292. Memorandum of Conversation Between President Kennedy and the Vietnamese Secretary of State at the Presidency (Thuan), Washington, September 25, 1962, 10:10–10:45 p.m.1

SUBJECT

  • Situation in Viet-Nam

Mr. Thuan opened by underscoring to the President the improvement which had occurred since General Taylorʼs first visit to VietNam,2 and urged that the momentum of the joint US-GVN effort be maintained. The President agreed that recent reports from Saigon were somewhat more encouraging.

[Page 668]

Turning to Vietnamese representation in Vientiane the President said that when he learned that President Diem desired to break off relations with the Lao Government due to its recognition of the DRV he had sent him a message through Ambassador Nolting explaining that such an action would give him a good deal of concern.3 The President emphasized that the abandonment of the Geneva Accords before they had been tried would allow the Soviets to take the position that they had been violated by the United States. This would be disastrous. While understanding the feelings of President Diem that he did not wish the Lao Government to recognize both the Government of Viet-Nam and the Hanoi regime, President Kennedy stated that to abandon the Lao Government in this way would play into the hands of the Communists, would endanger the situation and increase the chances of military action. Noting that the Vietnamese Ambassador had been called home the President expressed the hope that the Embassy would be left open in Vientiane. He pointed out that although the U.S. did not recognize Communist China, we had sat down with them at Geneva and that there were many other things which we had not liked about the Geneva Conference.

Mr. Thuan replied that having discussed the question with Messrs. Johnson, Harriman and Forrestal4 he had sent a telegram to his government. Unfortunately the first consequences of the Geneva Accords had been the recognition by the Lao Government of the DRV which presented an internal problem for Viet-Nam.

The President said that the Geneva Accords of 1954 had in a sense constituted recognition of the DRV. Mr. Thuan acknowledged this but said that the present case involved diplomatic recognition. Having sent a telegram to Saigon he had received an answer stating that President Diem agreed to keep a Charge in Vientiane provided that the arrival of the DRV Ambassador was delayed and that the DRV did not have the same rank as the Charge from Saigon. The President pointed out that the GVN must have expected Souvanna to recognize the DRV. He realized that the GVN did not like the Geneva Accords, but said that if they failed our common efforts and his own efforts for the last year would fail. A treaty had been signed with the Chinese Communists and it would be a great mistake to have the burden for [Page 669]the failure of the Geneva Accords fall on the Vietnamese Government. If these accords failed, it would then be very difficult to get the Communists to pull out their troops. There were three choices in Laos, to fight for the country, to withdraw from the country or to do what was being done. If we were to undertake the present solution, we should not stop 1/3 of the way down the road. The GVN could not ask that the Hanoi delegate be given a lesser position than that of the GVN. It would not work, and it would mean that the Lao Government would have relations with only Hanoi.

The President concluded that while the present arrangement had not been satisfactory from the beginning, he strongly desired that breaches of the Geneva Accords, to which Khrushchev was publicly committed, should come from the Communist side and not from the Free World side. He hoped that Mr. Thuan would explain this to President Diem.

Turning to Cambodia the President asked what both the Americans and the Vietnamese should do to ease the present situation.

Mr. Thuan replied his government was ready to ease the tension, that it had said nothing even when Sihanouk had publicly called Diem an American valet, that the Vietnamese Government was ready to send a military mission which had been already chosen by President Diem, but that the “versatile” Sihanouk had changed his mind and now wanted a Cabinet Minister sent first. He also wanted the Vietnamese Government to pay the Cambodian Government 1 billion riels based on the 1954 Paris Accords. However, since the burden of the 1954 war had been borne by the Vietnamese they could not accept in addition to pay the Cambodian Government this money. On the other hand the Vietnamese were prepared to ask that the French unfreeze the Indochina franc account. This would mean that the Cambodians would get about 3 billion old francs and that Viet-Nam would get about the same amount. Viet-Nam would only agree to this unfreezing if it were done simultaneously for the three countries of Indochina.

There was no doubt in Mr. Thuanʼs mind that Cambodian territory had been a safe haven for the Communists. In Zone D, for example, there had been found huge stocks of medicinal cotton. The packages showed that this cotton had transitted Cambodia. Captured Viet Cong maps showed that they used routes passing through Cambodia. No one knew the location of the border. When the Cambodians accused the Vietnamese of crossing the frontier, the Vietnamese replied that they are willing to set up a commission and pay damages.

Mr. Thuan then raised the subject of crop destruction, saying that this was vital for Viet-Nam; that if they were to shorten the war by controlling their frontier, they would need both Montagnard intelligence units and the means of destroying Viet Cong food supplies. The [Page 670]manpower for the Montagnard intelligence units were forthcoming as the Montagnard deserted the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong in the mountains were already short of food.

The President asked how it was possible to distinguish between Viet Cong and Montagnard fields.

Mr. Thuan replied that the Viet Cong fields were in inaccessible areas not inhabited by innocent people or local tribes. These are areas which have been used by the Viet Cong for 15 years. Montagnards from the Kontum area have petitioned the GVN to start their crop killing program.

The President again inquired how it was possible to differentiate between Viet Cong crops and Montagnard crops. Mr. Thuan replied that the Montagnards habitually build a hut in the middle of their rice fields. The Viet Cong did not. Also the province chiefs had intelligence which enabled them to pick out fields used by the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong food situation in the mountains was becoming serious.

The President replied that the Viet Cong could easily build huts in their fields. The United States was concerned that the distinction between Viet Cong and Montagnard crops be clearly made and secondly that the U.S. was concerned lest it be accused of conducting food warfare. Mr. Thuan proposed that crop destruction be carried out by hand in a few provinces, pointing out that the October harvest was approaching. In reply to a question by the President, he named the provinces of Phuoc Long and Phu Yen, suggesting that after the crops had been destroyed in specific areas the results could be assessed.

The President asked when the next harvest would occur. Mr. Thuan replied that it would be in May. The President indicated that he was willing to reconsider the matter both in terms of hand spraying and aerial spraying. Thuan suggested that the Vietnamese might also need some C-123s which they did not have. The President promised to get in touch with Ambassador Nolting and General Harkins and to let the Vietnamese Government know by the end of the week.

The President inquired as to the status of the amnesty program, to which Mr. Thuan replied that this would be undertaken by the Vietnamese Government. He continued that there were more and more Viet Cong defectors, that the improved equipment and training made available by the U.S. was most helpful. He was particularly pleased with the improved intelligence now available to the GVN and with the aggressive and competitive attitude of the younger Vietnamese officers.

He had explained political progress to Mr. Wiggins of the Washington Post and to the editors of the New York Times saying that a recent constitutional amendment required cabinet ministers to come to [Page 671]the National Assembly and answer questions of the deputies. He had also told them about elections in the strategic hamlets. They had not been aware of these developments.

Economically Dr. Staleyʼs recommendations had been carried out with successful results. The Shell Oil people were now able to reach areas where they had not been for two years and for the first time in 15 years the price of rice was dropping between harvest seasons.

A swing in the pendulum was also shown by the fact that whereas there had been 700 volunteers for officers training in 1960, there had been 2,300 volunteers in 1962.

The GVN hoped to make real progress by the end of the dry season (May 1963).

As to North Viet-Nam he said that the carefully planned RVNAF air strikes were having such an effect that Ho Chi Minh had requested the Chairman of the ICC to ask Diem to stop them as a gesture of good will. Ho had taken the line that the U.S. was trying to make Diem a puppet by the use of air strikes since these were completely under U.S. control and their increasing use made Diem more dependent on the U.S. Thuan said Hoʼs own predictions for the future of the war were changing. Whereas in 1959 and 1960 Ho had undertaken to win the war within one year, his prediction for 1962 was 15 to 20 years. Also, the DRV, which had previously never agreed to negotiate with Diem, was now willing to do so. Thuan said that since the DRV was “losing the waR&Rdquo; it was increasingly anxious for a political settlement.

The President commented that this brought the conversation back to his original point on Laos. Although newspaper correspondents had predicted the worst in Viet-Nam, things were now better. Similarly in Laos it should not be forgotten that there were strong factors on our side, and it was for that reason that the U.S. wished to carry through on the present policy.

Thuan then turned to the question of aid, saying that his government understood the reasons for the “Buy American” policy. He suggested that it might be possible to make counterpart Japanese Yen now in U.S. accounts available to the GVN. The President promised to look into this.

Mr. Thuan said that the Presidentʼs speech at the IMF meeting was a masterpiece.5

The President concluded by expressing U.S. admiration for the progress being made in Viet-Nam against the Communists and urged the GVN not to be too concerned by press reports. He assured Mr. Thuan that the U.S. Government did not accept everything the correspondents [Page 672]wrote even if it appeared in the New York Times. He emphasized that if the Vietnamese Government was successful, the public image would take care of itself. In reply to Thuanʼs expression of concern at inaccurate press reporting, the President asked him not to worry. This occurred every day in Washington.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 751K.00/9-2562. Secret. Drafted by Wood and approved by the White House on October 16. Copies were sent, inter alia, to S/S,S/P, FE, SEA, TF/SEA, WG/VN, DOD/OSD, and Saigon. A summary of the conversation was transmitted to Saigon in telegrams 364 and 375, September 25 and 27. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series) In a memorandum dated September 24, Forrestal stressed that the President should impress Thuan with the strong views that the United States had on Diemʼs breaking diplomatic relations with Laos. Copies of the memorandum and another dated September 22, which suggested topics that the President might raise with Thuan, are in Declassified Documents, 1977, 108E and 247A.
  2. For documentation on Taylorʼs visit to Vietnam, October 18-25, 1961, see Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Documents 169 ff.
  3. In telegram 331, September 15, Nolting was instructed to convey Kennedyʼs concern and disappointment about Diemʼs decision to break relations with Laos. (Department of State, Central Files, 651J.51K/9-1562) Nolting had already met with Diem and Mau for 2 hours on the question on September 15 and met again with them on September 17 to present the Presidentʼs views. (Telegrams 305 and 309, September 15 and 17; ibid.) By the end of September, North Vietnam had agreed to Chargé-level representation only in Laos and Diem did not break relations.
  4. See Documents 285 and 287. Forrestal reported briefly on a conversation along these lines, which he had with Thuan during a lunch at CIA on Saturday, September 22, in the memorandum to the President described in footnote 1 above.
  5. For text of President Kennedyʼs address to the Board of Governors of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, September 20, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, pp. 691-694.