202. Telegram From the Under Secretary of State (Ball) to the Department of State1
Secun 3. For President and Secretary from Ball. Following is a memorandum of conversation between General De Gaulle and Under Secretary Ball at Elysee Palace June 5. Also present were Amb Bohlen, Burin des Roziers and Roger Vos (interpreting).
After replying to General De Gaulle’s inquiry in regard to his trip, Mr. Ball handed the General the President’s letter2 and stated that President Johnson appreciated De Gaulle’s courtesy in seeing him. De Gaulle [Page 465] then read the letter in English and made only one comment, repeating the phrase in the letter that referred to Mr. Ball as “my close and trusted associate.”
De Gaulle said that he found the letter gratifying and was obviously pleased with it. He said he would, of course, reply directly to the President. He then turned to Mr. Ball and said: “I am ready to listen.”
Ball said that President Johnson had asked him to explain our views on the situation in Southeast Asia and to solicit De Gaulle’s comments and advice. He had had a useful and long conversation with M. Couve de Murville this morning3 during which they had discovered a considerable area of agreement. The differences between them, he thought, dealt more with methods and procedures rather than with objectives. He said that they had found themselves in agreement on the following points:
- That a Communist takeover in Southeast Asia would be a catastrophe for the whole free world.
- That the central problem was that of South Vietnam and that Laos and Cambodia were by-products of the South Vietnamese problem;
- That Hanoi has organized and directs the subversive operations in South Vietnam and that Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues are in a position to intensify or reduce subversive activities in SVN if they so wish.
He said he and the Foreign Minister had been in general agreement in regard to the need to create an independent Vietnam which would be capable of resisting the Communist subversion.
The US had no economic or commercial interests in the area, no wish to establish military bases here, and no ambition to dictate to the Asians. Since 1954 the US had been giving economic and military assistance to Vietnam. There were only 15,000 American military in Vietnam. They were there as advisers. Until about May 1961 we had thought that progress was being made in dealing with insurgency in SVN. Then the religious disputes began. The Diem govt had progressively lost control of the country and, as General De Gaulle knew, there had been two coups which had threatened governmental stability.
General Khanh, present head of the govt, seemed to us to have qualities of leadership even though inexperienced. But the situation was clearly fragile and the govt weak.
Our objectives in South Vietnam are clear. We seek the creation of an independent viable govt. We see two possible ways to achieve this: One, to continue to help the Vietnamese Govt to develop sufficient strength to deal with the insurgency problem; or two. to bring sufficient [Page 466] military pressure to bear on the North in order to convince Ho Chi Minh and Peking that aggression was too costly. We were now at the point where, if there was no improvement in the situation and the problem of insurgency was not resolved within a reasonable time, we would be required to bring increasing military pressure on Hanoi in order to change the Communists’ course of action. This was not an effort on which the US would embark lightly. We are fully aware that action against the North would bring the danger of Chinese involvement. We were prepared to take such action only if it was the sole means of preventing a takeover by the Communists. We hoped it will not be necessary. Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues could prevent such an eventuality and we hope that he understands the firmness of the US intention.
Our ultimate objective was a political solution that would insure the independence of South Vietnam. We do not believe this could be achieved unless US power were present to assist the Vietnamese Govt at least until it had attained full competence and control of its own territories. Even after that it was essential that the Western govts remain in a position to come to the assistance of the Vietnamese Govt, if this was asked for.
We did not feel we could rely only on the guarantees of the powers concerned. We had no trust in Hanoi or Peking in his regard. It was therefore essential that the South Vietnamese have the right to call for help from whatever outside source it wished.
We agree with what we understand to be General De Gaulle’s idea-that stabilization in the area requires the agreement and acquiescence of Peking. But we do not see the present situation presenting the balance of force which would make this possible.
There are certain elements of the problem that seem to be a matter of disagreement between the US and France. One results from a different appreciation of the phasing of the Communist revolution in China. We see that the Chinese revolution is in a phase reminiscent of the primitive Soviet Communism of 1917 which was both bellicose and expansionist. We do not think that Peking would accept any arrangement that would limit or prevent the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia or that it would abide by any such arrangement if made.
In our experience agreements with the Communists only succeed when there were countervailing powers that produced a kind of equilibrium. Examples were Austria and Finland. But if there is no countervailing force in the area the Communists will continue their subversive efforts. They will profit by the advantage that accrues to those who engage in covert and dishonest operations as compared with the open and aboveboard operations of their adversaries. He said we would have to insist on some countervailing force in the area.[Page 467]
Mr. Ball said that he had attempted to give General De Gaulle an outline of our views and would be most appreciative of the General’s comments.
General De Gaulle said he had listened with great attention to what Mr. Ball had said. There was little surprising in it since he had suspected for some time the difficulties of the situation. The US has taken on itself alone the responsibilities which the French had borne in the past.
He said he agreed that South Vietnam was the main problem, with Laos and Cambodia as accessory problems. He referred to our hope that we can bring about a suppression of the insurgency by supplying Vietnam with arms, credits, military advice, etc. I take note, said General De Gaulle, of your hope but I cannot agree with it. I do not believe that you can win in this situation even though you have more aircraft, cannons, and arms of various kinds.
The problem was primarily a political and psychological problem. He was not referring merely to General Khanh but to the people. To them the US was a very big foreign power. “I do not mean that all of the Vietnamese are against you but they regard the US as a foreign power and a very powerful foreign power.”
The more the US becomes involved in the actual conduct of military operations the more the Vietnamese will turn against us, as will others, in Southeast Asia.4
He said he understood the immense difficulties which the US faced. The US has the possibility and the means of going to war. We could destroy Hanoi, Canton and even Peking. We could link Chiang Kai-shek on the Chinese Mainland and even American troops if we desired. But what would happen when the war began? What would be its consequences? He could not say.
In 1900, at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, it had been very easy. The only problem was that of frightening the Empress. Now continents were involved.
War was, of course, a possibility which the US could envisage. General MacArthur had thought it was a good idea. However, he said, the French would never resume war in Asia. He had told this to President Kennedy. The French consider that Southeast Asia is a “rotten” territory in which to fight. Even if the US were involved France would not get into a war in Asia, as an ally or otherwise.
If the US did not make war we still appeared to think that by reinforcing the existing situation we could strengthen the Vietnamese and win the current struggle. He did not agree with this. The United States might maintain the struggle in this manner for an extended [Page 468] period of time, but we could not bring the affair to an end. Once we realized this, i.e., that we could not put an end to the situation, we might come to the conclusion that we would have to make peace. This would mean peace with China and others in the area.
He said he noticed that we thought that China was like Russia in 1917—intransigent, warlike, and expansive. He did not know whether this was true or not. Personally he doubted it. He thought it possible that China would see the advantage to itself, at least for a few years, in a passive posture. He did not mean that this would last forever but it might for a few years. China needs rest, it needs help, it needs commerce and technical assistance from other countries. The Russians had been in a different position. Russia had had an intelligentsia, an army, and agriculture. China has none of these things. In any event, the French thought that we should try to see what China was up to.5 He then asked for Mr. Ball’s comments.
Mr. Ball said if we were now to undertake diplomatic efforts with Peking or Hanoi this would threaten the collapse of the existing resistance in South Vietnam. General De Gaulle had said—and he agreed—that the problem was more political and psychological than military. Our task was to help the South Vietnamese create a govt in which the people would have confidence, and to which they would feel allegiance. But if we began, or attempted to begin, negotiations of the type that General De Gaulle was speaking about. the result might be a general failure of the will to resist.
Either we must increase the Vietnamese will to resist or we must reduce the subversive efforts of the North. To negotiate before either of these objectives was achieved would destroy the only basis on which we can hope to build in the future. Moreover we said [had?] no reason to believe that an agreement made with the Communists would be carried out. We remembered the agreement of 1962 for the neutralization of Laos, and the attitude of Hanoi and Peking toward it.
De Gaulle said that if a diplomatic operation were undertaken by the US alone, it would, of course, not succeed. What he had in mind was a vast diplomatic operation which would include the participation of France, India, China, Japan, and other countries. This would provide the Vietnamese people—and he was not speaking of General Khanh—with a sense of support and assurance for the future. He doubted that even Ho Chi Minh could continue to kill South Vietnamese while taking part in a conference. World opinion would make it impossible.6[Page 469]
He repeated, however, such a diplomatic effort could not be done by the Americans. A large conference had been attempted in 1954 and although the talks had taken a very long time he felt that this in itself was not a bad thing. If a world conference of the type he was thinking of could be put into operation it would change the state of mind of the Vietnamese people and produce a detente. This would render it very difficult for Ho Chi Minh to keep on with his activities. If such a diplomatic operation were undertaken a resulting detente would bring about a new political situation. This, however, was not possible under conditions of civil war.7
Mr. Ball said the situation in South Vietnam presented problems of exceptional difficulty. If we were dealing with conventional warfare—with regular armies drawn up in opposing formations—it would be possible to agree to a cease-fire and police it. But in South Vietnam there were scattered groups of guerrillas. Many only came out at night. It would be extremely difficult to police any cease-fire. Moreover, it was not realistic to assume that the insurgents would be willing to lose momentum and thus would be willing to accept a cease-fire. Ho Chi Minh would probably argue with contrived innocence that he had no connection with what was going on in Vietnam. At the same time he would covertly maintain the subversive action. There was enormous danger that a conference would play into the hands of the Communists who would exploit it covertly and dishonestly. Thereafter it might well be impossible to infuse any vitality into a Vietnamese Govt. We would be reluctant to take such a risk.
De Gaulle replied: “All policy involves risks. If it is a policy that does not involve risks there is no choice of policy.” He thought a conference of Europeans, Asians and US would produce a very powerful impact on the Vietnamese people and succeed in changing the whole situation, at least for a certain period of time. The present situation, he said, would not result in anything. France has had experience which proved it.
De Gaulle then remarked first he had had the opportunity of seeing Mr. Anderson,8 who had been sent by the President, and now he had been very glad to see Mr. Ball. Keeping contact was very useful.[Page 470]
He then added—as an afterthought—that he understood the extreme difficulties in which the US finds itself. Everyone who had been involved in the Southeast Asian situation had had the experience that those on the spot—the military and particularly the press—became caught up by the general excitement and created an atmosphere that was not agreeable. There was a tendency to blame others for difficulties incurred. France had done this in the past. Now the United States tended to blame France. He would like to ask how could France take any action when it had been eliminated from the scene and had no power for action? He could assure Mr. Ball that France was not seeking to hamper the US. We ought to stop this criticism.
Mr. Ball said that whatever rumors the US press might print as to the culpability of French policy, the Johnson administration does not hold such views. “You, Mr. President, are held in the highest esteem by everyone in the administration, beginning with the President himself.”
Mr. Ball then thanked General De Gaulle for receiving him and said he would report faithfully to President Johnson. He was sure that President Johnson would study General De Gaulle’s comments very carefully because of his respect for General De Gaulle and for the French nation. He believed it important that we keep in close touch on these and other matters.
Mr. Ball said he wished to emphasize in conclusion that President Johnson was, above all, a man of peace. If the United States was forced to actions involving war in regard to Southeast Asia it was only because we had learned by the experience of the last three decades that aggression must be checked at an early stage. Otherwise the costs become progressively higher.
Comment: Both Amb Bohlen and I had the impression that General De Gaulle is merely waiting for events to come his way. He is confident that they will. He is certain no improvements will result from present efforts. He probably envisages that some time in the not too distant future we will begin to consider seriously his suggestion of a conference. He quite likely assumes that we will then ask the French to take soundings with the Chinese and the North Vietnamese.9
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Repeated priority to Saigon. Received at 10:30 p.m., June 5, and sent to the White House.↩
- Dated June 6. (Ibid., Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, De Gaulle-President Johnson, 1964)↩
- Reported in Secun 1, June 5, 10:05 p.m. (Ibid., Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)↩
- Written comments appear on the source text in different hands, none of which is attributable. At this point is written: “French experience.”↩
- At this point is the marginal comment: “Wow!”↩
- At this point is the marginal comment: “Nonsense.”↩
- At this point is the marginal comment: “How fuzzy can one be!”↩
- Robert B. Anderson, former Secretary of the Treasury in the Eisenhower administration, undertook a number of unofficial and semi-official diplomatic missions for President Johnson. Anderson met De Gaulle on June 1 at the French President’s invitation. De Gaulle wanted to establish a personal line of communication to Johnson via letter or telephone, and gave Anderson his private telephone number for the President’s use. A report of the conversation between De Gaulle and Anderson is in a memorandum from McGeorge Bundy to Johnson, June 1. Johnson Library, National Security File, McGeorge Bundy, Memos to the President, Vol. 5)↩
- In telegram 2424 from Saigon, June 6, commenting on this meeting, Lodge noted that De Gaulle had returned to his recurrent theme that the United States sought a military solution in South Vietnam when the problem could not be solved militarily. Lodge wanted the following points to be made to De Gaulle: 1) U.S. objectives in South Vietnam were political and not military; 2) military action was designed to reinforce political objectives by providing security; and 3) the Khanh government was the best that South Vietnam could expect under the current circumstances. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)↩