Because Viet Cong forces and ARVN forces often lived in the same villages and undercover Viet Cong members were widespread, air power was a largely useless tool in the fight to extricate Communists from South Vietnam. For this reason, MACV decided that South Vietnamese peasants should be relocated into fortified “strategic hamlets,” allowing U.S. and ARVN forces not only to protect these peasants but also to try to label the Viet Cong as anyone not living in a strategic hamlet. Unfortunately, the MACV entrusted the job of constructing these strategic hamlets to the much-hated Ngo Dinh Nhu, under whose direction the hamlets were run essentially as labor camps. As peasants in the hamlets grew angry at these conditions, many defected to the Viet Cong side.
The year 1963 marked a turning point, both because the first clashes of the nascent war emerged and because American news coverage of Vietnam began to slip toward pessimism. Unlike prior coverage, which had come largely in the form of positive “headway reports,” media coverage in 1963 began to reveal serious problems to the American public.
At one of the first major battles between ARVN and Viet Cong forces, the Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963, a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Viet Cong force nonetheless inflicted more casualties on the ARVN than vice versa. The official U.S. report claimed that the battle was an important victory for the anti-Communist forces, but two American journalists on the scene reported that the battle was a rout against the ARVN and postulated that U.S. involvement in Vietnam might quickly become a quagmire. As it turned out, the journalists’ words were prophetic, and the battle itself was emblematic of the way much of the war would go.
Meanwhile, the corruption and brutality of the Diem government against Vietnam’s Buddhist leaders continued and soon caused a major crisis. In May 1963, ARVN troops fired on a group of Buddhistprotesters in the city of Hue, where Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Thuc reigned as archbishop. The next month, a Buddhist monk doused himself in gasoline and burned himself to death in protest, in public and in full view of a number of journalists.
Pictures of this self-immolation made the front pages of world newspapers the next day and provoked outrage against the Diem regime. South Vietnam’s “first lady,” Madame Nhu,only worsened Diem’s image by publicly dismissing the incident as a “barbecuing,” deriding the monk for using “imported gasoline,” and offering to provide fuel and matches for the next monk who wanted to follow suit.
In August 1963, dissatisfied with the Diem regime in general and Diem’s brother Nhu in particular, ARVN generals began a new plot to overthrow Diem. This time, the effort was secretly backed by CIA operatives and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon. On November 1, the coup was carried out, and General Duong Van Minh took power. Diem and his brother Nhu were both executed. The new military rulers proved unstable, and in the period that followed, South Vietnam had little consistent leadership.