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The Strange Case of Ngo Dinh Can

It sounds like a scene out of a movie:  a corrupt dictator attempts to flee the country with the help of the American  Consul, but is stopped by a CIA agent who arrests him. However, this is a very real event that took place in Vietnam in the fall of 1963. While his brother, Ngô Đình Diệm, served as the President of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Cẩn ruled the central region of Vietnam with an iron fist, lauded by the U.S. and others for his effectiveness against the Viet Cong communist insurgency. When another brother was appointed the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hue, Cẩn aggressively promoted Catholicism and cracked down on Buddhists. That led to massive demonstrations, to which Cẩn’s regime responded with even greater brutality, sparking the toppling of the Diệm regime in a November 1963 coup. Cẩn had been offered asylum by the Department of State, but Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. had CIA agent Lucien Conein arrest him in Saigon. Cẩn was turned over to the military junta, which tried and executed him in 1964. John Helble was the Consul in Hue who discusses his opposition to granting Cẩn asylum and the instructions from the Department to do so anyway. He was interviewed by Thomas F. Conlon starting in April of 1996.


An Act of Generosity from a Dictator

HELBLE: I only saw Ngo Dinh Cẩn  once. I had been warned by my predecessor, Tom Barnes, that Cẩn  didn’t receive American  consuls. So I waited, with as much patience as I could, for about three months after my arrival. By September, 1961, I had identified a person who was Cẩn ’s top adviser and whom I could contact directly. I sought his advice and said to him that I would like to pay a call on Mr. Cẩn . I said that I would enjoy having the opportunity to discuss with him some of the problems of the area, the local situation, and so on. In due time this intermediary got back in touch with me and said that Mr. Cẩn  would not be able to see me. However, he suggested that if I had some questions which I would like to write down, Cẩn  would be happy to send me written answers. I decided that that would not be a very useful or productive approach, so I did not follow through on that suggestion.

I will say that Cẩn , who was notorious for his alleged antipathy toward foreigners in general, made several gestures, or what I took as gestures, of my “acceptance” in the community, at least as far as he was concerned. Therefore, I concluded that I hadn’t done anything egregiously “wrong” as yet. For example, at Christmas he would send me a large basket of Vietnamese delicacy consisting of round, raw pork balls with spices in them, wrapped in banana leaves. They were generally eaten with the well-known Vietnamese “nuoc mam” or fish sauce.…

The only other, direct contact with Mr. Cẩn … was a personal favor that he did for me and my wife. It was, indeed, an act of generosity. This involved the death of our daughter in Vietnam. When she died, we thought of an ideal place to bury her, on a hillside in front of Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb, overlooking the Huong or Perfume River, with the sensational view looking west toward the Annamite chain of mountains, over the forest and over this placid and beautiful river. I learned that the land I proposed to use for our daughter’s grave was owned by Ngo Dinh Cẩn . With the exception of an old French bunker, which still lay in the general area, there were no other structures there. It was basically bare land, covered by a few scrub pine trees. My vice consul, a CIA officer, was able to obtain Cẩn ’s approval for our burying our daughter on that site. It was certainly something he did not have to do.…

Martial law after the coup

November 1, 1963, brought the coup d’état against Diem by the military junta.

In Hue martial law was imposed. However, as the coup succeeded rather rapidly, martial law did not endure in any meaningful way. There was widespread jubilation over the success of the coup among most groups in Hue. The security situation was all right. There was no violence or untoward incidents. With the “liberation,” if you will – as many people saw it – from the regime and the relaxation which immediately followed, in terms of the atmosphere in general, people were primarily concerned about freeing whatever political prisoners could be located. There were some of these, but I cannot give any estimate in terms of numbers.

One of the more dramatic things that occurred late in the afternoon after the coup on November 3, 1963, was the discovery of the rather horrific prison about a mile or two west of Hue, in the general direction of the imperial tombs. It turned out that there had been a number of people incarcerated in an area which had been a former French ammunition depot. This was discovered, and a number of people were released from it. The people of Hue moved in large numbers to the site of this prison to look at it. I had the opportunity to do so myself. The bunkers in which ammunition had been stored were driven into a hillside and were later converted into prison cells. They were about 5-6 feet long, perhaps 3 1/2 feet wide and perhaps 3 1/2 feet high. They had bare floors and no furniture – nothing in them, except human excrement and other trash that had accumulated in the cells. Each cell had a barred gate on it. These cells would have been rather uncomfortable.…

Even Vietnamese couldn’t stand up. This, of course, provoked further outrage against the excesses of the previous regime. The military coup authorities had detained or placed under house arrest officials from the previous government whose movements they wanted to restrict. However, there were no large-scale arrests. Some people were arrested, but not many. There was concern that there might be residual elements of the former government within the military who might undertake some counteraction. However, these concerns turned out to be unwarranted.

There was an intelligence report which indicated that the “Forces Populaires” of Ngo Dinh Cẩn … would seek retribution and had already determined in their minds that the Americans were responsible for the coup against Diem. The American community in Hue was allegedly under some threat. I felt that this was very unlikely, although the U.S. military senior adviser to the ARVN 1st Division, Colonel Ed Markey, thought it prudent, acting on his own, to ask the new military authority, General Do Cao Tri, the I Corps Commander who was present in Hue, to post guards around all of the American  residences and facilities. When I saw a squad of ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] soldiers being deployed in my yard for this purpose, and I learned from a lieutenant on the scene that this was in accordance with orders from headquarters, I went over to talk to Colonel Markey and told him in no uncertain terms that he did not have the authority to request the Vietnamese military to post these guards around U.S. civilian residences or installations. Then I went to General Do Cao Tri and asked him to remove these security guards immediately. General Tri agreed to my request. This caused an unpleasant scene with Colonel Markey. After the matter was thrashed out in Saigon, within about a week Colonel Markey was relieved and reassigned in the Mekong Delta area.

Asylum for a Despised Dictator

Little of great note happened in the next 24 hours. Then I was approached by three individuals, separately, who requested that Ngo Dinh Cẩn , who had not been located or arrested but was in hiding, be granted “asylum” at our Consulate. I responded to each request that I would take the matter under advisement. I immediately communicated these approaches to the Department of State in Washington. In my report I informed the Department, first of all, that I could not be certain of the “bona fides” of any of these three individuals. Although I knew all three of them to varying degrees, I could not be sure whether one or more of them might be an “agent provocateur” or be misrepresenting their concerns.

Aside from that, I pointed out to the Department that, under the Foreign Affairs Manual [FAM], a consulate was not to accord asylum and that we did not have such authority under international law as well. Under the FAM, the nature of asylum in a diplomatic mission was very narrowly restricted to circumstances in which the individual seeking asylum was in immediate, life-threatening danger. An example was given was that an individual might be hotly pursued by an angry mob. However even under those circumstances, it would be required that, as soon as the immediate threat passed, the individual must be removed from the premises – in effect, put out of the door.

I also pointed out that, from a political point of view, people in Hue were certainly relieved, as were people elsewhere, at the removal of the Diem regime. They had a great deal of dislike for Mr. Cẩn  and his authoritarian rule over a number of years. Granting him asylum would not improve the U.S. image in the immediate area around Hue. Furthermore, as an extension of that, I pointed out that if Mr. Cẩn  were installed in the Consulate under condition of asylum, and this became known, the news would spread like wildfire in Hue. Given the attitudes among the people of Hue, who had just observed the harsh prison conditions…and who had many other grievances against Mr. Cẩn , the people of Hue might decide to take Mr. Cẩn  into their own hands. The consular status of the Consulate building would hardly guarantee the security of the building, its occupants, or, indeed, anybody in the American  community at that point.

There was an exchange of messages. I received a response from the Department, which was not definitive. It asked a few more questions. I answered those questions and reiterated my strong view that we should not grant this request, even if one or more of these requests were made in a bona fide way.

Within 36 hours I was instructed to give Mr. Cẩn  asylum. Upon his arrival at the Consulate, I was asked to inquire as to what country he would like to go to for more permanent asylum. I was asked to inform both the Department and the Embassy when he arrived at the Consulate and what his choice of asylum was. Once that instruction was received from the Department, I was also in touch with the Embassy in Saigon.  Some of that was handled over the telephone on a non-secure line. Efforts made to speak in “guarded” terms were probably useless, but I tried to do so. The Embassy advised me that they would send a C-46 transport plane, a CIA aircraft, to Phu Bai airport South of Hue as soon as Mr. Cẩn  arrived in the Consulate.

“I had the bird in the cage” — Cẩn  arrives at the Consulate

I then got in touch with the person whom I regarded as the most reliable of the three contacts I mentioned before. I informed him that I would be prepared to accept Mr. Cẩn  at the Consulate. He got back in touch with me fairly shortly thereafter and said that Mr. Cẩn  would arrive at the Consulate in disguise and in the company of a Catholic priest, who would be driving the vehicle, at 11:00 a.m., if I remember the time correctly, on Tuesday, which would have been, I believe, November 5, 1963. This time was approximately an hour before he actually arrived at the Consulate. Mr. Cẩn  did, indeed, arrive at the Consulate. He was lying on the floor of the back seat of an old Citroen. The chauffeur was a Vietnamese priest.

I greeted Cẩn  in the driveway in front of the porch of the consulate and invited him to go upstairs, trying to shield him from observation by several of my local employees. These Vietnamese employees were working in an office to the right, as I led him up the stairs. Whether my attempt to shield him from observation succeeded or not, I do not know. I immediately raised with Mr. Cẩn  the question of where he would like to be sent for his “safe haven” overseas. He promptly told me, “Tokyo.”

At about this time I received a phone call from one of my local employees, telling me that General Do Cao Tri (at right)… was downstairs and wanted to see me. I left Jerry Greiner, the CIA Vice Consul, with Mr. Cẩn  and went downstairs to see General Tri in our small reception room. General Tri started by saying quite bluntly, as was his practice, that I “had” Ngo Dinh Cẩn  in the building and that he, General Tri, “wanted” him. I told General Tri that, whether I had Ngo Dinh Cẩn  or not was a matter of my concern and not his. He then indicated that, given the atmosphere in Hue, in view of the hostility toward Cẩn , should the people of Hue become aware of his presence in the Consulate, he could not ensure the security of the Consulate or of the American  community in Hue in general. I immediately replied that it was clearly General Tri’s responsibility to ensure the security of the Consulate, of American  facilities, and of American  personnel in Hue. I was at this point formally requesting that he provide such assurance and that I would immediately report this conversation to the Embassy in Saigon and his response. He gave no such assurances. I repeated that it was his responsibility, that I expected him to do so, and that this was formal communication to that effect.

General Tri then left the Consulate. I returned to discuss the situation with Mr. Cẩn , but there was little more that I needed to discuss with him, once we had established that Tokyo was his preferred destination. I immediately called the Embassy in Saigon and informed them that “I had the bird in the cage.” They advised me that within two hours the C-46 would arrive at Phu Bai airport, and I was to be there with Mr. Cẩn . I immediately sent a message to the Department saying that Cẩn  was in the Consulate.

I called in the senior U.S. military adviser to the ARVN 1st Division, his deputy, and my CIA colleague Vice Consul Greiner. We developed a scenario for a small convoy to transport Cẩn  to Phu Bai airport, a distance of 14 kilometers. The convoy consisted of a jeep with an enlisted man and an officer in the front, followed by my official vehicle containing the senior U.S. military adviser, the CIA Vice Consul, myself, and Mr. Cẩn , and another U.S. military jeep containing an officer and an enlisted man, following us.

The Escape That Did Not Happen

We left the Consulate with just enough time to get to Phu Bai airport, in terms of the ETA [Estimated Time of Arrival] of the C-46 aircraft. The trip to the airport was uneventful. We did not encounter any difficulties. We placed Mr. Cẩn  on the plane. I had arranged with Vice Consul Jerry Greiner to accompany him, and I instructed Jerry to turn Mr. Cẩn  over to the Embassy and the Embassy only.

Greiner and Cẩn  flew to Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon. When the door was opened, Greiner found that the plane had been parked on the military side of Tan Son Nhut airport and that there was a sizable contingent of ARVN troops surrounding the plane, with a couple of ARVN 2 ½ ton trucks with canvas covering the rear of the trucks, off to one side.

Greiner was greeted by Lucien Conein (at left), a well-known CIA officer, who informed him, “All right, Jerry. I will take it from here.” Jerry took the position that Conein was not the Embassy and told him that the Consul’s orders had been to turn Cẩn  over to the Embassy.

Conein said, “Well, have it your way, but here’s your transportation.” So Greiner and Cẩn  boarded the back of one of the 2 ½ ton trucks. The canvas flap was closed, and they rumbled off. After a drive of 15-20 minutes the truck stopped, the canvas was pulled back, and Greiner saw that he was in the midst of the better part of a battalion of ARVN troops in a large ARVN installation, somewhere in Saigon.

Conein appeared again and said, “This is the end of the road.” Greiner had no alternative but to yield to the situation.

That was the extent of my direct involvement and that of the Consulate in Hue in the Cẩn  episode. As history will show, Cẩn  eventually was tried by the Vietnamese military authorities, was sentenced to death and was executed by firing squad.