330. Telegram From the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State 1
577. Rome for Lodge. CINCPAC for POLAD. Deptel 5072 While we cannot be sure that we have all the facts nor that the so-called facts we have are fully reliable, we are inclined to view the events since about August 21 up to noon today in the following light:
The government which Khanh put together after the coup of January 30, 1964 achieved a tenuous equilibrium which fundamentally satisfied no single activist element in Vietnam politics, but which did not dissatisfy any significant political group enough to cause the outbreak of intractable opposition. At the same time, the government itself proved to be little more than a collection of individual personalities and ambitions which proved unable to work effectively together or to address themselves consistently to problems of national interest.
Khanh from the start seems to have lacked confidence in most of the politicians in his cabinet (as well as they in each other) and to have refrained from assigning them other than token responsibility. His incompatibility with his cabinet deepened and he came to rely to an ever growing degree upon the instrument of the armed forces, and especially on General Khiem (who had apparently played an important role in bringing Khanh to power), to accomplish whatever efforts the government was able to muster in the campaign against the Viet Cong. Even in this quarter, however, he had less than complete confidence and received less than wholehearted support. And, rightly or wrongly, he came to feel that General Minh was to some extent responsible for his military and political problems. He therefore concentrated a great measure of his attention, in the past several weeks, upon the problem of getting rid of General Minh in a manner which would not disrupt the army. Also, he developed general feeling that pacification programs were too slow and achieved at high cost in lives, and sensed, or thought he sensed a general malaise demanding dramatic developments on solutions. In casting about Khanh hit on the “march to the North” theme and with the August US attack on DRV he seized [Page 711] the favorable climate thus created to attempt emergency solution to perennial problems as well as opportunity he felt this gave him to remove Minh.
The scheme he hit upon to eliminate Minh along with certain unwelcome ministers was the creation of a provisional constitution which simply pulled Minh’s position out from under him. As early as May Khanh had begun to toy with this project, talking in terms of a “de Gaulle-Pompidou” system as well as straight presidential system. He had talked to various politicians such as Tran Van Do regarding the form it should take. It is quite certain that it was discussed in great detail with Khiem, who was Khanh’s greatest assurance of maintaining army unity. Khiem’s own role in this development is somewhat obscure and there are some indications that he found the scheme ill-advised, particularly the elimination of Minh. However, disregarding our advice Khanh failed to lay either the necessary political or public groundwork and when the new charter emerged under forced draft over a weekend and its authors became identified, it was recognized by many that former Can Lao elements (such figures as Tran Chan Thanh, Tran Le Quang and General Cao) had had a major role in drafting it. It also seemed probable that many of these Can Lao figures hoped to play a key role in the new government to be established under the new charter. Moreover, after it emerged in its final version from the MRC, it was evident MRC had put more of a strait jacket around Khanh, limiting the independence of MRC he had sought through his own first draft. Thus, though the charter in no way changed fundamental relationship of MRC asserting supreme power, with Khanh as leader of government, the charter did provide focal point and catalyst in bringing discontented elements to surface.
Khanh, therefore, in his concentration on the problem of Minh, had conjured up a whole new set of problems while attempting to solve an immediate one.
The Buddhists and students, who have been feeling their political oats since their successes against Diem, felt they had suffered a set back in the January 30 coup that put Khanh in power and now saw further setbacks in prospect. Goaded by the militant Tri Quang, they saw the specter of Diemism in the combination of the predominantly Catholic MRC and the old Can Lao. It should be emphasized it was only a specter as at no time had there been any evidence of a government policy of mistreatment of Buddhists.
The students, nettled by such petty annoyances as an 11:00 pm curfew and censorship of the press, and fearing the prospect of a much more effective National Service Law, saw the end of some of their teahouse leisure and were amenable to leadership of Tri Quang and [Page 712] Buddhists. (There is considerable evidence of concert between Buddhists and students although all the points of contact are not yet established.)
The Dai Viet, troubled by Khanh’s effort to upset the post-January governmental equilibrium were probably uncertain regarding his real motives and interpreted the charter of August 16 as possibly directed against them.
All three of these groups, plus dissident out-politicians began to agitate. Just how much and how deeply the Viet Cong were able to influence these events is difficult to say; but it can be taken for granted that they have been very bush [?] indeed.
Khanh, faced with these circumstances, found himself at the vortex of a perplexing mixture of forces. The two most extreme elements he had to deal with were the Buddhist/student militants, personified by Tri Quang, and the Can Lao-Catholic military not entirely logically personified by General Khiem. In between were a whole array, such as Hoan and the Dai Viet, General Xung and Thi of I Corps, and the Catholic clergy. Although we pointed out to him the dangers in appearing to capitulate to the ultimatum of a demagogic Tri Quang who represented only one element in the country, he seemed willing to let the Buddhists and students display their strength, perhaps in an effort to convince Khiem and the other Generals that the MRC did not control all of the levers of power. In his first meetings with the MRC he seems, at least superficially, to have been able to play this factor. As he told us, he faced those members of the MRC who were assembled Aug 25 with the choice of “shooting their own youngsters” or making concessions to satisfy the forces led by Tri Quang. Given this decision, and knowing that Khanh spoke with the tremendous asset of continued tangible US support, the MRC (really a rump version) nominally accepted an arrangement which was essentially a capitulation to Tri Quang’s demands.
At this stage, however, a “backlash” set in. When the full MRC (which is predominantly Catholic and pro-Dai Viet) assembled in Saigon Aug 26, there was considerable grumbling about the decision on dissolution taken by the rump session on August 25. Many of the senior Generals, who had participated in the decision Aug 25 reversed themselves and sought not only to renege on the decision re dissolution but also to oust Khanh. The groupings within the MRC who came to this persuasion were not clearly identified. Some obviously were associated with Minh, others (perhaps the majority) were closer to Khiem and the Catholics.
As matters now stand, the Catholic crowds have taken to the street. Whether Khanh will be able to cope with this confusion and emerge as the continuing symbol of authority is questionable. His [Page 713] greatest single asset—perhaps as of the moment at least equal to all those possessed by his potential rivals for power—is the continued, tangible support of the US for him personally.
Therefore, he remains very much a significant element of force in the power struggle. The other significant individual who has emerged is Tri Quang. He appears to be the most effective and potentially dangerous politician in Vietnam and having achieved this new victory cannot be expected now to retire into the shade of Bo Tree. There are some indications that he may have ambitions extending beyond Vietnam with talk of his desire to lead a neutralist Buddhist grouping in SEA that would also have room for Moslem Malaya and Indonesia.
We obviously have to learn much more about him and must see what we can do to influence him.
The Generals who make up the MRC, because of the bickering among themselves, have along with Khanh obviously lost prestige and [sic] in their demonstrated unwillingness or inability effectively to use their power to maintain public order and keep the government functioning. Their confrontations within the MRC will undoubtedly reinforce divisive tendencies among the military and tend further to polarize factions which previously existed but were dormant. Who among them will emerge as the dominant figure is unclear at this writing.