181. Letter From the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (McConaughy) to the Ambassador in Viet-Nam (Nolting)1

Dear Fritz: In view of the recent rumors about changes at the Palace … I thought it might be useful to bring up to date the memo entitled “Suggested Contingency Plan” which John Steeves sent to Durby under cover of his letter of April 13, 1961.2

The present memorandum is intended to replace the earlier one so that you will only have one file for easy (and possibly urgent) reference. Naturally the suggestions which follow are subject to your comment which we would very much value.

I would like to take this opportunity to tell you how pleased we are by the sensible, steady and conscientious embassy which you are carrying on in Saigon under the most difficult circumstances. I think the quality of steadiness is particularly important in our relations with the Vietnamese at this time.

Please convey my greetings to your staff and their families. I am very proud of them all. If there are any personal or professional problems on which we can be of assistance please be sure to let us know.

Very sincerely,

[Page 408]

PS—Some of the statements in the enclosed memorandum will be obvious to you, but will provide clarification to high level persons in Washington who may wish to read it.


Memorandum Prepared in the Department of State3


The knowledge of the existence of this memorandum is to be restricted to the smallest possible number of persons. It is not an Instruction. It is designed for reference by the Chief of Mission, but is not binding on him.

It is suggested that it be kept available and that it be reviewed with the Department whenever considered necessary by the Chief of Mission either through official informal correspondence with the Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs or by telegram if necessary.

The United States continues to give President Diem full support by every appropriate means. For so long as Diem exercises effective control over the GVN, the US should take no action, overt or covert, which would give any encouragement to his opponents. During a possible coup the American Embassy should continue to support Diem fully until a decision is reached by the Chief of Mission that the time for change has arrived.4

If in the best. judgment of the Chief of Mission the situation arises where Diem has lost effective control, the United States should be prepared to quickly support the non-Communist person or group who then appears most capable of establishing effective control over the GVN. The nature of US support in such a situation should be strong enough to achieve rapid results but not so blatant as to make such a person or group appear as a US puppet. This will require the most careful handling.

While the final choice should not be frozen in advance, since it is impossible to foresee a situation which may arise, it is believed it would be wise if the Embassy prepared and kept current through [Page 409] regular consultation with the Department a list of persons and groups who might be acceptable. This might save priceless time in the event of a crisis and reduce the chances of mistakes or vacillation. Preliminary views follow:

The choice should be limited to persons in Viet-Nam on the grounds that they would be the only ones who would have any chance of rallying support in the face of the probability that the Communists would move fast.5
The first priority should go to civilians within the Government with emphasis on US backing for a constitutional solution. Before abandoning Diem every effort should be made to consider how he might be reestablished even if he appeared temporarily to have lost control.6
If the Chief of Mission should decide that Diem had lost control, the first decision would be whether to support Vice President Tho as the constitutional successor. A recent Embassy telegram (Embtel 516 dated October 207) describes him as lucid, having detailed knowledge and as being close to the people. It would be necessary to persuade Tho and persuade the military to support him. This might be achieved through General Duong Van Minh who is an old friend of Tho’s (they were cellmates in a French jail about 1946) and who is well thought of in the army. It would be important to hold off the President’s family. It might be well for Nhu to take a trip.
Failing Tho, a second choice might be Nguyen dinh Thuan who is increasingly widely known as a result of the extensive representation which he does for Diem and who has preserved good relations with the Vietnamese military dating back to his days as a civilian official in the Vietnamese Department of Defense.8 Both Thuan and Tho are capable men, experienced in the Vietnamese Government and friendly to Americans. Although Thuan is not in the constitutional line of succession, this would probably not be a major problem in the present crisis situation.
Constitutionally, if Tho did not take office, President of the National Assembly Truong vinh Le would be next in line (Article 34) and would, according to the Constitution, preside for two months pending elections. He is dedicated, but has little public appeal and does not seem capable of firm imaginative leadership. At best he would be a temporary figurehead needing strong military support and a competent cabinet.
Other possible civilian candidates within the Government might be Bui van Long, Secretary of the Interior, Vo van Hai, the President’s Chief of Cabinet or Tran van Dinh if he were in Viet Nam (he is now at the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington).
Another possibility which might be preferable paragraphs 5 and 6 would be a military caretaker government under General Duang van Minh.9

The strength of the Communist challenge in Viet Nam would appear to rule out a Government of anti-Communist oppositionists. These men are disunited, inexperienced and do not have a wide following. It would seem almost impossible for them to organize an effective Government before the Communists took over.

Giving U.S. support to men now in the Vietnamese Government would reduce the risks of a dangerous interregnum and would probably be acceptable to most influential Vietnamese who do not appear to object so much to their present Government as to Diem’s alleged inability to lead it effectively.10

It would also seem best to rule out any possibility of a Government under Diem’s unpopular brothers, even if Luyen were front man. However, it might be wise to suggest that Brother Ngo dinh Can be left temporarily in control of his satrapy at Hue.
Meanwhile we face the very difficult problem of Diem’s leadership. Most of those close to him do not now appear to think he is sufficiently effective. Diem seems unwilling to listen to advice on this subject. The U.S. is committed to support the Government of Viet-Nam of which Diem is President. It should be assumed that any U.S. initiative to remove Diem would become known and would be resisted ferociously by Diem and his family. But if it is clear that he can no longer obtain the effective collaboration of the members of his own government, we shall have to consider what we should and can do. We presume you will have discussed this with General Taylor and that he will have your views. We will discuss this with him when he returns. In the meanwhile, in view of the reported decrease in support which Diem seems to be receiving even from his closest advisers, we would appreciate your thoughts in this regard by cable.

The best U.S. approach would thus appear to be to support Diem so long as the Chief of Mission believes his control is effective and to use our influence with him to make it more effective. In this connection the Embassy might propose a draft of a letter from [Page 411] President Kennedy to President Diem based on General Taylor’s recommendations. Such a draft could state that in the interest of the defense of Viet-Nam and of our heavy commitment there the U.S. considers it essential for President Diem to create an effective Internal Security Council with real executive responsibilities headed by a person of stature who would be loyal to Diem and respected by his colleagues. All government business would have to pass through the Internal Security Council. We should also request him to confirm to us the name of his successor. Other recommendations could include a real unification of intelligence functions. To obtain Diem’s real concurrence it would have to be made clear that these moves were essential parts of the Counterinsurgency Plan which Diem agreed to carry out. It would also have to be implied quite understandably that if he did not, we would have to reconsider our policy towards VietNam. Such a letter would require a prior decision that we would be prepared if necessary to run the risk of suddenly withdrawing our support from Diem and of almost simultaneously throwing our weight behind the most likely replacement. Such a move would require preparation, secrecy, surprise, and toughness.

  1. Source: Washington National Records center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files ERC 68 A 5159, New Command Arrangements 1962. Top Secret; Official-Informal. A handwritten note in the top margin reads: “Rec’d 11/2/61.”
  2. Neither Steeves’ letter nor the memorandum has been found.
  3. Top Secret; Limit Distribution. No drafting or clearance information is given on the source text.
  4. Several marginal notes, apparently in Mendenhall’s hand, are on the source text. Alongside this sentence is written a question mark.
  5. Alongside this sentence is written “Buu Hoi?”
  6. Alongside this paragraph are written two question marks.
  7. Document 178.
  8. Written in the margin next to this sentence are the following comments: “without political support & has made too many enemies.”
  9. Written in the margin alongside this sentence are the following comments: “Or under Kim. Might also be preferable to any of foregoing choices.”
  10. Written in the margin alongside this sentence are the following comments: “Why not consider possibilities of Tran qui Buu, or Lt. Col. Thao, or perhaps even Maitre Dzu?”