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

213. CINCPAC for POLAD. Embtels 180, 184, 185, 186,2 201;3 Deptel 235.4 As our previous reports on the “march to the North” theme (in Vietnamese this phrase actually means “to the North” and does not have same connotation of movement on ground) have indicated Khanh appears to have launched deliberate campaign to associate US with policy of increased military pressure on North Viet-Nam. This decision was taken with full knowledge that GVN campaign would cause embarrassment to US. In our view following interrelated factors are involved in GVN attitude:

In Khanh’s mind need for some dramatic move to raise morale and if possible to bring war effort in SVN to more decisive phase has existed for some time. In May Khanh outlined his rationale to Ambassador Lodge (Embtel 2108)5 in which he cited growing war weariness [Page 564] on part of Vietnamese people, slow pace of pacification efforts, continued high casualties sustained in indecisive military actions against Viet Cong, etc. He also raised at that time question as to whether he should make a declaration that state of war exists in SVN in order strengthen his hand in taking necessary measures to more effectively prosecute the war. Khanh also stressed with Secretary Rusk on May 31 that extension of war (for example to Laos or North Viet-Nam) would have effect of producing great national unity, would tend eliminate or postpone internal political quarrels, and would give morale boost to Vietnamese people. Although Khanh appeared recognize serious implications of escalation, it seems clear Khanh has remained personally convinced that something new must be injected in the situation. However, intervening events (such as Honolulu conference, departure of Ambassador Lodge, arrival of new US team in Saigon) have tended to push these thoughts into background. It is also possible that during his frequent meetings at Dalat his Generals have pressed him to take more dramatic action (General Kim frequently espoused similar ideas prior to Khanh’s takeover).
While Khanh tends to lump many of above factors under general rubric of “war weariness” we are inclined to believe that war weariness applies more to leaders in Saigon than to population at large. Rather it is lack of demonstrable concrete progress and achievement and little prospect of things getting better in short term which present naggings doubts. This is particularly so when Khanh sees few people solidly behind him for long pull. These problems weigh heavily on Khanh and his young military colleagues who would probably like to sweep them away with bold military gesture against source of the frustration in North.
Khanh is concerned over morale and divisions within military, particularly since he is convinced that military is only real solid instrument in SVN capable of exercising power and directing affairs of state at present time. There are numerous recent reports that Khanh is unable to exert full control over Generals. He told me yesterday that he is currently under pressure from two groups of Generals and as man in middle is being pulled in two directions. Further he can foresee a division existing among general officers permeating down through officer ranks with its potential adverse effects on morale. Further, he is undoubtedly aware, even if only in general terms, of various moves afoot to unseat him and replace him with one or another combination of Generals (FVS 10550, 10551, 10552).6 To close these rifts, he may be tempted to try old gambit of turning on a foreign enemy.
On civilian side he has been unable to achieve. any real unity of purpose and action among his official family. He is surely conscious of daily sniping at quality of his performance by his Ministers with three Vice Premiers leading pack. While he can take considerable pride in manner with which he has managed numerous problems on civilian front, particularly religious, labor, student activities, he probably realizes that resolution of these problems was based in large measure on forbearance of groups concerned.
Politicians whom he considers in any case as contributing little to national effort, are able to exploit any divisions of loyalty within military ranks by playing one group off against another. Press situation permits irresponsible criticism of government with politicians able to make full and often misguided use of press freedom.
Recent spate of Viet Cong attacks of battalion and company strength with continued heavy government casualties, difficulty of recruiting sufficient personnel to bring regular forces to authorized strength, undiminished Viet Cong activity and capability must also be disturbing factors. While Khanh is probably convinced that with US support and assistance to GVN Viet Cong cannot take over substantial part of country, prospect for future is still one of painfully slow advances through long years ahead.
Developments on international scene have also influenced GVN attitudes. Goldwater’s nomination has led many (Embtel 201) to believe that now was opportune moment to apply pressure on US to expand area of conflict. Sino-Soviet split, split between US and French policy toward SEA and De Gaulle’s most recent anti-US stance and heavy pressure for neutral solution, US Presidential elections probably all contribute to conclusion on part Khanh and his colleagues that now is opportune time to launch campaign.
Influenced by these factors Khanh may have any of three courses of action in mind:
He may talk “march North” merely to whip up such public enthusiasm as is possible. Conceivably, this might aid recruiting and facilitate putting country more nearly on war footing. He could continue to explain his action privately to us as being necessary to public morale b. He can talk “march North” but really have in mind getting us committed to program of reprisal bombing. Such a limited program could be first step to further escalation against Hanoi.
He could talk “march North” and literally mean to initiate military actions to reunify country as soon as he felt he has us inextricably involved beyond point of possible detachment.

If Khanh has been reasonably sincere in his statements to me his present objective would appear to be b. above. He knows full well he cannot “march North” on ground with his present resources. He does [Page 566] have air capability to put on fairly good show against NVN if US wild keep ChiCom air out of picture. This is course I believe he wants to follow although thus far he has never indicated exactly when he wants to initiate this new line BN action.

In sum, Khanh, after nearly six months in office, seems to have reached conclusion that frustrating and ineffective instruments of government at his command are not adequate to master Viet Cong by counterinsurgency means alone. He and his colleagues seem to have decided that they can bring about cessation of Viet Cong harassment only by bringing direct pressure to bear on North. If they are unsuccessful in getting US more directly involved, it is difficult to judge at this stage how strong pressures would become within GVN to seek a negotiated solution. However, there are signs that this possibility cannot be excluded [document number not declassified] (General Lam and aide departed Saigon on July 23 with a ticket to Hong Kong, ultimate destination unknown. [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]

We are unable to judge how far Khanh and his associates have thought this “march North” through in terms of ultimate consequences, and in terms of solution other than unconditional surrender by Hanoi; but we must assume that they have discussed this in their own councils. Our recommendation on how to approach this knotty problem with Khanh follows by septel.7

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, DEF 9–3 VIET S. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Drafted by Forrestal and cleared with William Bundy and McNaughton. Published in part in Declassified Documents, 1979, 91D.
  2. In these telegrams, all July 23, the Embassy reported that Khanh and other South Vietnamese officials were losing confidence in the pacification effort in South Vietnam and sought to solve the problem of the Viet Cong insurgency by attacking North Vietnam. Also reported was information which indicated Khanh hoped to use his “March to the North” campaign to incite the United States to take military action against the North. (Department of State, Central Files, all POL 15–1 VIET S, except 186 from Saigon, which is in DEF 9–3 VIET S)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 238.
  4. Document 241.
  5. Document 136.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 241.
  7. Document 243.