133. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
1231. Deptel 1131 and Embtel 1222.2 Gen. Harkins and I together saw President Diem this morning. After reviewing results Honolulu meeting3 and general discussion situation here, during which Diem was relaxed and in rather optimistic mood, I raised subject of two correspondents of US publications threatened by expulsion. I said I had been happy to learn through Thuan that expulsion order for Bigart had been countermanded by President, and that I hoped very much that, upon reflection, President Diem had decided also to countermand the expulsion order against Sully. I made it clear that I was not defending Sully as a person, and that I did not always agree with the line taken by Newsweek regarding Viet-Nam; but that I felt very strongly, and had been explicitly so instructed by US Government, that the expulsion of the correspondent of an influential US publication would have a most damaging effect on public and Congressional opinion at home, and would greatly complicate our relations. Pointing out that it seemed to me that public approval in the US for our policy of support to the GVN was steadily increasing, I asked President Diem not to jeopardize this by action to expel Newsweekʼs correspondent. General Harkins supported this, pointing out that he too felt encouraged by the increased recognition by US correspondents here of the success of efforts being made by the GVN with our assistance.[Page 280]
Diem said that this whole matter was painful to him. He wished to make it clear, for his part, that Sully had for many years been both derogatory and insulting in what he had written and said about the GVN and specifically about the President, members of his government, and members of his family. Diem said that he realized his government was not perfect, that one could truthfully point out weak spots, errors, and failures but there were good things to be said also, and these should not be neglected. But most especially, he said, he objected to those journalists who went out of their way to malign the personal integrity of the chief of state, his ministers, or his family. He said this was particularly true of Sully. He asked whether President Kennedy would permit a foreign correspondent who publicly questioned his personal integrity to remain in the US and enjoy its facilities. He again mentioned his conviction that stories emanating from certain US correspondents here published in the US press contributed to the political unrest in Viet-Nam, and specifically to the recent near assassination of himself and his family.
I again said that I hoped he did not misinterpret my démarche (and I am sure he did not); that I was not defending a person or a publication, but was insisting, for the sake of our common cause, that he not make a “cause celebre” which would create real political difficulties between us. After considerable discussion, it came out that he had decided to allow both Bigart and Sully to remain until the expiration of their visas, and then not to renew their visas. He said that he understood Bigartʼs visa expires toward the end of April and Sullyʼs in June or July. I said that I had understood from Thuan that there was no further sanction hanging over Bigart, that I was disappointed now to hear that Bigartʼs visa would not be renewed if requested. This would cause grave difficulties. The President replied that this was a normal prerogative of government and was a simple and unspectacular way to handle both men. I said that I did not question his prerogative, but that from point of view of our common endeavor such a course would be most unwise.
We left it for the present that no positive action would be taken against either Bigart or Sully. (Diem said that the lifting of the ban against Sully was “tres penible” to him.) As to the future, I said that I would want to talk with him again on the question when the renewal of the visas came up, and I hoped very much that in the meantime he could think the matter over in the light of our conversation.
Diem gave no indication of willingness to change his mind further, but I am hopeful this may be a face-saving device. I drew rather heavily on credits at the bank on this one, but detected no personal animosity.[Page 281]
The press corps here is naturally very much interested in this affair. I am telling Newsweek, through Robert Elegant, the following: (1) that the expulsion order against Sully will be rescinded; (2) that if and when the question of renewal of his visa comes up, I do not know what the GVN decision will be; (3) that I expect both Newsweek and the US press generally to refrain from publicizing this matter as official US pressure on the GVN on behalf of US correspondents. I believe it is best not to reopen the question with Bigart, who apparently now understands there is no hindrance to his remaining here. If and when the renewal of his visa is requested, and if difficulties then arise, we can take the matter up again.
Elegant said to me yesterday that he feels that Sully has “been here too long”, and is therefore too emotionally involved for balanced judgment. This lead might be worth following up in Washington.