26. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Viet-Nam


  • State Department
    • Secretary of State—in the Chair
    • Mr. Hilsman
    • Ambassador Nolting
  • White House
    • McGeorge Bundy
    • Mr. Forrestal
  • CIA
    • General Carter
    • Mr. Helms
    • Mr. Colby
  • Defense Department
    • Secretary McNamara
    • Mr. Gilpatric
    • Gen. Maxwell Taylor
    • Maj. Gen. Krulak
    • Secretary of Treasury Dillon
    • The Vice President
    • USIA—Mr. Edward Murrow

The discussion began by focussing on the apparent “inertia” on the part of the Generals as mentioned in paragraph 5 of Lodge’s cable.2

The Secretary of Defense called attention to the cable reporting on the meeting with Lt. Col. Thao and expressed his feeling that the Thao plan was not worthy of serious consideration.3

Mr. Hilsman pointed out that the Generals had asked our opinion of Thao, expressing their distrust of him and that we had advised against their taking him into their confidence. This meeting might, therefore, have been their merely listening to him or an attempt by Thao to smoke out the opposition on behalf of Diem-Nhu.

[Page 54]

Mr. Helms described what seemed to him to be Nhu’s plan, as described in a recent TDCS4—that is, to hold pro-government rallies, set up pro-government Buddhist groups and, at a certain stage, pick off the opposition leaders; in general easing tensions and returning rapidly to the general posture of the GVN as of, say, August 20.5

The Secretary of State asked the question: “If the Generals do not intend to move and Diem-Nhu return to the August 20 posture, can we live with it?” Mr. Helms said that he did not know. It depended upon whether Mr. Nhu would reverse his course. Mr. Helms said that Mr. Colby probably knew Nhu better than anyone else and asked his opinion.

Mr. Colby said that Nhu would not “reverse” his course; that he might well ease tensions and produce the facade of August 20, but he would most certainly proceed with his “personalist revolution” and his “strategic hamlet society.”

Ambassador Nolting said that Nhu was undoubtedly a shifty character but that he could assure everyone that Nhu would not really negotiate with Ho Chi Minh and would not move to a unification with North Vietnam; that he was committed to an anti-Communist course. He said that Nhu would undoubtedly pull shenanigans that would be difficult for the US, with Laos and with Cambodia and shenanigans that would, if anything, put the US into a harder confrontation with North Vietnam and with Communist China.

Mr. Hilsman said that the answer to the Secretary of State’s question, in his opinion, depended on the attitude of the Vietnamese people and the prominence of Nhu in the weeks and months ahead. He felt that, if Nhu assumed a prominent role, say, by occupying the new office of Prime Minister, and the action against the pagodas went without retribution, the graph of the future would be a slow but steady deterioration downwards in which apathy in the army, a drifting off of junior officers and noncommissioned officers, possibly student and labor strikes would slowly but surely degrade the war effort. If, on the other hand, Madame Nhu went on a long vacation and brother Nhu faded into the background, it was possible that the graph would be slightly upwards from level—i.e., that progress might be made in the war against the Viet Cong but it would be much slower and less certain and take several years longer than the Secretary of Defense and he had contemplated at, say, the last Honolulu meeting.6

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The Secretary of State then turned to the question of the De Gaulle statement7 and French activity.

Mr. Colby said that it was possible that Nhu had been working through the French talking to the DRV. General Carter said that the Secretary had asked for any hunches on the situation there, and although we lacked information because Harkins had as yet been unable to make his contacts with the Generals, he was prepared to offer the following hunch: that is, that Nhu has known of our machinations for the last two or three days; that the Generals are backing off; that Nhu also is backing off in the sense that he is trying to do what the US wants and to put the GVN in as favorable a posture as possible. General Carter’s hunch was that the possibility of a Generals’ coup is out; that in one week’s time the GVN will look the same as it did as of the 20th of August; i.e. that Nhu will back off from repressive action in an attempt to give at least the appearance of a rapprochement with the US. General Carter said that there were several indications of this—the appointment of a new Ambassador;8 Madame Nhu’s silence; the pro-government rallies; the surfacing of pro-government Buddhists; the creation of a new inter-sect committee; allowing Mau to go on leave; the release of the students; the reopening of the schools; the easing of the curfew; the return of Radio Saigon back to civilian control.

The Secretary of Defense said that in his opinion the Generals didn’t have a plan and never did, contrary to their assurances.

After discussion it was made clear that the Generals did not say that they had a plan, but in their initial approach had said that they would develop one if they got US assurances. All agreed that from the evidence now available it looked as if the Generals were either backing off or were wallowing but that we could not know until after their meeting with Harkins. The Secretary of State said that the situation on Saturday9 appeared to be that the Vietnamese military wanted to mount a coup; that they wanted US assurances of support even [Page 56] though it would be a Vietnamese affair; that our response was that we would support them in an effort that was truly Vietnamese; that the main target was Nhu; and that the Generals could keep Diem if they desired. By this Saturday10 there does not appear to be much in it. The Secretary felt that we should send a cable to Lodge expressing these concerns, picking up the reference in Lodge’s remark that nothing seemed to be happening.

The Secretary of State said that one contingency we should look at urgently, since it seemed to be the most likely one, was what we would do if the Generals’ approach was only an exercise in frustration and gossip. Maybe the thing to do was to get the Generals back to fighting the war.

There was some discussion of counter-indicators, e.g., the possibility of riots, the reports of planned arrests of Generals and so on.

Mr. Nolting asked if the cable to Lodge ought not to withdraw some of the authority already delegated. He was especially thinking of the instruction that permitted Harkins to talk with the Generals.

Mr. Hilsman pointed out that Harkins was authorized to give assurances to the Generals and to review their planning but not to engage in planning with them.

The Secretary of Defense read the instructions to Harkins and all agreed that they were appropriate and should not be altered.11

Mr. Hilsman pointed out that at some stage, but certainly not until we had the results of Harkins’ meeting with the Generals, we would have to look at the question of whether we should cross over from assuring the Generals to a policy of forcing them into a position in which they had to take action, i.e., whether we could precipitate action by the Generals. The question here was whether the Generals had enough will and determination even to be forced. We could, however, know this only if we had more information.

The Secretary said we needed papers on a much wider range of contingencies. As he had said before, we needed a paper on the contingency if there is no coup attempt. What we needed is one list of the whole range of contingencies. One would be the frittering away of the interest of the Generals in a coup attempt. Another would be if their plan is inadequate in the US view for a successful coup.

The contingency paper dated August 3012 was distributed, and the Secretary of Defense said he thought the consolidated list of contingencies and US responses ought to eliminate any assumptions. In addition to those in the paper, which were based on the assumption that a coup would in fact be mounted, we ought to examine several [Page 57] more. One was that Diem and Nhu eased pressures either in arresting Generals or arresting a few key ones. Another was that Diem-Nhu eased pressures and Nhu takes power with the title of Prime Minister. Another was that Diem-Nhu eased pressures and Nhu becomes less prominent.

The Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Mr. Gilpatric and others also suggested adding the following contingencies:

Political intervention by a third party, e.g., bringing the matter before the UN.
Pressure in the US to reduce aid unless Diem does things he is not now doing.
In the event of a successful coup—the slate of possible Ministers and the various forms that a government might take.
Request for a variety of US military help—from the use of helicopters ranging up to US troops.
Large scale civil disorders—from riots through civil war and including the sudden seizure of US communications centers and installations, including a set of these cables.
Increased Viet Cong activity in a variety of circumstances, including when the ARVN was split and possibly fighting among themselves.
DRV intervention into a chaotic situation-on its own initiative or by invitation.
Political activity outside Viet-Nam—e.g. Thailand, Ceylon and others having a regional meeting of Buddhist countries.
Difficulties between SVN and its neighbors—e.g. cutting off Mekong traffic to Cambodia as a result of withdrawal of recognition.

The papers requested above will be prepared as soon as possible and distributed piecemeal.

A meeting will be held at 11:00 tomorrow morning.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Countries Series-Vietnam, White House Meetings, State memcons. Top Secret; Eyes Only; No Distribution. Drafted by Hilsman. The meeting was held at the Department of State. There are two other records of this meeting: a memorandum of discussion by Bromley Smith, August 29 (ibid., National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda, Meetings on Vietnam) and a memorandum for the record by Krulak, August 30 (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-172-69).
  2. Reference is to Document 20. In Smith’s record of the meeting, the deliberations began as follows:

    “Secretary Rusk opened the meeting by requesting an analysis of reports received from the field estimating forces loyal to Diem and forces loyal to the generals’ coup.

    “General Taylor, in summary, said the Presidential Guard and Special Forces were on Diem’s side. Other generals may or may not be loyal to Diem.

    “Secretary Rusk reminded the group of its obligation to the President. It was not clear to him who we are dealing with and we were apparently operating in a jungle.”

  3. Reference is to Document 22. In both Smith’s and Krulak’s records of the meeting, McNamara specifically states that General Harkins must get in touch with the Vietnamese generals to learn more. Smith also recounts McNamara stating that the United States should not give the generals support until Harkins makes contact with them.
  4. Not further identified.
  5. Both Smith and Krulak stated that Helms believed that the CIA had no evidence that would suggest that the generals had a plan. According to Smith, Helms also stated that “it appears that Colonel Tho [Thao] is being looked to to do the coup planning.” Krulak recounts that Helms found “the Thao report most disquieting to him.”
  6. Regarding the Secretary of Defense’s conference in Honolulu, May 6, see vol. III, pp. 264270.
  7. On August 29, French President Charles De Gaulle made a statement on Vietnam at a meeting of the French Council of Ministers. At the close of the Council meeting, the French Minister of Information, Alain Peyrefitte, read the statement to news correspondents. The statement reads in part as follows: “France’s knowledge of the merits of this people makes her appreciate the role they would be capable of playing in the current situation in Asia for their own progress and to further international understanding, once they could go ahead with their activities independently of the outside, in internal peace and unity and in harmony with their neighbors. Today more than ever, this is what France wishes for Vietnam as a whole. Naturally it is up to this people, and to them alone, to choose the means of achieving it, but any national effort that would be carried out in Vietnam would find France ready, to the extent of her own possibilities, to establish cordial cooperation with this country.” The full text is printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1963, p. 869.
  8. The new Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, Do Vang Ly.
  9. August 24.
  10. August 31.
  11. Not found.
  12. Document 25.