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

415. CINCPAC for POLAD. After August 14 meeting of GVN SC and U.S. Mission Council, I stayed for picnic lunch, accompanied by Sullivan and Manfull (Johnson has been laid up with flu). After lunch, Khanh took us aside and produced a rough English translation of his new constitution. Full text, with notes, transmitted by septel.2 We found it brusque in language and suggested to Khanh that in present form it would raise criticism in U.S. and in world press. We stressed to him that internal problems of acceptance in Vietnam were his own affair, and we could only offer observations on the objective issue of international reactions.

Khanh heard out these observations with apparent understanding and then suggested that we should perhaps meet with the commission which had drafted this document in order to discuss our observations with them. I proposed that Sullivan and Manfull should remain in Cap St. Jacques for this purpose while I returned for commitments in Saigon.

Sullivan and Manfull were then taken to province chief’s residence while call went out to various villas in Cap St. Jaques to assemble the constitutional commission. When mission arrived at residence, it proved to be headed by one-time P.M. Tran Chanh Thanh, and to be [Page 683] composed of Tran Le Quang, plus five prominent jurists, one of whom had recently been Chief Justice of Constitutional Court under Diem regime.

During two and one-half hour frank exchange and after full explanation, accompanied by occasional jocular commentary from judicial experts, Sullivan and Manfull made fol points:3

Preamble did not make clear provisional nature of new “charter”.
Preamble should stipulate that MRC felt compelled to assume authority because of threat to republic, but that this authority should be relinquished as conditions permitted.
Chapter II, concerning “bill of rights” was unnecessarily abrupt. Rights should be spelled out in detail, even if charter specified that they must necessarily be curtailed temporarily because of emergency. Comparison was drawn between twenty articles concerning rights of citizens in old Diem constitution, and only two articles in new charter devoted to this subject.
Several articles, notably those affecting Council of Govt and High Council of Magistrates, were cryptically obscure in their meaning.
Whole document would be considered as unduly permanent formalization of military takeover. Therefore most careful preparation needed in public relations field if this to be done smoothly.

In general, constitutional commission accepted all these observations in good spirit. They undertook to convene forthwith and examine means by which any or all of them could be put into effect. Sullivan and Manfull then withdrew, and, by prior arrangement with Khanh, returned to latter’s villa for final consultation with him prior their return to Saigon.

At Khanh’s villa, meeting of top level Military Revolutionary Council reps was in session when Sullivan and Manfull arrived. Khanh withdrew from meeting, listened to recital of observations listed above, and expressed general agreement that these matters should be dealt with. However, he laid great emphasis upon urgency with which action had to be taken. He had, he said, “five days at the outside” and “at the inside”, maybe only a couple of days. He therefore wanted all the help he could obtain soonest.

He said he and his colleagues would draft a proclamation which they would deliver to Embassy August 15 for our comments and that he would appreciate any advice we could give on public relations handling of this enterprise. He doubted there was time to get professional legal advice from Washington and also questioned whether it would be really useful in these “special circumstances”. With this, he [Page 684] returned, very solemnly, to the room where his MRC colleagues, equally solemn, were busily scratching on foolscap, presumably drafting their proclamation.

Comment: We conclude that Khanh and his military colleagues have decided that this sort of change is indispensable. It is of course still not determined what Gen Minh’s attitude will be. We have considered possibility of seeking legal aid from Washington to review this charter, but feel this would not be useful because this document departs so widely from U.S. experience and because time is so short. We have therefore decided that our best efforts would be devoted to (1) making wording of document less brusque and therefore more palatable both in Vietnam and abroad and (2) assisting in proclamation and other measures of public relations nature explaining necessity for this sort of change. Whether we like it or not, this is the constitutional form which the MRC fully intends to impose, and we see no alternative but to make best of it.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Immediate; Limdis. Also sent to CIA, the Department of Defense, and the White House and repeated to CINCPAC.
  2. Telegram 416 from Saigon, August 15, 12:10 p.m. (Ibid.)
  3. For another account of this meeting, see Sullivan, Obbligato, pp. 205–208.
  4. The new constitution, sometimes called the Vung Tau Charter, was promulgated on August 16.