229. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State1
56. CINCPAC for POLAD. I called on General Khanh this morning and we had cordial one hour conversation. He expressed satisfaction with new American personnel, saying that Vietnamese morale rose on news of appointments and VC morale fell. Said this might explain recent wave of VC attacks. I replied that President was prepared to commit all resources needed to assure Vietnamese independence. President wished to make clear that Viet-Nam was number one problem and would enjoy top priority.
Returning to recent VC attacks, Khanh said VC seems to attack sporadically and it was important for us not to be shaken by spectacular VC successes over a short span of time. He noted that French had lost only 13,000 men at Dien Bien Phu and had force of 400,000 left. But French morale had been shattered by this one blow and war was lost. Said we must avoid reactions like this.
Khanh said he could promise me “the frank cooperation of a soldier”. He would be seeking man-to-man advice. If he could not meet some request of ours, he would tell us frankly why he could not do so. I thanked him for this and said I would deal with him in same way. Khanh said he was not a political expert but that he believed that one military principle that really applies to politics is flexibility. He would be flexible and would reconsider any decision if this seemed warranted by new facts, by our desires or by evolving situation.
I then made point that I believed one of our principal common problems was meshing of our efforts. We had to make certain that the efforts of the two national teams, the Vietnamese and the American, geared. I told him of my decision of yesterday to set up a Mission Council with myself as chairman and drew parallel of council concept to functioning of NSC. Identified members of Mission Council and how it was intended that they would operate. I noted in passing my overall responsibility for American military activities, citing this as evidence of attainment of complete unity of effort on the U.S. side. I offered to show him at our next meeting how Mission Council and its several committees would work. We could then study possibilities of a closer working relation between counterparts. Khanh asked for an organization chart so he could set up an analogous council.[Page 540]
Khanh recalled that as he had told Ambassador Johnson, when he commanded I Corps, he believed that Americans should not be merely advisors but should actually participate in making and implementing of plans. We should do this in Saigon as well, between GVN ministries and offices and their American counterparts. Zorthian was already working this way with Information Minister Thai, and results were already impressive. He added that if this cooperation were to be too open or too generally known, “it would be criticized by people too willing to criticize”. I acknowledged this danger and observed that in some areas we would need closer and more frequent contact than in others; in some cases we night need even daily contact.
I agreed to supply him our organization chart, for whatever applicability it might have, and asked how often he thought we should meet. He suggested once every other week at least at outset. I suggested we set a definite regular day towards which we could plan. We agreed that our first meeting should take place on Friday, July 17.2 He prefers meeting at Joint General Staff building as more discreet and efficient.
Khanh then invited me to join him for part of his trip to Danang area July 11 and 12 for two days of Vietnamese Air Force Day celebrations. I will try to spend at least one day with him in the field over the weekend. I told him that I would like to accompany him from time to time on his field trips. Khanh remarked Minh was making field trips now, and I expressed pleasure at learning this. Khanh said he was glad too and that Minh’s trips were definitely useful. Neither of us discussed Minh’s situation any further.
I recalled that last time we spoke (mid-May) religious problem was acute, and remarked that it seemed perhaps less acute now. He agreed that religious situation had improved but said it was still delicate. I asked him which side was the aggressor. Without hesitating he replied the Catholics, and remarked that they were better organized than the Buddhists. I asked what was issue-were they seeking to recover privileges they thought they had lost. He said yes, that in past they had had such special privileges as wood cutting rights, direct delivery of relief goods, etc. This was illegal, and when normal and legal processes were restored Catholics alleged discrimination. I observed that it appeared no religious oppression as such had taken place. He agreed. I asked if the incidents between Buddhists and Catholics might be described as local and vary from place to place. He replied yes, commenting that if two citizens get in a fight and one is Catholic and one Buddhist, it is regarded as a religious incident.[Page 541]
I asked if the top leaders of the religious communities had become more reasonable. When he said yes, I asked about Thich Tri Quang. He replied that Thich Tri Quang reasonable when he was in Saigon but less so when in Hue. He noted there was also the matter of differences in temperament of people and regional differences. Whereas Saigon tended to be calm and non-vindictive, in Hue every problem seemed to take more extreme form.
Next I asked how recruiting was going. He said better but not as well as he would like. I told him General Westmoreland had described to me the new plan to work out from Saigon in force. I thought the plan looked reasonable but remarked that we must anticipate need for greater forces to hold “cleared” area as we advanced. This was particularly true in this area because paramilitary forces existed to relieve ARVN. Further, if we brought ARVN reinforcements to this critical area, we would be stripping other areas of their defense forces. I made clear that I did not raise this point as an objective [objection] to their plan, but rather as a reminder of mounting manpower requirements.
Khanh said that when regular army units left an area, his forces would be replaced with regional forces. He noted that recent changes in pay and other matters had made service in regional forces much more attractive and therefore improved recruitment levels in regional forces. He also noted Vietnamese soldiers prefer to serve near their homes, and this factor also improved recruitment figures of regional forces, usually to detriment of regular army recruitments. He said that as an area was cleared, first the regulars and then the regional forces would withdraw, leaving local forces. He said we must include in our recruitment plans measures to reinforce local and regional forces up to the levels necessary for them to meet their new responsibilities as regulars pull out.
In general comment on all this Khanh noted that the base of the VC action is the local hard-core group, and added that only the inhabitants of the same region could cope with these local VC elements.
I asked Khanh about the desertion rate, whether the figures were correct and if there were not many AWOL being listed as deserters. He said this problem was very complex and stemmed largely from deep-seated desire of Vietnamese to stay near their birthplaces. This desire had plagued population resettlement efforts just as it now influenced desertion rate. Many desertions are for short time; over the holidays desertion rate was particularly high, but most such deserters returned to their units after holidays. The number of deserters who actually go over to the enemy with their weapons is small.
I asked Khanh for more information on his policy towards deserters, and expressed concern over fact that according to statistics we are losing in desertions as many men as we acquire in recruitments. I asked if this impression were correct. He said it was a complicated [Page 542]question; when one service becomes more attractive than another, men desert from latter to join former. This practice made all the more common because forces keep minimal and unsatisfactory personnel records. I remarked that General Sternberg, MACV G–1, had been studying this whole problem and hoped Khanh’s G–1 would work closely with him. He replied they already working together, and added that the problem lay inside ARVN. He said he must put some more effective officer in charge of all personnel affairs. I remarked that the more I studied the situation here, the more I was impressed by the importance of the personnel problem, in all its ramifications.
I next reminded Khanh of President Johnson’s interest in the earliest possible appointment of a more extensive Vietnamese representation abroad, and particularly of effective Ambassadors. He replied much as he had on other occasions. He said Ambassadors go out for several years, and once at their posts they cannot be changed like regimental commanders or province chiefs. There was also the problem of suitable wives. He said he could of course please President Johnson by appointing many Ambassadors tomorrow, but they would not be good appointments and it would be better to wait. Better no Ambassador than a poor one. He added that he had to tie these appointments in with his efforts to solve certain internal problems.
I acknowledged the truth of all this but said that Viet-Nam was losing much by not having enough Ambassadors to represent its interests effectively abroad. He replied that it was better to leave representation at chargé d’affaires level rather than have a bad Ambassador.
Khanh then gave example of totally unsatisfactory proposed nomination made to him by Foreign Minister Quat: Dang Van Sung, “a Dai Viet, of course”, to be Ambassador to Laos. Khanh said Sung began to publish a newspaper that attacked government. Khanh said he called him in and asked why he wrote such irresponsible nonsense, to which Sung allegedly replied “so he could sell newspapers.” Khanh observed that if such a person became Ambassador, he would be able to sell other things.
Another case was Catholic leader of Central Viet-Nam Tran Van Ly. Khanh wanted to send him to Rome as Ambassador, but said that after interviewing him he concluded Ly wanted to be Prime Minister.
On taking leave of Khanh I emphasized once more importance of unity. Khanh replied that this difficult of achievement because Vietnamese suffer from French political heritage that makes them individualistic and disunited. I reminded him of the saying about necessity to hang together or hang separately.