Covert CIA Involvement 1954 – 1964
Immediately following the acceptance of the Geneva Accords which ended French involvement in Indochina, the Eisenhower administration initiated covert actions against the Hanoi government. Allen Foster Dulles, the Director of the CIA, dispatched Edward Lansdale, a Colonel in the United States Air Force, to Vietnam to execute a program of misinformation, covert operations, and spying on the North Vietnamese. According to Lansdale’s memoirs he operated under cover of being the Assistant Air Attache at the American Embassy in Saigon. In fact he was in charge of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission.
The CIA established paramilitary units in both South and North Vietnam, to disrupt the Hanoi government and the Viet Minh. As conflicts regarding Diem’s direction in the form of government to be created in Vietnam increased, the CIA activities covert activities continued. Diem considered and rejected suggestions by Lansdale to create a democratic system of checks and balances within the government. He also rejected CIA recommendations over who should command his army. Diem became increasingly distrustful of the American presence in Vietnam and wanted to surround himself with persons of whose personal loyalty he was assured.
By 1959 North Vietnamese troops were already using the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos and Cambodia to maintain contact and resupply their supporters in the South. The CIA and US Special Forces mined the trail with listening devices, motion sensors, and heat detectors to monitor movement along the trail and track troop movements. The Special Forces were also responsible for the training of mercenaries hired in Laos to interdict North Vietnamese using the trail. The US information from the CIA surveillance of the Trail was passed to these mercenaries, many of whom proved to be actually working for the North Vietnamese.
In May of 1961, after Lyndon Johnson visited Vietnam, President Kennedy ordered an increase of CIA covert activity as a preliminary step to the commitment of American troops. The CIA trained civilians in the methods of insurgency, counterinsurgency, and guerrilla warfare, mostly members of Vietnam’s Nung people, from the Northern provinces. The United States conducted similar operations in Laos. In 1962 two South Vietnamese Air Force pilots attempted to kill Diem by bombing the palace in which he resided. The attempt failed and Diem increased his personal security.
By 1963 it was evident to the CIA intelligence activities that another coup was being planned to remove Diem. The coup planners requested the assistance of American agents but it was refused, although the Americans indicated, through the State Department, that they would not interfere. The coup occurred on November 1, 1963 when Diem’s palace was surrounded by South Vietnamese troops. Diem and his brother were executed after their surrender, after being promised safe passage out of the country as a condition of his surrender. The CIA was asked by the military officers who performed the coup to assist in creating a new government.