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

1180. General Harkins and I called on President Diem afternoon March 12 at his request. In course of two hour meeting, primarily devoted to Diemʼs views re military situation in central highlands and central coastal plain, General Harkins asked when limitations on armament of VNAF planes would be lifted (as of that time our information was that they were still limited to 20-mm cannon, except in I corps area). Diem indicated that he was not prepared to permit planes to carry bombs until system of “control” had been devised which would ensure that pilots hit targets they were supposed to. He did not specify what sort of control might accomplish this. Although not willing to permit planes to carry bombs which could “destroy buildings”, Diem indicated that he might be prepared to permit them to carry rockets and napalm. In pointing out dangers of permitting planes to carry bombs, Diem remarked that even if an irresponsible pilot were shot down, plane with bombs aboard might crash anywhere in Saigon “even on foreign Embassy”.

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General Harkins and I expressed concern over continuation of restrictions, emphasizing not only military handicaps but awkward position in which United States Government was placed. US role in Viet Nam was to assist GVN to win its war; it was not a US war, undeclared as some press releases indicate or otherwise. Restrictions on VNAF tended to undercut this position. Diem did not reply directly.

Following day, March 13, I raised matter with Thuan and Harkins with Generals Ty and Khanh of joint general staff, along same lines we had taken with Diem. Thuan said that restrictions were being lifted immediately except on 250 pound and 500 pound bombs. Planes would, however, be allowed to carry rockets, napalm and anti-personnel bombs, which Thuan said was only type of bomb needed in “war of this kind”. (He telephoned March 14 to say that he had just signed order to this effect.) General Harkins was informed by Ty and Khanh that background investigation of pilots was continuing but was expected to be completed by about April 1. They also said that “controls” envisaged were radar and definitive flight plans.

Harkins informed by Khanh today that Thuanʼs order had been received and put into effect, i.e., VNAF planes now authorized carry 20-mm., rockets, napalm and anti-personnel bombs.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.5/3-1562. Secret; Limit Distribution. Repeated to CINCPAC for Polad and Manila for Ambassador Nolting. A memorandum recording the conversation with President Diem is in Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 67 A 677, 361.1, Chief Executive—Vietnam.