244. Memorandum for the Record1
- Meeting at Gia Long Palace, Saigon—18 July 1962
- His Excellency Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam
- General Paul D. Harkins, Commander, Military Assistance Commands, Vietnam and Thailand
General Harkins opened the meeting by telling the President that he and Ambassador Nolting were to leave on Sunday for Hawaii, where they would attend a conference with Secretary of Defense McNamara, which would be attended by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representatives of the State Department, and Ambassador Young of Thailand.2 He said that he was sure that he would be asked to review the situation in South Vietnam and its evolution since his arrival in this country. General Harkins told President Diem that he. welcomed this opportunity to give him a résumé of some of the points which he considered to be most important and to receive from the President any advice or any request which he might want to be transmitted to the people attending the Hawaii meeting.
General Harkins then told President Diem that, following their recent meeting, he and Ambassador Nolting had sent a message to Washington on the subject of crop warfare and defoliation. No answer had yet been received concerning the crop warfare portion of their message, but he hoped that the matter would be discussed in Hawaii. Permission has been received to carry out defoliation operations at Bien Hoa.
Since his arrival, the General said, much progress has been made. The number of advisors has increased. There are now advisors down to battalion level, and during the month that they have been there, they have come to know their counterparts and have established a good relationship with them.
Intelligence advisors are now working down at Sector level. Their communications have been installed and the reports that are now coming in are much improved. On the subject of communications, the General added that all divisions now have good equipment. In two [Page 525]months, air-ground coordination will be much improved by the completion of installation of new equipment in aircraft. On 1 September the backbone of the tropo-scatter system will be completed. The new airfield at Pleiku is finished and would be tested this same day. In reply to a question from the President, General Harkins said that the runway was some 6,500 feet long. General Harkins next expressed his satisfaction that we now have M-113ʼs and M-114ʼs in the country and that a promise has been made that 150 more amphibious vehicles would be expedited from the United States and would be here by next Spring. He said that he had requested three more helicopter companies and had been told that he would receive two. The President commented that two would be very good, but that three would be better. General Harkins pointed out that what he said up to this point was all for the good, and added that training will be completed for the Civil Guard by the end of the year and for the SDC by February or March. The President interjected the remark that he considered General Harkins to be somewhat optimistic. The General went on to say that the system of rotation of units for the purpose of retraining them was continuing. The President commented that he saw the necessity of doing this but that he regretted that the procedure created a void. After pointing out the necessity of training, General Harkins repeated that these were all points for the good.
General Harkins then said that during the preceding week he had visited all the divisions. Everywhere it had been reported that there was a serious shortage of company grade officers. In some instances there were only six officers in a battalion. There were instances of companies commanded by aspirants or sergeants. Leadership, he added, was lacking in platoons and companies, the very place where it is needed most—since these are the units which do the fighting. He said that in July there would be some 1500 officers graduating from training school. This will help some, but it would be another six months before any more could be obtained. He told the President that he had checked with Secretary Thuan and General Ty to see if any young officers were surplus in headquarters or in logistic commands and could be freed for service with fighting units which needed them most and were shortest in personnel. The President told General Harkins that he agreed with him completely.
General Harkins then said that he had been informed that some aspirants and other officers, up to major, had been in grade for 3, 4 and 5 years. He felt that selective promotions could be of definite help. The President replied that last year he had reviewed the entire list of officers. Priority of promotion had been given to combat men. In order that they would understand that the selection of those to be promoted was a serious thing, the President had waited several months before announcing the selections. However, when the promotions were [Page 526]made, the date of rank was made retroactive to November 1961. He then added that he was concerned over the number of senior officers who have reached the height of their potential and who lack the education and initiative required in higher grades. In response to General Harkins’ remark that such men should be eliminated, the President commented that the situation had been inherited from the French, who were too easy and had made colonels and lieutenant colonels who had no real capability or training. He was considering the thought of elimination. General Harkinʼs suggested that there might be an examination given and that those who failed to qualify would be eliminated. President Diem commented that one of the difficulties in identifying incompetent officers lies in the fact that his Generals do not want to recommend separation of officers who are old friends. General Harkins then commented that promotions have a great effect on morale.
General Harkins then referred to the ambush which had taken place on the preceding Saturday and asked the President what he thought had happened to the leadership of his paratroopers. An hour after the attack, the survivors were still standing around without having taken any counter action. He reminded the President that the force had consisted of 270 men, of whom 20 were killed, but the other 250 did nothing. President Diem said that he had been informed of this and was greatly concerned over it. General Harkins said that he felt this to be an example of the lack of junior leadership. He said that he could understand the Civil Guard and Self Defense Corps had been a considerable drain on the regular forces, but he felt that some way had to be found to get more officers. He suggested that the course at the military academy might be temporarily reduced. The President said that he had contemplated this and thought perhaps three years would be temporarily acceptable. He felt that a two-year course would be too short. General Harkins said that during World War I the course at the U.S. Military Academy had been reduced to two years although in World War II the reduction had been only to three years. He added that although he felt that the situation warrants a temporary reduction in the length of the course, he was in favor of keeping a core of career officers. General Harkins told the President that in World War I the U.S. Army had been expanded to 5 million men and in World War II to 8 million men. The officer strength had been built up by taking specialists from civilian life and giving them 90 days of training. These men were engineers, mechanics, police and other professional types. The President said that he would discuss the matter with Mr. Thuan and review the situation.
General Harkins then told President Diem that he felt that, rather than have large 6 or 7 battalion operations, covering 80 square kilometers, which resulted sometimes in the capture of as little as two VC, [Page 527]better results could be obtained from smaller battalion sized operations based on good intelligence and carried out with speed, under the greatest possible secrecy. Such an operation had been carried out by Colonel Khien in Ba Xuyen and had resulted in 20 VC killed and 200 captured. This, said General Harkins, he considered to be an outstanding operation. In large operations troops must move on the preceding day and, consequently, the VC is alerted and disappears. President Diem agreed completely with General Harkins. General Harkins then said that Zone D, where there are reported to be many VC, would be a good place for the specially trained and equipped units to go in and stay for a couple weeks or more. The President said that this was precisely what he wanted to talk to the General about. The General continued by repeating that the units must stay out on operations and not go out and return the same day. He said that supply of the units would not be difficult. He stressed that the only way to win is to attack, attack, attack. He then spoke of General Khanʼs plan to reorganize the Ranger companies into battalions with a Montagnard company assigned as scouts, somewhat like the American Indians of yore. The President agreed that reorganization of this type is most important.
General Harkins then asked the President if he could give him some information on the overall plan for the establishment of strategic hamlets. He said that Secretary McNamara would surely question him on the subject for the purpose of establishing his plans for the provision of necessary supplies and equipment. He asked if the national plan has been prepared and stated that he realized that there were strategic hamlets in Phu Yen, Binh Duong, Kien Hoa, in fact—everywhere, and added that he liked what he had seen. He asked the President if he could give him some idea of the number of hamlets which were planned for the next month, or the next two or three months, in order to permit orderly planning. He knew, he said, of no National Plan except an order of magnitude which gave the figure of some 7,000 per year. The President indicated that he was aware of the requirement but said that there were many difficulties which he would attempt to explain. General Harkins then told the President that he knew of the recent decree which assigned responsibility for the program to division commanders. He added that this procedure would require a certain amount of time for the formulation of plans. He said that he felt that hamlets were not needed everywhere and added that advance planning was necessary in order to permit time for training of cadres and to obtain the necessary materials. President Diem commented that he realized that this project is an expensive one and that, as for many other projects, money is the main problem. He added that Secretary McNamara must give strong support to the program. General [Page 528]Harkins said that Secretary McNamara would be able to give it stronger support if he were provided some sort of plan to be used as a talking point.
Speaking on the general conduct of the war, General Harkins said that he thought there should be greater use made of the Air Force, citing that no activities had been reported for the previous day. There is now plenty of air support in Vietnam. Targets should be located by intelligence and free areas defined. Where an area is known to be VC controlled it might be a good idea to warn the people by means of pamphlets that they must leave. If they refuse to leave then we could assume the village was VC or VC controlled. General Harkins next spoke of some 15 to 20 naval vessels which are sitting at docks in Vietnam unmanned. Little river craft, in particular, could help much in operations. He next said that there should be greater coordination of activities. The Joint General Staff, Field Command, the Corps, and the Divisions, as well as the Army, Navy and Air Force, should all work in coordination. There should be somebody directly responsible for the war. This might be Field Command, who could be the coordinator but need not necessarily run all operations. As an example of lack of coordination, General Harkins referred to the ambush at Ben Cat saying that if they had been notified, the Air Force could have provided cover for the operation and there probably would have been no ambush. The President commented that the unit involved was overconfident.
General Harkins next said that war is not all military and that the military should help in civic actions such as building bridges, digging wells, providing medical assistance to the people, etc. This would contribute greatly toward winning the people over to the side of the government. President Diem replied that until 1955-56 the Armed Forces were very actively engaged in such activities but with the reorganization of forces into Corps there was no longer any possibility of doing this. Now division commanders say that they have no time and no personnel for this sort of thing. General Harkins suggested that troops on static jobs in defense of key villages, industries, dams and bridges, might find time to participate in a civic action program. For instance, the officers might teach school; the troops could build roads across the dikes, or dams in the paddies. The President replied that all his commanders had said that the troops were very limited and they could not be distracted from their primary duties. It was essential that they stay alert against possible attack at any moment. General Harkins said that the U.S. forces had done a great deal of work with the people in Korea and had won over their hearts and their minds.
(At this point the meeting was interrupted by the arrival of the Presidentʼs Aide with a note.) President Diem, referring to the paper which had been given to him, said that he had just received good news; [Page 529]that in a paratroop operation near Binh Duong two radios had been seized. Also, in the swamp area the Marines had seized a radio receiver, a public address system, a mimeograph machine and a tape recorder. The President added that there was also news of the fact that two of the Americans who had crashed in the C-123 had been found and that the search for the others still continued. He said that he was summoning General Khan, who should have further details. General Harkins expressed his pleasure of the operation and suggested that the battalion involved should stay in the area until Sunday to seek out and destroy the VC.
General Harkins once again referred to the successful civic action program of the Armed Forces in Korea. He said that he recognized the fact that the situation is different here in Vietnam but that he hoped that units would do whatever they could wherever they could. President Diem agreed that they would. General Harkins then suggested that companies assigned to static duties be rotated at three months intervals, otherwise they lose the benefit of their training and tend to develop static thinking habits. As an after-thought, the President said that the Self Defense Corps in the center of the country was doing a great deal to help the people, particularly in building their houses. General Harkins said that this sort of close relationship with the people was very valuable and that if the populace is not treated properly by the military there was danger that the people would be resentful and possibly look to the side of the enemy for help.
General Harkins then said that he thought that the training program in Vietnam was going along very well. He added that he had instructed his advisors to continue the training, particularly in shooting rifles, pistols, and mortars whenever units were in an inactive status. He next said. that we now have a good intelligence system which needs only to be coordinated so that the sectors, the provinces and the military units would receive the same information. With good intelligence and the new mobility, a policy of constant rapid attack is bound to beat the VC. He said that he that he was proud of the ARVN forces and that he only wanted to see more initiative taken. Here, in conclusion, he said, were some of his observations which he would report to Hawaii. In answer to the classic question: “Are we winning or losing?" he could tell them that we are not losing the war. It is true that the ARVN forces are still in a training phase and that the Civil Guard and SDC won’t be fully available to relieve regular forces before the end of the year, but he still felt that by exerting constant pressure, by full use of the Air Force, ground forces, the Rangers and Special Forces, the VC could be cleared out. He concluded by saying that he was pleased to see the large number of Montagnards who were coming over to the side of the government. He then asked how he could help the President.[Page 530]
President Diem said that he would like General Harkins to make one thing understood to the Vietnamese senior officers, the Corps and Division Commanders, as well as the Joint General Staff, and that is that General Harkinsʼ headquarters is not running the war. He said that President Kennedy had explained carefully to the Congress of the United States and to the entire world that the Americans were in Vietnam to advise and to assist. His senior commanders should understand that they should not expect the Americans to plan for them, or to issue orders. Some of his officers seemed to feel that if they told their American counterparts what they proposed to do, they then had to wait for agreement before they could carry out their plans. The President said that he wanted them to take their own actions. It was very well to receive information and advice and if the advisors did not agree with the commanders, there should be a discussion of the differences and, if necessary, an appeal through channels for a decision from higher command. Then they should act on their own initiative. Too many officers have a background of service with the French. It is time that they realized that the Americans in Vietnam are not a French expeditionary force. They need equipment and material which they must get from the Americans, but they must not expect plans and commands. General Harkins said that his headquarters is here to advise only, not to command. The President repeated that the General must tell the Vietnamese military that the initiative in waging the war belongs to the Vietnamese. General Harkins told the President that he agreed with this and that, in fact, President Diem is really the Commander-in-Chief. He added that many of the division and regimental commanders were young men who were shouldering great responsibilities. He said that they were acquiring experience and added that the American advisors, who have experience, attempt to pass this experience on to their Vietnamese counterparts by making suggestions to them. General Harkins said that his heart goes out to these young men who, under the Presidentʼs guidance, are working so hard to free their country. President Diem then said that his judgment of the officers is rather severe. Two years of war have brought maturity to some Army personnel serving as province and district chiefs. Many show great promise for the future. Some are very good and have stood up under test. He told General Harkins, that, before the Generalʼs arrival, visitors who had made a tour of the country and had seen some of the military commanders had given him very glowing reports on the fine military bearing of some of these officers. He added that unfortunately his scepticism, in some instances, had been justified because, when under trial, some of these officers have proven that this was all superficial and that in fact they were incapable. President Diem went on to say that since a few months before the arrival of General Harkins he had allowed complete initiative to his commanders. There [Page 531]had been some instances, where, because of special information which he had received, he had issued direct instructions to commanders to be careful or to watch a particular situation closely. He said that command initiative was now so much a function of his military leaders that they rarely inform him anymore of any action they intend to take. He said that he permitted this in order to assess their capabilities. General Harkins said that, with reference to the Presidentʼs comment about his officers’ French background, he wanted to point out that the French concept was different from the American. He said that they had been strongly influenced by the Maginot Line concept. The only effect produced by this is that the enemy knows where you are. He added that he would like to see units go out on operations more often and to stay out for periods of three to four weeks. Every unit, he said, needs to have a few victories under its belt. It has to get out and kill the enemy.
The President said that he had wanted to talk to General Harkins about an idea which he referred to as “Cutting the Forest.” He would like to set up special small units to go deep into the jungle and set up ambushes along known or suspected trails. These units would stay away from the isolated villages because otherwise they would be betrayed to the VC who could then find them and destroy them. They would be responsible for obtaining their own information and would remain for periods of at least a month. The Chief of the Phuoc Long Province had told him that, contrary to common belief, the troops did not get sick when they stayed in the woods for prolonged periods of time. They got ill when they returned to the outside. First, their wives fed them too well, and secondly, they failed to purge in order to destroy the effect of the water which they had drunk while in the woods. The President spoke very highly of the Phuoc Long Province Chief, saying that he went out on deep operations two or three times each week and was the only one who knew how to use the Montagnards. In an answer to General Harkins’ question, the President said that the Province Chief had obtained valuable intelligence through his operations but that Field Command did not give him proper credit for the information which he had submitted. The President said that one major operation which resulted in the capture of a certain amount of VC material had been carried out on the basis of information supplied by this man. The operation failed to trap any VC. This was because Field Command and Colonel Tranh (5th Division C.O.) had thought that helicopters and paratroops were all that would be needed to carry out the operation. This, said the President, was stupid because there are no drop zones in this densely overgrown area. The Province Chief had suggested a joint operation on the ground which certainly would have produced far better results.[Page 532]
President Diem next told General Harkins that he had seen the U.K. Undersecretary, Mr. Amery, who is a flier and well-versed in air actions against guerrillas. This man had said that the use of helicopters in counter-subversive activities was a fairly new idea and that no doctrine had yet been developed. He advised that careful study be made and that doctrine be developed through experience.
President Diem then reverted back to the subject of “Cutting the Forest.” He said that these units, like the Montagnards, would not use main trails but would mark their routes by breaking inconspicuous little twigs which would not be detected by the enemy. These units should be most effective during the rainy season when it is easier to set up ambushes than it is during the dry season. Too many military leaders, with their routine thinking, have the idea that the rainy season means the dead season as far as operations are concerned. This idea is completely false. General Harkins agreed wholeheartedly with the President and said that he had instructed his advisors to find ways of keeping actions going during the rainy season. The President said that the VC was greatly handicapped by the rains. It is very difficult for them to preserve their foodstuffs and, with the constant drizzle and thoughts of families and native villages, morale drops. The President added that the habits of the VC are known. They get up at 0400, eat, have a period of physical education, and then disperse. At about 1800 they return for their evening meal which is followed by courses in political indoctrination. Obviously, the time to attack is at 0400 in the morning or after 1800 in the evening. The President said that he had discussed this plan with the Chief of the Phuoc Long Province and with Colonel Thong and Lt Colonel Dung, who all agreed that this tactic would pay off, particularly during the rainy season, and each had prepared a rapid study on the subject which the President had consolidated and which he would make available to General Harkins on the following day. Other military leaders had raised objections to the plan. Some had claimed that since the battalions are already thoroughly understrength men could not be withdrawn to form new units. Leaders could not be spared. If carried out on a large scale, this plan could disorganize the Army. General Harkins said that he thought it should be tried. The President said that he felt that the men selected for this program should be given some supplementary reward. He had talked about this with Secretary Thuan, who agreed but pointed out that it could amount to a sizeable sum of money. General Harkins repeated that he thought the idea should be tried and added that he felt that the men involved should be volunteers. Training would offer no particular problem because of the Special Forces available to do this. With the combination of strategic hamlets and activities such as these, the VC would certainly suffer. He added that the Rangers should go out on sustained operations. The President agreed, saying [Page 533]that the Rangers, either in company size or reconstituted battalions, could certainly create insecurity for the VC and would leave them no bases which they could consider safe havens. General Harkins agreed and said that it was absolutely essential that the VC be permitted no permanent base from which they could operate.
General Harkins next asked the President how much infiltration he thought there had been during the past month. The President replied that the VC had come in in large numbers but he didnʼt know how many. He referred to the incident regarding the capture of a VC sergeant in Phaoc Long Province who had spoken freely and revealed that a company composed of cadres had departed from the North in April and had infiltrated into the South. These men were natives of the South who had gone North following the Geneva Accords, had been trained there, and were now returning. The President said that the recent aggressiveness of the VC which had resulted in a number of defeats to ARVN forces was the result of the desire of newly arrived cadres to show their superiors in the North that the VC in the South were more effective under their leadership. General Harkins commented that the ARVN soldiers must not be permitted to believe that the VC is 12 feet tall, adding that this had been done to the Americans during World War II when attempts were made to convince them that the Germans were 15 feet tall. President Diem said that this was the fault of Western journalists who exaggerate the prowess of the VC. He added that in order to overcome this, the initiative must be stressed. General Harkins agreed, repeating his earlier statement that RVNAF must drive constantly against the VC.
At this point Brigadier General Kanh, Colonel Vinh and another paratroop officer arrived with the radio equipment which had been captured earlier in the day. General Kanh said that the two pieces of equipment had been captured in two separate places. There had been no major engagement with the VC. He added that the principal radio which had been broadcasting to Saigon-Cholon had been moved northward and that Colonel Thanh was carrying out an operation in that area. There was a brief discussion of the equipment during which it was pointed out that it was handmade and that there was a possibility that some of the parts might have been obtained in Cambodia. General Harkins said that his technical intelligence officer could help to identify the material. General Kanh spoke briefly on the operation, saying that it had been carried out in secrecy and that deception had been used to divert the attention of the VC from the real target. He added that the plan had been formulated and carried out so swiftly that the III Corps Advisor had not been informed of it. He also spoke briefly of a Marine Corps operation carried out the night before which involved two companies using boats. This operation had resulted in the seizure of a battery-powered radio, a mimeograph machine and a [Page 534]tape recorder. General Khanh then said that the Airborne troops involved in the operation in Binh Duong would be withdrawn and replaced with Special Forces. (General Kanh and the paratroop officers left.)
President Diem described to General Harkins a visit which he had made to a Montagnard area near Dalat where 3,000 members of the Koho tribe have been relocated. He expressed satisfaction with the defenses of the settlement, which include fox-holes in each house. The spirit of the tribe was demonstrated on the 29th of June when they wounded two or three Viet Cong who had come to terrorize them. On the occasion of the Presidentʼs visit they carried out a mock raid with the help of the Civil Guard. The exercise was well performed even to the explosion of grenades to simulate shells which could have been fired from the artillery at the Military Academy. The President also told General Harkins that he had checked on a report made by some Missionaries that there was a serious shortage of rice. He found that the claims were exaggerated and premature. He had also visited Montagnards near Lake da K’Lac some sixteen kilometers from Ban Me Thuot and had gone from there to see the Montagnards and the Cham near Phan Rang. There, he had exceptionally donated 300,000 piastres to help the people to build their homes. He had wanted to go as far as Dak To but the weather would not permit him to do so. General Harkins told the President that he had recently visited the high plateau and had found that the weather was not good. He mentioned that at Achau he had found mat the battalion stationed there was operating properly, with one company in the fort and two out on patrols. When the President commented that this battalion was too far out and was in fact immobilized, General Harkins pointed out that they were only 5 kilometers from the Laotian border and were performing useful patrol duty. The President replied that if it were not for the fertile valley which extends from A Luoi the employment of this battalion would constitute a luxury which could not be afforded in view of the general shortage of effectives.
President Diem then said that the first class of “intellectuals" would graduate from Tu Duc at the end of the month. He could not give the General an answer to his question as to how large the class was, but explained that these were the pharmacists, doctors, engineers and other professional men who had been mobilized. He said that, at first, there had been some difficulty because the faculty of the school lacked qualified instructors to discuss cultural subjects, but this had been remedied by having the Commandant of the Military Academy and other competent teachers present special courses several times a week. At this point, the President referred briefly to early attempts, which had been prompted by Secretary of State Dulles, to mobilize the brain-power of the country. The response to an appeal to serve had [Page 535]been completely negative. When General Harkins asked if the men who were about to graduate were properly motivated, the President replied that they were, and that Colonel Huyen, the Military School Commandant had done much to help in this. General Harkins then asked if the Colonel had good military training, to which the President replied that Huyen had worked with the General Staff on plans and training for four or five years. He added that, because of his educational background, the Generals detested him and that he had received no vote for promotion during the last review of potential candidates. General Harkins commented that there were many good officers who were not graduates of the Service academies and pointed out that General Decker and General Marshall were among these.
General Harkins was then told that President Diem had received a visit from his Artillery Commander. After explaining that he had followed this officerʼs career closely and that he was a graduate of the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, the President said that they had discussed the situation of the 4.2 mortars. He said that this weapon was not being used because it was too heavy and that the roads were not good. He said that there were nine battalions, each equipped with 27 mortars amounting to a total of 243 pieces. Only four hundred rounds had been fired from them. He added that their range is too short and that too many men have been immobilized because of them—in fact the entire personnel of nine battalions. On the other hand, the twelve battalions equipped with 105s were working well. There are a total of 156 pieces, twelve in each battalion, and twelve at the Military Academy which are far more effective than the 243 mortars. General Harkins said that he would look into the situation.
The President next mentioned the fact that he had talked with the Korean Military Mission prior to their departure. He said that they had made suggestions based on their observations but that most of these were erroneous because the Koreans saw critical areas where there were none. They had no real appreciation of the terrain in Vietnam and saw everything in neat geometric patterns. They did tell the President that there was a great deal more artillery in Korea—to counteract the Soviet concept of mass employment of heavy guns. General Harkins commented that 11,000 tons had been shot in one day while he was in Korea. The President went on to say that the Koreans had made the valid suggestion that the main defenses of strategic hamlets should be out of range of grenade launchers. This could be accomplished by erecting an exterior fence.
Next the President said that he had received a visit from the Director General of the Banque of Indo China. This gentlemen, whose main office is now in Paris, had been one of the first to resist the Japanese. He had also followed the Algerian problem carefully and [Page 536]suggested a system, like that used in Algeria, to protect the high tension transmission lines which would soon be ready for installation from Danh Quan. The President described this system as a very wide swath, many meters across, which would contain a series of barbed-wire obstacles, with the intervening spaces strewn with anti-personnel mines. This system had been completely effective in Algeria and had the advantage of not requiring large numbers of troops. General Harkins, at this point, said that a group of Chinese business men, whose identities were unknown to him, had offered to clear a kilometer wide swath the full length of the border in return for the right to sell the lumber obtained. President Diem expressed the opinion that transportation problems would be insurmountable, but offered to talk to the men if they asked to see him. He then reverted to the subject of the protection of the high tension lines, saying that most of the pylons were already erected—an average of two per kilometer—and that the cost, $6,000 per kilometer, had been appreciable. With porcelain insulators (General Harkins indicated how easy it would be to knock them out with high powered rifles) there was a great problem in ensuring security of the lines. The President added that the VC were even beginning to kidnap and harass the Japanese who were in charge of the project.
President Diem then told General Harkins that he had held discussions with Secretary Thuan over a period of months on the subject of how to economize men. He had finally decided that Field Command should be eliminated. Not only would this afford an economy of personnel but would permit faster reaction time in the execution of orders from the General Staff. It had become obvious to him that the Field Commander was not capable. When General Harkins said that General Minh was one of the best combat commanders in Vietnam and asked what plans the President had for him, President Diem replied that he was giving thought to the matter.
When General Harkins thanked the President for having granted him so much time, President Diem said that he would like to continue their discussion. He wanted, he said, to talk about the civil situation in Vietnam. He first outlined briefly the history of education in the country, explaining that it was only from 1920 that the French had set up high schools. In 1930 they added certain University faculties to the educational system. Before the war there were few secondary schools and, of course, during the nine years of war educational facilities were practically non-existent. Since 1954 education in Vietnam has mushroomed. The Vietnamese, who are studious by nature, are rapidly filling the gap in educated people. Foreign observers, said the President, do not understand the evolution which has taken place. Before this regime, only favored children were able to attend moneymaking private schools, or go abroad, to France, for study. From these [Page 537]came many amateur politicians who gathered around Bao Dai. When President Diem took over the reins of government, he accepted the counsel of friends, both Vietnamese and foreign, and included some of these people in his first cabinet. They were not capable and had no credit with the population. When the President formed his second cabinet in September 1954, he said, these people were eliminated. Also, he added, he was urged to accept the participation of representatives of religious sects who, at the time, were nothing but powerful bandits with their own private armies. Their audacity reached the point where they even fired upon officers of the Vietnamese General Staff. It was necessary to suppress them, and this was done. Next, said the President, Mr. Malcolm MacDonald came to give him a lesson about not imposing his ideas too strictly. Even since 1960 there has been constant criticism of the government. This, President Diem insisted, is due to the fact that observers are looking at past history. For the past two years, especially, he said, there has been a great change in the younger generation. There are many fine technicians now in government service. The status of the business man has also gone through a great transformation. When the President first took over the government he was told that only the French and the Chinese could hope to obtain bank credits. Officials of USOM, he said, had advised him that if he attempted to wipe out the black market, the Chinese would paralyze the finances of the country. He was told that it was fine to be nationalistic, but without good management he would be running to failure. General Harkins asked at this point where people were now trained for government service. The President replied that a school is now operating for municipal administrative officials and that selections for more important positions are made from the ranks of those best qualified by education and experience. Great strides have been made in the management field. The Chamber of Commerce, now four years old, is doing valuable work. There has been a gradual, but steady build-up in industry and in the import-export trade. Men, who three or four years ago thought of government laws and regulations as pure annoyances, now see that this was normal and in the interest of good order. Opposition today, said the President, is from fossils who are still far behind the actuality, who are still ambitious but who recite stupidities about the subjugation of government officials. The new class of technicians is independent. They discuss the philosophy of the regime and they accept it because it is valid. Ministers are independent and express their own ideas. Among them are relatives of known rebels and of refugees to France. Some of them, when they were invited to join the cabinet, were reluctant to do so. They now present their ideas and certain ones among them are quite stubborn. In addition to this, continued the President, the members of the National Assembly are former judges, lawyers, engineers, doctors and other [Page 538]professional men who have independent means and do not need to serve. When General Harkins asked if there were any members of the sects in the Assembly, the President replied that there was a member from Tay Ninh—though not associated with the former bandits.
He then insisted that when people formed opinions of the country they did so only in the light of the former officials who lacked professional conscience. These people are no longer in office. There is a new group of younger men, graduates of schools such as the Ecole Polytechnique, who have ideas and who are capable. There is a newly formed National Economic Council which is now holding its second session. They raise and discuss economic problems, and nothing could be better. Still, they are not opposed to the government and they defend national interests. Opinion in America, said the President, is behind the times. The latest report of the Bank of Indo China praises the economic development in Vietnam and points up the progress which has been made and the prestige acquired. Much in the minds of United States Senators is because of their neglect to see the progress made. They must realize that government officials here are independent and have their own ideas. At this point the President apologized for having taken so much of General Harkins’ time and said that he had done so because he had wanted to tell him what the true situation is. He commented that a manʼs stomach can be quickly filled but that it takes a long time to fill his brain. It is unfortunate, he added, that many people will pay no attention to what is said unless it is bad. He wondered why USOM and others did not put the record straight. General Harkins said that the Embassy had recently published a progress report on Vietnam.4 The President said that he was aware of this but he deplored the fact that people still listened to disgruntled amateur politicians who had nothing to say about the government which was not contemptuous or otherwise unjust. General Harkins suggested that the President might call some of these people in and talk to them—to which the President replied that it would be useless. They have preconceived ideas and can see only those things which were bad in former days. They refuse to see the thousands of competent men now in service and particularly the thirty or so in the National Assembly who are moral, patriotic and independent in their thinking. Those who judge by what they hear from malcontents and plotters merely encourage these unbalanced minds. The President then went on to say that last year, at the time of the floods, he had accepted Ambassador Noltingʼs suggestion that some of the people who were critical of the government be invited to serve on a flood relief committee. Even though he considered them to be incapable, they had been invited to serve. It soon became obvious that they didnʼt want to leave [Page 539]Saigon because of the danger to their persons. These were the people who formed the opposition to the government—who uttered vague criticism but had nothing constructive to contribute. General Harkins said that the first question that he asked of any member of the press who came to see him was whether or not he had been anywhere in Vietnam outside of Saigon. The answer was usually “no".
The meeting came to a close.
- Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OASD/ISA Files: 65 A 3501, 092.Vietnam. Secret. A note on the source text indicates that it was prepared from the interpreterʼs notes and should not be considered a stenographic record. Copies were sent to McNamara, Gilpatric, Lemnitzer, William Bundy, and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. The source text bears the stamp “Mr. Bundy has seen."↩
- See Document 248.↩
- See Document 222.↩