370. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • General Minh; General Don; General Kim; Prime Minister Tho; Secretary McNamara; Mr. McCone; Ambassador Lodge (who acted as interpreter)


  • Joint General Staff Headquarters
Secretary McNamara began by asking General Minh how he proposed to organize the command in Viet-Nam so as to accelerate the war effort. There was concern in the United States, he said, about the speed and intensity of the war, and we would like to know under whose hand it is going to be put.
General Minh replied that General Don was in immediate command of the Army.
McNamara asked whether General Don, who is also Minister of Defense, did not have a great many other duties and raised the situation in III Corps, which is commanded by General Dinh who is also Minister of Interior. It appeared to Secretary McNamara that neither General Don nor General Dinh could possibly operate all the jobs for which they are responsible.
General Minh replied that it might appear that way, but that actually the III Corps was well organized and that it consists of two divisions-each of which is separately commanded—with General Dinh providing the civil support.
When Secretary McNamara said that it would be better if General Dinh did not have so many different jobs, General Minh replied: You may be right but this has worked.
Secretary McNamara then referred to Long An Province and some of the other critical provinces and said that he felt he was familiar with the way things were at the bottom of the social structure and that it was obvious that there was no strong hand in charge. He pointed out that the I Corps was commanded by General Tri, and II Corps was commanded by General Khanh, and the IV Corps by General Cao and asked why the III Corps should not be equally well commanded.
General Minh pointed out that the III Corps had actually been divided into two small corps—one commanded by General That and one by General Thieu.
Referring to Long An Province, General Don said that the former province chief had been absolutely worthless but that he had been replaced by a good man. He said that the new government was working toward the day when there would be separate persons for the jobs of Minister of Defense and Chairman of the Joint General Staff, both offices which he now holds; and when there would be separate persons for III Corps Commander and for Minister of Interior, both of which posts are now held by General Dinh.
General Minh said that it was prudent to make maximum use of the services of experienced men in a time of transition and that if you had nothing but people in the government who had no experience, you would have confusion.
Under pressure from Secretary McNamara, General Don said that during January a full time III Corps Commander would be named. General Minh amended that time to be “January or February”.
Secretary McNamara said that the GVN was right to set priorities and to pick out those particular provinces in the Delta, but he had been struck by the fact that the total number of troops in the whole country showed the GVN had a superiority of five-to-one over the Viet Cong, yet in these critical provinces the Viet Cong actually had a numerical superiority over the GVN. This made no sense.
General Don said that Secretary McNamara must have seen the old plan because, under the new plan, the troops would be deployed as Secretary McNamara desired.
Secretary McNamara asked General Don to provide him with the new plan before his departure and to take it up with General Harkins.
General Minh then described the great results they expected to get from getting the sects to come over to the government's side. Already the Hoa Hao had come over, and on December 27 there was going to be a rally in Tay Ninh conducted by the Cao Dai at which their allegiance to the government would be proclaimed. He felt that the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai between them could contain the Viet Cong in their respective provinces and make more troops available for the critical Delta provinces.
In response to question as to who was the Chief of State, Minh said that he was. If a stronger or abler man could be found he would step aside in his favor. But at present he was the boss. He was not Naguib and there was no Nasser. There were no fights; the other generals helped him as a general staff helps a commander.
U.S. could do them a big favor if they could dissuade Time and Newsweek from publishing untrue articles about division among the generals. When I expressed surprise that English language publications had such an effect, Premier Tho said that the articles were translated into Vietnamese and widely re-printed in Viet-Nam press. “You see, we now have freedom of the press”, General Don said somewhat bitterly.
On the matter of neutralism, General Don referred to the student demonstration in front of the French Embassy this morning and which had gone “from 1,000 to 10,000”. Secretary McNamara said the U.S. was resolutely opposed to neutralism and that a negotiation for neutralism was actually a negotiation for servitude. When General Minh brought up U.S. attitude on Cambodia conference, Secretary McNamara countered with the thought that Sihanouk had observed V.C. success in Viet-Nam in November and December and had concluded that neutralism was really going ahead in Southeast Asia and that he had better join the parade. This seemed to head off more talk about U.S. attitude on Cambodian conference, which is usually a topic for heated and prolonged conversation.
Secretary McNamara then brought up the question of General Minh's acting like a Chief of State and making some speeches to the people which would give them hope and faith in the future. General Minh replied that he and Prime Minister Tho had had two press conferences and wasn't that enough? When it was pointed out that this wasn't the same thing as a really good speech, he said that on January 2 the Council of Notables would be installed, and he hoped to make a speech then. He also wanted to introduce television into Viet-Nam so that he could use that as a way of rallying the people.
Mr. McCone recalled that when Vice President Johnson had become President, he had speedily obtained the support of the people by the speeches he had made in Congress and to the people and felt that much could be learned from his example. The generals were quick to point out that things were different in Viet-Nam from what they are in a democracy and stressed the fact that Vietnamese people are “extremely difficult”. If many speeches were made, they would be considered to be dictators; whereas if they accomplished things and solved problems province-by-province and did not talk, they would come to be appreciated for their works.
When Secretary McNamara spoke of our desire to help, he illustrated it by announcing that 42 artillery pieces were going to be sent from the U.S. and that we were going to provide uniforms for the SDC whose morale, he was told, was very bad.
General Don and General Minh explained that the SDC in these critical Delta provinces had not been recruited locally as was supposed to be done because under the Diem administration it was [Page 719]impossible to recruit SDC in those provinces. Therefore, outsiders were brought in from the north who did not belong to the community and who had pillaged, looted, and held up hamlets for money. When the people of a hamlet refused to give them money, they would say that the Viet Cong would attack them and would bring down artillery fire on the hamlet which refused to contribute. It was really not a question of the morale of the SDC but of the fact that they were pillaging and looting and now they were being sent back to the north where they came from.
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, RG 330, McNamara Files: FRC 71-A-4370, 12/19-12/20/63 SVN Visit. Secret; Limited Distribution. Presumably drafted by Lodge who signed it. Sent to Washington in telegraphic form in telegram 1192 from Saigon, December 20. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 7 US/MCNAMARA)