93. Memorandum for the Record1
- Meeting at Gia Long Palace, Saigon, Vietnam, from 1530-1815, 1 March 1962
- His Excellency, Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Vietnam
- The Honorable Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., U.S. Ambassador
- Mr. William R Bundy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense/ISA
- Major General Richard Weede, Chief of Staff, USMACV
- Brigadier General Howard K. Eggleston, Deputy Chief for Plans & Programs, MAAG
After a warm exchange of greetings, the President told his guests of some of the incidents surrounding the bombing of Independence Palace on 27 February 1962. He said that throughout the attack, he had the impression that the explosions were taking place some 20 kilometers away. He described this as a curious phenomenon since, normally, his hearing is very acute—the presence of another person in his room—the striking of a match, usually being enough to awaken him. He cited several examples wherein he had called General Ty or Colonel Mao (who is charged with the security of Saigon) to ask the reason for distant artillery fire or the explosion of a grenade within the city. In many instances, neither of them had heard the noise. In response to a comment by Ambassador Nolting concerning the excellent maps which the President had had in his Independence Palace office, [Page 188]the President replied that they were now present in his room. A bomb had struck the verandah near his office, but had not exploded. If it had, the stairs leading to the bomb shelter would have been demolished and the President would not have been able to find refuge. The Nhu family had also been particularly fortunate in that a bomb which carried away a large section of the palace next to their apartment, had hit the side away from the staircase—thus permitting them to escape to the shelter. The children had already come down to play in the garden and were amongst the first to reach the shelter. The last to arrive was Madame Nhu, who took the time to dress. She was slightly injured on the face by flying glass, and, in womanly fashion, was worried about being scarred. The Presidentʼs brother, the Archbishop of Hue, who was visiting the President after attending a meeting at the Vatican, went through the entire attack in a small chapel in the new wing of the palace and emerged uninjured. The President expressed the thought that his brother might have been killed if he had attempted to move, since the surrounding area was riddled, and the blast had been violent enough to hurl a heavy brass incense burner the length of the corridor. He added that the Archbishop was the one who had caused the least trouble.
The President next told of his visit to the Bien Hoa Airfield (on 28 February) during which he personally questioned the Base Commander, the Fighter-Group Commander and other responsible officers. The Base Commander, whom the President referred to as a “bureaucrat” claimed that his job was to provide security and to feed and perform other housekeeping duties for the men assigned there, and that he had no function of command, including the control of bombs and other armament. The President agreed that he was correct—in accordance with his terms of reference—but that his attitude was somewhat exaggerated and that he should have been aware of events taking place around him. The President then had a frank discussion with the commander of the Fighter-Group and a few of his officers. All expressed their grief over the incident which had dishonored them but disclaimed any knowledge of disaffection, subversive propaganda or other suspicious activities. They admitted that there had been some griping about the lack of conveniences, particularly by those who had spent some time in foreign countries, such as France and the United States and had seen the favored position held by the Air Forces of those countries. There had been complaints about the dangers involved in their operations, the hardship of being assigned away from their families in such areas as Pleiku and Danang, and the overwork produced by the fact that there were too few pilots and planes to meet all operational requirements. Ground crew personnel were particularly unhappy over the fact that, as in most other countries, they could not advance beyond the rank of Master Sergeant. [Page 189]Some pilots who had undergone intensive training were only too happy to receive desk jobs and to fly only the minimum number of hours required to maintain their flying status.
One officer told the President that he (the President) was considered to be a “regular fellow” by the real pilots, because he put in almost as many hours in the air as they did. Only the best pilots were assigned to fly him because, unlike the scheduled airline pilots with their regular routes and replacement personnel, his pilots were asked to follow irregular, hazardous routes for long hours without relief.
Ambassador Nolting then asked if the President considered the attack upon the palace as the act of two disgruntled, isolated cases, or whether others in the Air Force were implicated. The President replied that, although most of the airmen were young, worked hard and liked to dance and play hard, they were not generally men of ill-will. One of his aides, himself a pilot, had been surrounded by airmen while the President was questioning their leaders. The aide was bombarded with questions concerning the Presidentʼs feelings concerning the Air Force in general and themselves as individuals.
In a subsequent conversation with a senior Air Force officer, the President agreed that the pilots were young, excitable and immature. He further agreed that there should have been a more careful selection made prior to training and that family, education and background should be more meticulously examined. (The father of Lieutenant Cuu, one of the pilots in the attack, had a recorded history of antigovernment activity.)
The President next said that General Khanh and other officers had held a meeting the preceding evening to examine the problem of whether the VNAF should be permitted to continue its mission of bombing and close air-support. He said that he personally considered the restrictions which had been imposed a hindrance and was prone to allow them to operate as before. General Khanh had insisted that he proceed slowly—and that he consider the possibility that there might be another fool like the two who had acted. General Khanh told him that the members of the Bien Hoa group were very unhappy and that they wished to make some sort of manifestation to ask the Presidentʼs pardon. The incident lies heavily upon them.
General Khanh had also proposed that the Americans be asked to fly bombing and support missions, accompanied in each case by a Vietnamese. He further proposed that the VNAF first resume its activities by carrying out strafing missions only.
As a preliminary to a somewhat lengthy expose of the elements which might have precipitated the incident, the President said that the time selected for the bombing was determined largely by chance. Three days before the attack, the police at Thu Duc arrested a group of men caught in the act of robbing a man who had recently acquired a [Page 190]large sum of money. They claimed that they were not ordinary bandits but were collecting “political funds” and that they had been instructed to do this by a man named Luc (the father of Lieutenant Cuu, who had dropped the bombs). It is possible, said the President, that Cuu might have considered the entire plan compromised and that, believing himself on the verge of arrest, he decided to flee—attacking the palace on the way. A second incident, not so dear, but which might have had some influence on the act took place some eight days before in the High Plateau close to the Laotian border. In this region, the construction of a tie-road (which the President reminded Ambassador Nolting they had seen together) was badly behind schedule. Finally, the President had become impatient and had ordered the Public Works authorities to look into the real reasons for the delay. It was revealed that the Engineer in charge of road construction in the area had continuously protested that the weather was bad and that coolies were afraid to work because of the lack of security. Further, he had hired two members of his family and placed them in charge of depots where equipment and materials, including explosives were stored. These men had repeatedly told the workers that the Viet Cong was very strong in the area and that there were heavy concentrations of Communist troops immediately across the border. The Public Works investigators became suspicious and seized the records of the depots to check on the receipt and issue of explosives. Since the bombing of the palace, it has been discovered that there is a family connection between them and Lieutenant Quoc—through the wife of the Engineer—a woman named Phu. (Interpreters’ Note: Lieutenant Quocʼs full name is Phan Phu Quoc.) The President expressed the thought that, although there appears to be no direct connection between the investigation in the High Plateau and the bombing of the palace, the fact that this inquiry was being conducted might have frightened Quoc and helped to precipitate his action.
Ambassador Nolting again asked the President if he felt that the information which had been obtained would seem to indicate that the action against him was an isolated, local incident not connected with the Armed Forces or specifically, with the Vietnamese Air Force. The President agreed that this was generally true, but that certain non-flying personnel of the Air Force also seemed to be implicated.
The President next spoke of the existence of minor political parties headed by ambitious, unemployed men with little following who worked on the ignorance and the superstitious nature of the people. He talked at length about a man named Thieu (?) who first became active in 1941-1942 as head of the National Socialist Party at the time when it appeared that Hitler and his fascism were most successful. Through the years, Thieu had offered his support to the President, changing the name of his party to fit the situation, but always maintaining [Page 191]his basic theme that the head of state should be a firm fascist and that the superstition of the people should be played upon. At one time, working through an intermediary, he had claimed that he could control the Cao Dai Sect by providing them with more predictions and superstitions than they could invent themselves. President Diem had consistently refused to accept his support and had, on one occasion, attempted to remove him from the political scene by providing funds for him to establish an arts and crafts center in Thu Duc. The venture failed because Thieu was unsuited for it.
To further illustrate the fact that there were people in Vietnam who felt that the Presidentʼs actions against the Communists and other dissident factions were not severe enough, the President told the story of an officer on the staff of Colonel Cao (7th Division Commander) who, after making a thorough study on coups d’etat, had suggested to Cao that, if he seized the power and exercised it with a firm hand, the people would follow him and obey him.
The President next told of an incident in Nha Trang in which a noncommissioned officer had been approached by a man who said that his name was Le Than (the name of a corrupt official of Bao Dai) and who told the soldier that he and people like him would be counted on in the forthcoming revolution. The description of the man fitted Luc, the father of Cuu. He was not taken into custody because of the approaching Tet holidays.
Returning to the subject of the attack on the palace, the President said that Quoc appeared to be hesitant and influenced by Cuu. Both pilots had been assigned to a close support mission on the morning of the 27th of February. They were preceded by two L-19ʼs which were to lead them into the target. Shortly after take-off, Cuu told them over their protest, that he was returning to Bien Hoa because of lack of visibility and then led Quoc in the attack on the palace. According to the President, it was fortunate that they were not able to discharge their entire load of bombs and rockets—or the palace might have been completely leveled. Quoc, who is now in custody, told an interrogating officer that he was stupid to have listened to Cuu. He had been told that the dropping of their bombs would be the signal for a general revolt and that “everyone” was in on it—including the Americans. As evidence of the complicity of the Vietnamese officers, Cuu had drawn his attention to the fact that the paratroop battalion guarding Bien Hoa had been replaced by another which he claimed to be in sympathy with the revolt. (The President explained that the battalions had been switched in connection with an operation to resettle the people in Binh Duong Province as part of a clearance program.) To substantiate his claim that the Americans were supporting the revolution, Cuu called Quocʼs attention to derogatory articles in the press, particularly Newsweek Magazine. The President expressed the thought that Quoc might [Page 192]have become mentally unbalanced and excited by the mass of intrigue and subversive talk to which he had been subjected. Ambassador Nolting agreed, adding that his observations seemed to indicate that the act was that of two young men who had been led astray and that it did not go down into the roots of the Vietnamese Army or the Air Force. Then, (referring to the request for U.S. participation in air support) he asked the President how long he thought the investigation would continue. The President replied that, as an individual, he was ready to permit the Air Force to resume its role but that he was obliged to permit the military to carry out its responsibility of getting to the bottom of the story. Ambassador Nolting agreed that the military should be granted authority corresponding to its responsibility and added that morale and psychological factors should be considered. He concluded by saying that the United States was prepared to advance with the President “all the way.”
The President next spoke of his visit to the area of Zone D in Binh Duong Province on the day following the bombing, saying that he had become impatient with the slowness of the program for regrouping the people of that area into fortified hamlets. It had become obvious that the program had to be carried out simultaneously throughout the province because the Viet Cong were reacting violently to it—forcing women and children to go to “unregrouped” isolated villages, thus putting pressure on the men to go along with them. Without regrouping, pacification could not be realized and military and paramilitary forces were constantly subject to ambush—platoons and even companies had been lost in the area. General Eggleston asked if this program was related to General Caoʼs program of “Civic Action” teams. The President replied that it was and that, realizing that the job was difficult and unpleasant, he had issued firm orders to permit General Cao to go ahead and to use severe methods, where necessary. As an example he said that, after several warnings, villages had been burned in order to force people to remain in the regroupment areas. General Eggleston then asked the President if he thought fortifications such as fences, ditches and barbed wire to be very important elements of the plan. The President replied that they were basic and added that the Communists had done the same thing against the French and that it had taken an entire battalion a half of a day to penetrate them. He then commented that the Viet Cong were doing the same thing again—aerial photographs had been taken of VC strongholds ringed by concrete lined trenches.
Ambassador Nolting next asked the President if he had signed the Overall Plan. The President answered that he had not, that he had discussed it with Secretary Thuan and that it had been decided that it [Page 193]should be coordinated with the Minister of the Interior since it had civilian as well as military aspects. Meanwhile, implementation was going on in the provinces.
Reverting once more to the bombing of the palace, the President stated that the Air Force appeared to be “clean” but he was concerned that their exaggerated interest in comfort and conveniences. He compared their situation with that of the ground troops and civilian officials who lived in constant danger to their lives. He suggested that the Americans might attempt to point out to his airmen that their role was not only one of glamour and grandeur, but also of service.
The President next spoke to the Ambassador about General McGarrʼs illness. He said that it was regrettable and paid tribute to the many things that the General had accomplished since his arrival in Vietnam.
Ambassador Nolting then told the President that he had noticed the pleasure of the people on hearing his voice. It could be seen on their faces. He suggested that when the President felt that the Air Force was ready to resume its role, he might address the people by radio to express his confidence. The President said that it was planned to have a demonstration which would be eloquent enough. The Ambassador repeated his suggestion that an address by radio would be worthwhile, pointing out that this would reach the entire nation. He added that the people wanted to hear the Presidentʼs voice and that there might be an advantage in making a film which would be seen by the 3,000 people who see the newsreels each week.
Turning to Mr. Bundy, the President expressed his pleasure over his visit and asked if there was anything that he would like to discuss. Mr. Bundy replied that he had no special points to raise. He reminded the President that he had some responsibility for the United States Military Assistance Program. He had spoken with the Ambassador and U.S. military authorities as well as Mr. Thuan and General Khanh and felt that his visit had been profitable. He added that the United States public were becoming more and more understanding of the problems of Vietnam.
The President commented that some journalists saw the bombing of the palace as a warning to him. He felt, rather, that it should be a warning to them—an indication of the danger of their irresponsibility. He hoped that the incident would soon be cleared—but expressed his concern over some of the political factions which played on superstition.2
The meeting closed with Ambassador Noltingʼs remark that there might be an answer to his cable.3
- Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 84, Saigon Embassy Files: FRC 67 A 677, 361.1, Chief Executive-Vietnam. Secret. Typed on MAAG stationery, suggesting that Eggleston was the drafter.↩
- In the margin next to this paragraph Mendenhall wrote: “Never learns. JAM”↩
- See footnote 3, Document 92.↩