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

2108. For the Secretary, McNamara, Harriman, and Bundy from Lodge.

Just as I was leaving the house this morning, I received the unusual message to call on General Khanh at 10:00 AM. When I came in, he said he had asked me to call partly because “I always feel better after I talk with you” and partly to put to me the following question:
Should he make a declaration that he was putting the country on a war footing?
This would involve many things at home and abroad. At home it would involve getting rid of the so-called “politicians” and having a government which would frankly be a government of technicians. It would involve, as had been the case under Lincoln in our Civil War, the suspension of certain civil rights. There would be a curfew; Saigon would cease to be a city of pleasure; evacuation plans would be made which would be capable of being carried out in three to four months to [Page 285] evacuate all of the two million people in Saigon. Under these plans the government with the diplomatic corps would leave Saigon, and American dependents would be evacuated.
Announcement would be made to Hanoi that any further interference in South Vietnam’s internal affairs would lead to reprisals, and he specifically asked if the United States would be prepared to undertake tit-for-tat bombing each time there was an interference in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.
Cambodia would be told: We have done what we could to have good relations with you, but we will not respect anything you negotiate either with Hanoi or with the Viet Cong.
A declaration of a state of war obviously would have to be accompanied by actions to prevent the French subversive activities here which he was sure were going on. For one thing, there was no doubt at all as to their activities in Cambodia. Their purpose obviously was to get the United States out of the whole of Southeast Asia. Colonel Lan, General Vy, and Huan, the former manager of the Caravelle, had made declarations under the polygraph in response to questions both direct and indirect which established beyond doubt that Generals Kim and Xuan were [garble—paid to?] make the neutralist coup. There was a letter which Van Tam, the well-known French cat’s paw, had written to Big Minh but which was apparently “lost”. He envisioned breaking diplomatic relations with France but keeping the Consul.
He asked me what my personal reaction was. I said, speaking purely personally and directing my remarks to the internal changes, that, given the state of the country, winning the war must come first. After the war was won, there would be plenty of time to go ahead with democratic forms.
He said that he could not enthuse about just “making the agony endure”, that it was fundamental common sense and logic to try to move ahead and get a real victory, otherwise, it was inexcusable to take 2,000 casualties and lose five airplanes, as they had done, simply in order to stand still.
Before making a declaration that he was putting the country onto a war footing, he would tell the people and the world why war had to be waged. He would say that at the time of the November first coup the GVN had “lost control” of some seven million people. In the last three months, the GVN had “gained control” over two million people, leaving five million who were still not under GVN control. Each week, in addition to the regular military operations, the GVN was gaining control over more and more people. Last week they gained control over 60,000. It was indispensable to regain control over the whole country, and this was why the war had to [garble—waged?].
I asked him the specific question whether he thought there was any possibility at all of a Communist victory similar to that which had been won at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, that is, a key battle somewhere which would have a totally demoralizing effect and cause capitulation to the Communists.
Speaking again to him personally, I said that I thought anyone contemplating steps of this kind would have to figure out where it all might lead and what reprisals the enemy might take. It was one thing for the US and the GVN to bomb North Vietnam but how would they retaliate? If we blew up their gasoline refinery, we should expect them to blow up ours. If we destroyed their power dam, they would destroy our power dam. Was it certain at this time in such an exchange we would come out ahead?

Then I said that if NVN undertook to invade SVN with its army, that would raise a host of new questions of very acute interest to the United States. The possibility of the Chinese Army itself coming in had to be considered. He asked whether the United States would be prepared to follow through with all the consequences which might very well involve China. Ultimately, NVN would have to be liberated from China.

If the Chinese Army came in, said I, the question arose as to whether this army could be prevented from functioning by bombing its supply lines and this in time raised the question in my mind as to whether the supply lines could be effectively interdicted with conventional bombing or whether nuclear weapons would be necessary. I did not have the answers to these questions, but obviously they were ones that any sensible person would ask. He agreed.

I said these were very large questions involving the highest level in the US Government, that I did not pretend to have the answers, that I personally had been brought up on the idea, so often voiced by General MacArthur, that in Asia the United States could have great influence with its air power and its navy and in working in support of Asiatic armies but that it was out of the question for the United States to commit a large land army to the mainland of Asia. For example, I did not visualize the United States ever putting an army into Asia comparable to the army it had put into Europe during World War II.
He appreciated this; but he hoped that we would consider the big things which could be done with an “army corps” of US Special Forces. He thought that any “army corps” of Special Forces numbering 10,000 men could do in Asia what an army group had done in Europe. He said one American can make soldiers out of ten Orientals. If an army group in Europe could cover a hundred miles, he thought an army corps of Special Forces could cover the whole Cambodian-Laotian frontier.
He thought it was illogical, wasteful, wrong to go on incurring casualties “just in order to make the agony endure”. He felt that the show of determination which he was outlining would make the Viet Cong change and that it would not be necessary to go to the ultimate limit, but he wanted to be honest and candid and have us face up to these ultimate limits.
I asked whether he wanted to continue with the present plan of concentrating the effort in the provinces around Saigon, and he said by all means but that much more than that ought to be done in order to develop a real show of determination and an offensive spirit.

Comment: This man obviously wants to get on with the job and not sit here indefinitely taking casualties. Who can blame him?

His desire to declare a state of war, leaving out specific details such as the plans for evacuating Saigon, seems wholly in line with our desire to get out of a “business as usual” mentality.

He is clearly facing up to all the hard questions and wants us to do it too.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Exdis. Passed to the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for McNamara on receipt in the Department of State. Also published in part in Declassified Documents, 1984. 001244.