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158. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Republic of Viet-Nam
  • Nguyen Dinh Thuan, Secretary of State for the Presidency and Assistant Secretary of State for National Defense
  • Henry Cabot Lodge, Ambassador
  • Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense
  • General Maxwell D. Taylor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • General Paul D. Harkins, Commander, Military Assistance Command, Viet-Nam
  • Frederick W. Flott, First Secretary of Embassy (interpreting)

SUMMARY

During the first two hours of the meeting, President Diem held forth on the course of the war, the key role played by the strategic hamlets program, and on the wisdom of the various major decisions of his government. During the third hour, Secretary McNamara explained, briefly but deliberately and with considerable force, the concern of the U.S. Government at the recent political unrest in Viet-Nam. He noted that this unrest and the repression that had brought it on could endanger the war effort and the American support for that effort. Secretary McNamara brought up the unfortunate public declarations of Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu.

After Diem had made the inevitable rebuttals and explanations, General Taylor stressed the vital importance of responding to the very legitimate anxiety felt in the U.S. Diem cannot have missed the point that Secretary McNamara's remarks were a carefully thought-out and deliberately expressed statement of U.S. disapproval and concern, and that this disapproval and concern was felt just as strongly by the Department of Defense as by the Department of State.

THE MONOLOGUE

During the first two hours of the meeting, Diem did almost all the talking, often using a number of maps in a rambling discussion of the war and the wisdom of various policies and courses of action adopted by his government. During this virtual monologue, he made the following principal points, all of which he had touched on in greater or lesser detail at earlier meetings with the Ambassador:

Strategic Hamlets

The war was going well, thanks in large measure to the strategic hamlets program. Due to that program, the Viet Cong enemy was having increasing difficulties in finding food and recruits, and was being steadily forced into increasingly difficult and unrewarding tactical situations. Diem said that American deliveries under Public Law 480, particularly in the category of feed grains, had been most helpful to the success of the strategic hamlet program. (He made no other direct acknowledgment of American aid.) He said that the British had given the Vietnamese government valuable advice at the outset of the [Page 312]program, based on British experience in Malaya. He said that for a variety of local reasons, his government had not followed the British advice in all instances.

He recalled that the British had advised him to consolidate and hold firmly one area before extending the strategic hamlets program to another. They had also advised him to hold the arterial coastal highway and consolidate the area between it and the seacoast before trying to secure areas further inland. He noted that the British had said that the strategic hamlets program should be limited at first to the most populous and most productive areas of the country. He remarked in this connection that he had made important departures from the British plan, but always for good and valid reasons.

Outlining his thoughts on maps, he explained that if he had disregarded, even for a short time, the under-populated and comparatively unproductive highlands, these areas would have become a base for Viet Cong attacks and for a Viet Cong drive to the sea to cut the highway and split the Republic.

He acknowledged that his strategic hamlets program was overextended and that in some areas the Viet Cong could attack and overwhelm poorly garrisoned strategic hamlets. He said that he realized some strategic hamlets were set up before the defense personnel were properly trained or armed, but that on balance both the risks and the losses were acceptable. For example, he said, he could push ahead rapidly with the establishment of ten substandard strategic hamlets. The Viet Cong could attack these and overwhelm, say, two of them. But if two fell, eight others would survive and grow stronger, and the area in which the Viet Cong could operate with impunity would shrink faster than otherwise would have been the case.

Another reason he gave for making departures from the British plan was that by so doing he could put isolated strategic hamlets into key crossroads and junction points, and force on the Viet Cong considerable detours in their supply routes. Further to the question of departures from the British operational plan, he said he had taken the calculated risk of opening highways to traffic before the areas through which they passed were absolutely secure. He said that, on the whole, he was satisfied with this gamble, and that thanks to his willingness to make departures from the plan and accept risks, the war effort was further along.

The strategic hamlets, then, affected all aspects of the war: the military, sociological, economic, and political. When Viet Cong cadres who had escaped to the north a few years ago returned to the south, they were amazed at the economic and sociological progress that had been made. This impression of real progress in South Viet-Nam increased their propensity to defect (see below under Defections). Thanks to the strategic hamlets program there is a growing grass-roots democracy. [Page 313]While the country's institutions are not yet perfect, they have been strengthened by the strategic hamlets program; in two or three more years Viet-Nam will be a model democracy.

Cadres

The matter of cadres was the key to the solution of all the country's problems. It must be remembered that Viet-Nam is an underdeveloped country that is still suffering from a serious lack of trained personnel. At the time of Independence, there were, say, five judges in the whole country. There should be at least one per province. Much has been accomplished. At present about half of the provinces have one judge, and of the other half, sometimes two or even three, share, one judge. It is hard to apply to the letter the right of habeas corpus and other refinements of a legal system inherited from the French in these circumstances.

But progress is being made. Cadres are brought in from the provinces to a training camp fifteen kilometers outside of Saigon. They are taught to draw on locally available resources, and experience gained in one area is passed on to cadres from another area. On Fridays there are political discussions. Members of parliament and high officials visit the camps and stimulate discussion groups. When the training cycle is completed, the cadres return to their strategic hamlets and set up comparable discussion groups there. Democracy and its institutions are strengthened. (Later on in the meeting, Diem returned to the subject of lack of cadres when attempting to explain away the recent political unrest and Buddhist and student demonstrations.)

Creation of New Provinces

Diem traced out on the map the new provinces he had created or intended to create. He seemed to see in the creation of new provinces a way of bringing a greater effort to bear on solving the problems of an area.

For example, he is creating a new province west of Saigon to sit astride the Viet Cong communications route running from Tay-Ninh Province southeasterly to the Delta. This will impede access from the Viet Cong stronghold on the Cambodian border northwest of Saigon to the Delta. Diem claimed that the Viet Cong commander for that stronghold lived in air-conditioned comfort in Phnom Penh and frequently drove to the Vietnamese border from the Cambodian capital in an American automobile.

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Elections

He noted that the elections held a few days before had been a great success. Many more people voted than ever before, thanks in part to the fact that there were about 50% more ballot boxes than at the last elections. Communist efforts to disrupt the voting had been a failure, partly as a result of several successful security operations in which “all three security services” participated.

Again, the vast extension of the strategic hamlets program made it easier and safer for people to vote than in past years, and he was touched at the interest of even the simplest peasants in exercising their suffrage and participating in the democratic process. In spite of the improved security situation, at least two people were killed by the Viet Cong because they voted, and he felt this loss deeply and personally. The discussion groups in the strategic hamlets had further increased the people's interest in government and voting. (Ambassador's comment: This contrasts with well-founded observation that truckloads of soldiers were carted around in trucks so that they could vote several times in one day.)

Crop Destruction and Defoliation

In response to his rhetorical question, he said that the crop destruction and defoliation programs were useful and were necessary for a speedy conclusion of the war. He noted that the British experience in Malaya left no doubt as to their importance. “If you want to add years to the length of this war,” he said, “simply cut off these programs.” He explained that in some parts of the country, the Viet Cong were using half of their troops to grow food, and that except for the Delta area, where food is so plentiful that controls are almost impossible, the Viet Cong was very hard pressed for food, all the more so because it was increasingly difficult for them to get into villages or to force farmers to give them food.

He said flatly that regardless of whatever confusion might reign on the subject in Washington, crop destruction and defoliation were not humanitarian questions but were simple tools of victory. His field commanders, he said, felt particularly strongly about this. Some had complained that they had food patch targets in mind which, if they could not be attacked by the end of October, would produce a crop that would sustain the enemy for months.

Larger Viet Cong Units

Diem noted that while the total number of Viet Cong had declined in the past year, the number of relatively large units—companies and battalions—engaged had risen. He explained that this was because of the success of the strategic hamlets program. In the past, [Page 315]the Viet Cong could get what they wanted from a village—food and recruits—with a mere handful of men. Now they were increasingly forced to mount a company-scale attack to get into the village. Furthermore, since the whole rural environment had become much more actively hostile to the Viet Cong, they were forced to group up in larger units to survive. These larger units, of course, offered better targets to the government's forces. The fact that there was a greater use of large units by the Viet Cong was one more indication of how well the war was going for the government. It was one more indication that the Viet Cong found themselves more and more in the position of being like a foreign expeditionary corps, rather than as a force that could exist and move in the population like a fish in the sea.

Public Works and Opening Roads

Diem attached great importance to his public works program and the strategic concepts served by it. He showed on the maps where he had put through roads and canals, or had improved existing ones, and noted the many economic, social, political and military advantages that resulted from this effort. He remarked that in many parts of the country food deliveries by road were almost normal, as in pre-war times. This development relieved the navy of the job of convoying sea-borne supplies, and left it free to pursue the enemy more aggressively.

As if to answer the constant American representations in favor of a more mobile and aggressive employment of his forces, Diem remarked that it was sometimes necessary to commit troops to static defenses, as around key public utilities, factories, and bridges. Other forces had to be committed more or less statically to reinforce strategic hamlets that were in particularly exposed areas or had not yet generated their own trained defensive forces.

During a discussion of public works and their influence on the economic well-being of various provinces, General Harkins turned the conversation to the Seventh Division area southwest of Saigon, remarked that Kien Phong Province was very well run and that the province chief, Lt. Col. Dinh Van Phat, was very able indeed. President Diem acknowledged this. General Harkins went on to make the point that the situation in the adjoining province, Kien Tuong, was bad, and that the province chief, Major Le Thanh Nhut, was not doing his job and should be replaced. Diem objected to this, and tried to explain away in terms of the local economic geography, the difficulties of the lagging province. General Harkins made it clear that with all due respect to the President's explanation, he continued to have his doubts about the leader of the lagging province.

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Viet Cong Defections

Diem ended his optimistic monologue by saying that there had been a significant increase in the rate of defections from the Viet Cong. As noted earlier, many cadres who had left the south a few years ago were impressed with the social progress and improved standard of living in the south and contrasted these with the depressed condition in the north. This was especially true of those who had some education and could make comparisons. So many Viet Cong were trying to defect that senior unit commanders and hard-core Communists were being forced to take this new desire to defect into account in planning operations. Commanders had become loathe to send their men out individually or in small groups. This was another of the forces that compelled the Viet Cong to establish larger units.

Knowing that their commanders would be unlikely to trust them on an individual or small-scale mission that would give them an opportunity ably to defect, many individual Viet Cong would try to distinguish themselves in a number of encounters so that they would be entrusted with a mission which would offer them an opportunity to surrender. The earlier land reform program of Diem's government, which had won the government so much popular support, was generally known to the Viet Cong, and awareness of this land reform was often a factor in an individual's decision to come over to the government side. (Ambassador's comment: See Vice President Tho's remarks on Viet Cong defections in Embtel sent SecState 613, September 30, 1963.)2

Diem concluded his optimistic presentation by noting that although the war was going well, much remained to be done in the Delta area, which presented many special problems. The battle-hardened 9th Division was recently transferred to that area from the north, and it would soon make its presence felt. He noted that it was hard to wage war in an area that consisted mainly either of muddy rice paddies or of the thick and almost impenetrable foliage of coconut plantations. General Harkins remarked at this point that the war in coconut plantations would be greatly facilitated if Diem would lift his prohibition on the use of 500-pound bombs (forbidden after the disturbingly accurate bombing of the palace by rebels in the Vietnamese air force in February, 1962). Diem seemed to be in some doubt as to whether the General had made his statement in earnest or was simply “needling” him. He replied half-jokingly that if there should be a real need for the use of 500-pound bombs and if the war could be won that way, he [Page 317]would give the necessary clearance. (Although the conversation was in French, he used the English word “clearance”, and on other occasions used a number of other American military expressions.)

THE AMERICAN REPRESENTATIONS

When a suitable pause occurred in the monologue, Secretary McNamara began his statement. He said that he was in Viet-Nam because it was the sincere desire of the United States to help Viet-Nam win the war against the Viet Cong. He emphasized that this was basically a Vietnamese war and that all the United States could do was to help. The Secretary noted that while the progress of the war was reasonably satisfactory, he was concerned over a number of things. There was the political unrest in Saigon, and the evident inability of the government to provide itself with a broad political base. There was the disturbing probability that the war effort would be damaged by the government's political deficiencies and the attendant loss of popularity. The recent wave of repressions had alarmed public opinion both in Viet-Nam and in the United States.

Diem ascribed all this to inexperience and demagoguery within Viet-Nam and to misunderstanding in the United States of the real position in Viet-Nam because of the vicious attacks of the American press on his government, his family and himself. He said nothing to indicate that he accepted the thesis that there was a real problem, and his whole manner was one of rejecting outright the Secretary's representations.

The Secretary resumed by saying that he knew what it was to be attacked by the press, but that, regardless of what one thought of the accuracy of the press—and he was willing to acknowledge that some press accounts may have been in error—there was no escaping the fact that there was a serious political crisis, a crisis of confidence in the government of Viet-Nam both in Viet-Nam and in the United States. This was demonstrated by such tangible evidence as the resignation of the Foreign Minister, the recall or resignation of Ambassador Tran Van Chuong at Washington, and the fact that Saigon University was closed. The Secretary warned Diem that public opinion in the United States seriously questioned the wisdom or necessity of the United States Government's aiding a government that was so unpopular at home and that seemed increasingly unlikely to forge the kind of national unity or purpose that could bring the war to an early and victorious conclusion.

President Diem rebutted these points in some detail and displayed no interest in seeking solutions or mending his ways. He said the departure from office of Foreign Minister Vu Van Mau was dictated by personal and not political considerations. His wife's family seemed to be foredoomed to violent deaths. One of them had died in an airplane [Page 318]accident. Others had met other violent deaths. Mau's wife thought that there must be some kind of a curse on the family and urged her husband to make a vow to make a pilgrimage to lift the curse. Diem remarked that during his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mau was often out of the office. When Diem asked where he was, he learned he was at his home, urging his mother to take nourishment or his wife to look after her health. The wife had had one serious operation after another—Diem implied it was lung cancer, but did not specifically so state.

With regard to the relief of Tran Van Chuong as Ambassador at Washington, Diem stated that the Cabinet had voted unanimously to relieve him. Foreign Minister Vu Van Mau, who was present, had voted in favor of relieving him, too.

As for the university and the student unrest in general, Diem explained that the student body and even the faculty were most immature, untrained and irresponsible. He repeated that Viet-Nam was an underdeveloped country, with almost no suitable staff for its universities. He said the dean of the Science Faculty at the University of Saigon was only 32 years old. He said the students who demonstrated against the government had been misled by troublemakers both in the student body and in the faculty. The government had no choice but to arrest the students. Shortly afterwards (after this benevolent attention of a benevolent government, he implied) the students recognized the error of their ways, and felt duped and cheated by those who had misled them. They cursed their former leaders, and sang the praises of the government; many of them were now pro-government in their attitudes. He said that few of the high school teachers were qualified for their jobs, and students and teachers alike were inexperienced politically. Again, by serene tone and manner he indicated that he had satisfactorily explained away whatever misunderstanding it was that might have been bothering his guests.

The Secretary said that no small part of the Vietnamese government's difficulties with public opinion in the United States came from the ill-advised and unfortunate declarations of Madame Nhu. The Secretary took from his pocket a newspaper clipping and said that as he boarded his aircraft in Washington he had been greeted by the following. He read a report of Mme. Nhu's statement to the effect that American junior officers in Viet-Nam were behaving like little soldiers of fortune, etc.3

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The Secretary emphasized, and the Ambassador confirmed his remarks, that such outbursts were most offensive to American public opinion. The Secretary said that the American people would flatly refuse to send out the best of their young officers to face mortal perils to support an effort that had such irresponsible spokesmen. One of the Americans present asked flatly if there were not something the government could do to shut her up. At this point Diem seemed to be just a bit weary and a bit on the defensive. His glances and manner suggested that perhaps for the first time in the whole conversation, he at least saw what his guests were talking about, especially when the Ambassador remarked that Mme. Chiang Kai-shek had played a decisive part in losing China to the Communists.

But nevertheless he rose to the defense routinely and with his standard and well-known arguments. Mme. Nhu was a member of parliament. She had a right to speak her mind, both as a member of parliament and as a member of a free society. Furthermore, one cannot deny a lady the right to defend herself when she has been unjustly attacked. Mme. Nhu had been under a merciless and scurrilous press attack for many months, and if she became exasperated, that had to be understood. Finally, he asked if the Secretary had read Mme. Nhu's denial.4 Again, very sure of himself, Diem indicated that a careful reading of the denial, or more accurately the explanatory statement, would clarify the matter and allay his interlocutor's anxieties.

The Secretary indicated that this was not satisfactory and that the problems of which he spoke were real and serious and would have to be solved before the war could be won or before Viet-Nam could be sure of the continued American support that he sincerely hoped it would merit and receive.

The Buddhist Controversy

While on the subject of the inaccuracies and injustices of the press treatment of his government, President Diem held forth at considerable length on the Buddhist controversy. He acknowledged that he bore a certain responsibility in all this: He had been too kind to the Buddhists. He had given them so much assistance that the number of Buddhist temples in the country had doubled during his administration.

Diem spoke for some twenty minutes on the Buddhist problem, but said almost nothing that had not figured in the controlled-press handling of the matter. He repeated the allegations of orgies in pagodas, and emphasized that the heart of the problem was the fact that “anyone could become a bonze (priest) who shaved his head and acquired a yellow robe.” He said that one of the three bonzes who [Page 320]took refuge in the American Embassy had been a policeman until he was expelled from the force two years ago for unsuitability and poor performance. He had become a vagabond until some two or three months ago, when he proclaimed himself a bonze and took refuge in the Embassy. Diem said the Buddhists were very publicity-conscious, and even had a man dress in European clothes in order better to get through a police cordon in front of USIS. This man then put on his robe, which he had carried concealed, and took off his wig and broke out various anti-regime streamers and slogans.

At this point Diem added darkly that “some American services in Saigon” were engaged an anti-regime plotting and that he was “preparing a dossier” and might return to the subject in due course. He offered no further explanation, and none was sought; he passed on quickly to continue his tirade against the Buddhists.

He said that most of the Buddhist sects in Viet-Nam support the government's position and deplore the attitude of the irresponsible extremist minority that is making all the trouble. He said that part of the Buddhists' trouble lay in too rapid growth and lack of organization. For example, he said, no records are kept on who is or is not a bonze, and there are no universally accepted standards for ordainment. He proposed to help the Buddhists by assisting them in setting up a national register of all bonzes. Work on this project had already started, and would be pushed vigorously.

At about this point one of the Americans noted that things were in such bad shape that the United Nations were considering sending a delegation to study the problem of repression of the Buddhists. Diem said very quickly, “Well let them come and see for themselves, we will let them see what the real situation is.”

Diem warned that the Viet Cong were quick to take advantage of the disorders caused by the Buddhists. He said that at the time of raids on the pagodas and the proclamation of martial law—August 21, 1963—the Viet Cong brought four field radio sets into the outskirts of Saigon—much closer then they had dared come before. They felt that if the disturbances were to increase, they could do this with impunity. By August 25, they saw that the disturbances were not spreading and pulled their radios back to where they had been before. Diem also said that the Buddhist organization based in Ceylon was Communist-dominated, and that he had learned from an unimpeachable German source that one Buddhist priest traveling to Viet-Nam from abroad was a Communist. For all these reasons, Diem said, the Vietnamese armed forces and police had made a united front in imploring him to proclaim martial law and allow them to suppress the disorders which a few Buddhist extremists were creating.

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General Taylor recapitulated the points made by the Ambassador and the Secretary, and reminded President Diem that regardless of the explanations he offered for the disorders, a serious crisis of confidence was developing in the United States and it was vital for the government of Viet-Nam to respond to this legitimate anxiety.

The Secretary closed by repeating once again that he had made his representations as a friend who sincerely wished to help the Vietnamese in their war effort. There was no note of strain or unfriendliness on either side. The Secretary and the Ambassador noted that they were expected back at the Palace in two hours for dinner, and expressed their pleasure at this prospect.

Throughout the meetings Secretary Thuan said nothing.

Comment: Secretary McNamara made very clear to President Diem the United States Government's disapproval of the situation in Viet-Nam. It must have been clear to Diem that there was no rift between the Departments of State and of Defense. The Ambassador observed that Diem appeared much younger and brighter than at the last two meetings at which he had seen him. Diem offered absolutely no assurances that he would take any steps in response to the representations made to him by his American visitors. In fact, he said nothing to indicate or acknowledge that he had received even friendly advice. His manner was one of at least outward serenity and of a man who had patiently explained a great deal and who hoped he had thus corrected a number of misapprehensions.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 7 US/McNamara. Secret. Drafted by Flott and transmitted to the Department of State as an enclosure to airgram A-244 from Saigon, October 3. According to the airgram, the memorandum was not cleared with the participants. A summary of the conversation was transmitted in telegram 612 from Saigon. (Ibid., ORG 7 OSD) The meeting was held at the Gia Long Palace. A record of this discussion is printed in part in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. II, pp. 749-751.
  2. Document 159.
  3. Madame Nhu is reported to have stated in late September 1963 that younger American officers in Vietnam “are acting like little soldiers of fortune. They do not know what is going on. With their irresponsible behavior, they have forced senior officers into following a confused policy.” (As quoted in Sobel (ed.), South Vietnam, 1961-65, p. 75)
  4. Not further identified.