135. Letter From the Charge in Vietnam (Trueheart) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Hilsman)1

Dear Roger : Yesterday afternoon Mr. Ngo Dinh Nhu asked General Harkins, General Weede, John Richardson and me to call on him for a discussion of a highly sensitive matter. Thuan and General Khiem, Chief of the Joint General Staff, were also present.

Nhu stated that he wished to recount to us an intelligence report which he had just received, to reach a joint evaluation of the report, and to consider together what should be done about it. The report concerned a meeting held on May 19 (Ho Chi Minh’s birthday) at the Mimot plantation in Cambodia, at which all the principal VC political and military leaders in South Viet-Nam had been present, as well as representatives from Hanoi. Nhu’s informant had been one of the participants. (This is not the first time that Nhu has claimed to be in touch with a top VC leader. So far as I know, previous information from this or these informants has not turned out to be particularly significant. Richardson confirms this impression and suggests that Bill Colby may be able to provide further comment. In this case, at any rate, we have no confirmation whatsoever.)

Nhu said that at this meeting the VC leaders had been informed that the Communists had now assigned top priority to liquidating the Laotian problem. South Viet-Nam would for the time being have secondary priority. In accordance with this decision, a directive was issued at the meeting, with effect from May 20, that all VC “special forces” in South Viet-Nam should be withdrawn to southern Laos. (Neither we nor Nhu had ever heard of VC “special forces”. He explained that, according to his informant, these were elite units, [Page 328] about six battalions in all, divided between the southern and central areas of SVN, a sort of hard hard-core authorized to operate throughout South Viet-Nam without prior permission from higher authority. The ordinary VC regular units had to get permission to operate outside of their assigned area.) In addition, it had been directed that the VC regular units in SVN should retire into their “maquis” (or Cambodia) and cease operations, dispersing if necessary to avoid contact with GVN forces. In short, the effect of the alleged directive would be to leave all the fighting in SVN to the regional or territorial VC forces.

Nhu said that the report, if true, indicated that it might be advisable to advance the date of the GVN general offensive (national campaign), to sweep up the regional VC, and to attempt to prevent the “special forces” from re-entering Viet-Nam. This conclusion was applauded by all present, with General Harkins in the lead.

The above is the guts of the report, but there were a number of intriguing details. For example, the head of the “special forces” is a General de Division by the name of Nghe who has a special flag, green with a golden eagle. Nghe will accompany his troops to southern Laos where he will be military adviser to a General de Brigade (sic) named Tran Son, who is in overall command of an international force in southern Laos. (Tran Son’s standard is white with a gold star. He is not fully trusted by Hanoi and Nghe, a 200% communist, is supposed to keep him in line.) The international force led by Tran Son consists of contingents from North (two regiments) and South Viet-Nam, plus Cambodia, Thailand, Malaya, Burma, and Laos. Nhu’s informant said the Cambodian contingent was of battalion strength, but he was unsure about the size of the other non-Vietnamese groups. At any rate, they were or are supposed to be in southern Laos right now.

Nhu was asked a number of questions about the report—among them why the DRV would pull six battalions out of South Viet-Nam and expose their territorial troops when presumably it would be far easier to supply an equivalent, or larger, number of elite forces from North Viet-Nam. Nhu agreed that this was a good question and said he could only speculate that the Communists might feel that international repercussions in the event of a Communist takeover of Laos would be less if, for example, prisoners of war said they came from South Viet-Nam rather than North Viet-Nam. Nhu, incidentally, said he was convinced that the Communists were on the point of a drive to take over Laos in toto. He repeated this several times. He also said that the Hanoi representatives at the aforementioned meeting had estimated that the GVN planned to inject a force—25,000 men—into southern Laos.

I don’t know what to make of all this. Nhu never said that he accepted the report and frequently used such expressions as “if it is true”. On the other hand, he obviously gave it some credence. (None [Page 329] of us here do, and General Harkins suggested at the meeting that the report could be a Communist ruse.) I am inclined to think, however, that the real object of the meeting was to convey to us, particularly to General Harkins, Nhu’s readiness to see the National Campaign Plan go forward and even to advance the kick-off date. About a week ago, General Harkins sent President Diem a longish letter2 in which he detailed the steps which had been taken to bring the Vietnamese military and para-military forces to a state of readiness to push the National Campaign. He expressed confidence that the time had come to intensify operations further. He also mentioned, having in mind the Unna and Halberstam articles,3 that he understood that Nhu thought the time was not right and that he, Harkins, disagreed. President Diem was somewhat perturbed by the latter remark and, undoubtedly, Nhu heard of it. If my conjecture is right, yesterday’s meeting was Nhu’s Oriental way of setting the record straight.

As for the conclusions of the group in Nhu’s office, they were that, whether or not the report is true, the correct course of action is to continue to intensify operations against the VC. It was also concluded, at Nhu’s suggestion, that there should be no special publicity to the effect that some new and grandiose campaign had been started. Finally, there was some discussion of the possibility of verifying the report, and Richardson suggested in this connection that it would be helpful if President Diem would authorize deeper cross-border intelligence operations, proposals for which are now before him.

One other point is worth mentioning. Nhu said that he regarded our meeting as sort of a test case. He had not previously informed the President (or anyone else) of this intelligence report. The normal practice would have been to tell the President and seek his instructions as to what to do. In this case, we were consulting together first with a view to making recommendations to the President at the same time the information was conveyed to him. Nhu said that if-the procedure worked well in this case, he thought it would be well to continue it. This seems to be a healthy sign, and we will encourage Nhu to continue this scheme. We have the impression that another object of the meeting, in Nhu’s mind, was to show his willingness to work with us.

Finally, Nhu asked that we not report this matter, at least until he had a chance to inform the President. Hence the classification of this letter. General Harkins and John Richardson have seen it and have agreed to let this be the only report of the meeting. Would you, [Page 330] therefore, please pass the enclosed copies to Defense (DIA), JCS, and CIA. I am also sending a copy to Ed Martin for Admiral Felt. Perhaps you would also show it to Fritz when he eventually reaches Washington.

Best personal regards.

Sincerely yours

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 S VIET Top Secret; Official-Informal.
  2. Document 123.
  3. Regarding the Unna article, see footnote 2, Document 122. The Halberstam article is apparently the one printed in The New York Times on May 14, which David Halberstam began with the statement: “President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother and political adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, have outlined a military philosophy that observers believe conflicts with the one espoused by American officials.”