85. Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Director, Viet-Nam Affairs, Office of the Assistant Director for the Far East, United States Information Agency (Marlowe) to the Director (Marks)1


  • After the Crisis,2 What?

This memorandum is being written on the optimistic basis that the current crisis will somehow be resolved, that a modus operandi satisfactory to the Buddhist Institute, the current GVN and other major forces will be reached, and that a constitution will be written which will lead to the installation of an elected, more or less representative civilian government. Assuming that this is the way the next act will unfold, what should we have learned from the last crisis which will help deal with or even (ever hopeful) prevent the next.

Certainly we did not need this crisis to teach us how fragile the government of South Viet-Nam—any government of South Viet-Nam—is. That we already knew or should have known. Similarly we knew how badly the political and social structure of Viet-Nam is fractionized; and how lacking each faction is in positive political ideas or programs. We knew, too, how the society is lacking in competent leaders dedicated not to the furtherance of a particular group or interest but to the building of the nation.

But there are things we either didn’t know or to which we didn’t pay sufficient heed. Admittedly our knowledge about them, even [Page 246] where it exists, is still not very profound and is based on indirect evidence such as (1) the assumption that a group like the Hue “Struggle Forces” picks on a particular theme because it has reason to believe that the theme strikes a responsive chord among the audience it is aiming at, or (2) the rather surprising degree of unanimity among disparate political groups on a particular subject. What are some of these things?

1. Anti-Americanism. I think it came as a surprise to most Americans that there is an unfortunately large amount of anti-Americanism under the surface in Viet-Nam. As I mentioned in my memo of April 5, this should not surprise anyone.3 Nor does it seem to represent a lack of willingness to prosecute the war or a desire that we withdraw our support in the current struggle and “go home.” It seems to be primarily related (1) to the irritations which occur anytime a large body of men, particularly military personnel, are stationed in another country, and (2) to the continued scepticism among many Vietnamese regarding our real and eventual intentions, a scepticism which comes natural to the Vietnamese in view of their history and the efforts which have been made by others to colonize or control them.

2. Regard for Military Government. Certainly the apathy toward their government which many observers have noted about the Vietnamese has a basis in truth. But I think there is rather less apathy than many thought there was. It seems obvious now that there is a surprising amount of unanimity in dislike of being governed by the military among most leading Vietnamese civilian figures and religious leaders, among high school and university students and probably among a majority of, at least, the educated urban population. If there is anything on which all the different factions seemed to agree, it is that the present government should be replaced by a civilian government.

3. Desire for Legitimacy in Government. Related to 2 above, is the equally surprising unanimity that Viet-Nam should have some sort of constitution and an elected government which would be more representative of the people than, certainly, any recent government has been. Even Generals Thieu and Ky have felt impelled (through conviction or otherwise) to underwrite this goal.

4. Our Commitment. We have established our commitment to Viet-Nam on a “no matter what” basis. The unconditional nature of this commitment has several disadvantages. First, it reduces our leverage in trying to bring our influence to bear. The Vietnamese can afford the luxury of internecine strife because they are sure (we have told them) we will be there to fight the VC. Any hints that we might decide to [Page 247] reduce our forces or even give up the fight as hopeless are properly ignored since we have told them time and again (in other words, of course) that our support is eternal and will continue no matter what foolishness the Vietnamese indulge in. And second, the unconditional nature of our commitment would make it very embarrassing to us to disengage should the situation deteriorate to the point where there was no other sensible course left open to us.

Each of these items is, or should be, something which deeply concerns USIA (and JUSPAO). They are all “psychological” matters, “public opinion” matters, matters involving how and about what people think. The basic problems in Viet-Nam are socio-psychological in nature and therefore should concern us professionally very much. Obviously they do, or we would not have invested as large a proportion of the Agency’s resources in Viet-Nam as we have. Consequently, I feel no hesitation in making the following comments even though JUSPAO’s (and USIA’s) operations are not necessarily involved in most of them. The psychological effect of the American presence in Viet-Nam will, needless to say, be effective primarily through what Americans, both here and there, do rather than through what JUSPAO says or prints.

A. The signs of the American presence must be reduced to the irreducible minimum. Lip service has been paid to this statement ever since the American build-up. And while much effort has been expended in trying to carry it out, to too large an extent it has remained lip service. There follow a few concrete suggestions not listed in any order of importance.

1. Speed up the construction of barracks in military compounds outside the towns and cities (even if at the expense of other military construction) and release all possible in-town housing and office space. On the civilian side, housing arrangements should be made in such a way as to reduce to the minimum its impact on the Vietnamese. I know that much is being done along these lines. I suspect that, if we accept the inconveniences and drawbacks, more could be done.

2. Work with the Vietnamese authorities to relocate bars and other amusement and recreation spots from the centers of the towns to military compound areas. There will be objections and oppositions to this not only from the American servicemen but also from the Vietnamese who are profiting from the current situation. Perhaps one way of handling this is to rule that all in-town bars will be declared off limits after a given date, set perhaps three months away so that the bar owners would have time to relocate.

3. Eliminate such annoyances as the loud music which envelops much of downtown Saigon from the Officer’s Bar on the top of the [Page 248] Rex BOQ4 and the eternal racket which emanates from the generators in front of military housing and office installations and the dozens of other similar small nuisances and annoyances (such as the handling of garbage in Da Nang). Perhaps a combined Vietnamese-US group should be set up to identify these irritations and make arrangements for their elimination.

4. Crack down on the speed and driving practices of drivers, American or Vietnamese, of American civilian and military vehicles.

5. Insofar as possible, redirect military traffic so that it will not interfere with civilian life.

B. To some extent the signs of the American presence can be made more palatable through effective community relations programs. The Vietnamese-US Friendship Councils which exist in some places should be established wherever there are American troops. (In theory these probably have been so established.) On the Vietnamese side, the membership should be broadened so that these Councils represent more of Vietnamese life than just the government and the “Establishment.” Student leaders, religious leaders, political leaders should also be involved. And the Councils should be given some authority if they are to serve a real purpose and if the right kind of Vietnamese are to take an active part. Certainly the demands of these Councils might become annoying to American military commanders. The alternative, however, is likely to be more than annoying to American national objectives. We also have to do a better job in educating American civilians and soldiers alike on Vietnamese history, culture and customs and in seeing to it that Vietnamese customs are respected. Here again, much has been done but not enough. Too much has been lip service.

C. The warning against having too many Americans in Viet-Nam has been raised many times. This fact does not lessen its importance. Nor does it mean that every effort has been made to limit the number as much as possible. For one thing, some Americans are there because we want things done on our timetable (as fast as possible) rather than on the more leisurely timetable of the Vietnamese. If we were willing to compromise with Vietnamese views regarding the desirability and practicality of doing various things speedily, and plan for their accomplishment within a longer time frame, it is possible that we could do with fewer Americans. The opposite side of this coin is that the personnel we have in Viet-Nam should be as well trained as possible, as knowledgeable about Viet-Nam as we can make them and extremely [Page 249] sensitive to Vietnamese sensibilities. Although it is not true in every case, in many instances such knowledge and sensitivity is a direct reflection of an officer’s experience in Viet-Nam. To the extent this is true, the current brief tours (a year or eighteen months for civilian agencies and a year for the military non-combat staff) rob the United States of much needed experience, knowledge and talent. There is no use in going over the problems of family separation again. Needless to say, in simple justice, everything possible should be done to ease the officer’s life; in addition, one can hope that he will agree to a second tour. Also, we ought to consider asking for legislative authority to enable the government to make it worthwhile for an officer to extend for an additional year, or return for an additional tour. One way would be to get authority for civilian agencies to pay each officer a 50% hardship differential on a second tour with the differential remaining at 25% for the first tour; perhaps a second tour bonus could be paid the military similar to the current reenlistment bonus. If the family separation problem is met by allowing wives in on a limited basis, perhaps officers serving a second tour could be the first ones to have their wives join them. We should—in other words—do everything we can, including requesting additional legislative authority, to create a situation under which the best officers will have adequate enticement to return for a second tour, especially those in whom the Agency has invested eleven months of Vietnamese language training.

D. The U.S. officials in Viet-Nam should be more outspoken in their support of constitutional government for the country and in favoring a representative government of a type acceptable to the Vietnamese. Our understandable support for Diem and for each of the governments which followed his overthrow has, it is quite obvious, given many Vietnamese the idea that we really prefer a “strong man” for Viet-Nam rather than an elective, constitutional government (and indeed many Americans do feel this way). While we certainly have to work with the government in power (assuming that this is possible), we ought to make it clear that we regard it as only an “interim” government and that while we have no intention of imposing our views of government on the Vietnamese, we will consider as “permanent” only one which is based on a large measure of representative-ness and which is the result of the self-determination of the Vietnamese people—the principle which is at the heart of our entire Vietnamese policy.

E. As I said at the beginning, this paper is based on the assumption that an elected, civilian government will be established in South Viet-Nam. I hope we are considering in advance what the U.S. position is going to be toward those things which an elected legislative and executive body is likely to bring up which we would rather it didn’t. I think it is in the nature of things for an elected Vietnamese government to [Page 250] desire to show its sovereignty and its independence of the United States. Indeed, it is probably in our interest that it do so. The easiest way to do this, and the most visible, is to insist on things being done their way rather than ours, and to insist that we agree to conditions we don’t like. We ought to try to decide in advance which of these we are willing to give on, reluctantly of course, and which we are not and will insist on as a condition of our continued aid. While it is impossible to foretell what the specific issues are going to be, the following are likely:

1. A Status of Forces Agreement.

2. Limitations on the manner in which the war is fought—restrictions or prohibitions on the use of napalm, for instance, or on Harassment and Interdiction Fire.

3. The establishment of brothels and amusement centers for American troops within compound areas, with towns and cities themselves declared off-limits to most personnel.

F. Americans have, on many occasions, discussed the need for Viet-Nam to develop two or three strong parties, if an elective system is to work, to replace the more than forty that are now registered (which number is likely to be increased with the institution of meaningful elections). I am aware of no decisions ever having been made, nor have I ever heard any really good ideas as to how we can help in this effort. Indeed, I don’t have any bright suggestions to make, either. But the timetable for accomplishing this has shortened radically with the development of the present situation, and I hope that competent people are thinking about it.

G. To repeat another statement which has almost become a truism, we have to do better and better in respecting the forms of Vietnamese sovereignty and be ever more careful regarding statements made in Washington and similar matters. You know the problem as well as I do, and I raise it again only because it is of very great importance.

H. We should rethink our relationships with Buddhist organizations. While we have maintained liaison with them, it has been to some extent in an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust (possibly well deserved). But the fact is that the major Buddhist organizations, especially the Institute5 and its subordinate groupings, are among those best able in the country to obtain action and sacrifice from their members and to plan and execute imaginative, even if destructive, projects such as that of the “Struggle Forces” in Hue.

[Page 251]

I. In my memorandum of April 5, I also commented on the quality of reporting from Viet-Nam. It surely is obvious to everyone that we know less about what the Vietnamese are thinking (or planning) than we wish we did, or should. A corollary of this is the eternal optimism associated with Americans in Viet-Nam. Somehow we always seem to convince ourselves that things will turn out for the best—for us. Because we thought that stability in the Saigon Government under General Ky was essential for the prosecution of the war, we refused to give credence to the few indicators there were which showed that the government was unstable and that opposition to it was wide-spread; fearing that elections at this time would open the possibility of VC infiltration into the structure of government, we did not consider that the Vietnamese might demand an elective system anyhow. And so on. To too great an extent, understandable as it is, we continue to look at Viet-Nam through American eyes, instead of trying to understand it as a Vietnamese would, difficult as that may be. There are no easy answers here, but a change in the overall spirit in which we approach Viet-Nam and our operations there would help.

J. Also in my April 5 memo, I made the point that we are not devoting enough of our resources to establishing, maintaining contact with, helping educate and persuade the urban audiences, especially the student leaders, the teachers and professors, the religious, social and political leaders as well as the mass media operators. I simply repeat that this element of our operations, especially JUSPAO’s, needs more emphasis.

K. As I said in 4 above, psychologically the unconditional nature of our commitment has been a handicap. The Vietnamese would, I submit, be much less likely to indulge in serious quarrels among themselves at this point in history if they weren’t so sure of our shield, and would be more amenable to our suggestions on things we thought vitally important if there were the possibility that we might pull out. Consequently, I suggest that little by little we start putting conditions into our support. In my view these should be so phrased that we guarantee our support:

1. As long as that support and assistance is desired;

2. As long as the Vietnamese maintain and support a government which is acceptable to the bulk of the population, and

3. As long as that government actively prosecutes the war and equally actively undertakes the measures necessary to bring about the social revolution we have all agreed is essential.

Not only will this change in attitude be helpful in our dealings with the Vietnamese, it will make our path world-wide (and particularly in the Asian area) much easier if we find that we have no choice but to disengage and withdraw.

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L. Lastly, I would suggest that we should be well prepared with contingency plans in case the pessimists turn out to be correct and an elected civilian Vietnamese government be weak, faction-ridden and completely unable to cope with the situation. Unfortunately, the chances are at least 50–50 that this will turn out to be the ugly reality.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, DIRCTR Files Bx 33–36, 1966: Acc. #69–A–3445 [E], Entry UD WW 193, Box 33, The Director’s Office (April through June, 1966). Secret. Sent through Moore. An unknown hand wrote: “IAF—Mr. Oleksiw” at the top of the memorandum.
  2. Reference is to the 1966 Buddhist Crisis, also referred to as the Buddhist Uprising, during which Buddhists in South Vietnam, initially in Da Nang and Hue, led protests against the military junta-based government of Premier Nguyen Cao Ky. The Buddhists and their supporters, who were displeased in part because of Ky’s firing of General Nguyen Chanh Thi in March, called for an end to the Ky government. They also demanded a return to civilian rule in South Vietnam and that a new constitution be drafted immediately, not at a later date as Ky had proposed. (Charles Mohr, “Buddhists Criticize Ky Regime: Protests on Ouster of Thi Grow,” New York Times, March 13, 1966, p. 1; “Buddhists Boycott Saigon Crisis Talks,” Washington Post, April 7, 1966, p. A1; Thomas A. Reedy, “Dissidents Boycott Premier’s Call for Political Meeting,” Washington Post, April 12, 1966, p. A1; and Neil Sheehan, “Buddhists’ Drive Against Ky Junta Appears Tougher,” New York Times, April 15, 1966, p. 1) For additional information about the Buddhist Crisis, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. IV, Vietnam, 1966, Documents 91164.
  3. Not found.
  4. Reference is to the Rex Hotel in downtown Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). In addition to housing a U.S. military BOQ, the Rex Hotel was also the location for the daily U.S. military briefings, colloquially referred to as the “Five O’Clock Follies,” which were organized by JUSPAO.
  5. Reference is to the Buddhist Institute.