From the Formation of Vietcong to U.S. Soldiers (1960-1965)

Justin Corfield. The History of Vietnam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.

The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL) claimed that its members were made up of nationalist and patriotic individuals who opposed the Diem government of South Vietnam. Certainly it acknowledged that some of them were communists, but its leader, from his release from prison in 1961, was Nguyen Huu Tho, a French-educated lawyer from Saigon who had been a member of the French Socialist Party. Captured by the Viet Minh in 1947, he was won over to their cause. From 1954 until 1961, he was imprisoned in South Vietnam and then became leader of the NFL, which supported land reform, democracy, and peace. Initially its program did not refer to the reunification of the two Vietnams, and it made no reference to communism. Ostensibly the NFL was an umbrella group of anti-Diem forces, which were starting a civil war against a government they opposed.

By contrast, the South Vietnamese government took the view that the NFL, which often became known internationally as the NLF, was established by the North Vietnamese Communists as a “front organization,” with the clear aim of waging war in South Vietnam on a pretense of being opposed to Diem; in reality, it was actually spearheading a North Vietnamese “invasion” of South Vietnam, and was set on destroying South Vietnam as an entity. The Diem government denounced the members of the NFL as communists and urged the United States to support South Vietnam in the worldwide battle against communism.

The NFL gained international support from the Communist world, who viewed continued U.S. support for South Vietnam as meddling in a civil war. Its stance was championed by the United States who saw a pro-U.S. government in danger of falling to a Communist invasion. As a result, fighting started in parts of South Vietnam as the NFL’s armed wing, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), formally established in February 1961, tried to try to take control of parts of the country. In October 1963, the NFL issued its own postage stamps proclaiming “Independence—Democracy—Peace—Neutrality,” and the stamps were posted in Hanoi.

The Diem government quickly renamed the PLAF with the pejorative term “Vietcong,” and it was not long before the term was used in the press around the world. The PLAF was split into three groups. The command and the main armed forces operated with full regular units. Below them were guerillas organized at the provincial or district level. The lowest tier consisted of the village militia. Initially the aim was to attack Diem supporters in isolated villages and settlements throughout South Vietnam and to attack lines of communications in a method similar to that used by the Malayan Communist Party from 1948 in British Malaya. By striking at government supporters and destroying the economy of the country, the government might see the need to negotiate.

As the NFL was becoming established, a fundamental change occurred in the United States with the election of John F. Kennedy as President of the United States in November 1960. In his inauguration address on January 20, 1961, Kennedy stated that he “would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” At the time he made the speech, few U.S. commentators saw Vietnam as a major issue. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his memoir Waging Peace, makes only a few incidental references to Vietnam. Robert McNamara, the incoming U.S. secretary of defense, in his account of the briefing that took place on January 19 between the outgoing administration and the incoming one, noted that most of the focus was on events in Laos.

President Diem of South Vietnam believed that the new U.S. government would be more supportive of his government, as Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and sympathetic to the plight of Catholicism in Asia. The appointment of Frederick Nolting as the new U.S. ambassador, replacing Elbridge Durbrow, also encouraged Diem in this belief. Nolting had served in Paris and then on the North Atlantic Council and quickly came to realize the difficulties that Diem faced in South Vietnam, as well as the high level of support that he had achieved in a relatively short time.

The problem that many in South Vietnam saw, and that the U.S. administration began to understand, was that Diem’s strong support did not extend to the entire South Vietnamese government, and especially not to Diem’s younger brother Nhu. Ngo Dinh Nhu had studied in France where he had become fascinated by the philosophy of “personalism” developed by Emmanuel Mounier, a French Roman Catholic thinker. This philosophy emphasized that human dignity was more important than materialism, and it had been adopted as the national ideology of South Vietnam, even though many of Mounier’s supporters in France claimed that what had been introduced in South Vietnam bore only a superficial similarity to Mounier’s actual beliefs. Nhu was a great organizer, however, and he transformed support for Diem into a political movement, the Personalist Labor Party, with the formation of cell-like structures capable of operating in the same manner as the Communist Party, which they were dedicated to destroying. These cells provided excellent intelligence by school teachers, doctors, nurses, and others who were sent to villages presumed to be hostile during the late 1950s. Almost the entire Communist infrastructure in South Vietnam had been identified and its ringleaders arrested. In fact the very declaration of the NFL occurred because the Communists in the South could see that Nhu was smashing their structure, and there is even some evidence that the amount of initial northern support for the NFL illustrates how effective Nhu’s intelligence tactics had been.

As Diem never married, Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu (née Tran Le Xuan), was an influential figure and a major aide to the president. Officially she was the First Lady of the Nation, hosting important national receptions. Vivacious, intelligent, and also quite obstinate, she promoted hardline Roman Catholic policies by which abortion and contraceptives were banned, divorce prohibited, adultery made a criminal offense, and nightclubs and boxing matches made illegal. These changes altered the face of Saigon, Dalat, and other places in South Vietnam. It also opened up the police to corrupt practices, with police chiefs taking bribes to allow these operations to flourish in secret.

With the start of an insurgency war in South Vietnam, the situation became comparable to the Malayan Emergency, 1948–1960, when the British were able to defeat the Malayan Communist Party through military and political means. Nhu felt that he might be able to win the political battle, but he and his advisers looked to Malaya for possible military tactics. In Malaya the British had instituted what became known as the Briggs Plan. This plan established “New Villages” where Chinese squatters on jungle frontiers, and others, were herded into settlements that were surrounded by defenses that prevented them from giving food supplies and intelligence to the Communist guerillas in nearby jungle camps. Ngo Dinh Nhu inaugurated what became known as the Strategic Hamlets Program. In essence it was similar to the Briggs Plan, but there were crucial differences. Whereas in Malaya the villagers were moved from land they did not own to land that was given to them as freehold title, as an incentive to help with the relocation, those in Vietnam were being moved from land they owned to what was generally less fertile land that was also given to them. Unlike in Malaya, the peasants in South Vietnam were not turned into landowners, and they were also forced to move from land their family may have cultivated for centuries and where their family and ancestors had been buried. As a result the Strategic Hamlets Program led to simmering resentment against the Diem government.

The first major attack on Diem, however, did not come from the PLAF or disgruntled peasants. In the early morning of February 27, 1962, two fighter aircraft attacked the presidential palace in central Saigon in an assassination attempt on Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem, Nhu, and Madame Nhu took refuge in the cellar of the palace, with Madame Nhu later describing for television how a bomb, “the size of a small pig” landed near her and failed to explode. Diem was quickly able to make a radio broadcast and calm down Saigon, which, for an hour, was in a panic. Of the two pilots, one bailed out and was captured, but not executed. The other managed to escape to nearby Cambodia where he was subsequently interviewed by the press. He claimed that his actions had been forced on him because of blatant favoritism by the Diem administration to their Roman Catholic supporters, and that not enough was being done to fight the NFL who were making substantial military progress.

The attack showed the U.S. government the differences between the South Vietnamese elite and the Diem family. Eisenhower had referred to Diem and Nhu as the “king and his brother,” and several members of the U.S. administration were becoming increasingly critical of Nhu and the first family. By now Diem’s surviving brothers, Thuc, Nhu, Can, and Luyen, were respectively bishop of Hue, minister of the interior, governor of central Vietnam, and ambassador to London. In addition, Madame Nhu’s father was ambassador to Washington, and many members of the extended family held important positions of influence, leaving Diem clearly open to charges of nepotism.

The Buddhist Protests

The problems with Diem became public in mid-1963. On May 8, the South Vietnamese government violently broke up a demonstration in Hue where Buddhists, celebrating the 2527th anniversary of the birth of Lord Buddha, illegally flew the Buddhist striped flag. Only a week previously, also in Hue, Roman Catholics had flown papal banners to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Ngo Dinh Thuc’s ordination. The reaction to the Buddhist demonstration was seen as discriminatory and heavy-handed; a woman and eight children died, either killed by the special forces or in the crush that followed their arrival.

The Buddhist leadership in South Vietnam started to condemn Diem and Nhu, using the deaths as a rallying cry. This protest quickly gained momentum with many others who had simmering resentment of the Diem government, or of Nhu, seeing it as an opportunity to put on record their disapproval of the South Vietnamese administration. Nhu believed that these protests were organized by the Communists, with well-planned Buddhist demonstrations in Saigon and Hue in which English-language placards were displayed and English-language leaflets were handed out for the benefit of the press who began to see the event as a major news story.

The U.S. government was horrified that their entire endeavor in South Vietnam might collapse and Ambassador Nolting urged conciliation. The U.S. administration was split as to what to do. Diem categorically refused to sack his brother Nhu, and some talk started in Washington, D.C. of a possible U.S.-supported coup to oust Diem. As these discussions started, the whole nature of the protests in Saigon changed on the morning of June 11. On that day at a Buddhist protest, a monk sat down in the road in central Saigon, and other monks doused him with gasoline. Soon afterward he erupted into flames. Photographs of the self-immolation of the monk, Thich Quang Duc, appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The reaction of the Diem administration was stubborn and Madame Nhu, when interviewed, referred to the monk as having been intoxicated by colleagues who abused his confidence and barbecued him. She then added that the barbecuing “was done not even with self-sufficient means because they used imported gasoline.” More Buddhist monks set themselves on fire, and the U.S. press coverage of Diem went from bad to worse. When Nolting, a supporter of Diem, was replaced by Henry Cabot Lodge, the new U.S. ambassador appointed by Kennedy, the laissez-faire attitude the U.S. administration had adopted to political developments in South Vietnam changed.

In Washington, a number of senior officials decided that the only way to force the government in South Vietnam to become more conciliatory was to get rid of Nhu, and if Diem refused, to oust Diem himself. In other words, members of the U.S. government became deliberately involved in supporting a coup d’état against a loyal ally. On August 20, some South Vietnamese generals, notably Tran Van Don, asked for extra powers for the army in their fight against the PLAF. This strategy was to help them stage their coup d’état, but Diem also felt it would allow him to use the army against the Buddhist protestors in Saigon. At midnight on August 21, Nhu struck at the Xa Loi Pagoda in central Saigon, where 400 monks and nuns were arrested. In Hue, hundreds of monks and nuns, aided by thousands of their supporters, fought off for eight hours an attack on their temple by Nhu’s special forces. Both actions were seen as heavy-handed, but Nhu’s supporters were quick to point out that South Vietnam’s very survival was being threatened by the Communists and that their reaction to the Buddhist protests was mild. As Morris West noted in his novel The Ambassador, based on the relationship between Diem and the new ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, demonstrations in parts of the United States were taking place at the same time, and with far more violence, in many U.S. cities, notably Little Rock, Arkansas and Birmingham, Alabama.

With Robert McNamara, the U.S. secretary of defense, on vacation, Roger Hilsman, the assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs, drafted a telegram to Henry Cabot Lodge in Saigon, which was sent to President Kennedy for approval before being transmitted. McNamara wrote that Hilsman completed the telegram on August 24, and it was then sent to Kennedy. The telegram stated that clearances were being sought from Undersecretary of State George Ball and the Defense Department. Kennedy agreed to send the telegram if his advisers agreed. Dean Rusk, the secretary of state, was unenthusiastic but said he would go along with it if the president agreed. With the CIA director absent, his deputy director of planning said he would go along with it because Kennedy had already done so, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ros Gilpatric, standing in for McNamara who was on leave, concurred, as the president and secretary of state both agreed with it.

The telegram instructed Henry Cabot Lodge to urge Diem to sack Nhu, and if he did not do so, then to “examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem’s replacement if this should become necessary.” With Diem adamantly refusing to get rid of Nhu, it was basically an instruction to the U.S. ambassador to organize a coup d’état against a president the U.S. government had publicly backed for nine years. Lodge met with Diem and tried to urge him to sack Nhu, but Diem refused to let Lodge bring up the question, much to the ire of Lodge. By this time serious planning had started for a coup and the U.S. administration through Lucien Conein had promised the Buddhist generals, the main group mobilizing against Diem, that they would have continued U.S. support should their coup be successful.

The Overthrow of Diem

At around the same time that the U.S. administration was contemplating the overthrow of Diem, Nhu made secret overtures to the Communists whom he publicly called “lost sheep.” Much has subsequently been made of this move, and the exact nature of Nhu’s plans has never been ascertained. Suffice to say that the possibility of Nhu, a passionate Nationalist, albeit anticommunist, and Ho Chi Minh, also a Nationalist, and a member of the Communist Party, establishing a coalition government, filled the U.S. administration with horror.

The main problem facing the coup plotters and their U.S. backers was that Diem had become extremely popular in South Vietnam, even if Nhu was hated. No other person had the personality to take over if Diem was overthrown or be able to unite the country against a growing communist threat. The concept of ousting a regime with the veneer of democracy—Diem had, after all, held elections—with an unelected military junta, had been openly discussed as a genuine possibility in Washington for several weeks.

With the coup planned for October 26, 1963, and then delayed until October 31, the date for it was finally set by astrologers for November 1. Even though the plotters, led by General Tran Van Don and General Duong Van Minh—nicknamed “Big Minh” because of his size—had received the consent of the U.S. embassy, they refused to tell the embassy the date of the coup. Nhu had been expecting the coup and had prepared two plans. According to the first plan, known as Bravo 1, Nhu would deploy his most loyal soldiers, under the command of Colonel Le Quang Tung, in the countryside outside Saigon. Then a number of Nhu loyalists would pretend to stage a coup. This would “flush out” opponents of Diem while Diem and Nhu took refuge at Vung Tau, a small coastal resort near Saigon. During the crisis, some of Nhu’s supporters would seize control of the Saigon radio station and broadcast support for the Communists. This would then associate, in the minds of most people, any anti-Diem generals who had joined the fake coup with the Communists. According to Operation Bravo 11, Colonel Tung would force his way back into Saigon, restoring Diem and Nhu to power. The coup plotters, and anybody else who was troublesome, could then be arrested. The main problem with Nhu’s plan was that it relied on General Ton That Dinh, age 37, who had betrayed Bravo 1 and 11 to the actual coup plotters. In another twist, the plotters did not trust General Dinh and feared that Bravo 1 and Bravo 11 were just the cover for another of Nhu’s machinations.

From 10 a.m. until noon on the morning of November 1, the U.S. ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, talked with Diem in the Gia Long Palace—the presidential palace having been badly damaged in the February 1962 air attack. The meeting went cordially, and with Lodge heading off for lunch, at 1 p.m., the plotters were ready to strike. A “routine meeting” was held at the staff headquarters in Saigon where the plotters planned to arrest the loyalist generals. Lucien Conein brought with him 3 million piasters (about $40,000) in cash in case the plotters needed money. One of the loyalists, Captain Ho Tan Quyen, had decided not to attend. As the commander of the navy, he had noticed unexplained troop moves and drove off to consult with some confederates. Outside Saigon, the car was ambushed and he was killed in a nearby field while trying to escape. As the “routine meeting” began, the army officers present were told of the coup, and some congratulated the plotters. Colonel Tung was taken to a nearby room and killed. The plotters felt that he was too dangerous to be allowed to live.

When the coup began, Diem and Nhu descended into the bunker under the Gia Long Palace. It was not long before they found themselves unable to contact General Dinh whom they still believed was loyal. Thinking that he might have been captured, Diem telephoned General Tran Van Don, the leader of the plotters, and offered to meet with the conspirators and negotiate a solution to prevent loss of life. Many of the conspirators feared that Diem would outwit them in negotiations and persuaded Don not to meet the president. An hour and a half later, Diem telephoned Ambassador Lodge and asked him what the U.S. attitude was to the coup. Lodge prevaricated and replied that it was early in the morning in Washington, D.C., but he offered to look after the physical safety of Diem and Nhu. Diem declined while rebel soldiers started firing on the barracks of the presidential guard.

At about 8 p.m., Diem and Nhu, along with two aides, left the palace and drove to the house of the Chinese merchant Ma Tuyen in Cholon, the Chinese suburb to the west of Saigon. There Diem was able to telephone the coup plotters who still believed him to be in the Gia Long Palace. At midnight Diem was able to contact General Dinh who, surrounded by the other plotters still unsure about which side he was on, shouted obscenities at Diem. Several hours later, one of Diem’s aides who had escaped with him telephoned the plotters to say that Diem and Nhu had fled to Cholon. Soon afterward, rebel soldiers led by Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu, later president himself, attacked the Gia Long Palace, finally breaking in after hours of fighting. They were able to confirm that Diem and Nhu had escaped.

At that point Diem and Nhu clearly realized that they had nowhere else to turn. Diem rang General Don and offered to hand over power to the vice president or the parliamentary speaker in line with the country’s constitution. Don rejected this plan. Diem then offered that he and Nhu would leave the country provided he was given the “honors due a departing president.” Don again refused, although he had promised to guarantee the brothers’ safety if they surrendered. Diem then telephoned Don and told him that he and Nhu were at the Cha Tam Church, in Cholon, well known as the burial place of François Xavier Tam Assoa, the vicar apostolic of Saigon who died in 1934, and would surrender unconditionally. Don contacted Conein to see how the two brothers could be escorted out of the country. Conein suggested a U.S. plane but that would take 24 hours to organize, and with the United States undoubtedly not wanting to give them asylum, it might take a few days to find a place for their exile.

General Don then sent General Mai Huu Xuan, a secret police chief, to get Diem and Nhu. The brothers had taken communion and left the church where an armored personnel carrier was waiting. Xuan told the brothers it was for their protection and ushered them in while he clambered into one of the accompanying jeeps. The convoy headed for the staff headquarters where the now successful conspirators were meeting. The cars stopped at a railway crossing where two officers in the armored car machine-gunned Diem and Nhu, and one of them then stabbed Nhu. The convoy then made its way back to the staff headquarters where General Xuan reported to General Minh, “Mission accomplished.”

Madame Nhu was in Los Angeles when news had arrived of the coup. She had been visiting the United States in the hope of raising support for the South Vietnamese government in the same manner that Madame Chiang Kai-shek had done in the 1940s; however Madame Nhu lacked the political acumen of Madame Chiang. When the coup started, Madame Nhu said she knew her brother had suspected a coup, and when rumors spread of the murder of Diem and Nhu, she said that if the brothers had been “treacherously killed, in that effect it will be only the beginning … the beginning of the story.”

General Minh had undoubtedly organized the killing of the two brothers, but he told Lucien Conein that they had both committed suicide. Conein told Minh that the story was ridiculous, and when President Kennedy heard of the deaths, he was badly shaken. At a meeting with senior officials, he rejected the idea of suicide, although Roger Hilsman who had initiated the U.S. support for the coup, suggested it was possible that the brothers could have killed themselves. To that suggestion, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, replied that it was highly unlikely that the two shot and stabbed themselves with their hands tied behind their backs. Three weeks after the assassination of Diem, Kennedy himself was assassinated. Worried that the Soviet Union might get blamed for Kennedy’s assassination, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had the KGB investigate the death of the U.S. President. They concluded that it was possible that the assassination could have been linked to the murders in South Vietnam, although this view has not been held by any of the other major investigations into the Kennedy assassination.

Instability in South Vietnam

Soon after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, General Minh, as one of the coup leaders, became chairman of the Revolutionary Military Committee and titular head of state. Although he was a capable general, he was unable to operate politically, and he was badly tarnished by his close involvement in the killing of his predecessor. In December the Central Committee of the Vietnam Workers’ Party decided to escalate the war in South Vietnam by providing more weapons and supplies to the PLAF. By mid-January 1964, the war was progressing badly and a group of middle-ranking officers decided that they wanted to oust Minh and the older coup plotters. On January 30, 1964, they staged a coup d’état and General Nguyen Khanh became president. On February 8, however, Minh launched his own coup, ousting Khanh.

The South Vietnamese government remained highly unstable when the U.S. presidential election campaign started in early 1964. The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, was assured of a relatively easy victory over his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. In May 1961, when Johnson had been Kennedy’s vice president, he had visited Saigon to bolster the Diem government. By now, Johnson’s main focus was on civil rights in the United States. Although for most people, Vietnam was not a major election issue, Johnson wanted to assure the American public that he was a strident anticommunist. When Barry Goldwater stated that he would contemplate the possible use of nuclear weapons in war, Johnson was able to portray Goldwater as an extremist. Goldwater’s slogan “In your heart you know he’s right” was lampooned by the Democrats as “In your heart you know he might,” suggesting that Gold-water might send the world into oblivion with a nuclear war.

On August 2,1964, the U.S. navy became involved in what became known as the First Gulf of Tonkin Incident. North Vietnamese gunboats attacked the U.S.S. Maddox while it was sailing off the North Vietnamese coast monitoring radar capabilities while the South Vietnamese were launching a commando attack on North Vietnam. The United States immediately sent in the U.S.S. C. Turner Joy, another destroyer, to the area and claimed that the two destroyers were attacked on August 4. Johnson’s administration was convinced that the two attacks were part of a major threat posed by the North Vietnamese to test U.S. resolve, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave the U.S. President the power to take actions he deemed necessary to protect U.S. security interests in mainland Southeast Asia. As this meant that the president no longer needed to consult Congress, it allowed Johnson to match any Communist threat or escalate the war if he wanted to do so. It subsequently emerged that the second incident never took place, a fact acknowledged publicly by Ray Cline, Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, when interviewed by Stanley Karnow for a television series on Vietnam. On August 16, Minh was overthrown by Khanh who, after 11 days, was overthrown by a Provisional Leadership Committee, with Minh and Khanh acting together. This regime lasted only until September 8, after which Minh became chairman of the Provisional Leadership Committee, and hence titular head of state. On October 26, Minh stood down in favor of Phan Khac Suu, a moderate who established the first civilian government in South Vietnam since the killing of Diem. The stability that the generals had promised would follow the overthrow of Diem eluded everybody, as the United States headed to the polls.

On November 3, 1964, Johnson was resoundingly reelected, winning the largest share of the vote of any candidate in recent times. Not only was Johnson elected in his own right, but the Democrats won control of many of the Congressional seats being contested; and with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Johnson was prepared to meet the Communists. Used to organizing political deals, Johnson, at a speech at Johns Hopkins University, on April 7, 1965, offered the North Vietnamese a massive financial package to develop the Mekong River if the North Vietnamese would either abandon their war in the South, or postpone it. The Communists rejected this offer and war escalated, with the PLAF attacking the U.S. base at Pleiku in the central highlands of South Vietnam. They had attacked the Brinks Hotel in Saigon just before Christmas in 1964, but the attack at Pleiku provided Johnson with a pretext to order a bombing campaign against the North, and hopefully bringing together the different factions in the South Vietnamese government.

The First U.S. Ground Soldiers

Since 1954, U.S. military advisers had played a major role in the support of the various South Vietnamese governments. By 1963, these numbered as many as 11,000, although with support staff and others, the total for the U.S. presence was probably much larger, perhaps closer to 17,000. The U.S. Embassy telephone directory for 1963 lists approximately 8,500 U.S. government personnel—military and civilian—compared with 890 six years earlier, proving that the U.S. presence in the country was considerable. Many pilots, both for fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, were involved in ferrying South Vietnamese soldiers around the countryside.

Lyndon Johnson was planning air strikes against North Vietnam from bases in South Vietnam. Because Johnson was certain that the South Vietnamese would be unable to protect the U.S. aircraft, on March 8, 1965, the first 3,500 marines in South Vietnam arrived at Danang. These were the first U.S. combat soldiers deployed on mainland Asia since the end of the fighting in Korea, and the event marked a crucial change in the war. Johnson acted cautiously, sending another 3,500 soldiers soon afterward, but restricting U.S. soldiers to a 50-mile radius of their air bases. In an interview with the press soon afterward, General Wallace Greene confirmed that the marines were also involved in operations “to find these Vietcong and kill them.” By July 1965, there were 75,000 U.S. soldiers in the country, fighting alongside as many as 600,000 South Vietnamese soldiers.

The arrival of the U.S. marines led to the continuation of Operation Rolling Thunder by which the United States, from March 2, 1965 until November 1, 1968, embarked on a massive program of aerial bombing of North Vietnam. The plan was to bolster the morale of the South Vietnamese and badly damage so much of North Vietnam’s infrastructure that it would be unable to continue its military program of supporting the PLAF, or it might feel the need to withdraw from the war to escape further damage. It did hurt the North Vietnamese economy, but in South Vietnam the continued U.S. presence encouraged a group of young army officers led by Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky to seize control of the government in Saigon on June 14, 1965. Thieu became chairman of the National Leadership Committee and taking the position as titular head of state, and later became president.