In the latest Weekly Standard Charles Trueheart reviews a book on the overthrow of the Diem brothers in South Vietnam in a coup sanctioned by the Kennedy administration in fall 1963. He mentions in passing that support for the Diems among Americans was diminished because of their suppression of protests by Buddhists during that fateful and fatal year. But he doesn’t mention something I noted in my book Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan: that reports of those protests were appearing on American television in the same weeks and months as reports of the violent suppression of peaceful civil rights protests in the American South. For many and perhaps most Americans, and perhaps for the leaders of the Kennedy administration, the Catholic Diems opposing the Buddhist protesters looked a lot like the violent white Southerners opposing the peaceful black civil rights demonstrators. In that context the overthrow of the Diems seemed like a good thing.
As Charles Trueheart (whose father as deputy chief of mission in the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam in 1963) writes, it’s hard to say if things would have gone better if the United States had not sanctioned the coup that overthrew and killed Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother. But they might have been, and it’s tantalyzing to speculate on whether the apparent similarity between the Buddhist protests in South Vietnam and the civil rights protests in the American South led policymakers, and American public opinion, in a direction that led to tragedy.