83. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Viet-Nam

PARTICIPANTS

  • The White House
    • The President
    • Mr. Bundy
    • Mr. Forrestal
    • Mr. Bromley Smith
    • Gen. Clifton
  • State Department
    • Secretary of State
    • Gov. Harriman
    • Mr. Hilsman
    • Amb. Nolting
    • Mr. Mendenhall
    • The Attorney General
  • Defense Department
    • Secretary McNamara
    • Mr. Gilpatric
    • Gen. Maxwell Taylor
    • Maj. Gen. Krulak
  • CIA
    • Mr. McCone
  • AID
    • Mr. Bell
    • Mr. Rufus Phillips
    • USIA: Mr. Murrow; Mr. John Mecklin

General Krulak briefed his written report, “Visit to Vietnam, 7-10 September 1963”.2 His general conclusions were as follows:

The shooting war is still going ahead at an impressive pace. It has been affected adversely by the political crisis, but the impact is not great.

There is a lot of war left to fight, particularly in the Delta, where the Viet Cong remain strong.

Vietnamese officers of all ranks are well aware of the Buddhist issue. Most have viewed it in detachment and have not permitted religious differences significantly to affect their internal military relationship.

Vietnamese military commanders, at the various echelons, are obedient and could be expected to execute any order they view as lawful.

The U.S./Vietnamese military relationship has not been damaged by the political crisis, in any significant degree.

There is some dissatisfaction, among Vietnamese officers, with the national administration. It is focused far more on Ngo Dinh Nhu than on President Diem. Nhu’s departure would be hailed, but few officers would extend their necks to bring it about.

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Excluding the very serious political and military factors external to Vietnam, the Viet Cong war will be won if the current U.S. military and sociological programs are pursued, irrespective of the grave defects in the ruling regime.

Improvements in the quality of the Vietnamese Government are not going to brought about by leverage applied through the military. They do not have much, and will probably not use what they have.

Mr. Mendenhall gave his report:3

Mr. Mendenhall stated he had found a virtual breakdown of the civil government in Saigon as well as a pervasive atmosphere of fear and hate arising from the police reign of terror and the arrests of students. The war against the Viet Cong has become secondary to the “war” against the regime. There is also the danger of the outbreak of a religious war between Buddhists and Communists [Catholics] unless the GVN ceases oppression of the Buddhists. Nhu is held responsible for all the repressive measures, but Diem is increasingly identified as sharing responsibility.

Mr. Mendenhall said he also found a similar atmosphere of fear and hate in Hue and Da Nang. In the northern coastal area the Viet Cong have made recent advances in Quang Tin and Quang Nam. It is not clear whether this is attributable to the Buddhists, but it is clear Buddhist agitation extended to the rural areas of Quang Nam and Thua Thien and that reports have come from Hue of villagers in Thua Thien opting for the VC. Students in Hue and Saigon are also talking of the VC as a preferred alternative to the GVN.

Mr. Mendenhall concluded that he was convinced by his visit that the war against the Viet Cong could not be won if Nhu remains in Vietnam.4

The President said, “The two of you did visit the same country, didn’t you?”

General Krulak said that he thought the difference was that Mr. Mendenhall was reporting on the metropolitan and urban attitudes, while he, Krulak, was reporting on “national” attitudes.

Ambassador Nolting said that it might be true that there was paralysis in the civilian government as Mr. Mendenhall had reported, but there was also paralysis in 1961 and we came through at that time. Further, Mr. Mendenhall has held the opinion that we could not win the war with Diem for some time.5

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Mac Bundy said that in 1961 we overcame the paralysis by strengthening the effort against the Viet Cong; now it was the government that was causing the fear and paralysis and it was a little difficult to strengthen a war against the government.

Rufus Phillips reported as follows:

He had many friends in Viet-Nam as a result of long years of working there. He knew Diem well, Nhu well and many of the officers and Generals well. He had an opportunity to know the mood of the rural areas since he was in charge of the strategic hamlet program. He said that Nhu has lost the confidence and respect of both the officers and the civil servants. They do not support the government with Nhu in it and would not support the government if they had an alternative. He said there was now a crisis of confidence in Viet-Nam not only between the Vietnamese people and their government but between the Vietnamese people and the Americans. As far-as the Vietnamese are concerned, we have supported Diem and they have no evidence that we have changed our views. Therefore, people are reluctant to stick their necks out since Nhu would move against any individual who did. Everyone is looking to the US and here we stand. The Vietnamese do not lack the guts to move against the government once they are sure of the US position.

The President recalled that we had made a number of public statements condemning the Vietnamese Government’s actions but this has ignited nothing.

Mr. Phillips said that we have criticized the government before. What the Vietnamese people are looking for is a concrete action illustrating the US position. He said that he would recommend a middle course of action—a series of moves in a psychological and political warfare campaign to isolate the Nhus and destroy the current impression that they were all-powerful. Most Vietnamese would like to see President Diem remain but they are unalterably opposed to the Nhus. In Phillips’ judgment, we cannot win the war if the Nhus remain. He has this from Thuan, from Lac, the Vietnamese head of the strategic hamlet program, and from many military officers whom he has known over the years. All of them have come reluctantly to this conclusion.

Mr. Phillips said that we need a man to guide and operate a campaign to isolate the Nhus and to convince the government and people that the US will not support a government with Nhu in it, thus encouraging the military to do the job if Diem won’t come around. He thinks there is one man who could guide and operate this campaign as a special assistant to the Ambassador and it was Ed Lansdale.

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Mr. Phillips said that with all due respect to General Krulak’s report, the US military advisers were not able to give credible evidence on political attitudes. They were under a direction not to talk politics with their Vietnamese counterparts and their Vietnamese counterparts knew of this and were reluctant to talk over politics with the American military. It was only with old American friends that they would discuss such matters.

The President asked what specific steps Mr. Phillips would recommend. Mr. Phillips said first he would cut aid to Colonel Tung.

The President asked whether Tung could not redirect other aid into his special units. Phillips said that we could go direct to the field, that Tung could get some help from the President but our cutting aid to Tung would have important political and psychological effects throughout Viet-Nam illustrating that we disapproved of Tung and Nhu and what they stood for.

Mr. Phillips suggested another specific step would be to cut aid to the Motion Picture Center which is now processing films laudatory of the Nhus. Another step was that in the approving of any new request for aid we should require a signed statement that it was not to be used for repression and to build up the Nhus.

The President commented that it would be hard to get a signed statement with the latter phrase.

Mr. Phillips also suggested covert action to split Dinh and Col. Tung and to discredit them.

Ambassador Nolting asked what the result of all this would be. Would it be military action against the Nhus? Military action against the Government? Or decision by the Nhus that they have had it? What would be the result? Civil war or a quiet palace revolution? Mr. Phillips replied that he thought there was a good possibility of splitting Nhu from the President. He would expect some retaliation from Nhu, perhaps cutting aid programs that the US likes, but the result should be that Nhu would lose the support of officers and civil service people who now go along with him.

The President asked, “What about the possibility that Nhu’s response would be to withdraw funds from the war and field to Saigon—retreating to Saigon and charging publicly that the US was causing them to lose the war?” Mr. Phillips said that the Army would not stand still for this—too many of the Army were on the Viet Cong assassination list. Furthermore, it was our money in the provinces. We controlled it and the Central Government could not in fact withdraw it. If worse came to worst we could take our plasters out to the provinces in suitcases. We started the strategic hamlet program this way and we could finish it this way.

General Krulak said that the advisers were not good on politics or palace intrigue but they were good on saying whether or not the war was being won and they do say that the war is going well.

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The President asked how these differences could be explained. Mr. Phillips said that the war was going well in the first, second and third corps but it was emphatically not going well in the fourth corps, the Delta region. The strategic hamlets are being chewed to pieces by the Viet Cong. Fifty hamlets have been over-run recently. This deterioration of the war effort in the Delta, however, was not connected with political developments and repression of the Buddhists.

General Krulak said that Mr. Phillips was putting his judgment against General Harkins’ judgment and that he, Krulak, would take Harkins’-the battle was not being lost in a purely military sense.6

The Secretary of State asked what Phillips thought of R.K.G. Thompson’s idea that the Viet Cong might be turning to the cities.7

Phillips said that he did not think so; there was too much activity in the Delta. The strategic hamlets are not being protected; they are being overrun wholesale. Furthermore, in response to General Krulak, Mr. Phillips said that this was not a military war but a political war. It was a war for men’s minds more than battles against the Viet Cong.

Mr. Mecklin reported as follows:

He concurred with Phillips and he especially wanted to underline the point about the American image. We are in deep trouble with politically-conscious people in Viet-Nam. The VOA has unbelievable prestige. The rural hamlets are hanging on every word and living off the VOA. There is a widespread feeling of appeal to the US—that we should do something. This is an unreasonable attitude to look to us to solve their problems, but that’s the way it is. The US prestige was at stake in Viet-Nam and also in third countries. He said it was an absolute certainty that the military effort will be affected in time. The war had to be fought and managed by the Saigon elite and the officers corps attitudes would follow the attitude of the elites.

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Mr. Mecklin felt that Phillips’ suggestions were inadequate. He also had known Viet-Nam and the family for a decade. He thought that even cutting of all aid would not do the job quickly. There would be months of chaos; the government would eventually fall; but we don’t know what we would get in exchange. He felt that we must be ready to use US combat forces; that we should start off by trying to remove the whole government, including Diem, since the Nhus are a symptom, not a cause. Then we might compromise and let Diem stay. The President asked what he thought US troops would do. Mr. Mecklin said that if we cut aid there would be retaliation so we would have to go in as we did in Lebanon and we should go in since Southeast Asia was so important to us.

The Secretary of State said that we should digest these reports and we should especially consider what it is that has happened in July and August that has changed all our views that the war could be won with the Diem government.

Mr. McCone read from the June SNIE8 that indicated the intelligence community was even then not very hopeful.

The President expressed his gratitude to the four men who had so ably and succinctly reported. He said that there should be another meeting tomorrow.

For that meeting papers should be prepared describing the specific steps that we might take in a gradual and selective cut of aid, consulting the people who had returned from Viet-Nam and also the CIA in regard to its programs.

The President said that he was disturbed at the tendency both in Washington and Saigon to fight out our own battles via the newspapers. He quoted stories reflecting what seemed to be State Department views that Nhu must go and other stories (from the Journal American) saying that the Defense Department felt there had been inept diplomacy, etc. He said he wanted these different views fought out at this table and not indirectly through the newspapers.

The President wanted a cable to go to Saigon to the same effect,9 pointing out the story in this morning’s Post of an American security officer telling a foreign newspaperman to take a picture so that it could be seen in Washington.

The President asked for a report on Congressional attitudes.

Mr. Hilsman reported his conversation with Senator Church and the fact that Senator Church has sent a copy of his proposed resolution[Page 167]10 to all Members of the Senate, and that Senator Church will be cooperative about the wording and timing of the resolution but might need some pressure if the decision was not to have a resolution at all.

The President instructed Mr. Hilsman to obtain a copy of this resolution and to consult with Mr. Dutton and Mr. O’Brien. The President thought the resolution might be helpful, but what would really pull the rug out from under us in Viet-Nam was if it was offered and then beaten. Certainly some would attack it on the grounds that we must not question a government fighting successfully against the Communists. We would certainly need the support of Mansfield and Dirksen if our judgment was that such a resolution would be in our interest.

On the question of Madame Nhu, the President decided that we should not attempt to prevent her entry by means of denying or recalling her visa but should consider a letter to President Diem.

  1. Source: Kennedy Library, Hilsman Papers, Countries Series-Vietnam, White House Meetings, State Memcons. Top Secret; Eyes Only. The meeting was held at the White House. Drafted by Hilsman. Bromley Smith’s record of this meeting, published in part in Declassified Documents, 1982, 650A, is in the Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda, Meetings on Vietnam. Krulak’s record of this meeting is in National Defense University, Taylor Papers, Trip to Vietnam, September 7-10.
  2. Document 82.
  3. Based on Document 78.
  4. Krulak’s record of this meeting cites Mendenhall as saying “that it was his [Mendenhall’s] view, supported by Mr. Trueheart, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Saigon, that we will lose the war with the Diem Government.”
  5. Krulak’s record of this meeting presents the following account of this portion of the discussion:

    “Ambassador Nolting reminded Mr. Mendenhall that in 1961 he had made the same statement, forecasting that the VC would soon defeat the GVN. He asked Mendenhall to rationalize how, in the ensuing years, so much progress had been made by a government which he forecast could not survive. Mendenhall did not respond, because he was interrupted by the President, who asked how it could be that two people who had observed the same area could have such divergent reactions. After a period of silence, when it became evident that no one else was going to respond, I suggested to the President that the answer was plain—that Mr. Mendenhall had given him a metropolitan viewpoint on Vietnam; that I had given him a national viewpoint.”

  6. Krulak’s record of his exchange with Phillips reads as follows:

    “Mr. Bell then introduced Mr. Rufus Phillips, who gave a gloomy picture, stating that we were indeed losing the war, that in the Delta things were in a tragic state, that in Long An province, for example, 60% of the strategic hamlets had been overrun and that, contrary to what I had said, the military campaign was not going forward satisfactorily.

    “The President asked if I cared to make a comment regarding Mr. Phillips’ statement that we were losing the war militarily. I told him that my statement respecting military progress had its origin in a reservoir of many advisors who were doing nothing other than observe the prosecution of the war; that their view was shared and expressed officially by General Harkins and, as between General Harkins and Mr. Phillips, I would take General Harkins’ assessment.”

  7. Krulak’s record has Rusk asking another question:

    “The Secretary of State asked Mr. Phillips how he could explain the totally different story regarding Secretary Thuan as reported to have taken place between Phillips and Thuan on 7 September (Saigon to State 447) and Harkins and Thuan on 8 September (MACV 1649). Phillips replied that Thuan and he were very good friends; that Thuan was completely uninhibited in his conversation with him; that with someone whom he knew less intimately, such as General Harkins, he would not bare his inner soul, but would try and say what he thought his auditor wanted to hear.”

    Telegram 447 is Document 76. MACV 1649 has not been found.

  8. vol. III, p. 483.
  9. The Department of State sent telegram 376 to Saigon, September 10, which reads in part as follows: “It being emphasized here in all departments and desire you do likewise that any differences of points of view and on recommendations will be resolved entirely within official family and not debated in public press.” (Department of State, Central Files, POL 1 S VIET-US)
  10. See footnote 5, Document 70.