286. Memorandum for the Record, by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Radford)1

From 1700 until 1915, Wednesday, 28 December 1955, I met with President Diem in the Presidential Palace in Saigon. Present at the meeting were Ambassador George F. Reinhardt, Lt. General Samuel T. Williams, USA, Chief MAAG, Maj. General Robert N. Cannon, Colonel Leroy H. Watson, Jr., and an interpreter. During most of this two and one quarter hour meeting, President Diem talked steadily. Some of what he said was repetitious, so I will attempt to outline below only the main themes that were covered during this meeting.2

[Page 611]

The President started the meeting by describing the conditions within South Vietnam as he saw them. He said that since the inception of his government the Viet Minh had been carrying out a strategy in South Vietnam of staying under cover and attempting to undermine his government by political subversion and propaganda. The recently completed elections had made it quite clear to the world, and to the Viet Minh, that these tactics had failed. Since that time, therefore, Viet Minh tactics had changed. They had come out of hiding, and had begun to engage in a widespread campaign of terrorism which was aimed at creating such chaotic conditions in South Viet Nam as might bring the fall of the government. The President said that in the central portion of his country these efforts had not been too successful. He attributed this lack of success to the relatively high level of political education possessed by the population in the central region. This portion of the population, according to Diem, were well aware of the stakes involved in this political battle, and were solidly behind him and his government. The situation in the North and South of the country, he described as much more serious. In these areas (and particularly in the South), the people were more thinly spread geographically and more naive politically. They were not fully aware of the issues involved in the struggle, and were more susceptible to Communist propaganda and more amenable to Communist terrorist pressures. He went on to say that although the dissident sects had suffered severe defeats in the recently completed fighting in and around Saigon, the remnants of one of the sects was firmly entrenched along the Southwest border of the country in the vicinity of Tran Chau. The Viet Minh had succeeded largely in taking over this organization, and in providing the leadership for the fighting which is presently going on in this area. Everything which the President said about the internal situation indicated to me that he was much more worried about the task of preserving internal order than I had thought possible.

The President said he had three major plans of action in mind to attempt to control this new and vigorous Viet Minh campaign in the country. First, he intended to step up the tempo of operations against the organized dissidents in the South of the country. One Vietnamese division was engaged in this action, and two more were due to join in the near future. Secondly, he intended to conduct a widespread campaign of political education in order to try to convince the population that their best interests lay in support of his government. Lastly, he hoped to form in each of some 6,000 Vietnamese villages a small village militia of about ten men. He hoped to have U.S. support in order to arm these militiamen and to finance the effort. His thought was that these militiamen would devote their full time to the security job. He felt that the presence in each village of an armed [Page 612] and organized group would provide the surest means available of combating the widespread terrorist activities of small Viet Minh groups. I interrupted at this point to tell the President that I was very surprised at what he had told me. I said that the election results seemed to indicate that he had a wide basis of population support within the country. It seemed to me that such public support of the government would make very difficult Viet Minh terrorist activities of the type he had described, since the operation of small Viet Minh groups within Vietnam required both acquiescence and active support on the part of the population. I mentioned, for example, that one of the things that made Viet Minh guerrilla activities so difficult to combat during the Indo-China War had been the fact that the Viet Minh were able to disappear into the villages, where to the French they were indistinguishable from the other villagers. The Viet Minh had also been able to subsist from the countryside during these operations. I said I did not understand how they were able to operate in a similar situation in Viet Nam today. Diem said that the elections had demonstrated widespread support for his government, but that the political naivete of the people made them incapable of effectively opposing Viet Minh terrorist activities. He said that neither the Army nor the police were able to cover every village and hamlet in Vietnam, and that only the formation of a militia group in each village would insure effective opposition. (I noted, but did not comment on the fact, that it would be most difficult to select proper individuals to arm from amongst a population whose loyalties were as uncertain as the President’s conversation seemed to indicate.)

Diem then went on with a description of the threat of overt Viet Minh aggression with which he felt his country was faced. A summation of his description is as follows. Viet Minh forces could easily cross the 17th parallel, and rapidly overrun the Northern section of the country. They also had considerable capability to infiltrate through mountain trails on the Northwest borders of the country. Such infiltration would involve transit through Laos, but, according to the President, this route was being widely used by the Viet Minh to infiltrate agents into his country. He also said that the Communists had a great capability for landing forces along the Viet Namese Coast from junks, and indicated that he did not feel that the Viet Namese presently had sufficient capability to effectively spot and oppose these landings. Throughout his discussion of the Viet Namese capabilities, the President indicated that in his opinion these forces could move rapidly over areas containing few if any roads, and that they could make these movements in sufficient force to overcome the resistance with which they would be faced. On the other hand in discussing the Viet Namese capabilities to oppose such overt action, the President stressed the present lack of motor transportation in the [Page 613] Viet Namese forces which, he said, would seriously handicap their resistance. I pointed out to the President the inconsistency of his views with regard to Viet Minh capabilities as opposed to his own, and said that I did not understand how he expected the Viet Minh to move such large forces rapidly without large motor transport. In replying to this question, Diem simply restated his previous opinion that the Viet Minh could do it because of their organization and training, but that his forces were organized to utilize motor transportation and needed it to carry out their plans. I then said that I felt the Vietnamese Navy should be able to do a better job than they had done of interrupting or interfering with Communist seaborne infiltration along the Viet Namese Coast. I said that I believed an aggressive campaign on the part of the Viet Namese Navy to capture or sink Communist junks seemed within the capabilities of the Navy. Diem then launched into a description of the French lack of cooperation in this regard. The summation of his remarks can be made in two points. First, he felt that the French refused to assist with naval forces in stopping Communist traffic into Viet Nam. Secondly, he believed that the French were actually assisting and cooperating with the Viet Minh in bringing personnel and supplies by sea into Viet Nam. The President did not believe that the efforts of the Viet Namese Navy could be successful until or unless an end were put to the duplicity of the French Naval Forces in Viet Nam.

Diem then returned to the subject of organized dissident activity in the South. He pointed out that a considerable part of the Viet Namese Military Establishment had to be devoted to combating this type of activity and to preserving order within the country. While engaged in such tasks, he said, these forces were unable to carry out the training which was necessary in order to prepare them for their primary job of being able to resist overt aggression from the Viet Minh. For this reason, he felt it most important that he receive U.S. support of his plan to arm a militia in order that he could return the regular forces to their primary job of training. The President then described at some length the overall Viet Namese plan for defense of the country. This plan is based upon a division of the country into four sectors, each under an overall Army commander. The supply system is being built in such a fashion so as to be able to support these sector commanders in their operations. Diem pointed out one of the great lacks in the supply system was the lack of adequate transportation nets to support and serve the system. He said that he hoped the United States would be able to furnish the financial aid and heavy machinery necessary to build an adequate road net to support this logistic system. Throughout this portion of the discussion, I was struck by the fact that the President considered the chief danger to his country lay in the possibility of overt aggression from [Page 614] the North. To this end, he was very concerned with freeing the Armed Forces from their internal security tasks so that they could train and prepare to resist such an invasion. On the other hand, the conditions he described were primarily dangerous because of the lack of internal stability within the country. In point of fact, these conditions seem to me very like those which existed in the Philippines in 1950 and 1951. I mentioned this similarity to the President, and suggested he might study the methods used by President Magsaysay to restore internal stability to the Philippines during this period.3 Diem indicated that this might be worthwhile, but immediately thereafter returned to his theme of preparing the Armed Forces to resist Viet Minh overt aggression. Although I made several attempts to point out the desirability of using the Armed Forces for internal security, I do not believe that President Diem changed any of the preconceived ideas he had at the beginning of our meeting.

This meeting with Diem was both surprising and, in some ways, disappointing to me. He was much more pessimistic concerning the conditions in South Viet Nam than I had supposed that he would be. He quite evidently feels that the French are not only failing to cooperate with his government, but are actually working against him in cooperating with the Viet Minh. From the amount of interest which he showed in the military situation and the great detail in which he discussed it, I would surmise that Diem himself is actually functioning as the Minister of Defense of his country. If this is so, I would say that his grasp of the problem which faces him is defective and will not be corrected unless it be through the medium of U.S. advice to him.

Throughout our conversation, I was impressed by the seriousness with which the President tackles his job, and by the obvious honesty of purpose which inspires him.4

  1. Source: Naval Historical Center, Radford Papers, 333.1 (Trip 9) 12/12/55–1/19/56. Prepared in Washington on January 27, 1956.
  2. One of the themes not covered by Radford was Diem’s mention of SEATO. In his report of the same meeting, Reinhardt stated in part: “Diem … voiced earnest hope that SEATO could become ‘more organic’ and provide VN with some concrete guaranty and specific information regarding kind of assistance SEATO could provide in event of emergency … Radford explained nature of SEATO and expressed personal view that overt VM aggression improbable in foreseeable future but that if it should take place would almost surely involve other SEA countries … It was his view that Diem’s primary problem was that of internal security. This he did have capability of solving and he should devote all his efforts to this end.” (Telegram 2638 from Saigon, December 30; Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/12–3055)
  3. President Magsaysay was Minister of Defense during this period.
  4. Admiral Radford included a briefer summary of this conversation in his trip report to the Secretary of Defense dated February 7, 1956. At the end of the Vietnam section of that report he stated: “All of my meetings at Viet Nam clearly pointed up the fact that the size of our MAAG must be increased if we are to make an effective fighting force out of the Viet Namese military establishment. The present self-imposed limitation under the Geneva Accords puts a ceiling upon our MAAG personnel which is far short of our present requirements in Viet Nam. If and when further withdrawals or reductions of the French forces in Viet Nam occur, the shortage of U.S. personnel will become even more acute.” (Naval Historical Center, Radford Papers, 333.1 (Trip 9) 12/12/55–1/19/56)