221. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

805. Eyes only Secretary. Bangkok exclusive for Felt.

Herewith report of my day with President Diem, Sunday, October 27.
We left Saigon [garble—and flew?] to Phuoc Long from where we flew for about 20 minutes by helicopter to Dao Nghia Plantation Center where we had lunch. We then flew over the Province of Quang Duc to Dalat. Diem was at his best, describing the public improvements that he had put into effect. He was constantly saying, “I did this” and “I did that”. He appears deeply interested in agriculture and in developing the country. When we were in the helicopter, because of the noise, he was continually writing messages on a large block of paper describing what we were seeing. He is very likeable. One feels that he is a nice, good man who living a good life by his own lights, but who also feels that he is a man who is cut off from present, who is living in the past, who is truly indifferent to people as such and who is simply unbelievably stubborn.
After leaving Saigon, the President mentioned the fact that at one time UNESCO had planned to build another university in Vietnam. This gave me an opportunity to discuss the UN Commission. I asked him whether he had seen them. Diem said that he had. I said that I knew two members of it well and one slightly. I was sure that at least one of them was going to ask me to let him talk with Tri Quang. I said that my answer would be that I would not allow anyone to see Tri Quang without the request of the Government of Vietnam, but I strongly advised him to give his permission because it would help Vietnam in the United Nations if the Commission could say that he had at no time prevented them from seeing anything or talking to anybody whom they wanted. He said nothing but looked provoked. [Page 443] After a pause, he said that he supposed I knew that Tri Quang had been communicating with the outside world and that he had dropped some papers out the window onto the street. I said that I found this hard to believe because there were no windows in the room in which he was living and even if he went along the gallery to go to the men’s room, he still was nowhere near the street.
After a sumptuous Vietnamese dinner, he suddenly stopped talking about the events of the past and said, in a casual rather supercilious tone, that he would like to know whether we were going to suspend the commercial imports payments or whether we were going to stop. He said it as though it were a matter of indifference to him. I had at no time brought this up or done anything to make it easy for him to do so.
I said I did not know, but asked what he intended to do if our policy did change. Would he open the schools, would he liberate the Buddhists and others who were in prison, would he eliminate the discriminatory features of Decree Law Number 10?
He said that the schools had been gradually opened, that they were all open in Hue, that the Buddhists were being liberated and that changing Decree Law 10 was very complicated and up to the Assembly, that he had no authority.
He then attacked American activities in Vietnam. He spoke particularly about an American [less than 1 line not declassified] who had talked to people in the Vietnamese Government about threats which had been made to assassinate me and that the 7th Fleet would come in if such a thing happened. He said that Communist documents had also been found discussing a coup on October 23 and 24 which also involved the 7th Fleet. He said that the assassination story had been started to poison my mind, that anyone who knew him knew that my safety was an essential preoccupation of his. I said I had total confidence that he did not want me to be assassinated, but that these rumors were constantly being brought to me. I also pointed out that there had been no coup on October 23 and 24.
He said that Mecklin, the head of USIS, was printing tracts against the government and giving equipment to opponents of the government so that they could print tracts and that the CIA was intriguing against the GVN.
I said: Give me proof of improper action by any employee of the US Government and I will see that he leaves Vietnam.
He then said that we must get on with the war against the Communists.
I said I agreed but we must consider US opinion; we wanted to be treated as equal partners; we do not want Vietnam to be a satellite of ours; nor do we want to be a satellite of Vietnam’s. We do not wish to be put in the extremely embarrassing position of condoning totalitarian [Page 444] acts which are against our traditions and ideals. Repeatedly I asked him: What do you propose to do for us? His reply several times was either a blank stare or change of subject or the statement: “je ne vais pas servir”, which makes no sense. He must have meant to say “ceder” rather than “servir”, meaning: “I will not give in.” He warned that the Vietnamese people were strange people and could do odd things if they were resentful.
I said many things happen which made it hard for us. In our newspapers we read of newspapermen being beaten up (as they were on October 5);2 of bonzes burning; of children being taken off to concentration points in US trucks.
He said newspapermen shouldn’t go into the center of a riot, they could expect to get beaten.
I said you don’t get anywhere in the US by beating up newspapermen. He said I will not give in.
I said you wanted us to do something for you, what can you do for us? Ours is a government of public opinion. Public opinion is already so critical that I thought that if the Church resolution came to a vote there would be too many votes against Vietnam. I was glad that it was arranged to leave the decision on aid to Vietnam up to the President. But the President himself could not fly in the face of a totally adverse public opinion and the bad publicity coming out of Vietnam could make it hard for the President.
He said the US press is full of lies. He then changed the subject and talked about the impropriety of our allowing former Ambassador Chuong to speak.
I said there was free speech in America and anybody could say whatever he wanted.
He said there was a practice against letting a former Ambassador attack his own country in the country in which he had been Ambassador. This is clearly something for which Vietnam could be indemnified (edomommageable).
He then spoke about brother Nhu who he said was so good and so quiet, so conciliatory and so compromising.
I said I would not debate this point and it might be that Mr. Nhu had been treated unfairly in the press of the world but a fact is a fact and the fact is that Mr. and Mrs. Nhu have had extremely bad publicity. [Page 445] This is why I had advised a period of silence for both of them. It is still hard for me to understand why Mrs. Nhu felt she had to talk so much.
He said she had had more than 100 invitations.
I said yes, but they had not come from the US Government.
He said the press does not print what Madame Nhu says. The whole concert of lies is orchestrated by the State Department.
I said the government does not control the press in America. It is basically a free commercial press. When there is something sensational to report, an American newspaper is going to report it or else it will cease to be a newspaper. The way to stop the publicity is for Madame Nhu to stop talking.
He said that Ambassador Chuong’s older daughter in Washington was “acting like a prostitute”, that she “scandalized Georgetown” and “even jumped on priests”. To this I made no comment.
Somewhat to my surprise he brought up the Times of Vietnam (which I had not done) and said that he realized that perhaps it had been a little bit inaccurate concerning the departure of Rufus Phillips which he understood was in fact due to the fact that his father was sick. I said that I was sure Phillips’ father was sick, but I also said that the Times of Vietnam was constantly slandering the US, printing things which were totally untrue, such as the story the other day that [the Embassy?] allowed the American Congressional delegation and Secretary McNamara to visit Tri Quang. Neither of these things were true. But here again he would never admit any of my statements about the inaccuracy of the Times of Vietnam concerning the US.
At the end of the conversation he said with a sigh I realize I made a great mistake in leaving such a gap in Washington, meaning that if he had had another kind of Ambassador, the press and the politicians could have been cultivated so that Vietnam would not now find itself with such unfavorable public opinion.
When it was evident that the conversation was practically over, I said: Mr. President, every single specific suggestion which I have made, you have rejected. Isn’t there some one thing you may think of that is within your capabilities to do and that would favorably impress US opinion. As on other previous occasions when I asked him similar questions, he gave me a blank look and changed the subject.
Although the conversation was frustrating and long-drawnout, the tone was always courteous and restrained. I am convinced that we have persuaded him of one thing: That the state of US opinion is very bad from his viewpoint. For a man who is as cut off as he is, this is something. Perhaps the conversation will give him food for thought and perhaps the conversation marks a beginning. But taken by itself, if does not offer much hope that it is going to change.
The US Government should, however, make up its mind as to what it would regard as an adequate action by the GVN on which to base a resumption of commercial imports. Thuan thinks we will be hearing from him again.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 8 S VIET-US. Secret; Priority. Also sent to Bangkok. Received at 12:48 p.m. and passed to the White House, CIA, and Office of the Secretary of Defense.
  2. While covering an act of self-immolation by a Buddhist bonze at the circle in front of the Saigon Market, three American news correspondents, John Starkey and Grant Wolfhill of NBC and David Halberstam of The New York Times, were attacked and beaten by plainclothes Vietnamese policemen who sought to prevent them from taking photographs of the suicide. (Telegram 637 from Saigon, October 5; ibid., SOC 14-1 S VIET) See also Mecklin, Mission in Torment, pp. 242-243.