133. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1

373. Rome’s 882 to Department from Harriman, repeated Saigon 2.2 Ambassador Harriman’s report of his discussion with Pushkin extraordinarily interesting. May I comment from angle of problem in South Vietnam?

The determining factor between preservation of independence of South Viet-Nam and eventual seizure of power here by communists [Page 302] is very likely to be degree of communist infiltration across frontiers of Laos and Cambodia.
US already has very large investment in SVN in resources and prestige, and we have recently taken additional initiatives which add to our commitments to support this country. As result of these and through their own determination, effort, and sacrifice, SVN’s prospects of survival and recovery have begun to look brighter.
These prospects are now being threatened by what may be approaching settlement in Laos. As frequently pointed out, factor in Laotian problem most intimately affecting SVN’s chances is physical one of border control, of preventing amount of infiltration which will swamp this country. It is also, in part, problem of political morale and faith in US long-term intentions, but physical defense problem is the greater and more immediate concern.
Facts are that Viet Cong are at present increasing their infiltrations into SVN through Laos, and indications are that they plan to step this up substantially. North Vietnam’s announced intention is to take power here within short period of time, and this objective has received full public backing of Russia and Communist China.
GVN potential is sufficient to handle certain amount of infiltration, which is to be expected under set of circumstances, but insufficient to handle substantial increase. Substantial increase infiltration would, I think, eventually result in communist victory here, perhaps in stages, perhaps by direct seizure of power.
If situation substantially worsens here, US will be faced with alternatives of sending US forces into SVN or backing down.
What happens in Laos will be, I think, determinant of whether we will be faced with these hard alternatives.
It was joint view of Brown, Young and myself (Bangkok’s 345 to Department)3 that a neutral Government of Laos, composed and equipped as presently envisaged, with a “strong”ICC, probably could not, even if it wanted to, do much to prohibit or control VC infiltration through its territory, at least during its “settling down” period and its forces would be too few and its focus of attention would be elsewhere.
I am thus forced to conclusion that a neutral Government in Laos as apparently now envisaged would, in all probability and within a relatively short period, cause us to face the alternatives of pare six above in regard to SVN. (Young has already predicted consequences in Thailand.)
While I realize it is late, disagreeable, and difficult vis-a-vis our European Allies to contemplate a change of course, it is my understanding that we have always held open the possibility of such a change. From viewpoint our interests in SVN (and, I believe, on balance in SEA generally), I urgently recommend consideration of a change in policy, directed towards partition.
Following up on Pushkin’s statement to Harriman that USSR “could and would control northern Vietnam” re Laotian settlement, and his faint indication of possible Soviet interest in settling hostilities between two parts Vietnam, could we not put ourselves in position to put to Soviet Government something along following lines? Realize UK and France would find it hard to accept, but their Ambassadors here have separately expressed their concern to me re VC infiltration into SVN through a neutral Laos. Suggested line of approach to USSR:
US has essential interests and commitments in maintaining independence of SVN and Thailand and we intend to defend them.
Prevention of use of Laotian territory as corridor of infiltration into SVN and Thailand is necessary to carry out our policy and commitments.
Exploration and negotiation at Geneva and with potential Laotian leaders, coupled with Communist actions vis-à-vis SVN, has convinced us that a neutral Lao Government as presently envisaged will not provide necessary protection to SVN and Thailand against Communist infiltration and guerrilla action.
In face of long record and current evidence Communist action against GVN, we are not prepared to accept Soviet assurance that they will control Viet Minh, particularly with respect to preventing use of Laotian territory by North Vietnamese and other Communist elements against SVN and Thailand. (The relationship of USSR to Geneva accords of 1954 is essentially the same as that envisaged in negotiated accords re Laos. Soviet “praising” of Communist side re 1954 accords has consisted, with respect to Vietnam, in supplying, financing, training, and giving public support to attempt by North Vietnamese take over SVN, by force disguised as political revolution.)
We have concluded that we will not agree to a settlement which, in our opinion, will leave our allies exposed to Communist infiltration, subversion, and armed attack, through manipulation or abuse of a neutral Laotian Government.
We have decided to assure that territory adjacent to SVN and Thailand be kept in friendly hands, and we will do this if necessary in use of US forces, because of our interests and commitments in those countries.
We would prefer to reach such a solution, amounting to partition, without use of force. If Soviet Union wishes to do so, and can control its allies as claimed, this result can be achieved at conference table.
If USSR wants to broaden discussions and talk seriously about composing hostilities in Vietnam, we will put ourselves [Page 304] promptly in position to do so, as part of over-all effort to reach satisfactory modus vivendi in SEA.
I realize that such a course of action would reverse our policy aimed at composing hostilities in Laos, unifying it and taking it out of arena of cold war. In light of history of Laotian negotiations, culminating in Pushkin’s cynical remark that Laos could be “next to last” to be devoured, I cannot believe that a settlement along presently conceived lines will benefit our over-all position in this part of world. Even if communist bloc is not interested in taking over Laos at this time, are they not intent on taking over SVN and Thailand; and would not a neutral and necessarily weak Laos be a convenient tool for this purpose?

The above was gestated and written before receipt Ambassador Harriman’s reports his recent conversations with Souvanna Phouma.4 From what we have of those conversations, I see nothing which changes views expressed above.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/9-1861. Secret; Priority; Limit Distribution-Noforn. Repeated to USUN for the Secretary, Rangoon, Paris, London, Bangkok, New Delhi, Vientiane, Geneva for FECON, Phnom Penh, Ottawa, and Moscow.
  2. Telegram 882, September 13, reported on Harriman’s informal discussion with the Soviet representative to the Far East Conference, Pushkin, the previous evening in which Pushkin said, among other things, that the Soviet Union “could and would control North VietNam” and that the North was ready to abide by the terms of a peace agreement reached in Southeast Asia. (Ibid., 751J.00/9-1361) See also footnote 5, Document 131.
  3. Telegram 345, September 7, reported on the conference in Bangkok of Ambassadors Nolting, Brown. and Young. (Department of State, Central Files. 7511.00/9-761)
  4. Harriman held five formal meetings with Souvanna Phouma in Rangoon, September 15-17. Telegraphic reports on these meetings are ibid. 751J.00. For text of Harriman’s statement on the talks, issued at Rangoon on September 18, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1961, p. 1022.