en masse, before releasing them in return for bribes and pledges of loyalty. The junta performed indecisively and was heavily criticized, especially Minh, who was viewed as being too apathetic, as South Vietnam suffered more and more losses against the Vietcong.
Dinh was reported to have celebrated his new positions by making conspicuous appearances at Saigon nightclubs and dancing, having lifted Madame Nhu's bans on such activities. He reportedly kissed the bar dancers and ordered champagne for everyone. Dinh's brash behavior continued to cause problems for the junta. In an interview with the Washington Post and The New York Times, he claimed that he took a leading role in the coup because "we would have lost the war under Diem" and saying that he participated "not for personal ambition, but for the population, the people and to get rid of Nhu". He claimed to be the "specialist" who "gave the orders in only thirty minutes", keeping the plans "all in his head". In an exclusive interview, he told Herndon "You are the one who started it all, who drove me into making the coup. You are the hero of the revolution." This was a reference to Herndon's sarcastic reference to Dinh as a "great national hero" after the general took credit for the raids on Xa Loi Pagoda. He also courted controversy with some anti-American remarks, stating "On August 21, I was governor of Saigon and loyal to Diem; on November 1, I was governor of Saigon and fighting Diem; maybe in the future I'll be governor of Saigon and fighting against he Americans."
During his service on the MRC, Dinh persistently raised eyebrows with his volatile behaviour, and the Americans and his colleagues found him different to control. General Paul Harkins, the head of the US military presence in Vietnam, advised Dinh to relinquish his control of the III Corps because he was already serving as the Interior Minister, but Dinh refused. As the III Corps surrounded the capital, the most economically powerful region in the country, it also gave the most scope for corruption and graft. US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara criticized the arrangement, and in early January 1964, he was relieved by General Tran Thien Khiem. Khiem had been the head of the armed forces until being demoted after the coup against Diem, and he set about overthrowing the MRC.
 Deposed by Nguyen Khanh
Dinh's political stay was brief, as the MRC was deposed by Nguyen Khanh with the support of Khiem in another coup on January 30, 1964. Khanh used this to exact retribution against Generals Don, Dinh, Le Van Kim and Mai Huu Xuan for denying him a significant post in the junta. Khanh had them arrested, claiming that they were part of a neutralist plot with the French government of Charles de Gaulle in order to make a peace deal with North Vietnam that would not end communism. Khánh noted that they had served in Vietnamese National Army sponsored by the French colonial administration prior to 1955, although he did as well. The generals were flown to My Khe beach, near Da Nang.
Khánh presided over their trial of Dinh and his colleagues on May 28, 1964. The generals were interrogated for five and a half hours, mostly about details of their coup against Diem, rather than the original charge of promoting neutralism. As all of the officers were involved in the plot against Diem, this did not reveal any new information. The court deliberated for over nine hours, and when it reconvened for the verdict, Khanh stated, "We ask that once you begin to serve again in the army, you do not take revenge on anybody". The tribunal then "congratulated" the generals, but found that they were of "lax morality", unqualified to command due to a "lack of a clear political concept". They were chastised for being "inadequately aware of their heavy responsibility" and of letting "their subordinates take advantage of their positions". They were allowed to remain in Da Lat under surveillance.
Dinh and his colleagues were barred from commanding troops for a period. Offices were prepared for the quartet so that they could participate in "research and planning". Worried that the group of idle generals would plot against him, Khanh made some preliminary arrangements to send the generals to the United States for military study, but this fell through. When Khanh was himself deposed in 1965, he handed over dossiers proving that Don and the other generals were innocent. Robert Shaplen said that "the case...continued to be one of Khanh’s biggest embarrassments".
During the period of house arrest, Khanh briefly released Dinh and Kim when the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races, known by its French acronym of FULRO, launched an uprising in the central highlands calling for autonomy for indigenous people. Dinh and Kim were sent to Ban Me Thuot in an attempt to end the standoff in September 1964, but after negotiations stalled, they conferred with Khanh and decided to order ARVN troops to crush the rebellion, which was done successfully.
 1966 Buddhist protests and senate career
With the rise of Nguyen Cao Ky to power following the departure of Khanh, Dinh returned to a role in the army and was in April 1966 appointed to command the I Corps, based near Hue, relieving General Nguyen Chanh Thi, who had been dismissed because of his sympathies towards Buddhist activists and because Ky viewed him as a personal threat. As a result, Buddhist protestors brought the central region of Vietnam to a standstill with anti-American and anti-war protests, and they were supported by groups of rebel I Corps soldiers, and the mayor of Da Nang.
Ky felt that Dinh's aggressive attitude following the Xa Loi raids in 1963 indicated a willingness to crack down on Buddhists. Dinh arrived in Hue on April 15 and after a week, announced that he had restored Saigon's authority over the region. He proclaimed that he had restored control of the radio stations in Da Nang and Hue and that he had convinced the mayor of Da Nang to remain in office. Dinh announced a deal whereby the Buddhists would have regular air time in return for relinquishing control of the radio station. This move was interpreted in different ways. Some felt that Dinh was attempting to gain favour with the Buddhists in anticipation of Ky's fall from power, while Frances Fitzgerald felt it was the only sensible government action during the crisis.
However on April 19, in Quang Ngai, clashes erupted between the Buddhists and the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD, Vietnamese Nationalist Party), who supported the continuation of the anti-communist war, prompting Dinh to forcibly restrain the two groups.
Soon after, Ky made a surprise attack to assert government control over central Vietnam. He flew out to Da Nang with his own units, without consulting the Americans. At this time, Dinh had been pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the rebels, and Ky decided to attack Da Nang, and sent his forces through Dinh's headquarters. Dinh then abandoned his post and fled to the headquarters of US General Lewis Walt. Dinh then asked Walt for help and he was flown to Hue, where the rebels were still in control. This unplanned attack led to conflict between the ARVN rebels and loyalists, with the American ground forces caught in the middle, effectively yielding a civil war within a civil war. Eventually, Ky then quelled the rebellion and briefly jailed Dinh.
Dinh then won election to the Senate in 1967, and served there until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, when he left the country. In February 1968, while serving in the Senate, Dinh started a newspaper called the Cong Luan. He also served as the head of the Vietnamese Publishers Association. In 1998, Dinh claimed that he felt remorseful and guilty for the deposal and execution of the Ngo brothers, and claimed that he was opposed to their policy of religious discrimination, which fomented national disunity and the eventual communist victory.
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