In This Review

A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963
A Death in November: America in Vietnam, 1963
By Ellen J. Hammer
Dutton, 1987, 373 pp.

American complicity in the overthrow and death of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem is scarcely the world's best-kept secret, but Ellen Hammer has subjected the whole story to a detailed and very critical scrutiny, concentrating on the period January-November 1963. She tells of the Kennedy Administration's growing disenchantment with Diem, in large part because of his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu who, it was feared, was contemplating a deal with the North Vietnamese. Most intriguing, because of its resemblance to the Iran/contra affair, is the story of how three players-Averell Harriman, Roger Hilsman and Michael Forrestal-made end runs around an inattentive Kennedy and all his top officials (Rusk, McNamara, Taylor, McCone) and sent a signal to the American embassy in Saigon to back a military coup against Diem. Kennedy was reportedly shocked at the subsequent assassination of Diem and Nhu and complained that his advisers "had served him badly." But the author reasonably observes that "it seemed inconceivable that [Kennedy] had not realized that if the Americans unleashed a coup d'état in Saigon it could lead to murder." Another sorry tale, well told.