106. Memorandum for the Ambassador in Vietnam (Nolting) and the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Harkins)1

Extensive discussions have been held over this past weeks on press situation in Viet Nam which had shown substantial improvement in the past few months. In our view however, the press situation in South Viet Nam at present still holds unfortunate potential which rigid continuation of present press policies might aggravate. After conversations including State, Defense, the White House (including the President) and USIA, it is thought desirable to keep present [Page 264] favorable momentum by granting more leeway to field in making day to-day news policy as it affects on-the-spot situations. This would include wherever possible taking American reporters in Saigon further into our confidence, particularly on matters which they are almost certain to learn about anyway. Washington will exercise patience with efforts in implementation of this guide in order to give it chance for success.

Public statements by high officials of the United States Government either visiting South Viet Nam or discussing our policies in South Viet Nam should continue on the note of caution manifested by the President in his December 12th press conference,2 cited here for your information:

“Q: Mr. President, it was just a year ago that you ordered stepped-up aid to Viet Nam. There seems to be a good deal of discouragement about the progress. Can you give us your assessment?

“The President: Well, we are putting in a major effort in Viet Nam. As you know, we have about 10 or 11 times as many men there as we had a year ago. We have had a number of casualties. We put in an awful lot of equipment. We are going ahead with the strategic hamlet proposal. In some phases, the military program has been quite successful. There is great difficulty, however, in fighting a guerrilla war. You need ten to one, or eleven to one, especially in terrain as difficult as South Viet Nam.

“So we don’t see the end of the tunnel, but I must say I don’t think it is darker than it was a year ago, and in some ways lighter.”

Neither undue optimism nor pessimism are called for.

Nothing in this memorandum should be interpreted as any change in your present policy of discouraging public and private comments by United States personnel of a derogatory nature about Vietnamese military efforts.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, 4/63-5/63. Secret; Limit Distribution. A note on the source text indicates that the memorandum was to be hand-delivered by Arthur Sylvester, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. A covering memorandum from White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger to Sylvester, also dated May 3, notes that the memorandum “has been signed off here.” Salinger added that Sylvester should obtain the necessary clearances in the Departments of Defense and State. There is no indication on the source text of such clearances.

    According to Salinger’s memoirs, he drafted the memorandum on instructions from President Kennedy after the President had met with John Mecklin at the White House on April 29. Salinger arranged the meeting for Mecklin, who was in Washington recuperating from surgery, after Mecklin convinced him that the President should be informed of the “mounting difficulties in Saigon” regarding press coverage of the war. (Salinger, With Kennedy , p. 400) Mecklin wrote of this meeting that Kennedy was “skeptical but willing to try” his advice that the administration make an effort to take newsmen into their confidence. (Mecklin, Mission in Torment, pp. 149-151) After the meeting, Salinger recorded that “the President told me he had been deeply impressed with Mecklin’s recital-but at the same time he did not feel that any new press policy in Vietnam would, in the long run, be successful because of the highly conflicting interests of the government and the press there.” Nevertheless, after a discussion, in which McGeorge Bundy participated, Kennedy authorized Salinger to draft a new press guideline to be delivered to Harkins and Nolting by Sylvester at one of the periodic review meetings in Honolulu. (Salinger, With Kennedy, p. 401) The policy outlined in the memorandum was formally implemented in the press policy guidance sent to Saigon on May 21 in Document 130.

  2. For full text of these remarks, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, p. 870.