216. Telegram From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)1

I appreciate the concern expressed by you in Ref A2 relative to the General Don/Conein relationship, and also the present lack of firm intelligence on the details of the Generals’ plot. I hope that Ref B3 will assist in clearing up some of the doubts relative to the Generals’ plans, and I am hopeful that the detailed plans promised for two days before the coup attempt will clear up any remaining doubts.
CAS has been punctilious in carrying out my instructions. I have personally approved each meeting between General Don and Conein who has carried out my orders in each instance explicitly. [Page 435] While I share your concern about the continued involvement of Conein in this matter, a suitable substitute for Conein as the principal contact is not presently available. Conein, as you know, is a friend of some eighteen years’ standing with General Don, and General Don has expressed extreme reluctance to deal with anyone else. I do not believe the involvement of another American in close contact with the Generals would be productive. We are, however, considering the feasibility of a plan for the introduction of an additional officer as a cut-out between Conein and a designee of General Don for communication purposes only. This officer is completely unwitting of any details of past or present coup activities and will remain so.
With reference to General Harkins’ comment to General Don [in] which Don reports to have referred to a Presidential directive and the proposal for a meeting with me, this may have served the useful purpose of allaying the Generals’ fears as to our interest. If this were a provocation, the GVN could have assumed and manufactured any variations of the same theme. As a precautionary measure, however, I of course refused to see General Don. As to the lack of information as to General Don’s real backing, and the lack of evidence that any real capabilities for action have been developed, Ref B provides only part of the answer. I feel sure that the reluctance of the Generals to provide the United States with full details of their plans at this time, is a reflection of their own sense of security and a lack of confidence that in the large American community present in Saigon their plans will not be prematurely revealed.
The best evidence available to the Embassy, which I grant you is not as complete as we would like it, is that General Don and the other Generals involved with him are seriously attempting to effect a change in the government. I do not believe that this is a provocation by Ngo Dinh Nhu, although we shall continue to assess the planning as well as possible. In the event that the coup aborts, or in the event that Nhu has masterminded a provocation, I believe that our involvement to date through Conein is still within the realm of plausible denial. CAS is perfectly prepared to have me disavow Conein at any time it may serve the national interest.
I welcome your reaffirming instructions contained in CAS Washington 74228.4 It is vital that we neither thwart a coup nor that we are even in a position where we do not know what is going on.
We should not thwart a coup for two reasons. First, it seems at least an even bet that the next government would not bungle and stumble as much as the present one has. Secondly, it is extremely unwise in the long range for us to pour cold water on attempts at a coup, particularly when they are just in their beginning states. We [Page 436] should remember that this is the only way in which the people in Vietnam can possibly get a change of government. Whenever we thwart attempts at a coup, as we have done in the past, we are incurring very long lasting resentments, we are assuming an undue responsibility for keeping the incumbents in office, and in general are setting ourselves in judgment over the affairs of Vietnam. Merely to keep in touch with this situation and a policy merely limited to “not thwarting,” are courses both of which entail some risks but these are lesser risks than either thwarting all coups while they are stillborn or our not being informed of what is happening. All the above is totally distinct from not wanting U.S. military advisors to be distracted by matters which are not in their domain, with which I heartily agree. But obviously this does not conflict with a policy of not thwarting. In judging proposed coupe, we must consider the effect on the war effort. Certainly a succession of fights for control of the Government of Vietnam would interfere with the war effort. It must also be said that the war effort has been interfered with already by the incompetence of the present government and the uproar which this has caused.
General Don’s intention to have no religious discrimination in a future government is commendable and I applaud his desire not to be “a vassal” of the U.S. But I do not think his promise of a democratic election is realistic. This country simply is not ready for that procedure. I would add two other requirements. First, that there be no wholesale purges of personnel in the government. Individuals who were particularly reprehensible could be dealt with later by the regular legal process. Then I would suggest a cabinet covering a very broad range. This may be impractical, but I am thinking of a government which might include Tri Quang and which certainly should include men of the stature of Mr. Buu, the labor leader.
Copy to General Harkins.
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, CIA Reports. Top Secret; Immediate. Sent from the CIA Station in Saigon to the Director of Central Intelligence as [document number not declassified]. Also printed in United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967, Book 12, pp. 590-591.
  2. Document 211.
  3. See Document 215.
  4. Document 192.