177. Airgram From the Department of State to All American Diplomatic and Consular Posts and United States Information Service Posts1



  • The Vice President on Viet-Nam, February 18, 1968

Joint State/USIA Message. On February 18, a major television network carried a panel discussion between the Vice President and a panel of students representing the six principal universities in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.2 The discussion encompassed both domestic and foreign policy issues. Addressees received the highlights of this discussion in the USIA Wireless File of the same date (World File No. 2).3

The discussion of Viet-Nam in this telecast is of particular interest. Verbatim excerpts from this portion of the discussion are enclosed for your information and appropriate use. The questions posed in these excerpts are about corruption in South Viet-Nam, political stability in that country, the role of press reporting, and the bombing of North Viet-Nam.

Katzenbach Acting
[Page 564]


Excerpts of a Panel Discussion with Vice President Humphrey4

Q. As Senator Ted Kennedy, among others, has brought home from his last trip to Viet-Nam5 some accusations of rather extended corruption in the South Vietnamese government—and that these conditions are a rather important key to the ability of the South Vietnamese government to mould a national society. I was wondering what the U.S. Government has done in the past weeks or so to react to these accusations, and also if this South Vietnamese government is not going to respond to correct these conditions, if we will continue our commitment to that nation?

The Vice President: Well, now, corruption is not exactly a monopoly of Southeast Asia, or of Viet-Nam. I don’t want to make any invidious comparisons, but there are a few cities in the United States that could teach the South Vietnamese some lessons in how to operate corrupt government, and I think we might spend a little time cleaning our own stables before we start lecturing, piously lecturing a goodly number of other people.

There isn’t any doubt but what there’s corruption in the government of Viet-Nam, and by the way, there’s a good deal of it in some other governments, a good deal of it. Now, if you want to go around the world, picking out people that you’re going to do business with, and with whom you have alliances and allegiance, on the basis of whether or not they meet puritanical standards, you’re going to find yourself with very, very few friends. As a matter of fact, there may be a few of them that’ll leave us, because we have a little problem here every once in a while. We even have to appoint committees in the Congress on ethics.

So let’s not try to pretend that corruption is a monopoly of any particular people or country. Now, the next thing. We wanted—for a [Page 565] period of time there was a great deal of criticism because the government in South Viet-Nam was a military junta. So we insisted, as an ally, and encouraged as an ally, the development of representative government institutions, and with all if its limitations, the people of South Viet-Nam did elect a Constituent Assembly, and my fellow American, we never did. Our Constitution was not written by elected officials. That Constituent Assembly did write a Constitution, despite the fact that most of the critics said they never would, and it wrote it in the open light of day without any censorship; ours was not.6 Ours was written behind closed doors; there wasn’t a single cameraman or newspaperman permitted within a hundred yards. Had anybody known what the Founding Fathers were doing in Philadelphia, we never would have had a Constitution; everybody knew that.

Now, those of us that are students of history and government ought to start leveling with the American people. A Constitution was written and it was adopted, and elections were held. Now, it’s no small task to have an election in a country that’s beleagured by guerrilla warfare, but they held it.7 There were very few elections in World War II, in the Allied countries that were under attack; I don’t recall any. As a matter of fact, it’s rather unusual. Now, a government has been elected. Now it may not be so good, but some people don’t think ours is so good. There’s a substantial portion of the American public that thinks they ought to change here too. And they accuse us of all kinds of things. Now, that government is their government; it may not be as good as I’d like, but we insisted that they have one that was elected. Now the fact of the matter is that there is a need for progress as we see it in the government in Viet-Nam, and we do press for it. But they are not a satellite. On the one hand, if we took them and bent them to our will, somebody would say “Now, that’s the total Americanization, not only of the war, but of the government.”

On the other hand, if we don’t bend them to our will, we’re criticized because we don’t exercise our influence. So what do we try to do? We try to reason; I think one of the most impressive men in American public life, in my lifetime, is Ambassador Bunker, and one of the things I’d like to leave with you students is that this man has been respected in university circles, in church circles, in political circles, and professional circles, for at least forty years. He’s a tremendous person. Now when did he get to be so bad? I mean, here is the same Ambassador Bunker that was a United Nations representative, an Ambassador to Italy, an Ambassador to India, our special representa [Page 566] tive in the Dominican Republic; heralded, considered one of the great, ethical, practical statesmen of our time.8 Now he goes to Viet-Nam and all at once you can’t believe him; all at once he’s ineffective. All at once he isn’t telling us the truth, according to some people. I don’t agree with that at all; I think Ambassador Bunker is doing a magnificent job representing the people of the United States, and if any man wants decency in government, if I know him, and I know him well. I served in the U.N. with Ambassador Bunker; I know of no more moral man in this world than Ambassador Bunker. I know of no more effective man in diplomacy than Ambassador Bunker. I think he’s doing everything that can be done to influence people to do what is right. In the meantime, it is an elected government, and that’s some accomplishment. By the way, has anybody made a report on the corruption in North Viet-Nam? When did they have an election?

Q. Mr. Vice President, the real question seems to be the—not so much the fact that there is corruption, which I’m willing to agree to, not only in South Viet-Nam but anywhere, but what if, in light of this, the continued problems that the South Vietnamese government continues to face, within its own structure, that it collapses, what will then be our position? Is this not a possibility?

The Vice President: Well, my good friend, there are always possibilities, but there’s been no evidence that it’s going to collapse. As a matter of fact, this is what people have been predicting all along. The predictions about this country have been unbelievable. First of all, some people predicted in the Congress that the elections would be a hoax and a fraud. They weren’t. Some people predicted that the junta would never permit a Constitution to come into being, but they did. Some people said that Thieu and Ky and the Assembly would never respond to constitutional government, but they have. And now we are saying it’ll most likely collapse, and it hasn’t, and it has gone through the most terrible blood bath in recent days that any country could possibly face, and what’s been the result? Thus far, the government is holding its own; thus far, not a single unit of the South Vietnamese Army has defected, not one. Thus far, the National Assembly meets and debates. I haven’t heard of any reports of a National Assembly debating up in Hanoi. I think we are—ought to be praising these people for their efforts in trying to make constitutional government work.

[Page 567]

It isn’t that it’s perfect; it’s not very perfect here. We’ve been trying to get a tax bill out of committee in this country for a year and a half. Can’t even get it out of subcommittee. I don’t think that we’ve got too much to brag about sometimes, when we’re criticizing others. All I’m saying is, don’t sell them out before the facts. The truth of the matter is that they’ve done better than most of their critics ever thought they would do. We hope they’ll do better; we encourage them to do better. But I learned a long time ago that if you constantly brand a fellow as a failure, if you are suspicious as to whether or not he can ever do anything, you can rest assured that most people will react just about the way you treat them, and if you treat them like losers, they’ll start acting that way. If you treat them as if they’re unwanted, they’ll act that way, but if you give them some sense of confidence, and at the same time encourage and persuade and cajole and try to instruct, you may get a better system. And I think that’s what we’re doing. I think we have a right to be somewhat encouraged at what we’ve seen.

Q. Mr. Vice President, positions regarding U.S. involvement in Viet-Nam are widely disparate, even among the most respected public officials and figures in the United States. Do you interpret this as simply misinformation, or maybe differences of opinion, or is it misinterpretation of facts, or just is it misinformation?

The Vice President: I think it’s a compound of all of those. This is the first—maybe I can be helpful on this.

First of all, I don’t think that people that disagree with us are unpatriotic. I want to make that quite clear. This is a very complex situation. This is an entirely different kind of struggle than this country has ever been engaged in before. This is the first war in the nation’s history that has been fought without conditions of censorship. This is the first war in the nation’s history that’s been fought on television, where the actors are real, where, in the quiet of your living room, of your home, or your dormitory, wherever you may be, this cruel, ugly, dirty fact of life and death and war and pain and suffering come right to you, and it isn’t a Hollywood actor. I’ve had letters from mothers that have seen their boys shot down in battle, and let me tell you that I think that television is the most—well, it’s the most dramatic instrument of our time. That tube, for either good or evil, and thank goodness we can use it now at least in dialogue, which I think is the way it ought to be used. At least in part. It can be a great educational instrument.

There are so many different views about—even whether we should be there, whether our national interest is involved, whether a treaty ought to be fulfilled. Whether we should have ever signed a treaty; there are a lot of—well, many people feel that we made mistakes, and we really are over-involved. There are people that honestly feel that [Page 568] way. I happen to be one of those, sir, that believes that you can’t relive the past. I also happen to be one that believes that the greatest protection of peace in this world today is the integrity of the American word or commitment. Now maybe we shouldn’t give our word as often as we do, or our commitment; but when we do, it is imperative that we mean what we say, and I can say for President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey, we signed no new treaties in the years that we’ve been in power. One treaty that we’ve signed is the space treaty,9 to prevent the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction. That’s the only international treaty of great international significance. Now we’re trying to get a non-proliferation treaty on nuclear weapons,10 to stop the spread of nuclear power in this world, because we think it increases danger.

But going back to your question, sir. I, as a government official, must place a great deal of reliance upon what we call our intelligence sources. I do not place total reliance upon them; I know there are newsmen in Viet-Nam for whom I have great respect, that differ with these intelligence observations, but might I say that it’s pretty much like the domestic scene. Some of us get a fixation, or get a fixed point of view on a particular development and do not see the totality of it. For example, if you wanted to talk with me about politics, domestic politics, let’s say two or three years ago, I most likely would have concentrated most of my attention upon that area which I knew the better, which is my home state of Minnesota, and I’d get into intricate details about it which would be rather baffling both to the viewer, the listener, and even to the propounder.

But when you take a bigger view of the nation, you don’t have time for all of that little detail, and your observations become more generalized, and in a sense, I think, more meaningful. I think this is part of the trouble in Viet-Nam. For example, most of our reporters, and they’re good reporters, they follow American troops. They like to live with the American troops; they speak the language, they like the food, they like the fellows. It’s their life; they don’t go with the ARVN [Page 569] troops, only once in a while. And generally the time that they observe the ARVN troops is when they—when they lose, when they’re in trouble.

Now, within recent weeks, because of the nature of the Tet offensive from the Viet Cong and North Viet-Nam, and because about ninety percent of the troops that are engaged on the Allies side are South Vietnamese troops, not American but South Vietnamese, the reporters have, by necessity, if they were going to cover anything and because much of the fighting was in Saigon, where the reporters remain, they had to cover South Vietnamese operations. Now the fact of the matter is, the South Vietnamese have fought bravely, very bravely, and they have fought well, and these are the same troops that they were calling no good just a few weeks ago. The fact that the war was brought to Saigon, my friend, I think has changed a great deal of reporting on the war, and I noticed over the weekend that even from Paris, the observers in Paris that have been very critical of us now seem to come pretty much to the conclusion that some of us had about the nature of this recent Tet offensive and what its purpose was. They now agree, all the capitals around the world now seem to agree that the Viet Cong were out to take the cities, to establish what they called revolutionary administrations, to force upon Saigon a coalition government, to depose Thieu and Ky, and to really have a fait accompli, and tell the Americans “If you want to negotiate, you’re going to negotiate with us or get out.” It didn’t work. They didn’t get a popular uprising; they didn’t get mass defection of troops. They don’t hold a single city today; they hold a part of Hue, and a small part of a suburb in Saigon. They had terrific losses. I speak of the enemy. Obviously there have been some negative aspects; the pacification program has been brought to a stand-still. I still think the enemy has the strength to launch a very serious attack; I don’t know what the ultimate outcome of all this is going to be. I think you’ll have to wait for events to speak louder than newspaper reports, but you see, it’s the complexity of a guerrilla war; it’s the complexity, too, of this culture, that we’re so unfamiliar with. And I think that this is why that there’s so much what you call in different interpretations. I think it is wrong, however, for us to assume that there is a kind of malice on the part of some. I think really what happens is people just see it differently.

Q. When the bombing was first started, we said it was to bring the Vietnamese to the conference table, and then later we said it was to keep the guerrilla warfare down. Exactly what is the stated policy now for the bombing, since obviously the other two haven’t worked?

The Vice President: Well, I’ll just say this. Bombing has been a part of our general military operation. I want to say with equal candor, as [Page 570] the Prime Minister of Great Britain said when he was here,11 that this government has proposed to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, in the San Antonio formula, that we are prepared to stop the bombing, aerial and naval, at once, if it will lead to prompt and productive talks, provided that the assumption is that there will be no escalation or no taking advantage of this type of a negotiating stance. We are prepared, my dear lady, right now, to accept immediate cease-fire. We are really prepared to have what we call immediate stand-down, with every bit of the troops standing as they are, and to enter negotiation. The roadblock to peace is not in Washington. I can tell you that my dear lady; the roadblock to peace is not here. The roadblock to peace, regrettably, is in Hanoi. We are prepared as of this moment, I say as Vice President of the United States, to have immediate negotiations for the cessation of this struggle; immediate cease-fire. Now, if you could get a statement like that out of an equally responsible official of the enemy, you will perform the greatest service that any citizen in this country has ever performed.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File: Vietnam, Box 100, Vietnam 7 E (4)a 2/68–4/68, Public Relations Activities [2 of 2]. Unclassified. Drafted by P/VN. Cleared in OVP, P/PG, P/VN, EA/P, and IAF; approved by Donnelley. The airgram was also sent to the following POLADS: HICOM Ryukyus, CINCPAC, CINCLANT, CINCSTRIKE, CINCSO, CINCEUR, CINCUSAREUR.
  2. Humphrey appeared with the students on the news program “Face to Face,” produced by WTTG, a local Washington, D.C., television station. The discussion was taped on February 14 and aired at 8 p.m. on February 18. (Morton Mintz, “Draft Call of Oldest Laid to LBJ,” Washington Post, February 18, 1968, p. A1; “Rough Going Seen for Saigon,” Washington Post, February 18, 1968, p. A27)
  3. Not found.
  4. Unclassified.
  5. Kennedy visited South Vietnam January 1–15. Upon his return, Kennedy noted the following about corruption in South Vietnam: “I would urge a confrontation between our government and South Vietnam on the entire question of corruption, inefficiency, waste of American resources and the future of ‘the other war.’” (John H. Fenton, “Edward Kennedy Upbraids Saigon,” New York Times, January 26, 1968, p. 4; see also, “Edward Kennedy Opens War Study,” New York Times, January 2, 1968, p. 3; and “Congress: Has Funds, Will Travel,” Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 1968, p. 20)
  6. The Vietnamese Constitution was promulgated in April 1967. See footnote 2, Document 127.
  7. The Presidential election in South Vietnam took place September 3, 1967.
  8. Bunker was U.S. mediator in UN brokered Indonesian-Netherlands negotiations from March until August 1962. He served as Ambassador to Italy from March 1952 until April 1953 and Ambassador to India from November 1956 until March 1961. He served as United States Representative to the OAS from January 1964 until November 1966 and, as such, had an active role in the United States involvement in the Dominican Republic in 1965.
  9. On January 27, 1967, the United States, Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed a treaty that banned the use of space and the moon for military purposes. In his remarks delivered in the East Room of the White House that same day, President Johnson said: “We can keep the ugly and wasteful weapons of mass destruction from contaminating space. And that is exactly what this treaty does.” Public Papers: Johnson, 1967, Book I, pp. 91–92. See, also, “3-Power Space Pact is Signed in Moscow,” New York Times, January 27, 1967, p. 3)
  10. President Johnson signed the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons with the Soviet Union on July 1 in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. For text of his remarks made at the signing ceremony, see Public Papers: Johnson, 1968–1969, Book II, pp. 763–765. For additional information, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, Document 277.
  11. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited Washington February 7–9. (“To Honor Britain’s Wilson,” Washington Post, February 7, 1968, p. C1; Joseph C. Harsch, “A Time for Saying ‘The Right Things,’” Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1968, p. 1)