168. Memorandum of Conversation1



  • South Vietnam; Internal


  • United States
    • The Secretary
    • Ambassador Yost
    • Mr. Thacher (Reporter)
  • South Vietnam
    • Ambassador Buu Hoia

The Secretary started the conversation by noting that in order to achieve the goal of security and independence for the Republic of Vietnam, it would be necessary first to defeat the Viet-Cong. US policy on this matter is as clear as is our commitment to the goal. As Ambassador Buu Hoia well knew, we have been seriously concerned about our ability to achieve this goal because of what appeared to be a shattering of solidarity in South Vietnam, a loss of confidence by the people in their government. As Mao Tse-Tung had once observed, if the people are in support of the guerillas, every bush becomes an ally. Until recently we were confident that the bushes in South Vietnam were our allies, but we were no longer sure. He expected shortly to receive Mr. McNamara’s report,2 but had not as yet seen it.

Amb. Buu Hoia said that he did not deny much of what had been said, but he felt that things were not necessarily what they appeared to be, and that the full scope of the struggle had to be kept in mind. The present fight is not a fight of today’s battles, or even a year-to-year struggle; rather, the fight spans the time of a generation. To win we must encourage followers of the Viet-Cong to switch over to our side. At the same time we must prevent any drain from our side either by those who defect to the Viet-Cong or by those who might simply leave the country. He felt that no government has had worse public relations than his, a fact which he believed stems from their past reliance on foreigners for public relations.

Addressing himself to the immediate situation, Buu Hoia said that “Nhu is indispensable, and yet Madame Nhu must clearly be eliminated”.

He digressed to review recent events which originated in the city of Hue, center of the Buddhist faith in South Vietnam, yet a city which at the same time retains its traditional role as “a hotbed of revolt”.

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Stating that he was convinced that these were the facts, Buu Hoia said that an approach had been made to His Holiness Pope John suggesting that President Diem’s brother, Archbishop Thuc, be named Archbishop in Saigon. Pope John had recognized the political overtones of this request and had settled on the city of Hue as a compromise. This was how the President’s brother became named as Archbishop in Hue, not long ago.

But the President had another brother, Can, who also lived in Hue, was a militant nationalist with a very poor press reputation. Can was a sincere friend of Buddhists in Hue and was, in fact, the source through whom funds were passed by the government to the Buddhist hierarchy in Hue. And when his elder brother, Archbishop Thuc arrived in Hue, local officials deserted Can in favor of the elder brother who appeared to be closer to the President. This led to a feeling of despair and hopelessness on the part of Buddhists in that city. The demonstrations which erupted in Hue in early May were triggered by orders from Saigon that the Buddhist flag should be pulled down; Can had earlier assured the Buddhists that they should fly their flag and that he would take responsibility for keeping their flag up.

Buu Hoia noted that it was President Diem, not Mr. Nhu, who ordered the Buddhist flag pulled down in Hue.

He said that Nhu had put the all-important ideological content into the fight with his strategic hamlet program. He, Buu Hoia, regretted to state that he is convinced that the “top of the government is rotten” and that the strategic hamlet program is an absolutely necessary counterpart to this rottenness. For these reasons he was convinced that Mr. Nhu is an indispensable figure for the successful conduct of the overall struggle.

The Secretary asked if it could be demonstrated that Mr. Nhu is not an all-controlling influence in the government.

Buu Hoia said that the US should urge Diem to appoint Nhu to the specific job of running the strategic hamlet program. Posing the question of whom this would leave to run the government, Buu Hoia said such a man would be Thuan, who he felt was already the equivalent of a Prime Minister. He noted that Thuan is purely an administrator, neither corrupt nor ambitious, and not interested in politics.

Governor Stevenson asked if what Ambassador Buu Hoia had described suggested the need for a change in Hue. Buu Hoia said that he believed that the present Pope would be willing to make a change.

He recalled that he had earlier said that Madame Nhu must go. He felt that President Diem was still convinced that she is not harmful, and he felt that the President needs to be told just how harmful she is. He said that he and others have been doing their best to prevent her from coming here, and he remarked that Vice President Johnson’s letter to Madame Nhu might be helpful if shown to President Diem.

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The Secretary said his impression remained that both Mr. and Mrs. Nhu exerted a harmful influence. The Secretary believed it was still necessary for the government to build solidarity. He agreed that Mr. Nhu had made an important contribution in the strategic hamlet program. But he felt that it would be hard to get anything done in the government if fear and suspicion pervades its top level.

Buu Hoia regretted that he had to say much of the harm was done by the President himself, often the President made harmful decisions despite his brother’s (Nhu) advice to the contrary. He cited in this instance the order to pull the flags down in Hue (with the implication that Nhu had not favored this order). Buu Hoia felt that Mr. Nhu had only recently emerged from his previous “backroom” role into the public eye. He thought this might have resulted from Madame Nhu’s influence.

In general terms, Buu Hoia felt it absolutely necessary to convince the President that he must set up a cabinet in which each member would stand or fall purely on the basis of performance. In this scheme of things, Mr. Nhu should be given the task of running the strategic hamlet program, and should at the same time again resume his role as a “backroom” advisor.

The Secretary wondered if it would be important to remove Nhu from the palace and to make his wife cease her palace operations.

Buu Hoia did not believe this would be a problem; it might not even be necessary for the Nhus to remove themselves from Saigon, but he agreed that they should be removed from the palace itself.

The conversation then fumed to the immediate situation at the UN which has been reported separately by telegram, Secto 51 to the Department.3

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 S VIET. Secret; Eyes Only. Drafted by Peter S. Thacher of the Political Affairs Section of the Mission. The meeting took place at USUN.
  2. Document 167.
  3. In Secto 51, October 2, USUN reported that Buu Hoia was about to raise with U Thant the idea of an ad hoc mission of leading international personalities to examine the Buddhist problem in South Vietnam. To dispel suspicion that this might be a stalling device, Buu Hoia would assure U Thant that the Government of Vietnam did not oppose reopening the issue later in the General Assembly session. In response to a question from Rusk, Buu Hoia said that mission members would be free to investigate the problem in South Vietnam as they chose. Buu Hoia stated that he and his government felt this way because there was no longer a Buddhist problem in South Vietnam. (Department of State, Central Files, SOC 14-1 S VIET-US)