225. Telegram From the Ambassador in Vietnam (Lodge) to the Department of State1
By prearrangement and at Gen Don’s initiative, Col Conein met Gen Don [less than 1 line not declassified] of 28 Oct. [1 sentence (3 lines) not declassified]
[Numbered paragraph 2 (2 lines) not declassified]
- Don stated that he had talked to Amb Lodge and that Lodge had vouched for Conein.2 Don emphasized that he had told Amb Lodge that he and his group had no political ambitions, that their only desire was to win the war against the VC and re-establish the prestige of Vietnam and the Army. He stated flatly the only way to win before the Americans leave in 1965 was to change the present regime. Don indicated he was completely satisfied at Conein’s bona fides as were the other members of the Generals’ coup committee.
- Don added that he and his fellow Generals wished to do everything possible to avoid American involvement in the coup. He stated emphatically that other Americans should quit talking to Colonels and Majors about coup action since in this way, Americans will involve themselves despite any discretion on the part of the Generals. Conein asked for specifics on this point. Don replied merely he recognized Conein to be the proper contact on the American side and the Americans should recognize him as the proper contact on the Vietnamese side. All other dealings on the subject of coup action between Americans and Vietnamese should cease. Don would not be more specific.
Explaining that he was speaking on his own initiative and without instructions (this had previously been cleared with the Ambassador), Conein called to Don’s attention the fact that the Amb would be leaving for a brief trip to the United States on 31 Oct, that it might prove important both to Vietnamese and American considerations of this question should Amb Lodge have a complete grasp of the Generals’ planning prior to his departure. Don repeated that Amb Lodge would have the plans before the coup but when pressed on his previous commitment to make these plans available 48 hours in advance, Don stated that possibly the plans could only be made available 4 hours in advance. Don questioned Conein closely as to what time on t[Page 451]he 31st the Amb would be leaving. Don added that he hoped the Amb would not change his schedule, as any change might be suspect. Don stated nothing would be happening within the next 48 hours and that, if there was a good reason for the Amb to change his planning, the Amb would be informed in time to make his own decision. Don added that he would be leaving on the morning of 29 Oct to see Gen Do Cao Tri and General Nguyen Khanh, that the cover for this trip would be the distribution of medals. Actually, Don would be talking to Tri and Khanh to perfect the planning. Don asked Conein to remain at home from Wednesday3 evening onward.
[Numbered paragraph 6 (6 lines) not declassified]
- Conein recalled to Don the latter’s previous mention of Lt Col Pham Ngoc Thao. Don said to beware of Thao since he is not above fabrication and is suspect by the Generals’ group. Don added that Thao is a protege of Ngo Dinh Thuc and Nhu, that likewise Thao is under suspicion by Col Do Mau, Chief of the MSS. Don added that even Gen Khanh is suspected by the President as not being entirely loyal.
- Gen Don was again questioned about the participation of Gen Ton That Dinh in the coup planning. Don repeated that Dinh is not participating in the planning, that Dinh is under suspicion by Ngo Dinh Nhu, with whom Dinh argued while he was Military Governor of Saigon. Don reiterated that Gen Dinh is continuously surrounded by coup committee sympathizers and these persons have been given orders to eliminate Dinh if he shows any signs of compromising the coup.
- Don was pressed to reveal
details of the units participating in the coup. Don said that this was not his
specific function within the coup committee and therefore he could
not answer the question with precision. Don outlined his function as the contact man with
the Americans, other Generals, and division commanders. Gen
Le Van Kim is doing the
political planning and the military planning is in the hands of
others (Comment: presumably “Big Minh” himself). Of those
units which he had knowledge he listed:
- One half of the Airborne brigade (specific units not known to him).
- Two battalions of Marines (specific units unknown). Col Nguyen Khang, Marine CO, fears for his family and would lead the entire Marine Corps into the coup if he could be assured [of] the security of his family in case he is killed.
- All of the Air Force with exception of its commander, Col Nguyen Huu Hien.
- Some units of the Presidential Guard plus at least four tanks.
- The entire 5th Division.
- The 9th Division (Comment: now in the Delta) after the coup begins.
- Entire 21st Division.
- Half of the 23rd Division (specific regiments not known).
- Gen Don said that he was unaware of the position of the 7th Division4 but did not know that neither the Navy nor the Special Forces are involved in any way. He said likewise the 135th Regiment was not involved. He indicated some possibility that the combat police and other elements of the National Police in Saigon might join in after the coup begins. He could not give an opinion with respect to the 46th and 48th Territorial Regiments. He emphasized that he was not doing the military planning.
- Don volunteered that Gen Tran Thien Khiem was being very circumspect at the moment because he knows he is under suspicion by the President.
- The only additional details that Don could offer were:
- Command post for the coup will be the JGS. This was chosen because of its proximity to Special Forces headquarters and Tan Son Nhut.
- The Generals are aware that there are two underground tunnels of escape from Gia Long Palace. These terminate at the cemetery at the corner of Phung Khoc Khoan and Phan Thanh Gian and at the zoo. These were formerly part of the sewers but the sewerage has been diverted into other channels.
- At the moment of the initiation of the coup, PTT will be taken and phones cut off.
- In closing, Gen Don said that he would be in contact again within 48 hours, utilizing the new system outlined by Conein. He pleaded that the Amb not alert the American community in any way, specifically that Americans not be told to stock up on food since that would be an instant alert to the GVN.
[Numbered paragraph 14 (1-1/2 lines) not declassified]5
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 S VIET. Top Secret; Immediate; Eyes Only. The source text is CIA Station telegram 2023 from Saigon sent to the Department of State eyes only for Rusk, Harriman, Ball, Hilsman, and Hughes. Also sent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense eyes only for McNamara, Gilpatric, Taylor, Krulak, and William Bundy; to the White House eyes only for McGeorge Bundy; repeated to Honolulu eyes only for Felt and to CIA eyes only for McCone, Carter, and Helms. Received at the Department of State at 4:23 a.m.↩
- See Document 224.↩
- October 30.↩
- In CIA Station telegram [document number not declassified] from Saigon, October 30, the position of the Seventh Division was corrected as follows: “A review of Conein’s notes indicates that the coup group can count on two regiments of that division. This agrees with our prior estimate that the bulk of the Seventh can be counted on.” (Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 S VIET)↩
- In Don’s brief account of this meeting with Conein, he states that Conein “offered us money and weapons, but I turned him down, saying that we still need only courage and conviction, which we abundantly had.” (Our Endless War, pp. 98-99) According to the interim report of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders (Reps. 94-465, Senate, 94th Cong, 1st sess.), p. 222, Conein passed 3 million plasters ($42,000) to an aide of Don’s late on the morning of November 1 to procure food for the coup forces and to pay death benefits for those killed during the coup.↩