60. Report by the Vice President1
A. General Observations
The situation in Viet Nam is more stable than is indicated by newspaper and other reports reaching Washington in recent weeks. Economic conditions within the city of Saigon are at least superficially good and that, in itself for the short run, is a prop to stability. Similarly, conditions in the rural areas are not believed to be desperate, although merchants in Saigon complain in some cases they are unable to supply their normal customers in the provinces due to increased Viet Cong activity.
The picture we receive at home has been colored by journalistic sensationalism. It may also be distorted by these other factors:
- An obsessive concern with security on the part of many of our mission people and a tendency to incorporate this concern into interpretations of the general situation. After all, occasional murders in Rock Creek Park, deplorable as they may be, do not mean that the United States is about to fall apart.
- A conscious or unconscious desire in various quarters to stimulate the flow of United States aid.
- An excessive reliance by our mission on the evaluations of the situation by Vietnamese government officials, often checked only against other government sources or discontented Vietnamese intellectuals who are in opposition to the present government. This reliance stems in part at least from the government’s discouraging of travel by Americans outside Saigon on alleged grounds of security.
- An assumption, that because conditions have turned bad in Laos they must inevitably turn bad in Viet Nam.
To say that conditions in Viet Nam are not as they appear to be in Washington is not to say that they are not serious. There are certainly Viet Minh terrorists in the jungles and rice-paddies. Vietnamese government officials are being assassinated in significant numbers. There is anti-government, non-communist plotting going on in the city of Saigon. Yet, we must keep our perspective. We [Page 153] must not react in panic and in consequence, perhaps, do precisely that which will worsen the situation.
The perspective which seems closest to reality is that the existing political-military structure based largely on Ngo Dinh Diem and a palace bureaucracy in Saigon is not in danger of imminent collapse. That structure is not likely to be suddenly upset except by one or more of the following contingencies:
- The removal of Diem through assassination by communist or non-communist opponents.
- The removal of Diem by a palace-military coup-not an impossibility but an improbability for the present.
- The sudden termination or drastic reduction of United States aid.
- An actual invasion in preponderant force by the Viet Minh from the North.
Apart from these possibilities there is nevertheless a serious danger in Viet Nam. It is the danger of the progressive disintegration of the government’s hold on the nation. This deterioration can be brought about by a combination of two factors:
- The people of Viet Nam, in increasing numbers, may be terrorized or attracted into the Viet Minh camp.
- The government and bureaucracy may fail to maintain and intensify its responsiveness to the social, economic and political needs of the people of Viet Nam, particularly in the rural areas.
Of these two factors, the second may well be of equal, if not greater significance, although it is not so seen by the present government or even by the preponderance of our own official observers.
In any event, if the present trend continues, there is the danger that the government will become a glittering facade. It will come to rest in the end, not on its people, but on a modern military establishment and an oriental bureaucracy both maintained for the indefinite future primarily by the United States Treasury. The power which is inherent in the ordinary Vietnamese people will be left to others to organize. In present circumstances, “others” can only be the Communist Vietnamese since there is little promise that effective leadership will emerge from the non-communist opposition to Ngo Dinh Diem at this time.
If the point of no return in the present trend is reached-that is, if the preponderance of the people move from support of or at least acquiescence in the rule of the government to support of or acquiescence in the Viet Minh movement-a grave dilemma will be posed for our policies. Then, whatever aid we supply to the government to fight communism in the abstract will also be directed, in the specific, against the Vietnamese people. And if we use our own forces to help [Page 154] put down Communist rebellion in South Viet Nam we will also bear the onus of helping to put down the Vietnamese people.
It should be emphasized that this point of no return has not yet been reached. It is probably not even on the immediate horizon despite the panic-type reports that have originated of late in Viet Nam. Nevertheless, the danger flags are flying. One indicator is the increase in Viet Minh terrorists from three or four thousand to 12,000 despite reported heavy casualties inflicted on them by government forces. Another, is the increasing tendency of the palace bureaucracy to isolate itself and President Diem from the people. Still another is the significant level of disaffection with the government which, although to some extent chronic, is present in the highly educated and politically conscious group. While numerically small this group is of importance in Viet Nam. It is the principal recruiting ground for dedicated public servants and high political leaders. Members of this group who are alienated by the government, will move in other directions, first to the non-communist opposition and if that offers no outlet, ultimately, to the Viet Minh. A disturbing number of this group is already in the first stage of alienation.
A final indication of the danger is the fact that the ordinary people of the cities and probably even more of the rural areas are starved for leadership with understanding and warmth. There is an enormous popular enthusiasm and great popular power waiting to be brought forth by friendly personal political leadership. But it cannot be evoked by men in white linen suits whose contact with the ordinary people is largely through the rolled-up windows of a Mercedes-Benz.
B. Principal Conclusions
- The existing government in Saigon is the only realistic alternative to Viet Minh control in South Viet Nam. At this time, there is no other non-communist leadership which, in all realism, may be expected to replace the present military-political-bureaucratic structure that has been developed in Saigon.
- There is no question of the will of the Diem government and its military forces to resist the Viet Minh communists; there is some question as to their capacity to do so effectively and as to the general efficacy of their present methods. And they certainly cannot resist it without continued and substantial aid.
- The need has long been recognized that the government must develop stronger popular support. In theory, the government recognizes this need. In practice, there is grave question that the Vietnamese bureaucracy is now characterized by that degree of [Page 155] self-dedication and self-sacrifice which would serve to develop such support.
- The government appears to be placing increasing reliance on military measures for producing stability and relatively less emphasis on popular political, economic and social measures. To some extent this is inevitable in view of the stepped-up campaign of Viet Minh terrorism. To what extent, however, is not clear. And there are disturbing suggestions that the government not only fears the Viet Cong cadres and terrorists but its own people as well.
- Without the increased level of aid that has now been offered clearly the prospect would have been for a progressive but not necessarily rapid deterioration of the position of the Vietnamese government. Nevertheless, this aid is not in itself a guarantee that the deterioration will be checked. It is likely to prove effective only if the military campaign which the aid is designed to produce is pressed with vigor and yet with great discretion. Against the Viet Cong who terrorize the general populace, military force must be firm and powerful. But military force must not be used indiscriminately in an effort to stamp out all resistance to local government officials. Much of this resistance may well be justified as the only outlet against exploitation and oppression. How much, we do not know because the information we have is not adequate. But to the extent that such is the case military action will be costly and, probably increasingly ineffective. The only response which will meet this type of resistance is the redress of the grievances by the efforts of the government itself.
- There is a great need for more direct and accurate observation and reports of developments outside Saigon by our own officials. The great bulk of the information now available is derived secondhand either from the Vietnamese government or non-communist Vietnamese opposition sources. Neither may be regarded as very objective or disinterested.
- In present circumstances there is no visible solution to the instability in Viet Nam on the basis of neutralization. But if the steps we are now taking work effectively then, in time, the Saigon government may become less dependent on aid and lay a valid claim to represent the entire Vietnamese people, north and south. If the steps fail, however, we shall be able to hold even the present unsatisfactory situation only by larger and larger infusions of aid. Ultimately, perhaps even our direct military involvement may be required to hold the situation, a step which is not sought by the Vietnamese or required by the situation at this time.
The following course of action is recommended:
- We should think in terms of a three year plan of increased aid-military and economic. The plan should be liberal but not extravagant. We should insist in private and with great tact that the details of this program be put on paper before the increased aid flows. The details should include specific measurable goals, specific responsibilities for the Vietnamese as well as ourselves, specific techniques, directed to the improvement of the safety, not only of local officials, but of the Vietnamese people and the improvement of the livelihood of these people.
- We should make clear, in private, that barring an unmistakable and massive invasion of South Viet Nam from without we have no intention of employing combat U.S. forces in Viet Nam or using even naval or air-support which is but the first step in that direction. If the Vietnamese government backed by a three-year liberal aid program cannot do this job, then we had better remember the experience of the French who wound up with several hundred thousand men in Viet-Nam and were still unable to do it. And all this, without engaging a single Chinese or Russian. Before we take any such plunge we had better be sure we are prepared to become bogged down chasing irregulars and guerillas over the rice fields and jungles of Southeast Asia while our principal enemies China and the Soviet Union stand outside the fray and husband their strength.
- This new aid commitment plunges us very deeply into the
Vietnamese internal situation. The attitude of our mission
people must begin immediately to reflect that depth.
- Our military aid people must get out of their dress uniforms and into their fatigues more often and out of the cities and into the jungles.
- Our economic aid people in far greater numbers will have to leave Saigon behind and move into the provinces, towns and villages.
- Our foreign service officers must range the country on a systematic basis and observe directly and report first-hand and, accurately. Further they should be attached in considerable numbers to the M.A.A.G. operations to determine accurately and to advise accurately whether the new efforts at pacification are directed with discretion at the Viet Cong terrorists, rather than at those who have legitimate grievances. We must insist at the beginning that the Vietnamese government permit our representatives and military to go anywhere at all times in the country, regardless of the security situation. There will be perhaps some casualties in this approach but if we are not prepared to take them in small numbers now, how will we take them in the great numbers which will be involved if we become directly involved? This job cannot be done with talk of sacrifices from the comfort and safety of Saigon and Washington.
- Our dealing with the Vietnamese government must be sensitive of their feelings but absolutely firm in the application of the agreed plan. We have got to have regard for their ways but we have also got to keep our own self-respect and guard against obsequiousness and the waste of our people’s resources which are beginning to dry up for this sort of undertaking.
- Our mission people must, by example and by subtle persuasion encourage the Saigon government from the President down to get close to the people, to mingle with them, to listen for their grievances and to act on them. Handshakes on the streets of Vietnamese leaders and people is the concept that has got to be pursued. And shirt-sleeves must be the hallmark of Americans. Unless we get this approach which we do not now have, on the part of Vietnamese officials or Americans this effort is not going to succeed.
- By persuasion we must attempt to strengthen the National Assembly and other democratic institutions in Viet Nam. There is a practical reason to pursue this course apart from our own dedication to the practice of freedom. These institutions must throw up new leadership and some form of reliable transition will be imperative in the event something happens to Diem. In addition, these institutions can serve to rally the educated group to service with the government.
There is a chance for success in Viet Nam but there is not a moment to lose. We need to move along the above lines and we need to begin now, today, to move.
- Source: University of Montana, Mansfield Papers, Series XXII, Box 110, Folder 3. Secret. No drafting or clearance information is given on the source text. A copy of this report was sent to Nolting by Cottrell as an enclosure to a letter dated May 29, along with the memorandum to the President, dated May 23; see footnote 1, Document 59. Cottrell noted in the covering letter that the President’s brother-in-law, Stephen Smith, had briefed him on the previous day about the visit to Saigon. (Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 66 A 878, 350 GVN-TF)↩