8. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

1329. In view of General Lansdale’s experience in Viet-Nam, I have given considerable attention and thought to the suggestions he made in CINCPAC 172157Z January,2 and I have discussed these with key members of my staff. I fully agree with his evaluation, [Page 26] about the critical threat imposed by VC as well as potentially explosive nature of non-Communist position problem.


His suggestion US make clear statement support Diem is, under appropriate circumstances, worth frequent reiteration especially in light of recent critical US press comment which have tended encourage activities of all elements completely disunited and disorganized non-Communist opposition, most of whom erroneously seem believe institution full democratic procedures Viet-Nam main thing needed to eliminate Communist threat. We have in the past on appropriate occasions restated our support for Diem, the last time being in a letter from President Eisenhower October 26th.3

While message indicating continued American support for development of Viet-Nam toward economic independence and political democracy under Diem from new US administration would be highly appropriate, two facts make any more pointed statement of support at this time dubious:

Since Diem will undoubtedly be candidate for re-election during next two months, any pointed statement backing Diem personally and fully would give impression US taking sides and bringing undue influence in electoral campaign which we hope will be as genuine as circumstances will permit;
We have devoted considerable effort pressing Diem to adopt certain needed liberalizing reforms and changes in GVN methods and structure which we believe he should adopt in his own interests in order to win further popular support vitally needed in face of growing VC military and political threat. While we have been told that many of our suggestions are under active consideration, considerable time has been lost since November attempted coup with little action taken. Therefore at this juncture strong public reiteration US support toward Diem personally might further convince him that we have no alternative but to support him no matter what he does. Such statement, therefore, might induce him further to procrastinate from taking necessary actions which I am convinced he must do to reverse present adverse trends and diminish VC threat.

I recommend, therefore, that any assertion of US support be limited at this time to a greeting by President Kennedy and appropriate general reference to Diem’s strong anti-Communist stand and the economic development and progress which has taken place in the past five years.

While the ideal of a two-party system with a constitutional opposition should be our long-range goal for Viet-Nam, I have considerable reservation as to the possibility of accomplishing this in the near future or of the practicality and desirability of actively pressing for it at this time. The Vietnamese people lack the necessary [Page 27] sophistication and understanding, as well as the necessary sense of political responsibility to make a two-party democratic system work at this time. Furthermore, and more important, one key element of Vietnamese scene is lack of any hopes of opposition leadership or any distinction in diverse oppositionists’ minds between a constitutional and unconstitutional opposition. Furthermore none has any clear-cut realistic program to offer. Thus any effort on our part to try to unite the heterogeneous non-Communist opposition elements into a cohesive loyal opposition would not only be most difficult if not impossible but might easily develop into real effort to unseat Diem, independent of any constitutional niceties, in a mistaken belief US desires replace Diem. Furthermore, in light of the current, most serious VC threat, any such effort on our part would be considered by Diem as mortal blow to his regime and would negate any encouraging official statements we might make. Moreover, such US effort would tend to drive Diem further to count on use of force only to win battle against VC and almost guarantee that he would take or implement few if any of the essential steps we have urged him to take in his own interests. Diem already is of strong belief that US does not understand or appreciate the problems of a newly-independent country, half-occupied by Communists, and that we tend to think, despite realities of situation, that adoption of full democratic procedures will win day.
Therefore I am firmly convinced that:
We must do all we can to induce Diem to adopt, as many as practicable under the circumstances, liberal procedures and reforms which will plant the seeds of democracy and eventually create a solid enough base on which to build still further democratic institutions. These procedures should include safety valves for non-Communist opposition elements to make constructive criticism. These procedures cannot; however, be done overnight in a split country facing a most serious Communist internal threat.
In view of the heterogeneous nature, lack of program and emotional nature of most non-Communist opposition elements, we should use all our influence overtly and covertly to make it clear to opposition groups that:
Any effort on their part to pull coup at this time would bring about such confusion and perhaps chaos that chances of a Communist take-over would be greatly enhanced if not guaranteed;
It in their interests to remain within constitutional limits, and urge constructive programs and reforms which they should encourage Diem to adopt in order to liberalize his regime as much as present circumstances will permit.
In this connection, I have already instructed all key members of various agency staffs here to adopt positive instead of defeatist [Page 28] attitude in discussions with GVN and opposition elements and instructed them to make clear that we oppose any coup which would only enhance prospects of Communist takeover. Furthermore, I have emphasized that all GVN elements should be urged to work together constructively in order put up united front against VC, while at same time urging Diem and his close collaborators to introduce more liberal and constructive procedures. I sincerely believe that with this approach, and with the maximum of US help as outlined in the counterinsurgency plan4 we can gradually overcome the Communist subversive threat, although if Diem insists on refusing to take the positive steps he is considering, Diem’s prestige will lose further ground and his survival will be problematical.

Department also pass General Lansdale.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/1-3161. Secret; Limit Distribution. According to another copy, this telegram was drafted by Durbrow. (Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 66 A 878) Repeated to CINCPAC for PolAd.
  2. In this telegram, Lansdale concluded that the opposition groups in Saigon appeared to be so close to explosion that a coup attempt might soon follow. He suggested two U.S. actions to forestall this possibility and the resulting chaos: 1) a clear statement of U.S. support for Diem and 2) U.S. encouragement of the opposition to form a responsible party. (Ibid., Internal Security, 1961)
  3. For text of Eisenhower’s message, dated October 22, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-1961, pp. 807-808.
  4. Document 1.