186. Telegram From the Secretary of State to the Department of State 1

Secto 37. Highlights of General Khanh conversation with Secretary, May 31. (Ambassador Lodge participating, and Mr. Bundy and Mr. Flott present.)

1. Solidarity Within South Vietnam.

After amenities Secretary Rusk transmitted greetings of President Johnson to General Khanh and said President spends much time and thought on problems of SVN and SEA in general. Secretary remarked President had recently been consulting on SEA problems with Senators both parties with Secretary present.2 Senators are increasingly concerned about pressures being applied on SEA by Peking and Hanoi. Forthcoming Honolulu conference will consider these problems and many others.

Secretary stated one of main problems President faces is justifying to American people whatever course of action may be necessary or indicated as matter of internal solidarity of SVN. Secretary noted that if struggle escalates, only US will have the forces to cope with it.

This basic reality means President has heavy responsibility of making vital decisions and leading American public opinion to accept them. Difficult to do this if SVN appears hopelessly divided and rent by internal quarrels.

A principal purpose of the US in area is to bring about a free, secure, peaceful SVN. This can be done only if Vietnam people display internal solidarity. So it follows that the greater is the solidarity of Vietnamese people, the greater will be the propensity of US and other free world countries to aid it in struggle against aggressors and to escalate if necessary.

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Secretary said he was not thinking in terms of displaying solidarity so as to convince Paris that struggle could be won, but rather was thinking in terms of sustaining the faith in the possibilities of ultimate success of our Vietnamese effort among those nations we hoped “would be in the foxholes with us” if escalation became necessary and if enemy forces reacted in strength, for example, UK, Australia, New Zealand. Solidarity and unity of purpose in SVN was keystone of whole effort. Was General Khanh doing all he could to bring about such national unity?

Khanh replied affirmatively, saying he fully aware of importance of unity. His recent handling of the case of the arrested Generals showed this.3 His clemency showed he was primarily interested in protecting unity of army. But there were many problems. Underlying structure and heritage of country was such that only army could lead nation in unity. Only army had the requisite organization, cadres, discipline, and sense of purpose. Nascent political parties and other groupings did not. The intellectuals would never be able to adopt a common point of view unless it was imposed by a dictatorship-by a party as the Communists did, or a “family dictatorship” such as Diem’s. This situation was made worse because of disproportion between measure of political and civil liberties granted in wartime situation on one hand and lack of background and sense of responsibility of recipients on other hand. A direct consequence of this disproportion has inevitably some measure of disunity. He was aware he had perhaps given more freedom than really prudent handling of situation would have dictated, but he had to be mindful oft-proclaimed democratic goals of the Vietnamese revolution. All in all, this disunity would not be fatal because Army itself was united, and no potentially disruptive force could hope to oppose army and overthrow GVN. (N.B. No reference to religious problems, sects, or labor under this heading.)

Khanh said that he and Minh and other members National [Military] Revolutionary Council had literally worked 27 hours without interruption in Dalat on Friday discussing case of Generals among themselves and with detainees. There were many different views on how situation should be handled. Nobody was entirely satisfied with [Page 407] Khanh’s decision. After it was all over, he asked for a secret vote of confidence in himself personally. He received 15 favorable votes with 15 senior officers voting. This showed army was united.

2. Need for Action Outside South Vietnam.

Khanh dwelt at length on this, laying out some fairly precise ideas about the kind of action that might be taken. Basically, he said that despite the pacification plan and some individual successes he and his government were “on the defensive” against the Viet Cong. He said pretty flatly that they could not win unless action was taken outside South Vietnam, and that this needed a firm US decision for such action.

Specifically, Khanh said that he thought both Hanoi and Peiping now assumed that some wider action was going to be taken in the near future. He thought that this was the reason Hanoi had moved to clean out the Plaine des Jarres and weaken Kong Le and Vang Pao, that Hanoi had a historic concern for the overland threat from the Plaine des Jarres through Sam Neua province and up to Hanoi.

He then said that the “immediate” response should be to clean out the Communists in eastern Laos, who were the same kind of threat to him, and that we should not get bogged down in negotiations but act.

He said that they did not know really what the Communists had in eastern Laos (circling especially the area south of Tchepone), but that there was a strong chance of major units being there which would at some point-perhaps in the event of attack on the North-move across the border and give the Communists enough strength to cut through to Quang Ngai and divide the country in two, joining up with the forces concentrated around the Do Xa area.

Khanh also said that the real enemy was Peiping, and that they were the power behind Hanoi and the Viet Cong. He said that attacks against North Vietnam should be selective and designed to minimize the chances of a drastic Communist response. (No reference was made to who should carry out these attacks or who should clean out eastern Laos, though there was some implication that he thought South Vietnamese forces, with air, could deal with the latter.)

Secretary then noted we could never predict enemy reaction with certainty. How would SVN people react if NVN and China responded by attacking SVN? Khanh replied this would have even more favorable effect on SVN national unity and faith in victory, and would mobilize usual patriotic reactions in face of more clearcut external threat.

Secretary asked if Khanh believed Viet Cong was fully committed in present operation, or if he felt it had reserves.

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Khanh replied VC forces in SVN were fully committed and no significant reserves existed in country. When questioned, however, he admitted that VC could do more in the way of terrorism (importance of which he belittled) and that it may have significant reserves in southern Laos or Cambodia about which we knew nothing. Our intelligence from these areas was poor, and we could be in for unpleasant surprises. Noted that if VC could assemble one division in Laos just north of fifteenth parallel, it could attack towards sea at Quang Ngai and perhaps cut SVN in two and isolate important Da Nang area and its installations.

Khanh recalled French experience with Vietminh reserves about 1950 at Cao Bang and Long Son.

Further to strategy, Khanh said Vietminh had made possible their seizure of Red River Delta by attacking toward Luang Prabang and more or less forcing French into Dien Bien Phu commitment and subsequent defeat. This defeat need not have been fatal but French morale cracked. All this suggests following: best way to react to current Communist encroachments in Laos would be SVN attack in southern Laos, just south of Tchepone, and perhaps in Cambodia as well.

Secretary asked whether such actions outside SVN as cutting of Laos corridor would seriously damage VC materially and break their will to resist.

Khanh replied with considerable assurance as follows: Re Central Vietnam and high plateau, cutting Laotian corridor would cut off deliveries of munitions and cadres and seriously affect VC, both materially and morale-wise. Re Delta, material effect would be minimal because external aid for VC in Delta and west and northwest of Saigon comes from Cambodia often by sea along Gulf of Siam. Not by chance are most ChiCom and Soviet-origin arms captured in these areas. Nonetheless, cutting of Laotian corridor would lower morale of VC in south in that it would show US determination and indicate Hanoi unable any longer to support VC.

3. Timing of Action Against the North and Necessary Prior Action Within South Vietnam.

Khanh asked if Secretary and Ambassador believed he should proclaim state of war existed during next few days and now that Generals’ case was settled. Both advised him to wait at least until after Honolulu conference and in no case ever to take action on such matter without consulting. He agreed, and remarked that if he proclaimed state of war, NVN would know this was preparatory to some form of escalation and he would never act unilaterally and thereby run risk of tipping America’s hand. Although the matter was not specifically [Page 409] mentioned, Khanh appeared to accept as entirely natural that he would not necessarily know in advance when and if US decided to strike outside SVN.

During military discussions Khanh mentioned that during recent Do Xa operation,4 GVN had come upon proof of ChiCom involvement in that area and nearer to coast. Proofs of Chinese involvement were in fact more conclusive there than in Delta.

Secretary asked Khanh if something could not be done to penetrate highest levels of NVN government and know what they were saying and how they were reacting to situation.

Khanh replied one promising possibility was NVN Under Secretary of State of Agriculture. Not sure of his exact post. GVN hoped he would go abroad on official mission to some such place in Soviet bloc as Hungary, where it would be easy (sic) for GVN to contact him. Added that it was of course much easier to penetrate NFLSVN, and GVN knew what its leaders were thinking, both the real Communist members and the non-Communist window-dressing members. Re NVN, Khanh added that Americans and British more likely to be informed than GVN. Comment: Unstated implication was that only significant possibility of coverage would be by [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] or by use of third country national agents.

In course of discussion of possible enemy reactions to escalation, Khanh remarked NVN had commenced civil defense precautions and South had not. Secretary noted that although North presented no significant air power threat, it was nevertheless impossible to state with absolute certainty that North would be unable to deliver a single bomb on Saigon before their air power was totally destroyed. Secretary noted Japanese had created panic by dropping one single fifty-pound bomb in Calcutta during World War II. One million people tried to cross a single bridge in purposeful flight. How would Saigonese react? Khanh replied: Probably just as Indians did. Noted Saigonese not experienced in matter of air warfare. He seemed inclined to go into matter of civil defense in more time-consuming detail than Americans present wished. Secretary and Bundy headed off this digression by remarking that only valid and credible civil defense was overwhelming offensive capability, and our air force was indeed overwhelmingly superior.

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Further to Hanoi reactions, Secretary remarked we purposely giving Sino-Soviet bloc many indicators we are about to react to recent aggressions. Hanoi well aware we overflying NVN, and that whereas earlier only 7 T–28’s in Laos, now are 28. Additional indicators being planted with Poles, Czechs, Soviets, etc. Some question as to how enemy camp will react at various points in conversation. Khanh was obviously seeking some more definite statement of specific American intentions in immediate future. Secretary told him he could say nothing on this because he simply did not know. The Honolulu meeting would produce some firm recommendations to the President and some plans, but ultimately only President could decide. His decision would be influenced by consideration of all implications of escalation: on our forces, on our allies, and perhaps even on mankind itself if nuclear warfare should result. Only US had the means to cope with problems escalation would pose. and only President could make the ultimate decisions.

Nevertheless, Secretary said he wished to emphasize the following:

Since 1945 US had taken 165,000 casualties in defense of free world against Communist encroachments, and most of these casualties were in Asia.
US would never again get involved in a land war in Asia limited to conventional forces. Our population was 190,000,000. Mainland China had at least 700,000,000. We would not allow ourselves to be bled white fighting them with conventional weapons.
This meant that if escalation brought about major Chinese attack, it would also involve use of nuclear arms. Many free world leaders would oppose this. Chiang Kai-shek had told him fervently he did, and so did U Thant. Many Asians seemed to see an element of racial discrimination in use of nuclear arms; something we would do to Asians but not to Westerners. Khanh replied he certainly had no quarrel with American use of nuclear arms, noted that decisive use of atomic bombs on Japan had in ending war saved not only American but also Japanese lives. One must use the force one had; if Chinese used masses of humanity, we would use superior fire power.
Regardless what decisions were reached at Honolulu, their implementation would require positioning of our forces. This would take time. Khanh must remember we had other responsibilities in Asia and must be able react anywhere we had forces or commitments. Not by chance was this conference being held at Honolulu; the combined headquarters of all American forces in Pacific was there.
A further complicating factor in all this was Sino-Soviet split. We would not want to heal it by our actions.
In summary, US took problems of SEA very seriously, but we have to keep control of events and keep events from getting control over us. The responsibility of the President himself in all this was enormous, and only he could make the final decisions, and that only after the conversations in Honolulu and consultations in Washington.

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4. SVN Diplomatic Representation.

Secretary then asked Khanh what he was doing about appointing Ambassadors and generally increasing effectiveness of GVN representation abroad. Khanh acknowledged some action from him was long over due and said Ambassador had frequently reminded him of this. Khanh had put off action on naming Ambassadors until Generals’ case was settled. Now Foreign Minister Quat was out of country. When he returned, Khanh would take action. Secretary and Ambassador reemphasized importance of GVN achieving effective representation abroad and making most of opportunities to get aid from friendly third countries.

5. Further Disposition of Released Generals.

On closing, Khanh asked if any more questions. Ambassador said he would like to know what Khanh thought the Generals, both Minh and detainees, said among themselves after he left them in the room in Dalat after announcing his disposition of their case. Reply: Minh probably said, “Look, fellows, I am sorry about this decision but I did all I could for you.” Don probably said, “You, Minh, are a stinker. You looked out for yourself and left us to take the rap. Of all of us, only you came out of it all right.” Khanh said both Kim and Mai Hu Xuan had really feared that they would be shot, and cried from joy on hearing of disposition their case. Khanh indicated that he fully aware he had not made friends of the Generals he released. Acknowledged they might still like to conspire against him but commented that after the vote of confidence he got from the other officers, it would be clear to all that any attempt at conspiracy foredoomed to failure. (Khanh did not comment on what jobs, if any, the Generals would be given or where they would be located.)

As can be seen, the Secretary let Khanh develop his ideas fairly fully and do most of the talking. Khanh talked firmly and effectively, and responded well to the Secretary’s several points. He showed clearly that he was aware of the gravity of the decisions (though he did seem a touch cavalier about the political problems of hitting eastern Laos at once), and did not seem to want a firm US answer the day after tomorrow. But it seemed clear that he did want it pretty soon, and was now convinced he could not win in South Vietnam without hitting other areas including the North. He was careful to point out that the pacification campaign was making gains and would continue do so. Still, it was essentially defensive.

On the timing, the Secretary said that any action would be preceded in any event by some period of time for force deployments (he did not refer to diplomatic steps re Laos, the UN side, the US Congressional problem, or other types of factors). Khanh understood this, and [Page 412] also accepted the Secretary’s point that we would need to consult very closely with Khanh himself, try to bring the British and Australians aboard (the Secretary referred only to these two possible active participants), and generally synchronize and work out the whole plan with great care.

  1. Source: Department of State Central Files, PSL 27 VIET S. Top Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated to Saigon. Passed to the White House on receipt in the Department of State. Rusk, accompanied by William Bundy, was in New Delhi, India, May 28–30. He flew to Saigon and Bangkok on May 31 and then on to Honolulu on June 1.

    McGeorge Bundy sent a copy of this telegram to the President on June 2. His transmittal memorandum reads in part as follows:

    “You may also be interested in the Secretary’s summary of the things the U.S. had to bear in mind at the end of Section 3 and the beginning of Section 4. The Secretary’s emphasis here, as in other conversations in Asia, is more military and strategic than diplomatic and political. In particular, he does not address the question of international justification for action, an omission noted in the closing comment of the cable (which was probably drafted by my brother Bill.” Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, McGeorge Bundy, Vol. 5)

  2. See Document 156.
  3. The General Officers of the Military Revolutionary Committee met in Dalat May 27–28 to consider the cases of Generals Tran Van Don, Mai Huu Xuan, Le Van Kim, Ton That Dinh, and Nguyen Van Vy, all of whom had been under arrest since the Khanh coup of January 30. The MRC found the Generals’ actions prior to the coup to be lacking in revolutionary spirit, thoughtless, demoralizing to the people and the troops under their command, and irresponsible. The Generals received official reprimands and were prohibited from serving on the MRC or holding a command for a fixed period. (Telegram 2359 from Saigon, May 31; Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 VIET S)
  4. The “Weekly Report, The Situation in South Vietnam,” June 3, reported that this month-long operation against the Viet Cong Do Xa base ended on May 27. Although no major engagement with VC forces resulted, the operation achieved one of its objectives: the destruction of VC structure and food supplies. The report concluded that while losses of men, materiel, and structures would not have a permanent effect on VC capabilities, the operation represented a considerable setback. Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Vol. XI, Memos)