60. Memorandum From the Counselor and Public Affairs Officer of the Embassy in Vietnam (Mecklin) to the Public Affairs Adviser in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs (Manell)1

SUBJECT

  • Saigon Reaction to Mansfield

Further to Governor Harriman’s request, here are my recollections of the reaction in Saigon to Senator Mansfield’s recent report on his visit to Southeast Asia.2 I assume you will pass them on to the Governor if appropriate.

As you know, there was a considerable difference between the tone and content of the initial U.S. news agency stories and of the report itself. As is, unhappily, so often the case, the news stories accented its negative comment on the Diem regime.

Reactions thus came in two parts: dismay initially, a degree of reassurance when the full text of the report arrived. As far as I know, neither the U.S. Mission nor the GVN was given an advance copy of the report. If this had been done, some of the damage inflicted by incomplete press dispatches could have been averted. It would be useful to distribute advance copies to the parties concerned in future release of papers of this sort.

There was no coverage at all of the report in the Vietnamese press, and thus no editorial comment. This in itself is significant, in my opinion, of a rather chastened mood (however privately bitter) inside the GVN as a result of such recent reminders of sensitive U.S. public opinion as the press uproar over Ap Bac and Secretary Rusk’s public criticism of the lack of adequate facilities for newsmen in Viet-Nam. In previous cases of this sort, the GVN often has printed severe foreign criticism in its controlled press, in order later to counter-attack. There [Page 153]was a CAS report3 that one group inside the GVN wanted to use this technique on Mansfield, but was overruled by the palace.

Similarly, the Mission feared that Mme. Nhu would be stirred to attack the U.S. in her speech on Truong Sisters Day (the national women’s festival) which happened to come a few days after the Mansfield paper was released. Ambassador Nolting strongly advised the GVN against permitting her to do this, and in fact warned that he would walk out of the ceremony if she persisted, thus precipitating an ugly, open issue. The speech contained some unpleasant comment on foreign critics, but there were no names and in general it was moderate by comparison with some of her past explosions.

As of my departure from Saigon on March 5, there had been no further GVN public comment that could be related to Mansfield. This clearly seemed to be a hard policy decision since GVN sources had also refrained even from private, anonymous comment to foreign newsmen.

To a lesser degree, this was also true of official GVN comment to the U.S. Mission (as of March 5). I happened to have applied for a meeting with Ngo Dinh Nhu a fortnight earlier to discuss plans for the projected Chieu Hoi (call to return) program to encourage Communist defections. On the morning after the Mansfield report was released, Nhu called me to the palace to talk Chieu Hoi. It was quickly evident that what he really wanted to discuss was Mansfield—but he was relatively guarded, again I think reflecting a GVN decision not to engage in polemics with the U.S. at this point.

Nhu’s main point was that the Mansfield report would hurt the Chieu Hoi effort because it suggested flagging U.S. support and thus would influence possible VC defectors to postpone action (which seemed a bit incongruous in view of his repeated previous statements that the U.S. presence should be downplayed). At one point he called the report “treachery” and he remarked rather enigmatically that “it changes everything,” declining my invitation to elaborate. He listened somewhat absently and wearily as I remarked that the report was not U.S. Government policy (which I think he doubted, on the assumption that it could not have been released without the President’s approval) and that nothing should be permitted to weaken the existing close U.S. working relations with the GVN in Viet-Nam. Altogether Nhu gave an impression of weary frustration with what he considers U.S. vagaries-or worse. He definitely was not as angry as on some previous occasions, but there seemed little doubt that the report would add to U.S. difficulties in working with him. (Nhu commented similarly to CAS, including, I believe, an unhappy reference to Mansfield’s praise for Sihanouk, whom Nhu detests.)

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A few days later, President Diem called me to the palace to express regrets about my departure for Washington. He talked for 2-1/2 hours, mostly about military operations, and mentioned the Mansfield report only once. This was a parenthetical remark that such foreign talk as this encourages the Communists to make a greater effort. He said it possibly would lead to new Communist infiltration to try to exploit the report’s “demoralizing” impact in South Viet-Nam. He did not pursue the subject further and plainly wanted no comment from me. He was otherwise friendly and apparently unperturbed.

I can’t recall that my lower-level GVN friends volunteered any reaction at all to the report. When I asked Phan Van Tao, Director General of Information, what he thought, the reply was a grimace and shrug, again tending to confirm my theory of a policy directive to clam up. But there was no doubt that the GVN was shaken by the initial press treatment of the report, coming as it did on top of a wave of other criticisms. On the basis of my personal knowledge of the notable personality complexities of the Ngo Dinh family, it may be speculated that this kind of suppressed bitterness could turn out to be more consequential to our relations with the GVN than a public explosion.

The full text of the Mansfield report had just arrived when I left Saigon. The immediate result was relaxation, as it was seen that Mansfield urged continuation of the U.S. effort at its present level. The longer term impact remains to be seen, but it may be useful to register some personal speculation.

It is close to axiomatic that the Ngo Dinhs are seldom “persuaded” in the Western sense, by logical U.S. arguments. Nhu, for example, has said repeatedly that Americans don’t “understand” Asians, Communism, or much of anything else on the intellectual level. Where the GVN has acceded to U.S. wishes, as it frequently does, and often gracefully, I think the main reason has been a realistic acceptance of the political imperative to get along with the U.S., not because our arguments were compelling-however much the results may have subsequently confirmed them. This, I think, is why very few of our agreements with the GVN had materialized except when the U.S. brought direct, specific pressure. It is characteristic of the Ngo Dinhs [less than 1 line not declassified] that they usually come to claim as their own successful actions that were initially urged by foreign advisers, e.g. the strategic hamlet program which grew in large measure from the Thompson Mission.

Thus, I don’t think the Mansfield paper will have much effect, in itself, on GVN performance, i.e., its suggestions for specific actions will not be persuasive. On the contrary, I think Diem and the Nhus will resent the outrageous claim of a foreigner to the right to discuss [Page 155]internal Vietnamese affairs, and this in turn will exacerbate their existing emotional attitudes toward the U.S. These, however, were already richly developed.

But politically I think it may turn out that Mansfield’s report will be beneficial to the U.S. interest at the Saigon operating level. We have lately been approaching a showdown in our dealings with the GVN in some areas, e.g., the recent prolonged dispute about a GVN piaster appropriation for the strategic hamlets. Within limits, the Mission has almost literally been doing what our press critics have so long urged: “getting tough with Diem.” This, I think, has combined with the recent stateside public splashes on Viet-Nam to create the psychological state of suppressed bitterness mentioned above. In effect, what’s happening is that the Ngo Dinhs’ (especially Nhu’s) dislike and suspicions of the U.S. are hardening, and presumably will make trouble for us at some future date as the Communist threat declines. But at the same time the GVN seems to have decided realistically, on the political level, to go along with us at the pressure points, as indicated by its eventual surrender on the piaster issue.

It is certainly debatable whether this is a desirable state of affairs in relations with an ally, but experience indicates that in the case of the GVN it may be the only way to get urgently essential things done. If this is to continue, incidentally, it is important that this changing relationship not be leaked to the press, or hinted in any way in official U.S. public statements. News stories with gloating headlines, e.g., “Diem at last heeding U.S. advice,” would so anger the Vietnamese that emotion might once again prevail over the GVN’s political judgments. (Which in itself is a glimpse of our dilemma in dealing with the U.S. press, since, of course, stories of this sort would strengthen support for U.S. policy in Viet-Nam.)

Within this framework, I think the Mansfield report will be helpful to the Mission in Saigon, at least indirectly, in reinforcing our repeated appeals for better cooperation on grounds of the sensitivity of U.S. public opinion. The GVN has long been particularly alert to Mansfield, first because of his early support for Diem, and later because of the disillusion he revealed in his speech at Michigan State in the summer of 1962.4 It would be surprising indeed if the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington is not reporting that such doubts by a man in Mansfield’s key political position indicate a real possibility of a change in U.S. policy. In other words, paradoxically, we may have arrived at the point where negative criticism of the GVN is almost as useful in the present circumstances in Saigon as it is damaging to the Administration’s defense of its policy at home.

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It follows, however, that if this is the case, we are in a perilous situation. We certainly can’t live on paradoxes indefinitely. Altogether I think the Mansfield report’s political and psychological impact, both here and in Saigon, tends to confirm its main point: that it is essential for the U.S. and the GVN to strive more vigorously than ever to turn the struggle decisively against the Communists, as quickly as possible-before the Western political deterioration that Ho Chi Minh has predicted begins indeed to set in.

John M. Mecklin5
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 306, USIA/IOP/R Files: FRC 68 A 1415, Vietnam-General and Personnel. Secret. Also sent to Manning and Bunce in USIA.
  2. See Documents 42 and 43.
  3. Not found.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, vol. II, Document 214.
  5. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.