150. Report by the Secretary of Defense (McNamara)1


Smith, a professor at a leading American University, speaks Vietnamese fluently, is an oriental scholar, possesses wide contact among the leaders of both North and South Vietnam, and in the course of his daily work has access to transcripts of NVN radio broadcasts and to personal letters and other documents smuggled out of NVN. He is just completing a visit to SVN, having last visited the country in 1960 and 1953. During this trip he did not travel extensively outside of Saigon. In a long interview with McNamara he stated:

He brought with him to SVN a belief that we could probably manage to get along with Diem and it would be dangerous to make a change. After several weeks here, he has changed his mind.
Diem has aged terribly since 1960. He is slow mentally.
Nhu is a person with his back to the wall; he has spread the fear of arrest in non-political figures throughout all segments of Saigon; he is in a panic and has reached a stage of desperation.
Diem would not last 24 hours without Nhu who handles the bribes and manipulates the power base necessary for his survival. Nhu would not last 24 hours without the cloak of Diem’s prestige. Each knows his need for the other.
It is impossible to liberalize the regime. Diem is incapable of changing. Therefore we must choose between winning with the regime as it is or supporting a change to another.
For years the public has been criticizing the regime but has done so behind their hands. Now the criticism is open, by people in the streets, and participated in by soldiers and policemen.
The treatment of the Buddhists has particularly stuck in the gullets of all class of Vietnamese. They are shocked by the use of troops on sacred ground. It has struck deeper than anything else the [Page 294] regime has done and the action disgusts Catholics and Buddhists alike. There is no Buddhist-Catholic clash. There has been no formal Buddhist organization in the past; suddenly people have been organized with press handouts, etc. There was latent opposition to the regime throughout the country which crystallized around the Buddhists after the Hue incident. It is clearly a political and not a religious movement.
The first point to study carefully is: Can we win with this regime. He believes we cannot. Then we must face the question of what is going to replace it. Any movement away from the regime is extremely risky. Neither the students nor the Buddhists can overthrow the government. Only a military coup or an assassination will be effective and one or the other is likely to occur soon. In such circumstances we have a 50% chance of getting something better.
The Ambassador’s policy of silence has won approval everywhere except in the palace.
Thompson said last week the strategic hamlet program has proven it will work. The NVN broadcasts have attacked nothing as much as the hamlet program.
Through independent sources he has confirmed that Nhu told Alsop what Alsop reported Nhu said3 and that the NVN have approached Nhu through the French as Nhu reported.
A colonel in the Army, a mutual friend of Nhu and the professor, reports that a few days ago Nhu inquired how the Army would react to negotiations with the NVN. The colonel told Nhu that he would not live 24 hours after the start of such negotiations.
If the Communists take over control of SVN, not another political leader in all of Asia will place any confidence in the world of the West. Indeed, the loss of confidence will not be limited to Asian leaders.
The American government cannot do anything other than to either publicly support Diem or keep our mouths shut. If we follow the latter policy, a coup will probably take place within four weeks. It will be a gamble as to who will take over power after an interim military government.
Professors at the University in Saigon report life has been hell; if the University is reopened the students will be out on the streets and the Dean of the Literary School will be with them.
Nhu is putting more and more people into jail and tension is continuing to rise. As tension rises it will eventually affect the morale of the troops. The elimination of the curfew and martial law have been accompanied by increasing arrests in the middle of the night. The jails have never been as full.
Coup plotting by the US would defeat its own end. We would end up with a government tarred with the reputation of an American puppet.
The VC have not taken advantage of the period of political instability because their political leadership is poor and NVN facing a disastrous food shortage wishes an accommodation with SVN.
It is soft-headed to believe that “democracy” will work under today’s conditions in SVN. Many of the Diem regime’s repressive measures would be continued by a successor regime. But the people will tolerate them for a time if the government will explain why they are imposed and when they may be lifted. Many in SVN today talk of a choice between perpetual repression under Diem or perpetual repression under Communists.
Many in SVN have been puzzled by the US attitude. The government has not spoken with one voice. If the US government, following my return, says nothing to support the Diem regime, an explosion will occur within 2, 3, or 4 weeks.

Robert S. McNamara 4
  1. Source: Washington National Record Center, RG 330, McNamara Files: FRC 71-A-3470, Back-up Documents and Notes, 9/25/63—Trip to SVN. Secret.
  2. According to William P. Bundy, who accompanied McNamara to Vietnam, Professor Smith is a pseudonym. Bundy recalls that “Smith,” who was also in Saigon at the time, “was a long-standing student and writer on Vietnam who had been a totally strong supporter of Diem up to that point.” Bundy thinks that “Smith’s” opinions carried “special weight” because of his previous support for Diem. He remembers that it was his impression at the time that “Smith’s” testimony had “considerable weight with McNamara.” (Department of State, Office of the Historian, Vietnam Interviews, William R Bundy, June 26, 1984)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 151.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.