383. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs' Special Assistant (Jorden) to the Under Secretary (Harriman)1


  • Some Observations on Viet Nam

The General Mood. The prevailing mood in Saigon, among Americans and Vietnamese, is considerably more pessimistic than I had expected. There is much skepticism about the present and much doubt about the future. One gets the impression of indecision and considerable floundering.

In part, the mood can be attributed to the too high expectations generated by the coup and the elimination of the Diem regime. All too many people thought that the end of Diem-Nhu rule would solve all their problems. It has not. In many important respects, the situation had worsened not improved, and this has come as a grave disappointment. On the American side, much of the current frustration has been produced by the failure of the new government to act decisively and of the U.S. authorities to stimulate, encourage and support decisive actions.

The abrupt exposure of the true situation that had developed throughout the country came as a surprise and shock to many Vietnamese and Americans. Heightened Viet Cong pressure after the coup only deepened the impression of failure and futility for many.

There has been all too much concentration on the sins and errors of the past. An inordinate amount of time and effort has gone into exposing, questioning and arresting individuals connected with the Diem regime. I speak here not of the most flagrant violations—murder, torture or large-scale extortion or graft—but of activities no more heinous than those involving some the individuals now in the new government.

This raking over the coals of the past has become a national pastime and it has helped to freeze most of the machinery of government. Old grudges are being evened through the medium of anonymous poison-pen letters regarding superiors and the campaign appears directed at all levels of authority—section chiefs, office directors, and ministers alike. As a result, most individuals are concerned about their future and are unwilling to make decisions or to take action on anything but the most routine matters.

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In short, there is a good deal of looking to the past and little looking to the future. One gets the impression that considerably more energy is being expended to “correct the evils of the Diem/Nhu regime” than to beating the Viet Cong. Some of the specific elements that contribute to the present low state of morale are covered in succeeding sections.

Neutralism. Talk of neutralism has spread like wildfire through the Vietnamese community. The N.Y Times editorial and Reston and Lippmann columns on the subject were a body blow to morale in Saigon. The equivocal U.S. stand regarding a conference on Cambodian neutrality took on ominous meaning for many Vietnamese. Even high officials asked: are we next? Rumors of French recognition of the Peiping regime added fuel to the flames. The withdrawal of some forces this month and the suggestion we might pull most of our troops out by the end of 1965 were read by some, however mistakenly, as forerunners of a sharp reduction in our commitment.

It is impossible to determine how many Vietnamese are thinking of neutralism as a possible solution to their problems. What is most depressing is the growing feeling among them that this may be U.S. policy and that they better be prepared for it. Recent assurances from us have doubtless helped ease the situation but much more needs to be done to counter this line which I gather is being quietly fostered by some of our European friends.

The press. The drab uniformity and tight controls that dominated the Vietnamese press under Diem have given way to irresponsibility and license under the new regime. New newspapers spring up almost daily. Most of them contain a heavy diet of rumor, scandal and personal vilification. They are further poisoning the atmosphere. Vietnamese with even the remotest connection with the old Government read the newspapers with trepidation about what might be written about them.

In part, fear of criticism in the foreign press has inclined the new government to lean over backwards as regards press freedom. Also, there is some suspicion that those with power over the press are using it selectively against preferred targets. In any case, the performance of the press has not improved matters greatly and some better balance between freedom and license is urgently needed.

The new leaders. One gets the impression of a group of largely honorable men, working hard and desperately looking for solutions to their country's problems. One also gets the impression of men largely unqualified by experience to deal with many of the problems facing them.

They are working overtime to preserve the essentials of collective leadership. They appear fearful of the consequences if they become torn by internal rivalries and the competition of cliques. They therefore [Page 755]spend an inordinate amount of time meeting together to keep each other informed of what is going on and to reach decisions collectively. Even relatively minor decisions occupy the time of the Revolutionary Committee. And the rest of the governmental machine awaits guidance from the committee before taking any action.

The Committee is reluctant to delegate authority; lower officials are reluctant to act on their own initiative. The result—stagnation.

Need for a Program. The new Government came into power with a fairly good idea of what it was against, what it didn't like about the former regime. But it has yet to produce any clearly defined program of action setting forth what it wants or what it proposes to do. Virtually nothing has come from the Revolutionary Committee that stirs enthusiasm and excitement, that could enlist the hearty support of its own people in Saigon or in the countryside, to say nothing of wooing adherents away from the Viet Cong.

The stock Vietnamese reply when this question is raised is to say: You Americans are too impatient. Yet talks with many Vietnamese made it quite clear that they, too, felt deeply the lack of a positive program of action aimed at bringing peace in freedom to their country.

Mobilization of Resources. The new authorities in Saigon have done fairly well in ridding the country of some of the deadwood of the past, of incompetents and lackeys whose only virtue was political conformity. But at the same time, they have failed to use fully some of the competence and skill available from the pre-November period. There has been a certain amount of change for the sake of change and consequent waste of experience.

Some people in the above category and others who might conceivably represent a threat in the future are being shipped abroad to relatively unimportant posts. Others whose experience and training are desperately needed in Saigon are being permitted to go or to stay abroad.

Almost nothing has been done thus far to enlist the enthusiasm and support of the youth, many of whom are highly motivated. The idea of a domestic peace corps, for example, hasn't gotten off the ground. The one man who had made a deliberate effort to win the support of young people has been General Dinh, and there is some question as to his long-range purpose in this effort. Nor has there been any well-conceived effort to channel the energies and intelligence of the politically conscious religious groups, especially the young Buddhists.

All this represents a tragic waste of energy, talent and experience which a country like Viet Nam desperately needs. The danger is that those who want to help and who now feel left out will move in directions inimical to the major task facing their country, becoming a divisive rather than constructive force.

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US-GVN Relations. The coup launched a new era in U.S. relations with the Vietnamese. No American's prestige is or has been higher than that of Ambassador Lodge. He is credited with encouraging the welcome change of November 1 and with having genuine sympathy for Viet Nam's problems. His word carries great weight and his advice is welcomed.

A very real problem, however, is that the Ambassador is one man and there are but 24 hours in a day. No one man can possibly keep abreast of the wide range of problems facing the new Government in Saigon and be prepared to offer constructive advice and suggestions on them. Moreover, the Vietnamese are extremely proud and they are not going to go to the American Embassy every hour or every day seeking ideas or advice.

Somehow, the gulf between their receptivity and our availability must be bridged.

Conclusions. There is a most serious morale problem in Viet Nam. There is some weariness and a diminution of optimism about the future. There is entirely too much preoccupation with the mistakes and wrongs of the past; too little action and planning aimed at the future.

Too much time, energy, experience, and drive is being wasted or ill-used. There is a lack of imagination in developing and presenting a program that would capture the support of the people. There is some concern about U.S. policies and intentions and firmness. There is too cumbersome a machine for decision making. There is an absence of broad guidance from the center and, at the same time, too little willingness to encourage local initiative or, at the other end, to accept it.

There is a need for some immediate successes, however few and however modest. This would help alter the present mood of discouragement. But Viet Nam's needs and the promotion of our interests there call for actions that are both broader and deeper in scope than a few successful military actions in a war that is primarily social and political.

Some Suggestions for Action.

The most desperate need in Saigon right now is for clear, forceful and imaginative leadership. The second most urgent requirement is for an enlightened and thoughtful program that would capture the imagination and support of the people.

This is no time for traditional approaches or routine solutions. The situation is too important and too fragile. We are going to have to display great imagination and skill.

I see little prospect of meeting the current problem unless we do something: alone the following lines:

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We need a small team, perhaps six to eight men, who know the Viet Nam scene, have a real appreciation of the problems, who are totally devoted to the cause of preserving the country's independence, and who have demonstrated skill in working with the Vietnamese. They must have tact, patience and a passion for anonymity. They should be individuals who through past contacts have developed ties of trust and confidence with the Vietnamese.

These men should be assigned on a man-for-man basis to work with the leading figures in the present Government in Saigon-Minh, Tho, Kim, Don, Dinh, Oai, and possibly Xuan. They should be available 24 hours a day to give advice, advance ideas, make suggestions. They should work in closely coordinated fashion with common goals in mind and the advancement of our common policies as their main objective. One man should act as team director and coordinator and the entire operation should be under the close supervision of the Ambassador. The group would carry out the Ambassador's directions and would keep him fully informed of all significant developments.

The most urgent requirements for such a group would be:

to promote more clearly defined leadership, probably in the person of General Minh and possibly Tho;

to encourage development of a thoughtful action program, with emphasis on political and social action;

to take a hard look at existing programs and revise or eliminate as necessary;

to win the support and cooperation of key elements—government officials, intellectuals, youth, religious groups, the peasants;

to encourage initiative within the government and particularly at the province and district levels;

to promote an amnesty for those who made mistakes under Diem—major crimes excepted—and to judge people on present and future performance;

to shift emphasis from the defensive posture of the past to aggressive action against the enemy;

to overhaul and revitalize the information and psychological programs directed at the people of South Viet Nam and at the Viet Cong.

As regards the kind of men who could carry out this kind of assignment with skill and imagination, I would suggest the following:

Ed Lansdale-he knows as much about Viet Nam, about this kind of political action and about the key figures in Saigon as almost any living American. He has prestige and influence with many of the central figures in the country. He has talents, clearly demonstrated in Viet Nam and the Philippines' which are urgently needed and which, in my opinion, we would waste only to our own disadvantage. In this critical situation, bureaucratic rivalries and jealousies must be forgotten. Ed can do a job that desperately needs doing.

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Lou Conein—experienced and able, he has unparalleled standing with some of the generals, particularly Don; he is listened to with respect and can get things done.

Rufe Phillips—the key figure in the rural affairs program in Viet Nam, imaginative, energetic, and the confidant of such men as Kim and Tho.

Jim Kent—now in ISA, a military man with previous service in Viet Nam, quiet, solid, and with a deep understanding of what is going on; stands well with some of the generals now in power.

Joe Mendenhall-a political officer now in FE, knows Viet Nam, understands the Vietnamese, able and imaginative and devoted to Viet Nam's freedom.

These are but some of the men who come to mind for the kind of rough task I have outlined. There are others. The final choice should be the Ambassador's with the team leader, preferably Lansdale, having a voice in selection. Obviously, those picked for such a job would have to trust each other and work well together. And they would have to move forward with the greatest skill, finesse, and subtlety. It would be the most challenging kind of assignment—but it could mean the difference between success and failure. It is a risk worth taking.

  1. Source: Department of State, Vietnam Working Group Files: Lot 67 D 54, POL 1, General Political. Secret. A note on the source text indicates that it was Hilsman's copy. Hilsman in turn sent it to the Vietnam Working Group for action.