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

Eyes only for Ambassador Lodge from McGeorge Bundy.

Your 2023, [document number not declassified], 2041 and [document number not declassified]2 examined with care at highest levels here. You should promptly discuss this reply and associated messages with Harkins whose responsibilities toward any coup are very heavy especially after you leave (see paragraph 7 below). They give much clearer picture group’s alleged plans and also indicate chances of action with or without our approval now so significant that we should urgently consider our attitude and contingency plans. We note particularly Don’s curiosity your departure and his insistence Conein be available from Wednesday3 night on, which suggests date might be as early as Thursday.
Believe our attitude to coup group can still have decisive effect on its decisions. We believe that what we say to coup group can produce delay of coup and that betrayal of coup plans to Diem is not our only way of stopping coup. We therefore need urgently your combined assessment with Harkins and CAS (including their separate comments if they desire). We concerned that our line-up of forces in Saigon (being cabled in next message)4 indicates approximately equal [Page 474] balance of forces, with substantial possibility serious and prolonged fighting or even defeat. Either of these could be serious or even disastrous for U.S. interests, so that we must have assurance balance of forces clearly favorable.
With your assessment in hand, we might feel that we should convey message to Don, whether or not he gives 4 or 48 hours notice that would (a) continue explicit hands-off policy, (b) positively encourage coup, or (c) discourage.
In any case, believe Conein should find earliest opportunity express to Don that we do not find presently revealed plans give clear prospect of quick results. This conversation should call attention important Saigon units still apparently loyal to Diem and raise serious issue as to what means coup group has to deal with them.
From operational standpoint, we also deeply concerned Don only spokesman for group and possibility cannot be discounted he may not be in good faith. We badly need some corroborative evidence whether Minh and others directly and completely involved. In view Don’s claim he doesn’t handle “military planning” could not Conein tell Don that we need better military picture and that Big Minh could communicate this most naturally and easily to Stilwell? We recognize desirability involving MACV to minimum, but believe Stilwell far more desirable this purpose than using Conein both ways.
Complexity above actions raises question whether you should adhere to present Thursday schedule. Concur you and other US elements should take no action that could indicate US awareness coup possibility. However, DOD is sending berth-equipped military aircraft that will arrive Saigon Thursday and could take you out thereafter as late as Saturday afternoon in time to meet your presently proposed arrival Washington Sunday. You could explain this being done as convenience and that your Washington arrival is same. A further advantage such aircraft is that it would permit your prompt return from any point en route if necessary. To reduce time in transit, you should use this plane, but we recognize delaying your departure may involve greater risk that you personally would appear involved if any action took place. However, advantages your having extra two days in Saigon may outweigh this and we leave timing of flight to your judgment.
Whether you leave Thursday or later, believe it essential that prior your departure there be fullest consultation Harkins and CAS and that there be clear arrangements for handling (a) normal activity, (b) continued coup contacts, (c) action in event a coup starts. We assume you will wish Trueheart as charge to be head of country team in normal situation, but highest authority desires it clearly understood that after your departure Harkins should participate in supervision of all coup contacts and that in event coup begins, he become head of country team and direct representative of President, with Trueheart in [Page 475] effect acting as POLAD. On coup contacts we will maintain continuous guidance and will expect equally continuous reporting with prompt account of any important divergencies in assessments of Harkins and [less than 1 1ine not declassified].
If coup should start, question of protecting U.S. nationals at once arises. We can move Marine btl into Saigon by air from Okinawa within 24 hours if Tan Son Nhut available. We are sending instructions to CINCPAC to arrange orderly movement of seaborne Marine btl to waters adjacent to South Vietnam in position to close Saigon within approximately 24 hours.
We are now examining post-coup contingencies here and request your immediate recommendations on position to be adopted after coup begins, especially with respect to requests for assistance of different sorts from one side or the other. Also request you forward contingency recommendations for action if coup (a) succeeds, (b) fails, (c) is indecisive.
We reiterate burden of proof must be on coup group to show a substantial possibility of quick success; otherwise, we should discourage them from proceeding since a miscalculation could result in jeopardizing U.S. position in Southeast Asia.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 26 S VIET. Top Secret. The source text is CIA telegram [document number not declassified] 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; and repeated to Honolulu eyes only for Felt. Also printed in Pentagon Papers: Gravel Edition, vol. 11, pp. 782-783.
  2. Documents 225, 226, 229 and 228, respectively.
  3. October 30.
  4. Document 237.