69. Memorandum of a Conversation, The White House1


  • Aid in VietNam


  • President Kennedy
  • Assistant Secretary McConaughy
  • Secretary of State Nguyen Dinh Thuan
  • Chalmers B. Wood

The President opened the conversation by recalling his visit to Viet-Nam in 1951 and the fact that he had met President Diem at a luncheon given by Justice Douglas in 1957 during President Diem’s visit to the United States.2 He asked Mr. Thuan to convey his greetings to President Diem. After acknowledging the President’s kind words Secretary Thuan gave the President a letter from President [Page 173] Diem.3 The President read the letter carefully and then explained to Mr. McConaughy that the letter requested U.S. support for an increase in the Vietnamese armed forces to a total of 270,000 men and that the cost of providing initial equipment for this increase in the size of the armed forces would come to about $175 million dollars, to be distributed over the 2Y2 year period needed to activate these units and that thereafter annual maintenance for this force would increase the military assistance program by about $20 million dollars a year.

The President then asked Mr. Thuan how much of the communist movement in Viet-Nam was indigenous. Mr. Thuan replied that during the Indo-China War the French had occupied only the cities and main roads. This had permitted the communists to occupy the country side and exercise their subversive influence over the population. Mr. Thuan also mentioned the flow of Viet Cong from North Viet-Nam to VietNam, stating that Vietnamese armed forces had recently occupied reception centers on Route 9 which had been used by the Communists. Records in these reception centers showed that about 2,800 men had moved through them on their way south to Viet-Nam during a 4 month period.

The President then asked about cooperation with Cambodia. Mr. Thuan spoke of Prince Sihanouk’s “versatile” qualities and commented that if Prince Sihanouk’s policies appeared to be changeable it should be remembered that they were based on one unchanging assumption, namely Prince Sihanouk’s belief that the communists would win in Asia, and that he must tailor his policies accordingly.

The President then inquired about living conditions in North VietNam. Mr. Thuan explained that life for the average citizen in North Viet-Nam was extremely difficult, that food and clothing were hard to obtain and that morale was low. The President then asked about the problems of infiltrating Vietnamese forces into North VietNam. Mr. Thuan replied that a few highly trained troops were available but that if Viet-Nam were to risk these men in an attempt to stir up unrest in North VietNam, the United States should be prepared to make a major effort to give them the full support needed to carry out such an action to a successful conclusion. The President then asked about the war in South VietNam. Mr. Thuan replied that the South Vietnamese troops were having increasing success in their fight against the Viet Cong. An interesting index of this success Mr. Thuan said was that although the Vietnamese troops were kept on the line for long periods their rate of [Page 174] desertion was very low, and that those deserted did not desert to the Viet Cong but only to return home to see their families. On the other hand he said there had been increasingly large numbers of Viet Cong who had surrendered. As one of the difficulties faced by his country Mr. Thuan cited the length of the land and sea frontiers to be protected.

The President then asked how long it would take to get started on the 20,000 man increase in the Vietnamese armed forces from 150,000 to 170,000. Mr. Thuan explained that there has been a 6,000 man increase but that unfortunately the Vietnamese simply did not have the liquid assets necessary to pay the local costs of continuing this increase to 170,000. Vietnamese finances he continued had been stretched to the point where it had recently been necessary for them to cancel the International Fair scheduled for 1962 near Saigon. After further discussion it was agreed that Mr. McConaughy would report to the President on the following day as to how this matter could be resolved in order to continue the mobilization as rapidly as possible.

The President then discussed with Mr. Thuan President Diem’s request for support in increasing the Vietnamese army to 270,000. He asked that President Diem’s letter be made immediately available to Mr. McNamara who was testifying before the Senate the same day, in order that the Senators could better understand and appreciate the magnitude of the task involved in helping Viet-Nam to maintain its independence. In discussing the share which Viet-Nam might pay the President asked if it was not true that Viet-Nam had a foreign exchange reserve of over $200 million. Mr. Thuan said it was true but he expressed his government’s fear that if this reserve were drawn down below the $200 million mark most of the capital in Viet-Nam which was primarily foreign owned (French and Chinese) would find ways of leaving the country and thereby cause a serious economic situation. Mr. Thuan also said that the Vietnamese government had already drawn down its foreign exchange reserve by $6 million.

The President then asked whom Secretary Thuan would see during his visit in Washington and particularly suggested that he see some Republican Senators, notably Dirksen and Hickenlooper, as he felt this might be useful in the extremely difficult struggle which would be involved in obtaining the funds requested by President Diem.

The President also said that we should continue to increase the size of our MAAG in order to handle speedily the training of the Vietnamese troops and that this increase should be done quietly without publicly indicating that we did not intend to abide by the Geneva Accords.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.5-MSP/6-1461. Secret. Drafted by Wood, cleared by McConaughy, and approved by the White House on July 22. A summary of the conversation was transmitted to Saigon in telegram 1526, June 15. (Ibid., 751K.5-MSP/6-1561) McConaughy had a similar conversation with Thuan at 5:30 on June 13. A summary of this conversation was transmitted to Saigon in telegram 1525, June 15. (Ibid.)
  2. For documentation on Diem’s visit to the United States, May 8-10, 1957, see Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. I, pp. 792 ff.
  3. Dated June 9; for text, see United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, Book 11, pp. 167-173.