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SOUTH VIET NAM: Night of Despair

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It was midnight in Saigon. The windows of Freedom Palace were open, and Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, in grey striped pajamas, was pacing his third-floor bedroom. Suddenly, through the sultry night, Diem heard the clatter of machine-gun fire, the cries of wounded men. In the next instant, half a dozen mortar shells exploded beneath Ngo Dinh Diem’s open window. “We never believed they would dare attack us!” said one of Diem’s aides, aghast. But on Diem’s shabby desk in Freedom Palace lay the confirmation: “All South Viet Nam will be put to blood and fire,” an ultimatum read, “unless you consent to our demands.”

Battle on the Boulevard. The mortar shells and the ultimatum were fired at the struggling new state of South Viet Nam (pop. 10.5 million) by a war lord named General Le Van Vien—a man who used to be a river pirate and now runs the Binh Xuyen (pronounced bin soo yen), one of South Viet Nam’s exotic alliances of political and religious sects, with its own private army of 8,000 uniformed men. The general often seems like an inclusive version of Murder Inc. and the police force, for his Binh Xuyen controls Saigon’s prostitutes and its cops, its narcotics and its narcotics squad, its highest paid assassins and its homicide bureau.

General Le Van Vien bought the police from absentee Chief of State Bao Dai for $1,000,000 in 1954; the general still sends out big gleanings from his prostitution profits to his old benefactor, thereby helping Bao Dai to live in sunshine and sloth at Cannes on a total income of $3,400,000 a year. General Le Van Vien got on well with the French colonials, but Nationalist Premier Diem recently stopped the government’s handsome subsidy to the Binh Xuyen and shut down the general’s gambling dens in the name of anti-Communist “disinfection.”

When the general launched his surprise attack on the palace last week, Diem rushed outside to check the mortar damage and comfort the wounded. Brushing aside the general’s ultimatum, Diem called up Vietnamese army reinforcements to relieve a couple of hardpressed Vietnamese garrisons near by. Thundering to the scene in trucks, the reinforcements were ambushed along the Boulevard Gallieni by well-placed Binh Xuyen machine gunners, but the Vietnamese government troops piled out, unlimbered a 37-mm. fieldpiece, battered point-blank at the Binh Xuyen, and then charged.

Frustration in the Palace. After three hours and 15 minutes of sporadic fire, the Binh Xuyen were just about ready to quit. “Warmest compliments . . . The Fatherland is proud of you,” Diem signaled his young soldiers—but into the midst of free South Viet Nam’s first small victory wheeled a black French Citroen, a French general inside it. “Cease fire! Assume defensive positions!”the Frenchman ordered the astonished Vietnamese.

The French officer told the Vietnamese commanders that they would be seized for insubordination if they continued to fight; since the French still control the rationing of arms and oil to the Vietnamese army, the commanders had to obey. French colonial infantry and tanks rumbled out into the streets of Saigon to tamp down the battle. Off to Freedom Palace went French Commissioner-General Paul Ely to caution the Premier: “You are trying to seek a decision by force. You must not do it. You must only seek a settlement by political means.”

Next morning, wearied and frustrated, Ngo Dinh Diem went back to negotiation with the sects, while the Binh Xuyen resumed its arrogant patrolling and called up reinforcements. “Vietnamese anger is mounting,” TIME Correspondent Dwight Martin cabled from Saigon, “and many foreign observers sympathize completely. It is probably too strong to say, as some are saying, that the French have a Machiavellian master plan to subvert the anti-French Nationalist Diem and with him the U.S. effort to save South Viet Nam from the Communists. But most Americans here conclude, nevertheless, that French actions and policies will have that effect unless they are soon and sharply confined. There are endless skeins of intrigue and sabotage being woven here by lower-echelon Frenchmen, many of whom will privately admit that they would like nothing better than to see the Diem government collapse. French colonialism may be fighting only a rearguard action, but so far it is surprisingly effective.”

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