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94. Memorandum of Conference With the President1


  • Vietnam


  • Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, Director McCone, Director Murrow, General Taylor, General Krulak, Under Secretary Harriman, Deputy Secretary Gilpatric, Assistant Secretary Hilsman, Assistant Secretary Manning, Mr. Janow (AID), Mr. Colby, Mr. Bundy, Mr. Forrestal, Mr. Bromley Smith, Attorney General

Secretary Rusk reviewed for the President the summary of the situation which he had given the group earlier.2 He emphasized that Nhu has become a symbol which has to be removed. Ambassador Lodge hasn't yet gotten through to Diem. We cannot assume that Diem will not move in our direction. On the other hand, if we move against Diem too fast, we cannot dismiss the possibility that he might bring the Vietnamese house down around him and go to North Vietnam for assistance, possibly with help from the French. He cautioned against reacting to people in the field who want to get on with the job and are frustrated by the problem. He referred to Mr. Hilsman's plan which he said did not involve really important actions, but would have an important psychological effect. He recommended that Ambassador Lodge be told to tell Diem to start acting like the President of Vietnam and get on with the war.

Mr. Hilsman briefly summarized the concept of the draft plan.3

[Page 191]

Mr. Bundy pointed out that the differences between the Hilsman plan and Ambassador Lodge's view is that the latter is asking for suspension of aid. It turns out that it is not easy to cut U.S. aid without stopping the war effort.

Mr. Gilpatric added that cutting U.S. military aid would have an immediate and telling effect on the war effort. Most of our aid involves airplanes. We could, however, withdraw dependents without hurting the war effort.

The President asked whether deterioration has set in and whether the situation is serious. Mr. McCone replied that within three months the situation may become serious.

Secretary McNamara said we could not estimate whether the situation would become serious in three months. He said there had been as yet no serious effect on the war effort. Ambassador Lodge wants action on aid, wants to oust Nhu, and is thinking of a new coup. Secretary Rusk is opposed and he agrees that we should take no hurried action.

Secretary Dillon said he doubted we could get in real touch with Diem. We cannot count on doing so, but we must make the effort. Secretary Rusk agreed.

Director McCone said he agreed with Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara that we should proceed cautiously. Ambassador Lodge has not been there very long. He should see the country rather than merely Saigon. We cannot cut our aid to Colonel Tung without jeopardizing the entire counterinsurgency movement in the northern part of South Vietnam. This would be the cost of creating pressures in Saigon on Diem. We should make another approach to Nhu.

At this point the President read the ticker report of Madame Nhu's interview with reporters in Belgrade (copy attached).4

Mr. Bundy commented that the worse Madame Nhu becomes the easier it is to argue that she must get out of the Vietnamese government.

The President felt that some reply was called for. How could we continue to have her making anti-American comments at the same time she is one of the leaders of a government we are supporting?

The President asked for a paper containing details of the plan suggested by Mr. Hilsman. He wanted to see the interrelationships of the various proposed courses of action. Mr. Hilsman responded that his paper was merely a concept and that proposed courses of action were illustrative of how it might be put into effect.

[Page 192]

Mr. McCone suggested that another approach be made to Nhu. He believed that CIA official Richardson in Saigon should not now talk to Nhu. He suggested that Mr. Colby, who knows Nhu, be sent from Washington to Saigon to talk to him.

The President asked whether a draft letter to Diem had been prepared for him as he had suggested. Mr. Bundy replied that it was felt that a letter from the President to Diem asking Diem to silence Madame Nhu would be difficult to write because it dealt with what, in effect, was a family matter. In addition, if the letter became public, the complications might be serious. It was felt that Ambassador Lodge should be instructed to ask Diem orally to silence Madame Nhu.

The President said his idea of a letter was to spell out our general view toward the situation faced by Diem. This is one method of getting Ambassador Lodge going on his conversations with Diem. The letter would not be released to the press. He asked that a draft of our concerns and our complaints be prepared for him. As to a Congressional resolution, he thought it would be helpful, but only if we could control the ensuing situation.

Mr. Bundy said we could support the introduction of the resolution and then suggest that it not be acted upon in a hurry. Secretary Rusk and Senator Mansfield shared the view that the resolution should be introduced, but that hearings on it be delayed.

The President expressed his concern that an effort would be made to attach the resolution to the aid bill. He wanted us to work with the Congressional Committees so that we would not end up with a resolution requiring that we reduce aid. The objective was a resolution merely condemning current actions of the Diem government. We must not get into a situation in which the resolution could be defeated. We should try to avoid having it tied to the aid program.

The President said we need to send an instruction to Ambassador Lodge, including in that instruction a request that he attempt to hush up the press in Saigon.5

Mr. Bundy pointed out that we should start now contingency planning for the evacuation of U.S. dependents. Secretary McNamara agreed. Some 5000 dependents are involved and Defense is responsible for moving them. He felt that evacuation of dependents is a very definite signal to Diem. In addition, he has been concerned about our capability to remove dependents in a crisis situation and favors removing them before any disorders break out. Mr. Murrow suggested that we announce the intention to evacuate dependents rather than leak it [Page 193]to the press. He pointed out that evacuation risks the possibility that the world will conclude that we are taking the first step toward pulling out of Vietnam. He said, however, we have to take this risk.

Mr. Bundy said we would, of course, have to consult Congressional leaders before ordering dependents to leave. What we should do was make our in-house preparations, but not decide now to remove dependents. General Taylor added that we should withdraw the dependents in a way which would produce action from Diem.

The President said we should tell Ambassador Lodge that we are considering his cable. He believed that we should express our concerns to Diem and get a response from him. He agreed that for the next few days all aid decisions should be held up.

Bromley Smith6
  1. Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Meetings and Memoranda Series, Meetings on Vietnam. Top Secret. Drafted by Smith. The meeting was held in the White House.
  2. See Document 93.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 93.
  4. Not attached. In Belgrade attending the Interparliamentary Union, Madame Nhu stated on September 11 that “President Kennedy is a politician, and when he hears a loud opinion speaking in a certain way, he tries to appease it somehow”. She continued: “if that opinion is misinformed, the solution is not to bow to it, but the solution should be to inform.” (Quoted in Sobel, ea., South Vietnam, 1961-65, vol. I, p. 67)
  5. Telegram 387 to Saigon, September 11, 9- p.m., from Hilsman to Lodge, asked that the Ambassador “hold tightest hand on press leaks.” (Department of State, Central Files. POL 15-1 S VIET)
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.