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

1236. Embtel 1231.2 Thuan called me in this morning for what turned out to be longish post-mortem on my meeting with Diem June 22. He said Diem had since discussed meeting with him twice and had shown him paper I had left. Diem was disturbed (I gathered he meant angry) over what he had been told and suspicious that we were trying to undermine him.

I recounted conversation for Thuan and again went over with him our thinking regarding gravity of situation arising from Buddhist affair. I said we had been supporting Diem and GVN for a long time and that what I had done my best to get over to President was that our pressure resulted from our real and serious concern that he must take steps to restore loss of support in this country. We were also trying to bring home effects of Buddhist affair in U.S. We were, in short, trying to help him rather than undermine him.

Thuan again said he agreed with our analysis of Buddhist problem, and he was doing and would do everything he could to see that June 16 agreement was faithfully carried out. He added, with great seriousness, that he was doing so because (a) he thought “the fate of the nation” depended on it, and (b) his personal good faith was engaged as one of the signers. I said I had never doubted his own role in this affair.

I hoped he would succeed (he had not predicted that he would), but Diem should bear in mind that immediate problem was not simply one of carrying out agreement to the letter but of genuinely convincing Buddhists of GVN good faith. This might well require, in spirit at least, something more than literal compliance. Burden of proof was rigidly and wrongly on the government, and Diem simply could not afford to have a revival of demonstrations or bonzes burning in the street.

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I told him that, in my judgment, Buddhist leaders were not only suspicious re implementation of agreement but also very afraid that once public interest has abated, GVN will move in quietly to arrest principal leaders and take other repressive measures. This very natural feeling would probably cause Buddhists to hold out for maximum public action by GVN which would tend to get government openly committed on details and hence give Buddhists some measure of protection against reprisals. (Thuan agreed this was an important element in Buddhist thinking.) I urged him in this connection to have published immediately the detailed orders he said had been sent to provincial officials re implementation of agreement. Thuan thought he could arrange this.

Turning back to President—and I think this was main point he wanted to convey—Thuan said he was very concerned over attitude of Diem in face of pressures being exerted on him and of appointment of new Ambassador.3 Diem thought a new American policy was involved and an effort to force him to do our bidding or to unseat him. His reaction to this prospect, Thuan said, was one of extreme stubbornness. He had said, and Thuan said he was trying to quote him exactly, “they can send ten Lodges, but I will not permit myself or my country to be humiliated, not if they train their artillery on this Palace.” Thuan added that he knew, as I did, how stubborn Diem was, and he was most concerned over prospect of series of head-to-head confrontations.

I replied that I did not know what Ambassador Lodge’s instructions would be, but it seemed to me that the way to avoid confrontations was for GVN to begin to move now. They had to move immediately anyway, in their own interests, not only to overcome effects of Buddhist affair but also to prepare for August elections. Regarding latter they had only three choices: (a) to cancel them, (b) to rig them, or (c) to take actions designed to ensure heavy popular support (and vote) for the government. First two alternatives would amount to admission GVN did not have popular support and were therefore unacceptable. Hence, GVN really had no choice but to get busy on the third. I thought GVN would know better than we the sort of things it should do. Thuan said he agreed and he was sure elections would be held.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, AID (US) S VIET. Secret; Priority; Eyes Only.
  2. Document 185.
  3. On June 20, the Department instructed Trueheart to approach the Diem government to request agrement to the appointment of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., to replace Frederick Nolting as Ambassador to Vietnam. (Telegram 1250 to Saigon; Department of State, Central Files, PER-Lodge, HENRY CABOT) Trueheart replied on June 22 that President Diem had agreed that afternoon to the appointment. (Telegram 1230 from Saigon; Ibid.)