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

243. Eyes only Ambassador Lodge. For CINCPAC/POLAD exclusive for Admiral Felt. No further distribution. Re CAS Saigon 02652 reporting General Don’s views; Saigon 3203 Saigon 316,4 and Saigon 329.5 It is now clear that whether military proposed martial law or whether Nhu tricked them into it, Nhu took advantage of its imposition to smash pagodas with police and Tung’s Special Forces loyal to him, thus placing onus on military in eyes of world and Vietnamese people. Also clear that Nhu has maneuvered himself into commanding position.

US Government cannot tolerate situation in which power lies in Nhu’s hands. Diem must be given chance to rid himself of Nhu and his coterie and replace them with best military and political personalities available.

If, in spite of all of your efforts, Diem remains obdurate and refuses, then we must face the possibility that Diem himself cannot be preserved.

We now believe immediate action must be taken to prevent Nhu from consolidating his position further. Therefore, unless you in consultation with Harkins perceive overriding objections you are authorized to proceed along following lines:

First, we must press on appropriate levels of GVN following line: [Page 629]
USG cannot accept actions against Buddhists taken by Nhu and his collaborators under cover martial law.
Prompt dramatic actions redress situation must be taken, including repeal of decree 10,6 release of arrested monks, nuns, etc.
We must at same time also tell key military leaders that US would find it impossible to continue support GVN militarily and economically unless above steps are taken immediately which we recognize requires removal of the Nhus from the scene. We wish give Diem reasonable opportunity to remove Nhus, but if he remains obdurate, then we are prepared to accept the obvious implication that we can no longer support Diem . You may also tell appropriate military commanders we will give them direct support in any interim period of breakdown central government mechanism.
We recognize the necessity of removing taint on military for pagoda raids and placing blame squarely on Nhu. You are authorized to have such statements made in Saigon as you consider desirable to achieve this objective. We are prepared to take same line here and to have Voice of America make statement along lines contained in next numbered telegram whenever you give the word, preferably as soon as possible.7

Concurrently with above, Ambassador and country team should urgently examine all possible alternative leadership and make detailed plans as to how we might bring about Diem’s replacement if this should become necessary.

Assume you will consult with General Harkins re any precautions necessary protect American personnel during crisis period.

You will understand that we cannot from Washington give you detailed instructions as to how this operation should proceed, but you will also know we will back you to the hilt on actions you take to achieve our objectives.

Needless to say we have held knowledge of this telegram to minimum essential people and assume you will take similar precautions to prevent premature leaks.8

  1. Source: Department of State, Har-Van Files, Overthrow of the Diem Government in South Vietnam, 1963. Top Secret; Operational Immediate. Printed also in United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, Book 12, pp. 536-537 and Declassified Documents, 1975, 321B. Drafted by Hilsman and cleared by Hilsman, Forrestal, and Ball. Approved by Harriman for transmission and classification. The drafting and clearance of this message has occasioned subsequent controversy which is reflected in the memoirs and recollections of some of the principal personalities involved at the time. General Maxwell Taylor stated in Swords and Plowshares, pp. 292-294, that the cable was an “end run” by an anti-Diem faction in Washington including Hilsman, Harriman, and Forrestal. Taylor believed the cable was ill-conceived, confusing, and would never had been approved had Hilsman and his colleagues not taken advantage of the absence from Washington of most of the high-level officials of the administration. Hilsman, in To Move a Nation, pp. 487-488, and in a later oral history interview (Kennedy Library, Oral History Program) maintained that the cable was cleared by the President and all representatives of the relevant agencies.
  2. Document 275.
  3. Document 274.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 276.
  5. Document 276.
  6. Regarding Decree No. 10 of August 6, 1950, see footnote 2, Document 116.
  7. Reference is to telegram 244 to Saigon, August 24, 9:37 p.m., in which Hilsman provided the Embassy with a guidance for simultaneous play in Washington and Saigon. This guidance and the proposed VOA broadcast were supposed to separate in the public’s mind the South Vietnamese Army’s press imposition of martial law and the attacks by Tung’s Special Forces and the secret police on the pagodas and the large-scale arrests of Buddhist leaders and demonstrators. The guidance pointed out that the secret police and the Special Forces were not under the command of the Armed Forces. (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET) For text of the VOA guidance as actually broadcast, see Document 287.
  8. The last three paragraphs of this telegram were not in the draft copy cited in footnote 2, Document 280.