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

4292. 1. I called on Ely 2000 April 1 at his urgent request. Ely said that he had just come from a very difficult conversation with [Page 181] Diem. Ely had tried to be as soothing as possible, had said he understood Police Chief Sang would have to be removed, said he was willing to help Diem set up a new police chief in another headquarters, but insisted time not yet ripe for this move. Ely said that Diem was more excited and more determined than ever to carry out an armed assault on National Police HQ in central Saigon. He believed at same time Diem would launch series attacks on police posts throughout city. Ely interpreted Diem’s mood as readiness to “put city to sword and flame to establish his authority”. Diem told Ely he realized operation against police HQ would be dangerous for population. He asked Ely’s help in evacuating neighborhood and promised pay damages to innocent victims. Ely said he explained gravity situation to Diem and had in particular warned him such action could only lead to civil war. Ely said that Diem would not listen to any word of wisdom or friendly advice. He concluded that Diem is on verge of megalomania. Ely said he and I would have to take urgent decisions since Diem’s plan, if carried out, would lead to catastrophe and civil war.

2. Ely showed me on highly confidential basis memorandum of conversation between General Gambiez and Cao Dai General Phuong. It appeared, according to memorandum of conversation, Phuong had said Cao Dai troop integration was meaningless, that both he and Trinh Minh The remained unalterably opposed to Diem, and had asked French for arms with which forcibly overthrow government. Candidate proposed to supplant Diem was Tran Van Huu. I commented to Ely that Phuong would undoubtedly say anything to anyone for personal gain. Ely said that was true and conversation with Gambiez demonstrated how little troop integration meant.

3. I proposed that we meet April 2 to continue discussion. Meanwhile, I outlined for Ely my thinking under following headings:

What Diem would do if left to own devices: I said I believed Diem would attack National Police HQ and other Binh Xuyen strongholds in city. I believed he could take police HQ and also Binh Xuyen HQ if attack were properly carried out. However, we had reports that police HQ was mined and Binh Xuyen would probably blow up on withdrawing. I was certain Diem was determined to relieve Sang quickly on grounds that otherwise government would lose all prestige.
What Diem ought to do: I said I believed Diem should relieve Sang immediately, and that was where Ely and I differed. I said I felt Diem must do so if he was to remain as head of government. However, I believed that in next two or three days he should announce appointment of new Police Chief, saying no government can tolerate having head of its police member of a rebel band. I told Ely it was my firm conviction Diem should do this and I believed that such would be view of US Government, although I had no instructions. I added that I hoped Diem would say he had no intention of [Page 182] attacking police HQ, and that he was determined to avoid bloodshed. He should call on Binh Xuyen to withdraw from police HQ, establish new Police Chief in new HQ, and announce that National Police and Sûreté were to obey latter’s orders. I added that I hoped Ely and I could agree promptly to complete our study on sect troop demobilization. On basis of that study Diem could refer to his integration of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao forces, and perhaps announce his intention to integrate more Hoa Hao troops plus token Binh Xuyen units. Diem should add in his announcement that he would give severance pay to demobilized troops and amnesty to Ba Cut and other rebels on condition that they surrender their arms. He could announce additionally that he intended to assist those sect forces not integrated in National Army establish selves in civil life. He could say that he had appointed, as he says he has done, Foreign Minister to study plan for government reorganization and reconstitution of Cabinet. He could say he was prepared to establish Council of Elders and would be willing to invite specific list of men participate in government. I added that he might not agree to take last step, but Ely and I could urge that he do it. Perhaps also Diem could also announce creation of an economic council.
My analysis of French position: I told Ely that speaking as friend and hoping to be constructive, I had following analysis to offer of French position in present crisis. I understood French had divided city into defense zones, some controlled by Vietnamese and some by French. I had had reports that General Jacquot gave orders to Vietnamese army night 29–30 March preventing troop movement through certain areas. Fortunately army handled itself well and effectively. If army however had failed to stand up to rebels and Jacquot had prevented its free movement, he would have assumed a profound responsibility in a country supposed to be free. (Ely interrupted to say he would like details as to how Jacquot had interfered. I said that we had Vietnamese reports to that effect, but I did not pretend to know whether they were true. Ely said reports were quite false.) I continued that if Ely were determined to prevent further fighting in city, French must come up quickly with positive solution. I added that I was speaking only of crisis within city and not referring to rebel activity in provinces. I said that Ely had remarked 31st that if necessary to preserve order he would arrest Diem. I added I had not taken this threat seriously, later had wondered what he intended. I said that before any such drastic action was taken Ely should arrest Bay Vien. If he undertook to arrest Diem that would mean complete divergence of French-U.S. policies in Vietnam. I added that owing to reputation of Bay Vien in U.S. it could never be satisfactorily explained why French had determined to support Bay Vien against Diem. In order to avoid any such development, I said Ely should agree to immediate replacement of Sang as National Police Chief, under conditions indicated above, and that if he did so I would back his position fully. I said Diem attached great psychological importance to police HQ building and I did not believe he could be persuaded from attacking it short of Ely’s agreeing to compromise outlined above.

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4. Ely said with reference to arresting Diem he had merely been dramatizing his intention avoid disorder at all costs. He said, however, that if we decided avoid conflict we must have specific plan to prevent an explosion, threat of which was imminent. I agreed. Ely said that all French had done during period of hostilities was to offer advice within framework of accord under which Diem agreed accept General Gambiez as mediator. As matter of fact, French did intervene to prevent Binh Xuyen from moving into sites previously occupied by National Army, and Jacquot had advised National Army troops with respect to proper use of their equipment and how to capitalize on their defensive positions. I told Ely that I had not evaluated reports of French interference, but knew they were believed in certain National Army quarters. Ely said that rumors were inevitable in view of his special responsibilities and asked what I would have done in his place. I expressed sympathy for his position and that of FEC.

5. Ely said principal requirement in military field at the moment was to avoid any accidental explosion. He believed political question far more important at present and said opposing sides must be brought at all costs to accept principle of negotiation. I told Ely we could not hope to solve problem at that meeting and proposed he sleep on my suggestion. I said perhaps he might have a better plan, but I felt that any plan must include agreement that Sang be relieved as National Police Chief. I said I felt also that French must make sure that Bay Vien not take action in reprisal for Sang’s removal. Ely said that I must not think he could give orders to Bay Vien, since latter is not in French pay. I replied Ely was in effect giving orders to Diem when he established defense zones in city and prevented movement National Army troops through them. Ely said this resulted from agreement between Vietnamese and French. I said agreement was between ex-Defense Minister Minh and French, and Diem would probably not now agree to it. I asked why French should not make similar agreement with Bay Vien. Ely said indignantly that Bay Vien was as much a rebel for him as for the government. I said if he would agree Sang should leave at once and would promise full backing to Diem against rebels that would make all the difference to Prime Minister. Ely said that although Diem appears not recognize it, South Vietnam is in a revolutionary situation. He said he believed relief of Sang would have same effect as storming police HQ. He said he could arrest Bay Vien in four hours with FEC, but other Binh Xuyen would simply go underground. I commented that in my view Bay Vien was ringleader of sect front. Some French have said they wished we had a Magsaysay here.2 I said Magsaysay would take vigorous [Page 184] action against Bay Vien and Binh Xuyen. Ely said that there is no strong man like Magsaysay here. I continued saying that if National Army with self-propelled artillery and armored cars could not destroy police HQ, army had no chance of standing up to Viet Minh. Ely said this was not the problem; army could take police HQ at any time. Crucial point is that government does not have sufficient forces to crush rebels everywhere and within short period. Rebels untouched by government would form nucleus of opposing force to conduct civil war, as result of which South Vietnam would be lost.

6. I said that if we reached no solution acceptable to Diem he might order attack on police HQ at any time. Accordingly, we must accept risk at some point. I further cautioned Ely always to act so that French would not be accused of siding against government. Ely remarked with some emphasis if it had not been for him, Diem would have been finished last August. I said I had reports that French were restricting issue of gasoline to National Army. Ely exploded at that point, saying tickets previously valid for issue of gasoline had been cancelled because National Army officers had sold quantities of them to Binh Xuyen. He said that Vietnamese General Staff had been issued any and all amounts of gasoline requested without question. He added that Vietnamese implored French retain control of tank farms because they feared otherwise Binh Xuyen would blow them up.

7. We parted with agreement to meet again morning April 2 to consider my proposals or any French plan which might be developed over night.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751G.00/4–255. Secret; Priority.
  2. Ramon Magsaysay, President of the Republic of the Philippines.