181. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Vietnam1

1247. For Trueheart from Hilsman. Embtels 1209,2 1211.3 Entirely concur with line you have been taking as reported reftels. Believe this line must now be followed by very hard-hitting approach to Diem.which you may put on paper as gist of an instruction from Department.

Unless you have most serious reservations you are instructed convey to Diem following as coming from Washington.

Until May 8 incident U.S. public and official opinion increasingly impressed by GVN success against Viet Cong. This favorable trend has now been dangerously reversed. Hilsman and other U.S. officials who must defend in current Congressional hearings U.S. aid and assistance programs for Viet-Nam are finding their position increasingly difficult in the face of grave political pressures and serious questions about the Buddhist problem.

There is room to be generous in dealing with the Buddhists and such dealing is necessary to rebuild the prestige of the Vietnamese Government in America.

While agreement on five points has been reached, suspicions and tensions are still most serious and a reasonable and friendly attitude is absolutely necessary if the GVN is to regain its prestige in Viet-Nam and its reputation in Washington. Also the GVN should not be equated with one individual. For example statement (Embtel 1156)4 “Buddhism can count on the Constitution, in other words, on me” made bad impression here. (FYI Preceding two sentences may be used at your discretion. End FYI)

There should be no separation between the Government and people of Viet-Nam the great majority of whom consider themselves to be Buddhists. The barricades in Saigon emphasize this serious separation [Page 403] and should be taken down. The highest leaders of the Government should meet Buddhist leaders regularly and treat them as respected equals.

The Government should consider other gestures of good faith which recognize that the Buddhists are sincere and that they are entitled to an honored place in the Vietnamese nation.

The joint communique of June 16 in which agreement was reached on the five demands should be scrupulously respected and promptly carried out so as to reduce the suspicions of the Buddhists who are watching the Government’s actions closely. The Buddhist leaders are well organized and have not permitted the Communists or political opposition elements to take control. They are a disciplined and peaceful people who must be treated without suspicion.

News of these events reaches Washington promptly and any evidence that elements within the GVN were seeking to hold back on the agreements or to criticize the Buddhists publicly or privately would have grave effects. Madame Nhu’s statements have caused such serious questions in Washington (and evidently in Saigon) as to the sincerity of the GVN’s intentions that a profound sense of irritation is already damaging the close U.S.-GVN sense of cooperation which must endure for a long time if Viet-Nam is to succeed against the Communists. (FYI Dept has just received [document number not declassified]. End FYI.

Other steps to win back the Buddhists should be considered and preparations should be started now to carry out free parliamentary elections in August. The GVN must seriously consider such steps as permitting opposition candidates to run without harassment, at least some trials of prisoners, and broadening the Cabinet.

In general the GVN should seek to convince its citizens that it is a reasonable Government dedicated to assisting, not harassing them and to preserving law and order without employing means so strong or so irritating as to cause divisions and dissensions.

Well realize difficulty of conveying these thoughts, but unless they are clearly understood the entire U.S. effort of supplying necessary support to Viet-Nam is in jeopardy. Enemies of foreign aid are making maximum use of all derogatory news from Viet-Nam.

As a specific example it will now be more difficult to approve recently requested crop destruction program (Deptel 1208)5 since any [Page 404] leak (and there are many) connecting U.S. with such activity now would be particularly difficult to handle here in U.S. and internationally.

FYI You may wish say you have received above as official assessment of situation as seen from Washington and that you have decided, despite its bluntness, that it in joint U.S.-GVN interest that President see it on confidential basis.

You may wish ask your British, Australian, or other colleagues follow up on at least some of these points. We could support such requests with Embassies here. End FYI.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, AID (US) S VIEI Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Wood and cleared by Rice and, in draft by Hilsman. Repeated to CINCPAC for POLAD.
  2. Document 180.
  3. In telegram 1211 from Saigon, June 19, 5 p.m., Trueheart reported that Thuan had assured him that no additional bonzes had been jailed beyond those already known to the Embassy. Trueheart noted that he reiterated to Thuan the advice outlined in telegram 1209 from Saigon, and expressed his concern over the possibility of a further damaging statement from Madame Nhu. (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET)
  4. See footnote 3, Document 165.
  5. The reference should be to telegram 1208 from Saigon, June 19, 11 a.m., in which the Embassy reported on a South Vietnamese military operation and noted that the Diem government had made an urgent request to the Embassy for supporting crop destruction with herbicides in the area of the military operation. (Department of State, Central Files, DEF 19 US-S VIET)