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A tale of two assassinations: Vietnam's JFK
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - A daring young leader slain under mysterious circumstances while riding in an open car. A rising political star hit by a sniper stationed high above him, shot from the back by carbine bullets that smashed into the victim's head. One would guess this is a description of Dallas's Dealey Plaza episode, which terminated the life and the US presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy 40 years ago. But such a guess would be wrong.

In an ominous preview of the 1963 Dallas tragedy, it was Vietnamese General Trinh Minh The who was struck behind the ear, apparently by a sniper bullet, on May 3, 1955. From the angle at which he was hit, the rifleman appears to have been behind and above Trinh Minh The - just as the sniper would later be when JFK was shot.

Officially, The died in a street skirmish in Saigon while riding in his Jeep near Tan Thuan Bridge, close to where the canal met the Saigon River and where his troops were fighting one armed group of the opposition. However, there are still discrepancies and holes in the official account of Trinh Minh The's death.

Suffice it to say, the witnesses reported wounds of entry and exit in different places. But the official report insisted that Trinh Minh The was killed by "enemy" fire. "The bullet entered The's left eye, and not the back of his head," the report said. Yet the government's stray-bullet theory in the Trinh Minh The case satisfied almost no one. The official report was seen as an attempt to cover up the fact that Trinh Minh The was hit in the back, indicating a conspiracy.

Trinh Minh The was widely believed to have been shot from behind, and the wound was powder-blackened, indicating a shot at point-blank range. The bullet reportedly entered Trinh Minh The's right ear, went through his head and blew off the left eye. The discrepancies could have been solved by a routine autopsy, but the authorities never completed one. There was no need to declare the case closed, then, as there was no case.

The Saigon government, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem, was later accused of covering up what was seen as Vietnam's most important unsolved crime. It was rumored that Trinh Minh The's remains had disappeared from their grave as part of the cover-up. Not surprisingly, Trinh Minh The's backers have claimed that Diem was behind the assassination.

Trinh Minh The, who was portrayed in a recent Miramax movie, The Quiet American, as a main dirty-dog character, had many enemies. Yet his supporters viewed him as a truly independent nationalist, one who might have provided Vietnam with better leadership than Diem, an installed "alternative". These speculations sound reminiscent of the claim that, had president Kennedy lived, he would have chosen the course of disengagement in the Vietnam War.

It might similarly be argued that Trinh Minh The's attempts to remove Diem could have possibly entailed an early US disengagement. But in the wake of Trinh Minh The's demise, Diem crushed the opposition as the first step toward monopolizing power in South Vietnam, later defying the North and ignoring the Geneva elections provision as well. Thus, the national elections in Vietnam were never held because Diem did not want them, fearing that Ho Chi Minh probably would have won a popular vote. And though there are no "ifs" in history, Diem's removal by Trinh Minh The, had it occurred, could have made the US war in Vietnam avoidable. The escalation did not have to happen, 3 million Vietnamese did not have to die, nor did 58,000 Americans.

The comparison between the death of one obscure Vietnamese politician and the greatest unsolved crime of the 20th century may sound like a gross exaggeration. However, eight years after Trinh Minh The's death there was a sense of deja vu surrounding JFK's demise. As with The's assassination, the gunshots in Dealey Plaza have also been followed by endless controversies over an alleged sniper shooting from above and behind, as well as disputes over bullet trajectory and wounds of entry and exit.

Yet this comparison is not primarily about the details of the respective assassinations. Both incidents happened to mark crucial turning points in the history of US involvement in Vietnam.

Before his death, Kennedy created National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, which outlined his plan to have 1,000 military men home by Christmas 1963 and all US personnel out of Vietnam by the end of 1965. On the day after JFK's funeral, newly sworn-in president Lyndon B Johnson signed NSAM 273, reversing Kennedy's orders and increasing the number of troops in Vietnam.

Furthermore, there is also a historical figure allegedly involved in both episodes. The man is legendary covert operator Edward G Lansdale, a white-hat hero figure immersed in "dirty tricks", a kingmaker and intriguer, manipulating and crushing the Asians for the greater glory of the American Empire.

In Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan calls Lansdale the "father of South Vietnam", presumably referring to Lansdale's responsibility for swinging US support toward Diem in 1955. When Lansdale arrived in Saigon in 1954 he faced the task of building an alternative to the mosaic of religious armies and criminal gangs that had ruled South Vietnam. By manipulating payments to the armed groups, Lansdale was able to neutralize most of them. Working under cover, Lansdale was widely credited with almost single-handedly maneuvering Diem to the pinnacle of power.

Lansdale expounded what he called the "demotic" strategy, an approach similar to what would be called "winning hearts and minds". However, he simultaneously believed that dirty tricks beget dirty tricks. When an order appeared wrong, he simply ignored it and went on doing what he thought was right - and frequently it was. The kind of action designed to reduce corners appealed to Lansdale.

Lansdale was also a master of deception. As he used to put it: "It's not true, but was something I started. Mea culpa." As a former advertising executive, Lansdale presented Trinh Minh The as Vietnam's Robin Hood. However, when asked some uncomfortable questions about Trinh Minh The, Lansdale claimed he had "a memory block".

Lansdale's detractors have also claimed that he had a deeper involvement in the Dealey Plaza episode. Fletcher Prouty, a retired colonel of the US Air Force, has claimed that in the famous "three tramps" photo he recognized Lansdale as a faceless person walking in the opposite direction. The photos show three "tramps" arrested behind the grassy knoll being marched through Dealey Plaza by two uniformed officers. The three men remain a mystery, as no arrest records were made and no names were taken.

Prouty has written a book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F Kennedy (Birch Lane Press). The character of "X" played by Donald Sutherland in Oliver Stone's JFK was based on Prouty. According to Prouty, Lansdale was there like the orchestra leader. He must have been involved with the cover story.

Lansdale, who died in 1987, has often been referred to as the driving force and the idea man behind psywar action. Lansdale's schemes ranged from macabre to bizarre. There have been speculations on the potential parallels with recent events, including claims that Lansdale was connected with a proposal to carry out acts of terrorism against the United States in the early 1960s in order to drag the United States into a war against Cuba.

Edward Spannaus wrote in the October 2001 issue of the Executive Intelligence Review that the terrorism plan was called "Operation Northwoods". The blueprint was allegedly drawn up after president Kennedy had shifted responsibility for dealing with Cuba, in late 1961, from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Department of Defense. The overall Pentagon project was known as "Operation Mongoose", and was the responsibility of Lansdale, who was deputy director of the Pentagon's Office of Special Operations at the time. Operation Northwoods allegedly involved a series of proposals for actions that would be used to provide the justification for US military intervention in Cuba, including "hijacking attempts against civil air and surface craft". Kennedy rejected the plan, according to Spannaus.

It should be added parenthetically that some of Lansdale's statements could surely fuel the suspicions of conspiracy theorists. "You can ... get away with almost anything so long as it's for the right thing and you do it for the right reasons," Lansdale once said. His other trademark piece of wisdom was, "Don't let the little formalities of life stop you."

Yet regardless of the actual role Lansdale played in both episodes, the perceived cover-up stories have continued for decades. Speculations about important and unsolved assassinations are likely to persist until dark secrets are made manifest and unpleasant truths have to be faced.

Sergei Blagov, who was a reporter in Vietnam for six years, is author of Honest Mistakes: The Life and Death of Trinh Minh The (1922-1955) (Nova Science, 2001).