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

698. CINCPAC for POLAD. Embtel 5772 Although political situation Vietnam is far from stabilized, we think it useful to make an interim assessment of events which have taken place during past few days subsequent to developments reported and analyzed in reftel.

First, it should be emphasized that Khanh has been largely frustrated in the attempt at governmental changes which he began immediately after the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was his purpose to use the galvanizing force of those incidents to narrow the base of his government, give him more flexibility and make his politico/military efforts more effective. He has succeeded only in the partial elimination of General Minh, the dissolution of the MRC, and the disaffection of the Dai Viets. His tactical failure in pursuing his major objectives was due to the fact that he moved neither with lightning rapidity nor with deliberate consultative thoroughness. Instead he fell directly between stools, moving too slowly for a coup de theatre, and too rapidly for a politically negotiated deal. By the time he had issued his August 16 charter, he had apparently achieved his primary objective of getting rid of General Minh, but he had so seriously entangled himself in the MRC and had produced such sharp confrontations with the Buddhists and Dai Viets that his problems became greater than he could cope with. His efforts to cope with it led to further confusion because of his deals with the Buddhists and the frictions which these generated within the MRC.

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The results of all the recent maneuverings, the street fighting, and the internal bickering among Generals and politicians have led, through a spasm of volatile excitement, to a sense of political exhaustion and sullen irritation on all sides. The Khanh/Minh/Khiem triumvirate which was created with the dissolution of the MRC does not represent a resolution of existing internal tensions among GVN leadership, but merely a moratorium which essentially leaves the basic issues unsettled.

However, everything is not precisely as it was on August 15. Essentially, the Buddhists and the Catholics have retained about the same measure of strength and influence within the tenuous equilibrium that they had at that time. Further, the unwillingness of either religious group to accept certain political or military personalities in a revamped government has remained unchanged or has hardened. But many other forces have been altered. The following is a listing of the 59 most significant changes:

Khanh: By the inept manner in which Khanh handled his effort to centralize his control, and by the lack of firmness which he demonstrated in discussions with the Buddhists and particularly the premature dissolution of MRC, his reputation as strongman has been seriously tarnished. Although he has always entertained strong suspicions of those who share leadership responsibilities with him, his sense of uneasiness and distrust of all of his colleagues has now reached almost paranoiac proportions. He himself is acutely aware of this, feels depressed and deflated, and there is great question whether he will ever be able to recapture the cocky confidence which has heretofore marked his career and to fully exert control over the political forces now unleashed. He particularly feels concern over and doubts about his ability to deal with the Dai Viets, yet if he acts soon, he may be able to recapture some of his strength for it has become increasingly evident that all the maneuvering has not brought forth any other figure around whom a reasonable consensus could be achieved.

Hoan and the Dai Viets: The Dai Viets have considered their participation in Khanh’s government primarily as an opportunity to K9enhance their own political status, to dispense patronage, and enforce their political organization for eventual elections. When they realized that Khanh sought to eliminate them in large measure from the government he attempted to create, they at first chose to turn this effort aside by remaining within the government in positions of lesser authority and continuing to work from within. However, at a critical juncture in the recent crisis, Hoan, contrary to all the cabalistic rules of Vietnamese politics, took his opposition outside the conference room and made his case publicly against Khanh.

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Khanh had little choice but to reply in the same forum. Therefore, to all practical purposes, the split between Khanh and the Dai Viets (unless the party overwhelmingly repudiates Hoan as its leader) now seems complete and irreparable. Therefore association between Khanh and the Dai Viets in any future Cabinet seems unlikely.

The military: This split between Khanh and the Dai Viets will, of course, have serious repercussions among some senior military officers. A few of the top and more effective Generals are acknowledged Dai Viets. Some of them are now sharply disaffected with Khanh and can be expected either to leave Khanh or begin to plot to mount a coup against him.

Another factor has rather clearly emerged, however, from the MRC discussions. This was the fact that no single element in the MRC commanded enough authority to impose its domination upon the other factions. When the senior officers became aware of this fact and when it became clear that their continued bickering would only lead to deepening confusion and further bloodshed in the streets, they effected the Khanh/Minh/Khiem triumvirate formula. But as each member of the triumvirate has privately admitted, this is mere window dressing and not intended to solve anything.

What currently exists, therefore, with Khanh reposing at Dalat, is a serious vacuum in GVN leadership. “Jack Owen”3 is the personification and incarnation of this vacuum. He has no strength to back him up and no support from any known quarter except possibly from Dai Viets should they decide to use him as a frontman. His occupancy of Khanh’s office in the Presidency and the motions through which he is going pretending to act as Prime Minister cannot be taken seriously. The circumstances, therefore, lead [lend?] themselves dangerously to the ambitions of any person reckless and courageous enough to undertake a coup.

Greatest danger for the development of such a coup comes from the southern faction of the Dai Viets which could obtain substantial military support centered around General Thieu and Col. Ton. Another group consists of a clique of Colonels who center largely around Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao. This latter group, it will be recalled, came very close to precipitating a coup shortly after this time last year and might have succeeded if their plans had not alarmed and been overtaken by the group who eventually succeeded in the downfall of Diem on November 1. Again, it would be questionable this year whether Generals Khiem and Thieu and others of that stripe would permit Thao and his shabby Colonels to run a coup. In the current power [Page 727] vacuum both these groups can be expected to continue to plot with the possibility of either triggering off a coup in order to have a preemptive position.

Therefore, in the current circumstances it is obvious that the best solution we could anticipate would be the return of Khanh to a position of responsibility and authority. If this happens, as we are attempting to make it happen, Khanh is likely to be a chastened but less forceful young man than he was before August 16. On the other hand, at present he seems our only opportunity for anything resembling stability in the pursuit of pacification of Vietnam. We should not delude ourselves that we can put together any combination of personalities which will add up to a really effective government in the foreseeable future, given the political immaturity of the military and civilian leaders and the Vietnamese body politic. What is critically lacking here is any tradition of team play and any experience in making governmental institutions and evolutionary processes work. Without this “glue” we must expect to “rock” along indefinitely without a strong executive and play with the breaks.4

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Limdis. Also sent to CIA, the Department of Defense, and the White House and repeated to Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Paris, London, Manila, Tokyo, and CINCPAC. Also published in Declassified Documents. 1979, 94D.
  2. Document 330.
  3. Nguyen Xuan Oanh.
  4. On September 1, the CIA reached similar conclusions as expressed in a memorandum entitled “The Situation in South Vietnam.” Johnson Library, National Security File, Vietnam Country File, Memos, Vol. XVII) A field report of the same date presented a similar estimate. (TDCS 315/00595, September 1; ibid.)