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

70. Deptel 35 to Saigon.2 Have for weeks been seeking answers to questions like those posed reference telegram. My reading of situation and prospects here, tending towards optimism, is neither [Page 217] static nor final, and is of course fallible. Views of high-caliber country team here difficult to pin down in common denominator, since assessments vary. Diplomats of friendly countries Saigon also not unanimous in their views, generally inclined to be more pessimistic than US. Intelligent and patriotic Vietnamese citizens, and even GVN officials, not of one accord re prospects of country or re necessary measures.

The following then are my personal views. I shall invite other members task force to forward their comments, if they see matters differently in general or in any particulars.

In the two months that I have been here I have traveled widely in country, generally in company President Diem and several of his cabinet. Have also spent many hours in private conversation with Diem, whom I like and admire as a person. The trips have been worthwhile, I think, despite fact that much of what I saw was dressed up for President’s visit. (I feel certain that Department [Diem?] would prefer to see things in the raw, and was not trying particularly to impress me; but a certain amount of artificiality is nevertheless built into such visits.) Trips have extended to all areas of Vietnam, including about 100 kilometers of Laotian border, except far north, which I hope to visit soon. They have provided opportunity to compare conditions and attitudes other sections of country with those in Saigon.

Distinction should be made, I think, between two aspects of situation here, often confused: (A) What is Vietnamese Government (which means President Diem) striving for? Are his philosophy, objectives, and moral values sound in terms US interests in world? (B) How are these being put into effect? How are they being understood and received by Vietnamese people? Is progress rapid enough to keep pace with increased pressure? If not, what can be done about it?

Regarding (A), I think President Diem’s philosophy of government, and his objectives for his country, are sound and good. After many hours of fundamental discussions, I am convinced that he is no dictator, in the sense of relishing power for its own sake. On the contrary, he seems to me to be a man dedicated to high principles by himself and his people; a man who would prefer to be a monk rather than a political leader; a man who does not fundamentally enjoy power or the exercise of it. He is, nevertheless, an egoist in the sense that he believes (in my judgment, with some justification) that he can govern in South Vietnam, in general and in detail, better than anyone else now available; and that he knows more about the Communist movement in this area and how to combat it than anyone else. His own strong convictions, energy, and his faith in himself are both a strength and a weakness-a strength in providing [Page 218] a counter-dynamic to communism, a weakness in causing over-concentration of governmental power and authority, consequent lack of governmental efficiency, and in offering a vulnerable political target. His philosophy of government, summed up in the term “personalism” (which does not mean personal dictatorship but rather the requirement for individual development much in the Aristotelian sense) is perhaps too lofty for popular understanding, but is certainly in my judgment sound and right, and compatible with US interests. (Please note July 7 expression of this philosophy sent Task Force Washington.3) Thus, I think the United States should have no hesitation on moral grounds in backing Diem to the hilt. Where we think he is wrong, we can bring about ameliorations and improvements gradually in proportion to the confidence which he has in us and in his ability to make concessions without slipping.

Re (B), my (Limit Distribution) assessment is less clear-cut. There is no question that Diem and his government have felt an increasing upsurge of confidence in the US over the past 6 months, despite developments in Laos. High US expressions of support, backed by concrete and continuing actions, have had real effect. First commandment of task force report-to build confidence-was, in my judgment, soundly conceived, is being carried out, and is being reciprocated. Strong and evident US support has brought to the government side a certain number of fence-sitters, and has also probably considerably reduced the likelihood of a military coup d’etat. It has at the same time made Diem an even more vulnerable target of Communist attack, which has, I fear, carried some people into the enemy’s camp. Diem himself realizes this and that is why he is so eager to get across the thought that victory of the Vietnamese people over Communist subversion has title [?] gained through Vietnamese sacrifice and not directly through American or free world protection. Nevertheless, I do not think it is true that US support has given President Diem’s government as yet a net increase in popularity among the Vietnamese people. Oddly enough, Diem’s own keen personal interest in and knowledge of theoretical things of life, such as farming, fishing, disease, teaching methods, construction methods and techniques, are misinterpreted or distorted by many Vietnamese into the picture of a remote and aloof man who has little interest in the welfare of the common man. This is due in part, I think, to his manner and in part to Communist propaganda. It is definitely a false picture, judging from many trips and much discussion. In any case, it seems to me clear that in some way the Diem government must make a “break-through” to regain popular support. If the situation drags on in an inconclusive manner for many [Page 219] more months, either a military coup, or an open proclamation of a Communist Government and widespread civil war, is likely.

I agree that the key to such a break-through is sufficient military and security forces, and skillful selection thereof, to guarantee protection and a free choice to the people in Vietnam, especially in the country districts. At present, despite all efforts, this protection does not exist in many areas. In fact, while accurate statistics on the degree of security are not obtainable, and while the situation varies from province-to-province and from district-to-district, I do not believe that the net security situation is any better now than it was 2 months ago. There have been some encouraging statistics, such as the percentage of actions being initiated by government forces against Viet Cong4 forces against 75 percent initiated by VC four months ago), which in turn seems to reflect more intelligence coming in from countryside. (This ratio has recently slipped again.) On the other hand, there are reports of very large losses of rice to Viet Cong (being checked and reported separately), instances of refusal from fear to identify assassins, and the establishment of VC “governments” parallel to GVN authority in some areas, collecting taxes and issuing VC money. All of which adds up to a very mauve picture, but one which is certainly not conclusively getting better. In our attempt to help create a new and winning psychology, I have taken a much more optimistic line in conversations with other diplomats and with press here than that reflected above, and I think we should continue to do so, giving benefit of the doubt wherever possible to optimistic assessment.

Re security situation Saigon itself, there is no evident change over past several months, aside from shooting up of USOM officer Davis’s car about ten miles out of Saigon a week ago, and grenade attempt at me last Saturday. We have been trying to figure out what these mean in terms of security of Americans here, but cannot be categoric. Facts are that no arrests made to date in either incident. There was reluctance on the part of eye witnesses to Davis’ shooting to testify or identify assailant. Vietnamese police and surete are conscientiously working on cases, but no concrete results to date. After a study, we have gotten out a note to Americans here, based on conclusion that recent attacks do not seem to foreshadow wider terrorist activities against Americans, but recommending increased prudence and circumspection.

MAAG is writing detailed evaluation of recent sweep in Vinh Binh Province, which should be ready shortly.5 My impressions to date are that combined operation, first of its kind, was fairly [Page 220] efficient and effective militarily, that most of Viet-Cong escaped net, and that while much territory was liberated, there is question as to who will control it after bulk of forces withdrawn. Some Ranger battalions are being left there, and some civic action being undertaken by army units. In general, however, it appears that this sweep points up the long-felt need of utmost coordination between military actions and quick follow-up on social and economic programs. We have not licked this problem yet.

Re GVN reforms in military command, intelligence, economic and social fields, the following is a quick personal assessment.

Military command: Despite some reports to contrary, my evaluation is that reform in military command is producing many desired results, and will produce more. Diem’s proclivity to interfere with military authority will be further reduced as his own confidence in US support and in loyalty his military forces increases. Confidence on both fronts is increasing.

Intelligence: While GVN central intelligence organization not yet fully functioning, prospects are good and we expect increasing results.

Economic and social measures: Work of Staley group with Vietnamese opposite numbers, resulting in effective briefing of Diem and Cabinet July 11th,6 has opened new prospect and given real boost to possibilities in these fields. This, added to continued effective work of USOM and USIS, plus greater emphasis on part GVN as reflected in recent Cabinet shifts, hold prospects of increasing success. Much depends on US backing and particularly on greater flexibility and promptness to follow-through.

Re effective central planning, we have come up with a recommendation, embodied in joint briefing July 11 and accepted by Diem, of a mechanism which promises to produce more effective planning and implementation of joint programs. We must assure that these programs bear the stamp “Made in VietNam” rather than “Made in America”, and we must keep constantly on alert lest oral or written undertakings by GVN substitute for concrete end products-something which can happen here.

In general, I am optimistic. I believe we taking the right track. It is a question of how fast and effectively we can advance.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/7-1461. Secret, Priority Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC for PolAd, Vientiane, Bangkok, London, Geneva for FECON, Phnom Penh, and Paris.
  2. Document 87.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. Omission in the source text.
  5. Not found.
  6. See Document 90.