4. Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Harkins) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Taylor)1

MAC 1557. Ref State 243,2 which used my name in one or two instances, I certainly had impression that military had concurred. Also CINCPAC 250456Z3 indicated his opinion was incorporated in State 243 and that my support had been volunteered.

This led me to presume that there was indeed coordination at all levels. I too had second thoughts even when I saw State 243 in that it was a bit contradictory. On the one hand it gave Diem a chance yet at the same time it told military to go ahead. The Amb made decision after receiving approval of modification that his instructions were clear to go ahead on military side. This was done and [document number not declassified]4 reflects result of that decision. I have always been of opinion and have so stated in past few days that whatever we do it should be done with least bloodshed and with hopes that resultant relations between US and Vietnamese, regardless of which Vietnamese finally end up in control, should be on the same friendly cooperative basis that has been evidenced since I have been here the past year and a half.

I flatly refused to personally get involved unless I had approval from highest US authority—which I have not. On the other hand, presuming that State 243 and 2565 represented our government’s position [Page 11] I had no choice but to go along. As you can see from my MACV 15446 I thought I’d better check.

Now the die is cast though as yet we have not received the details of how it’s to be done—and in the final analysis, in my opinion, it will not be accomplished unless we give the final say so.

I feel the key to the whole solution is the elimination of the Nhus from active participation in affairs Vietnam. By elimination I do not mean destruction. I hope that we could even pay for a protracted leave of absence from the post to someplace where their voice of authority could not be heard.

I have the feeling that the military involved could live with Diem provided the Nhus were out of the picture. Though I agreed to the change in the terms of reference I based my agreement on the fact that in the past when we have tried to separate Diem from the Nhus, either in action or statement, the result has been nil. On the other hand I too have second thought that we never actually have given Diem a chance to react to any new instructions or advice Amb Lodge might have imparted to him. I have not had a chance to discuss this with the Amb and therefore do not know Diem reaction to the initial conversations. I do know that the feelings here, both in the military and civilian, run high against the Nhus—and from reading reports from world wide sources there is a great deal of concern and confusion as to just who is running Vietnam. At this time people are choosing sides and the various factions are lining up one against the other. Again, at this time, it is not at all clear what the line-up will be. Big Minh has asked to meet with CAS in the morning. Purpose of the meeting is unknown. It might clarify some of the unknowns.

In my opinion as things stand now I don’t believe there is sufficient reason for a crash approval on our part at this time.

If, as reported and not absolutely confirmed, Nhu and cohorts have taken enough action in the eyes of the civilians and military here—and the world—to put themselves way out on the end of a limb, it might be that if we continue the pressure on Diem, Nhu and cohorts will be forced to take the initial actions which would make any reaction by the local military the next logical step. To me this is bound to come. The Vietnamese people can’t live with them, the military can’t live with them, and neither can we.

My one hope above all is that whatever happens there will be little or no bloodshed and we can get back to the main purpose of our being here—helping these very fine people fight the war against the VC.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country Series, Defense Cables. Top Secret; Eyes Only. Repeated to Felt, to Bundy at the White House (where it was received at 2:43 p.m., August 28), to Rusk, Ball, and Harriman at the Department of State, and to McCone at CIA.
  2. Vol. III, p. 628.
  3. The text of this message is contained in CINCPAC 281916Z, August 28, repeated to the Department of State by the JCS as 281941Z, August 28. The text reads as follows:

    “State has sent message to Amb Lodge and exclusive to me authorizing course of action to give Diem chance to rid himself of Nhu and his gang and to replace with best available military and civilian. Ambassador will consult with you and CT. Note particularly line of action 2 which has to do with military leaders. I talked to WashDC while policy was being formulated and while message being drafted and cleared. My opinion is embodied in the message. I volunteered your support. As related matter, I have reviewed your OPlans 60-62 and 61-62. Assistance is available on short notice but you should anticipate possible needs and make appropriate requests.” (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Vietnam Country Series, Defense Cables)

  4. vol. III, p. 653..
  5. Ibid p. 667.
  6. In this telegram to Taylor, August 28, Harkins noted that telegram 243 to Saigon, August 24, implied his support and Felt had already volunteered his support. In the absence of specific instructions and unless otherwise directed, therefore, he planned to support Lodge fully. (National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T-172-69)