19. Telegram From the Special Representative in Vietnam (Collins) to the Department of State1

2772. 1. I met with Ely at his suggestion 14th. I told him I was pleased by what I had seen at Haiphong but was disturbed that nothing had been done to remove US-financed equipment from Charbonnages. (See my telegram 27592)

2. Ely said that other problems concerning him with regard to Haiphong were maintenance of minimum public services and supplies, removal of all other equipment, and danger of sabotage by Vietnamese immediately before final evacuation. I agreed it would be serious mistake if Vietnamese undertook such sabotage and I would be willing to say so to Diem. Ely said he had discussed Haiphong problem with Diem previous day, in particular communications equipment removed from Hanoi in alleged violation of Geneva accord. Ely said that if it were possible to settle dispute with Viet [Page 38] Minh over Hanoi incidents, that might ease Haiphong situation which is tense and may become increasingly difficult.

3. I remarked to Ely that it is essential in computing shipping requirements to make certain that no refugees will be left behind in North for lack of transport. Ely said that French can take care of necessary military movement but will continue to need US help for refugees. O’Daniel following up on this. (French must help also.) I asked Ely if he felt last French troops leaving Haiphong might have to fight their way out. He replied that Viet Minh will not in his view attempt prevent French departure by action from outside enclave but they may inspire uprisings and strikes on part of Haiphong residents. Ely said Viet Minh have no confidence in French good faith and believe that they wish to strip Haiphong. Accordingly Ely fears that he can not until the very end reduce his troop levels below 18/20,000.

4. Ely asked me how I proposed that we carry out instructions from our respective governments growing out of latest Paris meeting.3 He read me telegram from French Foreign Office to French Embassies Washington and London dated January 8 saying that Ely had returned to Saigon to pursue efforts toward broadening Diem Government and carrying out reform programs and would study with me possible alternative government solution. Telegram continued saying that Bao Dai’s role would be defined in light of discussions between Ely and me. La Chambre would make courtesy call upon Bao Dai in course of vacation at Nice. Conversation would be in general terms. Another telegram of same date to French Embassy Washington said that Ministers had agreed December 18 have another exchange of views re solution Vietnamese political problems and expressing opinion such meeting should take place after ElyCollins assessment. Accordingly express meeting tentatively scheduled end January would not be useful. Ministerial meeting might take place early February when Ely and Collins have expressed final views. One final telegram from French Embassy Washington to Paris reported our State Department favors mid-February for such review.

5. I reviewed with Ely progress of all aspects of our 7-point program, as reported recent telegrams, concluding that only item in which no progress has been shown is that calling for broadening government. I said I believe that this is not time to consider possible alternative to Diem since latter has not yet had full opportunity put program into effect. In absence of specific instructions on this subject (Deptel 28734 had not arrived), I told Ely that I believe our long-her-alded assessment might be made about first week February, to be completed by 10 February.

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6. Ely said he was also impressed, and even astonished, by improvement in local scene during period of his absence and that he was inclined to favor my proposal. Ely went on to say that despite progress made he is still concerned by persistent Viet Minh strength in South where Communists actually administer villages. While 90 percent of population is anti-Communist, they are subjected to effective Viet Minh propaganda and control. This illustrative of how much needs to be done to strengthen action of Interior Minister. I replied that national security action program is designed help solve this problem.

7. Adverting to sects, which he said Diem must continue to handle with caution for some time to come, Ely said, in reply to question I had asked earlier, that French Union Forces include 4,500 Cao Dai suppletives at monthly cost of 3,339,000 piasters and 1,700 Hoa at monthly cost of 1,045,000 piasters. There are no Binh Xuyen suppletives. Original French plan had been to cease paying these forces December 31 but they will now be paid through January 31. There may be trouble connected with discharge in these forces unless National Government can somehow take on commitment to continue payment for some little period. I pointed out that tentative plan Vietnamese Government was to discharge about 35,000 of its own troops between now and March 1, many of which are suppletives, but agreed that Diem would probably have to continue some support of sect forces for some time (Vietnam now gives approximately 7 million piasters monthly support to sect suppletives).

8. Turning back to basic problem Ely said he sincerely hoped Diem could succeed, as to install a new government would entail losing at least three or four months. However, he suggested that between ourselves we might consider what steps could be taken if we became convinced Diem was hopeless. I remarked in this connection that I hoped La Chambre would not paint to Bao Dai as black a picture as French had done in recent Paris tripartite ministerial meeting, with which I was not in agreement. Ely said he had brought up question of Bao Dai in Paris, adding that although he is aware of Emperor’s faults he believes that at this period of crisis it is inadmissible that chief of state and chief of government should be separated by several thousand kilometers. They should either be together or chief of state should be suppressed. Ely added that he was not proposing that Bao Dai return immediately but that in next few weeks we should be prepared to suggest that Bao Dai return either to support Diem or, if necessary, to deal with question of replacement. Ely said Bao Dai was not popular with French and that it would be difficult for him to gain approval of French Government of Bao Dai’s return. However, if Diem does not work out in next few weeks he [Page 40] feels he and I have no choice but to accept principle of this solution and do what is necessary to carry it out.

He added that he sees no other solution if Diem should fail. There is no point, he said, in replacing Diem by another local team. It is Bao Dai or nothing if Diem does not measure up. I said I was willing to give consideration to this suggestion but I considered it inopportune for us to discuss it now, even unofficially, since if news leaked out this would have effect of weakening Diem’s position vis-à-vis sects. Ely said that his suggestion was not intended to undermine Diem; he felt only that it might be tragic mistake to gamble everything on one single man. I replied that after our February analysis there will be still time to consider an alternative and to make recommendations within 24 hours.

9. Ely said that French press is now showing itself more favorable to Diem and this should be helpful since press plays considerable part in shaping French opinion. Diem also is displaying better understanding of this problem and has taken more moderate line with press in regard to France.

10. This message was drafted prior receipt Deptel 2870,5 but gives my present reaction to questions raised that telegram.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/1–1555. Secret. Repeated for information to Paris.
  2. In this telegram, January 15, Collins reported on his brief (January 13–14) visit to Haiphong, and his discussions there with French officials on the questions of removal of American aid-financed equipment and evacuation of refugees. With the notable exception of the equipment in the Charbonnages du Tonkin coal mines, Collins was impressed that the French had evacuated most material from Haiphong. He was also impressed with the efficiency of the refugee operation and the caliber and number of those refugees being prepared to move south. (ibid.)
  3. Tripartite Ministerial discussions on December 18, 1954.
  4. Document 16.
  5. In this telegram, January 13, sent also to Paris as 2514, the Department reported that the French Embassy in Washington had suggested a tripartite Ministerial-level meeting on Indochina in early February, following Collins’ and Ely’s planned recommendations to their respective governments in late January. The Department was skeptical of this suggestion which originated with La Chambre, who according to telegram 2866, Document 9, believed that the United States was prepared to consider alternatives to Diem. (Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/1–1055)