238. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

28. Re: Confeʼs 1196 and 1197.2 You are authorized to deliver the following letter from President Kennedy to President Diem urgently.

“I have been told of your concern over the agreements on Laos now being negotiated at Geneva. Since these long and difficult negotiations are reaching a conclusion, I thought it would be helpful to Your Excellency for me to review with you our thinking about Laos and Southeast Asia generally.

We have sought to counter the communist drive in Southeast Asia by programs and tactics which recognize both the regional nature of communist threat and the particular circumstances of each country in the region.

In the case of your own country, the strategy best calculated to preserve Vietnamese independence and enable your brave people to build a better future is clearly very different from the strategy required for Laos. Such a strategy is based upon the fierce desire of your people to maintain their independence and their willingness to engage in an arduous struggle for it. Based as it is on these facts, our policy toward Viet-Nam must and will continue as it has since my administration took office. We have helped and shall continue to help your country to defend itself. We believe your efforts have been and will continue to be increasingly effective. We believe the Vietnamese will defeat communist aggression and subversion.

In Laos, the circumstances are quite different. Because of that countryʼs location and because of the conditions in which its people find themselves, the United States believes that a neutral government, committed to neither the west nor the east, is most likely to succeed in providing the Lao people with peace and freedom. We are supported in this belief by most of the free world governments.

In negotiating with the communists to achieve a free and neutral Laos, we have not been unmindful of the relationship between Laos and the security of its neighbors. We have sought to build adequate safeguards into the Laos settlement, including assurance Lao territory [Page 512] will not be used for military or subversive interference in the affairs of other countries. We are aware of the danger that the communists will not honor their pledges. But the only alternative to a neutral Laos appears to be making an international battleground of Laos. This would not help the Lao people and it would not contribute to the security of Laos’ neighbors.

I am informed that the Geneva negotiations have reached the point where the agreements which have been hammered out over the past thirteen months are nearly ready for signature. In considering the position of our government at this juncture I think it is important for us to keep firmly in mind the real political foundation upon which these agreements rest.

When Mr. Khrushchev and I met in Vienna last year,3 we were able to agree on only one of the many issues which divide us. This was our mutual desire to work for a free, independent and neutral Laos. The result has been that the Soviets, as one of the Co-chairmen, have undertaken an international responsibility under the Geneva Accords to assure the compliance of the communist signatories with the terms of those accords. This responsibility will be tested soon as the agreements are signed.

In return for these undertakings by the Soviets, both your delegation and mine have made some concessions in the course of the thirteen months of negotiations. These concessions are the result of the almost complete ineffectiveness of the Royal Laotian Army, as demonstrated again in the recent action at Nam Tha. It is only the threat of American intervention that has enabled us to come as far as we have in Laos. But I hope you agree with me that considering this deteriorating situation the safeguards built into the Laos settlement give us the best hope of future improvement against continuing communist military encroachment through that country.

It is in this lilt [light] that I hope you will reconsider the wisdom of insisting upon a solution of the problem of diplomatic recognition by Laos as a condition for your signature of the Geneva Accords. I recognize the importance of the question and particularly the problem it may create in other countries. On the other hand, I believe that when it is compared with the change of achieving a viable settlement of the Laos problem, the question of the type of representation in Vientiane should not be allowed to determine your countryʼs attitude toward our mutual effort at Geneva.

I hope you will instruct your delegation not to raise issues on which general agreement had been reached last December, nor to bring up new issues. It is unrealistic to expect that other countries will undertake obligations to your nation unless your government, through [Page 513] its signature of these accords, assumes reciprocal obligations. That is why I urge you most earnestly to continue your help in making it possible for the Geneva Accords to be signed promptly by all the participants.

In working to ensure peace and freedom for the people of Southeast Asia, the United States must, of course, depend heavily on its friends. Most of all, we must have the cooperation of the governments and the peoples of Southeast Asia itself. Your government has been most closely associated with mine in this effort, and together we have achieved a great deal to defeat the communist threat to Southeast Asia. It is my earnest hope that we may continue this fruitful cooperation by working together to establish a truly neutral Laos.”

In presenting letter you should stress in strongest terms the importance we attach to Vietnamese help in reaching Laos settlement, safeguards we have in Russian promises and which we building into settlement itself and our determination continue help Viet-Nam defend itself.

We plan no publicity on this note and believe you should request GVN handle as classified communication

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 67 A 677, 350 International Pol Rels—350 Laos Conf. In telegram 24, July 8, the Embassy in Saigon reported that Nolting and Harkins thought the draft letter transmitted in Document 234 was excellent. (Telegram 24; Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series) But the following day Harriman cabled a new text from Geneva and stated that the old one was too general to be effective. (Confe 1196 and 1197; Department of State, Central Files, 751J.00/7-962) The source text is the same as that suggested by Harriman except for minor changes.
  2. See footnote 1 above.
  3. Kennedy and Khrushchev met at Vienna, June 3-4, 1961.