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

768. For the Secretary. The following is a review of the situation in South Vietnam, concurred in by the U.S. Mission Council, as it appears at the time of my departure for Washington.2 I would hope to use it as a basic document in our coming discussions. You will note that I have left the distribution to your decision.

While we must be disappointed by the political turmoil of recent days, we cannot consider it totally unexpected. The very nature of the social, political and ethnic confusion in this country makes governmental turbulence of this type a factor which we will always have with us.

What has emerged from these recent events is a definition within fairly broad limits of the degree to which perfectability in government can be pushed. It should be remembered that the recent fracas started when Khanh sought to make his broad and cumbersome government more tractable and more effective. His motives were of the best even though his methods were clumsy. But now, after this recent experience at government improvement, we must accept the fact that an effective government, much beyond the capacity of that which has existed over the past several months, is unlikely to survive. We now have a better feel for the quality of our ally and for what we can expect from him in terms of ability to govern. Only the emergence of an exceptional leader could improve the situation and no George Washington is in sight.

Consequently we can and must anticipate for the future an instrument of government which will have definite limits of performance. At the very worst, it will continue to seek a broadened consensus involving [Page 734] and attempting to encompass all or most of the minority elements with political aspirations until it approaches a sort of popular front. This amalgam, if it takes form, may be expected in due course to become susceptible to an accommodation with the Liberation Front, which might eventually lead to a collapse of all political energy behind the pacification effort.

At best, the emerging governmental structure might be capable of maintaining a holding operation against the Viet Cong. This level of effort could, with good luck and strenuous American efforts, be expanded to produce certain limited pacification successes, for example, in the territory covered by the Hoc Tap plan. But the willingness and ability of such a government to exert itself or to attempt to execute an all-out National Pacification Plan would be marginal. It would probably be incapable of galvanizing the people to the heightened level of unity and sacrifice necessary to carry forward the counterinsurgency program to final success. Instead, it would look increasingly to the United States to take the major responsibility for prying the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese off the backs of the South Vietnamese population. The politicians in Saigon and Hue feel today that the political hassle is their appropriate arena; the conflict with the VC belongs to the Americans.

We may, therefore, expect to find ourselves faced with a choice of (a) passively watching the development of a popular front, knowing that this may in due course require the U.S. to leave Vietnam in failure; or (b) actively assuming increased responsibility for the outcome following a time-schedule consistent with our estimate of the limited viability of any South Vietnamese government.

An examination of our total world responsibilities and the significance of Vietnam in relationship to them clearly rules out the option of accepting course (a). If we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs, the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America would be disastrous. We therefore would seem to have little choice left except to accept course (b).

Our previous views on the right course of action to follow in South Vietnam are set forth in Embtel 465.3 The discussion in this present cable amounts to a recognition that Course of Action A of Embtel 465 no longer corresponds with the realities of the situation. Recent events have revealed the weakness of our ally and have convinced us of the improbability of attaining the level of governmental performance desired under Course A before embarking on a campaign of pressure against the DRV. We are forced back on Course of Action B with certain revised views on timing.

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In the cold light of recently acquired facts, we need two to three months to get any sort of government going which has any chance of being able to maintain order in the cities and to continue the pacification effort of past levels. There is no present urge to march north among our Vietnamese friends; the leadership is exhausted and frustrated following the recent disorders and are not anxious to take on any new problems or obligations. Hence there is no need to hasten our plans to satisfy an impatience to close with the enemy. There is, however, the problem of morale, both civil and military. Both would respond favorably to a visibly sincere effort to improve government and to the successful execution of Hop Tac. Hence these courses of action must be emphasized in our present program which we will continue to prosecute in this period with maximum vigor. At the same time, the DRV needs to be put on notice of our continued vigilance and determination by means of a resumption of 34–A operations and DeSoto patrols and by modest crossborder operations into Laos.

Thus, our objective up to about December 1 should be to get going some kind of government worthy of the name while shoring up morale and holding enemy activities in check. Throughout the period, we should have the capability of executing on short notice attacks on Laotian infiltration targets and Category II and III operations under CINCPAC 37–64. We should be ready to exploit any opportunities presented by the Communists (such as the Gulf of Tonkin attacks) to initiate military pressures on DRV under favorable conditions of world opinion.

At the end of the period and provided the objective for the period had been attained, we would then be ready to begin escalating pressures on the DRV for the purpose of holding the GVN together, of raising morale and of creating conditions required for a negotiated termination of hostilities on favorable terms. Before initiating these pressures, US and allied military forces would be positioned to meet possible Chicom/DRV reaction. Escalating actions would then begin, taking the form of any desired combination of attacks on Lao infiltration routes and/or on targets of appropriate categories in DRV. In Laos, the air forces used could be Lao, VNAF or US; in the DRV, the air effort would be largely US with VNAF operating out of range of the MIG’s. The attacks should be orchestrated in such a way as to produce a mounting pressure on the will of the Hanoi high command designed to convince the latter to desist from further aid to the VC and Vietminh and to agree to cooperate in calling off the insurgencies in South Vietnam and Laos.

During this period, we can expect the GVN to do little more than assure the ground defense of the national territory, participate to a limited degree in the air action and to act as the recognized government of SVN. Even if Hanoi should comply with our wishes, there [Page 736] would still remain in SVN many serious political, economic and social problems which would test the ability of the best of governments. To cope with them, any GVN which we can foresee now will require US help for a long time. Thus, even with the acceptance of our recommendations herein and their successful implementation, we see no quick and sure way to discharge our obligations honorably in this part of the world. This forecast is fairly grim but the alternatives are more repugnant. We feel that we should take the offensive generally along the lines recommended herein and play for the international breaks.

  1. Source: National Defense University, Taylor Papers, T–161–69. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Drafted by Taylor.
  2. At the end of August, Taylor requested a return to Washington for consultations, but the governmental crisis in South Vietnam had precluded it. On September 4, Taylor and Johnson reviewed the local situation and concluded that the time was as favorable then as could be foreseen for the Ambassador to return. (Telegram 744 from Saigon, September 4; Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S) The trip was announced at 6 p.m., Saigon time, on September 5.
  3. Document 319.