140. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

1083. CINCPAC for POLAD. Deptel 1159;2 1162.3 No further Buddhist demonstrations last evening or today. Bonzes continuing their fast in pagodas until 1400 tomorrow. Reports from Hue, Danang and My Tho indicate those cities quiet with no Buddhist manifestations.

In assessing general situation it quite clear that feeling continues run deep among Buddhists. Equally clear that problem facing GVN goes well beyond issues religious freedom and discrimination. These issues-though real enough-are now also being used as label and facade behind which other groups seek express opposition to Diem government and exploit situation for various aims. This greatly complicates problem of GVN—and our advice to them—since they must act on assumption they are dealing with political opposition. Problem is further compounded by fact that Buddhists have no recognized hierarchy with which government can deal and which can take position on behalf of movement. (Thus Thuan complained to me May 29 [Page 338]that Diem had spent some hours with group of Buddhist leaders only to be confronted later by other groups demanding to be heard and complaining first group not the “real” leaders.)

Given history of events it seems unlikely to us that GVN can back off its stand on responsibility for Hue incident. Psychological moment to do so has long passed in any event. Unhappily, it appears that it may also be too late for GVN concessions of other sorts to halt Buddhist agitation. For example, May 29 GVN communique which clearly reaffirmed religious freedom under Article 17 of Constitution and gave firm assurance against discrimination, appears to have had no effect on militants. Moreover, those seeking to use Buddhist agitation for their own purposes can be counted on to keep pot boiling if possible.

While both sides displaying restraint to date, prolongation of GVN-Buddhist confrontation contains real dangers:

a.
For first time many civil servants faced with religious issue and forced to take a stand, which cannot help but affect their morale.
b.
Military predominantly Buddhist and sharp cleavage in their ranks would of course be most serious for prosecution CI effort, and otherwise.
c.
Actions to date by both sides during demonstrations have been restrained and orderly. However, if Buddhists become more militant in their demands and demonstrations continue over extended period, possibility of clashes with police, whether provoked or inadvertent, are distinct possibility. For example, it is quite unlikely that GVN yesterday would have permitted 500 bonzes to squat indefinitely in central Saigon, had they not decided to move out on their own. Although VC have not overtly exploited situation to date, they undoubtedly have contingency plans and capability to exploit any situation which gets out of hand.

I have sought appointment with Thuan today with view to getting GVN assessment of situation and sounding him out on future plans. I will also raise again possibility of President’s naming commission to study Buddhist grievances. At this point, I believe it would be best—from standpoint GVN acceptance as well as effectiveness with Buddhists—if commission’s mandate were quite broad and not linked specifically to Hue incident. What is needed, I think, is to get all aspects of problem off the streets and into the conference hall.

I also prefer if possible to work through Thuan on this one, rather than Diem. Latter became quite agitated during Ambassador’s and my conversation with him May 18, and I sense this is a subject on which he is predisposed not to take U.S. advice. Thuan, on other hand, claims to be completely objective and asserts he is neither Catholic nor Buddhist. but Confucianist.

[Page 339]

As for Papal Nuncio, both Ambassador and I have previously sought his good offices. He was not responsive but I will try again at first opportunity. Ambassador also spoke with Diem’s confessor, who promised to do what he could. Difficulty with this approach is that, as explained above, we are no longer dealing with purely religious issue.

Trueheart
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET. Confidential; Priority. Repeated to CINCPAC.
  2. Document 138.
  3. In telegram 1162 to Saigon, May 30, the Department suggested that the Embassy should consider approaching the Papal Nuncio in Saigon to ask if he would discuss the Buddhist problem with Diem. (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET)