Memorandum of Conversation 1

top secret


  • Ngo Dinh Luyen, Bao Dai’s Personal Representative
  • The Under Secretary
  • Philip W. Bonsal


  • Alleged views of Bao Dai on Current Military and Political Situation in Vietnam

Mr. Ngo Dinh Luyen called at his request in his capacity as Bao Dai’s personal representative in Geneva. He delivered a letter2 from His Majesty to the Under Secretary and also showed his credentials.

Mr. Ngo Dinh Luyen set forth the following views alleged to be those of Bao Dai:

Some six years ago when Bao Dai returned to Viet-Nam with the French, he did so, not because the political solution then adopted seemed to him ideal, but because he wished to avoid a situation in which the fight in Viet-Nam would be purely one between colonialism on the one hand and Communism on the other. Bao Dai wished to make a place in the struggle for true Vietnamese Nationalism and to insure that Vietnamese national interests would win out in the end over those of both the Communists and the colonialists.
Bao Dai has been thwarted throughout by the French, and has been unable to follow truly national policies which would rally the people behind his government and army. According to Ngo Dinh Luyen, even the most recent treaties signed with the French are regarded by Bao Dai as merely further “pieces of paper” which can in practice be nullified by French actions and restrictions. As a result, the mass of the people in Viet-Nam consider that the Vietminh represent the “good cause”.
On the military side, the French for a long time refused to create a Vietnamese National Army and when they did so, they did not provide this army with the necessary artillery, armored elements or aviation so that it could function as an autonomous force. The Vietnamese national army at the present time is merely a source of light [Page 844] infantry reinforcements which are fed into the battle as required by the French Command and are more often than not destroyed before they achieve any real combatworthiness. As a result Vietnamese military morale is low in contrast to the very high morale of the Vietminh armed forces.
Bao Dai recognizes that the presence of the French army is essential in Viet-Nam under present circumstances. Nevertheless, he believes that the presence of that army prevents the development of the national spirit which alone can truly vitalize the Vietnamese National Army. He believes that further French reinforcements, necessary as they may be to meet an immediate military emergency, will further destroy the military morale of the Vietnamese people and therefore further diminish the efficiency of the Vietnamese National Army.

After having set forth the above alleged factors in the situation at some length, Ngo Dinh Luyen stated that His Majesty was thinking seriously of adopting a new political program which would in effect rally behind him the true nationalist elements in Viet-Nam. Bao Dai is fully conscious of the need of insuring continued French support. He also realizes that the attitude of the US and of the UK toward the French must be a most prudent one and that we would not wish to bring any real pressure to bear on the French. Bao Dai wonders therefore whether he could count on our support for any radical political initiative which he might himself take and which would rally his people behind him although it might to some extent alienate the French. (It seems quite evident that to the extent that Ngo Dinh Luyen reflects Bao Dai’s views, the latter is trying to find out whether the US is disposed to replace France in Indochina to an extent which would virtually free Bao Dai from the need for taking into account French views about the military and political requirements of the situation in Viet-Nam.)

General Smith commented briefly that in his opinion the French at the highest levels were sincere with regard to the independence of Viet-Nam. The General recognized that possibly some lower level officials, particularly in Indochina, might still harbor illusions based on a possible return to a vanished past. But he said he thought that the Vietnamese might well have confidence in Laniel and Bidault, adding that we should do everything possible to strengthen the hand of these courageous French political leaders. He advised that Bao Dai reserve his judgment as to the significance of the new treaties.

With regard to the Vietnamese army, General Smith agreed with much that Ngo Dinh Luyen had said. He recognized that the French had first delayed the fundamental decision to have a national army and had then failed to carry out that decision as energetically and rapidly as was desirable. He said that US influence had been constantly exerted in favor of the creation of a truly autonomous Vietnamese national [Page 845] army. He described our experience in Korea. He said that, of course, seventeen months are ideally required before combatworthy troops can be created and that more time is needed to create the necessary cadres at all levels. General Smith told Ngo Dinh Luyen that he believed the French attitude regarding participation in the training of Vietnamese troops by the US was being currently modified.

General Smith concluded by saying that he had listened with attention to Mr. Ngo Dinh Luyen’s exposition and that if later he had any specific suggestions of comments to make for transmittal to His Majesty, he would arrange to do so.

Ngo Dinh Luyen indicated to Mr. Bonsal that Bao Dai is contemplating the early dismissal of Buu Loc as Prime Minister. He gave the strong impression that, if Bao Dai were in fact free to choose, he would now call Ngo Dinh Diem to power. He intimated, however, that the French would oppose his brother’s nomination because of Ngo Dinh Diem’s well known independent policy and that Bao Dai believed this opposition would, under present circumstances be decisive.

Ngo Dinh Luyen took occasion to say that many members of the Bao Dai Cabinet have been imposed upon His Majesty by the French and are not persons in which His Majesty can have confidence. Thus, for example, Bao Dai does not feel able to communicate with General Smith through members of his government but is obliged to seek a personal, unofficial representative such as Ngo Dinh Luyen.

Ngo Dinh Luyen later set forth for Mr. Bonsal’s benefit another idea with which His Majesty is toying. It is the neutralization of VietNam with guarantees by the powers participating at the Geneva Conference. This would apparently involve a complete break with the French Union.

Mr. Ngo Dinh Luyen made the somewhat startling statement that one of the ways in which the French control Bao Dai’s movements is by limiting his transfers of piastres into foreign exchange. Ngo Dinh Luyen said that Bao Dai could hardly afford to stay at hotels and was obliged to spend much time at his own villa at Cannes, where he has now gone. On the other hand, he stated that Buu Loc had recently been authorized to transfer ten million francs for travel expenses.

Mr. Bonsal endeavored to stress to Ngo Dinh Luyen that, in the present emergency, the proper course of action was not one of recrimination and consequent destruction of existing assets but rather one of united action in order to surmount the immediate crisis successfully. Unless that were done there would be nothing left to save. Mr. Bonsal stressed the hope that the elements which had remained apart from the situation would rally to the support of the government. (Ngo Dinh Luyen [Page 846] has been away from his country for five years and his brother, Ngo Dinh Diem for about three.)

(The analysis of the above in which Ambassador Heath and Mr. Bonsal concur is that Ngo, while he is probably what he represents himself to be, has perhaps overstated Bao Dai’s views on the situation. On the other hand, Bao Dai is probably seeking to reconcile to himself every possible element of strength. He is undoubtedly carrying on a political flirtation with Ngo Dinh Diem who does have a certain amount of support particularly in Vietnamese Catholic circles. He might well play the Ngo Dinh Diem card if he could be sure we would support him; otherwise not. Ngo Dinh Diem is a visionary, doctrinaire individual with a high reputation for integrity and patriotism. He might well refuse to take office except on terms which would alienate much French support and facilitate the task of those Frenchmen seeking an apparently honorable exit from the Indochina scene. On the other hand he would strengthen the Vietnamese government in local eyes if he were to take office. It is recommended that direct contact with Ngo Dinh Diem be established—he is now in Paris.)

  1. Name of drafting officer not indicated; presumably it was Bonsal.

    Summary of this conversation transmitted to the Department of State in telegram Secto 261, May 20. The telegram contained the following comment: “Heath and Bonsal believe Luyen may be overstating Bao Dai’s views, but that latter may indeed be considering Ngo Dinh Diem if assured US support. Recommend Paris contact Diem discreetly, now residing … [in Paris], in effort develop his views and degree to which Bao DaiDiem reconciliation has progressed.

    “As regards Luyen’s claim that many members of Bao Dai’s Government were imposed on him by the French, Heath doubts that Bao Dai said it and remarks that if he did say it, it is not true. If, however, Bao Dai considering getting rid of this government, this claim might be an excuse for such action to present to Vietnamese public opinion.” (396.1 GE/5–2054)

  2. For text, see telegram Secto 265, May 20, p. 863.