6. Letter From the Secretary of Defense’s Deputy Assistant for Special Operations (Lansdale) to President Diem1
Dear Friend: Your thoughtful kindness made the trip to Vietnam a most interesting and memorable one for me. I was happy to see you looking so well, despite the many problems you face every [Page 21] day, and it was a real pleasure to have had visits with you. So, thank you for all your help, for letting Nguyen Dinh Thuan go along on the 5th Military Region trip, and for the sandwiches you sent along! I know that Joe Redick would want to join me in expressing appreciation, too.
On the way home, I stopped in Hawaii for a visit at CINCPAC. I had good talks with Admiral Felt and his staff. I called attention to the grave dangers of the current Viet Cong threat and the need for some extra attention by the U.S. He was extremely interested and, although understandably engaged with urgent duties concerning Laos, put some of his staff to work promptly on your problems. I understand that he sent General Thiemer out for a visit.
In Washington, Secretary Gates and Deputy Secretary Douglas of Defense were most receptive to my report.2 Douglas in particular called it to the attention of our top people at the White House and State Department. When the new Administration took office, Douglas went to considerable lengths to make our new leaders aware of the situation. He is a very staunch friend. Allen Dulles, also, has been most helpful. General Lemnitzer and Admiral Burke had been instrumental in getting me out on the trip and have taken great interest in what I reported.
The new Defense leaders (Secretary McNamara, Deputy Secretary Gilpatric, and Paul Nitze the new Assistant Secretary for ISA) all had me in for talks with them about your problems. Then, last Saturday, President Kennedy had me in for a long talk on the subject.3He was warmly interested and asked many questions. I am sure that you can count upon him as an understanding friend and that you will be hearing further about this. It would have “warmed your heart” to have heard this conversation. So, you see, you do have some sincere friends in Washington.
However, there will be some here who will point out that much of the danger of your present situation comes about from your own actions. They say that you try to do too many things yourself, that you refuse to give real responsibility to others and keep interfering with what they do, that you feel you are infallible personally, and that too many of your organizations like the Republican Youth Corps and the Can Lao Party are actually formed by coercion—that is, people join because they are afraid not to—rather than being genuine organizations rooted in the hearts of the Vietnamese people. I believe there will be many of these criticisms voiced in private talks here as word gets around about favorable reactions to my report.[Page 22]
The best answer to these criticisms would be actions by you in Vietnam. The critics would then have to close their mouths in the face of your actions. One action would be for you to announce your reorganization of the government very soon. Also, you could make your Security Council become alive and dynamic. Please remember my suggestion: call the military commanders and province chiefs in from the 1st and 5th Military Regions—to meet with the Security Council. You could make a talk to this group, and broadcast it all over Vietnam to all of the people of Vietnam. Your country needs you to rouse spirits right now, the way Winston Churchill did for Britain at a dark hour. Your countrymen need to be told that Vietnam is in grave danger from the Communists, that the help of every citizen is welcomed by the government, and that Vietnam must and will be kept free and independent.
After your talk to this group, it would be smart to turn the meeting over to Vice President Tho or Secretary Thuan. The meeting should be a secret one. I believe that each province chief, each responsible military commander, and the regional delegues, should report openly and frankly on the problems they have in their own areas. You did this once before, in February 1955, and it was a very wise and healthy action. You will hear many things, not only bad problems but also good ideas. So will all of those at such a meeting.
It would help you very much if you could include some of the Americans who are trying to help you—let them attend this meeting and take notes. You can invite those you believe to be sincere. They, too, would learn a lot and would become more realistic in their work in Vietnam. I would include McGarr and Colby.
Now, the political opposition to you worries me greatly. I have thought about it for many hours and days since leaving Vietnam. There is much ugly talk and bad feeling among many people in Saigon. It is so ugly and bad that I am afraid it will prompt some thoughtless persons to attempt another coup. You are one of the great leaders of the Free World and a friend for whom I have deep affection. So, please take my words in the friendship with which they are offered.
Simply suppressing this political feeling of opposition by arresting people or closing down newspapers will only turn the talk into deep emotions of hatred and generate the formation of more clandestine organizations and plots to oppose you. This is so far from your real nature and your gifted talents of leadership that I know you are seeking a better solution.
An idea suggests itself for your consideration of this problem of the political opposition. If you could get most of the oppositionists working on a program of specific ideas to save the nation, and to work on this program freely among themselves outside of the [Page 23] government, you would turn the major share of their political energies into constructive work. They would argue among themselves over their ideas, trying to get each other to accept these ideas, rather than spend their political energies attacking you.
How do you do this? Perhaps you yourself cannot. But, you are the only person who can set the proper political climate for such an action. It needs you to tell the people, including the oppositionists, that Vietnam is in grave danger. It needs you to remove the lurking fear of secret arrest at night as punishment for political activity; whether such fears are based on fact or falsehood, the point is that many people believe that special police under Dr. Tuyen make political arrests at night, with the knowledge of your brother Nhu.
Perhaps the wisest move would be to call in the younger people among the opposition. It would be best if you talked to them personally. You might tell them that Vietnam stands to lose its freedom, that all Vietnamese must go to work now to save that freedom, that you know the oppositionists have not agreed with all your programs but that running a government which is under savage Communist attack is not as simple as critics apparently think. You want people not to merely criticize their government. If they believe they have good ideas, they should write these down and agree to a program they believe would save the country. Not a Communist program, but a program by Free Vietnamese. If they go to work to write and agree upon such a program, you can assure them that you won’t stand in their way—even if it means the formation of a strong, single opposition party.
You might talk to them, too, the way you did to me in 1955 and 1956—that your dream for Vietnam was to have two strong political parties. You might point out that you called the younger people in from the opposition groups because they are the ones who have to build the future. They will live in it. Too many of the older politicians are living in the past or are selfishly looking for power for themselves.
Well, this became a very long letter. My suggestions were prompted by the fact that many people in Washington, just like many people in Asia, are watching you right now to see what you will do next. I am sure that whatever you do, you will do it resolutely and with wisdom. I will help to the extent that an American official can.[Page 24]
With warmest and best personal wishes, as always.
Brigadier General, USAF