285. Memorandum of Conversation, Department of State, Washington, September 19, 1962, noon1

SUBJECT

  • Situation in Viet Nam with Special Reference to Relations with U.S. press, and GVN-RKG relations

PARTICIPANTS

  • Secretary Nguyen Dinh Thuan, Secretary of State for the Presidency, Republic of Viet-Nam
  • The Secretary
  • Mr. U. Alexis Johnson, Deputy Under Secretary
  • Mr. W. Averell Harriman, Assistant Secretary
  • Mr. William C. Trueheart, American Embassy, Saigon
  • Mr. Chalmers B. Wood, WG/VN

In opening the conversation the Secretary referred to the prospective serious cut in the AID program emphasizing that this was an annual battle which was not always understood overseas. As to Viet-Nam he said that we were moderately encouraged and pleased by the initiative shown by the Vietnamese Government and its troops. Mr. Thuan replied that the progress was much greater than reported by the press. Whereas morale was very low a year ago there had been tremendous progress in the last six months. The Vietnamese plan to break up large VC units was successful even in Camau which had been under Viet Cong control for fifteen years. Priority was assigned to this area and to the delta since it was heavily populated and supplied so much food. The situation in Zone D was more difficult due to the jungle terrain and the fact that one division had to cover nine provinces. Vietnamese commanders feel good progress will be made right through until the end of the dry season in May. As in the previous two years the VC had attempted to take the offensive and knock the Vietnamese out during the rainy season. In 1960 and 1961 they had made big attacks in August and September. This year they were unable to do so since their main formations were broken.

The migration of the Montagnards away from the VC has been most important as it deprives them of food and labor. The VC are not pushing them away because they need them as porters and to cultivate the land. The VC have strongly emphasized the cultivation of food by the Montagnards and that is why the GVN believes it is so important to kill crops in these areas. If the VC canʼt get food they canʼt live there.

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The Secretary inquired what effect crop destruction would have on the Montagnards. Mr. Thuan replied that the GVN had set up a large program to care for all Montagnards who may come over even if this cost more than the 50 million piasters in counterpart which had been originally set aside. A nationwide campaign to help the Montagnards is being carried out. Crop destruction will not hurt the Montagnards since they are leaving their villages. The food situation for the VC is difficult. The province chief of Phuoc Thunh province told Mr. Thuan recently that they are limited to seven cups of corn daily. He explained that crop destruction would speed up GVN success and assured Mr. Thuan that he could distinguish between VC rice fields and those of innocent people. The VC put a small hut in the middle of their rice fields. The number of Montagnards in each province is known and new rice fields are easy to spot.

The Secretary turned to the question of relations with the American press stressing the importance of not giving the impression that Americans were being prevented from reporting. Adverse press reports would be less harmful than news that reporters were not being allowed to report. A hostile feeling should not be allowed to grow between the press and the Vietnamese Government. Sometimes the Americans can help quietly. Mr. Thuan replied that the GVN fully understood the importance of this matter and that he was trying to see as many members of the press as possible on his visit to Washington. In Saigon the Vietnamese Government simply could not understand occasions on which the press deliberately twisted the facts in a manner unfriendly to the Vietnamese Government. He cited the report by Bigart2 to the effect that President Diem was limiting the distribution of radio receivers to Vietnamese who were friendly to him, pointing out that distribution had actually been limited temporarily in the Ban Me Thuout area in certain places where only Radio Hanoi could be received. Governor Harriman said we face the practical problem that Sully would write a series of very bitter articles and said that it would have been much better if our Ambassador had been asked to have officials in Washington discuss this problem with Mr. Graham, the publisher of Newsweek, who is a very reasonable man. Mr. Harriman understood that certain French citizens in Viet-Nam (of course not the French Government) feel bitter about success of the American help to Viet-Nam because of French failure. Men such as Fall3 were using U.S. press. The fact remained that it was unfortunate to have Sully write these articles at a time when there was such a difficult struggle to obtain foreign aid.

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The Secretary turned to Vietnamese relations with its neighbors, pointing out that hostility between Southeast Asian nations was a barrier to achieving international support. He inquired about the military mission to Phnom Penh.

Mr. Thuan replied that the GVN was prepared to send such a mission, that the question had been delayed due to a new government in Phnom Penh and that Prince Sihanouk had asked that a cabinet member and a general be sent to Phnom Penh preliminarily to discuss the question. The GVN was prepared to do this. Although it had few illusions about the success of such a mission it considered it the first step. The GVN did not wish to worsen its relations with the Cambodians since it had enough problems at home.

The Secretary spoke of rumors in Phnom Penh to the effect that the Vietnamese Government was planning to overthrow Prince Sihanouk and said that these rumors did not make it easier to steady an emotional leader. He asked what could be done.

Mr. Thuan replied that the GVN was doing absolutely nothing and reiterated three times that the rumors were completely untrue.

Mr. Thuan pointed out that the reports of frontier incidents were usually very vague, that the French maps did not delimit the border dearly, that when incidents would occur the GVN apologized and offered to pay reparations.

The Secretary inquired about a joint boundary commission.

Mr. Thuan said a joint mission had been proposed for some time. But that the Cambodians would never accept.

Mr. Harriman in reply to the Secretaryʼs question as to whether the U.S. might suggest a joint boundary commission suggested that the most important step at this time was to get military representatives of the two countries together so that each could see how the situation looked from the other side.

Mr. Thuan said the Cambodians were principally interested in settling the complex financial problem. He hoped to discuss this and the sending of a military mission to Cambodia further with Governor Harriman.

The Secretary summed up by saying that it was of the very greatest importance to world peace that the battle be won as quickly as possible, that the U.S. had demonstrated its very strong support and the American government wished to emphasize its hope that the time would soon come when the Vietnamese could return to more peaceful ways.

Mr. Thuan concluded his remarks saying that there had been two trends in Viet-Nam, those who believed in the French static method of defense (judging by early remarks to the reporting officer Thuan was probably referring to Vice President Tho), and those who support a war of mobility. The latter view was now dominant. The Vietnamese [Page 655]Government thanked the American Government for its assistance which was most useful and was one of the reasons why the Vietnamese were winning. He emphasized that America had made a good investment in money and men in Viet-Nam. It should not be thought that the war was over, the Communists would try to win either by big massive attacks—which would not be successful—or they would use political methods to seek to neutralize Viet-Nam. The Secretary commented that we did not believe that any effort from the Communist side to follow the pattern of Laos should be allowed to succeed. For example, the Lao had been allowed to commence an airlift. The time to stop an airlift was when the first plane came over.

The Secretary was then called away. Afterwards Mr. Thuan commented to the reporting officer that he felt there had been very clear mutual understanding throughout the conversation.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/9-1962. Secret. Drafted by Wood, approved in S on October 4, and initialed by Harriman.
  2. Homer Bigart, The New York Times reporter.
  3. Bernard Fall, author of Street Without Joy, who had just visited Saigon and was quoted as saying that the Vietnamese lacked adequate leadership.