86. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1

478. Eyes only for the Secretary from Lodge. My best estimate of the current situation in Viet Nam is:

That it is worsening rapidly;
That the time has arrived for the US to use what effective sanctions it has to bring about the fall of the existing government and the installation of another; and
That intensive study should be given by the best brains in the government to all the details, procedures and variants in connection with the suspension of aid.

Herewith is the background for this proposal:

I do not doubt the military judgment that the war in the countryside is going well now. But, as one who has had long connection with the military, I do doubt the value of the answers which are given by young officers to direct questions by Generals—or, for that matter, by Ambassadors. The urge to give an optimistic and favorable answer [Page 172] is quite unsurmountable—and understandable. I, therefore, doubt the statement often made that the military are not affected by developments in Saigon and cities generally.
The fact that Saigon is “only one-seventh” of the population does not allow for the fact that there are a number of other cities and that the cities in the long run must play a vital military role. For example, the junior officers in the Vietnamese Army come, as they do in all countries, largely from families which are educated, the so-called elite. These people live largely in the cities. The evidence grows that this elite is filled with hostility towards the Govt of Viet Nam, consider therefore the lieutenant in the Vietnamese Army whose father has probably been imprisoned; whose mother has seen her religion insulted, if not persecuted, whose older brother has had an arbitrary fine imposed on him—and who all hate the government with good reason. Can the lieutenant be indifferent to that? Now come the high school demonstrations and the fact that the lieutenant’s younger brother has probably been dragged off in a truck (bearing the US insignia) to camping areas with the result that our lieutenant also has a deeply disaffected younger brother, if not a sister, who has been handled disrespectfully by the police.
Is it conceivable that this will not affect the energy with which the lieutenant will do his job in supporting his government? Is it any wonder that I hear reports of a major in the G-3 section of a corps headquarters who simply sits and does nothing because he is disgusted with the government? Must there not inevitably be a tendency—not for something spectacular and mutinous—but for the soldiers to get less aggressive and for the populations to get less sympathetic to the war effort? And as this happens will not the popularity of the US inevitably suffer because we are so closely supporting a regime which is now brutalizing children, although we are clearly able, in the opinion of Vietnamese, to change it if we wanted to?
Does not all of this mean that time is not on the side of the military effort and that if the situation in the cities is not improved, the military effort is bound to suffer?
But instead of improving, everything I can learn shows me that the situation is getting worse. The demonstrations in the schools are to me extremely curious and impressive manifestations. Out of nowhere apparently appears a banner and a plan to put up a roadblock or a scheme for conducting a parade. Perhaps this is the work of Communist agents, even though the students are undoubtedly not Communists. The latest rumor is that there will soon be similar demonstrations by civil servants—and what a fantastic confusion this will create and the government is obviously cut off from reality—not looking at anything objectively but solely concerned with fighting back, proving how right it has been-and privately thumbing its nose at the US.
For these reasons it seems to me that the ship of state here is slowly sinking. This brings me to the conclusion, that if there are effective sanctions which we can apply, we should apply them in order to force a drastic change in government. The only sanction which I can see is the suspension of aid and therefore I recommend that the best brains in the government study precise details of suspending aid so as to do ourselves the most good and the least harm.
Let us, for example, assume that our aim is to get rid of Nhu. I use this purely for illustrative purposes, as we may think of something better. Once we have made up our minds that we are willing to suspend aid, should we not make a private threat that unless Nhu was removed we would suspend aid? This procedure might have two advantages: First it might result in Nhu’s being removed. But, secondly, it would seem to put us on the popular side of the question and would then, when news of it leaked, tend to separate the government from the people. Also, when the tremendous shock of aid suspension took place, it should lessen the hatred which would be visited on us. This should be a period of action with perhaps a few leaks and with a minimum of statements by us—certainly not emotion-stirring statements which would arouse the xenophobia which is always latent here and the arousing of which would strengthen the GVN. We might, for example, be able to express our horror at the brutalization of children, but even this is risky if we are the ones who are doing the talking.
Renewed efforts should be made to activate by whatever positive inducements we can offer the man who would take over the government—Big Minh or whoever we might suggest. We do not want to substitute a Castro for a Batista.
We should at the same time start evacuation of all dependents. Both in order to avoid the dangers to dependents which would inevitably ensue, but also for the startling effect which this might have.
As the aid suspension went publicly into effect, we should be prepared to launch a massive program to protect the lives of the little people in the cities from starvation. Should this be soup kitchens, or should it mean taking anti-inflationary measures?
As aid suspension went into effect publicly, should we not start another quiet program to keep the Army supplied so that the war against the Viet-Cong should go on? Should not the Army be supplied by totally bypassing the Govt of Viet Nam, with supplies coming directly from the US to the Vietnamese Army?
Might we not thus bring sanctions to bear on the government without impeding the war effort and without making ourselves hated all over the world, as would be the case were there famines and misery?
Admittedly this is difficult and intricate and perhaps impossible, but it is also utterly vital and I recommend that it be studied without delay. We are giving it as much study as we can here in the Embassy.
If we decide to wait and see, we run certain risks:
That the future leadership of Viet Nam, the educated classes—already completely out of sympathy with the regime, and disillusioned with and distrustful of us as the instruments of change—will lose heart. (For while waiting we shall have to resume the rose of supporters of the regime.)
More importantly, those individuals whom the regime regards as proximate threats will be systematically eliminated from contention in one way or another.

In short, by a wait-and-see approach, we insure that when and if we decide that we cannot win with the present regime, we shall have even less to work with in terms of opposition than we have now.

What is even more dangerous is that the situation here may not wait for us. The student demonstrations in Saigon, for example, are profoundly disturbing. At the very least, these reflect in the most unmistakable way the deep discontent of the middle and upper-class population of Saigon. They are also the classic vehicle for Communist action. There is thus the real possibility of the situation getting out of hand in such a way that only the Communists will be in a position to act—when and if we decide that we cannot win with this regime.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET. Top Secret; Immediate. Received at 3:16 a.m. and passed to the White House and CIA at 4:48 a.m.