The period between the drafting of NSAM 111 in November 1961 and the South Vietnamese coup of November 1963 was marked by the illusion of progress in the new Kennedy policy. The expansion of military assistance in the context of “counterinsurgency” doctrine suggested that the war was being won; that America's involvement in Vietnam would remain limited because there would be no need to go further. This assessment was widely held until the disturbing events of the summer and fall of 1963 showed otherwise—that the policy had failed; the fall of the government soon followed. The failure of the policy would change the entire nature of American involvement. It would force the reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward the building of the intervention we now call “the Vietnam War.” Despite the obvious dangers, expanding the Cold War and starting another Asian land war, the intellectual and managerial systems for U.S. foreign relations, and the dedicated men who were part of them, would hardly flinch at the challenge.
To begin our understanding of these events, let us start at the termination. On November 1, 1963, the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu came to an abrupt and decisive end. The following day in the White House, President Kennedy was told that Diem and his infamous brother were dead. The cause, suicides or assassinations, was still unclear, but Kennedy was visibly shaken by the news. He had made clear that Diem was to suffer no more than exile. He had served his country and the Free World for twenty years, and death was a grossly unfair punishment.1 A few days later, on the floor of the House, Clement Zablocki, a traditional blue collar Cold War Democrat, expressed shock and dismay at the military coup that overthrew one of the Free World's staunchest allies. He had just returned from South Vietnam a few weeks earlier and had met President Diem. He was assured by everyone he met in the field that tremendous progress was being made against the communist insurgency, and that Diem was a courageous and respected leader. He asked, rhetorically, if the State Department and the CIA had prior knowledge of the coup and if they had done everything within their powers to provide