Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume III, Vietnam, January–August 1963
133. Letter From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Nolting) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman)1
Dear Roger : I enclose a contingency plan drafted by Ben Wood for the U.S. role in the event of a change of government in Viet-Nam. I think it is about as good and sound guidance as one can develop on this subject, and I have concurred in it. [Page 317] We will keep it for reference and will update it at least annually. I hope you will clear it and suggest that it be submitted for White House approval. In the event of an emergency it would be invaluable for the Ambassador or the Charge to know that this plan had top level approval and could be used as the basis for action here.
Contingency Plan Prepared by the Director of the Vietnam Working Group (Wood)2
- Eventual Change of Government in Viet-Nam
I. Dissemination of this Memorandum
Knowledge of the existence of this memorandum which replaces earlier memoranda on the same subject3 is to be limited to the smallest possible number of people. Dissemination in Washington will be the sole responsibility of the Assistant Secretary for FE; in Saigon it will be the sole responsibility of the Ambassador.
II. Purposes of Memorandum
- —To plan in advance the U.S. role when there is a change in the Government of Viet-Nam. Since this is inevitable, plans should be made and reviewed with the same care that a prudent man devotes to his will.
- —To recognize, in the basic American tradition of supporting free governments, that the Vietnamese should, if possible, exercise their own choice without U.S. or any other outside intervention; that any U.S. interference runs a serious risk of branding a successor government as U.S. dominated. The U.S. role should, if possible, be limited to indicating discreetly, but clearly the conditions under which the U.S. would recognize and support a new government. Should further steps be required to prevent, for example, a dangerous interregnum, they must be exercised with sound knowledge, great firmness, good timing and the awareness that there will probably be only one chance to intervene effectively.
- —Recognizing that the unexpected will occur, to avoid plans which are binding or too complicated.
- —To insure that those directly responsible in Saigon and Washington understand and agree on such planning. These plans are designed for reference by the Ambassador, but are not binding on him.
- —To insure that all official Americans in Saigon will keep the Ambassador fully informed in time of crisis, but will take no action to influence Vietnamese citizens unless specifically authorized by the Ambassador (see last paragraph Section III below).
- —To authorize the Ambassador to act for the United States on his sole responsibility if in his judgment the situation requires him to do so. In a situation which is likely to be chaotic and dangerous prompt decisions and actions by the Ambassador must not be inhibited. He will be expected to seek instructions from Washington if, in his judgment, time permits. Instructions from Washington should lay down principles of policy which are considered necessary and useful for the Ambassador in dealing with the Vietnamese; they should not be detailed. While the Ambassador will be expected to keep Washington informed as fully and promptly as practicable, his responsibilities for deciding and acting have priority over his responsibility for reporting.
III. Continuing Embassy Responsibility
While Diem is in effective control, official U.S. personnel should under no circumstances discuss with any Vietnamese the position which the U.S. might take in the event of a government crisis.
The Embassy should keep current in the Ambassador’s office a carefully selected compilation of biographic sketches of persons likely to play important roles in a change in government. In addition to relevant information on each person, it should attempt to keep current his relations with and attitudes towards Diem, Nhu and other important people. If possible there might be several pages showing groupings by family connections, place of origin (North, Center or South) and profession. Groupings by party are usually not permanent and are not worth listing.
Responsible persons in all agencies in Viet-Nam should be discreetly encouraged to submit such biographic information and evaluations of their Vietnamese colleagues as they may obtain without asking leading questions on the grounds that this is routine and important in all embassies. Many persons might find that they could spare an hour a month to write down informally their impressions of a Vietnamese friend. Officials should be encouraged to submit reports at the end of their tours. The powerful role of Vietnamese wives should not be ignored. It should be emphasized that information for these reports should not be obtained by asking too many leading questions likely to arouse suspicion.[Page 319]
The question of whether, how and by whom contacts should be maintained with persons opposed to or not supporting the Government deserves regular review. Questions to be considered would include: How much contact is necessary to provide essential intelligence in a crisis and mutual understanding after a new government is formed? How can such contacts be maintained without jeopardizing the person contacted; overtly, covertly or indirectly? As a minimum the Embassy Political Section should overtly maintain enough contacts so that it will be known that we exercise the right to see persons outside the circle of the GVN anointed.
The Embassy may wish to consider whether additional personnel are needed to collate this material and whether some background research can be done in Washington. Old reports should be reread to fill out the biographic sketches to be kept in the Ambassador’s office (referred to at the beginning of this section).
On the basis of the findings thus collected this memorandum should be reviewed, revised and pouched to Washington for State Department clearance annually.
The Embassy may also wish to consider drafting an unclassified order which could be held in readiness for distribution to all official American personnel in the event of a government crisis. Such an order could emphasize the importance of avoiding any commitment which might possibly be construed as involving American prestige or support and recall that the Ambassador is the only person authorized to set forth American policy.
Consideration might also be given to setting forth procedures so that key American personnel could confidentially and quickly forward useful intelligence to their superiors in Saigon.
IV. Crisis Indicators
The Embassy may wish to decide on what symptoms should be particularly watched as most likely to indicate trouble for the Vietnamese body politic, e.g.: an abnormal increase in reliable coup rumors, particularly if they involve a rapprochement of leaders and forces opposed to the GVN; multiple VC victories or serious economic stagnation.
When such symptoms multiply, the question of how a change might occur should be watched almost continuously. With knowledge, care and luck, the U.S. might then be able to exert discreet and timely pressure in order to avoid violence and chaos. For example, if the GVN felt itself threatened, it might be persuaded to undertake reforms necessary to forestall a crisis. Likewise U.S. military and civilian advisers outside Saigon might be instructed to use all their influence to persuade Corps Commanders, Province Chiefs and others to remain at [Page 320] their jobs, holding off the V.C. and damping down local unrest. Extra efforts should be made to maintain the movement of necessary equipment to the provinces.
Instructions for American personnel suggested in Section III above and E and E plans should also be reviewed.
V. Types of Change
Foreseeable situations in which there might be a change in government. are listed in ascending order of likelihood that U.S. interests would be adversely affected. A possible U.S. role is suggested for each situation.
A. Diem retires before the end of his term and names Vice President as his constitutional successor.
(Unlikely but would be entirely acceptable. Presumably we would back Vice President Tho strongly, attempt to line up military support under officers sympathetic to Tho, e.g., his friend General Duong Van Minh, and encourage orderly elections.)
B. Diem announces his intention of retiring and urges the election of his brother Nhu as his successor.
Given Diem’s prestige, Nhu would probably be elected. (The U.S. would have to accept this with good grace despite a chorus of hostile comments from Congress, the press and third countries. Nhu’s nationalistic xenophobia would require careful handling, but his anti-Communist record and his commitment to the strategic hamlet program would limit his freedom to maneuver too far out of line.)
C. Diem announces he will retire, but to preserve his own position while in office, does not name a successor.
(This would allow time for U.S. to work out its position. Presumably we would have to decide whether to support (a) a constitutional solution, the election of a non-family candidate with military backing or (b) a dynastic solution, the election of Nhu, on the grounds that his political machine was too strong to oppose unless it was clear that doing so would risk an interregnum favorable to the Communists.)
In the three situations outlined above there would be the question of Diem’s presence after he left office. Probably in the long run it would be easier if he stayed in Viet-Nam where he could be consulted by the government. While this would cramp the new president’s style, it might be less risky than if he left the country. In the latter situation he might subsequently decide that he was being forgotten and decide to try for a comeback.[Page 321]
D. Diem Killed by VC.
Diem’s death at the hands of the VC would impede VC attempts to play a role in the formation of a new government and give more time for the formation of a government not under Communist influence. (Nhu would try to take power. This could be done without violating the constitution if Vice President Tho were “persuaded” to resign. President of the National Assembly Le could then take office to organize elections within two months-Article 34, Constitution of Viet-Nam.. Nhu would have very little popular support and if the military felt well enough organized to oppose Nhu’s political machine, they would probably do so. The Ambassador would have to decide quickly whether to stand aside while Nhu makes his bid or whether to try and persuade Vice President Tho to carry on as constitutional successor and to persuade the military, possibly through Tho’s friend General Duong Van Minh, to support him. Tho is not inspiring and has for some time been reluctant to play an active political role. However, he is one of the few Vietnamese politicians who can obtain sympathetic popular support, particularly in the important Delta area where he comes from. He is experienced. Both he and General Minh would have the advantage of having not been closely associated with Diem and Nhu. Tho, as Diem’s constitutional successor, would be in the position to retain the services of most of the top men now in the government. He might also broaden the Cabinet by bringing in a few carefully picked new men. General Minh is respected by some of the more competent generals. He or another general might be able to persuade them to support Tho for the sake of constitutional continuity and in order to avoid upheavals favorable to the Communists. Nhu and his wife would be a threat to such moves unless the Vietnamese military acted promptly to remove them from the scene. In the interests of public order in Central Viet-Nam, it might be well if Ngo dinh Can would remain at least temporarily in charge at Hue. Since the U.S. within the next few years may well have to face the question of whether or not to support Nhu as a successor to Diem, it is important to evaluate whether Nhu’s political apparatus would, in the event of Diem’s death, hold together out of self-interest and support Nhu in a push for power. While Nhu is unpopular, he has built up an apparatus of people who owe their positions to him; but in Viet-Nam political loyalties are mercurial. The Embassy should continue to explore the question of whether Nhu’s machine would hold together in Diem’s absence.)[Page 322]
E. Diem dies naturally.
(This would present the same situation as described above, except that Diem would not have died a martyr to Communist violence. Thus it would be somewhat easier for the Communists to play a role. Conversely Nhu’s chances would be somewhat reduced since he could not play on the theme that he was the best suited to carry on the crusade of his martyred brother. There would be less polarization and a somewhat greater danger of slack and drift into interregnum. The chances for a constitutional succession by the Vice President would be slightly increased, particularly if quietly and firmly supported by the U.S.)
F. Diem killed by non-VC opposition.
If the opposition were tightly organized and ruthlessly determined, and if other members of the family were also removed from the scene, the transfer of power might be so quick as to bridge a crisis. Certainly the failure of the attempted coup of November, 1960 showed prospective coup leaders the importance of determination.
However, based on past performance it is more likely that even if coup leaders went so far as to kill Diem, there would be dissension and confusion. The situation might hang fire dangerously while competing leaders sought U.S. support. This would be a situation where the American Ambassador might need to act rapidly without awaiting precise instructions from Washington. Here, too, it would be particularly important that the best possible dossier of biographic information be available to the Ambassador (Section III supra).
G. Diem’s position weakened by physical incapacity or by an attempted coup, but he has not clearly relinquished power.
This would be analogous to the situation which existed during the attempted coup of November, 1960’ or to President Wilson’s last days. It would be very dangerous particularly if it dragged on and it became well known that neither Diem nor anyone else were effectively running the country. Diem would hang on as long as possible and would bitterly resent any U.S. moves which might be interpreted as favoring a successor. The U.S. would have to support him fully for a reasonable time if there appeared to be a reasonable chance that he could reestablish himself. If the Ambassador concluded that Diem was incapable of exercising power, he would then have to decide whether or not to discuss the question with Diem and if so whether to urge him to relinquish power to another group. Whether or not Diem were consulted, a decision to support another group would have to be quick, determined and irreversible.[Page 323]
VI. Possible Contenders and U.S. Interests and Roles
The main contenders would be dynastic (the President’s family) and military (the best trained and organized group in Viet-Nam). A constitutional successor (Vice President Tho or an elected candidate) could only succeed with military support.
Minor contenders would be opposition politicians outside Viet-Nam (who have little support in Viet-Nam) and the shadowy and disorganized oppositionists who still exist in Viet-Nam.
Given the strength of the Communist threat to South Viet-Nam, it would be in the U.S. interest to support a government of persons who were quickly available (i.e., in Viet-Nam) and who were sufficiently experienced in the operation of the GVN to carry on without faltering dangerously (this would probably rule out oppositionists in Viet-Nam).
The dangers of a change of government in an underdeveloped country at war are tremendous. However, these dangers are somewhat mitigated by the fact that Vietnamese in positions of responsibility are committed to opposing the Communist takeover of Viet-Nam. This would be a unifying force.
Two other factors may be serving to gradually reduce the dangers:
- The war in Viet-Nam is building a group of competent men (some ministers, generals and province chiefs) who are not afraid of responsibility.
- Vietnamese leaders understand and agree on the general program which their country should follow in fighting the war and rallying the peasants.
Given these factors the most realistic choice would probably be between Nhu and Vice President Tho with military backing.
A dynastic succession to power by Nhu would be very unpopular in the United States and in third countries (it would be wise to assume that our support of Viet-Nam would be drastically weakened). Yet Nhu could only be removed by use of force. The United States should play no part in such a move as it would almost certainly become known to the grave detriment of our relations with any succeeding government. We would probably be wise to reserve our public position until it became clear whether Nhu’s political machine was strong enough to put him in power despite his unpopularity. If he succeeded, we would have to recognize his government as exercising effective sovereignty. In the United States we would have to emphasize the continued importance of supporting the Vietnamese people in their struggle and seek to minimize any official comments for or against Nhu. This would be the most serious situation which could follow Diem’s death.[Page 324]
Alternatively, if on Diem’s death Nhu were removed even temporarily from the scene, the United States should then, and only then, move promptly to support the constitutional succession of the Vice President with backing of the armed forces. Unfortunately no preliminary contacts should be made (prior to Diem’s death or withdrawal) since the persons involved would surely be compromised.
Further study should be given to persons who could widen and strengthen the existing and future governments. Particular attention should be focused on younger men (such as Tran Van Dinh) and labor leaders.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 1-1 S VIET-US. Top Secret; Official-Informal. A note on the source text indicates that the contingency plan was “approved by White House” on June 6.↩
- Top Secret.↩
- See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. I, Document 181.↩