261. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
Saigon, August 21, 1963, 10 p.m.
299. Department pass CAS HQ. CINCPAC for POLAD. Tokyo for Lodge. Following is preliminary CAS/Embassy analysis situation:
- Indications have accumulated over day suggesting that impetus for crackdown on Buddhists and imposition of state of siege2 came from senior military leadership and that decision to embark on this course taken by President with very little reference to his Cabinet or other civilian advisors with exception Ngo Dinh Nhu. Such high civil functionaries as Secretary of State at the Presidency Thuan, Interior Minister Luong and Police/CIO Chief appear confused, concerned and out of picture both in terms of planning which led to this morning’s events and of their present roles. Military now have a dominant role and although for time being they profess loyalty to President, latter’s position would seem currently or potentially precarious with generals appearing have option of deposing him now or much more likely at a later stage in developments. His main hope for escaping figurehead role would be rapid restoration civil governmental control through ending state of martial law or divisions in ranks of military which he could exploit to maintain some kind of intra-military power equilibrium.
- Although in initial phases Buddhist affair the military tended sympathize with Buddhists and to be resentful of GVN’s inept handling, in recent weeks there have been indications that military beginning to tire of issue, becoming concerned over impact of prolonged impasse on morale of troops, and beginning to fear that Buddhists had escalated dispute to point where it posed possibly grave threat to security of country and struggle against VC. We have several reports of dissatisfaction on part of military leadership with indecisiveness of GVN’s handling of Buddhist question and ineffectuality of senior civilian officials. Events of Sunday,3 including large and responsive crowd at Xa Loi, student unrest in Hue, and attack by Buddhist supporters on ARVN Captain in Da Nang may finally have impelled military into action. Expertness, speed, and coordination with which operations carried out against Buddhists in widely separated cities indicate that careful and detailed prior planning must have been carried out on contingency basis before final decision to move taken. This also suggested by dispatch with which banners appeared in city this morning proclaiming Army’s determination to defeat Communists and by remarkably expeditious appearance of ARVN psywar pictures purporting to show evidence of VC penetration of Buddhist movement.
- Luong’s claim (see Embtel 293)4 that generals confronted Diem in all day session 20 August with urgent request that he give them power to deal with situation, while possibly self-seeking attempt dissociate himself with [from] Buddhist repression, has ring of truth to us. Also see FVS 94815 for Diem’s part, aside from question as whether he had much choice, generals’ proposals may have had certain attractions for him. Rightly or wrongly President appears to have believed that his government had genuinely attempted path of conciliation with Buddhists. He could claim that this policy had been unsuccessful in placating Buddhists and had in fact merely led to expanded Buddhist activity. In short, Diem probably concluded that this policy had become one-way street to catastrophe for him, his family and his government. Early action against Buddhists would also have advantage of presenting Ambassador Lodge with fait accompli before latter’s arrival. Also by involving military in repressive actions against Buddhists, he may have thought that he could taint with same brush as his regime only real alternative which US would have accepted should public opinion over Buddhist issue force change in American policy of support for his regime.
- Joining military in crackdown on Buddhists might also have appealed to Ngo Dinh Nhu, only other non-military participant in Monday meeting according to Luong, as being in accord with his long-standing prescription for solution to problem. Would also tie in with his previously reported blandishments toward generals; Nhu may have encouraged his brother to go along with generals confident in his ability to manipulate them and to make them bear equal onus for strong measures against Buddhists.
- Two most immediate sources of danger are possibilities of mass agitation in protest against Buddhist repression and break out of fighting between various military elements now in control of country. Re first, generals moved so swiftly and effectively in establishing martial law that, with exception Hue, people seem too stunned to react. As result stringent security controls now in force will be difficult for agitators to organize demonstrations. However, judging by sentiment in their favor generated by Buddhist leadership in recent weeks, particularly among students, possibility of unrest in main cities cannot be excluded.
- Probably more serious is threat that various elements of military, even though now ostensibly united, may begin maneuver for power in very amorphous and anomalous situation. General Dinh, who is Military Governor of Saigon, is an emotional and somewhat extremist officer who might break facade of army unity in present situation. Also uncertain is present locus of loyalties of Colonel Le Quang Tung, Vietnamese Special Forces Commander who has long served as Ngo family’s watchdog among military. Tung has an estimated 1,000 highly trained troops in and around Saigon. Although he appears to be going along with General Don for moment, he is much hated and distrusted by other senior officers, especially Dinh and Khanh. Trouble could well break out between various factions.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 2-4 S VIEI Secret; Operational Immediate. Repeated Operational Immediate to CINCPAC and Tokyo. Received at 1:28 p.m. Relayed to the White House, CIA, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Ambassador Nolting left Saigon on August 15; Ambassador Lodge was in Tokyo en route to Vietnam.↩
- According to CINCPAC telegram 210030Z, August 20, received in Washington at 10:34 p.m., Secretary Thuan informed U.S. officials that President Diem in Executive Council on August 20 decided to proclaim martial law via radio to begin at 6 a.m., August 21, local Saigon time. As a practical matter, Thuan stated, martial law was in effect from midnight of August 20. (Ibid., POL 23 S VIET) For text of Diem’s proclamation, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1963, p. 862.↩
- August 17.↩
- In telegram 293, August 21, 9 p.m., the Embassy transmitted the salient points of that afternoon’s discussion between a U.S. official and Vietnamese Interior Minister Luong concerning the declaration of martial law and the action against the Buddhists. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 S VIET)↩
- Not found.↩