1963 Twenty-five Years Ago

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In South Vietnam a military coup toppled the government of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1. Saigon had been wracked by endless feuding among military, religious, and ideological factions. The United States had tacitly encouraged the overthrow of the authoritarian and ineffectual Diem government, but it had not anticipated the brutal murders of Diem and his scheming brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

The United States had once hailed the Diem regime as a model of progressive democratic leadership and had heavily financed the South Vietnamese army in the struggle against Communist insurgency. But Diem’s government degenerated to yet another petty dictatorship. Henry Cabot Lodge, President Kennedy’s ambassador to Saigon, saw the revolt as an encouraging development. A few days after the coup, he wrote: “The prospects now are for a shorter war.”

The Broadway adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest opened on November 15. Kesey’s darkly comic novel of an insurrection at a mental hospital became emblematic of the spirit of dislocation and dissent that propelled many through the troubled decade of the 1960s. The stage version featured Kirk Douglas as Randle P. McMurphy.

Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” died on November 21 at the age of seventy-three. Stroud became an authority on bird diseases while serving a life sentence for murder. Imprisoned since 1909, the violent and anti-social Stroud became interested in the care of birds in 1920, when a tree branch ripped loose by a storm landed in the prison yard at Leavenworth, Kansas. The branch held a nest and four baby sparrows, one with a broken leg. The convict nursed the sparrow back to health.

Over the years Stroud became an expert on avian ailments. Stroud’s Digest of the Diseases of Birds , published in 1942, was acknowledged as the definitive volume in the field. That year Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz because of disciplinary problems. Despite growing outside support, Stroud failed to obtain his freedom, and he died in a prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri.

November 22: On this day a three-story building collapsed in Flushing, New York; Governor George Romney of Michigan expressed concern that the Republican party was in danger of becoming identified with right-wing “fanatics” such as the presidential contender Barry Goldwater; a federal judge refused to dismiss grand jury charges of conspiracy and perjury against the attorney Roy M. Cohn; House and Senate negotiators killed a foreign aid bill provision banning aid to Latin American regimes that had come to power through the overthrow of constitutional governments; Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World , died in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-nine; and in Dallas, a twenty-four-year-old ex-marine named Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy.