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

2203. For Rusk and McNamara from Lodge.

Herewith report McNamara-Khanh conversation,2 attended also by Lodge, Taylor and Harkins.
General Khanh began by reviewing the recent course of the war. He noted that over the past three months, the GVN had reestablished its control over some 3,000,000 Vietnamese citizens. He said that while there was obviously much that still had to be done, he was satisfied with the rate of progress. He said that an obvious problem was the danger that Communists would reinfiltrate into or otherwise reassert their control over the areas that had been made secure. The GVN was taking appropriate measures to assure that this did not happen.
General Khanh then said that his biggest problems and most time-consuming preoccupations were political. He protested that he was unskilled in political matters and wanted to lean heavily on Ambassador Lodge. He said that in addition to the normal political problems of a post-revolutionary situation, he had to cope with serious religious problems. It happened that almost any political question included a religious question. There were two major areas of religious conflict: that raging between the Catholics and the Buddhists, and that raging within the Buddhist movement. He said there were Catholics who dismissed all Buddhists as Communists, and Buddhists who made similar allegations about the Catholics. While the two religious groups were fighting, the GVN was in the middle and was receiving the blows each camp aimed at its adversaries. The Catholics accused him of being pro-Buddhist and the Buddhists accused him of being pro-Catholic.
The worst thing about this religious problem was that feelings were beginning to run so high that the religious dissension could spread to the army and completely shatter its unity. The importance of the religious problem could not be exaggerated. He felt that the best way to cope with it was to get authoritative spokesmen for the moderate tendencies in each religious group together, and let them work out the agreements and reconciliations that were in the manifest interest of both.
The real troublemaker in all this was Thich Tri Quang. General Khanh said he discussed the problem at length with the Ambassador, and hoped that the Ambassador would use his influence on Tri Quang to get him to adopt a more moderate position. The Ambassador remarked that he had tried this, that he was nevertheless prepared to try again, and would make another effort to influence Tri Quang to take a more conciliatory attitude towards the Catholics. The Ambassador added that Embassy officers frequently saw Tri Quang, and that perhaps they could influence him. General Khanh said this latter approach might be the better one; he felt that Tri Quang might respond better if approached at a working level, because if the Ambassador sought him out too often, there was a danger that this fact would go to Tri Quang’s head and make him more difficult than ever.
In addition to the religious problem, there was also the problem of the press. General Khanh remarked that more often than not the main purpose of a newspaper in Vietnam was to support specific financial or commercial interests, and that the press tended to be defamatory. Further, it got involved in the intrigues of those whom he called “parlor politicians”—those Saigonese who had had no contact with the war whatsoever, who knew nothing of the sacrifices that it entailed for the rural populations who lived in the midst of it, who had never struck a blow for freedom but who nonetheless set themselves up as the champion of freedom, often in opposition to the government and to the detriment of the war effort and whose sole interest was power and preferment for themselves.
All things considered, General Khanh was not displeased with what had been accomplished in recent months. There was no escaping the fact that the mobilization, induction and training of recruits and the mounting of operations had all suffered and been set back as a result of the two coups of last fall and winter. There had been no effective government in Vietnam since last May, but GVN was extending its authority, and there was good reason to believe that it would do so at a more rapid rate in the future—the progress of consolidation would not only be an oil spot, it would also snowball.
General Khanh said he was a soldier and not a politician, and that he wished he could spend more of his time on mounting military operations, on assisting the pacification program, and in thinking a bit about longer-term strategy and the international relations of his country, rather than spending so much time on internal political squabbles. He said these squabbles were like stomach troubles: they caused him considerable discomfort and served no useful purpose.
He had to think of the security of his regime. He said the Americans, and especially the Secretary and the Ambassador, had gone all-out in support of him. He wanted to be worthy of this American commitment and make it prove to be worthwhile. To do this he [Page 317] had to protect his regime from any divisive tendencies or attempted coupe. That he was doing, and he felt his prospects of success in that particular effort were good.
After he had completed this general expose of his thoughts and hopes, Khanh asked if his guests had any questions. The Secretary suggested that General Khanh go on and outline any specific points he had in mind. The Secretary said that he had noted in one of the Ambassador’s reports (Embtel 2108 of May 4, 1964)3 that Khanh had said he did not want to prolong “the agony” and wanted to push on with a more vigorous prosecution of the war. The Secretary said he would like to hear Khanh’s thoughts in this connection.
Khanh said that when he spoke of not wanting “to make the agony endure”, he did not want to give the impression that he would lose patience in a long, grinding struggle of the sort that doubtlessly lay ahead in this kind of a war. But he did think the process could be speeded up by something like the following: the proclamation that South Vietnam was on a war footing and was being attacked from the North; that if this attack did not stop within a specified period of time, which could be six weeks, a month, or two weeks, South Vietnam would strike back and carry out attacks on the North comparable to those the North had been carrying against the South. These countermeasures would be comparable in degree and importance and extent, although not necessarily identical in form, “whereas the North attacks us with guerrillas that squirm through the jungle, we would attack them with ‘guerrillas’ of our own, only ours would fly in at tree-top level and blow up key installations or mine the port of Haiphong.”
The Secretary asked General Khanh if he thought it would be wise to undertake such operations now. Khanh replied that before starting such operations, we had to think about what the enemy reaction would probably be. It could well be that the North would attack in strength, perhaps even with Chinese Communist assistance or direct participation. This would rapidly become America’s problem, so it would have to be for the Americans to decide on timing or whether attacks against the North were to be undertaken at all. Having said this, he said, he would like to note that the NFLSVN and the VC were but the arms or legs of the enemy monster; its head was in Hanoi—“and maybe further North;” and to destroy it properly and quickly, a blow at the head was needed. The purpose of putting the country formally on a war footing would be to set the stage, to set a proper frame of reference, for the ultimate extension of the war that would follow.
General Taylor asked how General Khanh thought he could best attack the North. Khanh replied by air or by sea but not by land. It was noted that some small-scale infiltration operations had been tried or were in progress, but it was generally agreed that these had not been successful and were unlikely to make any decisively significant contribution to the war effort. When the question of the material capabilities of the Vietnamese Armed Forces to mount such attacks came up, Khanh replied that they either were ready or could quickly be brought to a point of readiness. This was not the problem. The problem was to be certain that the GVN would continue to enjoy full American support in connection with a strong attack by the North in reaction to what the GVN had done. Khanh noted that there were always unknowns that must be taken into account. He recalled the parts played by comparable “unknownsv in the French war in Indochina-the decisive role played by a Viet Minh division that had been grouped and held secretly just over the Chinese border for a sudden and decisive intervention in the fighting in the Tonkin. The French had known nothing about it. He would point out the risks and the prospects for gain, but the Americans would have to make the basic decisions.
General Taylor recalled that at their last (March) meeting,4 General Khanh had said he would prefer to hold off on attacking the North until he had established a better and sounder base in the South. General Taylor asked if we now had a stable base. Khanh indicated that there was much more to be done in this area, but that it was almost impossible to describe the problem or his approaches to it in absolute terms. He said that the very fact that the base in the South was not yet satisfactorily solid might be a reason to strike against the North at once, rather than wait for the weakness to be corrected, because it could be, in a certain international conjuncture and set of circumstances, that the best cure for weakness in the South would be an attack on the North. He saw some merit in drawing clear lines of battle and thereby engaging men’s hearts and their all-out efforts. That would be the advantage of proclaiming a war footing: it would increase people’s awareness of the war and of the fact that they had to take a position and play their part. It could be that an attack on the North would galvanize opinion in the South and speed up the successful prosecution of the war considerably.
Furthermore, General Khanh said, we had to be mindful of the diplomatic and international consequences of our acts or possible courses of action. For example, there was the problem of the French. When Secretary Rusk had spoken with him a few weeks ago, the Secretary had urged him not to break relations with France. When [Page 319] Khanh asserted that he knew that certain Frenchmen were involved in subversion, Secretary Rusk had said to expel them selectively and for cause, but not to break off diplomatic relations with France. This Khanh had done yesterday: three Frenchmen had been expelled on security grounds. This was just the beginning. He was going to expel any Frenchman who spread neutralist doctrine or otherwise threatened the security of the government, the state, or the war effort. Khanh said this with considerable force and pride, in the manner of a man who felt he was getting underway and enjoyed the feeling of motion and concrete achievement, and looked forward to more of the same.
General Khanh then asked the Secretary for his views. The Secretary recalled their conversations of last March and the increases in levels of forces upon which they had then agreed. Notably, there was to be a 72,000 man increase in the ARVN and another 72,000 increase in the paramilitary forces, to replace casualties, separations and to raise the level of forces to something like 238,000 for the ARVN and 98,000 each for the Civil Guard and the SDC. The Secretary noted that the figures for what had actually been accomplished in these areas in April and May did not suggest that we were on schedule. The Secretary emphasized that he was making the observation only to introduce his main point that the USG was willing to help in any way it could to get this program back on schedule. If more money or materiel was needed, it would be made available whenever a real need could be demonstrated.
The Secretary then produced a chart showing what should have been accomplished over the past few months and what had actually been achieved. The Secretary and Khanh went over these figures carefully. After this study of detailed specifics was completed, Khanh asked the Secretary what general observation he would like to make on the war effort to date.

The Secretary noted the limitations of his vantage point as compared to that of General Khanh, but gave a clear and concrete listing of important points. First of all, he said, he would emphasize strength levels.

Second, he said, the Vietnamese Air Force needed more fighter-type aircraft. These could be delivered over here within three or four months. The Secretary indicated which aircraft types should be substituted for which types currently in use.

Thirdly, the Secretary said, there was the matter of the budget. This was very important. Delays in the granting of budgetary approval seemed to be holding up progress of the pacification effort. The Secretary emphasized that the GVN could count on the USG to supply any funds that were clearly needed, and to cover any shortfall that had been occasioned by worthwhile activity.

[Page 320]

The GVN must emphasize, particularly in the provinces, that it is a crime not to disburse funds one is supposed to disburse. Khanh said he had recently gotten this message across to a large group of province chiefs at Cap Saint Jacques; he was going to talk to the remainder of the province chiefs within a week or so. He said jocularly that he was going to tell them that he would cut off the head of anyone who put money into his own pockets, but would also cut off the head of anyone who sat on money he was supposed to disburse. All present expressed satisfaction at Khanh’s having accepted this important point of speeding up disbursements and removing obstacles to adequate funding of key projects. Khanh explained that many of the GVN’s difficulties in this area stemmed from their heritage of French budgetary practice and its particularly formidable system of controls.

At Khanh’s request the Secretary offered more detailed points of advice. He said once again that he could not emphasize too strongly the importance of raising forces to the agreed levels. He felt still more effort should be made in the strategic provinces. There was also the problem of replacing incompetents. The Secretary said that in every relevant report, he had heard that the commander of the 5th Division was incompetent. He must be replaced quickly. The same applied to the province chief of Hau Nghia Province.
General Khanh said he agreed regarding the incompetence of these two individuals. They would soon be replaced. The case of the commander of the 5th Division presented something of an internal problem, but it would be arranged.
The Secretary then noted that the GVN was failing to receive much support that it might get from third-country nations interested in its struggle simply because it was inadequately represented abroad. The GVN must send out many more able Ambassadors. Ambassador Lodge remarked that he knew of several Vietnamese available in Saigon who would make excellent Ambassadors. The Secretary pointed out that the GVN could do much good for its cause by being properly represented at the UN, in a number of African and South American countries, and in Europe, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany.
General Khanh replied that he had this problem very much in mind. He said that an Ambassador, unlike a province chief, cannot be assigned quickly and then withdrawn if he does not work out well. A very careful selection must be made in the first place. There were, to be sure, many able men available, but there were also many problems. Ambassadors had to be representatives-nationally, socially and politically. They had to be worthy of the trust imposed in them. There were many otherwise suitable men who had family problems that complicated their cases; the wives of some were unsuitable for a diplomatic assignment. He was moving as fast as he could on this.
Finally, the Secretary said there must be a more effective administration of the pacification program. Those running it must be pushed to higher levels of effectiveness, and any obstacles in their paths must be removed. General Khanh said he hoped in the near future to be able to spend much more time on military and pacification matters, if only this political “stomach trouble” that took so much of his time could be quieted.
General Taylor, in a very serious and deliberate manner, said there was one problem of which he wished to remind General Khanh: the matter of proper supervision of communications security, this was extremely important. The fate of a nation could hang on communications security practices, and General Khanh would have to insist on higher standards. Khanh acknowledged this.
Ambassador Lodge said he had a problem too: he had just learned that Major Dang-Sy5 was soon to be brought to trial in Hue and on a date (May 21) that was psychologically extremely dangerous. This trial could only exacerbate the religious strife of which General Khanh had earlier complained. Khanh said the date was May 18 and assured the Ambassador that Major Sy would not be executed. Khanh said, with some determination and inflexibility in his voice, that Sy would be tried. But he added with equal firmness and as a firm and personal commitment to the Ambassador, that he would not be executed. The Ambassador warned him that with religious feeling running as high as it was, any mishandling of the Sy trial could even start a religious war. Khanh acknowledged the Ambassador’s points. He objected, however, that he had recently received a letter from Monseigneur Binh, the Bishop of Saigon, which was little less than an ultimatum. Khanh repeated again that Tri Quang was stirring up trouble, this time in connection with the Sy case. The Ambassador acknowledged that he did not envy the position in which Khanh found himself, but emphasized again that nothing must be [done?] even to justify the impression the GVN was in the slightest degree anti-Catholic.
The meeting, which had been frank and friendly throughout, ended on a particularly warm and friendly note, with Khanh expressing his obviously sincere thanks for the Secretary’s and the Ambassador’s statements of all-out USG support for him and for his government.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Exdis.
  2. Held on May 13.
  3. Document 136.
  4. See Document 77.
  5. Major Dang-Sy was Deputy Chief of Thua Thien Province and the official responsible for the government attacks on Buddhist demonstrators in Hue on May 8, 1963. Dang-Sy was relieved of his duties soon after the incident. After the overthrow of the Diem government in November 1963, he was arrested.